The single big question was – Can Arsenal cover their structural weaknesses and avoid unforced individual mistakes over 180 minutes of football? By the seventh minute a resounding ‘No’ was ringing around the Emirates, audible to those who were listening for it. In the 21st minute the tie was over as a contest.
Wenger went with Walcott up front and Podolski on the left. Cazorla was shunted to the right and Ramsey retained his spot in the centre of the pitch. The Frenchman probably thought Theo will have a chance of getting in-behind the Bayern defence if they press high up the pitch. Maybe he had other reasons to believe this could work. I don’t know those reasons because I can’t see Walcott being effective through the middle unless Arsenal plan on sitting really deep and playing purely on the counter.
Wrote this just before the game -
Walcott central will mean Arsenal have to largely rely on counters. Crossing, lay-offs and one-twos (combination play) will be limited—
DesiGunner (@goonerdesi) February 19, 2013
As things turned out the Gunners tried building from the back and the game became a battle in midfield. They were never going to win it with Walcott as the striker. There was just no avenue to build attacks. Theo couldn’t show for the ball or hold off Dante who never let him receive and control the ball. There just wasn’t any sort of a link between him and the rest of the team. With Walcott in the centre, long-balls or crosses couldn’t work well either.
Of course, that wasn’t the only or even the main problem, but Arsenal really had no offensive threat in the first half apart from a couple of quick breaks that excited the fans but ended with tame crosses. This gave Bayern greater confidence and made the game relatively easy for them.
The main issue in this game was the difference in the tactical qualities of the two teams. For Bayern, every player knew his role really well and they changed between one approach and another seamlessly. They pressed high up when they wanted to, dropped back when there was a threat of Walcott or someone else getting behind, remained compact in midfield and closed space down consistently, and broke at pace and with purpose when they got a chance to counter.
The Bavarians always seemed to have extra bodies in defence in just the right places to cover for their teammates. In attack, they instinctively found a man in space.
There were times when the Gunners tried pressing them up the pitch but they were almost always able to calmly play the ball out of trouble, often finding ways to build attacks in the process. When the reverse happened, Wenger’s team were usually forced to hoof the ball clear, and at times looked vulnerable and erratic.
When Bayern had possession in the attacking areas they were often able to get meaningful balls into dangerous areas. If it didn’t lead to shots or near misses it usually led to a corner from a desperate clearance. In contrast, Arsenal’s possession was again illusionary. There was a spell in the second half when it looked threatening but the number of chances was still limited.
Bayern’s attacking quartet were able to pop up between the lines and link with each other and the full-backs almost at will. Arsenal’s defenders retreated deep and narrow far too often and early, conceding spaces in front and wider areas. This crowding-the-centre approach to defence cannot work against a team of this calibre.
In the preview, I’d talked about the timing of Bayern’s full-backs’ runs. They do it all the time and it was not a surprise but the Gunners were just not prepared for it. Lahm picked up an assist, and it was his cross that was desperately cleared by Vermalen leading to the corner which resulted in the second goal.
Arsenal had enough bodies in the defensive areas but their awareness and structure were just not good enough. Lahm and Muller had all the time in the world to pick their crosses, Kroos was completely free in such a dangerous spot, and Van Buyten’s run wasn’t picked up by anyone.
Indeed, one got a feeling the Germans had an extra gear that they just didn’t need as they sat on their lead in the second half.
The visiting defenders, on the other hand, paid very close attention to the Arsenal attackers. They rarely had a moment to breath when they received the ball. Minor technical errors were thus enough to break down attacks. Arsenal just couldn’t manufacture any space as the Germans worked really hard and intelligently to close it down.
Their midfielders, wide players, and even Mandzukic did his bit in keeping the goal safe. When nothing worked they threw their bodies at the shot in an intelligent manner making themselves as big as possible. Mertesacker’s attempts to block the first shot seemed more like an effort to avoid getting hit. Sadly, it’s been a problem for Arsenal over a long period and is not limited to the German.
Arsenal’s goal was a lucky break. The corner should never have been given but it was. Delivery was good. It pulled Neuer off his line and the Keeper, as was mentioned in the preview, does have a tendency to make such mistakes. He got nowhere near the ball and Podolski was able to hold off Lahm’s attentions to nod home.
Wenger’s side had a couple of other chances, most notably Giroud hitting it straight at Neuer after a good move involving Rosicky and Walcott, but they were never going to be enough.
Bayern could have had more than one on the counter but they seemed satisfied with what they had.
In fairness, it wasn’t a terrible effort from the Gunners in every sense, but their defensive issues were always going to make it a massive challenge against such a quality opponent. Playing Walcott through the middle probably made it worse.
Szczesny: Another poor game. Should have done better for the second goal. Didn’t really inspire confidence. Again, can someone remind me what all the organizes the defence, communicates well, and such other arguments were about?
Sagna: The way Bayern used Lahm in attack is worth contrasting with Arsenal’s use of Sagna. Wenger’s system puts a great burden on the full-backs as they have to constantly shuttle up and down the flank. Lahm was more selective and received the ball in space. Sagna was almost always crowded out and tightly marked in the attacking areas. Decent defensive shift, can’t fault him for any of the goals. Bit unfortunate for the third.
Mertesacker: Was more nervous and erratic on the ball than he should be. Needs to do more to block such shots. Did win a number of headers that limited the chances Bayern could create.
Koscielny: Made a number of vital interventions in the penalty box. Passing was average. Can’t blame him directly for any of the goals.
Vermaelen: Wasn’t able to offer much in the attacking areas. Really struggled when his side was overloaded as he lacked sufficient cover. Went to ground far too easily (eg: build up to the first goal) and unnecessarily. Numerous poor tactical choices on and off the ball. To be fair he did work very hard and did his best to prevent certain situations from getting worse.
The central defenders weren’t able to drive play forward when Bayern sat back and marked the midfield. Full-backs didn’t offer an offensive threat, although that is more a tactical issue than an individual one.
Arteta: Was reliable on the ball but was often forced to look back to his own goal and couldn’t really drive the game forward. Should have been tighter on Muller for the first goal.
Wilshere: Looked great when he got the ball and went past players but there was very little end product after that as he kept running into crowds. Amidst the hype it’s easy to forget how young and inexperienced he is. But it shows in his performances. Enjoyable and inspires hope for the future but currently ineffective.
Ramsey: Extraordinary work rate, poor tactical awareness. Should have been aware of Kroos’ position after Arteta was pulled out to the left. Should have attacked the ball at the near post before Van Buyten instead of waiting for it to arrive. Another one who wasn’t able to break past the Bayern shackles in Arsenal’s build-up play. Ran into cul-de-sacs when he ventured forward or wide.
Cazorla: Had a few promising moments in the attacking areas but his tendency to be individualistic does affect the quality of the team’s play. Often there was one dribble attempt too many, or a second too long before the pass was played.
Arsenal’s midfield saw more of the ball but made less use of it. They also didn’t know how to support the defence on a consistent basis. It’s related to that old problem of balance. Wenger’s system demands greater individual initiative and doesn’t provide a strong enough framework for the players to work with. Can be great when it works but it hasn’t worked in the big games for a long time.
Podolski: Took his goal well but had a disappointing night defensively. Should have paid close attention to Lahm’s movement and helped Vermaelen consistently. Wasn’t able to link with others in an effective manner in the attack.
Walcott: The tempo was fast and marking very tight for him to have an impact on the game. Bayern never let him run at a single defender or get in-behind. They controlled his main strength with clever positioning and by reading the passes played towards him. Because of that it was a forgettable night for Theo even though he visibly tried hard.
The attackers were isolated and tightly marked. Podolski on the left and Theo central is a system that does not convince me. It might work a year or so down the line if they’re given time together but do Arsenal have that time?
Subs: Giroud should have done better with his chance but it’s tough to blame a guy coming off the bench in such a game. Rosicky brought greater drive to the midfield and played some delightful passes.
Wenger: Can’t say I’m surprised by the performance or the result. Most of the issues are long-standing. He needs a good No. 2 to help with balance and structure, possibly someone from Germany or Spain where they’ve been evolving the tactical aspects of the technical attack-oriented game.Follow @goonerdesi