Based on recent form, according to the broader perception in the press and among fans, and on paper in terms of squad strengths, Bayern are overwhelming favourites to progress to the next round of the Champions League at the expense of Arsenal. I do, however, feel that this tie over two legs can be much closer than many expect it to be. But for that to be the case a simple yet vital question has to be answered in the positive and that’s not easy –
Can the Arsenal defence (the entire unit not just the back five) be trusted to cover structural weaknesses and avoid unforced individual mistakes over 180 minutes (possibly more) of football?
There are times when hype can be misplaced and superlatives unjustified but make no mistake, Bayern are a very, very good team. Tactically, they are one of the most, if not the most, complete sides in European football.
The Germans have technically accomplished players who completely understand, and thus perform synergistically as a unit within, Jupp Heynckes attack-oriented but flexible system. They have goal threats from many players all over the pitch. Bayern are capable of creating multi-player, multi-pass moves to break opponents down. Die Roten are also a genuine threat from counter-attacks and can be direct when they want to, deploying long-balls and flick-ons to good effect. There are many players in the Bavarian side who can trouble Szczesny from distance and they also make clever use of the width of the pitch through their full-backs and wide players. This will be, easily, the best attacking team that Arsenal have played thus far this season.
If I’m not mistaken, Bayern Munich have scored in every single competitive game they have played this season. It’s incredible. I’ll be amazed and delighted if they fail to do so at the Emirates on Tuesday night. Smart money will be on Bayern returning with at least one away goal.
Heynckes’ side are runaway leaders in the Bundesliga and they’ve kept 16 clean sheets in 22 games, conceding just 7 goals in the League all season at less than 1 goal every 3 games. They are adept at pressing higher up the pitch and closing down spaces to win balls back quickly and prevent opponents from building their attacks. They also do a good job of snuffing out long balls aimed towards attackers. When needed, Bayern can also drop back into their own half and defend as a unit, although this is mostly in the central third of the pitch with the first line of defence around the central third.
That explains why Bayern are favourites according to many, now let’s come to the other side of the equation.
There is a feeling that the Germans haven’t really been tested this season. In the Champions League group phase, they only scored 3 and conceded 4 while picking up 4 points in their away games. This includes a 3-1 defeat against Alexander Hleb’s BATE Borisov, a 1-1 draw against Valencia at the Mestalla where the hosts were down to 10 men for close to an hour, and a narrow 0-1 win over Lille who lost 5 of their 6 games. In the Bundesliga, they’ve not beaten the 2nd or 3rd placed teams yet despite playing both at home. They drew with Dortmund (1-1) and lost to Leverkusen (1-2).
So, there is no doubt in my mind that if – and that’s a big, big if, mind you – Arsenal can perform to their best level over the two legs without any drops in concentration, or signs of the handbrake, and other self-defeating elements of their game, the Gunners will have a very good chance of qualifying.
I am finding it hard to predict the patterns of play in this game as many possibilities are imaginable. Bayern top the Bundesliga possession stats with close to 64 percent possession while the Gunners are second in the Premier League with 58.5 percent. Both teams like to keep the ball and it’ll be interesting to see which one manages to dominate possession in this game.
I think Arsenal have a slight edge in the technical department in midfield but Bayern have a better front six as their attacking players add exceptional technical quality. Walcott and Giroud are likely to be the weak links as far as technique is concerned and could be prone to losing possession, which in turn could mean the Gunners won’t be able to hold on to the ball for as long as Bayern do. The Bavarians are also better at pressing and regaining possession while Arsenal have shown a tendency to drop back and concede the attacking half to the opponent when out of possession. This too indicates that the visitors will see more of the ball than Wenger’s side.
If Arsenal do sit back they’ll have to be very vigilant as a unit because Bayern’s attacking players interchange positions seamlessly and make astute use of space. They are also quick to change flanks and their full-backs generally time their runs intelligently. Arsenal’s wide players will have to be diligent with their tracking. There will be times when their wide players cut inside and either Alaba or Lahm makes an overlapping run. In those moments, the Arsenal full-backs will be vulnerable. If their teammates don’t read the situation as it’s developing and only react after it’s in motion, the team will concede space and, consequently, opportunities.
Ramsey, if he’s picked, will have a big role in front of the defence. Arteta will too. Hopefully, Wenger will not pick Wilshere and Cazorla centrally, they both need greater freedom to express their talents and relatively fewer defensive responsibilities. Jack up the pitch and Santi on the left seems the better choice. That said, I’ll be concerned about Cazorla’s ability to track Lahm on a consistent basis if he’s picked on the flank.
Wenger’s side will also have to start strongly. Conceding a couple of early goals – like they did against Chelsea and City – will settle the tie prematurely. It’s also likely to give voice to the disgruntled fans. On the other hand, a dominant start that shows desire and determination could get the Emirates crowd going.
Offensively, it will be a major surprise and a disappointment if Arsenal don’t score in this game. Bayern are very strong as a unit but they do seem vulnerable when opponents get past their first line of defence and spend some time in their defensive third. In that regard, the Bavarians are a bit like their hosts. Unlike Arsenal though, their back four is not always keen to drop deep when possession is lost. The Gunners will have to earn the right to attack their goal. Wilshere’s ability to get past his man could prove vital. It’ll be interesting to see if Bayern double up on him in the central third. Cazorla’s ability to hold the ball under pressure and bring his teammates into play will also be useful. His long and accurate diagonals towards Walcott can get Arsenal into threatening positions.
Walcott’s pace is a threat against any team but David Alaba is no slouch. I’m keen to see how tight he gets to Theo. My suggestion to the Englishman will be to start wider and work his way across the defensive line when Arsenal have the ball. His speedy runs can cause some confusion in the Bayern backline as the defenders will have to share the responsibility of marking/tracking him. Theo will also be a bigger threat if he can get his off-the-ball movement in sync with the vision of the midfielders. He’ll have a greater chance of making an impact if he constantly looks to get in-behind and receive the ball there rather than trying to run at the defence with the ball at his feet.
Neuer is a very highly rated goalkeeper but I feel Arsenal should take every opportunity to test him. Put pressure on him when he receives back passes, attack the penalty box looking for knock-backs when shots are taken from distance, and deliver crosses that pull him out of his line. The German’s record is impressive but I don’t think he’s tested often enough. There are mistakes in his game.
As with any big fixture, individual moments can be decisive. A casual touch in a dangerous area, a bad or great pass, a last-gasp tackle or block, a big save, or clinical finishing can all make the difference.
Wenger has some big decisions to make in his team selection.
Does he go for Ramsey in midfield? Should Podolski start? If so whether on the left or down the middle (I prefer this but very unlikely to happen.)? Who will play at left-back?
It will depend on Koscielny’s fitness but we might see,
Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny/Vermaelen, Vermaelen/Jenkinson – Ramsey, Wilshere, Arteta – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla.
Vermaelen might have to play through the middle if Koscielny is not fit and that would leave Jenkinson as the main option on the left (Monreal is cup-tied in case you didn’t know). Coquelin could also be an interesting possibility at left-back if he is instructed to keep things simple and focus on defending. Arsenal are likely to lose some offensive threat down that flank no matter who plays at full-back, which in turn might prompt Wenger to pick Podolski on the flank. Ramsey would be the most likely casualty in that case with Cazorla moving inside.
Bayern played on Friday whereas the Gunners played the FA Cup tie on Saturday. But Wenger was able to rest several players whereas the Bavarians will largely field the same eleven that won the game against Wolfsburg, so the hosts should be fresher, in theory at least.
Arsenal have to win this game if they want to give themselves a good shot at going through. Winning is about scoring goals but, at the simplest level, this tie will boil down to their defending.
P.S. I didn’t see the point in a late match report for the Blackburn game.Follow @goonerdesi