There were many surprises in this game starting with the line-ups selected by the managers but it ended, unfortunately, in a predictable and disappointing manner. There were some positives for Arsenal but one has to wonder why we end up talking about ‘some positives’ after big games more often than enjoying actual great wins.
There seemed to be three distinct phases to the game.
1) Arsenal’s exhilarating start
Wenger’s side came out all guns blazing. The aggression and purpose showed by the players was simply outstanding. I think this phase lasted from kickoff till the penalty miss, or you could round it up to the first 10 minutes.
I was also surprised by how unprepared Bayern were for such a tempo. Guardiola is widely regarded as a manager who pays excruciating attention to details. But the German side had that deer-in-the-headlights look at times.
The numbers from this phase are interesting.
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The Gunners were moving the ball quickly and with the kind of midfield fluidity that is visible when Wenger’s team are playing their best football. Wilshere was often the highest in midfield, Özil drifted to the left, and Santi came central or went to the right at will. Oxlade-Chamberlain looked in his elements when he got a chance to run at opponents.
Bayern were looking to press up the pitch but they weren’t getting close to the ball. When they did, Arsenal showed greater tenacity and desire to win the 50-50s. That to me was the crux of the home sides advantage – speed and desire.
Five of Arsenal’s eight chances came in this period!
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It’s worth noting that most of these chances didn’t come from slick one-touch football that carved opponents apart. I think the speed of play was too high for that degree of control. But, in a state of frantic play, opportunities arose from greater willingness and preparedness. For instance, Sanogo was surrounded by Bayern players in the first minute but he fought for the loose ball before breaking forward. Similarly, his shot that forced an excellent save from Neuer came from Wilshere’s tenacity and his own opportunism with an early strike. Bayern had enough players around the ball but they just weren’t fighting hard for it.
The visitors lost some of their composure as the intensity caught them off-guard. This meant their performance in possession was below par and they weren’t in the right shape on transitions or defensive situations.
In a neat little coincidence, the Official Membership Newsletter that I got from Arsenal today had the following words from Rosicky,
When we went to Southampton and Liverpool recently, the big difference was that their opening spell was much more aggressive than us. Basically, if we don’t match our opponents’ fighting spirit and aggression, we can’t expect to win every game just based on our football skills. It doesn’t work like that.
He was talking about the attitude needed for the remaining League games but it could easily have been a lesson for Bayern. It could be that English teams are more used to such a tempo and are not caught unawares but the Germans were simply not ready for it. Don’t be surprised though, if one little spell is enough to ensure Guardiola has his team ready to match any speed the visitors produce in the reverse leg.
A little bit of luck was also involved as two very close off-side decisions went in Arsenal’s favour. Cazorla’s run down the right could have been halted by the flag as could Özil’s penalty winning dart in behind. I am not saying they were off-side as the replays I saw were inconclusive, just that I’ve seen such calls go in favour of the defensive team often enough to acknowledge the role of luck.
The penalty was obviously the turning point. Had the Gunners scored they’d have gained greater conviction as their approach succeeded and the crowd – fantastic on the night, I must say – would have really lifted the atmosphere to another, probably unprecedented, level.
The miss, and the astonishing confidence-sapping manner of it, flattened Arsenal’s momentum in one swift blow. Had Arsenal been dominating through technical or tactical reasons, one could imagine them regaining that superiority at some point in the game. But the fact was they were relying on energy, desire, and belief. These are not so easy to rediscover. Wenger might have said something at half-time to reignite the spark had the team gone in at the break without losing a man. But that was about the only hope.
Not to pile on the misery on a player I love watching and one who’s already receiving unfair criticism in abundance, but Özil wallowing in regret and letting disappointment affect his performance didn’t help. Professionals, particularly those at the highest level, have to know how to get over mistakes and raise the bar when they’re facing the toughest of moments.
I’m not convinced the fact that Neuer and Özil have known each other since their school days had any bearing on the outcome. You can argue Özil knew what Neuer would do just as easily as the opposite has been said. And you can wonder whether either or both players were trying to second guess each other. The simple fact, in my opinion, is that shooting is not Özil’s strength. He doesn’t have the technique for it and it is very different from passing the ball. When he has to pick a pass he can adjust his body shape at the last minute, pause if he has to, or move the ball a little so the angle works. He also has a clear, usually narrow, target. Shooting at goal is like hunting a different beast. That doesn’t mean he cannot ever improve but it’s important to acknowledge this is not the best use of his abilities and puts more pressure on him. He should not be on direct free-kicks or penalties till he’s worked on his shooting technique and demonstrated noteworthy improvements. Of course, it always leaves me wondering what are they seeing in training to put such responsibility on his shoulders in the first place.
Bayern had almost nothing going for them during this spell but they still produced a couple of quality shots. These should have served as a warning but I think defending with 4 midfielders instead of 5 – something Arsenal seem to be trying since the second half in Southampton – was always going to be hard for the team that is used to an extra body to help out. Given the consistency of the shape and positioning of the players, I think it’s safe to assume this was pre-planned. And it wasn’t a very good approach because the team dropped too deep and too narrow.
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That is a snapshot from Bayern’s attack in the third minute that led to a shot by Kroos. Notice how much time and space is available in front of Arsenal’s midfield line, which is extremely deep. Players of this quality can pick their passes or place their shots when afforded such luxury. Also see the gap between Koscielny and Gibbs. A similar opening was again visible when Robben went between the centre back and Monreal.
2) Bayern slowly gain control
After the penalty was missed the hosts lost their momentum and their energy levels dropped. There was uncertainty in their actions and as a result, despite their still visible desire to do well, the team wasn’t quite as the same level as they lacked cohesion and were a step behind the play.
This drop also had the effect of bringing the speed of the game to a level that Bayern were extremely comfortable with. A lot of people have said that Arsenal were on top as long as the game was even in numerical terms but this is not exactly accurate.
From the 9th minute onwards the visitors started controlling the ball and territory. They took charge of the centre of the pitch. Whereas earlier the Gunners were breaking their attacks down early in the build up, now the hosts had to drop deep consistently. Similarly, Wenger’s side was no longer able to pass out from the back in the manner that helped them impose themselves in the first 8 minutes. Bayern’s pressing was now quite effective.
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Arsenal made fewer passes from the time the penalty was missed to the time Szczesny was sent off than they did in the phase discussed earlier. And a lot of their passing was long from the back as they just couldn’t beat the Bayern pressing. The odd chance that came – like the long ball that Chamberlain chased down – was more hopeful than genuinely threatening even if it did get the viewers on the edge of their seats.
The visitors on the other hand were quickly settling into a nice rhythm. The diligence of the home side and numbers in and around the Arsenal box prevented clear cut chances but the pressure was building. Guardiola’s side were able to get past Arsenal’s first line of defence with ease when the Gunners pushed up to the centre line. They found spaces between the lines and were able to spread play to unmarked teammates on the flanks at will.
Robben went close in the 35th minute with a shot from a good position that was blocked by Mertesacker. Soon after that Koscielny had to make a desperate tackle as Mandzukic got into a very promising position in the box. It was almost prescient when Gary Neville in commentary said, “…need to stay in the game here arsenal, sense something’s happening for Bayern Munich…“
Within a minute or so of that statement came the decisive moment of the game. See the following images and decide which one came from the second minute and which one from the 37th.
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Kroos had so much time to measure his pass. Monreal not tracking the run was bordering on criminally negligent. It was also interesting that Mandzukic blocked Koscielny as the defender was trying to turn and chase back. I’m not saying it was a foul, just a clever ploy which seemed within the rules. Whether it was intentional or coincidental is something only he can tell.
The biggest culprit, however, was without a doubt the Arsenal goalie Szczesny. His error in judging the flight of the ball, the choice of flying out in that manner, and the utterly unnecessary act of going to ground seem inexcusable.
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See how far away he is from the ball. The way his knees are bent seems to suggest he’s already going to ground. It’s understandable if any player goes for a 50-50 and loses the challenge. I also don’t think it’s fair to criticize someone who has to make a split second decision.
But this was never a contest. Robben would have had a hard time getting his shot away given the way he was stretching to reach the ball. If Szczesny comes out and stays upright, he gives himself the chance to win the ball when the Dutchman has to take a moment to gain his balance while bringing the ball under control. Chances are he could still lose that challenge but at least then it would be close. This was just daft/irresponsible.
It’s not his first mistake either. In fact, if someone in the future gets a chance to analyze players from this generation on an impartial basis, I won’t be surprised if Szczesny is identified amongst the luckiest of his tribe. Over the last two years the Gunners have worked so hard on improving their collective defending that many of his errors are covered for by his teammates. I can’t see him surviving at any other major club for this long.
The worst part is you could see it coming. I covered it in the pre-match notes,
Szczesny is not very good in a one-v-one in my opinion and could potentially be a liability if Bayern get in behind repeatedly.
There is the angle of triple jeopardy with the DOGSO red card and penalty. The merits of the law itself can be debated but in this instance the ref had no choice but to send him off based on current rules. I would like to see some changes in that and related laws but such a discussion is beyond the scope of this article.
3) 10 v 11
I was surprised when Cazorla went out and Özil stayed on the pitch as Fabianski came on. It’s not an easy call and can be argued both ways but my preference would have been to take the German off.
Alaba missed his spot kick and that kept Arsenal in the game. The Gunners did well to reach half time without conceding. The team had to make some decisions in the second half. Did they want to settle for a point? Was there any way they could compete?
I don’t know what they decided but the defensive approach – extremely deep and narrow – meant that it was easy for Bayern to press and box the hosts in and around their penalty box. There was no outlet and seemingly no plan to ease the pressure. It seemed a matter of hunkering down and fighting for their lives.
In terms of physical and mental effort, the Gunners were heroic in their endeavours. But that isn’t always enough. The time and space they afforded the visitors just on the edge of the box was too much and Bayern showed us the importance of patience and a bit of tinkering as Guardiola made subtle changes to his line-up to make the most of the man advantage.
I don’t think the players deserve much blame for the way they defended and conceded, before and after the sending off. The key here is the team’s inability to defend the centre line once the tempo was lost. Arsenal have to learn to defend higher up the pitch and cover more spaces with the players they have. Even with 10 men they should have been able to defend higher up. Of course, we’ve seen the vulnerability with balls in behind when they try that against good teams. These are related issues that show plenty of work still needs to be done before this side can be considered an accomplished defensive unit.
I have covered the difference between assured defending and desperate defending in some detail in earlier articles on this blog. In this game, with so many clearances, blocks, and last man tackles from deep, Arsenal’s defending was far from the assured version. That means they were always going to need a fair bit of luck to keep a clean sheet. It should not take anything away from individual effort – for instance, Koscielny was absolutely sensational – but in terms of organization, tactics, and game intelligence the side has a long way to go if they want to be more competitive in the big games. They’ll not be able to sustain a breathtaking tempo for 90 minutes in game after game and that can never be the basis for defending in big games.
I actually got the feeling Bayern were below their own high standards with their utilization of possession when they had such a big advantage. A lot of their play was individualistic or relied on 2-3 player combinations in the wide areas. You could say they were creating overloads wide on their right whereas Arsenal had extra bodies in central defence, which helped with the blocks, timely tackles, and clearances. The introductions of Muller and Pizzaro certainly helped counter that and it shows Guardiola is constantly looking to make a difference.
The second goal felt like a cruel blow after all the defensive hard work as it’s left faint hopes of a comeback. But you can’t take it away from Bayern they were clearly the dominant side once the frantic tempo was gone.
Sunderland – Opportunity to rise, potential to flop
Arsenal started last season with a goalless draw against Sunderland. That gives the team an opportunity to pick up two points over the corresponding fixture.
This will be another test of Arsenal’s mentality. It’s one of two buffer games before another run of big challenges returns. The Gunners have done well to win such games and that is main reason they are still in with a shout. It is a must win game and the players will have to recover quickly from Wednesday’s exertions. Playing at home should help, more so if the crowd can respond like they did in the midweek tie.
There should be no surprises tactically. It seems like a typical Premier League game against a team on a positive curve when battling relegation. Expect full commitment, organization, and fighting spirit visible in the form of aggressive physical challenges and combative duels. The Black Cats are not a great passing side but they offer sufficient and diverse goal threat. And ever since Poyet has taken over they have slowly become a reliable side in defence with an impressive away record that has them undefeated in six games and includes wins at Goodison Park and St James’ Park. They’re also in the Capital One Cup final and in the FA Cup quarter-finals. It promises to be a very tricky game.
Johnson is their in-form man and Monreal will have to avoid repeating some of his recent mistakes to keep him in check. Arsenal’s best bet would probably be to isolate the attacker against two or three defensive players by pinning most of his teammates back through possession and movement.
Of course, there is the chance that Poyet will set his team up to defend deep. It could be a reversal of roles for the Gunners and hopefully they’ll be up for the challenge. The team hasn’t always looked convincing when the opponents are well-organized in front of their goal but usually against the relatively smaller teams Arsenal find an extra gear at some stage. It’ll be helpful if that comes early in this game. Repeating the start against Bayern would be ideal but not many Premier League teams get caught out by a flying tempo at the start.
I also expect them to use long balls and physicality to trouble the Arsenal defence. It’d be a whole new challenge for the Gunners after the incessant pass-and-move routine of Guardiola’s side.
Wenger will have to make some changes to his line-up to have greater energy on the pitch as the opponents didn’t play in the middle of the week.
I’d like to see,
Fabianksi – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Cazorla, Flamini – AOC, Giroud, Podolski.
I think Szczesny deserves to be dropped for his mistake and disciplined for that flippant, disrespectful, and unjustified gesture. But I’ll be very surprised if Wenger actually keeps him out.
In midfield, many fans don’t like the Arteta-Flamini duo. I think they can work well together as long as the roles are clear. If executed well, they should be able to take the pressure of the four attacking players and the full-backs in such a game, which should leave Arsenal with enough attacking options and width.
Chamberlain should start if he is fit or Gnabry could deputize. Rosicky is another option on the right.
Wilshere and Sanogo ran a lot against Bayern and could do with a break. As did Flamini but he just seems stronger and fitter.
Three of Sunderland last five visits to the Emirates have ended in goalless draws. A point will help their cause but not the Gunners’. If any points are dropped in this game, it’ll be a bigger disappointment than the defeats against Liverpool and Bayern or the draw against United. A win will buy Arsenal some breathing room.