Bayern Munich continued their defence of the UEFA Champions League with another deeply impressive performance and yet another clean sheet.
Arsenal reverted to their first eleven after making 6 changes for the weekend’s FA Cup triumph over Liverpool, with a couple of notable exceptions. Yaya Sanogo and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were retained at the expense of Giroud and Rosicky respectively. Mikel Arteta missed out through suspension so Mathieu Flamini partnered Jack Wilshere in midfield.
In the absence of Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben swapped sides to occupy the left wing slot for Bayern Munich. Mario Gotze was on the the right, with Mario Mandzukic leading the line. Philippe Lahm was surprisingly back in his old right back slot, with Javi Martinez taking position at the base of the Munich midfield.
We knew a lot about how Bayern would seek to play before the first whistle – it would be a 4-5-1, with an aggressive offside line, and quick tiki-taka style possession football. So far, so predictable. Far more surprising was their intention to overload Arsenal’s left flank and cross frequently.
Arsenal have looked vulnerable down that side this season. They like to play a narrow playmaker type on the left side of midfield, most often Santi Cazorla (as it was tonight). This means that the opposition right full back has space in front of him to run into to either support the attack or overlap.
Although Wenger couldn’t reasonably have anticipated it, that right full was Lahm tonight. And considering that he’s arguably still the best right back in the world, that’s not really a good thing. His overlaps combined beautifully with Mario Gotze’s runs inside, and Cazorla simply wasn’t consistently tracking them. Adding to the problems was the frequency with which Arjen Robben vacated his left wing slot to join in, reminiscent of the way in which David Silva often plays in the same role for Manchester City.
Credit to Arsenal though – they stymied Bayern’s line of attack quite well. Their approach was to press Bayern’s centre back’s in the attacking third before falling back quickly to form two compact banks of four to prevent through balls if the press was broken. Much praise must be sent in Yayo Sanogo’s direction in this regard. He made 3 interceptions in the first half to catch Bayern defenders in possession. The young striker was also very effective from goal kicks, winning a massive 10 aerial duels over the course of the game. He also had Arsenal’s best chance of the first half (and the game) – a low shot in the box which produced a characteristically impressive low reflex save from Manuel Neuer.
The second phase of Arsenal’s block was working well too. Bayern only managed to thread one through ball over the course of the half. Unfortunately for them, this was Toni Kroo’s lofted effort that found the run of Robben in the box. Szczesny made a reckless challenge and was subsequently dismissed. David Alaba hit the post with the resulting penalty.
The effectiveness of Arsenal in central areas defensively was in stark contrast to their inability to stop crosses on their left however. Time and time again, Arsenal were outnumbered, with Cazorla particularly culpable. Bayern attempted an uncharacteristically high number of crosses (14). Lahm tried 5 and Gotze tried 4. Only 1 of the former’s hit a Bayern target. Luckily for Arsenal, Laurent Koscielny was in imperious form. He made 8 effective clearances and a crucial last man tackle in the first half. Perhaps even more crucially he also won all 3 of the offsides given against the away side, thwarting their attempts to get in behind.
Arsenal were also marginally more effective offensively than their opposition in the first half. Despite having only 31% of the ball, they had 3 shots on target to Bayern’s 1, and attempted 6 through balls to Bayern’s 3. Only one was successful however (Wilshere to Ozil), and as in the case of Bayern, it led to a missed penalty. The others were very close however, and Bayern’s centre backs looked extremely uncomfortable.
Recognising this, and looking to also exploit the extra man that his side now possessed, Guardiola made a change at half time. He removed the abject Boateng (who could well have added to his penalty yellow with a counter-attack stopping trip on Wilshere late in the first half). Rafinha was introduced at right back, and Bayern switched to a more 4-2-3-1 shape with Lahm now in midfield forming a double pivot with Toni Kroos. Javi Martinez dropped back to centre back. The use of an anchorman was now redundant as Arsenal had removed Ozil from the ten position to play on the left in place of the sacrificed Cazorla (who made way for sub keeper Fabianski).
Ozil was just as awful, if not worse than the Spaniard at tracking his full back. Bayern were now making full use of the width of the pitch, stretching Arsenal, with Gotze now wide on the left and Robben back in his familiar wide right position. They still funneled everything down the right however, and indeed that’s where the first goal came from.
Ozil was left two-on-one against Rafinha and Lahm. Rafinha made the overlap, allowing Lahm the space to play the pass to Kroos at the edge of the area. He delivered a sweet strike into the Arsenal net.
Here the games two standout players combined to put their side ahead. Both were absolutely imperious. Kroos attempted an incredible 152 passes, completing 97% of them. He also completed a massive 21 out of 22 attempted long passes and added two more successful through balls to his penalty-winning attempt in the first half. One of them almost led to the second goal – on 67 minutes, he sent through Rafinha, who had once again run off Mesut Ozil (who was unbelievably not substituted when Rosicky entered the game). His low cross was somehow missed in the area by several of his Bayern teammates.
Philippe Lahm attempted 123 passes, completing a ridiculous 99% of them. He created both goals, 4 chances in total and opened up the Arsenal defence with through balls twice. His cross for the second goal stemmed from yet another overload on the right. He received possession in a right of centre area before finding Thomas Muller’s head in the middle of the box, after the German had run off the back of Flamini. Substitute Claudio Pizarro made a brilliant lateral run to drag Per Mertesacker out of the space.
In truth, were it not for some stout defending from Arsenal in the box, it could have been more. As previously mentioned, Koscielny was imperious. He finished the game having made two crucial saving tackles from a total of 5. He completed 10 clearances and blocked 3 shots. His colleague Mertesacker blocked 6. Crucial interventions.
In the first half, they pressed high to prevent Bayern from moving forward quickly, before sitting deep and preventing through balls. They allowed a lot of crosses to come in from the right, but dealt with them well in the area. Mario Mandzukic was totally silenced, only touching the ball 11 times in his 64 minutes on the pitch.
The sending off made it incalculably more difficult however. Bayern maximised their advantage by increasing their width and stretching Arsenal. This meant that four times as many through balls found their way through in the second half as had in the first. Their crosses were more frequent too as a result, attempting 23 as opposed to 14 in the first period. The defensive line moved up and hemmed Arsenal in further. Centre backs Dante and Martinez spent most of the second half in advance of the halfway line.
This meant that Arsenal were non-existent as an attacking force for the last 45. They had one shot, and slumped to a possession ratio of 21:79 by game’s end. Bayern turned the screw. They were ruthless. Devastatingly so.
Mission impossible now for the Gunners in Munich.