With the odd exception, Arsenal’s Champions League groups have often featured some rather mundane matches, and while it always feels like you should appreciate being in the competition, there have been some group games when it’s hardly felt like the pinnacle of European football. Partly through a change in the pots for the group stage draw itself, and Arsenal’s rather spectacular cock-ups in the first two games in this season’s competition, Tuesday night’s group game with Bayern Munich had the feeling of a high-profile knockout match.
While a defeat wouldn’t quite have been mathematically terminal for Arsenal’s Champions League hopes, it would have effectively ended any realistic hopes of escaping a group that, Bayern Munich apart, shouldn’t have presented many issues for the Gunners. But when a team that has won 12 games in a row turns up, it isn’t a time to feel sorry for yourself and reflect on what has gone before. The difference between Arsenal’s meek efforts against Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiacos and the rousing and remarkable 2-0 win against the Bavarians couldn’t have been more pronounced. It did make the first two defeats seem all the more ridiculous, but after such a great performance, there’s no point feeling downbeat. Arsenal were fantastic on the night and deservedly beat one of the clubs in the small group of elite teams in Europe.
Since Arsenal’s last European capitulation, confidence had been boosted by the dismantling of Manchester United and, with the exception of Laurent Koscielny starting instead of Gabriel, Arsene Wenger sent out the same starting XI that had blown away United to try and get the better of Bayern. Despite the side looking the same on paper, Arsenal showed a versatility to adapt to opponents and some subtle tactical tweaks from Arsene Wenger enabled the hosts to be solid at the back, dangerous in the final third and create the best chances of the game despite being starved of possession for long periods of the match.
Arsenal didn’t look to press high up the pitch against Bayern and were seemingly happy for the visitors to have possession just inside the Gunners’ half of the pitch. This meant there was less space for the dangerous Robert Lewandowski to work in when the ball reached him up front, while Thomas Muller was ineffective stuck out on the right against Nacho Monreal. Douglas Costa’s trickery caused a few problems, but there wasn’t space behind the Gunners back line for him to utilise, so he was reliant on taking people on from a standing start.
Interestingly, Arsene Wenger deviated slightly from the normal 4-2-3-1 formation by dropping Mesut Ozil alongside Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla to have a flat three in midfield. Usually, if Wenger does this during a match, Aaron Ramsey will drop inside and Ozil will move out wide, but on this occasion, the German was the left man of the three central midfielders. This wasn’t because of his renowned defensive work, but when Arsenal did win the ball, it meant Ozil was in the centre of the pitch to feed Arsenal’s flying forwards on the break. He was also closer to Alexis Sanchez so could unleash the Chilean when Arsenal won the ball back, or look for the diagonal pass to Theo Walcott.
Since the win earlier this year at Manchester City when Arsenal soaked up pressure and did their damage on the counter-attack, the belief and trust from the players in their own capacity to defend as a team and their ability to make the most of the opportunities when they win the ball back has grown. Even though the Gunners only had 30% possession against Bayern Munich, there was a sense that Arsenal could cause problems for Bayern’s back four as soon as they approached the final third of the pitch. With Bayern having to play a higher defensive line to retain the majority of possession, the space was there for Theo Walcott and Alexis to stretch the defense. Ordinarily, Arsenal look to the likes of Coquelin and Cazorla to start moves when they win the ball back, but against Bayern, they were often taking a few passes out of the move and being more direct to get Walcott and Alexis on the run to turn the back four around.
For all the tactical planning, the players still have to go out and deliver. Everyone contributed and played their part, none more so that Petr Cech. With so many quality players in their ranks, it is virtually impossible to deny Bayern Munich any clear cut chances despite a great tactical plan, and when Pep Guardiola’s men did find a way through the Gunners, they were faced by a world class goalkeeper who was out to make a point about his selection in the Champions League. I was always someone who looked for the positives in Wojciech Szczesny, Lukasz Fabianski, David Ospina and even Manuel Almunia, but it is almost slightly scary how much better and calmer the Arsenal defence look with Cech behind them.
After important saves in the first half, Cech produced his best stop moments before Arsenal took the lead. Robert Lewandowski escaped the attentions of Mertesacker and Koscielny for a fleeting moment, but when he went towards goal, he was met by a giant Czech goalkeeper who stood tall to parry the ball over the bar. That was with the score at 0-0 in the final twenty minutes of the game, and moments later Arsenal were ahead.
Olivier Giroud had replaced Theo Walcott and offered the Gunners a physical presence up front and won a free-kick for Arsenal just inside the Bayern half with some good hold-up play. Usually, Arsenal would have passed such a free-kick short and looked to build a passing move, but with Giroud on the field, they opted to put the ball into the box. Santi Cazorla put the ball into a perfect area to tempt Manuel Neuer out of goal, the keeper flapped at the cross and Giroud stooped behind him to somehow divert the ball into the net via his head and upper body. Neuer had pulled off a ridiculous point-blank save to deny Theo Walcott in the first half, but his erratic judgement when charging out of goal cost his team on Tuesday.
Having got the lead, Arsenal just had to soak up pressure as they had done for the majority of the match. Bayern passed and probed but couldn’t properly test Cech for the rest of the game as Arsenal looked energised by taking the lead. Mertesacker and Coquelin won vital tackles while Laurent Koscielny somehow prevented Lewandowski from getting a shot off in injury time when the striker looked to wriggle free in the box. But this energy the Gunners found late in the game was typified by Hector Bellerin.
The Spanish full-back had a tough first half against Douglas Costa, but he rose to the challenge and stood up to him in the second half. He then drew on his raw pace to make a huge impact. We’ve all known that Bellerin is quick, and have seen him utilise it in fleeting moments since he’s broken into the first team, but we’ve never seen anything like the breathtaking burst he produced in the 94th minute on Tuesday. With Bayern looking to launch one last attack, Bellerin sprinted half the length of the pitch, only touching the ball four times on the way, to intercept a pass, burn his way past the floundering Thiago and lay on a chance for Mesut Ozil to seal the victory. To show that level of speed was impressive enough, but to do it in the dying moments of an intense Champions League match was incredible. He was surely only a few miles per hour short of the 88 needed to beat Marty McFly to the 21st October 2015.
Ozil was able to apply the finishing touch, despite Neuer’s best efforts, as the fifth official behind the goal spotted that the ball did cross the line, sparking wild celebrations. It was another moment to highlight how Mesut Ozil is finding form this season as he made another big contribution in a big game.
The joyous scenes in the stadium weren’t so much about breathing life into a dying Champions League campaign, but more about the victory being another significant step for this developing Arsenal team. Bayern have been frequent recent visitors in the Champions League and have left with relatively comfortable victories on both occasions. This time though, Arsenal went toe-to-toe with them and deservedly won. The Gunners did have some luck with the nature of the first goal, but it wasn’t as if Bayern put in an off-colour performance. Their passing was crisp and there was a swagger to their play that comes with winning 12 matches in a row, yet Arsenal still managed to produce a performance to beat them.
It was a tactical triumph for Arsene Wenger, who this year has shown a greater tactical flexibility. He’s not just sending his team out in big games to just play as they normally do and hope that’s good enough. Pep Guardiola did that on Tuesday, and he found an Arsenal side that was ready and had a plan to counteract the relentless passing.
The win might still not be enough to contribute to Arsenal getting out of the group in the Champions League, but the confidence and belief it gives for the rest of the season could yet be invaluable in other competitions.