After the unwelcomed interruptions of the international break, club football has returned. More notably Europe’s elite competition was back on having in store some wonderful midweek clashes which would have put the aching heart of any purist hurt by the break at ease. Tuesday’s fixtures had in store a match-up that we have seen played out in the knock out stages over the last few years. The new group stage structure pushed it forward a bit earlier this season, and that was Arsenal versus Bayern Munich. Both teams entered into the fixtures bang into form, Arsenal had recently steamrolled the Premier League’s only unbeaten team in Leicester City before toying with their fellow title contenders Manchester United, with a 3-0 victory over them. However, Bayern being the juggernauts they are were on a 12 game win streak, destroying all before them.
Arsenal entered into the game being in a familiar position with their backs against the wall in Europe. This is a recurring dilemma which usually happens in the knockout stages. Arsenal fail to produce in the home game and then go for broke in the second, coming close to earning a favourable result which isn’t enough to progress but still gain the sympathy of the world. It’s a very tiring ballad if you are a fan of the club. Arsenal’s trouble came a tad bit earlier than expected as they’ve failed to effectively dispatch the whipping boys of the group, placing them in incredibly hot water having to face Bayern Munich in their third match of a group containing Olymiacos and Dynamo Zagreb. Anything less than a win for Arsenal meant they were out. Bayern were simply being themselves, with Lewandowski rising to new levels. Before the game he was on an incredible goal scoring run of 16 goals in 12 games and was the sure fire threat with Muller in fantastic form as well.
Arsenal needed to mirror the opening five minutes they showed against Bayern in 2014 and their first 20 minutes against Manchester United to have any hope of a positive result on the night. The club did indeed show that intent when in the seventh minute they crafted open a decent chance for Ozil only for Manuel Neuer to save comfortably. That turned out to be the theme of the night for both teams incidentally, seeing their goalkeepers being called into performing miracles throughout the night. The most notable save being Neuer incredibly stopping – not swatting – a powerful point blank header from Walcott with one hand. Petr Cech, for his part, made a couple saves on efforts from Thiago and Lewandowski. In the end, Neuer was the first keeper to flinch in this metaphoric game of chicken, missing a ball he came for on a set piece and allowing Giroud to bundle the ball into the goal. As strong as Bayern were, seeing this resilient Arsenal team, there was a strange feeling that this game was over, with Ozil confirming this with his goal in the 93rd minute.
Bayern were typically themselves but what Arsenal displayed on the night was their defiance to the labels thrown at them. While the Gunners have sporadically displayed these moments in the last four or five years, they’ve never been able to full convince fans and pundits that the team has the mental strength, togetherness, tactical nous, and defensive stability to overcome outstanding pressure as well to handle top class opponents. What can be said is that it is not something Arsenal have failed to do before. Their 2-0 win at the Allianz, their 2-0 win over Manchester City last season, are recent examples of Arsenal altering their usual defensive structure while maintaining a consistent attacking threat. They sit deeper, become more compact and battle harder in midfield then transition into attack with pace and guile. Arsenal were more than prepared for Bayern’s hunger for possession and their high level of creativity. Bayern however initially seemed astonished with the level of pace Arsenal break and attacked with but quickly adjusted as the game began to balance itself out. Arsenal’s display of tactical variety is something that will be welcomed by the layman; but in the grand scheme of things the similar mistakes made before led to the performance saw on the night.
What Arsenal now need is a consistent display of knowing how to balance these type of performances because as seen by the losses in the first two games in the group Arsenal displayed some level of either arrogance or naivety and paid the price. That Arsenal found themselves in this position to begin with also indicates that there is massive room for improvement and that old demons still need to be worked on with the team still not being able to remove the ‘but’ from any discussion which has them as firm contenders for titles. For Bayern — whose display despite the loss was in their usual top class ilk — minor mistakes saw them lose that game against a resilient Arsenal so there is little to take from the game in terms of negativity. However, Pep being the perfectionist he is will look into how best to cope with Arsenal’s pace which was the most threatening thing to Bayern on the night. All this would have done is given an already determined Bayern more focus dispelling any room for arrogance within the squad. Arsenal in their win may have helped to transform a beast into a killing machine when we consider that Bayern under Pep have shown themselves to be a perfect early to mid-season team.
The second leg will now see the best away team in England take on a more refined beast. Bayern would have learned from the minor flesh wound inflicted by the Gunners. Bayern rearing to go with sharpened fangs possibly buoyed by the return of Arjen Robben can conceivably rip Arsenal to pieces. With the hope that Arsenal intend to put away the other two teams in the group on the return leg, Arsenal simply need to escape Germany with a draw and hope Olympicos can hiccup against Dynamo Zagreb on their return leg. Arsenal will need efficiency and resilience beyond what was displayed on Tuesday if they hope to survive the possibly onslaught which faces them at the Allianz with a focused Bayern waiting and keen on revenge.
Just remember though, Arsenal have displayed that when necessary their cannons can hit with ruthless efficiency.