Arsenal’s long trophy drought seems to have gotten an extension after they received a mauling at the hands of visiting Bayern Munich on Tuesday, finishing the 1st leg of the tie two goals behind and more importantly conceding three away goals. Arsene Wenger had already hit the headlines ahead of the kick-off with the Frenchman fuming at a press conference in the aftermath of his side’s disappointing loss to second division side Blackburn Rovers in the FA cup. By no means was it a perfect buildup to face the rampant Bavarians, but Wenger would have drawn some comfort from the fact that Bayern didn’t have the best of records playing in England. In fact the last time the two met, it ended in a 1-0 victory to Wenger’s men courtesy of a Thierry Henry goal.
In a high intensity game, young Toni Kroos opened the scoring with a 7th minute scorcher from a cross from Thomas Muller that beat Arsenal’s defenders in the box. Bayern doubled their advantage soon after when Szczesny could only parry a Daniel Van Buyten header on to the feet of Muller who did not miss the target from close range. Arsenal did start the second half strongly and their pressing game paid off when they managed to pull one back from a corner courtesy Podolski’s header, only for Bayern to restore their two goal advantage 13 minutes before time. Arsenal now have a monumental task in hand when they travel to Munich on March 13th for the next leg.
Arsene Wenger made seven changes to his line-up which faced defeat on the weekend in the FA cup. In came regulars Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla to form a three man midfield alongside Mikel Arteta. Theo Walcott was asked to spear-head the attack instead of Frenchman Olivier Giroud. Wenger was forced to field his skipper Thomas Vermaelen at left back in the absence of Gibbs with Sagna manning the other end. Arsenal lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with the former Bayern man Podolski playing at left wing and Aaron Ramsey on the right.
Arsenal Line-up (4-2-3-1) – Szczesny ; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny , Vermaelen ; Arteta, Wilshere ; Ramsey, Cazorla, Podolski ; Walcott
Jupp Heynckes stuck to his conventional 4-2-3-1 electing the inform Mario Mandzukic to lead the attack. French wizard Franck Ribery who seems to be getting better with age started on the left flank with Muller pipping Robben to a spot on the right. Javi Martinez who missed Bayern’s win over Wolfsburg on the weekend with a bruised toe returned to the lineup partnering Schweinsteiger in the middle of the pitch.
Bayern’s biggest concern and their Achilles heel over the last 2-3 years has been their defense and the issue came back to haunt them in the form of injury to Holger Badstuber and suspension to Jerome Boateng. Daniel Van Buyten partnered Bayern’s leader in defense Dante with Lahm and Alaba playing full backs.
Bayern Line-up(4-2-3-1) – Neuer ; Alaba , Dante , Van Buyten , Lahm ; Schweinstiger , Martinez ; Ribery , Kroos, Muller ; Mandzukic
Bayern’s defensive issues are a well-known fact in the footballing world. The German giants have been struggling for the last few years in search of a stable back four that can keep out goals when facing the best of attacks in Europe. Their 2010 champions league final loss to Inter Milan can be largely attributed to defensive errors committed by the back line and their lack of depth in this department probably cost them the trophy last season. In the absence of the injured Badstuber and the suspended Boateng, Heynckes opted to use the Belgian international Daniel Van Buyten, whose pace is not one of his strengths, alongside the impressive Dante.
This change probably prompted Wenger to replace Giroud with Walcott to lead the attack and take advantage of a ‘not very fast’ Bayern central defensive pair. A lot of Bayern’s attacks come from their flanks with full backs Lahm and Alaba constantly bombarding up the pitch. The selections of Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla, two players possessing pace and ability to open up play from the wings, indicated that Arsenal were looking to catch Bayern on the counter with their full backs high up the pitch. The move seemed to work quite well initially as Arsenal started the game brightly catching left back David Alaba out of position on couple of occasions in the first five minutes.
Bayern though slowly got into the groove with some powerful midfield play and slick passing and in the 7th minute when a Thomas Muller cross from the right beat Arsenal’s defense to find the feet of Toni Kroos, the home team looked troubled. Kroos unleashed a fearsome volley to beat a diving Szczesny to give the visitors an important away goal. Arsenal’s defense does come into question, failing to deal with Muller’s cross in the build up to the goal. Wenger had gone with Mikel Arteta instead of Abou Diaby in the starting line-up. Arteta has made a name for himself in the Premier League as an excellent ball distributor but not as a defensive midfielder. The Spaniard struggled throughout the game in his role as a shield to the back four and his cause wasn’t helped by the brilliance of Schweinsteiger and Martinez with their high pressing game. With a goal to their name, Bayern got into their stride comfortably with some excellent ball control in the middle of pitch helped by enticing runs from Ribery, Mandzukic and Muller upfront.
The hosts on the other hand were struggling to get their own game flowing with Schweinstieger and Martinez cutting out passes and keeping the runs of Wilshere, Cazorla and Arteta in check. Bayern’s second goal came courtesy of a corner from the far end. The German table toppers aren’t really known for their strength on set pieces but they did seem to fancy this one given they had the height of Van Buyten in the box. Kroos’ corner found the head of the tall defender who did well to direct it towards the target. A tracking back and falling Szczesny could only parry it to the feet of Muller who had the trivial job of simply jabbing it into the back of the net.
Conceding the second away goal seemed to have knocked the stuffing out of the home team and Bayern really stamped their authority in the first period after that. Mandzukic came close to tripling Bayern’s lead just before the break with a well placed header that just missed the target. Much of Die Roten’s dominance during this period was channeled through the middle in the form of Kroos, Schweinstiger and Martinez. The Spaniard was instrumental in keeping Arsenal’s attack in check shielding the back four, a role the hosts sorely missed. With Bayern’s midfield keeping the opposition attackers in check and pushing them back, the full backs had an open pitch to move forward. It was one such move down the right from Lahm that almost produced Bayern’s third.
The second period started on a similar note, but with better determination from the hosts. Arsenal failed to have a single shot on goal during the first period and this seemed to spur them on to try harder. In the first period Theo Walcott cut a lone figure upfront bullied by the likes of Dante and Van Buyten. The Gunners seemed to shift to an attacking form of 4-3-3 with Wilshere and Cazorla playing advanced roles. This pressing game looked to have unsettled the Bayern midfield for a short period with the German side giving up ball possession on number of occasions and getting pegged back in their own half. A Wilshere corner in the 55 minute saw a rare blunder by Manuel Neuer allowing Podolski a free header to make the score 1-2 to the visitors. Wenger responded to this by bringing in Tomas Rosicky and Olivier Giroud, permitting Walcott to move to a more effective position on the flanks. By bringing in Giroud, Arsenal finally had the classic center forward they needed and probably should have played with from kick-off.
The visitors though got back their lost momentum after that goal and with 13 minutes remaining sealed the game with a Mandzukic goal. The build-up for this also came from the right hand side with substitute Robben jinxing his way past Vermaelen to find the overlapping Lahm who produced a trademark cross to find Mandzukic.
Arsenal travel to Munich for the second leg in couple of weeks’ time seeking to override their first leg deficit. The task is not going to be simple considering Bayern’s record at Allianz Arena this season. Wenger will be hoping Gibbs is back from his injury to take his place at left back meaning skipper Vermaelen who endured a torrid time against the likes of Muller and Lahm can slot back into the center of defense. The displays of Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla were certainly refreshing and the Gunners will need more of this at Munich.
Bayern on the other hand are in a very comfortable position and it will be interesting to see their tactics for the second leg. The German side are one of the bests in terms of attacking but have never looked entirely comfortable when they decide to sit back and defend a lead. The home side though will be quietly confident of taking this tie and will certainly have one eye on the next stage.