When the UEFA Champions league draw was made on the 20th of December 2012, the hearts of many Arsenal fans sunk. They had been drawn against the side currently ensuring that the Bundesliga is a one horse race: Bayern Munich.
Whilst the Bavarian side were by no means the toughest opponents that Arsene Wenger’s charges could have drawn, they are still an extremely dangerous side and are among the favourites to win this year’s UCL.
Bayern came tantalisingly close to lifting the trophy last year and as such will be even more driven to succeed this time around, and because of this many football fans have already written the English side off.
Although it seems unlikely that Arsenal should win the competition outright, it is unfair and incorrect to state that the tie between Arsenal and Bayern Munich is a foregone conclusion; whilst the Germans may have arguably the stronger squad Arsenal certainly could pull off what would be something of a shock victory.
Although the Gunners have been disappointing this season, defeating one of Europe’s heavyweights is certainly not beyond them – but the game will come down to a number of key battles in various areas of the pitch. I will attempt to outline various methods that could aid Arsenal in their quest for UCL progression.
The away goals system in the UCL and Arsenal’s abysmal European away form means that a solid defence, something that has eluded the Gunners of late, is the key. If Bayern Munich bag more than one goal at the Emirates, the London side will have a mountain to climb in Bavaria, so a clean sheet at home is paramount to success.
Whilst Arsenal are likely to concede at the Allianz Arena, the number of goals conceded must be minimized – and an away draw would represent a serious result for the Londoners.
Realistically, Arsenal won’t run away with this tie – but a draw in Germany and a draw in England (with the right distribution of away goals) would see them through.
Arsenal must look to steal a 1-1 draw in Germany, following a solid defensive performance at the Emirates, and although they must look to score at home as they will struggle to do so away, the key to an Arsenal victory would be defensive solidity; a clean sheet at the Emirates and a reasonable defence in Germany could see them through.
However, obtaining a clean sheet against Bayern (either home or away) is easier said that done. They possess one of the most potent strike forces in the whole of Europe, with the likes of Mario Gomez, Claudio Pizarro, Mario Mandzukic, Arjen Robben, Xherdan Shaqiri, Thomas Müller and Frank Ribery at their disposal.
Any name from that list would strike fear into the hearts of most defences in the world, and the combination of Ribery, Robben and Gomez is undoubtedly hard to contain – but it is containable. Arsenal have to use the basics of football in order to counteract what is a complicated attacking set up; Munich are likely to attack them with a front four of one striker and three attacking midfielders/wingers behind him.
This is a hard formation to handle for a relatively immobile defence, given the fluency and movement that it allows, so Arsenal must adept their defensive style.
As the formation operates with wingers who look to cut inside onto their favoured feet, the Arsenal defence need to push Ribery and Robben wide and not let them drift inside; if they can keep them running for the by-line but not the goal line, all the wingers can do is cross.
Although the strikers Bayern have at their disposal (Mandzukic, Gomez and Pizarro) are all adept in the air, the unwieldy but mountainous frame of Per Mertesacker and the ever nimble Thomas Vermaelen are equally, if not more, capable in aerial challenges. Whilst keeping the wingers wide and forcing crosses isn’t ideal, having Mertesacker challenge for headers would be infinitely more successful than allowing the Bayern’s mazy dribblers to run him ragged.
Taking a rather more rugged approach to defending than we have typically seen under Wenger could be key to Arsenal’s success against a Bayern Munich side that is both quick and strong.
However, whilst Arsenal can attempt to use their defensive height to blunt the surgical instruments that are the Bayern front line, there also needs to be a more rugged, steely approach taken in midfield. Arsenal’s three across with Wilshere, Arteta and Cazorla is creatively glorious, but defensively less so.
Wilshere is the only one of the three who truly challenges the other midfield for the ball when not in possession, and this lack of pressure often leaves the side open to counterattacks, as was evident in their 5-2 victory over Reading.
Bayern Munich have a midfield that is both creative and destructive, with Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger capable of being both fierce in the tackle and capable of playing accurate passes to the forwards.
As such, a lack of combative grit in midfield could present a real problem for Wenger; he lacks options in defensive midfield. As such, Arteta or Cazorla should be replaced by either a fit again Abou Diaby or, failing that Coquelin; the 21 year old is an inferior player to the Spaniard in every sense bar defensive capabilities but although Arteta is a wonderful player, the side must sacrifice some creative potency for defensive grit in order to have any chance of not being dominated in the middle of the park.
If Arsenal were to sure up their midfield in the recommended manner and were to attempt to force the wingers to cross, they would have gone a long way to nullifying the attacking threat of Bayern Munich, but they still would need to be able to score goals of their own.
Even if they were to lose one of their creative trio, the Gunners would still have more than enough ingenuity to create chances – but the question remains, which players should Arsenal play as their three forwards – presuming that Wenger sticks with his current formation?
The answer is a simple one: Wenger needs pace. The likes of Holger Badstuber and Daniel Van Buyten are not the most mobile of defenders, and as such, the front three that decimated reading would be ideal; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski.
The pace of the front three would be enough to cause some serious problems for Bayern and allow Arsenal to utilise the flanks. In turn, this pace would greatly increase Arsenal’s chance of finding the target – providing they can beat Manuel Neuer.
Whilst Arsenal might not be the favourites against Bayern Munich, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to pull of a victory and knock the Bavarian club out of the UCL. The Gunners have a talented playing squad and simply need to inject more defensive grit and pace into their game, and they could be ready to give last year’s runners up a run for their money.