Post Match Reaction: Three Things We Learned From Bayern Munich v Arsenal
Bayern Munich swamped Arsenal 5-1 on Wednesday, putting the Gunners’ hopes of qualifying for the Champions League knockout phase for the 16th consecutive season in considerable doubt.
With Bayern’s dominant, three-goal first half, this result was foregone by halftime. The night’s meaningful question was what would happen in Athens, where Olympiacos trailed Dinamo Zagreb and gave the Gunners hope that they might still control their European destiny.
Olympiacos scored late to win, though, meaning Arsenal must win its final two matches, including at least a two-goal win on the group stage’s last night in Athens, and trust Bayern to beat the Greek team, to move on.
That’s the big conclusion of the night. Here are three other things we learned.
Arsène Wenger has the Premier League in his sights
The Arsenal manager invariably speaks about his focus on the next game and how it’s the most important. There was a hint of something else prior to this match, though.
Wenger kept star defenders Laurent Koscielny and Hector Bellerin out of Wednesday’s action, allowing them to recover from “small” injuries in advance of a major Premier League test against Tottenham on Sunday.
That decision is worth noting.
It suggests the manager and his staff sense an opportunity to compete for the league title and that they’re willing to put the European campaign aside to enhance that domestic opportunity. Doing so requires wisdom and restraint, particularly because Wenger has long coveted the top European trophy.
No doubt he expected a less damning result in Munich, but as long as he and his players can put it in the vault, this continental setback won’t be any more consequential for their league prospects than was the 3-2 loss to Olympiacos. We shouldn’t forget that that defeat immediately preceded Arsenal’s 3-0 destruction of Manchester United.
The first goal was the killer
The early moments of the game were actually promising for Arsenal. The Gunners had a shot in anger in the opening minute, passed crisply when they had the ball, and forced Bayern into shots from distance.
Hope of another upset was largely snuffed out by Robert Lewandowski’s 10th-minute header. The Polish striker slipped the attentions of Gabriel, who was alone among the Arsenal back line in dropping deep when Thiago had the ball near the right corner of Arsenal’s penalty area. Lewandowski’s well-placed effort gave Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech no chance.
This early goal meant Arsenal could not absorb the Bayern pressure as the Gunners had so successfully done two weeks ago. They had to seek a tying goal, creating the space and time on the ball that Bayern was designed to exploit. The only question was how ruthlessly they would do so.
Having lost to Arsenal, the German giants weren’t inclined to let up. That intensity—plus Arsenal’s sub-par defensive effort and ill fortune with officiating—sealed the Gunners fate on the day.
Arsenal’s first-choice defense is a well-oiled machine
Replacing Bellerin with Mathieu Debuchy and Koscielny with Gabriel shrank Arsenal’s margin of error. Indeed, the changes caused enough instability for Bayern’s talent to thrive.
A poorly synchronized back line left Lewandowski onside for the opening goal, and Debuchy’s tendency to drift into the center gave Bayern’s dangerous wide men the run of their left flank. The Frenchman wasn’t even effective at clogging the middle, failing to clear a pass that then fell to Thomas Müller, who fired off Per Mertesacker and into the net for Bayern’s second goal.
On Arsenal’s left, Bayern finally found a way to isolate left back Nacho Monreal, using runners from midfield to occupy Arsenal’s central midfielders Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla. This often left Monreal trying to cover two men on his own, Philipp Lahm and Müller or substitute Arjen Robben, because left forward Alexis was understandably focused on attacking. As a result, Bayern always had an outlet and frequently produced uncontested passes into more dangerous areas.
It was quite a contrast from the defensive performances Arsenal’s preferred lineup has delivered this season. The unit of Cech, Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, and Monreal has won all of its matches while conceding just three goals, one at Crystal Palace and two at Leicester City. Crucially, though, the group has played together in just five of Arsenal’s 17 matches in the Premier League, Champions League, and Capital One Cup.
The ability to field that unit consistently might well determine Arsenal’s fortunes in the Premier League.
Fair play to Mathieu Debuchy and Olivier Giroud, who kept plugging despite the obvious outcome of this match. Debuchy scampered back to rob Robben of a goal after the Dutchman had rounded Cech, and Giroud produced an exquisite chest control and lashing finish. Such moments were all the more noticeable because they were rare.