A-Lahm-ed Arsenal Sink to Neuer Depths as Bayern Kroos to Müller-ingPosted: February 20, 2013
This first featured on SabotageTimes.com
If one were to make a checklist of things to expect from this match before it started, it would probably have included ‘Bayern to dominate’, ’Arsenal defensive error(s) leading to Bayern goal(s)’, ‘Arsenal made to look toothless’, and ‘Arsenal fans do booing and then leave early’. There is something nice about a page full of ticks, if a little demoralising in this case. Only being exposed to the British media, all the talk has been about Arsenal, so it seems as good a place as any start.
It was not their best night, by some distance. It is far from uncommon to see Arsenal – especially this vintage – left without ideas and unable to open new avenues; it remains relatively rare to see them outclassed, as they were last night. The most common passing combination being from Per Mertesacker to Mikel Arteta (both of whom struggled greatly) says all it needs to. Many teams who force Arsenal back do so at the expense of the on-the-ball talent, whereas with the Bavarians, it remained second to their creative talent. The result can be of no surprise to Arsenal: the two sides are worlds apart.
What is prevalent, from an Arsenal perspective, are the players who were shown up – and not for the first time, and more crucially, those who were not. Wojciech Szczęsny is an extremely talented goalkeeper, but his youth has got the better of him too many times this season. There is little doubt in my mind that he will become a ‘top’ goalkeeper, but as things are now he is inconsistent and error-prone. As itself, this is no great worry as it is common for young players, yet when combined with other factors, it creates greater problems. That being said, Szczęsny’s penchant for the moronic has reached new heights this year and worryingly he appears not to have progressed from the raw but brilliantly able 20 year old who broke through at the start of 2011.
Thomas Vermaelen had a torrid evening, but it would be unfair to call him out to too great a degree, seeing as he was playing out-of-position against one of the toughest wingers in the world on both form and talent, in the form of Thomas Müller, with Philipp Lahm aiding the cause. However, it is far from the first time he has struggled this and last season, and it is becoming a worrying trend. Laurent Koscielny emerged with some credit, doing well in attempting to clean up the messes of the other three members of the backline. Bacary Sagna’s performance was true to the form he has shown since returning from his second leg break back in October. Arteta epitomised more than any other Arsenal’s total absence of ideas and coupled with his struggles at this stage of the competition last year and against some of the better league teams, it raises further doubts about his ability at ‘Champions League level’.
Aaron Ramsey is ever the divisive figure. Some will vociferously tell you he was terrible, he has always been terrible and being shot out of a canon would be too good a fate for him. In reality he had a strong game, always driving forward, trying to push the team on, which is more than can be said for most of the others. He found openings here and there and constantly remained ‘in the game’. Jack Wilshere was similar, in a more eye-capturing fashion, but only really grew into the game when moved further back. Before then, he was prominent but often crowded out and unable to find the space he needed to make the on-the-ball runs at which he is so good. Just as with Santi Cazorla, Bayern had clearly isolated him as one who could cause trouble and hence worked to keep him quiet – it had a greater effect on the latter.
After Lukas Podolski headed Arsenal into something resembling hope, the game became more open and hence he became a part of it. Before it he had been similar to Cazorla; namely quieter than, well, the Emirates Stadium, most games. It may have been worth keeping him on and taking Cazorla off when the substitutions were made, but with one having been as absent as the other and Podolski being on a booking, the rationale made sense. As for Theo Walcott, why put a player who could be so useful on the counterattack in an area where he will see less of the ball and even when he does, is near-unable to hold it up? And with that, why remove a player who is so important to ball retention and the maintenance of attacking shape, in Olivier Giroud? A truly baffling decision from Arsène Wenger. Even if he wanted Arsenal to be more potent on the counter, Walcott would have been significantly more useful on the right.
Giroud, when he came on, saw little of the ball, but had a good chance saved after it fell to his weaker right foot. Tomáš Rosický impressed, but his time on the pitch was all too short. A special word for the Emirates crowd: they are outdoing themselves. Even though things are not well around The Arsenal at the moment, to boo at a loss to the second best team in Europe is especially pathetic. Last night’s loss was not the problem – the others, to many a lesser team, are – but that one is for another time. The hoards of empty seats around 10 minutes from time go to show all too much the attitude of most of the fans. And preempting any possible comments, I was there last night and am every game, so it is not armchair criticism and is fully justified.
I would have preferred not to focus this on Arsenal but is is how it has turned out. It makes sense to look at Arsenal player-for-player, factor-for-factor, because it is a reflection of their disjointed nature. Bayern, by contrast, can be reviewed far more succinctly and more as a collective. They work as a unit in every area of the pitch. They move seamlessly from defence to attack. Like Barcelona, but in a very different way, they strangle their opponents. They have the ability to manipulate the smallest gaps in a team’s defence and force them into errors.
If there is a weakness in this team, it is the centre of defence, even when all of their options are fit, yet it remains unexposed. They set up as a team who its opposition’s weaker and stronger areas as well as it knew its own. In front of the centre backs they had Javi Martínez and Bastian Schweinsteiger, the latter following the former in the queue for the man of the match award. It must be emphasised that Martínez, the embodiment of all Arsenal lack in what they so wish to be, was truly outstanding, giving his best performance since joining in August. He has been bereft of the cohesion issues that maifest themselves on so many players who arrive into such finely honed units. In time, the £34million paid for him will prove to be a bargain. He, along with the aforementioned Schweinsteiger and goalscorers Toni Kroos and Müller were the standouts on a demonstration of excellent from Bayern.
The tie itself was all-but over back in December when it was drawn. The result was inevitable and while two of the goals were avoidable for Arsenal, they carried with them a full inevitability. Arsenal are not out of it completely – when is anyone ever after just a first leg? – but the odds are wildly against them for a reason. Not impossible, but highly improbable. It probably marks another season without a trophy for them. Tiresome cliché though it is, ascertaining Champions League football again is the ‘real’ trophy, though this does not mean it should be mutually exclusive from the domestic cups at all. A squad rebuild is in order and with a summer ahead in which they are unlikely to lose a big player again, the chance to build is nigh, with the money at their disposal. Then again, we have seen this film before.
Bayern again showed what a wonderful team they are. They have been accused of ‘not getting out of second gear’ in a few of their matches this season while being able to win comfortably, much like Barcelona since the start of the Guardiola era, and similarly when they have actually turn up to get the win (for 45 minutes last night, at least), they know how to turn the screws. It will take something special to bring them down over two legs, or even in one.