Wenger vanquishes Pep, as Guardiola’s Barcelona demons resurface
When Arsenal hosted Bayern in Tuesday’s Champions League fixture, stakes were already very high. Arsenal who stood at 0 points after 2 matches, the result of two catastrophic games vs lowly Zagreb and Olympiacos, the match was pretty much the last flicker of hope, if they were to go past the group stages. Their recent impressive display in the EPL (particularly vs MU) notwithstanding, the conventional wisdom suggested that Pep Guardiola’s Bayern would be an altogether different test.
Bayern, who have been “destroying fools” to borrow a phrase from my favorite basketball writer, Zach Lowe, were coming into the clash with an undefeated record and in Robert Lewandowski, the most feared player in the game. Their accomplishments and accolades so far this season would take up most of the space for this article, but suffice it to say, they have been the consensus best team in Europe this season so far.
Tactically it would prove to be an interesting encounter between two of the great minds of recent European football. Could the slightly past his prime Arsene Wenger (about whose transfer policy Icelandic sagas could be written) figure something out versus the seemingly indomitable Pep Guardiola? Surely, the mercurial Frenchman, cannot stymie the revitalized tiki-taka of Pep’s FCB with the in form death squad known as Douglas Costa, Thomas Müller and Lewandowski?
Arsenal started the game with Walcott playing again and favored to Giroud as the center forward, and with Sanchez and Özil deployed as the attacking players, it suggested that the Gunners would perhaps utilize quickness on the counterattacks. Behind them sat the midfield trio of the industrious Coquelin, with Wales stalward Ramsey and Santi Cazorla in the deep lying playmaker role. Would they be able to slow down the assault of the Bayern midfield?
In defense Arsenal attempted to ask Mertesacker and Koscielny to solve the riddle that is Lewa, while Monreal and the speedster Bellerin were supposed to bottle up Diego Costa and the other winger (as it turned out, that would be Thomas Müller, more on that later).
Bayern had only one surprise in their lineup, as usual left back David Alaba, in an effort to counter the speed of Theo Walcott, was deployed alongside Boateng in the center of defense, while Lahm and Juan Bernat flanked them on the right and left, respectively. In the midfield, Xabi Alonso sat in his familiar role behind Thiago and box to box guru Vidal, as the three-headed monster of Costa/Müller/Lewa was hoping to rear its ugly head up top.
On a sidenote, before we get to the action, let us mention that there was a protest against the exorbitant ticket prices on behalf of some supporters, as they came into the stadium 5 minutes after kickoff.
The game was hardly underway at Emirates, when Lewandowski almost ran past 3 defenders before a last ditch tackle and you could foresee a rough night for the Gunners. Bayern, as they so often do, dominated possession, with Xabi Alonso and Thiago pulling the strings, while it looked as if Wenger’s side were content to sit in and play a counterattacking style. On 8 minutes, Arsenal brought the ball out of defense wonderfully, putting together a slew of crisp passes all the way to the Bayern box, where Neuer had to deny Özil. Bayern responded with a delightful one two combination by Müller and Thiago, whose shot was well-saved by Cech. As the game grew, Bayern continued to dominate the possession, at the 32 minute mark, they had 241 passes with 82% accuracy to Arsenal’s 68 and 61%. Tactically, they wanted to exploit the two wings, where on the right Monreal seemed to be the weak link of the Arsenal defense, and on the right, no RB in the world would be a match for Douglas Costa. Or so, Pep thought. Initially he proved right – look no further than the undressing of Bellerin on this move by Costa.
Towards the end of the 1st half, Arsenal weathered the storm, and were pulling Bayern closer and closer to their goal – at one point, CB David Alaba was 30 yards from Cech’s goal and regularly trying to distribute. Thus, Arsenal’s counterattacking style could flourish: it was Alexis first, who missed a chance from a corner, and then this happened – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHV9GTZOk0w
Superhuman stuff from Neuer to be sure, but a worrying sign for Bayern fans. The 1st half came to a close with a Douglas Costa effort that sailed high, after a bad Sanchez turnover. It was a strange one, since Bayern were dominating the game with possession and some half chances here and there, yet Arsenal would have been right to rue their two glorious opportunities.
In the second half, after no changes at half time, (I was surprised to see Özil not get substituted) Bayern and particularly the lightning fast Costa came out firing, with two half chances. On 55 minutes, the Gunners were dealt a big blow, when on a high press, Ramsey appeared to have pulled his hamstring and had to be replaced by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. This meant a restructuring for Wenger, because Oxlade-Chamberlain, who is more of a winger/forward, lacks the work rate of Ramsey in the middle of the pitch. In theory he would definitely be another lethal option on the counter attack.
Bayern were also experimenting with an in game strategic change. For some reason (and at the time of this writing I have not seen a reason for this from Guardiola, though I suspect it could be a more careful away game approach), Thomas Müller has been deployed as a right winger, where he was definitely less effective than in his usual central attacking position. On 58 minutes, he and Costa tried to switch sides for about 9 minutes, but it proved to be rather ineffective.
Arsenal survived Bayern’s onslaught and while at the 60 minute mark, the previously mentioned passing stats were crediting FCB with 441 passes, the score was still 0-0. At the 70 minute mark, Pep opted to make 2 more changes, Rafinha (a RB/RW hybrid) came on to replace Vidal (more on this later), while young Joshua Kimmich, who dazzled in Bayern’s previous UCL match replaced the so far man of the match Xabi Alonso, in a straight young for old switch. Alonso and Vidal were both looking tired out there, and so was Theo Walcott, so Wenger opted to bring in Giroud as the new center forward. And what a sub it would turn out to be. First, though Lewandowski was absolutely stoned by Petr Cech, after a great through ball from Douglas Costa on 75 minutes. The old adage of missed chances coming back to bite you in the butt was proved true just a minute later, as the otherwise imperial Manuel Neuer committed an error of TerStegenian proportions. A set piece into the box from Casorla saw the Bayern keeper get a late start and resulted in a horribly timed challenge, in which he misjudge the ball, which rolled off the head of Giroud and into the goal for 1-0, sending the crown into delirium. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-TVosAnykA
The upset was definitely brewing now, and as Bayern hit 600 passes on the night to Arsenal’s 193, they were left chasing the game. In the 93rd minute, Lewandowski beat Koscielny with a brilliant turn, who somehow miraculously recovered to deny the Pole for the surefire equalizer. It was that kind of a night for Pep’s boys – a sloppy 94th minute pass by Alaba saw the flat footed Bernat get caught by the pace of Bellerin, who galloped past Thiago and put it on a silver platter to Özil, who just knocked it across the line. Neuer, to his credit got one of his gigantic paws to it and almost replicated his miracle save from the first half. It was not to be Bayern’s night, however as the game ended with Arsenal victorious by 2 goals to nil.
There are several takeaways from this exciting affair in London on match day 3.
First, Arsenal, who not long ago were the butt of jokes after Wenger’s transfer window stinginess and Ospina’s howlers have in a couple of weeks returned to European relevancy and are very much alive in the group with 3 crucial points. To the victor go the spoils as they say and thus a lot of credit should be given to the French manager for getting his tactics right. Cech’s inclusion (and his dubious benching vs Olympiacos) in the starting lineup, as it was mentioned on the Sky Sports broadcast was rewarded with a number of key saves. Not many people would have believed that the trio of Mertesacker, Coquelin and Koscielny (who recovered brilliantly on more than one occasion and harassed Lewandowski all night) would be capable of keeping a clean sheet against the monstrous attack of Bayern. Monreal also did an admirable job against Thomas Müller, although some of that is on Guardiola not putting his player (Müller) and his team (Lahm/Rafinha as right wingers, anyone?) in a position to succeed. The ever underrated and overlooked Santi Cazorla also put in his usual excellent shift with 73 passes and 90% accuracy. While, one huge scalp does not undo years of questionable moves, the overcoming of this particular Bayern juggernaut and their recent form in England has definitely put Arsenal back on the right track.
Second, Bayern’s stunning undefeated streak to the season has been snapped. The unsustainability of their winning streak and Lewandowski’s absurd goal per game average was always a reality, but fans around the world preferred the dream that was. Unfortunately, Guardiola’s dreams might turn into nightmares as his side were at times eerily reminiscent of the frustrating Barcelona games, where despite outplaying their opponents and dominating possession they lost in the most important statistical category: goals scored. While it is perhaps premature to question an undefeated team’s manager after the 1st loss of the season, Pep ever gracious in defeat, should be asked some questions about playing Müller wide right. Granting that this might be the hindsight bias talking, there was the possibility of going with Lahm or Rafinha, as in my opinion Bayern operate most successfully with Müller and Lewa on the end of numerous crosses from the wings. It is a bit harsh, but if you listen carefully enough you just might hear those old Guardiola critics who complain about his tiki-taka start whispering. After the game, Pep was quoted as being “not bothered by the defeat” and “proud of his team”. http://www.express.co.uk/sport/football/613463/Pep-Guardiola-Bayern-Munich-Arsenal-Champions-League-Results-Arsene-Wenger
Well, then how proud should Arsene Wenger be?