Goals: Kroos (6), Muller (21), Podolski (55), Mandzukic (77)
Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Koscielny (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Vermaalen (LB), Wilshere (CM) Arteta (CM), Ramsey (CM), Podolski (LF), Cazorla(RF), Walcott (CF).
Arsenal were brushed aside by an assured and remarkably purposeful Bayern Munich side in the first leg.
Arsenal’s Schoolboy Defending
Arsenal did look promising in the first 5 minutes of the game, yet just like the Chelsea and Manchester City defeats, their defensive soft belly made sure that the Germans took a two goal lead after the first 20 minutes. The first goal came as early as the 6th minute, when Arsenal lost the ball trying to play from the back. Koscielny’s aimless clearance under pressure from Kroos towards the center of the pitch was cut off by Van Buyten. Quite needlessly, Vermaalen pushed forward to win it back, and opened up Arsenal’s left. Vermaalen, of course, could not win the ball back, and Bayern quickly worked the ball to Muller on the far right. While Vermaalen was running back, and Arteta being too late to stop the cross, Muller’s ball found Kroos on the top edge of the box, despite Ramsey sticking a half-hearted leg. The young German midfielder fired on the half volley past Sczesny.
With Arsene Wenger’s ingenuous selection of Walcott as the central striker, the link between Arsenal’s midfield and attack was easily cut-off with Bayern collectively working hard off the ball and closing any gaps before Arsenal could even sniff them. The team leading Bundesliga by 15 points showed exactly why it is so difficult to have a shot on target, let alone score, against them. They are indeed a solid, purposeful and highly intelligent outfit, but Arsenal lacking any tactical purpose and game plan also did make it very easy for the visitors. Shortly after the 20th minute mark, when Lahm’s dangerous ball into the 6 yard box was intercepted for a corner by Vermaalen, Kroos’s corner to the near post was headed from point blank range by Van Buyten with Arsenal players mere spectators. Szczesny was able to parry the ball, but no Arsenal player bothered to clear the ball from the 6 yard box. Muller did not decline the invitation and directed the ball to the roof of the net.
Walcott as the CF against Bayern Munich
I have written so many times (see here and here) on why Walcott is the wrong choice as a center forward, when Arsenal play against opponents who press hard high up the pitch effectively, and especially if the opposition have an excellent central midfield pairing guarding the area in front of their back four. I am sure Wenger must have observed that even against Southampton, playing Walcott as CF stretches the midfield and makes it easier for the opposition to press high up and isolate Arsenal’s attack and midfield. Against Bayern, Arsenal were not able to create a single chance in the first half. Javi Martinez and Schweinsteiger provided a solid base in front of their back four, allowing the forward quartet Kroos, Mandzukic, Riberry and Muller to press Arsenal’s ball circulation from deeper areas. With Arteta and Ramsey strangled, Wilshere was not able to receive the ball in forward areas to display his trademark bursts. Arsenal were forced wide and had to cross into a box with Walcott as the target man or they were forced to play it long to Walcott who was smashed by the two big Bayern centerbacks. It was spectacular that Wenger waited until the 71st minute to send Giroud as the target man, and switch Walcott wide right, and this move almost immediately paid off. At that time, Arsenal had found a goal when Neuer made a mess out of a corner and Podolski headed home into the empty net. Arsenal had increased the tempo of their pressing and for almost 10 minutes, Bayern looked rattled. Yet, valuable momentum was lost when Wenger delayed sending Giroud until 71st. Immediately after the change, Rosicky (another substitute for Ramsey) found Walcott with a glorious ball. The winger’s cross was met by Giroud on the half volley but it was straight at Neuer who made the save without knowing too much about it.
As Arsenal pushed for an equalizer, they left big gaps behind and were duly punished when Robben found Lahm on the overlap on Arsenal’s left. Lahm had all the time in the world to look up, pick his spot for the low cross and learn English. Mertesacker was ball watching and could not cut the cross, and Mandzukic bundled it home with a lucky touch to finish the tie as a serious contest.
Arsenal’s defensive problems are systematic and cannot be assigned to one or two individuals, but Vermaalen stood out as a serial offender against Bayern. The Belgian captain was playing out of position at the left back, since Gibbs is injured and Monreal is cup tied. Yet, his tendency to rush into tackles so far away from his zone of responsibility opened up Arsenal’s left time and time again. It is no coincidence that the first and third Bayern goals came from Vermaalen’s side. It is easier to distract Vermaalen and move him out of position than a kitten. When he sees the ball 15-20 yards in front of him, he rushes there to win it back and completely messes up the defensive shape and organization. Today, he was attracted even to Schweinsteiger in the center of the midfield, and more than often Koscielny had to cover for the vast spaces Vermaalen left open. One could understand a marauding left back leaving gaps behind, but Vermaalen is no attacking threat on the ball, and he was leaving those gaps for no reason other than his lack of any positional discipline.
Now the team should put this past week behind, ignore the shitstorm the press will try to send their way and really really concentrate on the remaining 12 games in the league. Arsenal did not have much of a chance in the Champions League anyway given the lack of squad depth and quality gap between the best of Europe. For me, FA Cup was just a distraction to win something (anything), but I would rather Arsenal finish in the top 4 ahead of Spurs instead of winning the FA Cup if it is one or the other. Now Arsenal’s back is really against the wall.