Arsenal put to the sword by Bayern Munich’s game intelligence

At the stroke of half-time, Bayern Munich had the chance to go an unassailable three goals up instead of the 3-1 scoreline it eventually finished. The Germans had possession of the ball at the back before they quickly switched it forward to the on-rushing Philip Lahm. As the full-back picked up the ball, Jack Wilshere stretched his arms out as if to say “how did that happen.” Bayern Munich might have felt the same sense of bewilderment when Mario Mandzukic flashed a header wide from Lahm’s cross.

However, it was the story of Arsenal’s night. And Bayern Munich were generally more clinical when good chances fell their way. It also summed up the gulf in intelligence. Bayern Munich had a plan and understood their game much clearer than Arsenal did. In a way, the selection of Theo Walcott up front typified that. Arsenal are at their best when they bump passes quickly off each other, usually off an inverted pivot, as is the feature of most of their second-half fightbacks – and for a period here, they did just that. But the deployment of Walcott centrally meant they had to find a different way to get through, typically by looking to spring the striker in behind. That proved too difficult against an expert Bayern defence. They nearly got Walcott through three times in the first fifteen minutes and as such; we might have been talking about how well it worked. As it turned out, the best chance Arsenal created from open play was when Olivier Giroud struck from Walcott’s swung cross.

There was an inevitability about it all when Bayern Munich raced to a two-goal lead. First Toni Kroos opened the scoring with an excellent half-volley and then Thomas Müller bundled the ball over the line when Wojciech Szczesny should have held. Arsenal would have been made aware of the enormity of the task ahead and conceding early dealt a massive blow to their plans. The truth is, one day practice could never be enough preparation and whatever structure they had at the start of the season, supposedly the Steve Bould influence, has inexplicably disappeared. Indeed, at times Arsenal looked over-prepared, if you can say that, tried too hard to be switched on and organised, that they forgot to track runners. They became too narrow and especially let the full-backs run free. For Bayern’s third, Mandzukic and Lahm combined again, this time successfully, as Mandzukic forced in a cross from the FC Bayern captain.

The difference in football intelligence was apparent. Bayern Munich didn’t just let Arsenal pass the ball – The Gunners had 55% possession at the end of the game and Per Mertesacker to Mikel Arteta was the most bountiful combination (29 passes). But they made it hard to pass through them, creating a wall of black shirts, each one marking a man and zone. It’s not if Arsenal can’t do this; in the season of 2010/11, when Arsenal beat Barcelona at the Emirates, they defended with a combination of high-pressing and the Dutch principle of “through-marking” which Bayern displayed.

This season, there seems almost an acceptance that Arsenal can’t defend that way. Perhaps because the effect we saw it have on their potency at the start of the season when Arsenal drew twice against Sunderland and Stoke. Perhaps also, like the Brazil team of 1970, they’re a team not “characterised by strong marking,” said the coach Mario Zagallo. So “we brought our team back behind the line of the ball.” But then, Arsene Wenger’s side are not as good an attacking outlet as that team. “It looked like we could come back to 2-2, but unfortunately we conceded another goal,” said Wenger. “The 3-1 was a big blow for the team. From that moment on, you could see that we might even concede one more because we didn’t keep our structure anymore.”

The inclusion of Aaron Ramsey was supposed to give Arsenal that solidity. Instead, for all his efforts, he was outshone by his opposite number Javi Martinez. Ramsey couldn’t assert himself as the spare man in midfield, often outnumbered when he received the ball. In contrast, Martinez, signed for €40m, even had the opportunity to get forward a few times, read play superbly (one interception from a pass by Mertesacker stuck in the mind) and alternated well with Bastian Schweinsteiger. Actually, Ramsey and Martinez’s stats ended up very similar: both made 6 interceptions and their passing accuracy were in the seventies. But as a collective, FC Bayern was far superior.

The movement of goalscorers Thomas Müller and Toni Kroos were superb too although Arsenal gave considerably more time on the ball. Kroos has a curious way of playing which had ITV Sport commentator, Andy Townsend saying he’s “never seen him dominate a game.” What he didn’t see is the way that he gets into positions which allow others to profit, often dropping deep in the first-half to receive possession, or moving to the left side to create an overload and then switching the ball quickly to the other side. Müller describes his style as “ready for action, unorthodox and efficient.” And he also highlighted what sets the top sides apart in the Champions League, something which was the talk in Germany when Borussia Dortmund crashed out of the tournament last season. “In the Bundesliga, you could say we lack concentration sometimes,” says Müller. “But when it is the round of 16 in the Champions League, everyone is really fired up and focused. We know how important these games are, as you don’t have much time to make up for mistakes.”

Arsenal certainly realised that end the end of the game, chasing an equaliser when not conceding was arguably more important. But the tie might have been over before it began because Arsenal hadn’t adequately readied themselves psychologically. When Philip Lahm bypassed Jack Wilshere late in the first-half, it encapsulated their problems. “We sort of questioned ourselves in the first half: ‘Can we really live with it?” he said. They couldn’t. Bayern’s game intelligence was simply too much.

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