Difference in possession philosophy defines Bayern Munich’s approach against Arsenal


– Kroos’s excellent pass set up the key moment in the match
– Bayern Munich’s “sterile” domination a by-product of their technical superiority
– Wenger needs to improve his side’s ball-retention to really kick on

In the end, Arsenal’s Champions League aspirations were cut down to size by one glorious pass by Toni Kroos. The Bayern Munich midfielder, picking the ball up 10-yards outside the penalty box, lifted it over a static Arsenal defence who could not help but stand and watch, as if somebody had stopped time and simply placed the ball in the air and restarted time again. Arjen Robben, who initially played the pass to Kroos, was alive to the opportunity and pounced on the give-and-go, trapping the ball superbly and inducing Wojciech Szczesny into a foul. David Alaba missed the subsequent penalty but it was clear, having seen out Arsenal’s early storm, that the game would turn on that sending off and that one superb moment of vision from Kroos.

It’s not that Arsenal didn’t have the quality to get back into the game but that piece of inventiveness in a way, already highlighted the technical edge that Bayern held over Arsenal, at least at face value. It’s true that Arsene Wenger’s side could harbour much regret from the 2-0 defeat, especially from the way they started the game and then should have had the lead when on eight-minutes Mesut Ozil horribly messed up from the penalty spot. Still, Arsenal’s gameplan was working superbly for the first 15-20 minutes, unsettling Bayern on the ball and breaking quickly. They had lots of joy down the right, especially with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and then the targeted flick-ons from Yaya Sanogo and Bacary Sagna. But then, the game starting to settle into an ominous pattern: Bayern Munich increasingly began to monopolise possession and play the game outside Arsenal’s box. There were sporadic moments to attack after that but the crucial thing for Arsenal was that there were chances on the break; something which was taken away from Arsenal after the red-card before half-time. (To put into context how the game was taken away from Arsenal in the second-half, Bayern Munich completed 494 passes after the break. By comparison Arsenal managed just 38).

Technically, this Bayern Munich side is probably somewhere in between the two ball-hogging Barcelona sides which entertained Arsenal at the Emirates in 2010 & 2011, and the Bayern side which Arsenal faced last year. Indeed, in those matches, those teams found out that they couldn’t dominate The Gunners for the full ninety-minutes and as such, there was valid reason here for Arsenal to harbour great regret.

Yet, it was Bayern Munich’s superior technical quality – something that’s ingrained in their mentality much deeper than just being able to pass the ball accurately – which allowed them to assume the tie away from Arsenal.

In the past, Wenger has talked about this as sterile domination (most recently he has said this about Southampton, saying that their possession, in Arsenal’s 2-0 win in November, was an “illusion”); or in other words, passing the ball for passing sake. But for those sides, sterile domination isn’t an aim: it’s a by-product of their voraciousness to be better than the rest at manipulating the ball. In that sense, it’s a grave error for Wenger to continue dismissing the necessary-evil(?) of sterile domination. It forces teams back, and provokes teams to play, at 0-0, in a way that seems inherently defensive (anti-football even in some cases), and it makes it harder to counter-attack against them. Of course, in recent times, there’s been a movement against possession-fixated sides that has been used to great effect called counter-pressing, most devastatingly used by Bayern Munich in the Champions League against Barcelona. Arsenal have tried to adopt those methods to some degree this season and indeed, before the red card in this match.

The most piercing comment of the match was not, however, Wenger’s indignation of the triple-punishment that his side suffered after Robben’s “play-acting” but rather, the approach that he revealed pre-match that they were going to take, which was to defend first. That was him accepting that Bayern are the better side, which in itself is not new information, however, it should put to bed the notion that when two possession-based attacking sides meet, we’re likely to see a festival of goals. Indeed, it’s more likely we’ll see one team defend for large periods and the other try to weather the storm – and possibly after going a goal down, forced to react. That in itself is a bit of a regret: we rarely ever see two sides defined by possession go toe-to-toe on equal footing for the whole match: one is usually a cut above the other. The last I remember seeing such a game was in 2010 when Argentina defeated Spain 4-1 in a friendly with near 50-50 possession each. Other similar encounters, Arsenal’s 2-1 win at the Emirates in 2011 against Barcelona saw Arsenal only accrue 36% of the ball. That, though, after weathering a first-half Barca storm and then having to go Catenaccio in the aggregate defeat away. (Pep Guardiola’s Bayern against Tata Martino’s Barcelona might be the closest we come to seeing possession v possession).

Richard Whittall, editor of The Score, makes a similar point. When you see two sides like Arsenal and Bayern Munich, and then the comprehensive way Arsenal in which were erased from the match red-card after, you wonder why a team as technically proficient as The Gunners couldn’t react. Yet, it’s often forgotten that possession football is diverse – as diverse as the game itself – and usually the best teams are the ones who cultivate possession. In his piece, Whittall uses the example of Manchester City’s defeat 2-0 defeat to Barcelona, saying:

And yet ten minutes in last night, the illusion there is a single, homogeneous style in build-up play in Europe was undone by the clear juxtaposition of the lanky giants in Blue taking on the upright, two-touch-and-go efficiency of the boys in red and purple (what are Barca’s colours, exactly?). One of these teams was not like the other. One of them didn’t belong.

If that seems a little harsh an analogy to use on Arsenal, a team who under Wenger have captivated the world for over 15 years, consider Pep Guardiola’s dismissal of interchangeability and fluidity as a tactic. In a way, he could be dismissing Arsene Wenger’s style which is to grant players the freedom to move around the pitch when in the attacking-third. On the training ground, that’s cultivated by small sided games of 5v5, 7v7 etc. to encourage spontaneous combination play or by drills such as one called “through-play” whereby the team lines up as it would in a normal match but without opponents, so that the players can memorise where team-mates are intuitively and pass the ball between them. For Wenger, the main focus is on expressionism and autonomy. The importance of possession is preached of course but keeping the ball must have a means: patience is only tolerated to an extent.

Guardiola’s approach, however, is more scientific, more hands-on. Players must see the pitch as a grid, each occupying a “square” and making sure each one is filled. He says moving the ball is more important than the man moving as that’s the best way to work opponents. Thomas Muller explains: “It isn’t about having possession just for the sake of it, that’s not the concept. It’s about using possession to position the team in the opposition’s half in a way that makes us less liable to be hit on the break.

Guardiola’s methods are not to be used as a stick to beat Wenger with: he deserves to have faith in the way he works, while his Arsenal side is one that continues to play better football than most. Indeed, at 11 v 11 he had realistic reasons to expect that Arsenal could win this game. However, there are teams that are taking the game to new levels now, and watching the way Bayern Munich stretched the pitch, time after time creating overloads and opening up half-spaces, it’s little wonder that Arsenal weren’t able to get back in the game after Szczesny saw red.

**NB: Pep Guardiola after the match: “Today we again saw that it all depends on possession. We should have fought harder during the first ten minutes. It’s a question of personality; you need to want the ball. We are not a great counterattacking team, as we don’t have the physical requirements for that. We always need to have the ball, that’s what it boils down to.”


Arsenal exit despite near-perfect away performance

Bayern Munich 0-2 Arsenal (3-3 aggregate)

The thing with hope is that it exists even in the most unlikeliest of circumstances. Arsenal faced 23 goal attempts, didn’t force Manuel Neuer to make a save but were still a whisker away from winning the tie. Laurent Koscielny scored with five minutes remaining to make it 2-0 meaning Arsenal only had to score one more to go through. In the end, the siege at the Bayern Munich goal never came so perhaps hope errs on the side of reason.

It was a strange game; Bayern Munich didn’t play like Bayern Munich normally do and Arsenal unlike Arsenal, and that created a dynamic far different to the first leg. In truth, FC Bayern didn’t do much different to how they were set out at the Emirates. They created lots of chances (but missed) usually from the edge of the box and attacked primarily down the right with Philip Lahm and Thomas Müller, while at the end of the match, Arsene Wenger was still able to comment that Bayern Munich “defend very, very well.” But their mentality stank and the Allianz Arena shared that timorousness as soon as Arsenal took the early lead. Arsenal weren’t able to profit considering how well they generally tend to play when the momentum swings their way. And as such, we probably didn’t learn that much from Arsenal last night despite the resilience they showed.

Because this was essentially another one of those “second-halves” that seems to indicate improvement but ultimately, you might say that Arsenal only reacted because they had already “lost” the game. But that would be a little bit harsh because what was different about this 2-0 win – all the more impressive because it was played away at Munich too – was that there was a conspicuous plan. Arsenal defended compactly, dropped deep when was required, remained focus to track their runners and tried to force Bayern to “play through our lines.” That’s not an easy thing to do and it showed that there is life in this group of players and that good coaching can harness the untapped potential that we were unsure of. “Overall we never had real control of this match,” said Bayern Munich coach Juup Heynckes. “And were never able to pass the ball in the calm and controlled manner we are used to.”

The flipside of a near-perfect defensive game was that it would invariably have some sort of effect on the team’s attack but Arsenal’s passing was blunted because of Bayern Munich’s exceptionally marking off the ball. It also confirmed that The Gunners still lack a player who can spot gaps in an opposition defence bar Santi Cazorla (and the speed of Theo Walcott) and he had to be shunted out wide to find creative balance. As such, the onus fell on Aaron Ramsey as the “spare” midfielder who could spring out of the defensive block and instigate forward movements. He did just that when he was involved in creating Arsenal’s opener but after the third minute, Bayern’s midfield made sure he was not to break free into space again.

Arsenal should have made the switch earlier to move Cazorla centrally but it appeared as if Wenger was waiting to ride on the crest of momentum that a late goal would bring and that, hopefully, would spark the winner.  Laurent Koscielny’s header on the 85th minute didn’t provoke such a reaction but Arsenal were still able to exit with their heads held high. The defence performed magnificently under the inevitable quality that FC Hollywood possess in attack while Lukasz Fabianski not only pull-off some brilliant saves, but was the vocal organiser that the back four needed to defend perform as it did. But a word on Fabiasnki’s shot-stopping: his technique is probably surer than Wojciech Szczesny’s (Wenger frequently compliments that side of his game) and as such, the fumbles and mis-parries that Szczesny’s recent displays has been littered with, were eliminated.

Failure might have been herioc and glorious and some pride restored but ultimately, elimination by a “technicality” leaves many regrets, tracing back to a fortnight ago in London where not conceding was of paramount importance. But it may also go as far back to the summer where the squad was stripped of a “game changer” for the first time Arsene Wenger’s reign. Arsenal had everything else last night.

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.