Arsenal 1-3 Bayern Munich
Although a defeat always hurts, especially when your side has been completely outplayed and outthought by the opposition, there was an air of inevitability about proceedings at the Emirates stadium on Tuesday night. At the final whistle, many Arsenal supporters simply shrugged their shoulders in an act of acknowledgement that their side had simply not been good enough and in truth they had arrived at the stadium expecting nothing less.
The Gunners have not played well all season and have clearly struggled to believe in their ability to overcome superior opposition. In the pre match press conference, Mikel Arteta highlighted the fact his side would need to start the game well and could not afford to allow their opponents to race into a two goal lead as had happened previously against Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool. Having informed the press of the importance to avoid such a recurrence, Arteta seemed to have forgotten to provide the same advice to his teammates and with only 22 minutes gone, the game and indeed the tie were effectively over as Bayern raced into a two goal lead.
Calamitous mistakes at the back had once again cost Arsenal dear and although Jack Wilshere refused to lay the blame at the feet of his manager and instead put the spotlight on the players who had ultimately let the Frenchman down, Wenger must also take responsibility. This is a man who is notorious for not setting up his teams with the opposition at the forefront of his thinking and while such an approach has been successful in the past, it is now proving to be his downfall. In his trophy laden years with the club, Wenger could afford to largely focus on his own team as the side was full of players who possessed the quality and ability to impose their game on the opposition. Without the likes of Vieria, Pires, Henry and Bergkamp, Arsenal can no longer afford to walk into games without a detailed plan on how to stop their opponents. However in an act of sheer stubbornness, Wenger refuses to accede to this view.
With Thomas Vermaelen having to fill in at left back against Bayern it was clear that the Gunners would be vulnerable from attacks down this flank. Yet in front of Vermaelen, Wenger decided to deploy Podolski, who is notorious for his lack of desire to track back. Consequently, Bayern tore Arsenal apart down the Gunners left hand side as the home side were unable to deal with the excellent Philip Lahm’s overlapping runs. It was no real surprise therefore that two of the three goals scored by the Germans originated from this position.
Only seven minutes in and with Vermaelen caught on the ball up field, Thomas Muller broke free on the right wing. As he approached the by-line, the German international cut the ball back towards the edge of the area for the completely unmarked Toni Kroos to fire past Szczesny, to give the away side the lead. From an Arsenal perspective it was a completely avoidable goal and highlighted once again, Wenger’s foolish decision not to sign a defensive midfielder in either the summer or winter transfer window. Such a player would have provided a shield for the back four and as Muller broke free on the left, an out and out defensive midfielder would not have been sucked into the box, as happened to Aaron Ramsey, but rather would have been stood on the edge of the Arsenal penalty area, ready to either intercept Muller’s cut back or at the very least be in a position to close down Kroos, preventing the shot on goal.
Arsenal’s defence is not strong enough to deal with such superior opposition and are often all at sea. They therefore simply cannot afford to play against the top sides in Europe and the Premier League without the protective shield an out and out defensive midfielder would provide. Arteta has tried his best in this position all season, but against the very best teams, the Spaniard has been found wanting. It is not necessarily his fault, he is just not equipped to perform such a role. Wenger maybe attempted to address this issue by deploying Aaron Ramsey alongside Arteta on Tuesday, but as the Welshman’s inclusion was accommodated by switching Santi Cazorla to the right flank, it actually only served to undermine Arsenal’s attack. Bayern completely dominated the midfield battle and with Cazorla nullified out wide the Gunners had also lost the influence of one of their most creative players.
While Arsenal toiled and struggled, Bayern were the epitome of German efficiency, taking every opportunity to exploit the Gunners weaknesses. Arsenal never stood a chance. Having already taken an early lead, the Germans took full advantage of Arsenal’s poor defending from set pieces to double their lead in the 22nd minute from a corner. Per Mertesacker completely lost Daniel Van Buyten at the near post, allowing the Dutchman a free header on goal. Szczesny’s attempt at saving the goal bound effort was laughable as he merely patted the ball straight to Thomas Muller, who was practically stood on the goal line, for the German to fire into the roof of the net.
The Gunners just weren’t in the game and should have been three down on the stroke of half time as Mario Mandzukic was allowed plenty of time and space as he stood in between Koscielny and Mertesacker, without being challenged, but could only divert his free header just wide of goal.
As in previous games in which Arsenal have allowed the opposition to race into a two goal lead, the Gunners did produce a much improved performance in the second half, but it was merely a case of too little too late. They didn’t really threaten Manuel Neuer’s goal but managed to half the deficit from a corner which was mistakenly awarded to the home side. Neuer hesitated and Jack Wilshere’s delivery was allowed to drift across goal for the unmarked Podolski to head home. Having been so outplayed in the first half, Arsenal were suddenly back in the game and remarkably could have equalised through Olivier Giroud’s volley, following a fantastic pass by Rosicky to Walcott, who crossed the ball to the French striker. Unfortunately Giroud could only direct his shot straight at Neuer and Bayern duly made the Gunners pay for squandering this opportunity.
As had happened so often throughout the match, Vermaelen wasn’t given enough support to quell Philip Lahm’s overlapping run and the German international was allowed to deliver a low ball into the box for Mandzukic, who had easily escaped the attention of Sagna, to apply the finish, albeit a somewhat clumsy one.
With the quest to finish in the top four becoming more and more fraught with each passing week, Tuesday’s game against Bayern may well be the last home Champions League game for quite some time. What a shame it will always be remembered for highlighting just how far Arsenal have fallen as a European force.