In yesterday’s pre-game post, I wondered if Arsene Wenger would set us up tactically in the same manner as he did in March 2013 when we emerged 2-0 victors from the Allianz Arena – defend deep and in numbers, and try to hit them on the counter.
In the end, that’s exactly what the manager did at Emirates stadium last night and the result of the game was the same, as we beat Bayern Munich 2-0 to significantly improve our chances of progressing from Champions League group F.
I also highlighted Petr Cech’s presence as a major reason I was confident we could beat the Germans despite having lost the last two encounters between the sides held in London, and at full-time, the former Chelsea goalkeeper was man of the match for many observers. Why the f*ck didn’t I buy a lottery ticket yesterday?
But enough narcissism, because the only people who deserve praise and discussion are the Arsenal management and players, who prepared and executed what is a rarely-used game plan for them, as well as anybody could have hoped.
We accepted Bayern were better than us in possession – and there are very few who are, hence this game-plan being utilized so irregularly – decided we’d need to defend fairly deep, stay concentrated and organised as if our lives depended on it, then spring forward using the pace of Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez and co, at every opportunity.
I’m sure most reading will have seen the match so I won’t go into a blow-by-blow account of proceedings but as expected, their Brazilian winger Douglas Costa was as dangerous as reports of his performances so far this season had suggested he’d be, and this current collection of Bayern players, with the way they recycle the ball and ravenously press to win it back, were easily identifiable as a Pep Guardiola-schooled side – much more so than the one we played the season before last.
Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger may have left but Xabi Alonso and Arturo Vidal have more than adequately replaced them in Bayern’s midfield. Add Tiago Alcantara and they now have a trio approaching the passing, ball retention and speed of thought of the all-conquering Pep-constructed midfield of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets. So even with the talent of Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil in our own engine room, we put pragmatism over pizzazz and reaped the rewards.
After Ozil had an early shot saved by Manuel Neuer, the game settled into the pattern most of the rest of the match would play out in – Bayern had the ball, so we had to show balls. That meant not just hoofing it clear and hoping for the best but bravely trying to play out every time we sensed the time was right.
The effort expended by Arsenal players was nothing short of heroic, all the way through the team and all the way through the match. This extreme endeavour was epitomized by Hector Bellerin’s lung-bursting, stoppage time interception and run forward as the game approached it’s conclusion, to set up our second goal for Ozil.
Before then, Olivier Giroud had come off the bench to perform in the kind of determined, no-nonsense and aggressive manner I wish he would every time he pulled on an Arsenal shirt. One piece of control from a long ball dropping from height to hold up play was simply sublime and he gave us the lead from a free-kick he’d won himself, with the ball going in off a combination of the Frenchman’s face and hand.
I’m Walcott’s biggest fan but if I’m honest, despite causing Bayern a few moments of panic and seeing a header miraculously kept out by Neuer in the first half, I was a little disappointed by Theo’s overall performance. I think he still doubts himself a little too much, still looks to take the safe option a little too often and needs to have far more belief and conviction in his play. That may sound harsh given he still played his part in our win last night but I’m only critical because I think he’s capable of so much more.
Sanchez also didn’t enjoy his best night and compounded his lack of form by twice putting our defence in a perilous position by giving the ball away deep in our half but as usual, ran his socks off before being replaced late on.
Nit-picking done though and aside from what sounds like quite a bad hamstring tear for Aaron Ramsey, it was another great night to be a Gooner. We utilized our Plan B style of play and the game’s all-important first goal was scored by our Plan B striking option from the bench.
Time now to rest up, recuperate and see if we can keep our winning streak going when we host Everton on Saturday, when in all likelihood, our possession-hungry Plan A should be back in town.