21st October 2015: Plan Bs beat Bayern

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.

Til Thursday.

20th October 2015: Champions League Preview – Can we beat flying Bayern?

Welcome back. In football, there’s ‘in-form’, then there’s Bayern Munich. The German champions, under the stewardship of the creative Catalan coach Pep Guardiola, visit Emirates stadium tonight having won nine out of nine Bundesliga games so far this season.

Whereas we lost at Dinamo Zagreb and at home to Olympiakos in Champions League group F, Bayern beat the latter 3-0 in Greece, before battering the Croatians 5-0 in Germany.

So despite our very encouraging Premier League form heading into tonight’s fixture, and based on the above, you’d probably be forgiven for assuming we have very little chance of a win tonight. Especially when you throw in the fact that on their last two visits to Arsenal, the Bavarians won both games with, if we’re honest, consummate ease.

All that said, we’ll be at full first-team, if not squad, strength this evening and if we play to our potential, can beat any team in Europe in my opinion. Arsene Wenger spoke about a study confirming the importance of scoring the first goal in the Champions League recently, so getting the balance right between keeping it tight at the back and breaching Bayern’s defence will be key.

With that in mind, I wonder if Arsene will set us up tactically more like when we beat Bayern 2-0 at the Allianz Arena in March 2013, when we defended diligently in numbers and broke forward at pace at every opportunity, rather than the more gung-ho attacking whirlwind we were at the start of our last game hosting Bayern and indeed the recent win over Manchester United.

We need to win of course but a winning goal, as Saturday’s victory at Watford reminded us, doesn’t have to be scored early. What’s more important, is that we don’t concede first and Petr Cech’s presence in our side is one big reason I think we have a greater chance of securing a win against Bayern tonight than in previous meetings.

Speaking at his pre-match press conference yesterday, Arsene highlighted his side’s confidence after back-to-back 3-0 successes in the league, bemoaned our two group game losses and spoke about the need to play at our best if we’re to beat Bayern, saying:

The confidence level is there, the needed result is there as well – we know exactly what is required [because] a 0-0 is not even a good result. To score goals, we have to attack. It is true that [we have delivered big results] before, but we want to do it again because we feel a bit that the pain inflicted [in the Champions League] was a bit by ourselves. Maybe subconsciously we thought ‘anyway we will win these [first two games’. Now to correct that we need a great performance. What we want to do is play up to our level – that will be needed because we play against a big team.

I have to say I’m very, very excited about tonight. A lot has been said about perhaps prioritizing the Premier League, having made such a poor start in Europe, by resting players etc but not so much about the possible positive effects on the side a win over such highly-rated opponents would produce confidence and momentum-wise.

I mean, when we host Everton on Saturday, surely it’s better going into that game a little more tired but a lot more confident, than if we’d rested several players tonight and been soundly beaten. As Arsene often points out, belief is easily eroded but very difficult to re-establish.

Meanwhile, Aaron Ramsey, who will have to be typically industrious in getting back to help out Hector Bellerin against one of Bayern’s best attackers this season, the Brazilian Douglas Costa, has been discussing the game and his hope the team can get the home support ‘on our side’, saying:

We’ve done really well away from home [against Bayern Munich]. It’s about starting the game well and getting the momentum and the crowd on our side early on. That’s what we’ll be looking to do to hopefully go on and get the win that we’re looking for. We’ve had some really good performances and results against Bayern, so we’re looking forward to tomorrow. These are the games that you want to be involved in, play in and test yourself in, so we’re looking forward to that. As a professional player you always go into every game wanting to give your absolute best. Unfortunately in the last two Champions League games we were not quite there to get the win, but our focus is now on Bayern and we are really looking forward to playing and going out there to express ourselves.

After scoring his first goal of the season against Watford, tonight would be the ideal time for Aaron to capitalize on the rediscovery of his shooting boots and help fire us back into contention in this group.

See you tomorrow.