Arsenal haven’t reached the Champions League quarterfinal stage since 2009-10, and this week, their old foes Bayern Munich stand in the way of their progress. How might they defeat the German champions? Here’s a five-point guide.
1. Play on the counter-attack
Only once under Arsene Wenger have Arsenal reached the European Cup final, back in 2006. And while Arsenal are renowned for their commitment to possession and dominating matches, that campaign was characterised by Arsenal playing in an unusual fashion: sitting back, allowing the opposition the ball and breaking quickly. They kept an astonishing 10 clean sheets in a row, including every game in the knockout stage until the second half of the final against Barcelona, when they couldn’t hang on with 10 men.
Arsenal need that spirit for the trip to Munich. Bayern record better possession statistics than any other club in Europe, and with Arsenal suffering from absences in the centre of midfield, there’s little chance of them outwitting the Bavarians in that zone.
Instead, Arsenal must play on the break. Bayern’s only league defeat this season came against a Dortmund side that concentrated on breaking quickly through Adrian Ramos and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Arsenal have pacey options in Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott, while it’s often forgotten that Mesut Ozil’s best form came in largely counter-attacking Germany and Real Madrid sides. To take something back to the Emirates, Arsenal must play on the break.
2. Hold a brave defensive line
This might sound like a contradiction, but it’s also imperative that Arsenal don’t stand off too much and play the entire game on the edge of their own box. Bayern are an excellent possession side, but they’re also capable of going wide and crossing.
Carlo Ancelotti is likely to play with Robert Lewandowski up front, with Thomas Muller just behind, which means that when Bayern get the ball wide, they have two brilliant targets for crosses. Muller, in particular, has a habit of scoring against Arsenal, managing four goals in five previous appearances against the Gunners.
Instead, Arsenal must take a reasonably aggressive line and concentrate on remaining compact. Yes, they might invite balls over the top, but Laurent Koscielny rarely loses a sprint against an opposition striker. Shkodran Mustafi also seems comfortable in these situations, and Hector Bellerin might be the fastest defender in Europe.
Arsenal will probably drop deeper as the game continues, but an initial brave defensive line is the best approach.
3. Omit Olivier Giroud
The identity of Arsenal’s centre-forward defines their game plan. For the first half of the season Wenger used Sanchez up front, but when he handed opportunities to Olivier Giroud and the Frenchman couldn’t stop scoring, Wenger felt compelled to keep starting him, with Sanchez playing from the left.
Though Giroud has plenty of qualities, offering an aerial threat while also effective at holding up the ball for midfield runners, those skills probably won’t be needed here. Instead, Arsenal must concentrate on pace in behind the opposition defence, something Giroud sorely lacks. He was left out of Arsenal’s most recent game against strong opposition, the 3-1 defeat to Chelsea, although he grabbed a late consolation goal in the “super sub” role he dislikes but is very well suited to.
In truth, Sanchez could do with a major Champions League performance. For all his brilliance at Arsenal, he hasn’t quite inspired the side on the biggest nights, and for Barcelona, he often buzzed around promisingly without actually contributing crucial goals.
This task could suit him: With the ability to drop deep and tempt Bayern’s proactive centre-backs up the pitch, he can create space for himself and then exploit it quickly. The Chilean appears to be holding out for a large pay raise, but he must prove he merits it in matches like this.
4. Exploit Xabi Alonso’s lack of mobility
Few footballers in recent years have received such universal acclaim as Xabi Alonso. Whereas even the true greats like Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have their “haters” from opposite sides of the Clasico rivalry, Alonso seems to be loved across the board. A hugely gifted, technical, intelligent, deep-lying playmaker, he’s been sparkling on the biggest stage for well over a decade. He’s set to retire this summer and would love to win the Champions League with a third club, having previously triumphed with Liverpool and Real Madrid.
Arsenal can’t treat the veteran in a charitable manner, however, and while Alonso remains superb at his strengths, his weaknesses can be exposed more than ever. Never the most mobile, he’s now 35 and even slower on the turn; Arsenal must look to get a runner playing just off him, launching the transitions into attack. Bar clever tactical fouls, Alonso offers little in terms of breaking up play.
This is a role for Ozil against his former Real Madrid teammate. Ozil isn’t the type of player who will be continually getting into Alonso’s face and pressing him. Therefore he needs to make sure his positioning and movement on either side of Alonso is perfect, to ensure Arsenal get the ball forward quickly at turnovers.
Much like Sanchez, Ozil needs to perform on the biggest stage to earn a new, improved contract. Back in his home country, this could be his night.
5. Perform properly in the first leg
It might sound basic, but Arsenal need to start the tie well. This is a club that has an incredibly frustrating tendency to bow out of the tournament with a “brave” second-leg performance having been soundly defeated in the first leg.
In 2012, for example, they were eliminated at this stage by Milan despite a brilliant performance to win 3-0 at the Emirates because they’d lost 4-0 in the San Siro. A year later they went out on away goals, losing 3-1 at home to Bayern before fruitlessly winning 2-0 away. It was an almost identical thing against Monaco two years later: a 3-1 loss at home, a 2-0 win away, out of the competition on away goals.
Arsenal fans are bored of these “heroic” second-leg performances. Their record of qualifying from the group stage every season since 2000-01 is hugely impressive, but they haven’t progressed beyond this stage since 2009-10. You need strong performances in both legs to defeat major opposition. Half the job isn’t enough.