By Bert Huff
“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” George Santayana.
Wednesday 4th November 2015: Bayern Munich 5-1 Arsenal
Wednesday 15th February 2017: Bayern Munich 5-1 Arsenal
There’s no denying that one to eleven Bayern Munich were better than Arsenal. If the two starting teams were amalgamated there would be a case for Koscielny coming in for Martinez (a midfielder by trade, deputising for Boateng at centre back) but he’d be the only Arsenal representative. If Munich changed their shape, then Sanchez might get in. However, he’s not a better number nine than Lewandowski, a better winger than either Robben or Costa (Bayern are so blessed they had Ribery, Muller and Coman in reserve!) or a better play maker than Thiago Alcantara (is anyone?).
So, we were reminded there’s a gulf in class between the teams but what can we learn so that we improve?
In goal, Ospina bares no comparison to Neuer. While he pulled off some impressive saves, there’s a reason he’s second choice. He doesn’t dominate his area with the same presence as the giant German, who has now saved penalties from Ozil and Sanchez in The Champion’s League. Ospina shouldn’t have played a game of this magnitude, why he was given the nod ahead of Cech only Wenger knows.
Gibbs and Bellerin were given a masterclass in full back play by arguably the greatest left back, Alaba, and greatest right back, Lahm, on Earth. Gibbs’s Champion’s League career started with him being ripped apart at the Emirates by Ronaldo. Rightly, he was not castigated for this performance but given time to mature. It now feels like this time will never come. With Monreal the only other alternative, the moment has surely arrived for the club to seek a high quality left back.
On the other flank, Bellerin has a bright future. He’s young and if he wants to master his trade he need look no further than his opposite number. Lahm was outstanding. The timing of his runs faultless. He read the game beautifully, best demonstrated by a tactical foul on Oxlade-Chamberlain that snuffed out the hint of a chance Arsenal had. He’ll miss the second leg but is so savvy he knows he’ll return for the quarter final with no cards hanging over him. Bellerin must learn from players like Lahm.
Captain Koscielny was the only Arsenal player to leave Germany with his reputation enhanced. He showed the fight and leadership that was so lacking in his teammates and was unfortunate to get injured. The fact it’s yet another muscle injury for Arsenal should not be overlooked. Gabriel came on for the injured skipper, the game was simply too quick for him to get up to pace. He’s a good squad player, just not in the same class as Koscielny.
The other centre back, Mustafi, tried to fill the void left by the captain’s injury and failed spectacularly. Comfortably beaten in the air for the second goal by Lewandowski and a fault for the third. As Alcantara sliced through the heart of the team, Mustafi was too busy berating teammates, attempting to fill the vacuum left by Koscielny, instead of tracking his man. Unfortunately, there is little competition for his place so little chance of being rested (dropped). It was clear to see why he’s behind Boateng and Hummels for a starting place for Germany.
Central midfield, more than anywhere else on the pitch, is where Arsenal were truly outclassed. Alcantara, Alonso and Vidal against Ozil, Xhaka and Coquelin was akin to a mismatched boxing match. If it had been a fight, it would have been stopped. So much has been said and written about Ozil that there’s little point in expanding. On the night, Alcantara was everything Ozil was not. He worked hard when not in possession and was majestic with the ball; a truly world class demonstration of playmaking. Following a four game ban and the fact he can’t tackle (according to his own manager) what Xhaka was doing in the starting line-up is anyone’s guess. Whilst it’s his first season at the club and he must be afforded time and patience; he could do a lot worse than learn from Alonso how a deep lying midfielder should play the game. Alonso’s not great at tackling either but he’s so good at keeping the ball and dictating the tempo of the play, he doesn’t need to be.
It was a close run thing as to who was more disappointing in the middle of the park, Ozil or Coquelin. The young Frenchman had a night to forget and should be forced to watch the game, many times over, if he’s going to learn. Allowing Robben to drift in and shoot with his left foot was ridiculous. Coquelin is supposed to bring bite and steel to midfield but he managed just six passes and no tackles before being replaced. Vidal is someone he should model his game on. Unfortunately, he’s proved he’s simply not in Vidal’s league. If Arsenal are serious about winning trophies an upgrade is desperately needed.
On the wings, Bayern Munich have an embarrassment of riches, Arsenal do not. Oxlade-Chamberlain should feel aggrieved about being shunted out to the wing after playing well in central midfield recently. He was sloppy in possession but one of the few Arsenal players who genuinely looked like they were up for the fight and wanted to win the ball back. Carelessly conceding possession in such a dangerous area, which lead to the final goal, as he did against Monaco at the Emirates two years ago, was a black mark against him and raises questions about his concentration. Maybe Wenger has seen this and that’s why he rarely lasts ninety minutes?
The Ox appears to have reached an impasse in his Arsenal career. He cannot nail down a position or a starting spot in the team. He’s undoubtedly got ability and is worth persevering with but may feel he needs a new club or a new manager.
Iwobi, on the other wing, looked out of his depth. He’s a talented teenager, who’s having a great season but the step up in class was too much too soon. He didn’t know what to do when Lahm overlapped Robben and they doubled up on Gibbs. In his defence, he appeared to lack instructions or guidance from the bench. It’s unfair to expect such a young player to perform on such a stage. Hopefully he’ll learn from the experience, not be damaged by it and come back stronger. Arsenal not having an older player, like Costa or Robben at Munich or Pires and Overmars, to take him under their wing is such a shame. The poor lad needs to be given time, and taken out of the spot light.
The lack of a viable alternative (Joel Campbell) to push him for a starting spot makes this unlikely. Left wing is another position Arsenal must look to strengthen in the summer.
Up front, Sanchez cut a lone and frustrated figure. He’s not a classic number nine, he’s at his best when constantly involved in the game. Playing him behind a striker who can stretch the defence, like Welbeck, would allow him to be where he’s most dangerous; in the middle of the action both in midfield and attack. Against Bayern he was isolated and outnumbered. His weak penalty, which he did well to tuck away at the third attempt, hinted that the pressure got to him. What Arsenal would/should give for a striker of Lewandowski’s ability? Giroud is not that man. The club have been crying out for a lethal striker for years. Acquiring one in the summer must be a priority. Hopefully, Sanchez will stick around to play with him.
The man overseeing Arsenal being pulverised by the Bavarian juggernaut was Wenger. The same man in charge when Arsenal lost by the same result in the same stadium in 2015. The same man who set his team out the same way and showed no evidence of having learnt from history. He said he knew Bayern were going to dominate possession. So it’s safe to assume the best course of action would be to flood the midfield with all action players like Elneny, the Ox and Sanchez who are prepared to constantly press. With a quick striker (Welbeck) against the ageing Hummels and Martinez and a couple wingers instructed to run themselves into the ground, Arsenal would have stood a chance of weathering the storm and playing on the counter attack.
They may even have had something to cling onto in the second leg in London. Then creative talents, like Ozil, could have been brought on with a point to prove and a shot at reaching the quarter finals.
Instead, the same formation employed against Hull at home was played away in Munich. It’ll take a miracle to reach the quarter finals of The Champion’s League. The confidence of the players’ is gone. Every pundit is on Wenger’s back and the fans are ready to mutiny. The club didn’t learn from history. They repeated it with substandard players and tactical naivety. Now, they look doomed to another season of failure. Lessons can be taken from the game but there’s a lot we already knew.
Will Arsene and Arsenal ever learn?