It’s the final stages of the Champions League and Arsenal have drawn Bayern Munich. Whether you consider that a shame because Arsenal’s rather poor record in this competition put them in this pot rather than in the champions pot is not important. The important thing is that “sorting things out” has begun and plans are being laid for me to make a trip to Bavaria to see the Arsenal play Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena.
As I said above, Arsenal drew Bayern because of an admittedly poor record in the Champions League this season. Finishing runners up in a group which featured Montpellier and Olympiakos was an unexpected result but one which was born from the fact that Arsenal simply didn’t play very well. In the group stages Arsenal allowed 14.5 shots per game (ranked 23rd) and only managed to attempt 7.8 shots per game (ranked 31st). Arsenal did manage more than 53% possession and a pass rate in the mid-80s which is good enough to be in the middle of the top tier for those two stats. And Arsenal were #1 ranked in one category, aerial duels won per game with 18.5. But all of Arsenal’s stats took a major drop from the levels we see in the Premier League where Arsenal are the kings of possession and passing.
Meanwhile, Bayern were simply excellent in winning their group just as they have been excellent in the Bundesliga, having lost just one game all season in all competitions. In the Champions League, Bayern ranked first in crosses per game, third in all the other passing stats, first in goals from set pieces (4), second in possession (61%), 4th in shots on goal, and third best in shots allowed. Moreover, Bayern play exactly the kind of football that Arsenal are supposed to be renown for: possession hoarding football, short passes, maintaining possession in the opposition half, and attempting lots of defense-splitting through balls.
It’s an understatement to say that this is going to be a tough test for Arsenal. Bayern are favorites and they know it.
Thomas Müller was phlegmatic in his assessment that “It’s a nice draw against interesting opponents who are not impossible to overcome.” And Karl-Heinz Rummenigge matter of factly added that “We can be satisfied with this draw but can’t underestimate them. It’s important to try to get a good result in London; to get a goal and make a bit of a statement. We can do it, we’re going into this tie as favorites.”
Gunners will have to hang their hats on the fact that Bayern do have a bit of a spotty record when it comes to playing against English teams as Raphael Honigstein pointed out in his BBC column this morning. Well, it’s a spotty record against all the English teams but Arsenal. Bayern have played Arsenal four times in the last 15 years and have won 2, drawn 1 and lost 1.
I remember the series from 2005 well. It was the end of the Invincibles era, though we didn’t know it, and on everyone’s mind was the fact that Arsene Wenger had never won the Champions League. Before the game, all the papers were focused on the duel between Jens Lehmann and Oliver Khan and hopes were high for a good result in Bavaria. But Arsenal put it a torrid display and a poor clearance from Kolo Toure gave Bayern the lead almost from the first kick of the game. Arsenal would run out 3-1 losers that night and a fortnight later needed a 2-0 win to go through. The Gunners only managed one goal, from Henry, and despite a much better performance from Kolo Toure couldn’t get through to the next round.
It was such a bitterly disappointing first leg that I remember thinking that Arsenal would never win the Champions League. Ironically, they made the final the next year, after losing Patrick Vieira in the summer to Juventus.
Bayern is going to be more than just a tough test for Arsenal. They have a great mix of young players and experienced older players who should know how to get a result on the road in London. Most pundits will be focusing on Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben but their two younger players, Müller and Kroos, are just as dangerous.
Müller was reportedly a target for Arsenal this summer and for good reason, he leads Bayern in goals and assists. Kroos is a versatile midfielder who plays on both sides of the pitch when needed and through the middle the remainder. Both players are great with the ball at feet, in space, can cross, split the defense with a slide-rule pass, and when needed can break down a defender with a dribble.
The Bavarians are talking like they plan to take the game to Arsenal in the first leg and I think that can work to Arsenal’s advantage. Let them be over-confident and “humblebrag” about how they are wary of Arsenal as underdogs. It’s that kind of cocksure talk that makes good players like Wilshere and Cazorla up their games and give these mouthy Germans a night to remember.
I remember that second leg in 2005, Arsenal were all but written off. Then Thierry Henry scored late and Arsenal needed just one more goal to win the tie. Lehmann made a fantastic save off a powerful Ballack blast and that last 20 minutes was some of the most exciting football I’ve ever seen. I’m sure that everyone in that stadium that night will never forget that game.
Let’s do it again.