Tactics Column: Theo Walcott’s pace can frighten Bayern Munich

Tactics Column: Theo Walcott’s pace can frighten Bayern Munich

Neither camp will phrase it in quite the same way but when Arsenal face Bayern Munich on Tuesday in the Champions League, they’ll be facing a side who are arguably a superior version of them.

When FC Bayern conceded the Bundesliga title to Borussia Dortmund for the second year running, and also lost the Champions League final at their own ground, it prompted a reshuffle at the top. Sporting director, Christian Nerlinger was sacked and in came German legend, Matthias Sammer. Arsenal fans feel several years of impotency should have yielded similar actions at their club. And the ownership model, which is the norm in all German divisions, puts fans at forefront, rewarding them with cheaper tickets among others.

On the pitch, Bayern Munich’s spine consists of mainly homegrown players who have progressed through the system. Philip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Holger Badstuber, Thomas Müller all came through the academy and Bayern have particularly benefited when the German and Bundesliga FA decided 10 years ago, to force clubs to run an “education camp” in order to compete. It somewhat echoes Arsène Wenger’s claims that it is only now that we’ll start to see the fruits of the academy system with Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs leading the charge, although it’s considerably less prolific than Bayern’s. This consistency in education has created an almost telepathic understanding on the field with Bayern now 15 points ahead of second-placed Dortmund, playing some extraordinary football and with an extraordinary +50 goal difference. Wenger admits beating Bayern Munich will be quite an upset. “If we get past them, then why should we not go further and win it?” he said.

To beat them would be quite a tall order as coach Juup Heynckes claims this is the best Bayern side in their history. “Bayern has never played such a modern and attractive football in the entire history of the club,” he said. That may seem a little premature to say as the legendary side in the ‘70’s won three straight European Cups. In the last three years, Bayern have lost two. But with Pep Guardiola taking over in the summer, there’s a feeling Bayern are on the cusp of something special.

Heynckes has laid on the foundations and seeing the way Bayern have played this season will have pleased Guardiola. Indeed, it’s actually much closer to Arsenal’s style than Barcelona’s.

Bayern play a template 4-2-3-1 with the fluidity and intricacies of the system down to the freedom and interpretations of the players. Franck Ribery frequently cuts in from the left; Toni Kroos roams around the frontline behind the main striker Mario Mandzukic, while Thomas Müller plays a lot like Lukas Podolski on the right. They like to have the majority of the possession and if Arsenal are to beat them, they may have to borrow the methods that opponents have used against them this season.

Certainly, when BATE Borisov defeated Bayern Munich 3-1 in the Champions League at the start of the season, they scored the early goal and then soaked up the late pressure to add two more on the break. In doing so, Bayern suffered the same problems Arsenal regularly do when trying to prise open deep-lying sides. It seems unlikely that Arsenal have the mental fortitude to adopt such an approach but when Heynckes joined, he identified that Bayern have a vulnerability on the break and subsequently splashed 40m on Javi Martinez. In that match against BATE, Martinez played one of his first few games for the club and was swiftly withdrawn at half-time. It’s safe to say he’s a different player now. But while he’s improved, his partner’s form has regressed somewhat and Schweinsteiger has come under recent criticism. It’s thought if Arsenal can unsettle the duo, they can get at the heart of Bayern’s defence.

That’s not to say it will be an easy task to breach the backline. The Bavarians have conceded only 7 goals in 22 league matches – the most stubborn side in all of Europe – although in Europe, that record is 7 in 6 matches. But there is cause for hope for Arsenal because under half of those goals that they have conceded (42.9%) have come from individual errors. That may only amount to 3 goals, but it shows the same problems Arsenal are beset by, namely as a consequence of their philosophy, are not fully avoided by Bayern. It’s just that they understand them better. (By comparison, 44.8% of the total goals Arsenal have conceded have originated from errors).

In Theo Walcott, Arsenal have the perfect weapon that can expose them on the counter. We saw a glimpse of the problems he can pose to one of Bayern Munich’s defenders, Dante, when England played Brazil two weeks ago. In that game, the centre-back was terrified of Walcott’s pace and constantly dropped back to try and defend against it. When England got their goal in the 1-0 win, it came about because of Walcott’s pace. Jack Wilshere played a through pass to Walcott and the winger got in between the left-back and Dante to get a shot in which bounced off the keeper and fell to Wayne Rooney to score. The danger of course, is that now Dante has learned and Heynckes will have been made aware of the threat. Certainly, Bayern Munich are better organised than Brazil and in David Alaba, have a full-back to match Walcott for pace.

walcott v Bayern preview

When England faced Brazil, Theo Walcott frequently got in between the full-back and Dante. Arsenal could try to recreate such movements against Bayern Munich.

Defeat to Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup lessens Arsenal hopes further but Wenger is adamant that Arsenal must maintain the belief that they can beat Bayern Munich. After all, they are just like them.

A right kick up the arse

A right kick up the arse

Although, with Bayern looming, there’s little time to dwell on Saturday’s game, there’s still fall-out and frank admissions from the manager and the captain about the team’s approach and attitude don’t make easy reading.

Arsene Wenger:

Maybe they still thought: ‘OK, we’re playing at home against Blackburn, it will be difficult but we will win the game anyway’, but it doesn’t work like that.

Thomas Vermaelen:

I think the tempo could have been higher sometimes. I think we had too many touches on the ball, didn’t respect the game sometimes.

I think it’s only human to look at the two games we had on the agenda and think one might be a more interesting and, indeed, difficult game. Bayern Munich are a genuine powerhouse of European football, Blackburn, well, not so much. But there’s a very distinct difference between human and professional, and it’s simply astonishing that once again this is an issue.

Again, after a defeat against a team we have every expectation of beating, we hear about how there was a complacency to the team’s attitude. An arrogance that made them think they simply had to turn up to win. We’ve been down this road so many times before the locals are waving a friendly hello at me.

But the worst part is that I thought this was a thing of the past because of the make-up of the squad we have these days. In the past there was a callowness to our team, young players who had been brought through and given the responsibility of first team football at a massive club. With youth comes conceit and there’s no doubt it was our undoing at times. They thought that Arsenal, mighty Arsenal, just had to turn up to win games against sides lower in the league, newly promoted teams and anyone whose footballing approach was deemed inferior.

That was a lesson we were taught countless times, but I thought that for all our failings it was a lesson we had finally learned. We’re no longer a team blinded by the hubris of youth, we have experienced international players, all of them at an age where they should have learned pretty much all the lessons football can teach. Certainly the ones which are most painful. Yet by the admission of the manager and the captain, men who are supposed to lead the team on and off the field, we were beaten by ourselves and our presumption that we’d win the game without having to really work that hard for it.

We’ve played badly at times this season, no question about it. Amidst the good performances and results there have been too many where we simply haven’t performed, and obviously that’s a worry, but at no point did I ever think we were strolling. Not even going out against Bradford. We huffed and puffed our way through some games, couldn’t create a chance or a shooting opportunity to save our lives, but it wasn’t down to lack of effort or desire. We were just terrible, and are capable of being terrible.

Saturday was different though. It was obvious from the start that Blackburn were, with all due respect, a bag of shit. Instead of turning the screw and really going for it, we ambled through the game and as the manager said ‘Ok … we will win the game anyway.’ Lack of movement, taking the easy option, no midfield drive, poor delivery from corners (which is, in my opinion anyway, down to laziness and half-heartedness on the part of a player – I simply refuse to believe these guys lack such basic technique that they can’t take a corner), it was all so soporific that you couldn’t help but fear the inevitable. The team might not have learned the lesson, fans have been bitten too many times.

And if it was obvious to me, watching on the television, it was obvious to the people in the stadium and must have been obvious to the manager. After 70 frustrating minutes, a triple substitution was supposed to save the day. But what did those changes really do to counter a system that had frustrated us all day? Of course Wilshere, Walcott and Cazorla give you more quality, and Jack in particular showed that as he did his best to lift the team, but might Blackburn have had something else to contend with if we’d thrown another striker on alongside Giroud?

I know, I know, what striker? But Podolski can play there, has played there throughout his career, and we know Walcott can do a bit there too even if it’s not his most effective position. Instead, the Frenchman was left to plough a lonely furrow against a mass of Blackburn defenders, and once they got the goal it played right into their hands. Their game-plan was to deny us space, get men behind the ball, deal with the erratic delivery from wide areas, and it worked. We had no answer to it. And it was straight out of Tactics for Dummies. What we did try was too little, too late and just slightly better more of the same.

I know we had the prospect of a tough European game but would have a half-time change have signalled something to the team? That the way they were playing wasn’t acceptable and anyone falling short in the second half would be hooked also? Instead, Arsene was content for his team to trundle along, and the players were happy enough to do that knowing the boss wouldn’t change anything until somewhere in the region of the traditional 70th minute switcheroo. So, if there’s frustration at the players for not doing enough, couldn’t that too be directed at Arsene Wenger for not reacting quickly enough when it was obvious there was a problem and experience, painful experience, told us something bad was likely to happen?

There are reports that the riot act was read in the dressing room after the game, that there was a showdown, a 45 minute tirade. I’m sorry, but that’s like closing the stable door after the burger meat has already bolted. If the players deserve a right kick up the arse, and they certainly do, then so does the manager. Not just for the display against Blackburn but for this season, for the double cup exit, the paucity of options in his squad, and a resurfacing of an old but extremely costly problem, but who is there to dispense said kick?

Nobody.

What’s most difficult about all this is that it’s nearly impossible to have any kind of meaningful discussion about the manager without battle lines being drawn. Those who vociferously want him out have, in my experience at least, resorted to some of the most unseemly abuse. The sort of stuff that ought to be directed at the real cunts in the game. It makes others defensive of a man who has done wonderful things for this football club and the main point is never addressed. People are being deliberately broken up into factions, you’re either with us or against us, and it shouldn’t be like that (even if it suits certain agendas).

The problem is far more complex, the manager is failing to live up the standards he set and the expectations he raised, yet there’s a fundamental problem with the footballing structure of the club too. One man controls that side of things while a bunch of businessmen and executives buzz around him without the ability to shake things up. Even if you change the manager tomorrow that vacuum still exists, or you end up with the power shifting too far the other way, so it’s people who aren’t specialised in that area.

Then again, this is very Arsenal. We never do things the easy way. Even fucking up.

Till tomorrow.