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.
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.