Arsenal 1-3 Bayern: Arsenal outpassed and outpressed

February 21, 2013

The starting line-ups

Bayern took a commanding lead following a dominant first leg performance.

Arsene Wenger chose to leave out Olivier Giroud, using Theo Walcott as the primary striker with Santi Cazorla right and Aaron Ramsey in midfield. Left-back problems forced Thomas Vermaelen into that position.

Jupp Heynckes was without Jerome Boateng and long-term injury victim Holger Badstuber, so Daniel van Buyten came in at centre-back.

Arsenal made another poor start at the Emirates, and despite a promising spell for Wenger’s side after the break, Bayern always looked the better side.

Wenger selection

This game was always likely to be won and lost in midfield, where both coaches use good passers as their deepest midfielder, creating a midfield zone blessed with great technical quality. Indeed, Wenger’s team selection recognised this – by using Jack Wilshere as the number ten, and Santi Cazorla drifting inside, Wenger was trying to squeeze an extra passer into his side, at the expense of the directness that comes with playing two wide forwards.

The other reason for this shape was that Walcott’s pace would theoretically caused Van Buyten problems – the Belgian was never the quickest, and these days is clearly a liability with his lack of speed – but Arsenal never got the ball to Walcott in the right situations.

Bayern without the ball

Scoring three away goals in a European tie is highly impressive, but Bayern were actually more impressive without the ball, making Arsenal’s build-up play slow and predictable, and denying them space in the final third. There were three things Bayern did well without the ball:

(1) Bayern pressed very well at the start of the game. Toni Kroos moved forward to join Mario Mandzukic upfront and caused Arsenal’s centre-backs problems in possession. For the first goal, for example, Kroos pressing Laurent Koscielny resulted in Arsenal conceding possession cheaply inside their own half, and Kroos eventually provided the finishing touch. Kroos and Mandzukic’s work was backed up by proactive positioning from Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger – Martinez, in particular, kept intercepting the ball in advanced positions (for Bayern’s deepest midfielder) and Arsenal took too long to get into a passing rhythm – Bayern were already 0-2 up by the time the home side started playing.

(2) When Arsenal did manage longer spells of possession, Bayern’s shape was excellent. It was two banks of four, with Kroos and Mandzukic often dropping back into the midfield zone, leaving Arsenal’s centre-backs unopposed, but making it difficult for them to play incisive passes into the midfield. The prospect of Walcott’s pace meant Bayern couldn’t afford to play a high defensive line and therefore sat deeper than usual, and the need to stay compact forced the front two back into deep positions. They got through their defensive work admirably, and both were substituted because of the amount of running they were forced to do.

(3) Not only was Bayern’s shape good, but their defensive transitions were extremely quick – when they lost the ball, they were back in defensive positions immediately. There was one situation, towards the end of the first half, when Walcott was running one-versus-one at the last defender, but Bayern got numbers back to offer support, and in the end they crowded out Arsenal so much that it became yet another slow passing move, with the centre-backs finding themselves on the ball with eleven Bayern players between them and the opposition goal.

Arsenal without ball

Arsenal’s approach when Bayern had the ball was less positive – they generally stood off in their own half and allowed Bayern to start passing moves. This was a less exaggerated example of Arsenal’s 2-2 draw against Barcelona three years ago, when Barca’s early pressing left Arsenal shellshocked, and seemingly unable to instinctively respond with pressing of their own.

Eventually Arsenal got the idea midway through the first half and got into Bayern, but the tackling was often clumsy and resulted in a flurry of yellow cards.

Bayern also passed around Arsenal’s pressing cleverly by bringing Thomas Muller and Franck Ribery inside into central positions – which was essentially what Wenger’s plan had been with Cazorla. The Spaniard, however, was tracked inside closely by David Alaba.

Bayern right

With the ball, Bayern were most dangerous down their right. Here, Arsenal were naturally weakened with Vermaelen out of position on that side, and although it wasn’t a disaster to have a centre-back playing against Thomas Muller, who drifts into central positions naturally, Muller was left unopposed to cross to Kroos for the first goal.

The major problem, though, came from the ’second’ man running into that space. Most often it was Philipp Lahm, who typically motored forward with great pace and consistency, and simply won his individual duel against Lukas Podolski (although later it was Cazorla, when moved to the left, who let him go free to cross for Mandzukic’s goal).

However, it was also notable that both Schweinsteiger and Martinez popped up in advanced right-sided positions, which is strange for an away side in a Champions League tie, especially when they took an early lead. This probably said two things about Bayern’s approach – not only were they confident enough that only Wilshere (rather than Mikel Arteta or Ramsey) would provide a central playmaking threat, and could therefore afford to leave one midfielder protecting the defence, they saw Arsenal’s left side as weak. With Podolski staying high up and Vermaelen out of position, there were space to exploit – and Bayern did so consistently.

Average positions - both Bayern's midfielders played right-of-centre

As always, Kroos’ positioning throughout the game was fascinating. He started off playing very high, close to Mandzukic, but when Bayern went ahead he dropped into deeper positions, helping Bayern retain the ball and control the tempo of the game. At the risk of going over old ground, few midfielders possess his natural tactical understanding of matches, and he’s surely Bayern’s most important player.


Considering how obviously Arsenal were outclassed in the first half, it was a surprise Wenger waited until the hour mark before making a change. Arsenal had got a (rather fortunate) goal back and were now seeing more possession inside the Bayern half, but substitutes could have been introduced earlier.

In Wenger’s defence, his substitutes nearly had an immediate impact. Tomas Rosicky replaced Ramsey and played higher up the pitch, while Giroud’s introduction pushed Walcott right, and Cazorla went left in place of Podolski. Within a minute, Rosicky sprayed a pass out to Walcott, who crossed for Giroud, whose shot was straight at Manuel Neuer. Arsenal looked good when they tested Alaba – who is a promising left-back, and his great pace worked well against Walcott – but he can still take up some odd positions, too far away from his centre-backs.

Heynckes replaced Ribery with Robben, but a more significant change was Luiz Gustavo on for Toni Kroos, who sat deeper in that left-of-centre holding role Bayern didn’t have covered, and helped protect the lead.


Two key factors here – Bayern’s superior work without the ball, both in pressing and getting into a good shape quickly – and their dominance of the right, thanks to overlapping from Lahm and bursts forward from the central midfield zone. Kroos’ positioning was also important, if not decisive.

Arsenal will need to score three goals in Munich, which will be impossible if Bayern defend this effectively in the second leg.

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