Before the draw for the last 16 of the Champions League commenced, Bayern’s Twitter made a cheeky comment about booking the flight to London ahead of time. Arsenal and Bayern Munich have faced off no less than six times since 2013. The two being drawn together has become something of a running gag. Hence, there was little surprise when the German Champions were Arsenal’s reward for finally winning their group.
While there’s a powerful sense of déjà vu, Wenger is confident that this time it’ll be different:
“We have won there before and we play the first game away from home, so it’s important we protect the second game because I feel that to have a chance to qualify in the second leg, that will be very important. We go there not high, but to defend well as a team.”
Playing the away leg first in a Champions League knockout tie is something they haven’t done since 2012, when they were eliminated by AC Milan. It simplifies how to approach the tie. Arsenal will know that a good result in Germany will give them every chance of progressing at the Emirates in a couple of weeks’ time. It was, after all, only last season that we beat Bayern 2-0 at home to revive our hopes of qualifying from the group. We’re capable of doing it.
The issue is that achieving a good result in Germany is a tall order. Bayern may not be as impressive as they were in previous years, but are still Bayern Munich. They have a collection of world class players and a manager that has a knack for big Champions League games. A lack of fluency and the decline of Thomas Muller’s form have been concerns for them this season, but you can be sure that they will pose a potent threat. Arsenal’s defensive shape and ability to play under pressure will be tested.
It’s interesting that Wenger mentioned the need to defend well as a team. One of Arsenal’s many weaknesses in big away games this season has been their poor defending. Whether it’s the backline having an off day or certain individuals being accused of not working hard enough, Arsenal’s approach to defending has been found wanting. Needless to say, it has to be far better if we don’t want to be steamrolled by Bayern.
Rumours have circulated this week that Mesut Ozil may be dropped to facilitate a more defensive shape. The German has been heavily criticised for a perceived lack of effort in big games. As a player whose influence increases the more Arsenal have the ball, he may not have a role to play if our plan is to defend most of the game. Alternatively, it’s possible that he’ll be placed on the wing, as he was against Chelsea, to allow an extra midfielder to play. Wenger’s comments suggest he won’t be dropping him, but it’s a dilemma for him.
Ozil isn’t the only problem Wenger has. He has to consider if Granit Xhaka is ready to return to the starting line-up following his four-game suspension, and whether he’ll partner Oxlade-Chamberlain, Coquelin or Elneny. Oxlade-Chamberlain should start the game on merit, and I’d be tempted to go with Elneny over Coquelin. On the surface, this type of game seems suited to Coqeulin’s abilities. But while he’d get through a lot of defensive work, his limitations on the ball will be exposed by Bayern’s press. A midfield trio of Xhaka, Elneny and Oxlade-Chamberlain would provide a better balance of energy and technical skill. However we line-up, Xhaka’s ability to pass through the lines and Oxlade-Chamberlain’s ability to carry the ball up the pitch will be valuable assets.
Elsewhere, Lucas has a hamstring worry so won’t travel with the squad. If Ozil plays on one flank, it’s likely Walcott will play on the other over Iwobi and Welbeck. Welbeck would be a very useful player to have, but his lack of first team minutes since the FA Cup game suggests Wenger doesn’t think he’s ready for another start. Alexis is expected to continue up front. At the back, Ospina will replace Cech as he usually does in Europe, while Monreal will likely replace Gibbs at left back.
For Bayern, injuries to Jerome Boateng and Frank Ribery will rule them out. Xabi Alonso was a doubt but is expected to recover in time. They are, otherwise, fit and healthy. Thiago Alcantara is having an excellent season and will be their main creative force. Arturo Vidal will press aggressively and seek to make late runs into our penalty area. Up top, Arjen Robben hasn’t slowed down despite his age, and Lewandowski is as lethal as ever in front of goal. The only question mark for them is whether Thomas Muller or Douglas Costa completes the attack. Both players provide very different threats. Where Muller has a poacher’s instinct, Costa has the pace and skill to run Bellerin or Monreal ragged. There are threats wherever you look. Despite German media describing them as “dull and dreary” this season, we cannot underestimate them.
Still, there’s room for cautious optimism. It’s a big if, but if Arsenal can, for at least one night only, defend well as a team and play with the intensity expected of a game of this size, they have a chance of a good result. Taking an away goal back to the Emirates would be huge, provided it’s not a consolation goal in a 5-1 thrashing. This is our final opportunity to accomplish something worthwhile this season. I only hope that the team grabs that opportunity and doesn’t let go.