Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Do You Believe in Miracles? Arsenal Beat Bayern 2-0

Let’s start with the qualifiers. Bayern did not need to win this game. They are in control in their Group and look all but certain to finish first, even if they lost to Arsenal again at home. They were playing on the road against a team that needed to win the game. And they did not play football with the urgency we normally see from this Guardiola team. Now that the caveat emptor is out of the way, Arsenal pulled off a stunning 2-0 victory that restored hope of getting out of the Group yet again and into the round of 16. There is still a long way to go, and they will have to pray that neither Dynamo Zagreb or Olympiakos come up with a surprise result against Bayern and that they take care of business on the road in their final two group games. But this is the sort of result that can really kickstart a season in which they might have their best chance at winning the league title in a long time. Sure they led the league for longer than any other team two seasons ago, but their February-April fade saw them struggling for fourth instead of first as Liverpool and City fought it out for the crown.

Make no mistake, this was a statement win. Bayern dominated possession to the tune of 73 percent, at the Emirates, and completed over three times as many passes. They had 21 shots to Arsenal’s 13, though two less on goal (6 versus 8). They thus won the possession battle, but they ultimately lost the war, with Arsenal not only having the better chances of the game, but also converting two of them. They had more tackles, 24 versus 16, committed two more fouls (9-7) and were well-organized throughout, only the victims of a few errant passes, the last by Sanchez in extra time sending my heart into palpitations before Ozil secured the three points. Three thoughts on the game.

1. Possession is Overrated: this is a point I made a few weeks ago in my EPL wrap-up, but counterattacking football might be the best answer to tiki-taka yet, a strategy employed by Real at times on their road to winning the Champions League two years ago, by Chelsea to win the title after an early offensive explosion and certainly by Juve in winning Series A three times in a row and getting to an improbable finals matchup with Barca last June. Sure Barcelona has been the dominant team over the past decade with a more possession oriented game, but there are serious questions about whether this is the ideal formula going forward. It certainly is not for Chelsea manager Mourinho, for new Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp, for Juve or for most of the top teams in European football not named Barcelona or Bayern Munich. Arsenal almost never lose the possession battle at home, which is arguably why they have been a better team on the road the past two seasons, and to win a game with only 27 percent 2-0 is a rather damning indictment of Guardiola’s strategy.

This should come with a serious caveat, as Bayern came into the game undefeated for the season and Barcelona did win the treble last year, though with a more direct attacking approach than under Guardiola. You cannot be scored on while you have the ball and can lull the opposing players into losing their concentration, creating opportunities to score. But in this game, Bayern appeared to be passing the ball around, and often backwards, without sufficient intent to attack or create chances. And that lackluster final ball meant that Arsenal could steal the game, which they did with a little luck on the first and an eagle-eyed line official on the second. Again, one game does not define the tactical trends of an era, but Mourinho has won two Champions League titles to go with all his other trophies by playing a more defensive game whenever it really mattered and it’s hard to ignore the fact that Arsenal’s leading point total for 2015 has included a more defensive-oriented approach to the big games as well. They still attack when openings emerge, still dominate possession when playing inferior opponents and still sometimes leave themselves open at the back, but the numbers tonight are hard to argue with. Possession alone does not win games; a lesson Wenger should have learned a long time ago.

2. Wenger Wins the Tactical Battle for Second Time in Two Weeks: the biggest complaint against Wenger is his general unwillingness to spend the money necessary to compete at the top of the sport. Some of those concerns were allayed by the purchase of Ozil and then Sanchez in the two summers leading up to 2015, but the fact he only brought in Cech this summer certainly turned more than a few heads, including those of the Arsenal shareholders. In fact, Arsenal were the only team in Europe’s top league not to buy any outfield players. And yet they sit in second place in the League and have just beaten one of the best teams in the world, on the back of a victory over hated rival Manchester United. The other complaint against Wenger is that he too often gets his tactics wrong; a fair complaint from my perspective. For years he played possession first, attacking football no matter what the circumstance, and that has led to far too many losses in key matches. Against United, Arsenal did play attacking football, but together with a high press that essentially ended the game against a befuddled United team before 20 minutes had past.

Today he did not play the high press that has been successful in big games since the turn of the year, instead instructing his players to sit back and absorb the pressure until Bayern got too close to the box, or seemed vulnerable. Whenever they did get the ball, they stormed forward with speed that was often able to bust through the Bayern attack, stretch the defense and beat the high line to set players free on goal. It should have paid off at least once in the first half, when Walcott had three good chances to score, though his best provided a save for the all-time highlight reels by Neuer. He still should have scored, with a little more power, or better placement, but it was clear that Arsenal were in the ascendancy for most of the last 20 minutes of the half. The second half saw even more Bayern possession, but they were having trouble breaking through the Arsenal banks and unable to turn their few chances into a goal as Cech rose to the occasion at least three times, including in injury time against the hottest striker in the world, Lewandowski. Arsenal essentially clogged the lanes for Bayern’s pass masters, forced backward and side passes and refused to submit to the surgical approach Guardiola was trying to employ. It took a full 77 minutes for the tactics to pay off, but it was an impressive display on both ends of the pitch, reaffirming the point made above. And it was a model that the rest of the English teams should heed, as Chelsea played out a stale 0-0 draw with Dynamo Kiev to add further fuel to the contention that English teams are a step behind the rest of Europe at the moment.

Lastly, after the Steve Bould appointment seemed to have backfired for most of the past two seasons, the Gunners defense appears to have settled nicely with Monreal and Bellerin on either side of Mertesacker and Koscielny, with Coquelin just in front. Coquelin did not have a great game, though he held the Bavarians in check most of the game, but the back four was sublime, with Mertesacker having his best game this season, Koscielny upping his high level to effectively deal with Lewandowski, Monreal neutralizing Mueller and Bellerin adjusting to cut out the advantage Costa had over him early on. The rest of the team all contributed on the defensive end, including Ozil with a couple of great tackles, and the Gunners secured their third straight clean sheet, after the three-goal nightmare against Olympiakos three weeks ago. It is that sort of fortitude and bounce-back mentality that has been missing from the Gunners since the Invincibles finally lost 11 years ago.

3. Super Sub Extraordinaire: Olivier Giroud cannot be happy that he has been supplanted by Walcott up front, only coming on for cameos in the second half, but it is hard to argue with the results. While Giroud has actually scored more goals of late than Walcott, the speed and movement the Englishman provides appears to have reawaken Sanchez and provided a more balanced attack that adds extra stress to the back line of opponents. Giroud in the middle sometimes leads Arsenal to be too predictable, too static and too easy to defend. After Walcott has loosened the defense up and either scored a goal or kept things equalized, Giroud comes on to provide a very different threat, and turn the field upside down, as a player much more capable of holding the ball up and distributing it around him. That was clearly the case tonight, as his introduction seemed to coincide with more attacking intent, earning the free kick that he ultimately scored. That it might have been with his forearm after hitting him in the head should not take away from the importance of that goal. Nor should it be blamed fully on Neuer, who had already had at least three excellent saves to deny Ramsey and Walcott. The second goal sealed things, but may be more important for the fact it was another from Ozil in a key situation. He is the engine that makes Arsenal run on the offensive end, but chipping in goals on a more regular basis will certainly increase the chances of the Gunners winning enough games to snatch that elusive fourth title for Wenger.

The key question now is whether to stick with Walcott up front for most games going forward, or give Giroud some starting berths to keep him happy and contributing at this level. Walcott seems like the natural choice against the suspect backline of Everton, but Giroud certainly provides a different threat against teams that sit back and absorb the Gunner’s possession, as they did to Bayern today. I was among the most vocal critics of not buying another striker, but it is possible that Wenger has found a winning formula involving two strikers providing very different skill sets to lead the line together (though never on the pitch at the same time). Walcott provides the speed to get behind defenses and slot home the through balls that any of Ozil, Cazorla, Ramsey or Sanchez can provide while Giroud provides more of an aerial threat with excellent crossers in Ozil, Bellerin and Monreal, and better hold-up play and distribution. Walcott may be too selfish to the same degree Giroud is not selfish enough – together they might create the perfect duo.

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