By Ewan Roberts
Just when injury to Franck Ribery and the suspension of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Jerome Boateng had appeared to give Arsenal a fighting chance against Bayern Munich, the north London club were rocked by the news that Jack Wilshere would miss the tie with an ankle injury.
In the Premier League this year, Arsene Wenger’s side have won 56 per cent of the matches Wilshere has played in but that figure drops to just 30% when he is missing. Of course, the 21-year-old’s presence could not prevent the Gunners from succumbing to die Roten at the Emirates.
And now Arsenal – the only remaining Premier League representatives left in the Champions League – need to score three unanswered goals at the Allianz Arena. The only option is to attack, but in doing so they will leave themselves open at the back. It is a risk Wenger must take.
“Arsenal have to score three. That’s a very good situation for us. They have to pressure us and we can go for the counterattack,” explained Bayern captain Philipp Lahm. Jupp Heynckes’ side have scored the joint-second most goals from counterattacks (eight) in Europe’s top five leagues – only fellow Bundesliga side Schalke have scored more.
The side pressed extremely well, harassing and harrying the Rossoneri, and were slick in transition. Injuries meant Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was used in midfield, but he injected pace through the middle. With Gervinho and Theo Walcott attacking the full-backs at every opportunity, and Tomas Rosicky offloading the ball quickly and probing the Milan defence, Arsenal overloaded their Italian opponents.
The Gunners should look to replicate that formula again, pressing aggressively and utilising their pace down the flanks. They were deprived of width in the first leg at the Emirates, especially with Walcott spearheading the attack. Wenger's side were also far too narrow in midfield, a problem that Wilshere’s absence will, in fact, help solve – his injury removes one of many cooks in a congested kitchen.
But it is how Arsenal approach Lahm that could define their mindset in the match. The right-back has been in fantastic form this season, contributing a massive 14 assists in all competitions – no other defender in Europe comes close to matching that tally. He added two more against Fortuna Dusseldorf on Saturday, but his performance also hinted at a vulnerability.
Both of Fortuna’s goals were created down his flank. First, Johannes van den Bergh bombed up the wing and whipped in a cross for the away side’s opener, then, in the second half, midfielder Oliver Fink rose high above Lahm to knock the ball on to Andreas Lambertz, who ran through on goal and tucked the ball past Manuel Neuer.
Arsenal were far too passive where Lahm was concerned in the first leg. With the conservative, unadventurous Thomas Vermaelen at left-back, and no fixed, direct left-wing threat, the Bayern captain was granted the freedom of north London. His average position was on the halfway line – quite unusual for a side that enjoyed just 42% of possession – and he attempted more passes (67) than any other Bayern player.
There can often be a tendency to focus so much on nullifying a player’s strengths that you overlook their weaknesses, and that was certainly the case with Lahm.
As such, Arsenal must look to attack with greater vigour down the left flank. The possible return of Kieran Gibbs would be a huge boost to the Gunners in that regard. He brings more natural width than Vermaelen, and will look to bomb forward whenever possible. The more proactive Gibbs is, the less adventurous Lahm can afford to be.
When Lahm does maraud up the touchline, the Gunners need to exploit the space he leaves in behind. The pacy and direct Oxlade-Chamberlain offers the best chance of exposing Lahm, but he must be brave and stay high up the pitch, ready to break.
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In the Bundesliga this year, Lahm has won just 11 of 20 aerial duels, while targetman Giroud has won 105 of his 191 aerial duels in the Premier League, winning 3.9 headers per game on average – the 10th most in the league.
The height and aerial threat of the French striker could also worry Bayern at set-pieces. Heynckes’ side looked suspect when defending corners and free kicks at the Emirates, and it was from this indecision and confusion that Arsenal stole a goal. Neuer was caught in the fabled no man's land and Lukas Podolski was able to nod into an unguarded net.
Giroud moving out wide could also tempt Daniel van Buyten away from his central defensive station. In the first leg, Walcott was fielded through the middle but was regularly crowded out, but Giroud offers a decoy. If he can drag Bayern’s Belgian centre-back out of position, it will open up space between him and Dante for Walcott to dart through.
Van Buyten’s lack of mobility and pace remains Bayern’s weakest link, and both of Arsenal’s widemen should look to come infield to prey upon his lack of speed. Walcott’s run-making against Tottenham in the north London derby was generally very good, hanging on the shoulder of the last man, but he was not picked out by his team-mates – the reintroduction of Rosicky and his riskier, more penetrative passing could change that.
Arsenal face a monumental task in Munich, but their pace and pressing against an injury/suspension-hit Bayern offers a sliver of hope. Beware the wounded animal with nothing left to lose.
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