Arsene Wenger is feeling the heat at Arsenal
For Arsenal, it has been a season of setbacks. From Robin van Persie's acrimonious departure to the humiliation of being knocked out of the League Cup by Bradford City, Arsene Wenger is facing a level of doubt, uncertainty and supporter unrest to an extent which he has never seen in his 16-year reign.
On Saturday afternoon, Wenger's Arsenal were knocked out of the FA Cup by a team from a lower division for the first time. Another massive embarrassment. It is no secret that it has been eight years since Arsenal last won some silverware. Their final realistic opportunity to do so this season should not have been surrendered so easily.
With Bayern Munich coming to the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday, Wenger rested five of his key operators. Bacary Sagna, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski were all left on the bench. The domestic cups used to be an excellent opportunity for Arsenal's manager to blood youngsters together and give some squad players some much needed game time.
Rotation, for Wenger, is not a new concept, the difference now is that the reserve players he has to call upon are simply not good enough, not up to the standard of such a great club. It has been a sharp decline.
By resting so many of his key players, Arsene Wenger was sending out a message. The Bayern Munich game was the priority, and he wanted to keep his star players as fresh for it as possible. Bayern Munich however, played fewer than 24 hours earlier, comfortably seeing off Wolfsburg 2-0 in the Bundesliga. Philip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, Franck Ribery and Toni Kroos all started. Bayern Munich are clearly less concerned about Arsenal, than Arsenal are about Bayern Munich.
Bayern Munich have been excellent this season and to say that they are strong favourites against Arsenal would be an understatement. Wenger, though, has made this tie a must win. Arsenal will only beat Bayern Munich if they are at the very top of their game. Arsene Wenger is responsible for making sure that this happens.
The most important thing Wenger can do is make sure that they are still in the tie when it gets to the second leg. This may sound like a daftly obvious point, but after last season's first leg, 4-0, mauling away at AC Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League, it is a point of vital importance. They must still be in the tie by the end of Tuesday night, even a low score draw going into the second leg would not be the end of the world.
Manchester United got an excellent result against Real Madrid last week by letting Real Madrid come onto them then hitting back on the counter attack. Wenger, however, won't want to concede possession and dominance in central midfield in the same way, especially as they are at home. Whilst he will want his Arsenal side to attack, he must remember to keep them defensively disciplined and compact.
With Kieran Gibbs out injured and new left back Nacho Monreal cup tied for the rest of the campaign, Arsene Wenger is left with two options defensively.
Option one is more defensive. Thomas Vermaelen would start at left-back, Sagna at right back and Koscielny and Mertesacker in the centre of defence. This would be a very defensive setup and would have to be deployed with a very deep line due to Per Mertesacker's (now world-renowned) lack of pace.
It is a defensive system that could invite pressure, but it would lead to Bayern Munich playing higher up the pitch, something that could play into Arsenal's hands. With Bayern Munich playing higher up the pitch, there would be more space in behind their own defence, creating the potential for swift counter attacks. It is Wenger's most likely choice of back four.
Option two is more attacking, and would require Wenger to be a little braver with his team selection. He could start Sagna at left-back and give Jenkinson a start at right-back. It would provide Arsenal with more attacking intent, helping to drive back Bayern Munich's wide threat, and could be an option if Wenger decides to take the game to the Germans. It also gives him the option of leaving Mertesacker out of the team, starting with Vermaelen and Koscielny in central defence, therefore playing with a higher defensive line.
Whilst Wenger may be confident enough in his side play two attacking full backs at home, the first option is far more likely. The fact that Gibbs and Monreal are both unable to play gives Wenger the option to be a bit more defensive, and make it seem like he is doing so because he is forced to, rather than it being his choice.
In Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, Bayern Munich arguably possess the most potent combination of wide forwards in world football. Wenger could use Chelsea's defensive performance in last season's Champions League final as inspiration for how to nullify the two. Whoever he does select, Arsenal's full backs are going to have an incredibly busy night.
Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla are likely to be Arsenal's midfield triangle, and they will all need to be on the very tops of their games in order to compete with Bayern Munich's probable opposing triumvirate of Javi Martinez, Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos.
The two midfield systems will probably be very similar. It is admittedly a pretty lame point to suggest that when two teams play the same system, the team who plays it better generally comes out on top, but still it is an important one to make.
Wilshere/Arteta and Martinez/Schweinsteiger will form a double pivot at the base of their respective central midfield triangles, with Toni Kroos and Santi Cazorla playing ahead of them, trying to link play between midfield and attack. Expect Toni Kroos to drop into central midfield and help Bayern's midfield dominate Arsenal in that zone. Cazorla will need to drop in and do the same.
Wenger also has the option of playing Diaby in one of the central midfield roles, to provide a bit more pace and power to proceedings. But I find it difficult to imagine Arteta or Wilshere not being in Arsenal's starting line-up. Another possible alternative is Oxlade-Chamberlain, who had one of his finest games in an Arsenal shirt in the 3-0 win against AC Milan last season. Over the course of the two legs, both will definitely have a role to play. But it is far more likely it will be in the role of an impact sub than a starter.
The role of Theo Walcott will be key to the outcome of this match, and Arsene Wenger has one of two options with him. If he is determined not to concede the possession battle, and wants to try dominating the play and taking the game to Bayern Munich, he will play Walcott down the right. In this scenario Giroud will play through the middle. The Frenchman is better at winning headers and holding up the ball, and these attributes will help Arsenal hold the ball in positions further up the pitch, thus helping them to assert themselves more on the game.
Wenger, though, might decide to play deep and try and hit Bayern Munich on the counter attack. If this is the case, he could play Walcott through the middle and then Gervinho/Oxlade Chamberlain on the right. In both scenarios, Podolski is a shoo-in to start on the left-hand side.
Bayern Munich's defensive pairing of Holger Badstuber and Dante will probably revel at the thought of playing up against Giroud as a lone striker, and you can't imagine the Frenchman causing them too many problems, be it on the ground or in the air. Walcott however would provide a turn of pace and a threat in behind that could force Bayern Munich to play a bit deeper. So whilst with Walcott up front, Arsenal would lack a classic target man; Walcott's pace could force Bayern Munich to stretch, hindering the Germans' attempts to dominate the midfield zone.
Giroud has had a good season, but he is a limited striker and can only really play through the middle. A more fluid attacking three of Walcott, Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain/Gervinho, however, could potentially give Bayern Munich's defence a lot more to think about. It is still more than likely, however, that Giroud will start in a central role, though the latter option could be used by Wenger as a plan B with half an hour to go if things are not going according to plan.
Bayern are undoubtedly favourites, Arsenal need to believe
Bayern Munich are massive favourites going into this tie, and there has been little to suggest this season that anything other than the German side progressing to the quarter final stage is likely.
Wenger, however, laid down a marker at the weekend. By resting so many key players against Blackburn, he signaled the importance of this match against Bayern Munich, making it a must win encounter, regardless of the odds stacked against his side.
Arsenal will need a good start, too often in big games this season they have been out of the game before it has really even begun. Wenger does not like his teams being dominated, especially at home, and he will try, to some extent, to take the game to Bayern Munich. Whether the German side allow this to happen remains to be seen. Arsenal, whilst outsiders, are by no means out of it. If Wenger can be tactically astute, and keep his side in the tie come the second leg, anything is possible.
For Arsenal this tie is huge. Yet again it is February, and Arsenal's season looks to be all but over, with only a top four position left to play for. Playing Bayern Munich is a massive challenge for Arsenal, a challenge their fans must hope helps Wenger rediscover some of his fire of old, something that seems to have dissipated in recent seasons. A bad loss could be the beginning of the end for Wenger, but a big win could be a new beginning.
The odds are stacked against Arsenal, but it is not impossible for them to win. What is important is that Arsenal and Wenger believe that they can do it. Without that, there is no chance.