With the return of the Champions League already upon us, we turn attention now to Wednesday night's clash between Arsenal and Bayern Munich. It's a game that should prove fascinating not only in the manner in which both sides are competing this season, but from where they have come in so little time.
The most notable difference between both sides is of course Arsenal's resurgence in the English Premier League this season. Yes, Bayern are top of the German Bundesliga, but it is the North London club under Arsene Wenger that has seen a true jump in their fortunes since the last time these two teams met.
It's well-documented Arsenal's season really turned around following their brave win at the Allianz Arena last season, and since then, the side haven't looked back on their ascension up the Premier League table.
The most striking feature of this new Arsenal side is the manner in which they just seem to grind out results now. For most Bayern fans, the 1-0 win at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund during the Champions League group stages will stick out as a warning to the kind of performance we can expect, but such a result is far from the exception.
The win over Liverpool in last weekend's FA Cup is a victory that will instill plenty of confidence in a side that was far from full strength that day, and if we add that to the dominating draw at Emirates Stadium against Manchester United, we get a clear picture of what Wenger's side have become. This side can grind out results even against the best.
This is, of course, in part down to the size of investment Arsenal took part in over the summer offseason in which they signed highly talented German playmaker Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid. He's a world-class star who brings things to the table last season's side could only dream of.
Ozil's significance simply cannot be overlooked in the evolution of a side going from good to excellent. He is the master playmaker, the magic spark and most importantly the player who could turn any game on its head. Every Champions League-winning side has one, and now so too do Arsenal.
Of course, it isn't just Ozil that has single-handedly turned Arsenal around. There is a notable group of others too.
Mathieu Flamini, the French defensive midfielder who left for AC Milan all those years ago yet now returns to Arsenal like the prodigal son, has quickly become one of the most understated transfers of the season, as he slotted back into the midfield and gave it that grit to go alongside Arsenal's abundance of glamour.
When we look back over the two legs between these sides from last season, Arsenal's defensive midfield amounted to no more than Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta. With Flamini in the side, the defense now has a capable midfielder who can protect their exposed line and shut out the best sides.
For Bayern, the change has come in perhaps a more drastic method with new coach Pep Guardiola arriving almost immediately after last May's success in the Champions League final. Yet what the new man has brought with him has near enough been as seamless as any optimist could have hoped for.
Many fans pondered and even feared for what the Catalonian coach would do to Jupp Heynckes' Europe-conquering side. Although it has been an easy transition, the side that will step out at the Emirates this week is not too similar to the one that won the competition last May.
The most drastic change in the side has been the formation in which Bayern now play. Gone is the 4-2-3-1 tactic that had Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez rotate in midfield, and in has come a more basic 4-1-4-1 system, in which one defensive midfielder sits in front of four attacking midfielders.
This new role is designed for one thing and one thing only: to keep the ball. It's a system that effectively balances on the ability of the deepest central midfielder to continuously rotate possession from left to right. Guardiola's new style of total football is a far cry from the direct, counter-attacking style of Heynckes' last season.
Another aspect of Bayern's changing side is the man who has sat in that pivotal role for much of this season: Philipp Lahm, captain of the Bavarian side and the predominant defensive midfielder of Guardiola's new side.
Now such a ploy has possibly been overplayed in a situation that was essentially a case of the intelligent defender filling in when Schweinsteiger received his recent long-term injury. But this isn't the first case of Guardiola opting to play players in unusual positions.
Yes, we may well see Lahm in the middle of the park on Wednesday night—not 12 months after seeing him play at right-back against Arsenal last season. There is also the case of Martinez, who will undoubtedly be anywhere but central midfield against the English side.
Another player who has been asked to play out of position at times is one that arrived just this summer. Mario Gotze, an attacking midfielder who has at times played up front for his new side, will be relishing the prospect of this coming Champions League campaign with the same optimism and intent that saw his Dortmund side reach the final last May.
What Gotze brings to the side is an expert ability to create chances throughout the final third and will undoubtedly be the lightning rod to any works of inspiration that come over Bayern on Wednesday night. If Arsenal and the rest of Europe struggled to deal with Bayern and their magic man Franck Ribery, they'll not relish the thought of the German club now having two.
Similarly, another player who arrived last summer was Thiago Alcantara, a young central midfielder from Barcelona, who has quickly established himself as one of the club's most promising and useful players.
In Thiago, Guardiola has a player who can not only retain possession, but drive forward with the intent and technique to fulfil the possession-based dominance that is essential to any of his teams. Through the manner in which the young Spaniard approaches the game and controls the ball, the new Bayern Munich will be all too notable to Arsenal this week.
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