EMIRATES STADIUM, LONDON — It is a measure of Bayern Munich’s embarrassment of midfield riches that Bastian Schweinsteiger was able to sit there, unused, on the away substitutes' bench all evening, and it never once felt like a wasted opportunity.
Yes, Schweinsteiger is still returning from a long-term injury problem, but on past achievements alone he deserves to be revered as one of the finest central midfielders in the world.
Yet, based on the performance of those who performed in his stead in Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Arsenal, it is impossible to avoid wondering how easy it will be for the German—capped more than 100 times by his country—to force his way back into Pep Guardiola’s preferred XI.
At the Emirates Stadium, Guardiola started with Toni Kroos, Javi Martinez and Thiago Alcantara in a central midfield trio (Martinez at the base) but switched that at half-time to account for Arsenal’s weaknesses following Wojciech Szczesny’s dismissal.
Jerome Boateng was replaced by Rafinha so the latter could go to right-back and free Philipp Lahm to move into midfield, with Martinez sitting back as the replacement centre-back. Kroos then sat alongside Lahm as the team’s primary passer, with Thiago Alcantara, Mario Gotze and Arjen Robben tasked with giving him options further upfield.
Lahm and, in particular, Kroos began to pull apart Arsenal with their double act. Lahm’s focused running down the centre-right, with Rafinha invariably outside him, caused the home side—who were relying, somewhat optimistically, on Mesut Ozil to track back in that area—all sorts of problem. Kroos’ passing ensured they and the rest of the Bayern attacking unit were never starved of a supply.
Yes, Arsenal’s numerical disadvantage should not be overlooked, but it was a mesmeric display of intricate yet efficient attacking football that the home side seemingly could only stop with a last-ditch block or intervention from the goalkeeper. Kroos on his own ended up completing almost as many passes as the entire Arsenal team put together.
The majority of them were in the opposition half, too, receiving the ball from one direction and then finding its next recipient with the minimum of fuss. Guardiola is a tough coach to play for—even during their best spells in the match, he was at the edge of his technical area haranguing Rafinha for failing to continue his overlapping runs—yet the ex-Barcelona man seemed to have no qualms with anything Kroos did over almost the entire 90 minutes.
The Spaniard’s tacit approval was almost the ultimate recognition; this was a performance of rare excellence.
"When you see the second half and you see nine players in the box, it is not easy," Guardiola noted to Sky Sports.
"It's important that we controlled so well in this situation and we played with patience and found the goal."
With that in mind, it would have been fitting, in a slightly ironic way, if the game’s result had ended up being decided solely by Kroos’ fantastic 54th-minute finish.
The provider all game, this time the 24-year-old was provided for as Lahm rolled a enticingly weighted ball into his path, one Kroos did not hesitate in curling with his right foot into the near top corner.
GIF via FanSided.
Lukasz Fabianski stretched for it, but the shot was too perfect—evading both his grasp and the lure of the woodwork (which would later deny him, from a similar position, when he instead aimed low).
It would not be the game’s sole goal, however, as Lahm picked up his second assist of the night in its dying moments with a beautiful clipped cross that Thomas Muller clinically headed home.
Lahm had been excellent, underlining his billing as the cleverest player Guardiola has ever coached, but it was Kroos who starred on this particular night.
The one-time Hansa Rostock academy member has been the subject of much transfer speculation in recent months, even being tipped with a surprise move to Manchester United in the January transfer window.
This is because his future remains somewhat uncertain; his current contract expires in 2015, with club and player so far failing to agree on what he is worth. On this evidence, it is every bit as much as the club’s highest earners.
"Much has been written, especially in the last few days, about my sporting future," Kroos wrote on his official Facebook page (as quoted by the Daily Mirror's Eliot Rothwell) earlier this month.
"The fact is I am very happy to play for Bayern and my position in the team is very good. [However] The fact is also that we couldn't agree a new contract.
“We will see what the future brings.”
Guardiola, it seems, has not exactly helped matters, having been quoted as saying, via Sky Sports, "He is an important player, but things can move fast in football. Here today, gone tomorrow" after the midfielder showed dissent after being substituted in a recent game with Stuttgart.
Bayern, though, are not exactly pressed for cash—especially following the recent £90 million injection after Allianz bought a stake in the football club—and surely will not want to let one of their major assets get away from them.
Guardiola’s squad is blessed with midfield and attacking options that at once offer the same abilities and individual, distinctive qualities that, when blended, produce something horribly tough to counter. Without Kroos, they might still play some outstanding football, but there would not be the same array of colours to it.
As the game wore on, Guardiola, almost as a party piece, continued to demonstrate the many tactical setups he had at his disposal. He added Muller as a quasi-false nine to replace Mario Mandzukic (a more classical No. 9) and pose Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker some different questions. Then he partnered the substitute with Claudio Pizarro, once of Chelsea infamy, to create an attacking axis that ultimately helped create that all-important second goal.
Mertesacker was drawn to Pizarro and, with Koscielny still tracking back after pushing forward for a rare attacking free-kick, Muller slipped in behind Mathieu Flamini (at times a lone warrior trying to force back the tide) to extend Bayern’s advantage.
Arsenal will walk away frustrated, wondering what might have been after they so brilliantly held their own for the opening 40 minutes. (It should not be overlooked, of course, that it was a brilliant Kroos pass that led Wojciech Szczesny to bring down Robben and get his marching orders.)
Yet, even as it was unfolding, it felt as if Ozil’s penalty was going to be pivotal to Arsenal’s chances in this tie. When he ended up only unsettling himself in his battle of wits with Manuel Neuer—a goalkeeper who, as he knew while placing the ball, would be intimately familiar with his penalty tendencies after practising them together during two international tournaments—a little of the buoyancy slipped out of the Emirates.
"The game was top quality, and then it was boring, one-way traffic," Wenger told reporters. "The referee made a decision that basically killed the game.
"The regret I have is we missed our penalty. We needed that tonight as you could see Bayern was on the ropes at that time. He [Ozil] was affected by it."
Guardiola noted: "I accept, we played 10 against 11 so it's easier that way and the red card was clear.
"The last two times I came here with Barcelona, we played amazing and we didn't win so I know how difficult it is to win here."
Ozil, of course, has been hailed as Arsenal’s key part since his arrival in the summer transfer window, yet he remains one German that Bayern Munich were conspicuously uninterested in acquiring.
Perhaps Guardiola deemed him too ethereal, too much of a iconoclast to submit himself to the rigorous tactical plan that he has in place (even for players of such undoubted pedigree). Or perhaps, with Kroos already in his squad, he realised he already had a player with the skills, and the flexibility, that he required.
This was a night where Kroos underlined his quality. With a World Cup looming on the horizon, Bayern would be wise to secure his future before the stage gets any larger.
"Today he played on a very, very high level," Guardiola acknowledged in his post-match press conference. "We all want him to extend his contract.
"I like players like this, in such a difficult situation, in such a big game, in a stadium like this, they take the ball and play and play and play.
"Toni was great, with an incredible goal. I am very happy with his performance."