It was another comprehensive win in what is already a comprehensive season for Bayern Munich. Germany’s record champions once again beat Arsenal at the Emirates to take a 2-0 lead in their Champions League last 16 tie.
More than anything, their emphatic performance is another reminder that this season, the Champions League trophy, much like every other competitive trophy up for grabs, is Bayern's to lose. Pep Guardiola’s team are breaking records on a seemingly unstoppable path to defending the European trophy for the first time in the modern Champions League era.
Bayern have been setting so many Bundesliga records in the last season-and-a-half that it is easy to lose count. But even more impressive is that they have carried that same degree of domination to the European stage. Other than Barcelona under Guardiola, no other side has been as dominant and consistent as Bayern have been since 2012.
In November, Bayern set a new record of consecutive Champions League wins, breaking the previous run by Barcelona. Their win against Arsenal on Wednesday night also equaled Ajax Amsterdam's incredible record of seven consecutive away wins in the competition. To top it all off, their 95 percent passing accuracy against Arsenal also set a competitive record since detailed statistics began being collected.
RT @OptaFranz: 95 - Bayern Munich had a passing accuracy of 95% against Arsenal, this is a new CL record since 2003/04. Precise.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 20, 2014
If one had to distinguish this Bayern side from Pep's Barcelona, it would be their impressive away displays. For all of Barcelona's stylistic domination and success, their performances—and results to an extent—often dropped in away games.
Bayern, on the other hand, have had some of their best European performances in recent years in away matches. Their win against Manchester City at the Etihad in the group stages has perhaps been the best team performance in recent memory. Similarly, their great performances in Barcelona and Turin last season matched anything Bayern have produced at home.
The Arsenal game was just another example of Bayern's ability to dominate and impose their game regardless of the circumstances.
Domination, Improvisation and Squad Rotation
At Barcelona, Guardiola found success with a relatively small group of players. One of the biggest questions going into the Bayern job was how he would handle a squad the size of Bayern's. He inherited a squad that grew even bigger in the summer with the additions of Mario Gotze and Thiago and will grow further when Robert Lewandowski joins in the summer.
But so far, Bayern’s squad size and the chemistry Guardiola has perpetuated has worked in their favor and propelled them to even greater heights. If that was at all imaginable before the season began. Preseason trepidation aside, Guardiola now holds the best record of any Bayern coach in history in their first season in charge.
Bayern faced lengthy injuries to key players, internal discontent and the pressure to maintain their form but have weathered all those challenges. That ability to compensate and adjust is what distinguishes Bayern from other greats from the past.
They lost their midfield core to injury (Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez), but instead of cracking, Guardiola adjusted and evolved the team's shape and formation. He switched to a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 hybrid and moved Lahm into midfield while seamlessly integrating Thiago Alcantara.
When Mandzukic's form dipped and talks emerged of him leaving the club, as reported by the Metro's Jamie Sanderson, Mario Gotze filled in superbly up top. Similarly, during Ribery's suspension, Gotze has filled in admirably without any apparent drop-off. Guardiola has not been shy to drop players and move pieces around to win, and he has been vindicated every time a seemingly questionable decision was made.
Can They Repeat?
Who can stop Bayern in the Champions League this season?
While it is still early in the competition, it would be easy to suggest that Bayern have a better chance than any other side in recent memory of successfully defending their European trophy. Bayern have not only maintained last year's incredible form, but they have found ways to improve upon it.
Guardiola has maintained the defensive solidity that won the accolades last year and ignited a fire in their offense. Toni Kroos' goal against Arsenal was Bayern's 100th in all competitions this season already, an incredible number in just 35 games.
The question then really does become: Is there anyone who can stop Bayern this season?