Arsenal have it all to do in their second leg of their Champions League Last 16 tie against Bayern Munich this week. They will travel to Munich and try to overturn a 2-0 deficit against the defending champions.
Although only two teams in the modern Champions League era have overturned a first-leg home defeat, Arsenal can look to their performance against Bayern last season as a reference point and source of optimism going into this game.
If Arsene Wenger can counter Bayern’s possession-heavy tactics and disrupt their combination play, they stand a real chance to upset the Bavarian giants and advance. Using past games in which Bayern have struggled this season, Wenger has a blueprint in how to stop this seemingly unstoppable machine.
It is a cliche reverberated around by everyone nowadays, but the key to disrupting any team whose game is centered around possession is to make it as difficult as possible to hold on to the ball.
So many times this season, teams have simply backed off Bayern and decided to defend deep in their own half, almost always to their detriment. Arsenal will obviously look to attack early, needing at least two goals, but they must use the same intensity and urgency off the ball.
This past weekend Wolfsburg played Bayern as well as anyone this season. Guardiola’s hand was eventually forced, and Bayern’s deep bench helped them get the win, but for an hour Bayern were pinned back, their game disrupted and they were made to look extremely uncomfortable and nervous in possession.
From kickoff, Wolfsburg had six or seven players in Bayern’s half, putting pressure on center-backs Jerome Boateng and Dante. Using Guardiola’s own strategy, the first line of defense must be the striker and the attacking players. Wolfsburg did that, and Bayern had a really difficult time moving the ball out of the back.
In addition, Wolfsburg essentially utilized man-markers in midfield. Whereas traditionally a defensive player is selected to mark an attacking player, Wolfsburg had each midfielder assigned to a Bayern player. That not only cut off the supply line from defense, but it prevented much of the quick combinations and forward movement Bayern like to employ.
Just like there have been teams that have simply backed off Bayern, there have been those that have tried to compete with them in keeping possession. And again, more often than not, it has been a losing battle.
Rather than doing the same, Arsenal should focus their energy on unsettling and obstructing Bayern’s transition game. Cut off the source and the rest will follow. As such, Wenger needs his players to come out quick and early, put pressure on Bayern’s defense and catch them off guard like they did last year in Munich.
Marking the Full-Backs
It is easy to focus on players like Franck Ribery or Philipp Lahm, Bayern’s key players and the guys who more or less run the game for their team. But Bayern’s strength under Guardiola has been the use of their full-backs.
David Alaba and Rafinha have been Bayern’s unsung heroes. They are almost always the players with the most ball touches in a game and are crucial to Bayern’s attacks. As Bayern ping the ball around in midfield and draw defenders in, both Alaba and Rafinha find space out wide that they use to set up scoring chances.
Using the Wolfsburg game as an example again, Bayern’s game suffered precisely because they failed to find Alaba and Rafinha in those spaces. Guardiola admitted as much in his post-match press conference.
By pressing high up the pitch and forcing Alaba and Rafinha to defend in their own half, Wolfsburg effectively eliminated Bayern’s wide play. Guardiola had to compensate by putting Robben out wide again (he had started centrally).
Like Wolfsburg, Arsenal need their wide players (most likely two of Lukas Podolski, Santi Cazorla and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain) to pin Rafinha and Alaba back and not let them make overlapping runs.
This strategy will also rely a lot on the help of Arsenal’s midfielders who will have arguably the toughest job of the day and will need to cover for their wingers and their full-backs.
Whether it was Wolfsburg this weekend, Borussia Dortmund earlier this season or Manchester City in the group stage, the teams that have gotten results against this Bayern side have been those that have been able to balance individual tactical assignments with the collective.
Wenger vs. Guardiola
Guardiola has managed Bayern’s large squad brilliantly so far this season. He has found a perfect balance between rotation and performance. As the season progresses, though, the pressure will only increase. And nowhere is that pressure higher than in Europe.
In a way, the expectations on Bayern to progress to the quarterfinals, having a 2-0 lead, actually benefit Arsenal—even more so because Bayern will not want to repeat what happened last year. Guardiola will have his side prepared and ready, and the greater the stakes, the greater the opportunity for an upset.
Wenger, meanwhile, is known for his ability to take pressure off his players. Like Guardiola, he is a master man-manager. He will need to instill in his players a belief that they can go to Munich and get a result again. They need to approach this game believing that Bayern are not infallible, and a lot of that will depend on Wenger’s experience.
Bayern have not won against English opposition at home in their last three attempts. Arsenal on the other hand have not lost in their last five visits to Germany, and their record against Bundesliga sides is quite impressive (W14 D5 L10).
Arsenal’s game plan will have to be just about perfect if they want to get past Bayern. If they do, it will not only be one of the great upsets in recent Champions League history, but it will also be a defining win for an Arsenal side that is looking to reclaim their place at the pantheon of European greats.