Over the last 18 months, formulating a plan to restrict the current Bayern Munich side has proven, on multiple occasions, to be an incredibly difficult task. Yet, over that time, Arsenal have twice managed to come close.
In the second leg of their 2012-13 round-of-16 clash and the opening 20 minutes of the meeting at the Emirates Stadium two weeks ago, Arsene Wenger's troops have shown that they can severely unsettle Bayern—far from a straightforward task.
Heading into the Allianz Arena on Tuesday with a 2-0 deficit to overhaul, they will need to do so once more. That will doubtless mean limiting the effect of Bayern's key assets, one of whom acknowledged the possibility of an Arsenal comeback in the second leg:
The difficulty in facing Bayern is that they are not overly reliant on one or two players in particular. However, given the level of his performances this campaign, much attention will clearly be paid to German midfielder Toni Kroos—one of the most complete players in world football at present.
Negating his individual impact without weakening the side in other areas, though, will be far from straightforward.
Why is stopping Kroos so important?
While fellow midfielders Philipp Lahm and Thiago Alcantara may feel that their contribution to the Bayern side is equally important, the 24-year-old Kroos has been the driving force behind Bayern's biggest European wins this season against both Manchester City and Arsenal.
He has, in seven Champions League appearances, played 687 passes with an astonishing 95.8 percent completion record, per whoscored.com, while only Arjen Robben has managed more attempts on goal in the competition for Bayern.
He is, then, at the centre of Bayern as an attacking force when it comes to big European nights.
Toni Kroos: Has made more accurate passes in the opposition half of the pitch (691) than any other player in the Bundesliga this season #FCB— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) January 28, 2014
It would be simple to suggest man-marking, using a player like Mathieu Flamini to limit his influence and thus nullify Bayern. However, with Thiago alongside him as part of Bayern's 4-1-4-1 system, the Germans would simply direct attacks through the Spain international.
Any attempt to nullify Kroos, then, must involve neutralizing Bayern as a whole. Arsenal showed in the first leg that it can be achieved over a short time period, but maintaining the required intensity for 90 minutes is a momentous challenge.
The basic principles of overcoming Bayern
Much like how Bayern and Dortmund developed an intense style of high-pressing, counter-attacking football to overcome Barcelona's passing play, the same can be done to the new Bayern—in theory, at least.
Bayern like to control possession and space on the pitch, just as Pep Guardiola's Barcelona did in previous years. They are physically stronger than that Barcelona side, though, and more varied in their attacking style.
However, the similarities in basic philosophy mean they can be unsettled by similar means—as Arsenal have done to both sides (temporarily, at least) over recent years.
The idea would be to disrupt the Bavarians from their basic flow, pressing the ball quickly and limiting space in midfield by also playing a high defensive line.
Then, when on the ball, using transitions well would be the key, with speed of the essence. In such an approach, the wide forwards would be important to opening up space and ensuring chances are created.
The tactic is not without risk, though, with the chance of being caught on the counter in response greatly increased. Also, with Per Mertesacker far from renowned for his pace in defence, any high defensive line would need to function immaculately to prevent the offside trap from being thwarted.
Against Bayern, the approach carries considerable risk. However, so does sitting back and allowing the likes of Kroos and Thiago to play. Proactivity, though, greatly increases the chance of Arsenal creating chances themselves.
How Arsenal will set up
It is likely that the Gunners will set out in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation, with all five nominal midfielders compact in the middle of the pitch in defence.
The onus will be on Flamini and Mikel Arteta at the base of the midfield to quickly press those on the ball, while Mesut Ozil must stick close to Lahm at the base of the Bayern midfield.
If Ozil can prevent Lahm being the easy out-ball, then the pressure on everyone else in Bayern's side is increased. Arsenal, then, can effectively go man-to-man.
Given that Bayern's full-backs like to push forward, the two Arsenal wide players will be required to track back with their opponents. However, such forward-thinking defenders do leave space behind, and the pace of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, in particular, could prove useful.
The Gunners, though, must move quickly and efficiently if they are to make the most of the space available.
Limit the role of Lahm, and the task of nullifying Kroos and Thiago becomes a little easier. They are then one-on-one with their midfield opponents, while Arsenal theoretically have a spare centre-back to cover should the line be breached.
The risk, though, is that Bayern's rapid circulation of the ball draws players out of position and leaves holes for runners in behind. Arsenal's centre-backs will need to be at the top of their games to monitor threats, while midfielders and full-backs must be diligent in tracking their opponents.
With Kroos and Thiago conducting play, balls slid behind one of the centre-backs to onrushing wide forwards have been a major component of the German club's strategy. One loss of concentration and they have the ability to pounce.
While the title of the piece deals with stopping Kroos, the difficulty for Arsenal is that Lahm and Thiago also require similar attention. All three provide Bayern with a central axis through which everything flows.
It will be a test of Arsenal's fitness levels and desire, with 90 minutes of high pressing virtually impossible. Despite that, they will need to persist with the strategy for as long as they can.
If, as in the first leg, it proves successful, their ability to convert any chances will decide their fate. At the Emirates, early opportunities were squandered, causing Arsenal to lose the momentum of the tie quickly. Those opportunities included a penalty kick for Ozil that needed to be converted.
Wenger is a clever tactician and will be aware of the challenges ahead. Getting your tactics right is only part of the challenge, though, with Bayern good enough to overcome even well-instructed opponents.
The Gunners' task is sizeable. Making the most of the opening 25 minutes of the game and swinging the momentum of the tie, then, would appear to be their best chance of achieving any success in Munich on Tuesday night.