In March 2013, Arsene Wenger used a dead rubber Last 16 2nd Leg against Bayern Munich to experiment with a new line-up that would click and ultimately get Arsenal over the line and help them achieve that season’s minimum requirement of retaining Champions League football for the following season.
Last night he attempted to do the same.
Regardless of what happens with the manager’s own future beyond May, he is here until the end of the season and the club have a minimum of 13 games remaining this term in order to secure champions league football for next season and potentially win a 13th FA Cup.
Wenger’s set-up against Bayern Munich was an admission that what Arsenal have been doing recently is not good enough to achieve that, but also demonstrative of a desire to create something that is.
In 2012/13, Wenger acknowledged that what he’d been trying for the past couple of months that season wasn’t working and wouldn’t see them overhaul a 7 point gap to their main challengers for the final spot for following season’s Champions League. His reversion to the tried and tested deeper defensive line, protected by a more intelligent and tactically astute midfield, coupled with personnel changes in deciding to omit the erratic Thomas Vermaelen and the tactically naive Jack Wilshere in favour of calmer heads who were more compatible with mainstays Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta, helped Arsenal build partnerships greater than the sum of their parts and click together in a unit that was good enough to get them over the line.
Tuesday night’s starting XI suggests that Wenger has acknowledged that what he’s been doing in midfield and out wide for the past couple of months hasn’t been working as well as it should and won’t work well enough to get them over the line in 2016/17, and that something had to give.
In 12/13, he removed chaotic components and reinstated the tried and tested deep defensive line of early season, protecting it with an attentive midfield. This set-up had seen Arsenal keep 3 clean sheets in their opening 3 games and soon thereafter collect a well-earned point at the Etihad. As last night’s team sheets came out, it appeared as though Wenger had reinstated the midfield pair of Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka, who had excelled as a pair in the last two Premier League and Champions League games where Arsenal had actually played well, away at Swansea and Basel.
As Mesut Özil was still not deemed 100% after his recent illness, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came in to play a central role. Pre-match graphics suggested he would play Özil’s role, but the one he ended up playing was distinctly different. He was to be an auxiliary third central midfielder, taking up a far deeper starting position than Özil, and would look to drive at the opposition and trouble them with his dribbling, rather than with his vision and precision passing.
The shift to a 1-2 midfield base, with Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain ahead of Xhaka, helped Arsenal keep a better shape when out of possession and make themselves harder to play through. Their focused positioning, technical ability on the ball, and intelligent movement off it made Arsenal look constant threat on the counter. It was the best Arsenal have moved the ball through midfield in months. Xhaka’s passing, Ramsey’s intelligence, and Oxlade-Chamberlain’s effervescence proved potent.
As well as dropping Francis Coquelin after 6 consecutive terrible performances, Alex Iwobi was also taken out of the firing line after losing his way a bit. With the additional body in central midfield, Wenger could afford to deviate from his favoured wideman split of a wide forward who plays more like a second striker across from a wide playmaker who plays more like an auxiliary midfielder. He named Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck in the team either side of Alexis Sanchez. This would have served Arsenal well on the break, with their pace, movement, and intelligence posing issues for Bayern’s retreating cumbersome centre backs.
However, it wasn’t to be. Welbeck was taken ill during the warm-up and instead of going like-for-like and replacing him with Lucas Perez, Wenger opted to swap him for Olivier Giroud instead and ask Alexis to play from the left. This change meant Arsenal had to switch up the gameplan somewhat, but it still broadly worked, albeit perhaps not as well as it could have done had a player with more pace and intelligent movement than Giroud been included in the front 3 alongside Walcott and Alexis.
The harshest critics will argue that the gameplan can’t have been that effective if Arsenal were only one goal to the good, but the game rides on fine margins. On another day, a penalty is awarded for the foul on Walcott. On another day, Giroud gets better purchase on his free header.
For the first 53 minutes, Arsenal’s system was working well. They were defending well as a unit, they were moving the ball well through midfield, creating chances, and looked the best they had in a home game since October.
And then it all went wrong.
Following Koscielny’s dismissal, Wenger preferred to slot Xhaka in at CB than call for Gabriel, which suggests that he may have lost faith in the Brazilian. This then begs the question that if he isn’t trusted, why defer to seniority and have Gabriel on the bench rather than Rob Holding, who may one day make it here?
With Xhaka filling in at centre back, Arsenal negotiated 14 minutes after the penalty without conceding again. After Bayern’s 2nd goal, which came about after dreadful distribution from Ospina built pressure and Alexis gave the ball away in a dangerous area, it was 7-2 on aggregate, with 22 minutes to go, and qualification completely out of the question. Wenger chose to withdraw and protect Ramsey, Giroud, and the ineffective Alexis with the tie dead.
One would assume that Arsenal would ‘take their medicine’ and shut up shop, avoiding further embarrassment. Instead, the players selected to come on were desperate to impress and therefore kept streaming forward to score a goal that fundamentally would not matter, leaving Arsenal prone on the counter. This was an occupational hazard. Özil is trying to feel his way back in after his absence, Perez and Coquelin are very much on the outside looking in trying to get back in the boss’s good books. The pair of them weren’t going to come on and use these valuable minutes to just go through the motions.
Even though it ended badly, the first 53 minutes until the red card were a cause for renewed hope moving forward. Admittedly, Bayern didn’t get out of 2nd gear, but Bayern in 2nd gear are still significantly better than Watford, Burnley, Bournemouth, and some of the other sides that Arsenal have made extremely heavy work of over the past few months.
Something had to give and Wenger switched it up. This defeat was far less disheartening than Liverpool or the first leg in Munich. If Arsenal play as they did in the opening 53 minutes, they stand a good chance of earning Champions League football next year and perhaps also winning another FA Cup.
What they absolutely cannot afford to do is revert to playing as they did in the league in January and February.