Arsenal returned to domestic football with a reminder that late kick-offs don’t disrupt this team as much as early ones, and will be hoping that the same logic applies to big European nights.
Watford’s endeavour will trouble lesser teams and take the odd big scalp, but they are the kind of side that a defensively switched-on Arsenal will beat by virtue of dominating the ball and pouncing when tiredness affects their concentration.
Bar the season opener against the happy Hammers and the Olympiacos debacle, most of Arsenal’s performances have shown a professionalism and tactical flexibility that hasn’t always been in evidence. But it will take more than that to prevail on Tuesday against Bayern Munich.
As has been self-evident in recent seasons, Bayern are a cut above, and previous Bavarian visitations haven’t gone well for Arsenal. Despite heroic failures in Germany, we’ve been somewhat taken to school at home against them. And happily, Pep Guardiola has them smashing domestic records already this season.
Whether Muller, Lewandowski, Neuer, Vidal or any of a multitude of others, the Bayern Munich squad is full of players with match-winning potential, and the first team is incredibly well balanced.
But we CAN best them.
Even in our last Teutonic defeat at the Emirates, we had them on the ropes until Ozil’s saved penalty massively let air of the balloon, which crumpled further with Szczesny’s red card. But for 20 minutes a Sanogo-led front line had them in disarray, and that was pre-Alexis and pre-Coquelin.
We have to hold the Man United game of a fortnight ago up as a model for success in this one. Pep’s teams like to hog the ball rather more than Jupp Heynckes’ former speedy transition game, and despite a vast step up in quality, there are some similarities in the preferred approaches of Guardiola and Louis van Gaal. Although Pep is a more overtly attacking coach than LVG, his team’s have always tried to impose control of the ball and suck the life out of the opposition by denying them the oxygen of possession.
Trying to chase the ball or go toe to toe in a possession domination game throughout will likely play into Bayern’s hands. Arsenal’s only chance is a set up based on disciplined positioning, breaking at speed, and high tempo, high intensity bursts to seize on any sign of weakness. And a strong start.
This cobra-like wait, watch and strike approach is slightly out of kilter with Arsene’s primary philosophy of the P.V. (post Vieira) years, but is something that this team has been developing surprisingly effectively over the last 12 months, and with increasing regularity. It first became clear at Villa Park almost a year ago, where gentle probing suddenly became deadly striking as soon as the opposition showed a soft underbelly. Even as recently as Saturday, Arsenal showed this in the second half, where after an inconclusive and fairly even first 45 minutes, a first blow was swiftly followed by others for the coup de grás.
The crucial difference is that, as was demonstrated against Manchester United, this needs to happen from the first whistle. Bayern are not a team you can allow to settle into their comfort zone from the off, or they will grind us down. They need to be imbalanced as early as possible, and then hunted in packs and picked off. The requisite intensity and speed will probably be almost impossible to maintain throughout, so it needs to be applied strategically, and at any sign of weakness.
And Bayern’s back line for all their strength, are slightly vulnerable. Despite only three goals conceded so far this season, the kind of multi-angled quick transition game that Arsenal play at their very best is well matched up against Bayern. Their defence, Lahm apart, tend to be fleet of foot or rely on speed of thought, but lack real combination of both, despite the exponential improvement in Jerome Boateng since coming under Guardiola’s tutelage.
Ultimately though, it is concentration and pace of play in midfield, and absolute vigilance in defence that any Arsenal win must be built upon. In a game of trading chances, you’d have to fancy Lewandowski and Muller on current form, despite the dramatic return to brilliance of Alexis. So team shape will be key.
Like most Arsenal fans, I am quite relaxed. Sustaining a title challenge may be more achievable with a departure from continental competition, and any knocked confidence should be compensated by a desire to right wrongs, which is always a potent motivator for Wenger teams. And there is no shame in losing to Bayern, who coming into this fixture may be the best club side in the world right now. They are certainly better than any of our domestic opponents, and with Messi injured and Madrid in transition, are likely to find their biggest challenge at the moment to be complacency.
Of course, the size of the task increases the size of the prize. Regardless of the wider ramifications, a win over the German champions would be a massive result for the club.
There were suggestions that Wenger may rest players like Ozil and Sanchez, but I suspect the temptation of turning over the club he once had to turn down when at Monaco will be too great to resist.
Either way, its two great teams, two slightly conflicting styles, and the kind of European night that makes qualifying for the Champion’s League worth the hassle.