Needing to get a result away to Bayern Munich in order to keep qualification in their own hands certainly wouldn’t have been top of Arsenal’s Champions League agenda at the start of the group stages, however sloppy defeats against Dinamo Zagreb and then Olympiakos in their opening two matches meant that was exactly what they had to try and do in the fourth matchday. Their wonderfully-executed 2-0 win at home over the Bundesliga giants in the previous fixture was a cause for hope prior to this game, but that optimism was ruthlessly torn apart by Europe’s most in-form team at the Allianz Arena; leaving Arsenal in great danger of being knocked out of the competition.
In stark contrast to their first meeting, where Arsène Wenger’s side put in a highly disciplined display which prevented Bayern from creating too many clear opportunities, Arsenal took up an extremely passive defensive approach in the opening 45 minutes. Closing down was done at an absolute minimum in their own half, their wide attackers weren’t back regularly enough and instead they typically just looked to hold their shape (which changed between a 4-5-1 / 4-4-2 without the ball) in deep areas in order to try and limit the possibility of Bayern picking the press apart and playing through them.
This instead gifted the German team an excessive amount of freedom to express themselves in possession though, something of a risky move to say the least against not only immensely talented individuals but also the devastating attacking machine which Pep Guardiola has moulded the whole team into. And rather than orientating too much around what Arsenal did badly, the majority of the focus deserves to be directed towards how Bayern exploited their opponents’ faults and then utilised their own strengths.
As always with Guardiola’s teams, restricting their constantly evolving attacking form to be depicted by mere numbers doesn’t quite do it justice. If it did have to be defined however then perhaps the most accurate description of it through the use of more conventional formations would be a 4-2-3-1, though in reality the advanced roles of David Alaba and Philipp Lahm meant it played out as more of an asymmetric 2-4-3-1.
It was their attacking contribution from the full-back areas – in tandem with the midfield control and manipulation of Arsenal’s team shape that Xabi Alonso and Thiago empowered – which arguably proved to be Bayern’s most effective weapon on the night. The two of them played quite differently in the specifics of their individual games, but both were equally important when it came to breaking the opponents down.
On the right flank, Lahm often ended up being his team’s widest player. His overlapping runs on the outside provided support for Douglas Costa and Thomas Müller in the final third, who regularly swapped between playing centrally and on the right, whilst also helping Bayern to overload that side of the pitch in the earlier stages of their long phases of possession.
By overloading this part of the pitch (Jérôme Boateng and Robert Lewandowski also often helped the aforementioned players) and having Alonso and Thiago direct their passing into those zones, Bayern forced Arsenal to shift their shape; they had to commit numbers to match the German team and prevent an overwhelming numerical superiority on that side.
This, in turn, meant that Arsenal left space on their right side which the Bayern players not involved in the overload could exploit following either quick ball circulation or an accurate long pass. It’s a tactic which has proved to be so fruitful in getting the most out of Costa this season so far, and it again proved useful here, albeit with there being two different main beneficiaries from it in this game.
One of those was Kingsley Coman, the extremely dynamic left-winger who regularly got into one-on-ones with either Mathieu Debuchy or Joel Campbell, Arsenal’s two right-sided players, because of this approach. The other, meanwhile, was Alaba.
Unlike Lahm on the right, Alaba wasn’t the widest player on his side. It was Coman who was, and rather than hugging the touchline the Austrian international instead played heavily in the half-space. This was useful for circulating possession, giving Alonso, Boateng and Thiago (who were the main initiators when it came to shifting the ball from one side to the other) another option to switch to rather than just a long pass straight to Coman, whilst also putting him in a great position to make penetrative attacking runs.
Such a process was employed continuously throughout the first half, and it could be noticed heavily during the opening goal in the 10th minute. Following a stage of possession down the right, a pass from Boateng to Alaba enabled the Austrian to find Thiago with a bit of space in midfield after Arsenal started to drift over. Thiago then avoided a couple of challenges before passing the ball wide to Coman – who now had a potential one-on-one against Debuchy.
On this occasion Campbell was able to track back quickly enough to stop Coman taking him on, but Alaba’s clever run into the box (as well as what appeared to be a lack of communication between Campbell and Santi Cazorla to cover pretty much the same area) dragged a player away and left Thiago totally unmarked in the half-space. The Spaniard then whipped in a wonderful cross for Lewandowski, who opened the scoring with a header and made Arsenal’s tough task all the more difficult.
Even though their defensive side let them down, there were a couple of good signs from an attacking perspective for Arsenal in the opening stages. Most of what they did well came as a result of Mesut Özil’s typically excellent movement and press resistance on the break, and they actually had a goal – rightfully – ruled out for a handball by the German playmaker just two minutes after Lewandowski’s goal.
As the game went on Bayern’s gegenpressing improved in quality though, and their well-managed waves of pressure pegged Arsenal back completely whenever they tried to break out. They limited them to just one shot in the half altogether, which was in the 1st minute, and a lowly 36% possession for Wenger’s side showed how tough it was for them to keep the ball. The close, staggered positioning of Bayern’s players was a key reason for them being able to win the ball back so quickly after losing it, not only preventing the counter-attack but putting them in a position where they could continue to attack themselves.
Arsenal’s own complete lack of pressing certainly didn’t help either however, and they were made to pay for it when Bayern made it 2-0 in the 29th minute. This time the key work came down the right, rather than the left like the first goal, after a simple Alonso pass to Lahm took four of the opposition players out of the game. Lahm carried the ball forward from the half-way line, played it into Costa, and then continued his run to provide one of his customary overlaps from throughout the game.
He then received the ball back from the Brazilian attacker and crossed it into the box towards Coman at the far post, whose mishit effort fell to Müller for him to put home from a few yards out. It was another goal created from wide areas, but this time in a totally different fashion, which really goes some way to demonstrating just how tactically versatile Guardiola has made this team.
The game felt pretty much over at this point already, though the remaining 15 minutes continued in a pretty similar manner. Alonso and Thiago (as well as the two centre-backs Boateng and Javi Martínez, who’s only recently come back from injury) kept moving the ball around smoothly in midfield, their attackers relentlessly interchanged to great effect, and Arsenal failed to press or deal with the switches of play.
Campbell was particularly guilty of this and he was regularly out of position, exposing Debuchy and allowing the link-up of Alaba, Coman and Thiago on the left flank to continue far too easily. He wasn’t the only one though and Özil also struggled a bit defensively on the opposite side, whilst Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sánchez similarly did little if anything to really limit Bayern.
If things weren’t bad enough for Arsenal already at this point though, Guardiola’s team managed to grab a third goal on the stroke of half-time through the sensational Alaba. His glorious long-range strike into the top corner left Petr Čech helpless, and with that any slight bit of hope which they might otherwise have been clinging onto was put to bed.
Neither side many any changes during the break, although Bayern did bring Arjen Robben on for Coman in the 54th minute following a decent start to the second-half by Arsenal again. That faded out almost instantly after the switch of personnel though, and Robben scored Bayern’s fourth – and the best of the night – less than a minute after he came on.
The goal was indicative of everything that had proved successful for Bayern in the first 45 minutes; a long switch from right to left by Alonso found Costa (who went out to that flank straight after the substitution), a penetrative run into the left half-space by Alaba which the Brazilian picked out, and a well-placed cross for Robben to emphatically hit into the roof of the net with his first touch of the ball.
Following Robben’s goal, the game became surprisingly open. Bayern's pressing dropped in intensity a little and Arsenal began to push players forward more, managing to get Giroud involved which gave them a focal point to play off and orientate their attacks around whenever they got higher up the field. His link-up play on the edge of the box with Cazorla just a couple of minutes later was almost rewarded with a goal, and he then played a key role in a couple of the other effective attacks which Arsenal managed to attempt – Özil regularly being the initiator from deep again.
During this period of the match Wenger also took off the largely ineffective (both in attack and defence) Campbell for Kieran Gibbs, which saw them move to a more distinct 4-4-1-1 shape with Sánchez now mostly on the right side and Özil playing centrally off Giroud.
Despite bringing on a full-back for a wide midfielder that change didn’t do too much for Arsenal defensively though, given their added impetus and desire to push forward, and Bayern did manage to find space between the lines at a greater rate again as the game went on.
That wasn’t until after Arsenal got their consolation goal to make it 4-1 in the 69th minute though, which unsurprisingly came after some good play by Özil in midfield. He let a pass from Gabriel roll past him, before turning away from the pressure which Alonso was applying and giving the ball to Sánchez on the left – who fed a cross into the box for Giroud to expertly put away.
It was a deserved goal from what had been quite an impressive attacking performance in the second-half for Arsenal up until this point, especially considering the circumstances of the game at that point, but really it meant very little in the grand scheme of things after such a poor defensive display.
They did continue to push forward a bit more in the closing stages to try and get another goal, and as mentioned this left space for Bayern to expose on their own counter-attacks. Lewandowski was taken off for Arturo Vidal in the 71st minute, which saw them keep the same shape but simply move Vidal into the middle and put Müller up top instead, and their new leader of the line made some very nice runs off the shoulders of Arsenal’s defenders when they had their defensive block higher.
Thiago and Costa were similarly enjoying this space, and it was those two who played the biggest role in setting up the final goal of the game for Bayern just before the start of injury time. The Spaniard set Costa free in the middle of his own half after they won the ball on the edge of their own box, and he ran powerfully through a number of tired Arsenal players before playing it to Müller for him to coolly place past Čech from just inside the box.
Much like the rest of Bayern’s possession-based display there was a real ruthlessness about their fifth goal. They’re undoubtedly the best team in Europe right now, and even though Arsenal didn’t do themselves any favours throughout the match – particularly the first-half – it’s quite unlikely that they’d have been able to stop such a good performance from the Bavarians even if they were at their best with a fully fit squad anyway. It was a real masterclass in attacking football from Guardiola’s team, and it deserves all the admiration that it can get.