Bayern Munich enter Tuesday's match as one of the favourites to win the Champions League. The Bavarians have been exemplary this season, and are 15 points clear of defending champions Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga. They've been strong in all areas of the pitch, and although Arsenal are at home, a performance equal to the one that saw Barcelona defeated will be needed.
Today's post was kindly written for The Short Fuse by Michael Keshani, who is the author of the recommended blog, Roaming Libero. Michael is a season-ticket holder at Arsenal, and has been photographed with Arsene Wenger, Robert Pires, and, as a kid, Dennis Bergkamp. He likes to watch more football than just Arsenal, which is why you'll see articles on his blog about Balotelli and AC Milan, and a very recommended piece on Cesc Fabregas. Crucially, he's watched more of Bayern Munich than any other writer at The Short Fuse. Despite the lack of positional discipline, much in the manner of Alex Song, and the occasional utterly rubbish pun, Michael is a very good person to follow on Twitter, which you can do so by following @RoamingLibero.
Last time Arsenal and Bayern Munich met, it was at this stage in the Champions League, eight years ago. And as Arsenal fans will testify, a lot can happen in eight years. So much so that only two players from either side were at their clubs back in 2005: Bastian Schweinsteiger, who was an unused substitute in both legs, and Claudio Pizzaro, who returned to Bayern last summer after five years away. That tie ended 3-2 on aggregate in the Germans' favour, which was arguably a big misrepresentation of the two teams' abilities in comparison to one another. A lot can happen in eight years.
Bayern's 15 point lead in the Bundesliga is as good an illustration as anything of their excellence. After 21 league games they have dropped just 9 points (three draws, one loss); they are currently on a run of four straight wins following the return from the winter break, and have conceded just 7 goals all season. In short, they are extremely good. Their distance in the league means that they can afford to put more focus into earning the Champions League that was so cruelly taken from them in May, and hence will be able to rest players in their Friday night game at Wolfsburg.
Arsenal, however, feel as though they move from crisis to encouraging progress, to crisis, to encouraging progress (repeat to fade) every few hours. They are a team as volatile and unstable as their supporters. They often put together very strong passages of play within games but fail to maintain them through the 90 minutes, just as they have had very positive performances but failed to turn them into solid runs thus far. They have won their last three games, all against lesser opposition, but their more Classic Arsenal-esque instances of attacking play - as referred to in this - in recent weeks has been promising. They sit 5th in the Premier League, four points from rivals Tottenham in fourth and in desperate need of a trophy, which means they are likely to field a fairly strong team in their FA Cup game against Blackburn on Sunday.
Both teams play a 4-2-3-1 system and share a similar attacking philosophy. While the Germans are more comfortable playing on the counter, they have not needed to play in this fashion very much this year. In games in which they have faced stronger attacking threats - the matches against Borussia Dortmund and Valencia, for example (both 1-1 draws) - their defence has looked susceptible to having players run at it, but they, as a side, have been more than adept at turning their enforced defending into attacks. Their main comfort lies in controlling games.
The same is true of Arsenal, though to a lesser extent. They have played their best football when in control of games, but suffered more greatly when forced back. Their defence has looked susceptible to just about everything from quick wingers to gusts of winds, at times, this year, but it is full of competent individuals. The likelihood is that both will play more cautiously when away, both looking to take charge at their respective home grounds.
With this in mind, Bayern's first leg setup will probably be geared for defensive solidity and counterattacking strength. They will be without Holger Badstuber, due to injury, and Jérôme Boateng on account of suspension. The (barring the unforeseen) near-certified starters are the back five of Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Daniel van Buyten, Dante and David Alaba, as well as Javi Martínez, Schweinsteiger and Franck Ribéry. The spaces that remain uncertain are on the right-hand side - the choice being between Thomas Müller and Arjen Robben; in attacking midfield - Toni Kroos or Müller and up front - the two Marios, Gómez and Mandžukić. Robben and Gómez have both been out long-term with injuries for much of the season and despite returning to fitness months ago, they have been kept out by their ‘stand-ins'. They were preferred in last week's match against Schalke, which could be an indicator of Jupp Heynckess' wish for them to get back into the proverbial ‘swing' of things ahead of this game, or could even be seen as demonstrating a greater trust in the more experienced pair, but solid conclusions can only be drawn from who is rested in tonight's game.
It seems to be 50:50 as to who Heynckess will pick. Both Mandžukić and Müller have been in fantastic form, but Robben impressed against Schalke. Gómez less so, but it was just his second start in the league all season. From this I expect Mandžukić to play, along with Toni Kroos (though both of those calls may be spectacularly wrong), but I have even less idea as to who will be selected on the right hand side.
Arsenal, at this point, for perhaps the first time ever, have something close a full squad, with their only current major injury being to Kieran Gibbs. André Santos' loan and Natxo Monreal's being cup-tied means they are without a natural left back. Thomas Vermaelen announced on Twitter that he had been training all week, so assuming he makes it (a dangerous assumption), he will be played at left back, but if not they are left with the options of playing Bacary Sagna there with Carl Jenkinson at right back, or playing Francis Coquelin there. Jenkinson did very well in the early part of the season but showed his rustiness and immaturity with his red card against Sunderland. Coquelin is extremely inconsistent but his speed, ability to cover ground and right footedness dictates that he could be a good choice there, especially against Robben, should Vermaelen not make it.
Considering the strength of Bayern's right hand side, whichever they play there, and Arsenal's left back situation, it is an area they will almost certainly look to exploit, and they have the choice between bombarding it with Robben, or look to exploit the space between the midfield and defence more with Müller running between the lines. The latter has more potential to devastate Arsenal, with the unevenness of their midfield shape, and Müller's mastery for manipulating space.
With the virtue of a near-full squad, and specifically a fully fit set of midfield options, they have chosen to deploy Santi Cazorla on the left hand side with Jack Wilshere in the ‘number 10' role in a couple of games - games in which, they have generally looked extremely threatening and well-balanced. With Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta as the midfield three they have often been unbalanced - as explored better in this - but Wilshere is far from incapable of playing in a more disciplined way in the deeper midfield role; he did so with great aplomb in his breakthrough season, but his eagerness to be involved in play has seen him attempt to push further up. It is likely that Arsène Wenger will choose to play with him deep and attempt to ensure he does not listen to Alex Song's take on positional discipline beforehand, instead using his performance against Barcelona as a reference point.
This would mean that Lukas Podolski will start against his former side, as well as Theo Walcott on the opposite wing and Olivier Giroud between them. There is a worry that Walcott may struggle greatly against Alaba, whose pace is almost on a level with his own, but he has recently been imposing himself much more on games in which his pace has been rendered useless; against the Austrian, this may end up being one of those games. There is the possibility of playing him in the central role and attempting to exploit van Buyten's lack of pace, but in a deeper-sitting back line there would be little point.
If Arsenal were a more stable defensive unit, it could be worth pursuing a more defensive style, but at home against opposition of Bayern's calibre and strength, they need to attempt to establish as much of an advantage as possible. The disparity in talent aside, this is the main difference between the two teams. One could make an argument that Arsenal's main three centre backs are more individually talented than Bayern's, but the latter are infinitely more secure as a defensive unit. They have Martínez or Luiz Gustavo protecting the back line and a stronger, more defined structure within the side - the kind Arsenal have looked to replicate, to varying degrees of success, which has only looked possible so far this year with Wilshere further forward in midfield or not in the side (see their start to the season).
The Bavarians are the stronger side by a long, long way, but if Chelsea last year taught us anything it is that cup football favours the lucky. If Arsenal can perform something close to perfectly, they have a chance. Bayern are up there with the favourites for a reason. They are expected to win, but if nothing else we should expect a fantastic Champions League tie.
Predicted line ups:
AFC (4231) Szczęsny; Sagna-Koscielny-Mertesacker-Vermaelen; Arteta-Wilshere; Walcott-Cazorla-Podolski; Giroud.
FCB (4231) - Neuer; Lahm-van Buyten-Dante-Alaba; Martínez-Schweinsteiger; Ribéry-Kroos-Müller; Mandžukić.