FOX Soccer Exclusive
Watershed moment for Arsenal, Bayern
Arsenal faces Bayern Munich (live, Wednesday, FOX Sports 2, 2 p.m. ET) a year to the day after the Bavarian giants dashed the Gunners’ dreams of European glory, in an irresistible rematch that could define both clubs’ seasons.
Both clubs are expected to field lineups not far off from those that took the pitch on Feb. 19, 2013; Frank Ribery and Xherdan Shaqiri are out hurt; Mikel Arteta is suspended; while Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey of course are long-term injuries. But a peek down the roster that day shows a lot of similarities. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny again will be tasked with grounding Mario Mandzukic and Arjen Robben. Bacary Sagna must get up and down the flanks; Santi Cazorla is likely going to have to face off against Phillip Lahm.
The only difference? Both teams are better.
“It’s nearly impossible to play without style because of the quality of both teams,” said Arsene Wenger Tuesday at their Colney training ground. “And I think we are in a better mental shape than last year. I believe we had always these kind of qualities but we had not always the belief. The belief is built by the results."
Such confidence belies the fact that Arsenal enter the game at their own stadium as underdogs. Despite the fact that Arsenal are a point off the top of the table and enter off a gritty, thrilling FA Cup win over Liverpool -- the treble is still an actual possibility for this side -- Bayern are on track to become the next great European team. And that’s pretty daunting.
That said, this was not the matchup Bayern wanted, which may sound strange considering they emasculated the Gunners last year 3-1 in the first leg to put the fixture out of reach. This is the toughest pairing Bayern could have received at this stage and the Arsenal they will face is a good several cuts above last year’s group.
"It's my third time as a trainer here to play against Arsenal. I've never won here," Bayern manager Guardiola told reporters on Tuesday. "I learnt that you can't dominate 90 minutes against Arsenal. It's impossible. It's a good test [Wednesday] to know what is our level in Europe this year."
The Gunners have been transformed by the introduction of Mesut Ozil into their ranks, the maturing of Olivier Giroud up top and the speed of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain down the flanks. But the key for Arsenal this game is the mercenary, bristling Mathieu Flamini, who will sit in front of the back line and act as the team’s field marshal. Flamini is no mere water-carrier: he is an astute reader of the game, willing to make the tough tackle but also able to direct the flow of traffic. Against Liverpool on Sunday, he was simply magnificent, settling his squad down and steeling them against a team that was probably better in every aspect as the game wore on.
Flamini’s going to have is hands full against a Bayern side that is anything but predictable. Under Jupp Heynckes, Bayern always played the same way: a 4-2-3-1. Under Pep Guardiola, you can toss that out the window. Bayern shifts formations and attacks on the fly, floating from a 4-1-4-1 to a 4-3-3 and beyond. Against Arsenal last year, Bayern used two banks of four. This year?
And that means one of the big questions is where Lahm will start this match out: nominally a right back, Guardiola has used him often as a holding midfielder this season and as the axis of Bayern’s short-passing game. That doesn’t mean Lahm, however, will occupy that role all match long if Guardiola judges that Rafinha, the closest the Bavarians have to a weak link, is being targeted, he can just as easily slide the captain back as cover. Lahm has cycled through as many as four positions in a single Bundesliga match, a testament not only to his versatility but to how Guardiola’s in-game tinkerings can border on the mad scientist. If there is a weakness in that approach, it is that Bayern can sometimes look ragged and out-sync as the players adjust to the shift.
Of course, the other way Bayern beats you is by simply not allowing you to have the ball. With Mario Goetze available in the withdrawn role, he can both drive at the heart of a defense and spur the overload on a side to prise a deep-sitting team apart. With Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thiago Alacantra adept at steering and playing keepaway -- Schweinsteiger of course was Bayern’s engine under Heynckes -- and Arjen Robben always available up top, teams can often be reduced to chasing shadows. Yet the key, as Guardiola pointed out, will be to limit Ozil's effectiveness on the pitch.
"He's a big talent," Guardiola said. "We have to control him. The best way to control him is when Bayern have the ball. That's what we're going to try to do [Wednesday]."
Similarly, the Gunners will have their hands full against Manzdukic, a player you would bet will run right at Arsenal’s backline following the example set by Daniel Sturridge. His off-the-ball movement is the true danger for Arsenal’s back four, because his true virtue is in creating space. As the Reds showed, Arsenal are vulnerable to a direct attack – and as it happens, Bayern used that approach against a similarly high-pressing side earlier this year, one Borussia Dortmund.
Arsenal, bluntly, are going to have to be perfect against what is clearly the best side they have faced to date. They are going to need Flamini’s guile, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s speed and Tomas Rosicky’s ability to create special moments. They are going to have to avoid seeing Ozil shackled, and they are going to have to take their chances.
“We know that we face the favorites of the competition,” said Wenger. “But what we have is belief. Belief is built by results. At this moment you cannot say the opposite -- they win every game. You can only say, yes [Bayern] are the best in the world.”
More Stories From Jamie Trecker