Monday, December 16, 2013

Back to where Arsenal’s transformation began

After defeat in Naples on the final match day of the Champions League group stage, any draw in the last 16 was going to be tough for Arsenal. Atletico Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain were the preferred options, but all five of the Gunners’ potential opponents would have been difficult to beat.
However of those five, Bayern Munich were probably the last one fans wanted to be drawn alongside the Gunners. Despite them being the champions of Europe and dominators of the Bundesliga, in many ways, Bayern Munich give this Arsenal team the most hope of progressing into the quarter finals.
In a repeat of the same stage in last season’s competition, Bayern Munich will come to the Emirates Stadium before the second leg in the Allianz Arena.
Whilst the first leg in February this year saw Arsenal get completely dominated, the subsequent victory in Munich is the game that fans and players look back to as the turning point for this Arsenal squad. The 2-0 win wasn’t enough to stop Arsenal going out on away goals, but it made the players believe that they could compete with the best teams in Europe. It also reminded the players how much they wanted to be back in the Champions League and sparked an unbeaten run to make it into fourth place in the table and overhaul Tottenham once again.
The win in the Allianz Arena was built on a solid defence, and up until the defeat at Manchester City, that good form at the back has continued into this season. In the last 88 games that Bayern Munich have played, they’ve only failed to score in one of them, and that was against Arsenal (stat via @1DavidWall on twitter). It wasn’t just another clean sheet to put in the record books, it was a clean sheet against a team that always score and had torn holes in the Arsenal back four just a few weeks earlier. It was a back-to-basics performance where Arsenal got their defensive organisation right, giving them the solid base that had been lacking in during the season prior to that game.
One of the biggest problems for Arsenal in big league and European games in the trophyless seasons has been the mental block that sometimes emerges when facing these teams. At times, Arsenal have looked overawed by facing certain side and haven’t imposed themselves on these matches in the way they should do. Unfortunately, defeats to Manchester United and Manchester City mean those question marks still exist domestically, however they won’t do when the team come up against Bayern Munich. The majority of the squad that won in the Allianz Arena are still very involved in the first team, so they can travel away knowing they can win, freeing them up to play without fear.
The home leg will potentially be the more important game of the two. If Arsenal can keep a clean sheet, even if the game is a 0-0 draw, they can go to Munich knowing that a score draw would see them through.
There’s a lot of time to go before the first leg on February 19th, and the season could have taken on a completely different complexion at that stage. With the January transfer window to come, you’d hope Arsenal will have strengthened the squad and might still be at the top of the league. On the flip side, the defeat to Manchester City could see Arsenal spiral uncontrollably down the league. I don’t think that will happen, but it shows that it’s difficult to know what shape the Gunners will be in when Bayern come to town. Whatever shape that is, Bayern Munich are the one team Arsenal could have drawn that the team should have no fear of.
Last year, Arsenal were agonisingly close to going through but missed out on away goals. With that win in Munich to draw on, Arsenal shouldn’t make the same mistake and not be prepared for the first leg. Do that, and there’s no reason why the Gunners can’t knock out the European champions.