Arsenal vs Bayern Munich (Champions League Last 16)

19/02/13

The two teams come into this game with vastly differing fortunes. Arsenal’s defeat in the FA Cup to Championship side Blackburn leaves the Champions league as their only viable option of silverware, while Bayern have a fifteen point lead at the top of the Bundesliga have a 100% competitive record in 2013 with a goal difference of 13-0.

Arsene Wenger has rarely ventured too far from his favoured 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3 formation, and has the opportunity to select his first choice front six following the return of Mikel Arteta from injury. Wenger has the option of moving Jack Wilshere into the advanced midfield position in place of Santi Cazorla to offer more solidity, but given that Arsenal are at home it is more likely the Spaniard will continue as the central playmaker. With Kieran Gibbs injured and Nacho Monreal cup-tied Thomas Vermaelen is likely to play at left full back. Jupp Heynckes also has few selection problems, and can pick his first choice XI. With Bayern Munich flying in the Bundesliga Heynckes can select his usual 4-2-1-3, with Toni Kroos’ positioning in central midfield determining the away side’s ambition.

The tactical match-up is likely to centre on the respective midfield triangles and the positioning of the wide forwards.

Possible line-ups.

Possible line-ups.

Contrasting midfield depth

Despite both Arsenal and Bayern appearing to use a similar system, in reality the identities of the advanced midfielder sets the tone for the rest of the team’s positioning and provides a telling difference between the two sides.

For Arsenal, Cazorla has become the London club’s focal point in midfield. This season Wenger has tilted his midfield, from a defensive triangle last year with Alex Song occupying a deep position, to a positive triangle with Cazorla in an advanced playmaking role. The loss of Robin van Persie left a creative void in Arsenal’s front line, with neither Lukas Podolski nor Theo Walcott capable of creating from central areas.

The effects of Cazorla’s inclusion are clear – the Spaniard has become Arsenal’s central creator, operating behind the forward line, but the team has lost a constant presence in front of the defence. Arteta has adopted a more conservative role in midfield and has operated as a holding midfielder, but is still positioned alongside Jack Wilshere in a central position. In comparison to last season, Arsenal’s midfield trio have moved 10 yards forward, which has allowed them to combine more easily with the front three but at the risk of leaving space in front of the back four.

In contrast Bayern’s midfield trio sit far deeper. This is partly facilitated by the creativity of Bayern’s wide forwards – both Frank Ribery and Thomas Muller are comfortable moving into central areas – but also the movement and versatility of Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez. Both Schweinsteiger and Martinez are comfortable sitting in deep positions ahead of their defence, safe in the knowledge that Kroos is able to engage opponents in the centre of the pitch. Alternately Schweinsteiger has the energy and ability to move forward into more advanced positions, which in turn allows Kroos the freedom to find space in more attacking areas. Just as Cazorla’s naturally advanced role forces Wilshere and Arteta to maintain a central position for Arsenal, Kroos’ ability to vary his positional depth allows Bayern’s holding midfielders – Martinez and Schweinsteiger – to adjust their positioning as required.

The end result is that Bayern rarely concede space between the lines where Cazorla will primarily operate, whereas Arsenal can be vulnerable on this area, and will have to contend with the combined threat of Kroos, Ribery and Muller.

Wide forwards and attacking width

Arsenal and Bayern have become two of the most famous exponents of wide forwards in recent years. Both team’s attack with width, and yet neither plays with traditional wingers. For the home side both Podolski and Walcott are natural forwards deployed as direct runners from wide positions. Both players may start wide but will naturally attack the space in the channel between full back and centre back. Bayern’s wide forwards are slightly different – Muller is an advanced midfielder who previously played in more central areas, while Frank Ribery, and when selected Arjen Robben, are ‘inverted wingers’ looking to run directly into central areas to find space to shoot with their stronger foot.

Arsenal’s system is conducive to Bayern’s wide forwards preferred style of play. With Arteta likely to be watching Kroos there is likely to be space between the lines for Ribery and Muller to exploit. Both Thomas Vermealen and Bacary Sagna will need to be watchful from full back and know when to move inside to track their direct opponent. Equally Podolski and Walcott will need to be defensively aware to the attacking runs of David Alaba and Phillip Lahm for Bayern.

In contrast Wenger’s forwards will need to be smarter. Bayern control the space in front of their defence well – both Martinez and Schweinsteiger are content to stay deep – meaning Arsenal’s wide forwards are more likely to find success out wide. Also, Arsenal’s full backs can’t be relied on to offer natural attacking width. Vermealen isn’t entirely comfortable as a full back whilst Sagna has had an uncomfortable few weeks, so both are more likely to focus on their defensive duties rather than looking to attack the opposing full back. With Alaba and Lahm naturally attacking full backs, both Podolski and Walcott will want to pin them back and offer themselves as targets for counter attacking opportunities. It is a fine balance, both will also need to be defensively aware, but with the centre of Bayern’s defence likely to be congested Arsenal are most likely to threaten out wide.

Summary

In any game between similar systems, the midfield battle is crucial. Arsenal can try to compete in midfield but will probably favour the flanks, where Podolski and Walcott are more likely to find space than Cazorla, Wilshere and Arteta. Wenger’s focus will surely be to contain Bayern and condense the space in midfield, which may nullify the threat of Cazorla but more importantly should minimise the effect of Kroos’ movement and Schweinsteiger’s energy. Wenger should be confident in defending with a relatively high line – neither Mandzukic nor Muller possess great pace and Ribery tends to run towards the ball rather than in behind defenders. Yet Bayern are so solid defensively that Arsenal’s wide forwards will need to play well to test them. It may be that, with both Alaba and Lahm looking to get forward, Arsenal have most success on the counter attack.

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