Defeated by Olympiakos. Embarrassed by Dinamo Zagreb. Humbled by Bayern Munich. Arsenal are not out of the Champions League, but their hopes hang by the thinnest thread. They must win both their remaining games, and by a margin of least two goals in Greece, and still hope other results go their way. One of Arsene Wenger’s proudest records, Arsenal’s 15 consecutive qualifications for the knock-out stage, is in grave danger.
Only Wenger and Arsenal’s supporters could not sit back and admire a Bayern team at the peak of their powers. Before Tuesday, Pep Guardiola’s side had scored 29 goals in their seven home games this season, and the second and third-best teams in the Bundesliga had conceded five apiece. The Premier League’s joint-best defence was taken apart in precisely the same manner. 5-1 vs Dortmund. 5-1 vs Wolfsburg. 5-1 vs Arsenal.
John Terry spent this week telling us that only the opinions of football’s greats should be taken seriously, only for Peter Schmeichel to inadvertently make Chelsea’s captain look like a fool. It took 20 minutes.
“Guardiola has a way of playing, he has a system and he sticks to that,” Schmeichel said in the build-up to the game. “He has changed Bayern Munich from what I thought was a fantastic treble-winning team under Jupp Heynckes. They played quick football, through the middle, using the width of the pitch. He started to make them pass the ball sideways and I don’t think they are as exciting as what they were.”
If Guardiola’s brand of football is anything approaching dull, one shudders at what Schmeichel does with all that Danepak bacon to get his kicks. Bayern were at their sumptuous best, a stunning display of athletics and aesthetics in perfect harmony. The interchange of players, the exploitation of minute mistakes, the work without the ball, the one-touch passing and the finishing. All were at a level beyond anything the Champions League has witnessed this season. Most striking is that Bayern played in second gear for large swathes of the game.
Arsenal were brilliant in their home victory over the German champions. In the Allianz Arena, they were lambs to the slaughter, walk-on parts in the abridged tale of Bayern’s majesty. By half-time, Bayern had scored three times, taking their tally to 26 goals in their last 411 minutes of home Champions League football. Two more followed after the break. It could have been ten, should have been eight. Pick a number.
Arsenal made problems for themselves; plus ca change. Gabriel held an appalling defensive line for Robert Lewandowski’s 19th goal of a magical season, while Per Mertesacker continues to at least occasionally display the pace and turning circle of the Queen Mary 2. Bayern’s attacking quartet hounded the visitors in possession. Santi Cazorla touched the ball only eight times in the first 20 minutes, a reflection of how the Spaniard’s supply routes were marshalled effectively. Poor Francis Coquelin was like a sole, sorry policeman in rush hour, helpless to do anything but wave the traffic through.
If Laurent Koscielny was disappointed to miss out through injury, fit enough only for the bench, Hector Bellerin would be forgiven for sighing in great relief. Guardiola surprisingly opted to play Douglas Costa on the right, but Mathieu Debuchy was given no respite, run ragged by Kingsley Coman. Nacho Monreal was left so isolated by his team-mates that he might as well have spent the first half putting SOS messages in glass bottles.
The defeat will raise predictable further questions about Arsenal’s strength in depth. Without Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Koscielny and Bellerin, resources were noticeably stretched. Joel Campbell has not yet proved his merit on this stage, while Debuchy continued to look incapable. Arsenal’s bench contained four defenders, a rookie goalkeeper, a 19-year-old forward and a space where another attacking option should be.
Yet this was not the night for that argument. With Bayern in this pomp, absentees would not have bridged the gap. Amid talk of Arsenal injuries, it’s worth pointing out that none of Mario Gotze, Arturo Vidal, Juan Bernat, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Mehdi Benatia or Holger Badstuber started for the home side. That’s obscene strength in depth.
There is a trend to label any Arsenal defeat as typical/same old/pure Arsenal, but this was different. This was no ‘typical’ Arsenal, simply a dismantling at the hands of Europe’s form team. I’ll let Arsenal fans decide which is worse.