Last night, we dared to expect the unexpected.
Arsenal went in to the game off the back of a dispiriting defeat to Blackburn, but we hoped that against Bayern we might see the Dr. Jekyll to Saturday’s Mr. Hyde. We needed an Arsenal display better than anything we’ve seen thus far this season, and we needed Bayern to fall well below their usual standard.
Instead, what we got was about par. We were hoping for a miracle, but got another ordinary day at the office. Arsenal looked mediocre next to a truly impressive Bayern side.
Arsenal fans had clung to the idea that we tend to turn it on against the big teams. However, I’m not sure there’s much evidence to support that theory anymore. This season we’ve faltered in clashes with both Manchester clubs and Chelsea. When we come up against top class opposition, we struggle to impose ourselves.
Bayern undoubtedly belong in that top class. They were compact, organised, and efficient on the attack. They reminded me of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea sides: a powerful core supplemented by blistering wing play. In the Brazilian Dante, they have one of the best centre-backs I’ve seen in a while. Sebastian Schweinsteiger is approaching his peak, and they can even afford to leave the likes of Arjen Robben and Mario Gomez on the bench. They are, in short, far better than us. I wouldn’t fancy any Premier League side’s chances against them.
That said, we didn’t help ourselves. Conceding two goals inside just 21 minutes is typical of this Arsenal team. In his post match press conference, Arsene Wenger spoke once again of “nerves”. He claims the team’s desire to do well inhibits their performance. If that really is the case, I’d suggest a good chunk of the fortune we have in the bank is spent on hiring a few sports psychologists. Elite sportsmen should embrace the highest level of competition, not fear it.
I’d also question the selection of Theo Walcott at centre-forward. This was too much too soon for a player who has only played a handful of games as a pure striker. As supporters we throw our heads back in anguish when we see Thomas Vermaelen at left-back or Aaron Ramsey on the right-wing. For me, Walcott at centre-forward is not much different. That position is no less specialised than any other. It takes time to learn the tricks of the trade. Expecting Walcott to be able to perform there against one of Europe’s best teams seemed a little naive on Arsene’s part. I can understand dropping Giroud to add an extra body in to midfield, but perhaps Lukas Podolski would have been a better option to play through the middle: unlike Walcott, he has extensive experience in that position. To be fair to Theo, he wasn’t helped by his team-mates, who seemed to mistake him for Giroud, launching long ball after long ball at the space above his head. Dante and Van Buyten gobbled these speculative balls up, and Walcott was rendered anonymous.
At the other end, our defending was poor. Against Bayern, you simply won’t get away with that. Our flaws were ruthlessly exposed, and the scoreline is a fair reflection of the gulf between the sides. The only surprise was that an Arsenal-esque mistake from the Germans allowed Lukas Podolski to nick a consolation against his former club.
The tie is all but over. Arsenal will go to Munich and play for pride, but the solemn expression of Arsene Wenger at his post-match press conference suggests even he believes the damage done in this first leg is irreparable.
I didn’t join the chorus of boos at full-time: Arsenal lost fair and square to a better side. I hoped for more, but it would have been madness to expect it. However, the result has compounded the pain of the FA Cup defeat. Within the space of a few days, the focus of our season has narrowed dramatically: it’s suddenly looking like fourth or bust.
Arsenal will return to the Premier League on Saturday to fight for the right to return to this European stage. Last night, Bayern provided a stark reminder that even if we make it back to the Champions League, vast improvement will be required if we’re to do anything more than simply make up the numbers.