Depressing spectacle for Wenger as Arsenal's limitations cruelly exposed
Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller fires past Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny to score his side's second goal at the Emirates Stadium last night. photograph: eddie keogh/reuters
For Arsenal, made to seem no more than a mild irritation at times in the first 20 minutes at the Emirates by a brilliantly well-grooved Bayern Munich, it could have all been much worse. In the end Arsene Wenger will take if not hope then at least a sense of salvaged dignity to the Allianz Arena after an unanswerably decisive 3-1 defeat.
For Wenger, by turns excitable, downcast and familiarly long-suffering on the touchline there was at least the spectacle – as is all to seldom remarked – of this diminished Arsenal team once again giving everything for the cause in the second half. In the end they were simply short of the required quality against a composed and unremittingly focused Bayern, who will take some stopping in this competition. Just not, as it turns out, by Arsenal.
It was unfortunate that the visit of these opponents coincided with Wenger’s most troubled week to date as Arsenal manager. Depending on who you choose to listen to Wenger arrived at the Emirates either in a state of imminent personal meltdown or – his own words – all set to embrace “a fantastic opportunity” to win the Champions League.
Wenger did look almost puppyish during a cinematically-lit opening 10 minutes under the fug of the Bayern flares. In the circumstances Bayern’s opening goal after seven minutes, beautifully finished by Toni Kroos, felt like an expert chop across the windpipe.
On the touchline Wenger visibly drooped as the prospect of a horribly instructive 173 minutes of football against a team who looked not just technically but physically imposing began to yawn ahead.
At times the opening 20 minutes were almost cruel as the visitors preyed on Arsenal’s weakened left side. Thomas Muller and Philipp Lahm, a match for anything in club football, were confronted here by Lukas Podolski’s part-time tracking back and the rejigged Thomas Vermaelen.
Muller’s goal came from that side. “Football’s coming home,” the Bayern fans were already singing midway through the first half, and the sense of epic-scale entitlement exuded by this modern footballing juggernaut was tangible at times.
Before kick-off there was a tendency even to linger a little too sensuously on the many chastening triumphs of the Bayern system, its premium-badged corporate coherence, its high-spec academy assembly line. But here there was a palpable sense of maturity about the visitors, a strut that is entirely warranted.
Could Arsenal have played another way, refusing to come out and leave gaps to be so ruthlessly exposed? Beyond the frustration at Arsenal’s annual player-shedding programme, there is gathering discontent with Wenger’s micro-management, a sense that a one-track tactical approach has been exposed by the decline in quality of player.
Rarely – Barcelona aside – have Arsenal entered a tie so clearly second favourites to win as they did here, and in part the pre-match doom was a function of Wenger’s insistence on staying true to his principles of lightweight passing football where other managers might have changed tack.
Theo Walcott foraged gamely as a central attacker, at one occasion sprinting away from four black shirts in almost complete isolation from his team-mates. Late in the first half as Arsenal were driven forwards by Jack Wilshere, who was in a different league to other Gunners, Walcott leapt with endearing optimism in the general direction of a succession of crosses that Olivier Giroud might have relished.
Otherwise it was a familiarly game but limited Arsenal, leaving alarming spaces behind for the strolling Kroos to pick out from his central position.
For all this by half-time the tie was in effect pretty much dead, and not simply because of Bayern’s two away goals.
More than this, it was the sense of a team operating at an entirely different level, exposing the wider problem of an Arsenal squad that now houses too many players of middling quality.
Arsenal did emerge energised after half-time, not only pressing higher up the pitch, but doing so as a team with Santi Cazorla dropping deeper at times. Podolski’s goal came from a corner that Manuel Neuer flailed at hopelessly. For all that Bayern’s third goal simply gave the scoreline the gloss the German side deserved.