19 February 2013

Arsenal 1-3 Bayern: Postmortem

Well, after a frantic first half in which we set a record for quickest goal we've conceded in UCL play and generally looked like a bunch of chickens running around with their heads cut off, the second half showed a more composed but still aggressive Arsenal bunch. In the first half, everything just seemed to go Bayern's way--the bounces of the ball, the blows of the whistle, the strategy--and for us to have gone in at the half down "only" 0-2 was actually far-better than we'd have a right to hope for. The frustration of being down 0-2 showed as we earned four yellow-cards, three for deliberate fouls of frustration and one for a reckless challenge, not to mention a few non-calls from an inconsistent ref. It was, as one commentator put it, a "men vs. boys" kind of first half. As I mentioned in the halftime report, our defenders were pouring too far forward and were then getting caught in Bayern's counters--ironically, just the kind of strategy I'd hoped for against Bayern, if not Blackburn. So it goes. Going in to the second half actually saw us balance out. While Bayern sat back a little more, content to keep four or even five men back on defense, we did assert ourselves, passing and pressing and generally looking like a proper football team. Podolski scored a nifty goal ten minutes in, heading home into an empty net during a corner-kick scramble.

All of a sudden, it looked like a tighter match. Bayern, however, awoke from their self-induced torpor and started creating chances. When Mandzukic "scored" in the 77th minute, my initial notes included remarks like "crap goal", "worst goal I've ever seen", "wouldn't've counted in billiards" and so on. He slid onto a cross that made its way across the goal-mouth and somehow squirted it straight up into the air while he tumbled into the back of the net--surely the first time the scorer hit the netting before the ball was even in. There were a lot of breakdowns leading up to this: Vermaeleen overcommits to Robben's left, leaving open the entire left side for Lahm to run on to Robben's pass, Koscielny makes little effort to block Lahm's cross while Woj stays on his line, and Sagna lets Mandzukic get inside for the touch. Just ugly all the way around. I want to say it came against the run of play, but that's overselling it. It was ugly and lucky, but that doesn't matter. It took a lot of the wind out of our sails and means we have to go to the Allianz Arena to win by three if we expect to advance. The question already becomes, will we even show up? There are interesting parallels to last year's encounter with AC Milan; sadly, the miracle we need has to happen away from home this time, and it looks more and more like the trophy-less streak will continue, sad to say, and the calls for Wenger to resign will strengthen.

In this second half, we showed grit and determination enough to move forward. Wilshere, in another performance soon to be described with the phrase "as always", drove the team forward. In the last 15 minutes, I don't think I saw a forward push that started without him. He regularly received or just plain got the ball near midfield and drove up-field. His give-and-go with Rosicky, laying the ball off to Rosicky at the top of the 18 and then running onto Rosicky's pass, for example, very nearly led to a goal, and it was his corner that led to Podolski's goal. Teammates clearly look to him as the engine of this team, each match, especially ones like this when more-experienced players look to be out of depth further proves that Arsenal's future is bright as long as he's in it.

On that note, then, it was inspiring to hear the chants of "Let's go, Arsenal" at the end of the first half and the singing to bring the game to a close. While it's not quite Irish fans singing "Fields of Athenry" in the last five minutes of a loss to Spain, it shows that we do have some fighting spirit during one of the toughest stretches of one of the toughest stretches (not a typo, I meant to repeat myself) we've been through in a while. This is a result I feared but also am not all that upset about. In fact, I'm stoic in my acceptance. I had encouraged us to throw on a team that would allow us to rest , but Podolski, bless his heart, gave me something to pull for even though it disappeared far too quickly. This was not an unpleasant surprise or even a disappointment, in my eyes. We ran into a team that is perhaps inspired by its loss to Chelsea in last year's UCL final.

Let's turn our attention to Aston Villa on Saturday. We need some catharsis, and if this comes at the price of shoving the Acorns down into the relegation zone, so be it.