17 February 2014

Bayern Preview: Thanks, Liverpool, for keeping us on our toes

Give credit where credit is due. Liverpool shook us a bit with the Anfield Anomaly™ and very nearly did it again at the Emirates. In the process, we realized that whatever form we've been in only explains the form we were in, which is not the same as the form we need to be in. It's as if we took our foot off the pedal a bit, relaxing after having escaped the December gauntlet, coasting through January, only to crash up against the February fixtures. The loss at Anfield, the tepid draw with Man U, and even the tenuous win over Liverpool, each of these came with warning-signs and asterisks aplenty to remind us that we have to play our best football each time out rather than letting ten months of other results play the match for us. With Bayern coming to town, we might thank Liverpool for the wake-up call.


When the draw for the knockout round was announced in December, Guardiola looked nonplussed (sorry the gif is a bit choppy). This was not the draw he was looking for, not with the likes of Zenit, Olympiakos, or Galatasaray available. After all, there is the memory of last year's stunning second leg to dispel, not to mention the idea that (at the time, at least) we were regarded as the toughest team anyone of the group-stage winners could face. Our 12 points in the Group of Death not only bests all other second-place finishers; it matched group-winner Chelsea and was only one point behind Barcelona and Paris-St. Germain, and all three of those squads played in much-softer groups.

The downside to this, of course, is that there will be no underestimating us this time around. While I don't buy the idea that Bayern assumed they would coast through the second leg—or stopped assuming, oh, about three minutes in—I also don't see them as ruthless as they were last year, when they were apparently obsessed with finally winning the Champions League after finishing as runners-up in 2012 and 2010. That might sound silly to say, when their form this season is every bit as impressive as it was last time through. They have now extended their undefeated run in the Bundesliga to 46 matches (stretching back to last year), so what hope do we have of improving on last year's scoreline?

Lots.

Even for as shaky as we've seemed in the last month or so, we're a far cry better than we were even during the final run-in. The additions of Mesut Özil and Matthieu Flamini have added verve, grit, and experience, while the squad-wide cohesion that was forged since last season's first leg has been invaluable. However, I'm not going to wax rhapsodic about fraternité as if starting the match by holding hands and singing kumbayah will lead to victory. No, thankfully, if Olivier Giroud's singing skills are anything to go by.

We went into that first leg last year not only looking shaky but with some odd squad selection. Vermaelen was pressed in at left-back, and Walcott played through the center. Walcott never really threatened from that position, and our attack floundered for most of the match. With Giroud having rested since last Wednesday's draw with Man U, he should start, restoring a big target for the build-up around whom midfielders like Ox, Özil, Cazorla and others can ping and flit. Just as significant will be his willingness to drop down to receive the ball and defend. Interestingly, the absence of Walcott might even invite Bayern's back-line to play higher up the pitch, offering more space behind for through balls and for counterattacks.

A more-direct lesson from the Anfield Anomaly™ refers to our defensive shape. At Anfield, Gibbs and Sagna played their standard roles, playing high up the pitch to contribute crosses and to offer an outlet for midfielders to pass back to. However, this conceded acres of space for Sterling and Sturridge to work, which they did to devastating effect. Mertesacker and even Koscielny just don't have the pace to make plays in the open field like that, whether it's chasing down a through-ball or tackling a dribbler who's already at speed. At the Emirates, Monreal and Jenkinson played more conservatively, hewing closer to midfield even when we pressed forward, and this denied space behind for the most part. With Flamini to shield them, there should be less space between midfield and defense for Bayern to exploit.

These factors—a strong forward who can link up with the midfield, and a disciplined defense that stays close to home—may not be enough to deliver victory on Wednesday, but it may just be enough to secure a draw. Heck, maybe it will be enough to deliver victory. It's about time we shook off this pattern of losing infamously at home and winning almost more famously on the road.

Why not? Arsenal 2-1 Bayern. There. I said it.