It was a frightening concept to wrap your head around when Pep Guardiola said Bayern Munich are still a long way from being perfect. Or massively exciting, if you’re into that sort of thing. And for a spell on Wednesday night, Arsenal showed domestic rivals Manchester City what it means to turn up with a positive attitude when it matters on the European stage.
For parts of the first half – pretty much until Wojciech Szczesny was dismissed for taking down Arjen Robben in the penalty box – Arsenal took the game to the Bundesliga and European champions. Guardiola’s side were on the ropes, David Alaba, comfortably one of Europe’s best left-backs, was left dizzy from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s surging runs down Arsenal’s right, and Arsene Wenger’s team were playing some of their best football of the season.
Wenger’s first action of the evening was to play a Guardiola card against the Catalan manager, sending in a curveball in the form of Yaya Sanogo. The young striker is untested, backed with no scoring record of his short time in England, but off the back of his performance against Liverpool on the weekend, groans of disappointment would have been few and far between.
Even if we’re to accept that Wenger’s benching of Olivier Giroud wasn’t a disciplinary act, Sanogo brought something freshness to Arsenal’s attack. And if not fresh legs against ones of Europe’s meanest defences, then certainly the naivety of youth – a characteristic that can at times be an ace card in games such as this.
Mesut Ozil’s penalty miss was a thunderous blow to Arsenal’s early hopes. Up until that point, the German looked in the mood and with clarity of mind to lead Arsenal’s attack against some of his countrymen. Not only did it sap Ozil of confidence, it tore a hole in Arsenal’s sail, which they were tasked with replacing while Bayern mobilised towards Szczesny’s goal.
But it wasn’t the turning point, which came later in the first half with Szczesny’s sending off. Alaba’s miss – and not to confuse the fact that the Austrian is a left-back, he is a regular penalty taker for Bayern – gave Arsenal some hope of withstanding the Bavarians’ dominance. With 11 men it’s always a task; with 10, it can be impossible to get anything positive from a game.
Some have looked to draw parallels with Manchester City’s defeat the night before against Barcelona. But a sending off and the scoreline are the only things that both games share. Unlike City, Arsenal were adventurous and determined to stick to their natural game plan.
Maybe it’s a weakness in Wenger that he can’t alter his tactics to properly counter varying opposition. Or maybe it’s a positive and admirable trait that he won’t stray from his principles, no matter who lines up against his team.
Bayern’s first goal came from a sensational strike from Toni Kroos, who was faultless and magnificent throughout. It was a moment of brilliance that the midfielder attempted on three occasions, the other two being denied by Szczesny and the post.
And Bayern’s second came when 10-man Arsenal attempted to launch a counter-attack following Laurent Koscielny’s daring charge up the field to win his side a free-kick in Bayern’s half. Guardiola’s side took advantage of their numerical superiority and caught Arsenal out, with Thomas Muller rounding off a counter-attack from a counter-attack.
It will be looked back on as a night of “what ifs” but Arsenal can be proud of themselves for standing up to and taking the game to a team who are overwhelming favourites to retain the European Cup this season.
Arsenal may be on the verge of being knocked out of this season’s Champions League, but an inability to match Europe’s most powerful team while playing with a man down for more than half the game is far, far from an act of failure.