Fighting spirit or a step too far for Arsenal?

So Mission Impossible was a step too far for Arsenal. But they can leave Germany once more with their heads held high as they came away from their Champion’s League last-16 tie against Bayern Munich with a creditable 1-1 draw from the Allianz Arena.

The Gunners were without question an outstanding second best for 180 minutes against the world’s most dominant football team. And this fact is no shame.

The first half saw the team drop off Bayern in order to shut out space for their midfielders in front of the back four. They allowed David Alaba and Philipp Lahm to push on forwards, enabling them to try to space in dangerous pockets behind Arsenal’s full-backs. Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker had to be at their most alert to close off any opportunities while it was the job of Mikel Arteta and Alex-Oxlade-Chamberlain to track their midfield runners. They held out resolutely for the first 45 minutes but created precious little in terms of goal-scoring opportunities.

They looked to press on more positively in the second half and, but for a swift equaliser from Lukas Podolski, the tie looked to be dead and buried after Bastian Schweinsteiger ran unmarked into the centre of Arsenal’s penalty area to knock in unchallenged.

Coming and achieving a repeat of last year’s performance was always unlikely against a Munich side which has dropped just four points in the Bundesliga all season. But the way the Gunners battled should be the most heart-warming factor to take from the performance. In particular, the current form of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain gives Arsenal and England much to be positive about. One powerful, jinking run in the first half displayed his confidence and his technical ability whilst his positional awareness throughout the entire match demonstrated his growing capability in this relatively new-found deep midfield position for him.

However, if you allow the morning’s papers to tell the story for you then Mesut Ozil is to blame for Arsenal’s elimination.

As the side were so intent on keeping the scoreline close, and clearly not playing in a manner that would coincide with the natural strengths of his game, it makes it increasingly difficult to understand and accept some of the criticism of Arsenal’s record signing. He isn’t on top of his game currently, anyone can acknowledge this. He is clearly adept in a side that are in the ascendency but his game struggles when his side need extra defensive support. AVB lookalike and perennial gob-shite Neil Ashton of the Daily Mail used the passing statistics of Bayern’s Thiago, Schweinsteiger, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben as a stick to beat him with. But is there any surprise he fell so short of the players in a team who enjoyed 67 per cent of possession and completed well in excess of double the amount of passes the Gunners put together?

Sure, Ozil struggled to have an impact. Pep Guardiola pinpointed his abilities prior to kick-off as one of his side’s biggest focuses in Bayern’s pre-match preparation saying how, “I do not want to see Ozil control the game.” Coming up against a side who not only excel in their attacking style, but also in preventing opposition players performing to their capabilities meant that if he was to have a positive impact the team would have to approach the game in a way that would benefit him. Playing out on the wide right and being forced to play a defensive wide-midfield role was never going to. Couple this with the fact that he played the best part of 30 minutes with a hamstring problem, which is now destined to keep him out for “at least a few weeks”, and I think a below par performance can be forgiven.

He’s struggled already this against away at Liverpool and at home against Borussia Dortmund, both teams who looked to harass Arsenal high up the field. When teams hassle him out of possession, he finds it hard to adapt. But it is down to Ozil, Arsene Wenger and his team-mates to overcome this. It has nothing to do with his price tag and everything to do with the adaptation of the player and the team.

Right now he is an easy target. But to focus solely on Mesut Ozil’s performance in the grand scheme of events last night is professional negligence on the part of any journalist who has attempted to. It’s almost as though they have yet to realise the greatness of this Bayern Munich side and have yet to accept what Ozil does and doesn’t do well. He didn’t choose his price tag. The only influence he had on it were three years of consistently high-class performances for the world’s biggest club. That and the redefinition of the word ‘assist’.

Ozil was bought for the big occasions. To lift Arsenal once again into the pantheon of Europe’s footballing elite. But to pin so many hopes on one man is unfair when the evidence of the two-legged tie versus Munich shows that the club just isn’t yet there. Ozil’s hamstring injury was Arsenal’s biggest loss last night. Those who claim it may be a blessing in disguise are severely short-sighted. His form may be questionable but his quality certainly isn’t.

Arsenal may not be able to take too much from the overall quality of their performance in Munich but they can once again, as on many occasions this season, take heart from their once-questioned abilities when they have their backs to the walls. The rest of March promises to shape the remainder of their league season and they may have to be at their obstinate best to keep their dreams of a first league title in 10 years alive.


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