How Wenger’s Alterations Took Arsenal to Victory against Pep’s Bayern

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In recent years, Arsenal have often been criticised for their so-called softness, but after a big win against Bayern Munich, which Arsene Wenger later described as a “necessity” for their Champions League campaign, no one could have questioned their determination.

The Gunners battled away against the Bavarian side, and in contrast to their league form, which currently sees them as the division’s biggest ball-hoarders, they only enjoyed 27% of possession. As Wenger said in the post-match, Arsenal had to play in an “intense and disciplined way,” and from the first minute until the last, they managed to do just that.

Starting with their defensive display, which essentially took on the form of sitting back, keeping things compact and looking to use Theo Walcott’s pace on the break, Arsenal were diligent. They aimed to pack the centre, often allowing Bayern to spread the ball wide to the likes of Thomas Muller and Douglas Costa, who could then receive the ball in space. And although this led to occasional moments of danger, with Costa’s dribbling a particular cause for concern, Arsenal were usually able to fend off incoming crosses from the wide areas.

They were, however, somewhat vulnerable to Bayern’s movement in between the lines. This was especially problematic early on, as Arsenal defended in two banks of four with Alexis Sanchez on the left and Aaron Ramsey on the right. Indeed, when one of these two players tried to pull out wide, in order to close down their direct opponents, Philipp Lahm and Juan Bernat, Bayern’s fullbacks, they tended to leave little spaces to the sides of Arsenal’s central midfielders.

In the 11th minute, for instance, Arsenal shuffled across to deal with an attack down Bayern’s right-hand side. Soon after, though, the Bavarian giants opted to bring the ball back infield, and as Xabi Alonso received it in a central location, he spotted Thiago Alcantara. The little Spaniard had floated to the left of Francis Coquelin, who occupied his typical holding role in the Arsenal midfield.

At this point, Alexis had been drawn into a slightly wider position, and Thiago was therefore free to pick up the ball in between Coquelin and his Chilean teammate. Once Thiago received possession, he then played a neat one-two, with Muller, before powering a shot towards goal. The Gunners were saved by the excellent reflexes of Petr Cech on this occasion, but it wasn’t a one-off.

On the other side of the field, Robert Lewandowski also dropped into the pockets between Arsenal’s right-sided central midfielder, Santi Cazorla, and right-winger Ramsey. It was in these moments that Pep Guardiola’s team were most threatening, and presumably having noticed this, Wenger decided to act.

“When we were playing halfway they opened us up too much,” he said, “so I decided to drop Ozil a bit deeper and to make it tight around the box and catch them on the break because we have the pace to do it and to find some space with the game going on.”

This proved to be an important move, as Ozil, having previously occupied the No 10 role, now slotted in alongside Coquelin, while Sanchez joined Walcott little further forward. On paper, at least, this looked slightly risky, as Ozil is far from renowned for his defensive intensity. In this case, though, he stuck to his task with a decent level of application, and by staying closer to Coquelin, went a long way towards alleviating the problem described above.

In attack, too, the change also paid dividends, as with Sanchez staying higher up the pitch, and therefore nearer to Walcott, the pair were now able to provide Arsenal with some impetus going forward. Here, their pace in behind was key, and as Bayern increasingly looked to get their fullbacks up into the final third, Arsenal’s rapid attacking pairing worked the channels beautifully. In a two minute stretch alone, just after the half-hour mark, both Walcott and Alexis sprinted in behind, down the left-hand side, as Lahm was caught out in transition. “We had some problems before the break because we were too aggressive,” the German defender would later say.

In this sense, Wenger’s first alteration, in tactical terms, was a success. But as the game meandered into the second period, Arsenal struggled to maintain their absorb-and-counter strategy, and so, in the 74th minute, the Frenchman made another change.

This time he replaced Walcott, up until then a periodic threat against Bayern’s high defensive line, with Olivier Giroud. This altered the Gunners’ approach completely in attack, in a way which Wenger mentioned in the post-match. “He [Giroud] gives us a different option when it does not work on the ground,” the 65-year-old noted. “He gives us options in the air.”

As it turned out, that’s exactly what he did. Just a couple of minutes into his shift, in fact, he backed into Bayern substitute Joshua Kimmich to win a free-kick. Santi Cazorla then stepped up to take it, and as the ball made its way into the box, Giroud stormed towards it, working his way past a hapless Manuel Neuer in the process. Giroud soon bundled the ball into the back of the net, with an uncharacteristic lack of elegance it must be said, as it firstly bounced off his head before spinning in off his right forearm.

In response, the ex-Montpellier man wheeled away to celebrate, as if to avoid attracting the attention of the referees. He might have been slightly fortunate in the way he scored the goal, but that shouldn’t detract from his overall importance off the bench. He held things up well, brought his teammates into play and, in direct contrast to Walcott, gave Arsenal an out-ball. “The last part of the game where we went longer and used long balls,” Wenger said, “we could play more in their half and they struggled.”

In that sense, Wenger’s second game-altering change also worked out nicely, and as Ozil added a second goal for the team, following a searing run from Hector Bellerin, the Gunners boss could be content with his efforts on the touchline. Interestingly, it’s often this area in which he attracts the most criticism, and when things aren’t going to plan, there are always murmurs surrounding whether the game might just have passed him by.

But in recent times, Wenger has become far more practical as far as tactics go, and Coquelin, an example of this himself, talked about the topic after the match. “In the recent games against the big teams we have not had as much possession and counter-attacked,” he said. “It worked well again here.”

As well as that, Wenger also managed to make impressive alterations, from the touchline, against Bayern, both in terms of structure and personnel. The squad, of course, deserve credit for being so adept at carrying out this more defensive gameplan, but after seeing success in several big games since Coquelin’s emergence, perhaps most notably against Manchester City last season, Wenger knew they could do it.

He harnessed the various abilities of his players, made changes on the fly and brought about an impressive win. To do that against a Guardiola side on a big Champions League night was even more significant, and for that, the Frenchman deserves plenty of praise.