Thiago Alcântara and Bayern Munich leave Arsenal staring into the abyss
This article titled “Thiago Alcântara and Bayern Munich leave Arsenal staring into the abyss” was written by Daniel Taylor at the Allianz Arena, for The Guardian on Wednesday 15th February 2017 21.56 UTC
For Arsenal perhaps the most demoralising part is that nobody can even be greatly surprised any more. Once again they have flatlined in the first knockout stage of the Champions League, a competition that is simply beyond their reach. It will be the seventh successive season they have lost their way at this point and, for all the disappointments in the second part of the Arsène Wenger era, it is difficult to think of another occasion when they have looked so far removed from the elite.
Wenger sounded broken afterwards and talked of his side having “mentally collapsed” but these faultlines are nothing new. This was just the latest evidence – possibly the most conclusive evidence – that the modern-day team is too vulnerable, too fragile and simply incapable of disturbing teams with Bayern Munich’s haughty self-regard. Arsenal’s supporters booed their team off the pitch and this time nobody should accuse them of lacking gratitude or of kneejerk reactions. If Arsenal genuinely want to be one of Europe’s superpowers, it is clear Wenger’s position needs a lot of thought between now and the end of the season.
It was certainly a collapse of spectacular and rare proportions once Bayern Munich puffed out their chests and scored three times in a 10-minute blitz early in the second half. Carlo Ancelotti’s team were unsparing once they realised their opponents were contemplating surrender and it was almost a surprise the Bundesliga champions waited until the 88th minute before scoring again, via the substitute Thomas Müller, and completing a rout that means Arsenal will require one of the greatest nights of Wenger’s reign to go through.
Unfortunately for Wenger, the idea of a 4-0 home win on 7 March feels implausible when his team are susceptible to these kinds of meltdowns. More likely Bayern will just add more goals. Wenger talked about the last 25 minutes being “a nightmare” but it was actually much longer than that. No team can defend this generously and get away with it. The lack of structure and organisation was startling and nobody should genuinely believe Alexis Sánchez’s first-half goal could yet instigate what, for Arsenal, would be nothing short of a football miracle.
Bayern have now won their last 16 Champions League assignments at home, accumulating 58 goals in the process. Thiago Alcântara scored twice during the part of the game when Wenger’s men caved in from a position of relative strength. Arjen Robben had opened the scoring in the first half and, however accustomed one might be to Arsenal’s shortcomings, it was still genuinely shocking to see what happened after Robert Lewandowski made it 2-1 eight minutes into the second half.
Arsenal, in stark contrast, have lost the first leg of their last-16 encounters six times in a row. On each occasion they have been beaten by two goals or more, conceding 19 in total, and though they were clearly hampered by an injury to Laurent Koscielny early in the second half, it still does not explain why Arsenal virtually gave up once Bayern went back into the lead shortly afterwards.
Wenger noted later that, at 1-1, Granit Xhaka and Mesut Özil both had chances to put Arsenal ahead. It was true and for a while the game had actually swung in Arsenal’s favour. Sánchez had the beating of Mats Hummels, a centre-half who can be vulnerable on the turn, and Lewandowski’s carelessness had left Koscielny on the floor for a penalty decision that, briefly, threatened to change the complexion of the night. Sánchez eventually managed to get the rebound past Manuel Neuer, scoring after Bayern’s goalkeeper had saved the penalty.
At the same time there was always the sense that Bayern had enough penetration in attack to add more goals and that Arsenal, defensively, were far too open.
Robben’s goal was a beauty but, from an Arsenal perspective, it summed up their disorganisation that he was allowed to cut in from the right, his favourite old trick, looking for the angle to take aim with his left foot. He has been doing it all his career and it was baffling, to say the least, that the two nearest opponents, Alex Iwobi and Francis Coquelin, did not sense the danger. Robben’s intentions were clear and he scored, brilliantly, with a soaring, diagonal shot into the top corner of David Ospina’s net.
Bayern’s second goal also originated on the right. This time Robben and the overlapping Philipp Lahm had doubled up on Kieran Gibbs. Lewandowski was in the penalty area, outjumping Shkodran Mustafi to score with an expertly placed header, and the body language of Arsenal’s players as they made their way back to the centre circle was one clue about what was to follow. Özil, with his sagging shoulders, will inevitably be scapegoated but this was a collective malaise.
Alcântara’s first goal came from one of the game’s outstanding moments, a beautifully disguised drag-back from Lewandowski to split open the entire Arsenal defence, and from that point onwards Ospina’s goal felt permanently under threat. The pressure was relentless and, with so many bodies in such a confined space, Alcântara’s next shot took a deflection to wrong-foot Ospina and make it 4-1. Bayern were still not done and Müller lashed in the fifth after Alex Oxlade‑Chamberlain had given the ball away. Wenger’s press conference was cut short after three questions; he looked grey.
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