Arsenal 1-3 Bayern Munich: Anatomy of a Shambolic Defense

The inquest into last weekend's capitulation in the FA Cup largely missed the point. Brickbats galore were directed at the players, with accusations of arrogance and lack of effort. I disagree.

At a more macro level, the book on this team is that they just don't have the horses to compete against better teams. Again, I disagree. My favorite hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens, have largely the same roster that they did last season. They have 9 wins in 14 games so far...last season, it took 24 attempts to reach that milestone. Guess what they did?

If you guessed "change the coach and general manager", you win a cookie! Same team. Same players. New coach, new discipline, new determination, new results.

Meanwhile, I'm not going to go much into the actual play-by-play account of this match. You all know the story - a talented-but-flawed team got played off the park by a much better one. The underdog got stuffed on their own patch, but it emphatically was not for lack of effort. Arsenal pressed and harried as much as possible, Jack Wilshere in particular busting a gut at every turn to try and keep his side in the game.

Once again, we got tactically outclassed. Once again, we got brutally out-coached. Once again, ridiculous defensive errors made a difficult mission impossible. This time around, I will mainly focus on the goals against and point out the multitude of breakdowns that happened on each.

The common denominator in all of the goals we conceded is that they resulted from attacks targeting the left side of our defense. Each time, a winger or fullback had as much time and space as they wanted to send in a cross, and the resulting chaos saw the ball go into the back of our net.

Even worse, the team selection essentially served to funnel Bayern's attacks directly to the gaping chest wound of our left side. Aaron Ramsey was once again deployed on the right wing, likely for defensive purposes. But, the right was already guarded by the in-form Bacary Sagna, who did not need nearly as much assistance as Thomas Vermaelen did out of position on the left. In the center, the more dependable of our defenders, Per Mertesacker, is the right-sided man. Laurent Koscielny, who has had his troubles this season, was the one protecting Vermaelen. Meanwhile, the notoriously-lax Lukas Podolski was our left winger, meaning that Phillip Lahm and Thomas Muller had a written invitation to bomb down the right wing.

I want to reiterate this - our manager deployed a formation that begged our opponents to attack our weakest point. I mean, I realize I'm part of the democracy of uninformed opinions...I haven't exactly done my pro badges at Clairefontaine. But, doesn't that strike anyone else as beyond insane?

It didn't take long for Munich to take advantage, either. Arsenal had one chance early where Santi Cazorla was alone on the side of the penalty area. He had a decent angle, but passed into nowhere instead of testing Manuel Neuer. Seconds later, Wojceich Szczesny was picking the ball out of his net.

Mikael Arteta was robbed of the ball in midfield, and the visitors were away. Franck Ribery played it out wide to Muller. Vermaelen should have been on him, but he was inside covering Koscielny's man. Kos was in the middle, marking no one. Podolski was miles behind the play, and too far inside to boot. Somehow, Arteta was the closest man to Muller, but he was still a good six feet away. Muller couldn't fail to pick out his man, sending a perfect cross to Toni Kroos in the middle. Ideally, Arteta should have been marking him as the defensive midfielder. Meanwhile, Koscielny lunged recklessly, and missed badly...taking him out of the play. Mertesacker, correctly minding Mario Mandzukic, wasn't able to close down Kroos in time. Szczesny was left with no chance as the youngster calmly lined up his shot and finished emphatically.

Arsenal tried in vain to fight back, one mazy run by Theo Walcott against five defenders a notable highlight. But, Bayern were always in control and only a desperate saving tackle by Vermaelen spared Mertesacker's blushes after he managed to pass it directly to Mandzukic while under no pressure whatsoever. The second lapse, and therefore the second goal, was always coming.

Actually, the second lapse resulted in the corner, at which the third lapse resulted in the goal.

Again, Bayern had the run of their right wing, and again, Vermaelen was in the center marking Koscielny's man. Kos tried to cover for the captain, but was too late. The cross came in, and this time Podolski was the one to lunge and miss. Vermaelen was badly beaten by his man, but again made a desperate sliding tackle to play it out for the corner.

The set piece came in, and Daniel van Buyten sailed past Mertesacker. The BFG had to check the late run of Javi Martinez though, meaning the Belgian became Ramsey's responsibility. Ramsey did his best pylon impersonation, gifting their man a free header. Szczesny perhaps could have done better to deflect the rebound out of danger, but it was well hit from not that far out. The rest of the defense all shut off though, allowing Muller to toe-poke it in while sitting on his bum one yard off the goal line.

I pause here to remind everyone how precious away goals are in Champions League play. Given how tight most knockout ties are, the difference between safe passage to the next round and failure is often how well you play as the visitors. Ponder again how cheaply we allowed our opponents to take a 2-0 lead after just 20 minutes, both away goals at that. 

Somehow, our guys made it to the interval without further damage. Partially, it was down to the Germans slowing play down and taking fewer chances. They were composed and disciplined in defense, and despite their lessened ambition should have been up 3-0 before halftime. Yet another free cross from Lahm was headed risibly wide from Mandzukic, the goal at his mercy.

That is, by my count, four horrendous lapses from the same side of our defense, resulting in two goals against in the first half. To combat this, the manager did...nothing.

To the eternal credit of the players, they kept fighting. Munich largely repelled them with ease, but a moment of madness from their otherwise world-class goalkeeper gave us a way back into the game. A corner was beautifully curled in by Wilshere. Neuer came out to the middle of the area, and then inexplicably stopped. His center-halves stopped as well, expecting him to claim it. The ball bounced perhaps a foot in front of the big keeper, and past him to the left. As this was ongoing, Podolski ghosted past his marker, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and nodded the loose ball into the vacated net.

Cue pandemonium at Ashburton Grove, the home supporters doing what they could to will Arsenal back into the game. For all the talk about the need for the fans to get behind the team, they were blameless on the day.

Bayern looked a bit frazzled for a few minutes after the goal, but Arsenal couldn't maintain the adrenaline rush and the match settled back into its own patterns. I note for the record here that once again, substitutions were not made until the 71st minute. Tomas Rosicky and Olivier Giroud came on for Ramsey and Podolski. Why Poldi was one of the ones coming off, I have no idea. What purpose was Arteta serving at this point? The Germans were largely content to sit back and soak up pressure at this why did we take off one of our more dangerous players?

Rosicky, seconds after coming on, sent a gorgeous raking long ball to Walcott on the wing (where he belongs, by the way). Theo played it into Giroud, who could only volley it against the body of Neuer when two feet either direction would have resulted in a goal. I am grateful for our big Frenchman, he's been important for us this season, but our lack of options kills us when he is out of form like he is now.

 That good feeling was not to last though, yet another ridiculous goal putting paid to any hope we had in the tie. Ooooh, and guess what side of the field it happened on?

You guessed it. A bog-standard long ball was won in the center by Mandzukic. Vermaelen correctly marked Arjen Robben as he made his run, but no one was on the overlap by Lahm. You know, this isn't exactly new - we've been positionally suspect on the wings all season long. Countless goals have ensued, and nothing has changed. Anyway, no one is on the fullback while Koscielny, Mertesacker and Sagna all marked the same two guys in the center. Whoever was on the wing at that point was nowhere to be found. Was it supposed to be Rosicky? Cazola? I have 5-to-1 odds that the players had no idea themselves. Anyway, the cross came in, Mandzukic and Sagna both went for it, and the deflection looped up and into the net.

I mean, what can you say?

In fact, it could have been 4-1 late on. A weird deflection was saved well by Szczesny, but the substitute Mario Gomez was left all alone in the penalty area to tuck in the rebound. He fluffed his lines and somehow guided his shot wide, preventing what would have been a truly appalling scoreline.

I'm beyond anger, though. I had predicted 0-3 before the match, and only a brain-freeze by Neuer prevented that from coming exactly true. The reason I went painstakingly through each goal is that I want to make my case that the players themselves are not to blame here. There is an obvious lack of coaching and leadership, and all the passion and desire in the world won't change that. Football has become a sport of systems and tactics, and we are left with a manager who was never any good at that aspect of things. The sport has passed him by, and we are the ones suffering for it, while paying the highest prices in Europe for the privilege.

I'm sorry to be such a downer about it, but it's the truth. I'm thankful for everything he has accomplished, but at this point he is the one thing holding this club back from where we ought to be. I'll finish by saying this - for me, the most likely result in the return leg in Munich is a 0-0 draw. You know why? Because I imagine they'll be saving their energies for more significant challenges. That sucks, and that hurts. But, really, am I wrong?

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 6, Vermaelen 5, Koscielny 6, Mertesacker 6, Sagna 7, Arteta 6, Wilshere 7, Podolski 7 (Rosicky 7), Cazorla 6, Ramsey 5 (Giroud 6), Walcott 6

Man of the Match:   Sagna was pretty good, and it was a huge tell that Bayern wanted no part of attacking down that wing. However, The Man Who Should Be Captain, Jack Wilshere, gets the nod for running his balls off and exhibiting exactly the sort of qualities that many say the players don't have. He deserves so much better.