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Arsenal Analysis and Tactics. All views expressed are those of Pat Rice. (Disclaimer: they are actually not his words).

Difference in possession philosophy defines Bayern Munich’s approach against Arsenal

Arsenal FC Bayern

- Kroos’s excellent pass set up the key moment in the match
- Bayern Munich’s “sterile” domination a by-product of their technical superiority
- Wenger needs to improve his side’s ball-retention to really kick on

In the end, Arsenal’s Champions League aspirations were cut down to size by one glorious pass by Toni Kroos. The Bayern Munich midfielder, picking the ball up 10-yards outside the penalty box, lifted it over a static Arsenal defence who could not help but stand and watch, as if somebody had stopped time and simply placed the ball in the air and restarted time again. Arjen Robben, who initially played the pass to Kroos, was alive to the opportunity and pounced on the give-and-go, trapping the ball superbly and inducing Wojciech Szczesny into a foul. David Alaba missed the subsequent penalty but it was clear, having seen out Arsenal’s early storm, that the game would turn on that sending off and that one superb moment of vision from Kroos.

It’s not that Arsenal didn’t have the quality to get back into the game but that piece of inventiveness in a way, already highlighted the technical edge that Bayern held over Arsenal, at least at face value. It’s true that Arsene Wenger’s side could harbour much regret from the 2-0 defeat, especially from the way they started the game and then should have had the lead when on eight-minutes Mesut Ozil horribly messed up from the penalty spot. Still, Arsenal’s gameplan was working superbly for the first 15-20 minutes, unsettling Bayern on the ball and breaking quickly. They had lots of joy down the right, especially with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and then the targeted flick-ons from Yaya Sanogo and Bacary Sagna. But then, the game starting to settle into an ominous pattern: Bayern Munich increasingly began to monopolise possession and play the game outside Arsenal’s box. There were sporadic moments to break after that but the crucial thing was that there were chances; something which was taken away from Arsenal after the red-card before half-time. (To put into context how the game was taken away from Arsenal in the second-half, Bayern Munich completed 494 passes after the break. By comparison Arsenal managed just 38).

Technically, this Bayern Munich side is probably somewhere in between the two ball-hogging Barcelona sides which entertained Arsenal at the Emirates in 2010 & 2011, and the Bayern side which Arsenal faced last year. Indeed, in those matches, those teams found out that they couldn’t dominate The Gunners for the full ninety-minutes and as such, there was valid reason here for Arsenal to harbour great regret.

Yet, it was Bayern Munich’s superior technical quality – something that’s ingrained in their mentality much deeper than just being able to pass the ball accurately – which allowed them to assume the tie away from Arsenal.

In the past, Wenger has talked about this as sterile domination (most recently he has said this about Southampton, saying that their possession, in Arsenal’s 2-0 win in November, was an “illusion”); or in other words, passing the ball for passing sake. But for those sides, sterile domination isn’t an aim: it’s a by-product of their voraciousness to be better than the rest at manipulating the ball. In that sense, it’s a grave error for Wenger to continue dismissing the necessary-evil(?) of sterile domination. It forces teams back, and provokes teams to play, at 0-0, in a way that seems inherently defensive (anti-football even in some cases), and it makes it harder to counter-attack against them. Of course, in recent times, there’s been a movement against possession-fixated sides that has been used to great effect called counter-pressing, most devastatingly used by Bayern Munich in the Champions League against Barcelona. Arsenal have tried to adopt those methods to some degree this season and indeed, before the red card in this match.

The most piercing comment of the match was not, however, Wenger’s indignation of the triple-punishment that his side suffered after Robben’s “play-acting” but rather, the approach that he revealed pre-match that they were going to take, which was to defend first. That was him accepting that Bayern are the better side, which in itself is not new information, however, it should put to bed the notion that when two possession-based attacking sides meet, we’re likely to see a festival of goals. Indeed, it’s more likely we’ll see one team defend for large periods and the other try to weather the storm – and possibly after going a goal down, forced to react. That in itself is a bit of a regret: we rarely ever see two sides defined by possession go toe-to-toe on equal footing for the whole match: one is usually a cut above the other. The last I remember seeing such a game was in 2010 when Argentina defeated Spain 4-1 in a friendly with near 50-50 possession each. Other similar encounters, Arsenal’s 2-1 win at the Emirates in 2011 against Barcelona saw Arsenal only accrue 36% of the ball. That, though, after weathering a first-half Barca storm and then having to go Catenaccio in the aggregate defeat away. (Pep Guardiola’s Bayern against Tata Martino’s Barcelona might be the closest we come to seeing possession v possession).

Richard Whittall, editor of The Score, makes a similar point. When you see two sides like Arsenal and Bayern Munich, and then the comprehensive way Arsenal in which were erased from the match red-card after, you wonder why a team as technically proficient as The Gunners couldn’t react. Yet, it’s often forgotten that possession football is diverse – as diverse as the game itself – and usually the best teams are the ones who cultivate possession. In his piece, Whittall uses the example of Manchester City’s defeat 2-0 defeat to Barcelona, saying:

And yet ten minutes in last night, the illusion there is a single, homogeneous style in build-up play in Europe was undone by the clear juxtaposition of the lanky giants in Blue taking on the upright, two-touch-and-go efficiency of the boys in red and purple (what are Barca’s colours, exactly?). One of these teams was not like the other. One of them didn’t belong.

If that seems a little harsh an analogy to use on Arsenal, a team who under Wenger have captivated the world for over 15 years, consider Pep Guardiola’s dismissal of interchangeability and fluidity as a tactic. In a way, he could be dismissing Arsene Wenger’s style which is to grant players the freedom to move around the pitch when in the attacking-third. On the training ground, that’s cultivated by small sided games of 5v5, 7v7 etc. to encourage spontaneous combination play or by drills such as one called “through-play” whereby the team lines up as it would in a normal match but without opponents, so that the players can memorise where team-mates are intuitively and pass the ball between them. For Wenger, the main focus is on expressionism and autonomy. The importance of possession is preached of course but keeping the ball must have a means: patience is only tolerated to an extent.

Guardiola’s approach, however, is more scientific, more hands-on. Players must see the pitch as a grid, each occupying a “square” and making sure each one is filled. He says moving the ball is more important than the man moving as that’s the best way to work opponents. Thomas Muller explains: “It isn’t about having possession just for the sake of it, that’s not the concept. It’s about using possession to position the team in the opposition’s half in a way that makes us less liable to be hit on the break.

Guardiola’s methods are not to be used as a stick to beat Wenger with: he deserves to have faith in the way he works, while his Arsenal side is one that continues to play better football than most. Indeed, at 11 v 11 he had realistic reasons to expect that Arsenal could win this game. However, there are teams that are taking the game to new levels now, and watching the way Bayern Munich stretched the pitch, time after time creating overloads and opening up half-spaces, it’s little wonder that Arsenal weren’t able to get back in the game after Szczesny saw red.

**NB: Pep Guardiola after the match: “Today we again saw that it all depends on possession. We should have fought harder during the first ten minutes. It’s a question of personality; you need to want the ball. We are not a great counterattacking team, as we don’t have the physical requirements for that. We always need to have the ball, that’s what it boils down to.”

Filed under: Match Analysis

3 Responses to “Difference in possession philosophy defines Bayern Munich’s approach against Arsenal”

  1. Ed says:

    On one level I entirely agree. However, I don’t accept that Wenger is losing the battle of tactical progressiveness. He’s been fighting from a weak position for many seasons (why is for another day). Since 2006 the squad progressively weakened until 2012 with the purchase of (Santi, Giroud, Pod). Losing Fabregas and Nasri was a major blow to our technical stocks not to mention that Cesc is a truly rare talent.

    Wenger persisted for a long time until it became, in 2012/13, very clear that inconsistency was the product of forcing players not ready for the system / style to play in that system /style. Consequently, he changed the approach to be more defensively secure one with more counter attacking against stronger teams and more patient (yet dominant) possession against weaker ones. We are still having issues against stronger teams, but the change is definitely showing reward (effective if not scintillating).

    Our approach vs BM reflected the sensible tactic to tackling a superior team. Unfortunately, being the 5th largest club in the world, and being Arsenal and being Arsene Wenger, ‘universal’ expectations of our performance prevents pundits (and many fans) from accepting compromise as anything other than admission of failure. Especially when we lose.

    We didn’t lose because of tactics or technique despite our disadvantages. We lost because that disadvantage combined with the red card and injuries undermined all aspects of our tactics and our options to change the game in the second half.

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    ArsenalColumn Reply:

    Hi @Ed,

    Thanks for the comment. I do agree with largely what you say: I wanted to mention, like you did, how we’re only just breaking out of a period of relative turbulence and as such, any technical strategy is only coming into fruition. Indeed, one has to look not too far to 2009 when Bayern were considered perennial failures in Europe before Van Gaal re-transplanted a playing philosophy, while too, the national game was evolving.

    But I think this puts us into a curious position tactically. Possession sides generally tend to use the same philosophy, established by Total Football, of stretching the pitch thus opening spaces to play. Ours can be vague at times – indeed, Wenger says it requires a “blind understanding.”* I think sometimes we lack that dogmatic part of our philosophy to fall back on, therefore when we’re down to 10-men or backs to the wall, it’s harder to react. (Indeed, how often have we seen, when teams have a man disadvantage, that they still rally?)

    What my point was, in regards to this game, was that having this ingrained philosophy -which goes deeper than just being able to pass the ball well – allowed Bayern to wrestle the game comprehensively away from us when say, other teams just below – Dortmund, Chelsea etc., would have always given us a way back.

    *(Still, our team will be built around players like Ozil, Ramsey and Ox-Chambo and that can only mean onwards and upwards)!

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  2. Woolwich Peripatetic says:

    In some ways I agree but I think that a lack of necessary personnel undermined the tactics rather than a lack of underlying identity. Arteta would have been useful in terms of retaining possession but the two greatest losses were Walcott and Ramsey.
    Walcott for his ability to single handedly alter a teams defensive line – with Özil central and Walcott wide right it would have been nearly impossible for Bayern to stop his runs in behind. Whether they would have been effective or not is another matter.
    Ramsey would have been doubly useful for his ability to break up play and initiate/complete attacks with his running.

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