There are many reasons for Arsenal to be fearful as they prepare for the first leg of their Champions League Round-of-16 tie with Bayern Munich on Tuesday, but foremost among them is how to get the better of one of the world’s outstanding midfield trios.
The German giants have won their all five matches without conceding a goal since the winter break and you have to go back to October, and 23 games, for the last time they suffered defeat. The Bundesliga title has been all-but wrapped-up, holding as they do a 15-point gap over champions Borussia Dortmund and now Bayern can put their focus firmly on Europe and trying to overcome the enormous disappointment of losing last year’s final on home soil in a penalty shootout to Chelsea.
Arsenal can only dream of such of such smooth sailing. The Gunners’ preparation for such a pivotal matchup could not have been much worse than a shock FA Cup upset at the hands of Blackburn that has again led to an outpouring of frustration from fans and a thorough examination, at least from the outside, of the direction of the club.
Wenger’s decision to start with Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla on the bench appeared critical to defeat as Arsenal desperately lacked creativity. It is understandable for Wenger to prioritize the FA Cup over the Champions League, but the selection can only truly be justified if Arsenal get a positive result against Bayern in the first leg on Tuesday.
Certainly Wilshere and Cazorla will be crucial to the Gunners’ hopes at the Emirates. The center of midfield is Bayern’s heartbeat and they have three outstanding players that would be a welcome presence in any side in the world. Their dominance in that area is demonstrated by the fact that, other than Barcelona, only one team averaged over 60 percent possession in the Champions League group stages and that was Bayern Munich.
Javi Martinez provides the anchor, but in keeping with the fashion of Spanish deep-lying midfielders, the €40 million man prospers through the awareness to be able to intercept play as well as the ability to start off attacks with adept passing.
In Mikel Arteta, Arsenal will also have someone from the same school of holding midfielders. The 30-year-old has been reinvented as the deepest-lying of Arsenal’s central trio this season in a role that has shown off his excellent understanding and reading of the game. He will feel he has a big point to prove too, having never been considered for the Spain national team—unlike his younger countryman Martinez. Yet, whether Arteta has the mobility and defensive ability to disrupt Bayern’s passing will be sorely tested
Next to Martinez will be Bastian Schweinsteiger, who so often dictates the tempo of matches with his passing. After a dip in form following an injury last season, the experienced Germany international now looks to be at least close to his very best.
The most advanced of Bayern’s three will be Toni Kroos, who, at 23, now must surely be considered one of Europe’s premier midfielders. Kroos truly came of age last season and was outstanding in Bayern’s Champions League semifinal victory over Real Madrid. He is now a key performer for both Bayern and Germany.
The tie promises a mouthwatering opportunity to compare Kroos with the similarly talented Jack Wilshere. The 21-year-old will be vital to Arsenal’s hopes in a keenly-contested midfield area where finding time on the ball will become something of an art form, especially against a Bayern side that now presses more and works harder off the ball.
Like few—perhaps no other—English players in recent memory, Wilshere has the ability to take the ball and maintain possession under intense pressure.
Wilshere can also drive forward through the center of the pitch and, alongside, Cazorla, is the key source of creativity in the Arsenal side. Cazorla settled in swiftly following his capture from Malaga last summer, but will have to show that he can play a key role on a huge stage against incredibly strong opponents.
Perhaps only Barcelona, and on their day Real Madrid, can claim to have a midfield that currently parallels that possessed by Bayern Munich.
It is in the center of the pitch where more and more matches are won and lost and it is an area where Arsenal must stand up and be counted if they are to have any chance of keeping their hopes alive of a first European Cup this season or perhaps even just lifting some of the current gloom around the Emirates.
The first leg of the UEFA Champions League round-of-16 tie between Arsenal and Bayern Munich will kick-off from the Emirates at 2.45 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by the Fox Soccer Channel. Viewers in the U.K. can watch the game on ITV1.