A 4-3-3 for the ages
Carlo Ancelotti started exactly the same lineup with which Bayern demolished RB Leipzig in the climactic game of the Hinrunde: Thiago pulling the strings in the midfield, Costa out left, Robben out right, with Vidal and Alonso working harmoniously behind them. This time, however, Bayern lined up against a team that, on paper at least, resembled them much more closely: Mesut Özil playing the part of Thiago, Alexis Sanchez that of Lewandowski, Granit Xhaka that of Arturo Vidal. In this clash of midfields, however, Bayern demonstrated absolute superiority. Arsenal were almost utterly suffocated in the midfield and starved of chances in the final third. Vidal and Thiago left little room for maneuvering, and Alonso compensated for his pace with clean, rapid passing up field.
80% possession isn’t enough
Bayern thoroughly dominated Arsenal throughout the first half with crisp, accurate passing. It was perhaps the best passing performance we’ve seen since the height of the Guardiola era. But no amount of possession can secure a team from . . . stuff happening. Bayern could have taken a commanding lead in the first half, if Robert Lewandowski had somehow managed to make better contact on several slightly high crosses. He didn’t, and then Arsenal got the kind of break that no amount of skill can account for: Lewandowski accidentally kicked Laurent Koscielny in the leg while clearing a corner kick in the box and the referee called for a penalty. After conceding, Bayern responded with their full offensive potential: scoring from the wings, through the middle, and in a variety of combinations. That creativity is what wins matches.
Beating Arsenal the right way
With Franck Ribery watching from the stands, it fell to Douglas Costa to lead Bayern’s offense on the left wing. Costa acquitted himself well, but Bayern struggled to mount a threat on the left. Costa’s most significant contribution to the game came when he assisted Arjen Robben’s goal – while overloading the right. It was the right flank that tormented Arsenal most tonight: Robben, most obviously, after scoring yet another Robbenesque goal that never ceases to amaze us. The second goal, in the second half, likewise came from the right, as captain Philipp Lahm delivered the perfect cross to Lewandowski. That goal opened the floodgates. Robben nearly scored a fifth goal for Bayern off a similar chance created by Lahm – and Costa did likewise, again while overloading the right. When things go right for Bayern, they really go right.
Not all was rosy for Bayern, despite the impressive 5-1 scoreline. A number of defensive scares in the first half threatened to derail Bayern’s dominant performance. These came particularly when Vidal was caught out playing too aggressively up the pitch, leaving Bayern’s slow center-backs exposed to the pace of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and especially the fiery Alexis Sanchez. It is the Ancelotti-era equivalent of Pep’s notorious high line. Vidal’s presence up the field must be by design: he frequently moves into a position just outside the penalty area, ready to fire a long-range shot on goal if Bayern’s wingers are unable to cross the ball inside - in fact, he took four shots today, surpassed only by Lewandowski (5). On the (few) occasions when Arsenal intercepted the ball, however, Vidal’s role as an offensive release valve turned into a liability, as Arsenal’s pacier attackers exploited the slowness of Mats Hummels and Javi Martinez to make dangerous runs on goal, forcing Manuel Neuer to step up and make saves. For opposing teams going forward, this vulnerability may prove to be a key angle of attack.
A word about Thomas Müller
With the game in the bag, up 4-1 with just over five minutes to play, Carlo Ancelotti substituted Thomas Müller for Robert Lewandowski. Two minutes later, Müller scored Bayern’s fifth goal on the day, and in inimitable Müller fashion: as Thiago received the ball from Kimmich right in the center of the box, Müller instinctively drifted out right, finding himself wide open in Arsenal’s penalty area. Thiago duly passed the ball, and Müller put it in, just like that. It was the crowning glory of the evening, and perhaps the one goal that gladdened Bayern Munich fans more than any other. The sequence played out as if to remind the world that Thomas Müller is an essential part of this team. Ancelotti may have started Thiago tonight, and indeed Müller was not missed. But Ancelotti knows how important Thomas Müller is to this team, and to all Bayern fans. The goal eloquently attests to it. Müller will work his way out of his slump, and Ancelotti will be eager to use our favorite mercurial forward. Ancelotti is “not stupid,” after all, as he himself said.