Generally, when playing against the best, it would be wise for a manager to start his strongest players. Arsene Wenger, however, must be smarter than that when Arsenal face Bayern Munich this week.
The meeting of these two sides, by now, is not a novelty anymore – in fact, it would stand to reason that both sides are sick of the sight of each other. And yet Bayern should be delighted to have the chance to face Arsenal again, because they know exactly what to expect.
Wenger, nominally, is a creature of habit. His style is his style and that will not change. For the most part, it is successful but it has also led, in part, to Arsenal having such a poor record against the rest of the Premier League top six in recent years.
Wenger needs to be smarter about this. Trying to inflict his own game onto Bayern (in their own back yard no less) after being bested by them has the level of arrogance that has seen him both be so successful in the first half of his two-decade tenure in North London, but also the level of relative failure in the second half.
The inescapable fact around Wenger’s last decade or so in charge at the Emirates, is that Arsenal have not won a two-legged Champions League knockout tie since 2010. They may have consistently qualified for it every year since, but Chelsea, Tottenham, Man United and Man City have all gone further at least once in that time. There’s something fundamentally wrong with how Arsenal approach these matches.
In that regard, tactical alteration is not just an option to facing the Bundesliga giants at the Emirates – it should be the only option. And that should start with dropping Mesut Özil.
On his day, Arsenal’s record signing is a valuable asset, but “his day” hasn’t occurred for several months now. His unusual goal burst of the Autumn has given way to the German international becoming a £42m passenger in the number ten role, idly walking around while the midfielders, wingers and striker ably try to carry his burden as well as their own.
That tends to be amplified even further when Arsenal come up against a big team that will look to control play – for example, his performances at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge were so poor his club would have probably have been well within their rights to ask for that week’s wages back.
The manager has already laid the groundwork for another anonymous display by admitting that Özil is lacking in confidence in the build-up to this tie. If that’s the case, surely then it makes even less sense to pit him against the likes of Xabi Alonso and Arturo Vidal in the Bayern midfield, players who are quite capable of dominating the centre of the pitch and praying on any uncertainty that he displays.
Taking the game to Bayern is almost certainly what Arsenal will try to do, but trying to exploit their opponents’ strongest area is dangerous. Bayern’s starting eleven is stronger, so Wenger’s Arsenal will have to be smarter.
The argument for him staying in the team, aside from the probably forlorn hope that he will choose this moment to tear a big team apart, is that there are few alternatives to him in the number ten role at the club. The likes of Lucas Pérez, Danny Welbeck or even Alexis Sánchez behind a main striker in Olivier Giroud, would be risky alternatives.
Is that really more of a risk than the possibility of another ineffectual display from Özil? Pérez and Welbeck are industrious if nothing else, and in a Champions League away game at the Allianz Arena industry should trump nonchalance every time. And that’s before the question of why there even has to be a number ten – a trio with a holding midfielder doesn’t seem to even been considered by the Gunners boss.
Besides, Wenger has already confirmed that David Ospina will be starting ahead of Petr Cech in goal, so the idea that Özil should simply start because he’s generally a better player than the alternatives should not be the only one. The balance of the team should always come first – if the best way of beating Bayern is without Özil on the pitch then it’s a sacrifice worth making.
There’s a reason that Bayern, Barcelona and Real Madrid keep getting to the latter stages of the Champions League, and generally winning it, and it’s not just because they have some of the best players in the world. Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp, when referring to Chelsea’s title challenge, called it being “streetwise.”
The aforementioned trio know how to win European games (Barca’s almighty meltdown on Tuesday notwithstanding). Despite being involved in this competition for the bones of twenty years, Wenger still approaches every match like a Football Manager player that sets his tactics in August and doesn’t bother to alter them at any point for the rest of the season.
It may yet work – Bayern, for all of their dominance in Germany once again, haven’t totally impressed under Carlo Ancelotti in the same manner that they did under Pep Guardiola – but the likelihood of Arsenal losing yet another tie because of their failure to adapt to their surroundings appears to be the stronger one at this point.
This may be Wenger’s last chance to bury his Champions League demons once and for all – but first, he has to finally get one over on an old enemy.