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Tactical Analysis: How Bayern Munich’s admission of inferiority earned them a draw against Arsenal

The Champions League quarter-finals kicked off last night with two absolutely enthralling ties.

Real Madrid and Manchester City have almost made their clashes an annual occurrence in the knockout stage, and they produced a spectacular 3-3 draw in Spain.

Over in England, Arsenal returned to the last eight of Europe’s premier club competition for the first time since 2010.

Up against a Bayern Munich side who were just one game away from losing their 11-season Bundesliga winning streak, the Gunners would have backed themselves to be the favourites to advance.

The Germans had lost their last two games leading up to this one – at home to Borussia Dortmund and away at minnows Heidenheim. With Thomas Tuchel’s exit at the end of the season already confirmed, they looked more vulnerable than ever.

It would hardly have been a shock to see the Premier League leaders score a comfortable win at home, but that did not prove to be the case.

A complete shift in approach gave Bayern a real fighting chance, and in the end, they may even be a tad disappointed not to have come away with a lead.

Bayern’s admission of inferiority

Despite poor results and form in the league by their own lofty standards, Bayern still remain a dominant team in the Bundesliga.

Their average of 62.3% possession in the league places them among the top five teams in Europe’s big five league in this respect, whereas Arsenal’s average of about 60% places them 10th.

This illustrates that Bayern are still comfortably dominating possession and territory in the league. Of course, the trouble is that they are not able to make as much of it as they used to and have weaknesses both in terms of chance creation as well as preventing transitions and counter-attacks.

So, while the raw statistics might have suggested that this tie ought to be pretty evenly split in terms of possession, Tuchel’s side recognised that going toe-to-toe with Arsenal was not the optimal approach for them.

Instead, they kept just over 40% of possession in the match. They accepted that toying with Arsenal’s press too much was asking for trouble and that attempting to disrupt their build-up was a futile exercise.

Almost from the outset, they dropped into a very compact 4-4-2 mid-block — a defensive approach that would not have looked out of place for a mid-table Premier League side to take to the Emirates Stadium.

Jamal Musiala joined Harry Kane to form a front two whose primary responsibility was to screen Arsenal’s double pivot and prevent them from receiving passes from the defenders.

The wingers stepped up out wide and often ‘cheated’ – positioned themselves higher than the central midfielders in anticipation of a potential turnover and counter-attack.

In response to this, Arsenal adopted a more aggressive approach in possession. Instead of their usual 3-2-5 shape in possession created by a full-back inverting into midfield, they started with a double pivot of Jorginho and Declan Rice in midfield, allowing right-back Ben White to freely advance down the wing.

(Image credit: @DBhyperdrive)

White either pushed up wide and forced Bukayo Saka to go inside or went inside himself, but in any case, his high positioning freed up Martin Ødegaard to drift around.

He often dropped alongside Jorginho or even pulled out wide to the touchline to receive passes from the centre-backs, looking to pick up the ball facing goalwards and make things happen.

It was this freedom on the right for Ødegaard that led to the creation of Arsenal’s opening goal, with the two other members of this trio also involved.

With time on the ball to pick up a pass, the Norwegian international fed Saka down the wing, and he was eventually assisted by White from just outside the box.

At this stage, Arsenal were in a commanding position having taken the lead without even allowing their opponents to register as much as a shot.

Bayern needed to change their approach and take on more initiative if they trailed for a long period of time, so everything seemed to be falling in place for the Gunners to capitalise and beef up their advantage ahead of the second leg.

Arsenal’s mistakes allow Bayern back in

As things played out, though, Arsenal threw away their advantage in just a few minutes.

A bit of sloppy play at the back conceded a dangerous turnover, from where Serge Gnabry’s defensive cheating ensured he was always goal-side of the advanced White in the move.

The ball reached him after a couple of passes, and the ex-Arsenal forward slipped his finish home to make it 1-1 in the blink of an eye.

Soon enough, another transition attack from Bayern saw Leroy Sané dart past several Arsenal defenders before being tripped in the box. Kane stepped up to take the resultant penalty, and he made no mistake.

Having conceded in just over ten minutes, Munich would have been over the moon to turn the game around before the half-hour mark.

They could double down on their defensive approach and even sink a tad deeper if they wanted to pack a stronger counterpunch. Thanks to a couple of mistakes from the hosts, the game state suddenly completely favoured the Germans.

Bayern fail to capitalise in the second half

Just like Arsenal could not make the most of their strong starting position, Bayern also failed to capitalise on the favourable match situation in the second half.

To his credit, Mikel Arteta made a crucial substitution at half-time as he brought Oleksandr Zinchenko on for Jakub Kiwior.

The Ukrainian international started inverting into midfield to form the double pivot as Rice pushed forward, meaning White had to stay deep to create the back three. In this way, he ensured Arsenal’s wings were no longer exposed in transition.

Arsenal continued to dominate possession in the second half without conceding too many dangerous chances.

Bayern made some puzzling substitutions as Tuchel brought off Sané, his most dangerous winger in the match. Gnabry also had to be replaced due to an injury, so Bayern’s counter-attacking threat dwindled as the second period wore on.

At the same time, the hosts did a better job of retaining the ball and did not give away too many sloppy turnovers.

This risk-averse approach did mean that they did not create any clear-cut chances themselves either, but a mazy dribble from substitute Gabriel Jesus in the 76th minute unlocked the Bayern defence for one decisive time in the half as Leandro Trossard equalised.

There is all play for at the Allianz Arena next week. Bayern will have to be careful to keep the home crowd happy and not be overly passive, but their overall approach will likely stay the same.

The onus will fall on Arsenal to execute on the big stage in Munich.

Stats courtesy Transfermarkt and FotMob.

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