By Arsenal’s standards, this is not much of an injury list. Santi Cazorla’s absence in midfield continues to be felt, and Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Debuchy are also missing, but with Mohamed Elnenny returned from the African Cup of Nations and Granit Xhaka available having missed four domestic games through suspension, there are options in midfield again. Hector Bellerin, meanwhile, after all the concerns over his head injury against Chelsea, came through Saturday’s victory over Hull City without ill effect. For Bayern, the major absentee is Jerome Boateng, who has a shoulder injury, although Franck Ribery is also ruled out with a thigh problem.
Victory over Hull on Saturday, edgy though it was, restored a sense of calm to Arsenal after successive defeats against Watford and Chelsea. They’re third in the league and still in the FA Cup and, as Arsene Wenger would no doubt point out, they had won six out of seven games before the Watford wobble. But that’s not really the point. The frustration Arsenal fans feel is that they have a side that clearly is gifted, that wins a lot of games, but stutters at vital moments. The game against Bayern is a vital moment, not just in the season, but perhaps also in determining whether Arsene Wenger extends his contract, which expires in the summer.
There have been some doubts among Bayern fans about Carlo Ancelotti’s lack of intensity, but the 3-0 demolition of RB Leipzig just before Christmas suggested he can still get his side to perform in big games (despite the indifferent performances against Atletico and Rostov in the group stage). They’re seven points clear in the Bundesliga having won 10 and drawn one of their last 11.
Arsenal have played Bayern remarkably often in recent seasons. In total, they’ve met in four two-legged ties plus two group-stage matches. Six of those ten games have come since 2013. Although Arsenal have won three individual games, Bayern have always prevailed. Two of the Arsenal wins came in second legs after they effectively lost the game in the first leg. The other came last season when they won 2-0 at the Emirates, only to be thrashed 5-1 at the Allianz Arena.
Bayern will almost certainly play a 4-3-3. They have tremendous strength in depth in midfield, making it very hard to know which three of Philipp Lahm, Xabi Alonso, Thiago Alcantara, Arturo Vidal, Joshua Kimmich and Renato Sanches will be selected. But whoever it is, they will have the advantage of Arsenal’s central three in their 4-2-3-1, which will presumably be Francis Coquelin, Granit Xhaka and Mesut Ozil. This is another of those major games in which you wonder whether Arsenal can really afford Ozil, given his inability or unwillingness to do defensive work. The other option would be to move him out to the flank and adopt more of a 4-3-3 shape, probably with Mohamed Elnenny coming in, but Wenger has historically been reluctant to make tactical changes of that nature.
GIROUD OR SANCHEZ?
Olivier Giroud has scored 11 goals this season for Arsenal, despite not being a regular starter. That speaks of his effectiveness off the bench and Wenger is probably right to think that in the majority of games, using Alexis Sanchez as his central striker gives Arsenal greater fluency, makes them less predictable. This, though, may be an occasion to deploy Giroud. Neither Bayern central defender is the most imposing in the air, and the likelihood is that Arsenal will find themselves under pressure at times, needing the outlet of a big target-man.
Arsenal’s biggest tactical or technical failing in big games in recent years has been their pressing, something that has been highlighted in those games against Bayern and Barcelona. They are simply not organised enough, which is probably the most damning criticism of Wenger’s recent management. Ancelotti doesn’t obsess over pressing structures in the way that Pep Guardiola did, which in part explains the occasionally lacklustre performances. Against RB Leipzig, though, Bayern’s pressing was counter-intuitive and sharp suggesting that when he deems it necessary, Ancelotti can set the trap.
Given their advantage in midfield, it’s hard to see anything other than a Bayern win here. Nothing in Arsenal’s recent form suggests they’re capable of keeping out Bayern, if they’re at anything like top form. Bayern are 1.52 to win the leg but it’s probably worth inflating that by backing them -1.5 at 2.38.