Arsenal 0 Bayern Munich 2 - comment: Red card for Wojciech Szczesny was correct - but it was also unnecessary and unjust
Unjust rule left the way clear for the perfectionist Pep Guardiola against Arsenal
It is no point blaming the referee for the early exit of Wojciech Szczesny. The goalkeeper committed an offence that denied his opponent a goal-scoring opportunity. As the rules are set he had to go. And now, so should the iron-clad nature of the guidance.
The interests of the game are not served by the dismissal of a player acting in good faith executing a challenge he is entitled to make, last man or not. There has to be room for interpretation. As the watching Michael Ballack observed at half-time, the penalty was punishment enough.
Szczesny’s challenge came with an absence of malice. There was no cynical intention to divert the course of play. He was simply beaten to the ball by Arjen Robben and could not alter his course. None would dispute the penalty award. To compound that with a red card was both unnecessary and unjust.
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Pity, because this was a proper contest. Unlike the night before at the Etihad, Arsenal did not wait until they were a man down to take the fight to their celebrated foe. The Premier League likes to think of itself as the alpha beast. In terms of the spread of competition it might be but the peaks are higher in Spain and Germany.
Bayern are a kind of Barcelona-plus. The exhilaration has gone from the Catalan template. Something of a Barça fatigue has set in, so used are we to witnessing the suffocating passing movements that smother the opposition and as a result the contest.
There is none of that with this Bayern team, which is, frighteningly, in the early stages of its development under Pep Guardiola and brings with it a fresh impetus loaded with the same precision as his old Barcelona model but enhanced by power and pace. The principle of ball retention still holds but the octane levels are higher.
The Barcelona aesthetic always appealed to Arsène Wenger. The 2009 vintage that ripped through his team at the quarter-final stage was, he says, the best performance by a club side he had seen. Wenger, a disciple of the possession game, is evolving his side anew, and appears only a rapier striker short of fulfilment.
Munich, he concedes, are the game’s torch bearers in 2014, a claim few would challenge and borne out by statistics that overwhelm. Chief among them is the remarkable scoring record in the 50 matches since they last failed to pierce the onion bag, against Arsenal in the home defeat in March last year. Their 2-0 victory here rendered Arsenal’s 1-0 riposte meaningless.
They arrived having lost only twice this season, in the German Super Cup and against City at the Allianz Arena having already qualified top of the group. And so there was reason enough for Arsenal to do as City did on Tuesday, despite pre-match projections to the contrary: defer to the reputation before them and retreat into a defensive shell with fingers crossed.
The preoccupation is with personnel, formations, systems, coaches and so on, yet so often the 12th man in any team in the collective will, the mentality that binds the unit. Barcelona oozed belief and confidence, City had too little of it. Bayern swaggered into this match. Arsenal had at the very least to match this quality or submit. And they did, which augers well for their Premier League challenge, if not the march on Europe.
Imagine how tall the fans of Arsenal stood when Jack Wilshere and Mezut Özil combined to open up the Bayern defence. It was football of imperious quality to which the visitors had no answer. Pity Özil has acquired the English flair for missing penalties. His floated punt was easily palmed away by Manuel Neuer, potentially sucking the life from the Arsenal challenge.
What a puzzle Özil is turning out to be, immensely gifted, yet maddeningly distant at times, just drifting through phases of the game, a habit that would not be indulged in the Bayern regime.
Guardiola is the Michel-angelo of the coaching manual, melding art and science in arguably unprecedented synchronicity. The perfectionist in him does not permit an easy ride. He stands hands in pockets in the technical area remonstrating with some of the best players on earth. An inch out of step might as well be a mile with this bloke.
Watching Dante it is a wonder he gets any sleep at all. If there is one player out of step with his innovations it is the Brazilian lump of wood at the heart of Bayern’s defence. Time and again he was left on his heels as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and, early on at least, Özil swept by. Any break in play was an opportunity for a touchline clinic. None was spared, though who knows if Dante was paying attention.
And then a veil was drawn across the piece, the hosts invited to continue against the relentless champions of Europe with hands tied behind backs. They did well to restrict the score to two, and what a beauty the opening strike was. And to think Guardiola is reluctant to meet the wage demands of Toni Kroos.
Don’t worry, son. There’s a job in the Premier League any time you want it, and on your terms, too.
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