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Monday, 18 March 2013

Beating Bayern is not a 'fifth trophy' for Arsenal

Bayern Munich 0 - 2 Arsenal

Swansea City 0 - 2 Arsenal

On paper this has been a good if not a great week for Arsenal Football Club. That's what someone whose memory lasted not longer than, let's say, a week could be led to believe. Since Wednesday's match in Germany, bloggers and tweeters took to the web en masse, waxing lyrical about 'going down fighting', 'heads held high' and 'pride restored'. Nobody can deny that a 2-0 win away at Bayern Munich is anything other than a great result for any team in the world at the moment, and for a team currently sitting in fifth place and twenty-four points adrift in the Premier League, the achievement is intensified.

BUT, let's hold onto our horses before they get carried away by this swell of North London pride. The win at Bayern was part of an aggregate loss (admittedly only on away goals) but a loss nonetheless. 

Those whose memories do not stretch as far back as the 3-1 loss to Bayern in the first leg at the Emirates last month will by extension not be able to recall that an almost identical situation occurred for the team this time last year against AC Milan. A drubbing in the first leg was followed by an emphatic victory in the second, meaning that for two years running Arsenal were dumped out of the Champions League by a solitary goal.

This is perhaps the most damning proof yet that Arsenal are currently stagnating in terms of team progression. Whilst defeating Bayern Munich, AC Milan and Barcelona the year before that shows that the seasons since 04/05 have not been completely without success, Arsenal need to learn to compete over a two-legged fixture in order to get any further in the competition.

The game in Munich saw a great defensive performance from a back five who for the first time in a while were all staking their claim to starting places that were by no means theirs by right. Before Wednesday, Fabianski had not played in a year and his performances in both games will put pressure on Szczesny. Equally, Mertesacker and Koscielny made strong cases for Wenger to leave out captain Vermaelen on a regular basis. At full-back, Gibbs looked like a man who is rightly looking over his shoulder at the increasingly impressive Monreal, whilst Jenkinson is also giving Sagna a run for his money. In front of them, Ramsey and Rosicky did well to fill Wilshere and Podolski's boots. This is exactly what has been lacking for Arsenal this season: depth, determination and competition.

Despite these positives however, Bayern themselves were by no means at their best. Also missing players through injury and suspension, the Germans went into the game knowing all they had to do was avoid a 3-0 defeat. This is why when Arsenal got a fortuitous early goal, the Germans did not deviate from their gameplan or panic, knowing that the game was still a long way from becoming a serious contest. For the next 80 minutes, Bayern dominated the game in terms of possession and opportunities but a combination of solid defending and poor finishing meant that none of their twenty-one shots on goal were successful. Thus when Arsenal finally managed to get another goal late on, Bayern remained unfazed and diligently saw out the match.

Thus a good result in which Arsenal scored twice despite only having three shots on target was a confidence boost, but in reality nothing more. Bayern Munich were never going to exert their full strength in a game that was already all but a foregone conclusion, and the victory should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt, and as a wake-up call (as if they needed one) that Arsenal need to shake things up.

Likewise the win at Swansea, a team who beat Arsenal by the same scoreline at the Emirates in December and who Arsenal are as close to on points as they are to Manchester City, was in isolation another good result. Yet these performances should be the rule and not the exception, and back-to-back clean sheets should come more frequently for Arsenal than four or five times in a campaign. The team has still failed to match the seven-game unbeaten run that kicked off the 12/13 season.

This time last month I was writing after the 1-0 victories against Stoke and Sunderland and just before the Blackburn match. During the thirteen games between the Bradford and Brighton fixtures, Arsenal had lost only twice - to Manchester City and Chelsea - and I was feeling optimistic. The fact that this period was followed by one in which Arsenal exited two cup competitions and lost to their bitterest rivals has left me with the inability to get carried away by two 2-0 victories, no matter who the opposition were.

So whilst there are many positives to take from the past week, this should not mean that Arsenal can take their foot off the gas and become complacent once more. They have shown that the battle for fourth and third place is not over but still have to play five of the clubs involved in the relegation battle, as well as Everton and Manchester United. There will be no easy games and if the club misses out on Europe next season, it is not stagnation that will be the concern, but real and genuine decline.

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