Arsenal's Champions League campaign, and, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, for all intents and purposes, their season, is all but over after they were comprehensively beaten by Bayern Munich on Tuesday night.
The Germans travelled to London in sizzling form; topping their domestic table by 15 points, scoring 57 goals in the process and, perhaps most intriguingly, only conceding seven - making Jupp Heynckes' side by far the meanest defence in Europe.
So Arsenal had their work cut out from the start. Manager Arsene Wenger opted to start Theo Walcott centrally, with Santi Cazorla wide, thus relegating Olivier Giroud to the bench. There were few complaints with this decision before the game but hindsight subsequently demonstrated that the lack of service Walcott, a player that relies on running in behind the defence rather than holding it up like his French teammate, received meant it was always going to be a near impossible task.
Cynics would point to the fact that Arsenal only scored from a corner that shouldn't have been, and because of a rare lapse in concentration from Bayern 'keeper, Manuel Neuer. To be frank, with the difficulty in which they tried to pick holes in the opposition defence, one could in fact argue they did well to score at all.
So why were Bayern so superior? Were they more tactically adept or did they simply have better personnel at their disposal? Probably both. But it's not all about having the best players; Chelsea were by no means favourites to win the competition last season, but their success relied on discipline, teamwork, and, of course, an element of luck.
Arsenal have decent players, no more promising than young Jack Wilshere, but they don't seem to utilise them to their full potential. Wilshere would have flourished with better individuals behind him, and despite their best efforts, one has to wonder whether Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey are cut out for the very top level. These two players sit in front of the back four and are tasked with getting the ball, maintaining possession and starting attacks. They do that job well against, shall we say, less cultured opposition, but against the elite they were found out.
Certainly their counterparts proved the size of the chasm between the sides. The two players Bayern deployed in this position were the outstanding Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez. The latter joined in the summer, for an estimated fee of €40million; a huge amount of money for, to put it bluntly, a defensive midfielder. But Martinez is one of the best in the business, as he demonstrated on Tuesday night. Putting all the politics at the club to one side, this is perhaps the most glaring difference. Arsenal would never be caught spending that kind of money, certainly not for someone in that position. But strengthening in the right areas would make them a much better side; it has of course worked for Bayern who have been watertight defensively all season.
Tactically, the Germans were typically efficient. The wingers, Franck Ribery and Thomas Müller, cut inside to devastating effect, which also opened up the space for their respective full-backs to bomb forward. Being so forcefully on the front foot also pushed Arsenal back, and thus negated the impact of players like Lukas Podolski, who was highlighted as a major threat prior to the game.
Similarly, there was one occasion when Walcott looked to break and he was one-on-one against a Bayern defender. The player jockeyed and stunted the progress of his opponent and, in the blink of an eye, the Germans had seven men behind the ball. The barricades were up; there was nowhere for Arsenal to go and that was pretty much the story of the night.
The difference being you seldom see any English team, let alone Arsenal, somewhat notorious for neglecting their defensive duties at times, showing such commitment for, shall we say, the less glamorous facets of the game. But simple things like tracking your opponents, something Cazorla failed to do with Philipp Lahm in the build-up to Bayern's third, so often represent the thin line between success and failure.
Arsenal are not out of Europe just yet, but they face the tallest of orders in the second leg. Despite the stiff competition in this tournament, you'd be brave to bet against Bayern going all the way. There would be a certain irony having lost the final on German soil last year, if they were to lift the trophy in London come May.Suggest a correction