Arsenal v Bayern Munich - UEFA Champions League Second Round First Leg

Yesterday I had so much fun analyzing the Demichelis penalty and subsequent sending off that I thought I’d do some of the same tactical hermeneutics on the crucial event that led to Wojciech SzczÄ™sny’s red card for his rash challenge on Arjen Robben in Arsenal’s 0-2 loss to Bayern Munich.

To establish how crucial the moment was, consider that before the incident, Arsenal had 7 shots and 3 on target, while Bayern had 8 shots and 1 on target. The game, as the cliche goes, was “finely poised.” After the sending off however, Arsenal managed 1 one more shot all game, while Bayern recorded 18, with 4 on target including their 2 goals.

Now, at least one tactics website came to the conclusion that the penalty/red card was primarily Nacho Monreal’s fault. The reason involved his failure to pick up Robben’s run into the 18 yard box. But a slightly longer examination reveals a much more complex series of events.

Let’s begin with the lead up to the first image below. In this sequence, Arjen Robben has just beaten Mesut Ozil, who has shifted out wide to cover for the lack of pace of Monreal (according to Gary Neville, at least). Now he has Mathieu Flamini ahead of him. In the back line, we can clearly see Koscielny checking Mertesacker to ensure Mandzukic is covered. Kos therefore can cover his zone. Meanwhile Monreal has his eye on Robben and may or may not be aware of Rafinha Goetze behind him:

Arsenal Screen Shot 1

Now Robben beats Flamini and opens up a yard of space. Wilshere is the closest player able to close down, and yet he fails to do so:

Arsenal Screen Shot 3

Robben immediately after does a few fakes with his arms as if he’s preparing to cross the ball, presumably to Mandzukic. Kos sees it and moves his arms behind his body in preparation, not a bad idea:

Arsenal Screen Shot 2 copy

And now the key moment. Robben has instead passed to Toni Kroos, who is in space. He can either lob to Mandzukic (whom he might see is in an offside position). But Robben is looking right at him, and Mandzukic can see the space that’s opened up between Kos and Monreal. Now, Monreal has changed his field of vision at the key moment to look out wide, but Koscielny has also drifted out of his defensive zone to cover a space that is already densely covered by Sagna and Mertesacker. Meanwhile Flamini runs to close down Kroos, even though there’s arguably not enough time to get there before Kroos makes his move. By doing so he further allows Robben to sneak in behind:

Arsenal Screen Shot 4

And then it happens, Kroos lobs to Robben, Monreal sees it too late and Koscielny doesn’t see it at all:

Arsenal Screen Shot 5

What I won’t show is what ended up in countless highlight reels: Woj, who has stayed further back to stop any long range shot, suddenly panics and rushes out far too early, collides with Robben, and gets sent off. The game done changed at that point.

So again: who’s at fault here? Ozil for not stopping Robben? Flamini for getting beaten by Robben? Koscielny for drifting to far inside? Wilshere for not closing down Robben sooner? Monreal for looking away at the key moment? Were these “mistakes” or just split second gambles based on a series of outcomes each of these players could not foresee?

The idea of picking one guy out of this jumble here and then deriding him for making a “school boy error” is far, far too simplistic. You need to remember that the total time between frames here is seven seconds, and yet the outcome likely changed the entire tenor of the match. Managers can establish complex defensive systems, in this case zonal marking, to reduce the possibility of this happening. But Robben beat Ozil and Flamini and made the run because he’s Arjen Freaking Robben, too. This is the influence of talent. It’s all a complicated mess of skill, variation, quick thinking, failed but reasonable gambles.