Arsenal show ugly side

Olivier Giroud (obscured) heading in Arsenal's first goal as Bayern 'keeper Manuel Neuer (in blue) misses the ball, which appeared to brush Giroud's hand.
Olivier Giroud (obscured) heading in Arsenal's first goal as Bayern 'keeper Manuel Neuer (in blue) misses the ball, which appeared to brush Giroud's hand.PHOTO: REUTERS

Gunners shun finesse but rekindle Euro chances with scrappy victory over Bayern

LONDON • It has taken a while, but Arsene Wenger may finally have learnt how to win ugly.

A scrappy, handled goal from substitute Olivier Giroud and the last kick of the match from Mesut Oezil were celebrated with as much gusto as any of the masterpieces that the Arsenal manager has delivered over the years.

The Gunners' 2-0 victory on Tuesday - Bayern Munich's first defeat over 90 minutes this season - enabled them to regain control of their Champions League destiny.

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    In recent years, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has been criticised for being tactically inflexible. The Gunners, it seemed, only played one way - albeit attractive, passing football. But on Tuesday, they won ugly. And Wenger proved that he can make the tactical tweaks necessary to win a game in which they saw just 27 per cent of the ball.

    "Bayern had more possession than us but we decided to make it tight in our final third and catch them on the break," revealed the Frenchman. "It was not deliberate from the start but I thought when we played very high up, we stopped them well from playing."

    It was the first time that Wenger's Arsenal had won a match with so little possession and the fifth lowest amount of time on the ball for a team winning a Champions League match.

    Yet there seems to be a growing trend that Arsenal can triumph without dominating the ball. When they routed Manchester United 3-0 in the Premier League earlier this month, they had just 38 per cent of the ball. According to the Daily Mail, Arsenal have won 11 times this calendar year despite having less than half of the possession.

    ARSENAL REWARDED FOR GOING TOE-TO-TOE

    If there were individual heroes, not least goalkeeper Petr Cech and the defensive players in front of him, the overall impression was of a team showing their mettle. The efforts of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny to suppress the previously irrepressible striker Robert Lewandowski were a sight to behold. But this was no mere rearguard triumph. Arsenal went toe-to-toe with Bayern; they created (and missed) chances before they bent the result to the sheer force of their will.

    CECH'S BELATED ARSENAL DEBUT IN EUROPE

    When Cech signed for Arsenal from Chelsea over the summer, the goalkeeper would not have expected to wait until mid-October to taste Champions League action. Wenger had preferred David Ospina against both Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiakos - and to disastrous effect in the second game. Ospina will be haunted by his own goal-handling blunder for some time.

    The Colombian was ruled out with a shoulder injury, which allowed Wenger to restore Cech without any loss of face and there were several flickers which both manager and player could enjoy.

    Cech made a big block from Thiago in the 11th minute and another diving save from Arturo Vidal later in the first half. His handling was true throughout and in the second half, he twice stood tall to deny Lewandowski.

    NEUER VEERS FROM SUBLIME TO RIDICULOUS

    Theo Walcott had to do better. From such a distance, completely unmarked, in a central position, the very best finishers do not give goalkeepers a save to make. What Manuel Neuer did next, however, sent jaws dropping to the floor.

    Not only did he read Walcott's intentions to get across his line but he also had the strength to bat the header clear. And yet Neuer would finish as a villain, courtesy of the rush of blood that saw him leap and flap at Santi Cazorla's late free kick, from which the substitute, Oliver Giroud, scrambled home his goal.

    THE GUARDIAN

Arsenal still face a battle to maintain their remarkable record of reaching the knockout stages in every year of this century, as they trail both Bayern and Olympiakos by three points in Group F. But this was a result of such substance that it could be transformative.

Arsenal had to work hard for every second of the match to maintain parity against opponents who are averaging more than three goals a match this season.

As Bayern completed 765 passes at the Emirates Stadium (compared to the hosts' 278), the Gunners chased and harried.

Collectively, Arsenal ran 40km more against the German champions than in their 3-2 defeat by Olympiakos on matchday two, reported the Telegraph.

Not only did Arsenal survive on just 27 per cent possession, they escaped a touch of controversy as the ball appeared to brush the hand of Giroud as he headed them into the lead 13 minutes from time.

Beyond the scorers, Petr Cech was Arsenal's undoubted hero as the goalkeeper made four excellent saves to win his personal battle with Manuel Neuer.

The Bayern stopper spoilt an otherwise world-class display in Bayern's goal when he charged off his line and missed his attempt at punching a free kick, with Giroud running in behind to head into the empty net just three minutes after the striker came on to the pitch.

Giroud appeared to make a cryptic reference to the handball when he was asked how he maintained his mental strength after a slow start to the season resulted in him losing his starting place to Theo Walcott.

"All the qualities are there, I just needed a helping hand from destiny and tonight it worked in my favour," said the France striker. "It's certainly not my most beautiful goal, but it's one of the most important."

Neuer had earlier pulled off a fantastic point-blank save from Theo Walcott's header. That effort was one of Arsenal's eight shots on target on the night - significantly, no team have ever managed more against a side managed by Pep Guardiola in the Champions League.

Bayern themselves had 19 attempts at goal. Robert Lewandowski, with 15 goals in his last seven games, was a constant threat. Yet they could not break Arsenal down.

"I can't explain how we didn't score," Guardiola lamented. "That is the mystery of football."

For Wenger, the only downside was the sight of Aaron Ramsey's hand reaching for the back of his right leg and the grimace on his face that signalled a recurrence of his hamstring injuries.

"We had an absolute necessity to win and we did it in an intense, disciplined game," said the Frenchman.

"It strengthens our belief and the belief of the people around us, our fans, our supporters. We won 3-0 against Manchester United, 3-0 against Watford and 2-0 tonight and it's important we have a good balance.

"As long as we are attacking well and defending well and (scoring) goals, the balance is right."

THE TIMES, LONDON, THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2015, with the headline 'Arsenal show ugly side'. Print Edition | Subscribe