Mesut Özil greases the cogs as Arsenal twist and turn to put Bayern in a spin
Having survived Bayern Munich’s early velvet-glove strangulation, Arsenal and their frail alien princeling turned the Group F match on its hea
In the course of a thrilling, relentlessly surprising 2-0 defeat of Bayern Munich – all deep defence and ravenous counterattack – Arsenal produced something genuinely rare. Not just a victory against one of Europe’s heavyweights with their Champions League season still just about guttering with life. But a night of redemption and role reversal on a cinematic scale.
First of all it was a night of very un-Özil-like personal glory for Arsenal’s record signing, scorer of the second goal that clinched this defeat of Germany’s champions. Mesut Özil, we’re told, doesn’t do the obvious. This is a player who operates on a plane beyond the hackneyed theatre of goals and assists, but who is instead a kind of elite engineer, greasing the component parts, conducting only distantly, above the meaty-pawed fray.
Bayern Munich beaten as Olivier Giroud hands Arsenal Champions League lifeline
Here, though, Özil did the opposite, claiming the big-type headlines from a game in which he only flickered, producing moments of brilliance on the ball, waiting until the final minute to turn in Héctor Bellerín’s pass at the far post and give the night its gloss.
It was a goal that will exorcise a little the memory of Özil’s worst moment for Arsenal, that horribly meek eighth–minute penalty 18 months ago on the same ground against the same opponents that has been a weapon in the quiver of those who fret at the German’s occasionally distant influence, those frail, gossamer skills.
A moment of dramatic redemption then, but part of a wider process too. Whisper it – shhhh, don’t jinx it – but Özil is in the middle of a serious purple patch, moving in sync with his team-mates, playing with a real sense of joy and continuity, and buoyed by Theo Walcott’s movement in front of him in a central role.
In the buildup to this game Jérôme Boateng had echoed the suggestion of Özil’s most partisan fans that Arsenal’s frail alien princeling has the talent to be considered among the world’s very best; a player who, when he finds his gears running smoothly, is a unique, delightfully high-spec presence. Well, you said it, Jérôme.
For all Bayern’s velvet-glove strangulation in the first quarter of the match, this was a supremely well-conceived and executed victory. But it was also a night of altered fortunes for many others on the pitch. If Fortuna’s wheel seemed to have turned for Özil, it spun right round for Manuel Neuer in the space of 40 minutes.
For a while it looked as though Neuer would be the decisive figure here as Bayern’s keeper produced a first-half save from Walcott that will live long in the memory.
Arsenal had just begun to breathe in the game. Alexis Sánchez, a furiously angry leader of the counterattack, had begun to run through Bayern’s occasionally static central midfield. Sánchez released Nacho Monreal and his cross was perfectly flighted for Walcott to head the ball in. Collapsing his right leg under him, Bayern’s goalkeeper dived across and back, extending his shoulder, his arm, his elbow, his wrist, his fingertips and then clawing the ball away from behind him, a save with a degree of instant mental physics about it, the kind of peripheral vision catch that only the best slip fielder can manage.
And yet it was Neuer’s horrible error – with Bayern already fading a little, caught up in their own embroidery – that turned the game Arsenal’s way. Santi Cazorla pumped a free-kick in towards the six yard box with 13 minutes remaining. Neuer leapt to punch, missed it completely and the ball trickled over the goal-line off at least two parts of Olivier Giroud’s body, the last apparently his hand. Redemption and role reversal again. Neuer misses his punch. Giroud, at the end of a horribly troubled few weeks, punches it into the goal.
Elsewhere on the pitch there were other minor triumphs against the head. In the first half Bellerín appeared to have been subjected to some kind of insidious hypnotic spell at the hands of Douglas Costa, twice tackling shadows as Bayern’s left-winger made him look, for the first time in a long time, like a 20-year-old full-back. By the end Bellerín, who is a seriously uplifting footballer, had regrouped, recalibrated, problem-solved, pressing Costa aggressively and sprinting down his flank like Garrincha to create Özil’s moment at the end.
Finally, of course, there was Arsène Wenger. Arsenal’s manager has suffered in this campaign, damned by his own lukewarm selections. Here though he got it absolutely right, out-manoeuvring Guardiola’s fluid Bayern team. Arsenal started cold, dropping deep and defending slightly perilously against the waves of possession.
For a while Robert Lewandowski’s movement was mesmerising, all lean, angular, bionic thrust against Per Mertesacker, who for all his fine qualities turns with all the athletic grace of a broken shopping trolley. Mertesacker dropped deep, giving himself time, funnelling his man wide. Bayern passed, and passed. And Passed. But then Arsenal began to break, Sánchez carrying the ball across the halfway line three abreast with Walcott and Aaron Ramsey like a men’s 60-metre heat. By the end the turnaround was complete, for now at least. Arsenal have some way to go still in Group F. The suspicion is a few more twists await them.