A scrappy set-piece goal by substitute Olivier Giroud and a stoppage-time clincher by Mesut Özil, assisted by the irrepressible Hector Bellerin, undid Bayern and made imaginable another qualification for the competition’s knockout phase. That prospect seemed remote prior to Tuesday.
Calming down enough to analyze a such an emotional match takes effort, but here are three things we think we learned from the encounter.
This Arsenal team can produce the memories
Supporters follow sport for scenarios like this: Arsenal faced a mighty opponent in a headline affair, performed solidly but without much of its trademark creativity for much of the match, then struck when the opportunities arose.
This is what so many of us look for on European nights, recognizing that the Gunners may not win the competition in the end but hoping for transcendent performances to remember. The turnaround of fortunes—the likes of which Arsenal have certainly experienced from the other side—made the magic all the more memorable.
If you can’t take a few days to enjoy that, well, you need a different pastime.
It was a different plotline from the other indelible memory of the season so far, the 3-0 dismantling of Manchester United. Unlike in that contest, Arsenal did not carry the play against Bayern. The quality of the passing, the quickness of thought and movement, the incomparable skill were not what won the day.
Instead, the Gunners were unified, determined, organized but flexible, and opportunistic. They seized the game's three decisive moments—Petr Cech’s save on the heretofore unstoppable Robert Lewandowski, Giroud’s headlong commitment in case Bayern suffered a defensive lapse, and Bellerin’s late steal, surge, and perfect pass to Özil. In the process, they generated happiness among supporters, confidence for themselves, and respect from opponents and neutrals.
No matter what happens in Munich or Athens, where qualification will likely be decided, we’ll always have the Emirates on 20 October.
This Arsenal defense is a match-winner
Tuesday's success required a comprehensive defensive performance. And that's what Arsenal delivered.
The Gunners controlled the dangerous spaces throughout the match and rendered sterile Bayern's advantage in possession. As a result, Arsenal's defensive statistics were not particularly impressive: 24 tackles, 19 interceptions, 18 clearances. (Numbers from Opta via FourFourTwo's StatsZone app)
But eight blocked shots were evidence of Arsenal's commitment and contributed to Bayern's laboring to get a clear sight of goal. The Bavarian side enjoyed just two "Big Chances," in the parlance of the StatsZone app, Lewandowski's effort midway through the second half and Thiago's pointblank shot early on. Cech was equal to the task both times.
Meanwhile, despite making just one pass for every three made by Bayern, Arsenal created four big chances and scored two of them.
Bayern looked dangerous many times, particularly left winger Douglas Costa in the first half. But when Costa escaped Bellerin, an Arsenal player was there to intercept the pass or snuff out the dribble.
On Arsenal's left, Bayern tried various approaches and personnel against Nacho Monreal. None succeeded. Thomas Müller, the lethal forward, got so little out of his battle with Monreal that he surrendered his spot on the right to Arturo Vidal, whom Monreal controlled as well. Efforts to outnumber the Gunners on that flank similarly came to nothing.
In the center, Per Mertesacker controlled the airways and Laurent Koscielny made several critical interventions as Lewandowski threatened. Just ahead of them, Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla attended to the dangers in Bayern's buildup play.
Those attentions did not always prove adequate, but Cech was an impregnable last line of defense, stopping all six shots Bayern put on goal.
Arsène Wenger pulled all the right levers
The Arsenal manager sent out his charges with clear directions: Control the space, not the ball. Try to frustrate Bayern. Then hit on the counterattack.
When the initial formation, with Alexis on the left and Özil farther forward, showed some vulnerabilities, the setup shifted. Alexis moved upfield closer to Theo Walcott, Özil retreated to work with Monreal on the left, and Arsenal took on a deep-lying 4-4-2 shape.
As Wenger explained, "When we were playing halfway, they opened us up too much, so I decided to drop Ozil a bit deeper and to make it tight around the box and catch them on the break because we have the pace to do it and to find some space with the game going on."
This freed Alexis, Arsenal's danger man, from the challenging defensive situation on Arsenal's left, where Müller, Thiago, and right back Philipp Lahm tried without success to overwhelm Monreal, and allowed the Chilean to pose an additional threat to Bayern's high defensive line.
Worn down by Arsenal's speed, perhaps, Bayern's central defenders had difficulty coping with the physical presence of Giroud when he replaced Walcott in the 74th minute. Three minutes later, Giroud drew a foul, fought his way through the defensive line, and capitalized when goalkeeper Manuel Neuer failed to claim Cazorla's free kick.
Giroud is a game-changer. He delivered his fourth goal in his last six substitute appearances. He could have had another later but wasn't able to generate the necessary power to his free header. The Frenchman was also an outlet for Arsenal's back line for the 17 minutes in the lead and shored up Arsenal's set-piece defending during the final stretch of this famous victory.