Only a week or so ago Arsene Wenger was having to defend his team against accusations, from former Manchester United defender Gary Neville, that his players weren’t hungry enough for victory — that they arrived at training more concerned about learning clever tricks and fancy skills than about building a winning mentality.
There have been suggestions, too, from Roy Keane, remember, that Wenger’s side are more worried about six packs and selfies than winning trophies.
“Instead of focusing on winning Premier League titles, it’s all about how their bodies look, how their hair is, more so than winning football matches,” he famously said.
Plenty of people agreed with Keano too; but not last night. Not after a heroic performance in which there were hugely positive performances from every department of the Arsenal side — from Petr Cech in goal to Laurent Koscielny at the back and Theo Walcott up front — to beat a team many experts regard as the best in Europe.
Bayern went into the game with nine straight wins in the Bundesliga so far this season and with striker Robert Lewandowski in the form of his life. But Arsenal’s defence, once maligned and even mocked, stood firm like never before with Koscielny in particular outstanding at the heart of it.
The French defender’s positional play was exceptional, twice denying Lewandowski in the second half when he seemed through on goal, and consistently snuffing out the attacking impetus of a German side that has bulldozed all before them until now.
When Koscielny wasn’t available to save the day, Cech was; the former Chelsea goalkeeper was masterful as he made a string of crucial saves — from Alcantara, Douglas Costa, Vidal and perhaps most impressively from Lewandowski. He gave Arsenal a sense of invincibility and self-confidence they have rarely had before; so though he may have been Wenger’s only signing this season he is certainly proving a crucial one.
There were plenty of other heroes, too. Mesut Ozil, who has discovered a new level of consistency this season, was hard-working and skilful in equal measure, culminating in an injury-time goal that confirmed a victory Arsenal fans will remember for years to come.
Nacho Monreal, don’t forget they used to call him ‘Monorail’ on the terraces and laugh at the mention of his name, was outstanding at left-back, too, up against Thomas Muller; while Walcott, particularly in the first half continued his development as a striker with a promising performance.
It’s incredible to think that on January 20, 2016, just three months away, Walcott will have been at Arsenal so long that he’ll be eligible for a testimonial; so his scholarship has been a lengthy one. But there is a real feeling that Arsenal are about to reap the dividends for their tutorship and their patience. Now 26, and being given an extended opportunity to play as a striker for the first time, Walcott continues to grow game by game and, against some of the best defenders in the world, there were signs here that he is reaching maturity.
In the early stages he was a constant menace as Arsenal played on the break; so although Bayern racked up 100 passes after 13 minutes and 230 by the half-hour mark, Walcott still managed to get behind the Germans’ defence on at least five or six occasions.
What has benefitted Arsenal, too, is the effect Walcott’s promotion to first choice has had on Frenchman Giroud, rapidly becoming a hugely effective impact player from the bench, scoring four times as a sub already this season.
He did it again here, grabbing the all-important opener with a brave header from a Cazorla free-kick; and in truth he should have had another minutes later.
Not that Arsenal will be concerned about that; Ozil eventually added the finishing touch and this result has lit the touchpaper at the Emirates, reignited their hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages and, who knows, maybe even made Roy Keane think again about his analysis of their character.
“It is important for us to grow as a team that we can win this game,” Wenger had said before the game. Now his players have done exactly that, the opportunity is there to make many more critics eat their words.
After all, nobody minds a selfie — or a six-pack — when you have just beaten Bayern Munich.