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5-1, 5-1, 5-1 – why Arsenal’s collapses against Bayern were all about Koscielny

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Being drawn against Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals represents a tough test for Arsenal — who have, with all due respect to their last-16 opponents Porto, not encountered top-class foreign opposition for several years.

Bayern consistently reach the semi-finals of this competition. With their Bundesliga challenge effectively over, they can afford to put all their eggs in the Champions League basket. They have a European Cup-winning manager in Thomas Tuchel, and Harry Kane, who has already scored 14 goals against Arsenal in his career.

But perhaps most concerning for Arsenal supporters, if not their current set of players, is the club’s horrendous record against Bayern. Their last three meetings all finished 5-1 to the German side: a group-stage game in 2015-16, then both legs of a last-16 tie the following season. Bayern, arguably as much as any other side, demonstrated how far away Arsenal were from Europe’s elite in the latter days of Arsene Wenger’s reign.

Watching those games now feels like visiting an entirely different era of football — and, without question, an entirely different era of Arsenal. The common theme among the three results, looking back, is not Arsenal being tactically overwhelmed, but their dependence upon one player: centre-back Laurent Koscielny.

Koscielny was a peculiar footballer. He spent nine years as a regular at Arsenal, where he scored in a victorious FA Cup final and eventually became captain, and won 51 caps for France, and yet he rarely comes up in conversation these days.

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The first 5-1 defeat, in November 2015, was a particular surprise, because Arsenal had defeated Bayern 2-0 in the reverse fixture at the Emirates a fortnight beforehand. That was a must-win game, after Arsenal had started their Champions League campaign with shock defeats to Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiacos. But they produced a composed and defensive performance, winning through a fortunate Olivier Giroud strike and a Mesut Ozil clincher in stoppage time.

So how, then, did Arsenal go from winning 2-0 at home against Bayern to collapsing 5-1 in Munich two weeks later?

A key reason was the absence of Koscielny, who had been expected to start, as usual, alongside Per Mertesacker, but pulled out shortly before kick-off with a hip injury. That meant Gabriel Paulista (not to be confused with the current Arsenal side’s Brazilian centre-back Gabriel Magalhaes) deputised.

Which proved disastrous.

Ten minutes in, Bayern’s Thiago received the ball between the lines, and Gabriel was closely marking Robert Lewandowski. As Thiago went to chip the ball over the defence, Gabriel suddenly darted forward five yards, trying to play Lewandowski offside. It was too late. The Pole, completely unmarked from point-blank range, nodded home.


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(Boris Streubel/Getty Images)

It wasn’t solely about that issue, though.

Arsenal seemed rattled by the pressing of Pep Guardiola’s side. Joel Campbell and Alexis Sanchez, their wide players, provided little defensive cover for full-backs Mathieu Debuchy and Nacho Monreal, while Francis Coquelin was overworked in the engine room alongside Santi Cazorla and Ozil. Arsenal could match Bayern in terms of flair, but not in terms of industry, without Aaron Ramsey’s energy.

Thomas Muller typically spun and shot in a tight space to make it 2-0, David Alaba’s belter from long range made it three, and Arjen Robben came on to score the fourth with his first touch. Giroud’s acrobatic effort got one back, but then Muller streaked away on the outside of Gabriel to make it 5-1 — not for the last time.

Afterwards, Wenger admitted Arsenal had been “extremely poor defensively”, and added, “the funny thing was that when we went forward, every time we looked like we could create chances, but with a defensive performance like that, you are going nowhere.”

Just over a year later, in early 2017, Arsenal had the chance for revenge — a first leg at Bayern, before hosting them in a potential decider. Could they keep it tight in Bavaria?

Well, to a certain extent, yes. Arsenal went behind to a glorious opener from Robben — no real point describing the goal here, just imagine Robben scoring, and you’ve got it. But they equalised after 30 minutes when Sanchez scored a rebound from his own saved penalty. Notably, that penalty was won by an unlikely source — Koscielny, who had nipped ahead of his marker Lewandowski when trying to reach a loose ball, and went to ground.

You expect Koscielny to be focusing on getting ahead of Lewandowski at the other end, of course. And, throughout the first half, he dealt perfectly with the Pole. But then, shortly after half-time, Koscielny limped off injured. And — you may have heard this one before — in came Gabriel.

Within four minutes, Lewandowski had scored, albeit by beating Shkodran Mustafi to a high ball, rather than Gabriel. He then turned provider, providing a wonderful backheeled assist for Thiago to make it 3-1. The Spaniard made it 4-1 shortly afterwards, and at this point Arsenal’s defence completely self-destructed, with only some wasteful finishing and some fine David Ospina saves keeping the score down.

Muller, as he did in the previous match, ruthlessly made it 5-1.

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(Team 2 Sportphoto/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

“It is difficult to explain,” said Wenger. “I felt we had two good chances to score just before half-time… then we conceded the second goal, and the most important thing was that we lost Koscielny. We collapsed.”

Still, with that away goal, Arsenal needed only a… well, 4-0 win in the return leg.

A tough ask against the German champions, granted. But Koscielny was fit again, and when Theo Walcott burst through and slammed the ball above Manuel Neuer to make it 1-0 after 20 minutes, there was some vague hope. Arsenal got to half-time with their clean sheet intact.

And then, eight minutes into the second half, Lewandowski got the wrong side of Koscielny and went to ground. The game completely changed. Not only were Bayern awarded a penalty, but Koscielny was sent off. Lewandowski scored from the spot.

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(Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

Wenger, a little tellingly, chose not to introduce another centre-back. Gabriel, so exposed in the previous 5-1s, remained on the bench and Wenger used Granit Xhaka in central defence instead. He made a treble substitution in midfield and attack, while Xhaka continued to have his lack of speed highlighted by the running of Robben, who made it 2-1, and Douglas Costa, who made it 3-1. Arturo Vidal scored the final two goals, to make it a hat-trick of 5-1s.

And if you thought the offside trap for that Lewandowski header in the first of the 5-1s was bad, have a look at the situations for Vidal’s goals…



Amid a backdrop of ‘Wenger Out’ banners in the stands, this was to be the Frenchman’s final Champions League game, and Arsenal had to wait until this season to play in the competition again.

And therefore, the 5-1s were effectively all about Koscielny.

Once he pulled out before kick-off, once he went off injured, and once he was dismissed.

The aggregate score during his time on the pitch across the three games was 2-1 to Arsenal. Without him, it was 14-1 to Bayern.

He won the penalty from Lewandowski for Arsenal’s only goal in the second game, but then also conceded the penalty by fouling Lewandowski to put Bayern in charge of the third one. Without him, Gabriel wasn’t good enough in the first game, wasn’t good enough in the second, and wasn’t considered a better option than a moonlighting midfielder in the third.

There’s an obvious comparison to be drawn with the durability of Arsenal’s current centre-backs. Yes, William Saliba and Gabriel are both very good. But Koscielny was also very good, in his peak years. Perhaps more important than sheer ability is the fact the current duo are almost always available.

Saliba hasn’t missed a single minute of the 2023-24 Premier League. Gabriel has been on the bench four times — twice introduced in the first two games of the season — but has been available for selection for every league match. Last season, he started all 38 games, and only missed seven minutes of action. In 2023-24, neither of them has gone off injured, or seen a red card.

It’s worth remembering that Gabriel (Magalhaes) was once considered a rash defender who got himself into trouble with referees too frequently. A dismissal in a 2-1 home defeat to Manchester City on New Year’s Day in 2021 sticks in the memory.

He and Saliba keep on playing together because they’re so good together — and, equally, they’re so good together because they keep on playing together. In terms of expected goals against (xGA), Arsenal have the best defensive record in any of Europe’s major five leagues this season.

Those 5-1s years in the previous decade won’t have any serious impact on this month’s tie. There are only four survivors from those games, and all of them are at Bayern: Neuer, Muller, Joshua Kimmich and Kingsley Coman — while Arsenal are radically different.

You can never rule out Kane winning a game on his own, especially against Arsenal. But Mikel Arteta has the most formidable defence around, and a good defence can take you a long way in European competition.

(Top photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

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