After the Tuesday night defeat in the Champions League at the hands of Lionel Messi and a sublime performance from Barcelona, Arsenal supporters are at a crossroads and have an important decision to make. Do they want beautiful football or do they want to win trophies? It’s as simple as that.
If they want to win trophies, I honestly believe that Arsene Wenger is no longer the man for the job. He’s an astute fellow who has an incredible eye for finding young talented footballers and grooming them into world-class players. And he’s completely modernized the game of football in England by bringing in the best of continental football. But when it comes down to making a decision between having his footballers play the beautiful brand of football that his team is renowned for, or changing his tactics and being more cautious in the way his team goes into a game, the man is stubborn. He always picks the same predictable, but beautiful, option.
That’s fine when you’re playing the likes of Blackburn Rovers and weaker European clubs in the Champions League. But when Arsenal faces better teams such as Manchester United, Barcelona, Chelsea or others who have more riches and more experience, Arsenal’s one-dimensional and predictable style of play will almost always lose.
There are only two ways to beat Barcelona. One is to beat them at their own game. The other is to stop them from playing their game and hope you can salvage a narrow victory. In the case of trying to beat Barcelona at their own game, you have to play better than them. And in the case of Arsenal, no matter how gifted the players are and how many injuries they had, the club is and will not be better than Barcelona.
As Wenger said Tuesday night, “But in the end, if you look at the whole game, they were a better team and deserved to win.”
Over the course of the two legs, I actually thought that Arsenal played much better in the second leg than the first one. In the game at the Emirates, Arsenal was fortunate that Almunia was able to make some critical saves to limit Barcelona to only two goals.
So if you’re not able to beat Barcelona at their own game, the only other option to beat Josep Guardiola’s side is to prevent them from playing their game. This is the option that Wenger stubbornly refuses to stoop down to, but it was the one that would have given the Gunners the best chance of winning over the two legs. Allowing Lionel Messi to roam free and have so much space on Tuesday night was criminal and was only going to spell trouble for Arsenal.
An example of a team that was able to go to the Nou Camp in the Champions League in recent years and win, and then eek out a second leg result to knock Barcelona out of the Champions League was Liverpool. Yes, Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool in 2007 who beat Barcelona 2-1 at the Camp Nou with a team featuring no Fernando Torres. Liverpool hung on for victory by scoring goals by John Arne Riise and Craig Bellamy, and then playing extremely defensively and withstanding Barcelona’s attacks.
Sure, the Liverpool side of this season is awful in comparison to the 2007 side who went all the way to the final only to lose to AC Milan. But Benitez was a master tactician in the way that he controlled his players to cut off the opposing team’s attacks and then break on the counter in the hopes of grabbing a winner.
For Wenger, it seems as if that style of play is beneath him and breaks the formula he so stubbornly holds on to.
In order for Arsenal to win silverware in Europe, the club must be able to adapt to opponents and play a different style of play when necessary. In the Premier League, it’s a different story because the clubs ahead of the Gunners aren’t light years better such as Barcelona. Plus, it’s a very long season and even if Arsenal loses the matches against Chelsea and Manchester United, the club still has a chance to win the title. Having said that, Arsenal would prosper more in the Premier League if the team was able to play a more controlled style of play in either the matches against the Big Four or in tough matches with lesser opposition when it needs to hold on for a 1-0 victory such as the team almost did against Birmingham City recently.
Let me finish by saying that I’m a massive admirer of the work that Arsene Wenger and his Arsenal players have done. Tuesday night I was very impressed by Diaby’s performance in the first half, and Clichy’s performance in the second half. Both footballers were playing out of their skin and putting everything into the game. But even with those two professionals trying their hardest, Arsenal had a mountain to climb because Wenger tried to do the impossible which was to beat Barcelona at Barca’s game. Arsenal is good and attractive to watch. But they’re not that good.