It is perhaps a slightly bizarre point to make; that in victory, Arsenal proved just how good Barcelona really are. However, study last night’s encounter in a little more detail and the reason behind the statement becomes a little bit clearer. Aside from Arsenal’s blistering starts to each half, playing at what proved to be an unsustainable level of intensity, Barcelona dominated the vast majority of the game. If the Catalans had taken their chances, particularly in the first half, they would most likely have left London with a lead to protect.
But why exactly does the fact that Arsenal won demonstrate Barca’s superiority? From the opening play, Arsenal lined up in a pretty typical line-up and formation in an attempt to play their usual relatively patient, possession-orientated style. In short, they set out to play the match on their own terms. They retained their usual 4-2-3-1 (considered more of a 4-1-4-1 by some) with Alex Song sitting deepest to provide a steady flow of short passes for Arsenal’s more “visionary” midfielders to provide the more incisive passes. However, this was a game plan that predictably failed in general.
A lot of Arsenal supporters may well have believed that they stood the best chance of overcoming Barcelona because, in the words of one fan I spoke to before the game, “We play the most similar style of football”. Unfortunately for Arsenal, this logic cannot really be applied when the opposition is as mighty as Barcelona. A similar, perhaps slightly extreme example of this logic failing to apply in the Champions League was in the Quarter Final in 2007 when Manchester United met Roma. At the time, both sides were playing a near-identical brand of football, using a “False 9” (Totti and one of Rooney or Tevez, depending on the situation) in the so-called 4-6-0 formation. Despite the similarities and a 2-1 victory for Roma at the Stadio Olimpico, Manchester United stormed to a 7-1 victory in the second leg at Old Trafford.
As far as we can predict at present, it is unlikely that Barcelona will quite reach that level of domination in the second leg against Arsenal. However, the truth is that they are well capable of cutting the current Arsenal defence to shreds, and they certainly did this at times at the Emirates Stadium. A key part of Barcelona’s power lies in the intricacy of their passing triangles and diamonds, and their players’ willingness to take the ball in the tightest of areas. In comparison, Arsenal’s midfield looks pedestrian and impatient. It would be inaccurate to suggest that Wilshere and Song are poor (or even average) players but they simply are not up to the technical standards of Iniesta and Busquets, and at present, Fabregas cannot compete with Xavi (who can?). With such a large gulf in quality, it becomes hard to even argue that the two sides do actually play similar football. Of course, they both play with a focus on dictacting possession, but if you actually look at the two sides at work, it is hard to argue that they look similar.
Arsenal’s second half resurgence last week came purely through a change in approach. They began to sit deeper as a team, which apart from a few moments of lunacy by Gael Clichy, removed Barca’s ability to play regular through balls in behind them. This also gave Lionel Messi, who had threatened to run riot in the first half, far less space to operate in. More significantly though, Arsenal’s playing style had in fact become very similar to the select group of sides who have eliminated (or almost eliminated) Barcelona in recent years. There is a feeling around Europe that the only way to dispose of Barca is to sit deep and strike blows in the form of rapid counter attacks when their defensive line is at its highest. Wenger clearly decided to subscribe to this ideology when he removed Alex Song (who was admittedly at risk of getting sent off) in favour of Andrey Arshavin – a single-minded attacking player with a pure focus on striking fatal blows to the opposition. The significance of removing Song lies in the fact that he is a transitional player – it is his duty to make the transition from defence to attack as smooth and simple as possible. Wenger also removed Theo Walcott, who was now being comfortably contained despite a promising first half performance, in favour of Niklas Bentdner – the perfect outlet to receive more direct, long balls.
As a result of these changes, Arsenal’s formation became incredibly broken. They had a defensive collective at one end of the pitch and an attacking group up towards the other end, with Cesc Fabregas given the near-lone task of bridging the two groups. Of course, Arsenal should be congratulated for the way they did eventually turn the match around, but they did so at the cost of their usual playing style – something many Arsenal fans might have previously denied would ever happen. Barcelona, meanwhile, remain the undisputed leaders in their field, but this meeting provided further evidence that they are by no means invincible.
Can Arsenal maintain their advantage in the second leg? Of course there is a chance, albeit a slim one as they realistically needed to take at least a two-goal lead to the Camp Nou. The chance is still there though, as long as they learn from their first-leg naivety. They must not attempt to play Barca at their own game again, but instead persevere with the counter attacking style that eventually brought them success in the first leg. Even then though, success will be far from guaranteed. Arsenal are not used to withstanding long spells of pressure, and unfortunately, this is likely to be what they will have to deal with in the return leg regardless of how they try to play. If they can make Barcelona nervous with their counters and score a first half goal, they might just be able to cause another upset.
You can buy Champions League tickets on TixDaq.