Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Arsenal vs. Barcelona – A Great Contest or A Gulf In Class?

Last night Arsenal crashed out of the Champions League after a enthralling and tiring two legged battle with the side widely regarded as the best team in the world.

The first leg took place just over three weeks ago, with Arsenal coming from a goal down to beat Barcelona 2-1 at the Emirates.

Since then, Arsenal played 5 matches, drawing with Sunderland and Leyton Orient, and then subsequently thumping Orient in a Cup replay. They also beat tricky opponents Stoke, and infamously lost the Carling Cup final to Birmingham City. In the lead up to the return leg in Spain, Arsenal’s form was out of sorts, with one eye was seemingly focused on this game during these domestic games.

As for Barcelona, they played four domestic matches, winning all four. They beat two very tough opponents in Athletic Bilbao and Valencia, while achieving mandatory victories over RCD Mallorca and Real Zaragoza. This would give them perfect momentum heading into the tie.

On the night, in which I’m sure you have all seen by now, Barcelona won 3-1 on the night (4-3 on aggregate) thanks to two goals from star man Lionel Messi, and a goal from Xavi Hernandez. Arsenal’s only goal came through a Sergio Busquets own goal.

Reading the score line, one would assume that the game was a close tie, however the stats would suggest otherwise as Barcelona were dominant, occupying 69% of possession, leaving Arsenal with a season low 31%. Barcelona also had 20 attempts on goal, while Arsenal couldn’t muster a single attempt on or off target. Barca subsequently ran out deserved winners.

Where did it go wrong for Arsenal?

I mentioned the term “stage fright” before Arsenal’s 2-1 Carling Cup final defeat to Birmingham City. I was concerned that because the players hadn’t played in a final for some while, the lack of experienced individuals throughout the team would struggle to impose themselves on their opposition. This for me was the reason they lost they Carling Cup final, and were unable to deal with the pressure tactics used by Birmingham.

I must admit, before this tough trip to the Camp Nou, I was concerned a scared Arsenal (similar to the team that were easily beaten last year) were going to show up. However I think that Arsenal took the confidence from their first leg victory and carried it on into this game, and didn’t look nervous or overwhelmed.

Although Barcelona dominated possession, Arsenal defended very well. They were not in control of the game, and while Wojciech Szczesny (and then Manuel Almunia) had to make a few saves; they were not barraged with shots.

The first goal which broke the deadlock came late in the first half, after a lapse in concentration from captain Cesc Fabregas, which allowed Lionel Messi to be played in, and then score an exquisite goal. Fabregas giving the ball away in the manor he did, was not out of keeping with Arsenal’s performance. They had a distinct lack of possession, and while they defended astutely, they had no outlets, and subsequently no chance.

The lack of pace throughout the team was evident, and this added to the lack of opportunity to keep possession. Players like Abou Diaby and Tomas Rosicky were anonymous throughout the game, while Cesc Fabregas failed to get on the ball, and therefore unable to dictate the tempo of play as he usually does.

The high pressure from Barcelona forced Arsenal into making mistakes, and the Gunners were quickly caught on the back foot, and with the “parking the airbus” tactics like Inter Milan’s then boss Jose Mourinho did last year not in Arsenal’s DNA, a goal from Barcelona was inevitable. If you look at the “Player Influence” maps below, it shows how high up the pitch the Barcelona players were, and how deep (and under pressure) Arsenal were.

Onto the controversial Robin van Persie situation, I believe it was very poorly managed by the Arsenal management and team, the Dutchman lost his rag in the first half after an altercation with Eric Abidal and Dani Alves. Twinned with his well known troublesome temperament, the Barca players continued to wind him up, however being sent off for kicking the ball 1 second after the ref blew his whistle for offside was shambolic.

Overprotective refereeing was evident throughout the whole game, and when the sending off came about, Arsenal were level on the night and ahead on aggregate. So they have every right to feel aggrieved.

The final rubbing of salt into Arsenal’s wounds was Dane striker Nicklas Bendtner missing that big opportunity with less than five minutes to go, in which he failed to make the most of a Barcelona lapse in concentration.

Some Arsenal fans have pushed the blame on him, and told me he is “useless” and so on, but the Dane has saved Arsenal with his goals in the past, and would be an easy scapegoat ignoring how poor they performed throughout the match.

Where did it go right for Barca?

To put it simply, Barcelona played their own game. They were at home, so they already felt confident, and if you watch La Liga you can see that Barca does this week in, week out. Dominate possession, dictate the tempo, press profusely, rotate the players, and subsequently beat the opposition.

In this match, the full backs were valuable assets to the Barcelona attack. Dani Alves is widely regarded by some as one of the best footballers in the world, let alone the World’s best full back. He was superb last night, and as noted on the player influence maps from earlier, he pushed so far forward, that even if Arsenal managed to regain possession and use Samir Nasri as an outlet on the left wing, he was too busy tracking Alves who ended up playing like an out and out right winger. This neutralised the Nasri attack, and often leaving left back Gael Clichy isolated against both Alves and Pedro.

On the other flank, Adriano was selected ahead of Maxwell, and he was doing exactly the same tactics as Alves. Bombing forward and offering support to both Iniesta and Villa. Adriano had no problems against Rosicky, who was off the pace for most of the game, and at one point in the game, the Brazilian even hit the post.

With part time centre backs Abidal and Busquets occupying those key positions on the pitch, they were never really troubled. With this revolutionary/crazy 2-1-4-3 Barcelona formation, Javier Mascherano played the Sergio Busquets role whereby he drops in a third centre back, which allows the full backs to bomb on with such freedom as they do.

In midfield, the two maestro’s Andres Iniesta and Xavi both dictated the play as expected, with Iniesta completing 97 out of 105 passes (92.4% success rate) and Xavi, as usual, the top passer on the pitch completing 120 out of 133 attempted passes, with a 90.2% success rate. The only Arsenal player in the top ten lists of passers, came in at tenth place, was Englishman Jack Wilshere. Talisman Cesc Fabregas was 14th on the list.

Football can seem simple sometimes, you keep the ball, you can’t concede. If only it was as simple as that, but the way Barcelona play, they make it look this simple. Arsenal are fantastic at the passing game, but Barcelona are great.

Another factor which undone the Arsenal side was Argentine star Lionel Messi. For around 30 minutes the Barcelona number 10 was very quiet, and wasn’t as instrumental in the attacks as we’re use to seeing. However his influence in the game grew more and more as he decided to pick up the ball from deep and started to run at the Arsenal defence. This caused the Arsenal players to drift out of position, and meant midfielders were often dragged back covering, and out of position. Another inevitable situation, whereby it was sooner rather than later Messi would break through and get an attempt on goal.

The final element which Arsenal couldn’t comprehend with was Barcelona’s pressing game. This was at its highest level I’ve ever seen in the last 5 meetings between the two sides. Every time Arsenal regained possession, they were either too indecisive in their passing, dwindling on the ball too long, and before they knew it, they were under pressure from two to three Barca players. This caused Barca to regain the ball high up the pitch, and therefore they have possession closer to the opponent’s goal, and subsequently creating more chances.

Pundit Jamie Redknapp made a great point in the Sky Sports wrap up show, saying “the other reason they press so well is (because) they’re fresh, they pass the ball so well, they protect it, they retain the ball, (and) they’re never tired. So when they lose it, they’re still fit, still sharp, they close in packs and swarm all over you”.

A great description to the sheer brilliance, and hard work put in by Barcelona. All these elements factored into Barcelona’s comfortable victory over the Gunners.

Final thoughts on the game

For me, Barcelona are the favourites for the trophy, as they were in the beginning of the tournament. They are still the team to beat, and the team no one else would like to draw in the next round. They can also be impressed with the versatility shown by Sergio Busquets, and him taking on his new centre back role with enthusiasm and commitment.

Arsenal on the other hand, needs to regain composure and their focus, and after a bad two weeks, they need to concentrate on the Premier League title race. Barcelona is still on course for a treble, and it would not be wise to bet against them in all three competitions.

Finally it’s not all doom and gloom for Arsenal fans, tireless midfielder Jack Wilshere is going to be a phenomenal player. He didn’t look out of place against that Barca side, and is a future Arsenal captain.

Also Laurent Koscienly is a very promising defender with lots of potential and with this unexpected prolonged run in the Arsenal first team (all season) he can be proud of what he has achieved so far, however he is some way off the finished article, but fans can take solace from his performances in the two legs.

Lastly, it’s obvious I haven’t gone into too much depth regarding the Robin van Persie’s red card. Although it was an appalling decision, it remains to be seen whether those 11 men would have actually beaten that Barcelona team, considering Barca dominated all over the pitch.

It’s a disappointing end to Arsenal’s campaign, but maybe it’s time for Arsene Wenger to just ease up on his stubbornness, and possibly look to strengthen to squad for times like this when experienced winners would be vital in these predicaments.

I am not one to be telling a man the calibre of Arsene Wenger what to do, but all his hard work he has put into Arsenal is being undone by this trophy drought, and many fans I have spoken to, have expressed these facts.

What were your thoughts on the game? Who are your favourites for the Champions League? Leave your comments below and let me know.

Remember we are on Facebook, and Twitter, add us and follow us.

Real Talk Football


  1. It was an underwhelming game for all the hype. I don't really have any comments on the game itself because, truthfully, Barcelona weren't at their best (didn't need to be) and Arsenal didn't show any heart. I disagree with your point that they weren't scared, because the telling point is that 5-10 mins to go...when you know if you don't have a go then your team is one did anything. The Bendtner chance came about from luck. But I don't blame the team rather than the one leader Arsenal have in their ranks, Wenger. If he had of been serious about all the talk behind this game he would have played to Arsenal's strengths. Koscielny and Djorou are never going to be the most intelligent defenders, but they've formed a great partnership out of being good recovery defenders when the pressure is on with a high line. If Wenger had of been serious in his belief he would have started with Arshavin and Bendtner instead of Rosicky and RVP. It's the same problem with the League cup final. Not a serious starting lineup. He should pick a captain that is actually a leader. Cesc...too young and makes things too personal, RVP...yes talented but unable to cope with pressure, not a leader. And yet Wenger sets the tone by blaming the referee in a game where his team took no shots on goal, and the kids follow by saying all sorts of unprofessional self-entitled statements on twitter. For Wilshere, he can only be a teenager and run off his own self-belief for so long. If he hangs around this kind of team atmosphere he will never achieve his potential. For a kid who hasn't even completed a full season, he already talks too much and gives off the wrong signals off the pitch but that's ok for now because he is young. Arsenal won't always have that excuse. Sorry for not commenting on the game but it wasn't really that interesting other than as further evidence of Arsenal hiding every March and expecting different results putting their faith in the wrong players season in season out to do duties that just aren't inherent to the club setup.


  2. really well written and good post fam. I completely agree with the wiltshere performance. this was a game where real players were needed and he stood up!

  3. Carter Pewterschmidt9 March 2011 at 23:12

    great blogg! THE THING THAT ANNOYED ME, and its the thing that always does annoy me season after season, is the fact Arsenal always insist they can do these great things and everybody believes them, yes the premier league is the toughest division in the world, and Arsenals style of play cuts open premier league revellers week in week out, so evidently they rack up lots of points which makes them champs league regulars. But with exception to beating the Wolves and Wigans i dont think Arsenal can hack any team above they're level and never will do. THEY ARE TO NIAVE. Arsenal are always underdogs going into games against Man Unt and Chelsea, and nearly always get beaten because they think there total futbol players but lack the killer necessities and tiger blood. You can skill up Titus Bramble all day long but if your only focus is attacking style then against greater defeces and greater attackers other better teams will continue to kill Arsenal off

  4. Great analysis on the game, particularly the part about Nasri's attack being nutralised. As an Arsenal player it has made me feel less sour about the defeat. It also makes me wonder whether any team will be able to push Barcelona off their pedestal.

    Your blog has been consistently good and as always well written!! (y)

  5. I think we have to consider the team we did have out also.

    The key men who had been rushed back - Fabregas: Way below par, and mentally, that backheel...
    Van Persie: First game back from that leg injury
    Diaby: He is not a worker, and is careless with the ball having him in the middle of the park was a mistake. Rosicky: Lets just say his best days are behind him.

    Although they deserved to win, I do believe the sending off had a huge factor on the game. Before he got sent of Barca had a reason to stay back, when Van Persie was sent off, there was nothing pinning them back, there wingbacks could get much further forward. I do think that with Van Persie still on the pitch there was a chance we could have held on or even gone back at them.

    The first leg we were owned in the 1st half but in the 2nd half we finished strong. It could have been repeated, grnated a big 'IF', but still a chance.

    Essay done.


  6. Yeah excellent article on a really poor Arsenal performance. Wilshere is already a great player but in a few years he will be much much better than Cesc Fabregas, who is overrated.

    If Barcelona's directors had any sense they'd be going after Wilshere or Nasri to fill the hole left by Xavi's eventual retirement. Fabregas is an elegant player who I enjoy watching but he often goes missing in crucial games and I don't think we'll win a trophy with him in our side.

  7. I don't agree with Sean atall about wilshere, the boy yes boy showed more heart and determination than any other player on that pitch , he is still a bit rough around the edges regarding his comments on social networking sites but to me it shows he cares .... Yes he has a lot to learn but from such a young head his perfoance over the 2 legs warranted praise especially as you said this is his first full season and the impact the lad has had on this season alone indicates what a player he will be I'n seasons to come for arsenal and England !!