Arsenal must remain disciplined first and foremost if they are to have a chances of success against Barcelona and exploit quickly on the break.
“This will be the most spectacular of all the quarter-finals in terms of football. These are two teams that play open football and the match will be a duel to keep hold of the ball.” That was the reaction of Barcelona’s sporting director, Txiki Begiristain shortly after the quarter-final draw was made but following the 2-2 draw in the first leg, there is only going to be one side who will have the ball. Arsenal were outplayed certainly for the first thirty minutes and although they came back towards the end of the first-half, Barcelona looked far the superior passing side than many had expected. Indeed, such is Barca’s brilliance on the ball and possibly highlights Wenger’s tactical naivety on the night, most teams do not prepare to have much of the ball against the opposition and when they do, look to exploit as they can from such moments.
Barcelona’s brilliance is not just on the ball but without it as their mechanism put in place of claustrophobic and high-intense pressure off the ball, allows them to remain compact and deny room for opponents to take advantage of on the break. “Without the ball,” says Pep Gaurdiola, “we are a horrible team. We need the ball, so we pressed high up the pitch to win the ball back early.” So good in fact that they manage to make the Camp Nou pitch bigger than it looks despite it not being much longer than the Emirates surface. “Barcelona make the pitch look bigger than it really is,” says the former Barcelona midfielder Víctor Muñoz. “Barcelona play very high up the pitch and if they get the ball off you there, they’re lethal.”
Paulo Sousa’s analysis of Arsenal’s defensive game after the 2-1 first leg defeat to Porto highlights the importance of retaining a balance in the defensive phase but for reasons of concentration, tactical ability and team organisation makes a difficult implementation. As displayed in that game, Arsenal were disoriented when losing the ball, the distances too large which allowed for Porto to make the pitch big as possible to aid them on the counter-attack. Transitions are crucial to winning a game, says Jose Mourinho – the moment the opponent loses the ball (or similarly, the moment a side wins the ball back) – and taking advantage of the disorganisation of a team can swing the tie. “I believe there is no room for patience now,” said Wenger. “You score goals tomorrow when you can but you need a big discipline, a big organisation for a big part in the game. It is for sure if it is still 0-0 in the last part of the game we can throw everything at them but we have to try to be very well-disciplined and not to hide when we have the ball.” In that respect, Alex Song has been crucial to Arsenal’s cause and his exclusion to the encounter through injury is a big blow for the Gunners, switching greater responsibility to Denilson to shore up the structure of the side. His calmness on the ball allowed Arsenal to gain a better foothold in the first-leg, although the argument can go both ways as the side proceeded to conceded two however, the stats and the performance do prove Arsenal were a better side with him. “Denilson gives us stability,” said Arsene Wenger. “Because we’re a team that goes forward, we need to win the ball back in strong positions and he contributes to that. He’s a good passer and keeps it simple – which is always a sign of class.”
Wenger would surely have liked to pair Denilson with Song as the Brazilian gives greater security in front of the back four than Diaby and which would have allowed the tall Frenchman to assume a higher role as the one which allowed him to nip the ball off Busquets in setting up the first goal. And with Rosicky doubtful, it is certain Samir Nasri will get a central role but which still opens up the question on who plays the more defensive left-winger role. Emmanuel Eboue had a solid outing against Wolves there and with selection becoming limited, it looks like he will be given the task of shackling Dani Alves’ forward forays and providing the speed on the break. Lionel Messi would surely play the “free” role in the new variant of 4-3-3/4-2-4 Guardiola has been experimenting as Zlatan Ibrahimovic is out and Andres Iniesta is likely to get the nod towards the left. Barcelona will be a weaker side without Gerard Pique and Carlos Puyol in the centre of defence and with neither Rafael Marquez and Dmitro Chigrinsky impressing much, Yaya Toure may be deployed in the backline.
Many teams have tried to limit the influence of Xavi who was certainly the key in the first leg and while that is a difficult task, Arsenal must decrease the passing options of Barcelona and with Bendtner dropping to mark the defensive midfielder, can make like more easier. However, it may be Theo Walcott’s pace swings a methodical match in Arsenal’s favour therefore it is important the state the Gunners are in before the ball is played will help the winger deal the damage to the maximum.