Arsenal were outclassed by a Barcelona side simply to good for them and a masterclass from Lionel Messi in which he scored a breathtaking hat-trick in twenty-one minutes.
You could have tried blindfolding him. Handcuffing him even. To a railing. Quick-dried slabs of cement around his feet. Rolled a giant boulder off a cliff like a Wile E. Coyote contraption. In fact, no matter what you tried, nothing was going to stop him. Lionel Messi was that good and comparisons with the best ever are wholly justified. The most devastating of hat-tricks of recent times was completed in twenty-one absolutely jaw-dropping and dazzling minutes, first scoring an unstoppable screamer from the edge of the box, anticipating a loose ball for the second and an impudent chip to ultimately kill off Arsenal’s hopes. His fourth was just all Lionel Messi, recovering the loose ball after his shot had been blocked to score in the only space possible – through Manuel Almunia’s legs.
Arsenal could have man-marked Messi and Pep Guardiola has realised that may be the case this season and therefore has given him an almost a free role in most matches. Messi is the ultimate “decoy” according to South American expert Tim Vickery and the touch graph here displays how players are attracted to him and in doing that frees space for players like Xavi. The playmaker had another flawless game and as Enrique Ortega wrote in Marca, “when Xavi plays, Barcelona work. When Xavi thinks, Barcelona breathes.” But the biggest difference displayed by the Catalan side was not in the way they kept the ball but the mechanism put in place to allow them to play such a game. “Recovering Possession” is how Pep Guardiola describes it. “We are working within a specific system in which we all have our obligations,” explained Xavi after the win. “And if we are all doing our respective jobs it’s a difficult task to stop us. “[Lionel Messi] makes the difference of course but everyone in this team pulls their weight and it’s a privilege playing with these players.” Guardiola adds: “We had more possession but things were still very dangerous for us. When we drew level it calmed us down a lot and we became more aggressive in defence. We are exceptionally happy with what we managed to do. Each player knows exactly what he has to do and right now we are playing with more intensity than ever; we were even putting pressure on [Manuel] Almunia in the 80th minute.”
The countless variations and tweaks Guardiola has added to his side makes it just that bit harder for sides to defend against. The efficient Seydou Keita on the left – usually the position taken up by Andres Iniesta – allows the side to stretch play with their full backs as the opposing full back is forced in by the unnatural wide player, creating space for Abidal on this occasion to bomb down the flanks. On the right however, Dani Alves had met his match. If he ever did wonder how hard it is to play against himself, here Gael Clichy gave him that test as the French left-back out-powered and out-paced him and was continually Arsenal’s driving force although emotions may have got the better of his decision-making at times. In the centre, Busquets held the fort but when Arsenal pressured high, Barcelona always found an option be it the other central defender or another midfielder; they stretched play so expansively, it became difficult to counter them.
The question after the game was could Arsenal repeat such a defensive game that should aid their passing game? The excuse with Arsenal is, however, that they are a young team and that means there is expected to be some leeway in the tactical understanding and maturity of the players. But why should there always be compromises with regards to Arsenal? This is a team which has been taught the joys of attacking football and rather erroneously, the consequences of their defensive game are said to be sometimes unavoidable.
So how to beat Barcelona? In the first leg, Arsene Wenger asked his side to push up higher defensively to remain more compact and to allow Arsenal to press more higher. Which sounds perfectly feasible theoretically but pundits, while never really adding that layer of sophistication in their analysis that experts do, may be right that defending deep is a much more viable tactic. The problem here is in distances; as displayed once again by Diaby’s tackle on Milito to win back the ball in the build up to the goal, you must pressure high but it is all about the spaces between midfield and attack and defence and midfield. In this instance, by defending deeper and thereby being more compact, Barcelona had to push forward which gave Arsenal acres of space to exploit. Pressuring may be best done closer to the halfway line by bring Barcelona forward. The other ingredient is to keep tabs on the deepest midfielder, whether in the striker dropping short or the midfielder advancing to decrease the angles in the pass, remain disciplined and break forward quickly. Rather to quickly and impatiently was Arsenal’s downfall last night, giving the ball away in crucial areas and which led to Barcelona’s first.
Arsenal were not just defeated by the splendour of Lionel Messi; this was a fantastic collective performance also in which Arsenal looked quite a bit away from competing, let alone beating Barcelona. And not even an endless tickling from Mr. Poppin’ Fresh would make that pain of missing out once again in Europe go away for Arsene Wenger.