Masterclass from Lionel Messi ends Arsenal’s European dream

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.
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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.

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20 thoughts on “Masterclass from Lionel Messi ends Arsenal’s European dream

  1. Feel tired of repeating myself, even more tired of seeing us being undone tactically in another big game. Take Messi out, and I’m convinced we will have still lost that match as we never adapted to them and the realities of what they can do. I’m also pissed off that we never work hard off the ball, we are supposed to be aspiring to be champions, instead, Barcelona are the ones who showed fight to be champions. What has happened to the pressing we did early in the season?

    Also noticed how Barcelona adapt to the reality of the games, they had small players up front, so when Abidal and Alves crossed, did they put it high? No, they put them on the ground. Our full backs never do that, and always cross high. Such a big let down from our side, we never win the big games, the mentality to take on the big boys just is not there.

  2. Hi guys,

    Just wanted to show up to congratulate you. I guess you will be disappointed by losing, but please do not forget the following:

    1.- You played with a super young group of guys: they are still not there, but hopefully they will develope and grow into potential super nice players. It is a blessing being able to watch your young guys grow, as we have been able to see in Barcelona with Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Valdes,… and now with Pedro, Bojan, Pique, Jeffren, Busquets,… and Messi, of course, but that’s another whole story 🙂

    2.- You have a wonderful coach (I don’t know if you prefer to call him manager): Arsenal always plays a wonderful football, and do not forget that titles and championships are very important, but at least for me the most important thing is the ride, getting there. And your ride (same thing in Barça) will always be a very fun and interesting one while Arsene is at Arsenal.

    Thank you for two very nice matches, it has been a pleasure playing against such a good team, and I really hope you can win the Premiership very soon, probably not this year, but surely next year.

  3. Very good read that article. It would be nice if you could do one on Barca’s pressing game. There must be something ‘scientific’ about it.

    Its not as easy as it looks, there must be some method that makes it so hard to pass through them and negate, while not totally, the long ball tactic.

    1. Will take that request into account. But anyway here’s an article recently posted that may be of interest: http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2010/apr/06/question-pressing-crucial-modern-game

      Or alternatively, read up on the right sidebar of the blog (under Buzzwords),the tag word: Pressure. Has a lot of articles that may be of much interest (The first two are recommended regarding Arsenal). Here they are:
      https://arsenalcolumn.wordpress.com/tag/pressure/

  4. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the key to Arsenal dominating at home and abroad over the next 6-9 years is keeping this squad together.

    Clichy 24
    Vermaelen 24
    Song 22
    Cesc 22
    Nasri 22
    Denilson 22
    Diaby 23
    Bendtner 22
    Ramsey 19
    Walcott 21

    If this bunch are still together in 2-3 seasons then expect utter dominance. Coupled with the odd signing here and there or the introduction of Wilshere, Eastmond etc etc

    The key is keeping them, making them realise that if they are still together in the near future they will be utterly awesome.

    1. As much as tactically and mentally it’s Arsenal’s biggest weakness their age and relative performance puts in to perspective just how good they can become. Barcelona under Rijkaard were quite hit-and-miss and Xavi couldn’t find his identity regularly. But that has changed and similarly Messi has gone to another level. Robin Van Persie has been going through a similar transformation and his areas of operation have become more efficient as a result of his improved understanding and decision-making.

      Those players you state have the capability to be phenomenal. Wilshere and Vela are not in that list and they have the ball retention abaility to bore teams to death and cut them apart. Remember Arsenal 3-0 Wigan in Carling Cup? (That was in a 4-2-2-1-1 formation).

  5. There are people out there stupid to think Barcelona’s superiority is tactical.

    Barcelona are a very good side. One of the best European sides in decades. They’re a well-oiled, hard-working, skilled machine.

    But a lot of their strength is Lionel Messi. Without him, teams have many more tactical choices against them.

    If you try to contain Messi by amassing bodies at the back, you forfeit any aspirations towards developing your own play, hoping for some lucky break.

    If you push high, you have to work so hard to compress play once you lose the ball. You’re afraid to really commit bodies to pressing upfield because then the distance between your pressing block and your defence increases, leaving you to the threat of Messi dropping in between the lines, linking up with the wide men or their central midfielders, and then playing him behind your defensive line. Look at the 3rd Barcelona game to see what I’m saying.

    Again and again, last night, I saw our boys go to press, with one single player backing out because if he did the ball could go to someone wide or someone central and the defence will be exposed.

    By the way, I don’t just say that because he scored all 4 goals yesterday. It’s because containing Messi is what every team that plays them tries to do first, and usually fail at.

    1. Would you say good decision-making is good tactical understanding? I would say so and in that respect, the Barcelona players are better tactically. What Barcelona have been doing, they have been doing so well that it almost goes beyond tactics. It’s a mixture of firstly great determination and application as you say and tactics – such as distances and getting tight, which Arsenal players are yet to realise.

      I’m skeptical as to how you stop Messi. I think Arsenal’s decision to stop the flow of attack was a good one to stop Messi getting the ball but ultimately it was too difficult as they passed it so well and Messi was given a free-role. So man marking would have also been difficult.

  6. I’m really disappointed so excuse my poor reasoning here. Honestly all I could think about is what could have happened.

    Looking at Arsenal’s bench before the game, with an injured Sol Campbell in it, sent me a chill down the spine. We were stripped bare.

    I blame the wrong offside flag on Bendtner a minute after the first goal – two up would be a significant blow, our first real lead of the two legs.

    I point a finger at the completely baloney yellow card on Denilson. It set the wrong benchmark on what tackles were allowed and significantly reduced the bite of our pressing in midfield.

    I am bitter at Vermaelen’s mistake that lead to the second goal – his only noticeable bad judgment throughout the season by jumping up without a clear chance of reaching it and being unaware of coverage (or lack thereof). I can’t complain about our one most consistent player. But why did it have to be him and then?

    I rue the bad luck of Bendtner’s thumbing the post in the last 10 minutes. Had he scored that one, no matter what the score afterward, we’d be talking about what a dramatic game it was instead of singing Messi’s praise.

    Not that he didn’t deserve it. It’s just that our players are worth a lot respect too. These players are no longer potential. Arsenal are no longer in “transition.” We are capable of giving every other team a decent outing.

    1. Vermaelen’s mistakes – or decision-making are starting to become costly. He takes the risk of attacking the ball which has helped Arsenal greatly this season in winning the ball back quicker and dealing with threats but it cost them also in the first leg – for both goals.
      Guardiola has always talked about Arsenal players with great respect in the past few weeks and knows, that despite their age, what his team have achieved, is special. Messi or no Messi – they didn’t rely on him as much directly in the first leg.

  7. The masterclass of Barcelona against Arsenal came only from Messi and Xavi. Without Gallas, Van Persie, Arshavin, Song and Fabregas, we still have one or two chances which we should buried. We could win if we have at least Gallas and Fabregas in the team. I don’t even see Barcelona as an unbeatable. How Barcelona so struggle to command well in defence without Puyol and Pique. Only because they have Messi, the team looks so strong. Messi close all slight fault made by Marquez and Milito, who let Bendtner and Rosicky both unmarked. Barcelona are no different from Man Utd which rely too much on Rooney. One man team, one man show. The masterclass performance is dominated by Messi, not all of Barcelona players.

    1. I think the Xavi quote in the article says it all. Yes, Messi made a whole lot of difference but it was a team effort and they fulfiled their roles perfectly. Messi was the sixth best passer in Barcelona’s side and while he adds that explosiveness it just goes to show what a well-drilled unit Guardiola has made. And that is exactly his job.

      Barcelona are beatable like yout say. Arsenal’s tactics were not wrong in the sense that they wanted to play also but in the context of the game, it fell horribly wrong. (I will write a post on it but it’s starting to pain me).

  8. Arsenal won´t dominate anything until they start valuing defense and winning back possession as much as they do attacking. (not saying they should play defensively). If it is true that the players are young and lack tactical maturity, then why play such a risky strategy? You can´t have it both ways.

    Yes Messi is great but he is useless if his team doesn´t defend properly and win back possession quickly. (see Argentina)

    1. Like most young managers, Maradona is a conservative fellow. It’s a valid point you make about Arsenal – Wenger certainly becomes frustrated if they executed defence wrong but you can’t help feel he needs to be more authoritarian in training sometimes to get that discipline into them.

  9. It is utterly, totally LUDICROUS to depict Barca as a one-man team. Anyone who says that is totally ignorant about football and has ZERO credibility to talk about the sport. To say that Messi and only Messi beat Arsenal is staggeringly stupid. Barca are a TEAM – they work collectively, defending and attacking. Even if we’d had all our first choice players out there in both legs, and even if Messi had not been there, we would’ve had a very difficult time and probably would’ve lost the tie.

    The reasons for that are very simple: WE ARE NOT TRAINED AS THEY ARE and Arsene Wenger refuses to come up with a tactical plan against top class opponents. To go out against Barca and just think “we’ll play our game” is suicidal.

    There is too much focus on individual players and now everyone’s talking about how we need bring in new players for this or that position as the end-all and be-all solution to our problems. What good does it do to bring in new players if they’re still not drilled defensively, to keep their discipline and concentration once we score, to press and press to fight for the ball and keep it, to track back, focus and work hard for 90+ mins?

    Yes, Barca pass and move brilliantly but it is their WORK RATE, teamwork, concentration and collective discipline that makes them champions. La Liga is full of teams that pass and move the way we do, which is why Barca didn’t have too much difficulty with us. They have more difficulty when they come up against the likes of Chelsea or Inter because they don’t face opposition like that very often. Still, two excellent pass and move teams in La Liga–Sevilla and Atl. Madrid–did come up with good tactical responses to Barca this season and defeated them. Teams like Mallorca and Almeria gave them very difficult games.

    We have better players than either AMadrid or Sevilla but unlike those teams we did not go out there with a clear tactical plan. We still may have lost, esp. given all our injuries, but at least we would’ve had some kind of studied approach to them.

    1. I basically agree with this post. And your insight into how our style might be fairly comfortable for Barca is novel to me. What struck me most is just how amazingly quick Barca are at closing down spaces when they lose the ball. It felt completely suffocating, and our guys had no room to play really. Despite that, we did have opportunities on the counter-attack those few times when we could push forward before they surrounded us. I do wonder what kind of impression Barca’s pressing made on Arsene and whether we will, as a result, up our game in that respect? It is one thing to watch it, another completely to experience it — it seems that our players may now understand just how how they will have to jump to get over the bar… and that can only be a good thing in terms of their development.

      1. Good post, California.

        Remember that we did start out the season with that pressing game but slacked off. As others have pointed out (incl. on this blog), it can be very exhausting to do it in every game for 90+ mins for a whole season. It just isn’t possible. Even Barca don’t do it all the time. Against certain inferior teams they really don’t need to do it a lot. It’s only against top class teams where they really take their pressing game up several notches — which is in fact a compliment to how they viewed us. The pressing they did against us in both legs was the most determined, focused and persistent I’ve seen them do it all season long – so they did respect us. And even then, you saw how they tired. It’s impossible for any team, no matter how good they are, to keep it up for so long.

        Also, we play in a much faster, more physical league than they do. Which means if we did try to keep it up all the time our players would get even more exhausted and injured than they already are. Which might explain why we stopped doing it.

        Still, it’s something we’re going to have to work on, esp. against Chelsea and Utd. Guardiola is a combination of AW and Mourinho – a romantic and a pragmatist. He knows that if you’re going to play the beautiful game, in modern football with managers like Mourinho succeeding in their anti-football approach, you have to compensate your attacking football with a powerful defensive tactic that is ruthless, disciplined and consistent.

        That is something that AW simply has not yet done, tho he tried to early in the season with our pressing game. Since AW is determined to play open, expansive football, he must do what Guardiola does: seriously address the defensive part of our game that allows us to play entertaining football and still not concede so many goals.

        And as you pointed out, it’s not just the pressing game: it’s the incredible speed and precision of the passing – the fact that there is ALWAYS someone there to accept the pass, the psychic understanding and anticipation, the instant decision-making, the paltry # of stray passes. They are like a machine. It requires an incredible effort of concentration and very very hard work in training.

  10. The only way we could have stopped Barca was by squeezing play early on and denying them room to play. Barca anticipating this, pushed us back by launching a few long balls for Messi to run into. Arsenal just stayed back and defended, which is not what Arsenal are trained to do. We didn’t press properly and never retained the ball. Pep, before the match commented that the side which has the most possession will win the match and that unfortunately turned out to be true. The most painful thing to watch was how helpless we were, unable to control possesion and stop Barcelona playing freely.
    It was all perfectly set up for Barcelona. And credit must go to Pep for designing a system which gets the best out of Messi, arguably the most talented player on the planet.

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