It is a celebrated part of Arsenal’s history but Herbert Chapman’s revolutionary tactics were initially received with much furore. The seeds of the change that was to see the W-M formation (or 3-2-2-3) supersede the 2-3-5 were planted in Chapman’s spell in charge of Huddersfield when in 1922, in the FA Cup final game against Notts County, his side won the trophy in a scrappy affair. However, the FA were not pleased with the way Chapman sent out his side because they felt it went against the “right way to play.” It wasn’t that they were incensed with the amount of “niggly” fouls on show in the final but the way Chapman had purposely deployed, what they saw, as a defensive strategy by dropping his centre-half very deep, almost as a third centre-back. Chapman took those tactics to Arsenal where the W-M formation was finally borne out with the aim to win the match, almost at all costs a strategy which Chapman later came to regret. (It remains a strategy that is still the primary objective of most teams and their success measured by the league table). Bernard Joy, writing in Forward Arsenal! gives a greater insight to his tactics: “The secret is not attack, but counter-attack….We at Arsenal achieved our end by deliberately drawing on the opponents by retreating and funneling to our own goal, holding the attack at the limits of the penalty box, and then thrusting quickly away by means of long passes to our wingers.”
The Arsenal of today may be a direct opposite of those such ideals but tonight at Camp Nou, they will be forced to borrow some of the tactics of Chapman’s side from yore. “We will have to [play another way] because it’s one of the few games where we will spend 60 per cent of the time defending,” said manager Arséne Wenger. And that’s no over-statement from Wenger – in fact, it may be a bit hopeful because this season, in 44 matches played by Barcelona in all competitions, the lowest share of the possession they have accrued is an astonishing 61%. Two times and both against Valencia. To put that into context, Arsenal only managed to let Pep Guardiola’s side have 66% of the ball in its 2-1 win.
But there was also something a bit un-defensive about Arsenal’s strategy in the game at The Emirates that makes it distinguishable from those who have faced Barcelona before them.
At the Emirates, there was an unwavering desire from Arsenal not just to stop Barcelona from playing but looking to play, as much as it could, their own game. Their strategy was asphyxiating to the point where the distances between the first line of defence – the attack – and the last line – the back-four – was not much more that 25 metres apart and at some moments, even closer to 15metres. Arsenal’s defence was proactive; they played a high-line, pressed up the pitch although perhaps not all the way up to the centre-backs as they knew the danger of losing shape and stuck tight to Barcelona’s carousel of ball-players. Some labelled it as “parking the bus in front of the goal” and in some respects it was true but more apt will have been a defensive block in the second quarter of the pitch. Arsenal was like a black cloud, swirling and snarling at Barcelona’s feet while it tried to keep passing.
The Gunner’s success this season has been all about the unit and those arguing that Arsenal, as beautiful martyrs, can’t have both a good attack and defence, have been proven wrong. The notion that the two styles are mutually exclusive simply isn’t true. In fact, there seems to be a whole swirl of clichés and truisms that surround the Arsenal Football Club that just do not stand up. Yes, the team is prone to making a few defensive errors which are more a matter of mentality that contrive to throw open a game but it has been an example that modern clubs can be highly-integrated like a machine but still produce expressionist football. In the last nine matches, Arsenal concedes less than 2 shots on target per match and have kept seven clean sheets in nine. “We have to fight against the pre-conceived ideas because the only way of thinking is that Arsenal cannot defend,” said Wenger. “I will just remind you that in the last seven games [actually nine] we have seven clean sheets in the Premier League, we have conceded less goals than Man United who have a very good defence.”
Defence can be an effective form of defence as Barcelona has also shown. They will pass a team to submission because put simply, if you don’t have possession, you can’t attack Barcelona. And when you do get it, you can be sure that you are a) too tired b) committed too many resources back to stop the attack and/or c) Barcelona will press you at all angles quickly in order to win the ball back. The back four are far better than they are given credit for but it is not only about who starts in defence – as Barcelona will have to prove with both Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique unavailable – defending starts with the ball and thus the back-four doesn’t remain a four but rather, becomes a back-eleven. Both Arsenal and Barcelona uses the Dutch principles of through-marking to aid their closing down although while Arsenal’s is more structured, Barcelona try and ensure the ball is won back as quickly as possible. The Gunners use a 4-2-3-1 that transforms into a 4-4-1-1, the Blaugrana opt for an adaptive 4-3-3/3-4-3. But as shown in the first-leg, a team cannot maintain a hard press for the whole 90-minutes. The Ajax side of the 70 would naturally lose intensity at around 70 minutes while, under Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Dynamo Kyiv used to implement “false press” during games to give itself a rest from true pressing. The substituition to bring on Seydou Keita for David Villa last time round was a confirmation that pressing high up the pitch would be difficult to maintain so Guardiola went and added another man in the midfield. Arsenal will surely have to weather out the early storm before sensing their best chance, should they survive, after 60 minutes. Guardiola will prepare for this but his main hope will be getting the goal that will put them in the lead.
Arsenal will need to keep defending as it did at the Emirates – squeezing space to stop Barcelona thriving in the final third. It is risky but those are the margins against best side in the world. For the Catalan club, passing to keep the ball is the least riskiest strategy, for one because they are wondrously accurate with it but all the more important, because as Pep Guardiola says, they are “horrible” off it. Strategic defending and studious work on positional play, they say, will compensate for a lack of height. Arsenal though will feel they can take advantage. If the chance comes. The encounter may be seen as a match pitting attack vs attack but both sides know defence will be just as important.