There’s a neat phrase that Arsene Wenger used the last time Arsenal faced Barcelona at the Emirates which most accurately describes what it feels like to face to European champions. “You’re always on the border of collapsing against them,” he said after the 2-1 win in 2011 – or in others words, when you feel the most secure, that’s when you’re in the most trouble. And indeed, that’s precisely when Arsenal lost the 1st leg of their most recent Champions League encounter, and in all probability, the tie.
With Arsenal mounting their own attacking down the other end, suddenly they were caught short at the back, and after committing a number of risks to stop the break, Lionel Messi had the chance to coolly slot the ball into the net. It was a huge blow for Arsenal as it came at a time when they were beginning to take the ascendancy and the momentum improbably looked like it might swing their way. Yet, as Messi said afterwards, he expected that Arsenal “were not going to be able to keep up the pressure” and that gaps on the counter-attack would open up. Wenger too, was acutely aware of the threat Barcelona posed when the ball was lost thus he set up The Gunners in a way where he sought the minimise the chances they had to take advantage on the break. And it worked a treat largely up until the 70th minute when Arsenal over-committed for the first time in the night and were punished. When the second-goal went in, The Gunners’ mood seemed deflated, Messi tucking away a penalty after he was brought down by substitute, Mathieu Flamini.
After the game, Wenger was highly critical of the 1st goal, using words like “naïve”, and “technically average” to describe what he saw. “Of course I’m disappointed,” he said on the official website, “because we put a lot of energy into this game. I felt that we lost at the moment that we looked more capable of winning the game, and we also lost it in a way which we could not afford to give them. It’s a bit disappointing to give them the goals that we did, especially the first goal. I feel that we were extremely guilty and have no excuses for that goal.”
Looking back, there were a succession of moments that felt avoidable at the time that snowballed into the opening goal: the decision to cross from Hector Bellerin, Francis Coquelin’s failure to track Neymar, Per Mertesacker’s desperate lunge up the pitch, (unluckily) the ball going through Laurent Koscielny’s legs and then lastly, Petr Cech’s dive. Some were more pivotal than the others though looking at it from the other perspective, it illustrated the margins that you need to get right to stop this fabled triumvirate. Luis Suarez who slipped the ball through Koscielny’s legs, Neymar ghosting past his markers and taking two looks to see where Messi was before Cech’s despairing dive to try and stop the first-time shot that didn’t arrive.
However, straight after the final whistle, I chose to highlight the action that started prior to Arsenal getting the ball into box, when Coquelin decided to play a pass backwards. In itself, it’s hard to apportion blame to him although Wenger too, seemed to direct his rage at the wrong choice of pass, though it’s not entirely clear whether he’s talking about Bellerin’s cross or Coquelin’s decision to go backwards.
The players didn’t give them a counter-attack on purpose. They want to defend it. It’s just that the first pass is not right, the first position is not right, you lose the ball when you don’t want to lose it and then suddenly you’re out of position and they take advantage of that. It’s not because the players do not want to respect the instructions, they were just caught by the pace of the game. It was an unexpected wrong pass or unexpected position of the first play.”
I’m intrigued by the use of the term “first pass”. If, as Jose Mourinho says, there are broadly four phases to tactical planning: attacking, defending, counter-attacking, and then, countering the counter, then it seemed like Wenger instructed his team against taking any overt risks in the build up. In a sense, it was a sort of disciplined positional play designed so that if Arsenal lost the ball, the players were in the right position to either win it back quickly, or filter into shape. That could seen by the selection of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who rarely deviated from the right flank, staying very wide so that if Arsenal lost it, he could get back to stop the ball going to Neymar. It was perhaps pivotal then, that in that attack, Theo Walcott had drifted centrally and then Arsenal were stuck with an overload up the pitch, with nobody near Neymar forcing the defence to shuffle to the side of the pitch.
Coquelin’s pass got the immediate blame because the frustration was palpable; the whole crowd groaned as the ball went backwards. Still, although momentum in the move was abruptly lost, impetus was quickly regained when Mertsacker played a through pass to Ramsey to then turn the ball round the corner to Bellerin. Perhaps Wenger was angry at the cross, and not that Coquelin didn’t go back towards where the ball came from, where the numbers were, and instead went to Mertesacker despite having most of the men in front of the ball. Because he said after the game, that the team was too “impatient in the build-up, we lost balls that we usually don’t and that’s not because Barcelona forced us to do it.” This Barcelona side will let you pass through them when you get the chance but you can’t lose it so each attack has to be considered. But Wenger felt at that moment, the team lost their “cautiousness to defend. What we knew was going to be vital for us was not to give them a counter-attack, that’s where they’re at their most dangerous.”
Before that, Arsenal played a very good game, using a mid-to-low block and a combination of tight-marking to stifle Barcelona’s service to the front three. They deployed mainly a 4-4-2 shape which sought to spring Mesut Ozil’s shadow striker running when the ball was won, and have him or Giroud drop back into midfield when Barcelona tried to stretch Arsenal side to side. The space to break was down the channels, because Barca essentially defend with 7 men, the front three narrowing when the ball is up the other end so that they can spring a quick counter-attack.
Though possession was overwhelmingly their opponent’s, The Gunners knew that, because Barcelona use a sort of rigid positional play until they get it in to the final third, if they held their shape when the ball was with Sergio Busquets and the centre-backs, they could stop them finding a fluency. It worked for the most part, with the occasional lapse of concentration towards the end of the first-half nearly costing them. Still, Arsenal arguably had the best chance of the half when, Oxlade-Chamberlain picked up a loose ball after the ball was blocked from a shot by Bellerin, but his effort was dragged straight at an imbalanced Ter Stegen. Suarez might have felt he had two better chances right at the end of the first-half (and one when he hit the post later in the second-half) once heading past the far post and another scuffing wide of Cech from a move originating from an attack where Arsenal were too hasty.
In the second-half, space seemed to open up as Arsenal sought to press a little higher. In fact, Barcelona looked like they might be the ones to blink first. Instead, increasing forays into the Barcelona half lured Arsenal into a false sense of security from which Messi and co. punished them.