Goalkeepers: undervalued, underpaid and priceless

If, as they say goalkeepers are mad, then they ought to have really started a union by now. They are an essential anatomy of a team along with the striker says José Mourinho in “Inside Sport: Can England win the next World Cup?” but they are not nearly as valued much. In the Premier League, Craig Gordon stands as the most expensive goalkeeper at £9million when he moved from Hearts to Sunderland but he is not even close to getting into the list of the all-time most expensive transfers in England. And he is still some way short of the £15million paid by Newcastle for Alan Shearer – some fourteen years ago now.

The justification for paying more for a striker than a goalkeeper seemingly follows the simple logic “that goals win games.” But if that really is the case, surely stopping goals is worth just as much? There is perhaps an issue of ignorance, as it is not obvious, in the same way as a forward, that goalkeepers are involved as much but that would go beyond ignorance. Indeed, Johan Cruyff mulled over the idea of fielding an outfield player between the sticks as coach of Barcelona but luckily his senses came to the fore. Managers and fans alike realise the true worth of goalkeepers but as indicated by West Ham’s strategy in 2009/10 under Gianfranco Zola, the goals they leaked was always an after thought to the goals they failed to score. Goalkeeping was just an impartial means of getting the result – and that was to score goals for the wins to stay up.

Robert Green is a competent goalkeeper but at no point was there to question his failings as opposed to that of Manuel Almunia. The Arsenal goalkeeper has come under the fiercest critics in the last two years and fans are baffled as to why he remained first choice for so long. Wojciech Szczęsny has gone some way to silencing those doubts but the Pole is still young and that brings with it inevitable inconsistencies that only time will slowly eradicate. Almunia is a solid pro and a humble personality but a club of Arsenal’s stature demand someone of exceptional talent and Almunia perhaps falls short.

Arsène Wenger’s failure to find a top quality goalkeeper suggests then, that supply of the top talent is at a paucity and therefore the high demand for the best forces the prices up – it’s basic economics – and too high for Wenger to want to compete. However for goalkeepers it doesn’t quite work like that.

In comparison with other outfield positions, there are definitely less goalkeepers in the market but with the one position out of eleven on offer, it then creates a market of inactive goalkeepers. Number two’s in others words, who are, in some cases, just as good but unable to command themselves for whatever reason. Wenger argues he has four good goalkeepers and if Almunia fails, which the Frenchman finally accepts has, either one can step up. (In this case, first Łukasz Fabiański was promoted to the club’s number one before injury allowed the number four at the start of the season, Wojciech Szczęsny, to jump to the top of the order). It also happened with Shay Given at the start of this season but although not necessarily because he was worse than Joe Hart; but because there was a danger Hart would fulfil his potential at another cub. Given has now got to make do sitting on the bench or move to a less ambitious side.

Goalkeepers have less bargaining power; they could either sit on the bench and train hard therefore trying to force their way into the reckoning or search for games elsewhere. “Most top keepers are not transient – they don’t float from team to team,” said former Arsenal goalkeeper John Lukic who had two spells at the club but the most notable was between 1983 and 1990 where he made 223 appearances at Highbury. “They go to a team and stay there. Their services are retained because they are that good – it’s as simple as that. Myself and Dave Seaman spent the best part of 20 years at the club, but look at the number of keepers they have had since then.” Age is another important factor as ‘keepers can have a career up to forty at the highest level and that is a reason why Arsenal were interested in signing veteran Mark Schwarzer, now 38.

Wenger’s problem with identifying a top quality goalkeeper is that he demands an all-rounder and for the sake of having a jack-of-all-trades, he is willing to skimp on the essentials. With the outlawing of the back-pass in 1992, goalkeepers have had to be more technical and in that respect Almunia excels. His kicking under pressure is excellent and is fantastic at rushing off his line to clear with his feet (although this season, the pressure is evidently getting to him and his mistake against West Bromwich Albion highlighted his serious lack of form). The Arsenal style means that it is essential to have a “sweeper-keeper” in goal because they play a high line that is susceptible to a pass or a run behind the defence and the goalkeeper being the last line of defence, they have to be alert to sweep up the danger. A ‘keeper like Given who has proven himself in the Premier League, may not be mobile enough to deal with that much of a responsibility because he has spent all his career standing on his own goal-line. The British culture of goalkeeping has been about safety first, so every high ball contested must be a catch otherwise it mustn’t be contested at all. Punching had usually been frowned upon, especially in regards to shots, but with the globalisation of the English League, it is now starting to become accepted. Nevertheless, the ball at the feet of an English goalkeeper still looks an an alien proposition.

As ever, goalkeeper is about mentality and that perhaps more than anything, determines their success. “Today, because of the athleticism, tactics , pressing and overused offside trap, many games are decided by a single goal scored on the break,” says legendary Italian Dino Zoff. “For the keeper to hope to make a difference in these kind of situations he must be strong mentally.”

Wenger talks of the “negative stress” on goalkeepers; that people tend to only focus on the bad things, the mistakes until a good save – but who knows when that will next happen? And what are the chances that, by the next shot, the negativity has not already eaten them up? Strikers are bound to get another chance. A keeper’s best efforts are determined by the defence in front of him – another factor which helps explain Wenger’s intransigence when it comes to the goalkeeping position. If you don’t trust your centre-forward there’s always someone else capable of scoring. But if you don’t trust your keeper, a nervousness will seep throughout the entire team and they start to overcompensate. To some degree, Almunia’s mistakes have come to grate Wenger and he realises the knock on effect this has on the unit. The failure to guard his near post in the 3-2 defeat to West Brom last September ultimately cost him his place in the team and gave a sluggish Arsenal too much to do. His mistake in the corresponding fixture last month knocked Arsenal’s title challenge back a bit as a potential turnaround at 0-1 became very quickly, 0-2 and thus a draw was the best outcome as opposed to a gettable win.

Manuel Almunia is in his thirties now, the age where goalkeepers are supposed to find their peak and most importantly, their sanity. It may be that he does although maniacal doesn’t necessarily account to insanity if Jens Lehmann is the case. However he’d probably have to find it somewhere else; the unpolluted air of Pamplona may be his calling or the sea breeze of Malaga but at the end of the season, he is set pack his bags, passing the gloves onto rookie Wojciech Szczęsny. But you’d never have guessed it if only you spend a second in his presence of the 20 year-old wearing Arsenal’s number 53. Szczęsny has the charisma that exudes success and being so assured at a young age has an added bonus for Arsenal. Feasibly the Pole can be The Gunners’ main man for 20 more years and he has hardly cost a penny having moved to the club from Legia Warszawa at the age of 15. Pepe Reina was 27 when Wenger “tried like mad” to sign him for what would have been a record £19million in the summer. That’s £2m every 10 years as opposed to next to nothing for 20 years with Szczęsny. Manchester United have also been using the same logic in their courtship of Atletico Madrid’s David De Gea, who is at the same age of Szczęsny, for when Edwin van der Sar retires.

It seems like Szczęsny can answer Arsenal’s goalkeeper problem for years to come but perhaps most of all this heavy scrutiny on the club’s goalkeeping situation indicates, is that there is now a greater realisation of the importance of goalkeepers – a fact made more apparent by the string of key goalkeepers unlikely to leave their clubs for less than £15million. It seems finally parity can be achieved in terms of wages and transfer prices for the men between the sticks.


Cesc Fábregas-inspired Arsenal punish Blackpool’s adventurism

Blackpool 1-3 Arsenal: Diaby 18, Eboue 21, Taylor-Fletcher 52, van Persie 76.

If this win is to re-ignite Arsenal’s title challenge – a title challenge which had threatened to actually descend into “considerable disappointment” – then it is probably apt that it was a game which displayed Arsenal’s season in a microcosm that invigorated them. Arsenal were exuberant in attack for most parts, picking off Blackpool’s courageously high backline with ease but were profligate in attack; and that, coupled with a sudden inexplicable nervousness, contrived to throw open the game. Blackpool came back into it after half-time and had Arsenal on the rocks for fifteen minutes – a similar spell to the one they had in the first period – but Robin van Persie’s goal finally settled them.

It was by no means a convincing win as Blackpool were denied one penalty but in no way was it also unconvincing. This is Blackpool’s style and they will always create chances against most opponents. At home, they led Manchester United 2-0 before they succumbed to a 3-2 defeat and it was their expansive nature which ensured the game would remain competitive. For a newly promoted team, it would be seen as suicidal to ape Barcelona’s tactics but in an age of winning at-all-costs, Ian Holloway tactics, however much idealistic, must be applauded. On another day, perhaps, Arsenal would not have been as comfortable for surely they were indebted to Cesc Fábregas who was inspirational once again.

Blackpool pen Arsenal back before Fábregas takes control

With two 4-3-3’s facing each other, both with wide forwards with little intention to track back, it was the flanks where there was most space. For Blackpool, it was perhaps favourable that they kicked-off as it allowed them to push Arsenal back instantly. Both Gary Taylor-Fletcher and Luke Varney were able to get crosses into the box and attack the full-backs, of which The Gunners defended rather well. For Arsenal, it wasn’t their plan to intentionally sit back and allow Blackpool to attack before launching a counter of their own but with their opponents pushing so many men forward, they were naturally penned back. Arséne Wenger also likes to push his players up the pitch early on to force the opposition back but this tactic only made it harder to pass the ball out. However, when they did get their first real chance to counter-attack, Abou Diaby made sure it counted as his tackle then finish ended a superb move.

The goal settled Arsenal and soon Cesc Fábregas was able to assume control. The Spanish midfielder continually dropped deep and alternated position with Diaby, allowing the rangy midfielder to get forward and this made it harder for Blackpool to mark him. Forward balls over the Blackpool offside line were a frequent sight as Fábregas threatened to make hay of the space he was afforded. Chance after chance was created by the captain, those of which, Wenger visibly felt, should have been put away. The switching of positions between Fábregas and Diaby was also very effective in the first-half of Arsenal’s 4-4 draw with Newcastle, an explosive period which they scored four goals in twenty minutes.

<Figure 1> Blackpool’s expansive style where they try to mirror Barcelona’s tactics and stretch play wide meant the midfielders had a lot of space to cover. That allowed Fábregas time and space to play the ball and was relatively unpressurised  on the pass. Blackpool pushed up looking to squeeze the space and the central defenders were often left marking a lot of empty space and that afforded van Persie the opportunity to get behind. Fábregas made many key passes in the game but no assists; however, he was crucial in both the first and third goal, playing passes that arguably no Arsenal player could. In a league looking for superstars, Cesc Fábregas is surely the top player.

Second-half: Substitutes change game for different reasons

Blackpool upped their intensity again after the interval – it’s amazing how a break in proceedings can reinvigorate a side’s mentality as Blackpool looked demoralised after Emmanuel Eboue had put Arsenal two up. Their improved moral summoned them the energy to force Arsenal back and were quicker to the loose balls around the box. Charlie Adam was able to find his wide men with increased regularity – a key feature of his game that was nullified in the first-half – and it was no surprise that the goal came from Taylor-Fletcher on the right whose run was left unmarked. Blackpool were getting so much joy from the flanks that it would be foolish to tamper with the success – but Holloway did, replacing Varney with Andy Reid.

The thinking was simple; Blackpool had the initiative and with Reid, they could assume more control. However, with the substitute, Blackpool lost a direct threat – Varney, who is a striker on the wings – and that meant less speed for Arsenal to deal. Close to the same time, Wenger introduced Theo Walcott for the ineffective Andrey Arshavin, the Russian failing to track runs, and the winger quickly stretched play. He gave Arsenal an out ball but more than most, Varney’s substitute stripped Blackpool of their quick release of their own. Adam was frozen out; Reid was insignificant and Arsenal kept the ball better. With Blackpool desperately looking to try and win back and Arsenal retaining possession, The Seasiders increasingly pushed forward to squeeze the space but it only gave van Persie and Walcott space to get behind. Both did and the third goal was an inevitability seeing as Walcott has set up the Dutchman for four of his last five goals.

For Arsenal, they rediscovered a zest about their game although Blackpool’s tactics which gave them plenty of room, are unlikely to be mirrored again this season. However, with Fábregas back and Walcott under his wings too, there is reason to be optimistic. Plus Diaby stepped up in place of Alex Song – the first win without the midfielder. It’s now a 14 game unbeaten run in the league. Only seven more to go then…

Andrey Arshavin delights and frustrates in equal measure

There are two great philosophical debates that divide the football world; whether to play attractive football or to favour a more pragmatic approach and how to jude how good a player is. While the former is more or less answered by the league format biasing towards a “winning at all costs” mentality the latter is much more subjective. For example, I would rate Ronaldinho as the best player of the decade gone by because of his frequent spectacular performances and one-man showings but he only performed at his peak for four – albeit fantastic – years. Zinedine Zidane may be the widely held option as he did it more consistently however Ronaldinho thrived due to his unorthodoxy and for that reason, he will have stuck out more. Zidane, though, may be the purists choice because he brought great visceral joy in his balletic movements. Either way, judging and thus comparing talent is an ambiguous art.

Is it goals that you use to judge a player; the medals they won or their effectiveness in the international stage, a measure which straight-away puts those players born in an average nation at a disadvantage? What about taking individual attributes such as tackling and passing and assigning a score and weighting system to each one thus arriving a total at the end? Paul Ince used one for The Mirror’s pull out paper, Score, to settle the argument on who’s better; Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard? Conveniently, Ince arrived at a tie. Of course, there can be no answer and rather, you use a number of factors to decide on the outcome although that method is unlikely to remain consistent. Put simply, it is an intuitive feeling that differs from person to person.

I ask this because there is one player at Arsenal for which this particularly applies to; Andrey Arshavin.

The Russian was brought to Arsenal in 2009 as a marquee signing; an antithesis to their youth development project and in that half a season that he arrived in, he single handedly qualified Arsenal for the Champions League. His 6 goals and 9 assists offered a tantalising vision of what he could bring when he finally acclimatises to the English league and most importantly, the “Arsenal way” if given a full season in the colours of red and white. However, by his own admission he has failed to live up to the hype, only delivering his explosive talents in sporadic moments. This season, he says confidence has dented his form although in recent matches, he is showing again that he can be an important player for Arsenal. Yet, this follows a brief period on the bench which coincided with Arsenal’s best spell of form from the middle of December to the end of February and it is likely that should Arsenal’s preferred eleven (Szczecny – Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy – Song, Wilshere – Walcott, Fabregas, Nasri – van Persie) remain fit at once, an impact substitute would be his default role again.

Andrey Arshavin divides because he is a maverick; an individual who frustrates and delights at the same time. He is not one to fall into the collective endeavour, partly because he lacks the stamina to track back and partly because he just doesn’t believe he needs to. Arshavin speaks of the same vision of football he and Wenger have but the Frenchman has yet to convince the Russian of doing his bit defensively. At least, Arshavin realises the necessity of pressing up the pitch although by the time he closes down the first opponent, he effectively renders himself out of the defensive phase should they evade his presence.

Those Andrey Arshavin apologists point to his statistics as his main saving grace and it is true, they are very impressive. “If you look at the assists in the Premier League, Arshavin is the best,” said Wenger. This season in 43 games in all competitions, Arshavin has scored 10 goals and made 17 assists.  However, are goals and assists enough to judge the success of the player? It should be, especially as the saying goes, “goals win games” and Arshavin has contributed to his fair share. But this time the statistics are against him. In his 21 starts in the league this term, Arsenal have won 52% of their matches and in the seven he doesn’t feature or arrives from the bench, The Gunners have won 75%. Of course, you can point to the sparse amount of matches without him which makes the latter statistic more impressive but there is a correlation here. Of Arsenal’s six matches between December and March (Chelsea, Birmingham City, Manchester City, West Ham United, Wigan Athletic and Stoke City) where they found their best form with their fantastic eleven, their win percentage is 83%. And in the three more league games in that period where the only changes made were enforced, the win percentage was still at an impressive 77%; a figure that is very close to the 75% win percentage without Arshavin. It is true, however, that the bulk of Arshavin’s matches were at the beginning of the season when the team was often impacted by injuries but perhaps it is significant that Arsenal soon found their fluency when Arshavin was not a regular in the team anymore.

Arshavin says his style has been “altered” and is now “more effective, but less sparkling” but is that just a way to cover up his waning talents and failure to adapt? Certainly that is the view in the Russian press following their recent 0-0 draw with Armenia with Sovetsky Sport columnist Yuri Tsybanev suggesting he is now being picked on reputation alone. Jonathan Wilson continues to note the scathing attacks directed at Arshavin by writing in the Guardian that former USSR defender Yevgeny Lovchev has said that “Arsène Wenger continues to make encouraging noises about Arshavin only to make sure his value doesn’t drop too much. Meanwhile the satirist Mikhail Grushevsky called Arshavin “a sacred cow” who must be replaced.”

It has become evident then, that Arshavin cannot rely on numbers alone to back up his case. It pains me to say it but the Russian has simply failed to integrate himself to the Arsenal style as well as he should have. His passing statistics are particularly poor; yes he is capable is sprinkling a bit of magic that can create a moment out of nothing while he has also delivered at key moments this season and last season that have gone unnoticed. But that may mean falling into the same trap; that direct is more better when, tactically Arsenal may be better off playing more shorter. His passing percentage is at a disappointingly low 70% and the rhetoric that his position encourages more killer passes look decidedly thin when comparing it to the 80% pass success of Arsenal’s best through-ball specialist, Cesc Fábregas. All this must take into account also that Arshavin plays in that all to selfish role of the wide forward and one that is heavily subsidised to cater for his vices. As Roberticus of Santapelota writes in his overview of Brazilian football “Where have all the wingers gone? the position is “undoubtedly the most selfish of roles in modern football. Selfish, I say, not as a character judgement, but rather in the sense that such a style of play carries with it so many potential rewards and comparatively little concomitant responsibility.” Indeed, how long can he be excused of not tracking back thus exposing poor Gael Clichy due to the possibility that he may create a goalscoring opportunity?

However, there is a charm about Andrey Arshavin that makes him irresistible at times. His plump cheeks and minimalist haircut indicates an innocence in his play; a player who is much in tune with his artistic freedom and takes infinite pleasure in the simple act of playing football. Watch his face before every goal and you will see his tongue reveal itself from his mouth in excitement. It was quite surprising to hear that the criticism of his form affected his confidence as much as it did because here was a player seemingly so free of fear and that was indicated by his style. Free spirited and ambitious, every touch on the ball gets you off your seat because there is an anticipation that he may produce something special. He more often than not does although with his unpredictability does also come frustration. Loose balls are aplenty with Arshavin, as is the frequent “stuck in the mud” routine whenever a pass goes beyond him. Perhaps we are being a bit harsh on Arshavin but there were signs this season that even the most ardent of fans were becoming disgruntled by his style.

How do you judge Andrey Arshavin’s worth to the team? Is it his numbers; his unpredictable brilliance or how involved he is in the team’s attacks? Because with Arshavin, it’s seems it’s a question which will forever remain unanswered.

Arsenal once again undone by its old nemesis: the counter-attack

Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal (FA Cup)

Because football isn’t ice-skating and you don’t get points for artistic merit, results have always mattered more than style. The counter-attack was once deemed as a Machiavellian ploy; when Herbert Chapman first devised the W-M formation and ultimately popularised the counter-attack as a primary form of strategy, the FA were quick to hand him a cryptic warning against what they thought was the “right way to play.” But nowadays it’s seen as the most effective way of achieving a win – and those chances enhancing greater against teams that prefer aesthetics over pragmatism.

At Old Trafford on Saturday, Manchester United was always going to play one way against Arsenal, especially with a host of personnel either unfit or deemed not worthy of the occasion to be risked. Sir Alex Ferguson’s selection certainly surprised a few many as he named a midfield comprising of three full-backs but it was quickly evident that any potential shortcomings were to be covered up by Sir Alex’s famed “never say die” attitude, steely determination and belligerent organisation. And in that respect, this battle was to be undertaken in a vein we’ve seen all too often before when these two sides meet, despite the unfamiliar team selection.

United sat deep and countered excellently, taking advantage of any gaps in Arsenal’s backline with a rapid commitment of bodies forward into the box. Arséne Wenger may have bemoaned his side’s luck at the end of the game but having been on the wrong end of United’s devastating breaks in each of the last two seasons, you would have thought he would have devised a strategy by now to guard against such attacks. But on the other hand, his team selection on paper looked far stronger than Manchester United’s and therefore it would be difficult to fault the Frenchman for trusting his side’s technical superiority to prevail on the night.

Initially it looked like it might be a mismatch as Arsenal monopolised possession and United failed to break through The Gunners’ structured organisation. Countless passes from the back were directed to nowhere while Arsenal just continued prompting and probing. However, that’s when United realised there was no way they could compete with Arsenal in the middle of the park and thus, they retreated deeper. But it was Wayne Rooney who instigated the first telling tactical move of the match as he proceeded to drop deeper into the midfield to collect the ball, this allowing the Da Silva twins to get forward with more freedom.

Rooney was detailed before the match to help Manchester United to make a five in midfield whenever they lost the ball but a chance from Rafael on fifteen minutes convinced him it was best that he remained a permanent member of the centre. His forays into midfield gave United an extra man and when they won the ball, Fabio and Rafael could spring forward to make a three with Javier Hérnandez in attack. It particularly worked also because Arsenal committed both full-backs forward and with each attack soacked up by Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling, were able to take advantage of the gaps in the channels. For the first goal, Hérnandez and Fabio drifted into the vacant full-back positions to shoot home. Ferguson stripped Rooney off the selfless running in the second-half by brining on Antonio Valencia and immediately, it brought dividends as the England striker headed home from another counter-attack as the left-sided forward.

For Arsenal it was all too familiar and once again, weaknesses in its game denied them of the chance at another trophy. Wenger pointed to the fact that Arsenal had “control of the game” however in the modern game, teams can also have control without the ball. Indeed, that is part of his argument as to how the referee “killed the game” against Barcelona as he felt his side has put their opponents in the position it wanted dur to the way it defended.

In that game, Barcelona showed Arsenal how to defend without the ball and it was evident at Old Trafford, that their was just no intensity in the press. Arsenal looked too committed in ensuring their structure was in place when United had the ball in defence but at 2-0 and the game to be saved, the lack of urgency proved costly. At different moments, Denilson, Andrey Arshavin and the ever excellent Jack Wilshere urged their side to push forward and close more aggressively but without the support of those around, it was destined to fail. Robin van Persie in particular showed little intensity but it’d be easy to point to scapegoats; the whole team must commit to the press, nevertheless, van Persie sets the tempo and should have taken more responsibility.

It’s hard, however, to see how pressing on it’s own could have stopped United exploiting on the break as it did. Sir Alex Ferguson was comfortable with leaving two or three of his outfield players up the pitch because he was confident that his defence could soak up Arsenal’s attack. Or rather, willing to take that risk because there would always be space up the pitch to exploit. Both Arsenal full-backs pushed forward and that meant the job would be harder for both Denilson and the centre-backs. Laurent Kosicelny and Johan Djourou could not spread as it would then leave space down the centre while Denilson would have to contend with manning both the centre – where Rooney exclusively operated in the first-half – and trying to cover the channels – where Hérnandez or the twins would look to drift. In the second-half, that threat was ever more dangerous with Valencia hugging the touchline. Alex Song was missed due to his capacity to cover although it would have remained tough also if Arsenal’s attacked failed likewise. A tactical solution would be to drop someone like Song into centre-back when Arsenal has possession so that the centre-backs could spread wide and play two tempo-dictating midfielders in front.

The introduction of Aaron Ramsey was a huge plus, for one because it is great to see him back in an Arsenal shirt again and he was straight-away reminded of where he was, having to dodge the senseless lunges of Paul Scholes. But also because he has an urgency and technical accuracy that The Gunners miss when Samir Nasri or Cesc Fabregas are not playing in the centre and something which Abou Diaby couldn’t really provide. The French midfielder did display decent movement and power but was ponderous on the ball, allowing United to get organised quickly.

If Arsenal are to fulfil its potential and concur teams like Manchester United, who break quickly, it must be more effective with its passing. Maybe because Arsenal was not so clinical with its finishing and the shuffling of defenders, United was able to take such a risk and leave players up the field. It knew, no matter how glamorous and graceful Arsenal’s play can be, it can also be too predictable. A Bakary Sagna cross or a procrastinated move at the edge of the box looked Arsenal’s most obvious source of a goal. Effective possession is also a form of defence as it forces opponents to furrow resources back which will have helped guard against the counter. Perhaps Arsenal lost the game at 0-0 when it should have made its possession count and stamped its authority on the game with more ruthlessness.

A far cry then, from the dynamic and explosive football it was producing from December to the middle of February and an appropriate reminder of how reliant Arsenal is of its fantastic eleven. Since the defeat against Manchester United late last year, Arséne Wenger has stumbled on his strongest line-up and the side had produced a series of exciting performances. The balance between organisation, pressing and passing reached its apex in the 2-1 defeat of Barcelona but in between those good performances, there have been a smattering of ugly ones; disjointed because of the unavailability or the resting of key men. Before the match against Manchester United, Arsenal seemed stronger and its passing and movement displayed some form of superiority, but its finishing and resilience indicated there is still work to be done. The season isn’t over and there is still time to show, with one final push, there is quality in depth at Arsenal and the character to secure the league title.

Barcelona sends Arsenal crashing back down to earth

Barcelona 3-1 Arsenal (4-3 aggregate): Messi 45, Busquets (og) 53, Xavi 69, Messi (pen) 71.

Arséne Wenger’s men are often too ready to accept their role as beautiful martyrs, highlighting the negativity of their opponents and bad refereeing as causes of their downfall. At Camp Nou, they may have been right to aggrieve the latter, never the former, although in football, much is about managing luck and that Arsenal escaped two penalty decisions has seemingly not registered with their arguments. Perhaps there is a saneness to that action because a penalty at 0-0 and subsequently at 1-0 when Pedro was brought down, wouldn’t have “killed the game” as Wenger exclaimed. When the harsh red-card was given, it certainly deprived the encounter of its competitive edge.

Arsenal was seemingly back in the game after Sergio Busquets headed into his own net following a painfully one-sided first-half which ended with a delightful Lionel Messi goal. And once Robin van Persie was played behind on 55 minutes, there was a feeling Barcelona had lost some of its sharpness; the constant probing and rummaging of Arsenal from left to right in the first period and asphyxiating hard press beginning to take its toll. But the Dutchman was flagged for an offside and then inexplicably called back for a second yellow for taking a shot. One second had elapsed since van Persie took his first touch and shot wide but that was enough for Massimo Busacca to deem it as time wasting. To be fair to the Swiss referee, he had already made clear of his no-nonsense attitude after booking Bakary Sagna for throwing the ball away but he similarly overlooked the Darth Vader Death Grip performed by both Eric Abidal and Adriano a few minutes earlier. And what of the referees role in the modern game? Shouldn’t it be, not just to uphold the spirit of the game but with so much at stake and the mass televisation of football, encouraged to let the game be played as competitively as reasonably possible? Howard Webb was derided by the mass audience for not showing more leniency and understanding to the significance of the event in World Cup Final of 2010 and Busacca should similarly be examined for a soft red-card.

However, to fixate on the red-card alone is perhaps missing the point because before then this was utter superiority in its purest form. Sure, the tie may have taken a different course but as the Madrid based newspaper, AS wrote, “Arsenal, despite Wenger’s complaints, didn’t have a shot at [Víctor] Valdés once. And even so, they were just a step away from making the quarter-finals.”

Here, Barcelona seemingly wiped away any notion of Arsenal’s identity. The rapid passing, the quick interchange of players, the dynamic speed in which it can create an attack was non-existent. Passes never found a sequence; it was as if Arsenal was passing to prime numbers. This was because not only did Barcelona monopolise the ball, they owned space and viciously hounded The Gunners off the ball whenever it had possession. They completed 24 interceptions, the majority in the final third of the pitch and you could say the Cesc Fábregas error was forced by their intense pressing of the opponent. Arsenal couldn’t get out of its own half and the final statistic, 20 shots to 0 tells it’s own story of Barcelona’s domination. In Lionel Messi, Barcelona has the man that can make the difference and more often than not, he does. His goal was sumptuously taken, flicking the ball over Manuel Almunia before shooting in an empty net. And around that, he was at the heart of every dangerous move from Barcelona although there must also be credit given to Xavi, who finished the second after a great move and Andres Iniesta for his assists for the two goals.

Tactical Errors from Wenger

Arsenal tried to reproduce its gameplan from the first-leg by pressing up the pitch and conceding the wings so it didn’t lose its compactness. Abou Diaby came in for Alex Song and produced a competent display; his presence also helping to smother Messi early on. However the first two selectional mistakes Wenger made was to bring in Tomas Rosicky for the injured Theo Walcott and despite their obvious qualities, two players clearly lacking in match sharpness in van Persie and Fábregas. The pair may have been passed fit but that in itself should not have been used to make the decision on whether to start the two. Fitness tests doesn’t necessarily give a great indication on the intensity they would have to exert and it was evident that both men were behind the rest after twenty minutes. Their lack of fitness gave no intensity to the press high up the pitch and that forced Arsenal to defend ever more deeper. But Arsenal didn’t park the bus, it was just unable to get out of its own half. Much to do with Barcelona’s pressing but the lagging intensity levels of the front men and the inability to break past the press, did it for The Gunners. “They attack less. Maybe they play to keep the result,” Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said. “The reality is that they were not able to string together three consecutive passes and they were not able to shoot once on goal.”


Bringing in Rosicky also showed Wenger’s fixation on keeping Barcelona quiet when the presence of Andrei Arshavin or Nicklas Bendtner may have allowed Arsenal of an out-ball. There was no speed in the transition and evidently, Arsenal relied much on Samir Nasri on the break because Rosicky and Fabregas were unable to help get support to van Persie. It all seems quite harsh on the manager to point out selection discrepancies, especially with such a big decision going against them and the sheer quality of Barcelona but the team defended well and that for one deserves some credit even if it seems inferior to say that.

Barcelona sets the benchmark

In Spain they believe Barcelona is the best team in 30 years or so and it is hard not to agree with that assertion. The quality of its own league hinders it acknowledgement as the worlds best, especially with Real Madrid also dismantling La Liga opponents with relative ease yet no one does it in the style Barcelona does. There is an argument the team is too dependent on Lionel Messi and in this game, perhaps that showed but the Real Madrid side of the 1950/60’s were heavily influenced by the genius of Alfredo Di Stéfano yet that does not stop them from being so revered. There is another assertion that, through all their technical brilliance, they play one pass too many but again that is merely clutching at straws and and acknowledged of how good they can still be. Nevertheless, it should be up to the opponents to a) stop the amount of passes played by Barcelona and b) have a respectable amount of its own. That defending to keep a clean sheet for the whole game is seen as a achievement further underlines Barcelona’s greatness and one still waits for the day where a team can compete with them for possession. That Arsenal did try to fight fire with fire and succeeded with a win at The Emirates saw this blog exclaim the game as the best of the modern era because no one else has come close using tactics which can be considered as “proactive.”

AS put Arsenal’s struggles in the 3-1 defeat in the context of just how superior Barcelona is to the rest of the football stratosphere. “Arsenal yesterday spent 90 minutes pursuing what is their hallmark in the [British] Isles. But there, there is no Barça.” Arsenal has Manchester United next. The best team in England. But, in their own right, a long way away from being Barcelona.

The art of defence is in attack for Barcelona and Arsenal

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.

Arsenal disjointed after Jack Wilshere reshuffle

Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland

The joys of Arsenal this season have been seeing Arséne Wenger construct, out of a young, exuberant and somewhat fragile group of players, a dynamic and highly-integrated passing and pressing machine that reached it’s apex in the 2-1 win over Barcelona. The frustrations, have largely come when that unit becomes disintegrated – mainly due to injuries – and it exposes slight structural inefficiencies thus hampering fluency and every so often, throwing up a momentary lapse of concentration that threatens to throw away the game. So, perhaps it was always inevitable, that Arsenal, without four of its key men this season, would make hard weather of an admittedly tricky meeting with Sunderland.

Much of the post-match moans and groans were about the offside and penalty decisions that weren’t given and while it’s true they may have been decisive, The Gunners should not discount the pattern of play that happened before them. Chances were missed although perhaps not of the quality seen in previous matches as creativity and fluency suffered a hit. It seems, with the multitude of chances the side creates, the preciousness of a single chance is somewhat taken for granted. A shot on target is seemingly good enough for Arsenal to reaffirm its status as beautiful martyrs.

How the adjustment of Jack Wilshere’s role affected Arsenal’s dynamics

Wenger’s selection was as expected and arguably as strong as he could have picked although the inclusion of Denilson, who is woefully out of form, forever irks some Gooners and in this match, he failed to disprove those dissenters. His passing was as ever tidy but it looked unthreatening and comatose against the carefree nature of the game. Both sides traded 4-2-3-1 with 4-2-3-1 as Sunderland looked to man-mark Arsenal whenever it had possession and as a result, the home-side was never allowed any real fluency.

Arsenal looked disjointed from the off and a lot seemed to boil down to one significant adjustment; that of Jack Wilshere moving from his nominal double-pivot role to one behind the striker. He has become so crucial to the team’s dynamics this season as one of the two deeper midfielders that the absence of him from the position was instantly telling. The impact this had on the team was threefold:

(i)                  Passing;

(ii)                Pressing (of which affects structure and distances);

(iii)               Positioning.

First off, a word on Sunderland’s start before we expand on the above bullet points, which initially caused some problems to Arsenal’s defence. Steve Bruce opted for a formation which matched up to The Gunners so his side could press better but it came as some surprise as to where he deployed his men. Sulley Muntari and Jordan Henderson screened the back-four while it was Kieran Richardson, usually their left-back who started as the highest midfielder. He was flanked by Steed Malbranque on the left and Stéphane Sessegnon on the right and the amorphous selection started brightly for the Black Cats.

Arséne Wenger usually pushes his two central midfielders forward at the beginning of the game, in order to negate the opposition pressing through the middle but the tactic proceeded to give those versatile players a bit of room. Arsenal visibly needed a dynamic player to get the ball out of the back but Abou Diaby tends to dwell on the ball and Denilson can often pass too lateral and as a result the ball was not recycled as effectively as it could have been. Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou were therefore given much responsibility to bring the ball out of the defence and often strode with the ball into the opponents half in order to advance the play.

Having said that, Denilson’s sheer desire to keep the ball moving, whether penetrative or not, when he did get the ball higher up the pitch was not such a bad idea. With passes being hit astray, he continued to play the ball to feet, hoping to suck the opposition out of position with his movement. In this instance it didn’t really work because Sunderland defended solidly and kept tight to Arsenal’s midfielders, particularly starving Wilshere of space to influence, and the side also lacked runners getting beyond. Tomas Rosicky’s ineffectiveness in the League Cup Final ultimately cost him a place in the starting line-up but in recent games, he has shown a greater willingness to break forward, doing so against Birmingham City and creating the first goal in 5-0 rout of Leyton Orient.

Arsenal’s pressing also suffered although not to the extent of which was seen against Birmingham as Sunderland naturally dropped back because they were satisfied with the draw while Birmingham in the final was forced to go for the win. Jack Wilshere, who has been an exemplar exponent of Wenger’s tactic of through-marking in the press, looked unsure of who to stick tight too as he was up against two holding midfielders. Through-marking requires each player behind the ball to stick tight to their opposing players to therefore eliminate the easy pass out but there wasn’t something right with the distances between each Arsenal player (See Figure 2). Denilson and Diaby were often too separated from each other when Arsenal didn’t have the ball. Wenger pointed to Diaby’s lack of sharpness in his positional play against Orient and that was on display here. He was given the covering role of Song in the double-pivot but was attracted to the play towards the right. It was by far not a bad performance; however, he failed to provide the drive he usually brings to the team. The absence of Fabregas shifted more responsibility to Nasri and Wilshere to create but the game also highlighted the importance of other absentees. Van Persie has perfectly balanced the art of the striker while Song provides the protection and power to complement Arsenal’s intricacy and Theo Walcott helps create space centrally by stretching the play. Nasri assumed the right sided role very well but was always relied upon to cut inside and help Arsenal create.


Arsenal’s disjointedness is shown against Sunderland in comparison with their average touch positions for the whole season. In Figure 1, Wilshere and Song typically make a more synchronised partnership, showing the importance of the double pivot to the team’s dynamics. In Figure 2, Denilson is too central – his style which is usually playing as the deepest midfielder in a 4-3-3 – while Diaby has pushed to far forward. The distances between the pair are too large and it shows how the roles have been switched. Normally, it is the left-sided midfielder, Wilshere, who circulates possession but this time it was Denilson but he was often too deep. Diaby, who should have assumed the covering role of Alex Song, was too attracted to play on the right.

The Nicklas Bendtner and Marouanne Chamakh rivalry goes on

Had Nicklas Bendtner got on to the end of Gael Clichy’s cross early in the first-half, the Dane would have been a dead cert to start against Barcelona. But as it is, it still leaves us with unanswered questions on who should start in the big match. Should the main role of the striker be to get the best out of the front four or score goals? Everything is relative of course, but Bendtner could have been accused of being too individualistic at times, drifting to the left and looking to get the ball to his feet at all times.

In the second-half, Marouanne Chamakh entered the fray and with Bendtner pushed to the right, Arsenal looked more dynamic. Bendtner was able to tuck in behind the Moroccan and provided Arsenal with more numbers in the box although it should not be discounted, the drive Wilshere provided with the substitution. Picking the ball up from deeper, he has space to run with the ball forward; something which he was denied in the first-half although you could see why Wenger placed him in the attacking midfield slot; Wilshere played some wonderful passes that on another day, may have found a man. Football is a game of margins as Bendtner will have found out but there is a chance he will start along with Chamakh at Camp Nou.

Arsenal’s defence must overcome its mental barriers

Arsenal 1-2 Birmingham City (League Cup Final) ~ Fuuuuuuccckk part II

So the monkey on Arséne Wenger’s back remains. On Sunday, it was viciously clawing and grasping onto Wenger’s shoulders, trying desperately to keep balanced; especially so after Arsenal dominated the middle period of the second-half, aiming shot after shot at Ben Foster’s goal. Today, it rests happily on his back, chain-smoking like a simian Zdeněk Zeman casually wearing a porter’s uniform as if waiting for work – without the trousers, of course. On Wednesday night, it will surely be back to its taunting best, furiously pointing and gesticulating at the manager who faces an FA Cup replay at home to Leyton Orient.

Six years it’s been without Arsenal lifting a trophy and it is a monkey Wenger will want to get off his back. Perhaps not desperately because modern football is about staying competitive but it remains a major objective for his iconoclastic side and the 2-1 League Cup defeat remained its best chance. Key matches in the FA Cup and the Champions League are yet to come, not to mention the league where the holders play the leaders tonight. With the loss, Arsenal has become now, perennial failures, having overtaken Manchester United in the domestic cup loses count with 12 defeats and the most recent cup failure had a bit of fatalism about it.

Birmingham City boss Alex McLeish, set up his team to try and exploit what he saw as Arsenal’s flaws as he packed a midfield with runners, backed up by a menacing technician on the right-wing in former Gunner, Sebastian Larsson to aim balls forward to beanpole striker Nikola Zigic. In the end, they may have accrued less possession and were visibly shattered at the back but McLeish knew, because of their direct style, could always create a chance It was up to Arsenal then, to be more effective with the ball – they only completed half the job having notched up 58% of the ball possession – but lacked the cutting edge of Cesc Fabregas or even Theo Walcott. Abou Diaby’s powerful runs would surely have made a difference even but Wenger decided not to risk him in the squad and opted for an adjustment up top after Robin van Persie’s injury.

The second job to negate Birmingham’s strategy, was to press quickly but the hectic nature of the English game can make that difficult. Birmingham were able to escape with one quick release and the fact that Arsenal don’t press as high up the pitch as last season left Barry Ferguson and the back four relatively unopposed. The long ball tactic also meant it was more difficult to get organised as the team would have to rush back into position straight after attack, so knock downs and loose balls would almost exclusively have to be picked up by the defence and Jack Wilshere and Alex Song. Tomas Rosicky was often too high up the pitch to make a three which would have made a great deal of difference to Arsenal as it was already outnumbered in the centre.

And the third task and perhaps the most simplistic instruction on paper, was to win challenges in the air. Initially, Laurent Koscielny tried to stick to Zigic like glue but the Serbian kept on peeling off his markers and when he began to win an increasing amount of headers, doubts crept in. And that, in a nutshell sums up the problem with Arsenal’s defensive strategy, if indeed it is a problem. Wenger has long been criticised for not purchasing another a commanding centre-back and consequently an experienced goalkeeper and that supposed intransigence, cost them the trophy. But can it be as easy as that?

In the goalkeeping department, perhaps more pragmatism should have been taken because it is the most mentally frail position. But at centre-back, it is more complicated than that. Improved fitness, thereby exposing technique and mobility makes “no-nonsense” defenders obsolete. Footballers must be all-rounders and those defenders that are usually described as the aforementioned – John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Vidic – are adept at all parts of the game. Initially Vidic had a uncomfortable transition to the English Premier League but now regularly completes 5-10 passes in the oppositions half while Terry is a fantastic two-footed passer of the ball. Yes, football may still be specialised, but in each position, a player must compose of a multitude of traits.

Arsenal’s centre-backs in the past few years have been on the passive side but the current four, and given that two are in their début season, like nothing more than to put their head on the ball as well as their foot. The mix up between Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny may go down as a communication error and one that highlights the embryonic partnership between the pair rather than meekness. When Wenger did enter the club, he inherited the best back four in the country and so it is to some surprise that he has neglected the battling qualities of the old guard of which he talks glowingly about. But lets not forget also, he signed, possibly the most gifted of the lot. Sol Campbell was boisterous on the pitch and displayed a fantastic all-round ability, no less displayed when he made his comeback to the team last season, at 35 years old and was forced to defend on the half-way line against both FC Porto and Tottenham. Who could have, however, fathomed that he had a mental frailty that he suddenly released in between his two spells? and certainly, what could Arsenal have become did he stay and inspire the class of 2007-08?

Campbell’s reincarnation, however, also shows that some pragmatism may be allowed in the centre-back position even given the expansive nature of Arsenal’s style. Wenger, as the psychologist Jacques Crevoisier who has devised customised personality tests for the manager, explains, wants “above all…intelligent players. To play for Arsenal you have to be intelligent, technical and fast.”

The difficulty then becomes obvious in building a team like Arsenal’s and trying to find a balance between technique, speed, efficiency, dynamism, possession, mental strength and height. Every team must have a weakness. Barcelona has conceded half of their goals from set pieces as height becomes an issue in trying to produce a technical level of football. Brazil may achieve this because as Dunga says, “it’s about the Brazilian population because the height is increasing and this brought a good stature and physical agility.” But on the whole, it’s generally difficult. Chelsea or Manchester United may be closer to getting there but it come as a sacrifice on ball-hungry possession keeping and an intricate style.

As a compensation perhaps, although, Arsenal does practice set-plays and practice, does indeed, make perfect, Arsenal has concentrated a lot on strategic defending. This season, it’s been awe-inspiringly integrated and one that is so dependent on the unit that one chink in the system can affect the whole. If the distances between the back four and the midfield and consequently, the midfield and the attack are too large or too small, the press will fail. The mantra is to win the ball back and that comes through structural pressing and the use of Dutch priniciples of through-marking. (Through-marking sees the players behind the first presser looking to eliminate the next pass through tight-marking and close attention). As Andoni Zubizarreta, the director of professional football at Barcelona says, “strategic defending has nothing to do with height.” But he adds – almost as a caveat – a point one which is perhaps the most pertinent to Arsenal: “But defensively, it’s a good team, and it’s not as if we’re an English team, who are always physically more powerful. We might pay for that in some games.”

Modern football reaches a pantheon. Arsenal prevails in attack vs attack

Arsenal's Johan Djourou, at left, with teammates Alex Song, centre and Emmanuel Eboue, at right, challenge for the ball with Barcelona's Lionel Messi during a Champions League, round of 16, first leg soccer match at Arsenal's Emirates stadium in London, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Tom Hevezi)

Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona (First Leg)

This was a match where every detailed seemed to matter just that bit more. Every pass was stressed. Every shot was scrutinised. Every contested challenge, dribble and interception was crucial. Every bounce of Lionel Messi’s hair. The timing of Theo Walcott’s runs. Refereeing decisions. Pep Guardiola’s catwalk struts down the touchline. Every unscrewing of Arsene Wenger’s bottle cap. Every inch Victor Valdes left exposed at his near post. Every substitution. Each moment of ascendancy had to be taken. Those were the margins and fortunately enough, a huge dose of Lady Luck went Arsenal’s way also.

Barcelona played Arsenal off the park for the first forty-five minutes. Or so it should have been. Lionel Messi was sensational in dropping deep and collecting possession then running at Arsenal’s back-line. But Arsenal tried it’s darnest to limit his threat and for keeping it 1-0 and sticking religiously to their gameplan, it nevertheless must go down as a fantastic first-half effort. After the break, however, Arsenal ramped up their intensity and it was Barcelona who looked like they may buckle. Granted, Pep Guardiola’s side had plenty of the possession but that was expected. The Gunners continued to play pro-actively, undeterred by their so-called superior’s level of technical ability. And for that the game must go down as the best of the modern era. Manchester United and Chelsea in the Champions League in 2008 may have been a compelling advert for the speed and power of the evolving game but this was how football should be played: with an unerring technical accuracy, tempo and tactical complexity.

But it is more significant given that Arsenal has beaten the best team of the current generation and one who is light-years ahead of the rest because of the philosophy bestowed onto them by Johan Cruyff (although their financial ethics must be questioned). Whenever anyone has played the Catalan giants, they almost certainly contest in one way; to defend deep and look to counter attack and all with an air of inevitability and fear. Only Villarreal has deferred from the modus operandi but it has only served to highlight the difficulties of facing Barcelona at their own game. “You’re always on the border of collapsing against them,” said Arsène Wenger, after last night’s 2-1 victory and it seemed like it may go that way for Arsenal as well after they made a fantastic start to the game in the first ten minutes. Somehow a good ten minutes becomes a positive thing when facing Barcelona.

Arsenal fought fire with fire and although the possession count was a superior 66%-34% to Barcelona, it was not as if The Gunners tried to concede possession to their opponents. Arsenal pressed and squeezed Barcelona. It worked but at the same time, failed to work also. Messi had a fantastic chance when he chipped wide when one-on-one with Wojcjech Szczesny and had a goal disallowed for offside. But the highly integrated, highly compact pressing from Arsenal, which at most times was never 25 metres apart from the first line of defence to the last, constantly broke up play.  Arsenal’s best play was mostly on the turnover but fortune favours the brave and as a result, they also had their fair share of possession. Jack Wilshere in particular was so impressive that he never gave the ball away in the first-half. He had a composure in front of defence beyond his years and a discipline which was crucial to the moment. The central midfield pair delegated roles accordingly, as Alex Song continued charging for the ball, knowing that he was the better tackler and Wilshere the better circulator.

Arsenal did get a bit of joy when defeating the first line of Barcelona pressing which consisted on Pedro, Messi and David Villa. The threesome tried to close the defenders down high up the pitch but if Arsenal bypassed it, they found space down the wings because it exposed Xavi and Andres Iniesta in the middle. Emmanuel Eboue galloped up and down while Samir Nasri had Dani Alves in knots at times. But by also keeping the front three high up the pitch and the keep ball that Barcelona are capable of, it sucked Walcott and Nasri, in particular, centrally and Alves himself continued bombing up and down.

Arsenal’s strategic defending

It is true Messi had a barnstormer in the first-half but he was eventually squeezed out for big periods in the second. Lethargy had a part to play but also, Barcelona cannot really be asked to defend for 90 minutes and against a team like Arsenal, it was also going to concede chances on the break. Arsenal’s tactic was as it has always been this season; strategic defending that incorporates the Dutch principles of through-marking and winning the ball back quickly. Through-marking sees the players behind the first presser looking to eliminate the next pass through tight-marking and close attention. It is highly dependent on the structure and distances between players and Arsenal’s 4-4-1-1 in the press, which was Arrigo Sacchi-esque, ensured the team could match up well numerically. Laurent Koscielny typified the strategy as he continued to nick the ball away from the Barcelona attackers.

Much was to be made of the two central defender’s style before the game and by the end, showed that their style of winning the ball back quickly, which has been the mantra of Arsenal’s defensive strategy this season, was a masterstroke. The high-line got them in to trouble on occasions but apart from a Messi miss and a lack of concentration from Gael Clichy, it worked to great effect. Villa tried to take advantage by getting in between Johan Djourou and Koscielny and in that one instance, it worked.


<Figure 1> Arsenal’s defensive outline. Arsenal squeezed the play, looking to stop Barcelona from playing their game. Their backline was adventurously high and that meant at most times, a distance of 25 metres between attack and defence.


<Figure 2> Lionel Messi’s completed passes. Arsenal’s compactness shows in Messi’s passing graph. The Argentine had a free striker role and dropped deep to collect possesion but Arsenal tried not to let him get into the final third. (Courtesy of Zonal Marking and Total Football iphone app.)


<Figure 3> Arsenal Interceptions (Courtesy ofSleepy_Nik and and Total Football iphone app.)

In the second-half, Arsenal was more effective, more tighter and this allowed the side to comeback in the fashion that they did. Robin van Persie’s goal had a bit of good fortune but the build up was just what Wenger would have wanted. Quick passing, quick interchange and dynamic movement. Clichy’s dinked pass had Gerard Pique a bit flat-footed, enough for van Persie to exploit. Andrey Arshavin’s goal was even better as an interception at the edge of their own box started a crisp counter attack which saw two great passes by Wilshere and Cesc Fabregas to free Nasri and he showed fantastic composure to tee-up Arshavin to place home.

Much was made of Guardiola’s substitution of David Villa for Seydou Keita. In one sense it was defining but you could understand his reasoning. Barcelona was losing the dynamism and potency that their possession game is famed for and as a result Villa was kept quiet. He wanted to retain control and defend via possession; however, it only served to hand some initiative to Arsenal. Wenger was spot on with his substitutions which saw Nasri just hold his position deeper with Fabregas also dropping back and Nicklas Bendtner replacing Walcott. Guardiola’s tactic, however, also showed his flaws as he wanted to make a artistic impression when the game should have been killed off –  to teach an educational lesson with their belief in keeping the ball on the floor and moving at all times.

“We made more chances and in general terms, we have had a very good game,” said Guardiola. “But Arsenal is good at playing the position and exposing the weaknesses. When they get past the first pressure line, they are very fast. For many years they have set an example in Europe.”

The return leg at Camp Nou promises to be special and judging by the last three games against each other, the first-half will be crucial. But right now, Arsenal can celebrate even though the game is only at the halfway point. They have beaten the best team in the world and in a style that never at one moment, betrayed their own. This was a game where ascendancy had to taken. Where every moment was crucial. When football reached a pantheon. When Arsenal prevailed in attack versus attack.

How do you stop Lionel Messi?

Even the most extensive database on earth can find no solution. Try typing into Google, “How to stop Messi” and while it produces 2,660,000 search results, none come anywhere close to answering the million pound question. When Arsenal faced Barcelona in the Champions League last season, they resisted the calls to treat Lionel Messi with special dispensation but instead, they considered him the same as everyone else and the results were disastrous. Messi was instrumental in the first leg as Arsène Wenger’s side survived an onslaught in the first twenty minutes but in the second leg at Camp Nou, delivered what he so promised at the Emirates as he ran amok to complete a devastating  twenty-one minute hat-trick.

He’s not omnipotent although his mother tells us he is just angelic. Nor is he a mutant although his minute stature is because of a hormone defect he had as a youngster which enables humans to grow. And he certainly isn’t a holographic character, which, essentially some have described him as. (Theo Walcott and Arsène Wenger, “Messi’s like a PlayStation”). He is simply a human being. An extraordinary one at that, however, and one so ahead of his peers at this current moment that there was no doubt he was to be crowned FIFA’s world player of the year despite Xavi’s most mesmeric efforts. This season, Messi has scored an amazing 40 goals in 34 games, a feat which Cristiano Ronaldo is doing his darnest to try and make look as insignificant as possible. (Currently Ronaldo has 34 goals in 36 games and the rivalry should prove to be the most defining of a generation since Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbaur).

When Arsenal faces Barcelona in Wednesday’s clash at The Emirates, the immediate question will be whether or not they should man-mark Messi and the answer will almost certainly be “no.” Wenger will put faith in his team’s ability to squeeze Messi out of the game through their improving structural pressing. It is tactic that is to be admired and it is only one of the two ways to approach Barcelona.

Man marking

The supposed problem with marking Lionel Messi is that invariably you neglect the other individuals that make Barcelona brilliant. And there are a lot of those. But it is also a risk that it may be worth taking as it strips Pep Guardiola’s side of their most spontaneous player and that is more easier, in theory, to defend against. Taking Messi out of the game, some argue, leaves you essentially facing Spain, a weak argument perhaps given that there are massive structural differences not to mention changes in personnel but it serves to highlight the dynamism Messi gives. Wenger was virtually implying that very point in the 4-1 defeat last season although he knew that if he did state it pointedly, questions will be fired back at why he didn’t detail a man to follow the Argentinian. But can you really mark Messi out of a game because his impact goes beyond what he does on the ball? Sticking close to him creates space elsewhere for others to exploit and also leaves you with one man short in another area of the pitch while his movement is always proactive, always finding ways to be useful in one way or another. Chelsea did that successfully in 2009 as Jose Bosingwa followed him from left-back but it was with an ultra-defensive approach Arsenal is not willing to take.

That was two years ago and it shows just how far tactically Barcelona have come to stop such instances occurring again. Messi has now almost exclusively played a free role, last season behind the forward, this season as the central forward. If Arsenal have plans for any such individuals, positioning will almost always complicate them.

On the right

With Barcelona’s formation, there is bound to be some interchangeability with Messi swapping with Pedro at some point in the game, and the right-winger shifting into David Villa’s position as he takes up the striking role. On the right, Messi will look to drift infield by initially starting on the right. Dani Alves will bomb forward regardless, nevertheless, his central tendencies will open up space for the Brazilian right-back. Barcelona’s keep ball means there is a constant movement of players and while it would seem like Messi is drifting into a congested area, it will certainly make space for someone else. If anything, it will give Barcelona a spare man centrally – a tactic Chelsea used well in their 2-0 win over Arsenal earlier this season as Florent Malouda occupied Alex Song, affording Ashley Cole the space to get forward. Arsenal’s wide men will almost certainly have to track back but there is still much onus on Song and Jack Wilshere to shuffle right and left. One can envisage a similar scenario for the pair to contend with while even moving centrally alerts the two centre-backs of a player entering their zone and one will at some point have to cover him.


<figure 1>1.Messi cuts in from a right-wing position therefore creating the space for Alves to run into. 2. By occupying his place in the centre it gives Barca a man advantage but also engages either the full-back to push out of position, a centre-back to push out or a midfielder to watch him. If Messi plays on the rihjt, it’s not an undesirable position because it means Arsenal can double up and squeeze him out the gmae but here he tries to ensure a man advantage. 3. The space that Koscielny vacates is spotted by Villa who looks to make a darting run behind.

False nine

Messi, however, is likely to play as a false nine. It is a tactical trend which Arsenal have been at the forefront in recent times and with Robin van Persie being able to combine dropping off with the timing of runs off the shoulder of the defender, have a striker for Barcelona to worry about. Nevertheless, it’s Messi which is the focus and his deployment in the position has scratched many-a-heads. Opposition are unsure of whether to stick tight or stay back and at most times, are left to do neither. Central defenders hate marking space, at that is particularly true of Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny, who prefer to win the ball back quickly. As they don’t fancy marking space, they invariably push up and that creates space behind. With Barcelona using two wide forwards, Pedro and Villa will look to take advantage, not to mention the effervescent Alves and the wily thinking of Xavi.

As mentioned, Koscielny and Djourou like to get tight, which at first seems tactical suicide, but if they do get it right, it could be a master stroke. The best option is still to play deep against a false nine and against Barcelona in general. They seldom look to do the orthodox even if their spectacular is made to look mightily easy. Inter did that last season in the most defensive of approaches although their first leg 3-1 win serves as a protocol. The kept their three strikers up the pitch and defended in a unit that shifted left and right (similar to Arsenal’s). But Barcelona are not oblvious to the ploy of defending deep, so instead of looking  to play into opponents hands by playing an orthodox forward who will play as the same line as them, they look to drag the defenders out by playing with the space in front. Arsenal will have to patient as it will be the greatest test the youngsters have faced mentally.

There is another salient point and that is how Messi has adapted to the centre-forward position. It is not an inhibiting role although it puts him closer to defenders as it may have seemed for Wayne Rooney. He is still encouraged to find space but in a sense he’s liberated as he’s playing higher up and is more ambiguous than before.


<figure 2>1.Messi drops off into a  false nine position thereby committing one of the centre-backs to follow him. 2. The effect is two-fold on the defence. Djourou is then made to shuffle across to help cover the space and likewise is the right-back as he doesn’t want to create a too big a gap between he and Djourou. Either way, Villa looks to take advantage of the extra space by hugging the touchline or looking to get behind.

Arsenal pressing

Arsenal will stay true to their word and look to press up the pitch. It will be crucial, then to form an effective wall that frustrates Barcelona’s passers. Sergio Busquets is the best one touch passer in the world but Arsenal should not worry about him. Stopping Xavi and Andres Iniesta from getting to the supply line will be key. It may be more effective then, for Arsenal to drop Cesc Fabregas back to make a five man midfield rather than press as a 4-2-4 as they have this season. Last season at the Camp Nou, the tactic failed because The Gunners pressed with a 4-1-4-1, taking out the rest with one pass and exposing Denilson; this season, the adoption of the Dutch principles of through-marking should help Arsenal stay compact and squeeze the space. This will stop Messi because as Alves says and in some ways displayed by Argentina’s abject failure in the World Cup, it’s the team that must be stopped first. “I believe the secret to marking Messi is to not worry about marking him,” says Alves. “Because he doesn’t play alone and has a team by his side. That’s the key to marking Messi.”

Villarreal pressing in 1-1 draw last season. Pep Guardiola: “In the game, we were unable to score a decisive second goal. We struggled to get past Villarreal’s first line of pressure in the pitch and that made the match an end to end affair.”