A much-discussed fixture for Arsenal against the Catalan giants Barcelona on Wednesday is, in fact, being blown out of proportion by the media—with a good reason.
It is a big fixture indeed, as is any other in such an important tournament like the Champions League, but the excitement it seems to generate comes more from the fact that the two sides play a very similar style of football that is appealing to the eye and sparks the imagination.
If Arsenal adopt an open, free-flowing style, we are likely to see a game that has potential to bring exhilaration by sheer means of goal-scoring opportunities. As both teams’ natural style is inclined to using open, pass-and-move oriented football, the outcome of the match will tilt towards who will be able to do it better.
That team, at the moment, without any doubt in anyone’s mind, is Barcelona.
So, what does Arsenal have to do to avoid playing Barcelona’s own game, a kind of style which is intrinsic for the Gunners themselves? Won’t that serve them more damage than benefit?
And if so, what are the ways Arsenal can use to improve their chances of winning against a team that is considered the best in the world at the moment?
History reveals Barcelona have had some difficulties against defensively inclined teams.
And that isn’t opposed to normal logic. A team that plays total football finds it difficult to penetrate a well-organised team comfortable in sitting in their own field during the entire game. It can simply cause frustration as an effect of not materializing total domination.
Arsenal are not a defensively inclined team. And neither is Arsene Wenger’s philosophy to football.
But a radical change of style is exactly the recipe that could bring success by means of surprise. It’s not something completely out of range by the current team. If they can repeat the display from Saintiago Bernabeu in 2006 when they beat Real Madrid by 1-0 after an organised defensive game, they could come out on top yet again.
Whatever the case, the organisation has to be on top level, at all times, if Wenger’s boys are to get anything away from high-flying Barcelona.
The back-line needs to be alert and receive help from the midfield. A defence sitting deep will be the more preferable option as Barca’s forwards are very quick and will enjoy exploiting the free space provided by a behind-the-back-of-defense pass.
Measures to secure the wings will also have to be taken.
A more cohesive overall structure could serve more benefits than a wide one leaving much space among the players in this case.
Concentration will be crucial at the back and centre of the park for the Gunners if they are to stop the cunning and full-of-surprises Barcelona midfielders and forwards.
Looking back at last year’s meeting between the two teams, we can draw the conclusion that Arsenal showed too much respect for their opponents. In fact, Arsene Wenger admitted that to be true and acknowledged a more self-confident approach was the better choice.
If the Gunners go into the game as “prey,” they will most likely turn out to be exactly that.
So far, the signs have been hopeful that this is not the case.
The Gunners have worked very hard to adjust their mental attitude to the right frequencies. And it has worked in a large portion of the campaign. They are a better team than last year—a more mature one.
Fear has been brushed aside as an unacceptable option, something that is backed by the statement of Arsene Wenger that his team was not afraid to play anyone.
Back in December, Wenger hurried to point out that if Champions League aspiration were to be genuine, big teams will have to be played. It’s inevitable and the right attitude will distinguish the champion from the rest.
The Gunners are likely to adopt an attitude of the kind: "Come to us; play your game; we’ll play ours, and we’ll see who will come on top. We are not afraid of you.”
After last year’s meeting Arsene Wenger has showed sings of learning from past mistakes. He openly admitted his boys showed too much respect for the Catalans. By all means, Pep Guardiola’s side has done everything to earn the praise from all over the world, but in a tournament like the Champions League, there is no place for overestimating or underestimating the opposition.
The wings will play a pivotal role in the final score.
With the probable absence of influential central defender Carles Puyol, a great chance of exploiting the central defence of Guardiola’s team will be presented.
Here lies the trick.
Attacks from the sides culminating in crosses will surprise Barcelona. This season Arsenal have proved they can be deadly from the air.
Players like Djourou, Koscielny, Bendtner, Chamakh and even Robin van Persie have demonstrated great heading abilities which could inflict damage against teams who rely on shorter players.
Barcelona is one of those teams. The average height of the team is 1.77 meters, which makes them one of the shortest teams in Europe.
Arsenal should try and exploit that from set-pieces and crosses, and is fully capable of delivering a goal from those kinds of situations.
Lionel Messi is considered the best player in the world. With his dazzling runs he has the ability to glide through groups of players and wreak havoc, but man-marking him would be the wrong decision.
Barcelona are far too good of a team for marking a single player to make a difference. In fact, it will only make things worse as following Messi everywhere will release free space for other talented players to exploit.
The key to dealing with Messi, and in fact the whole Barcelona team, is by keeping a cohesive structure and playing with discipline. Zone marking is the key.
In the past years, Arsenal have gained the status of an inexperienced squad with fluctuating motivation. The myth is starting to disperse as the maturing of the players is becoming a fact.
The importance of every single match has begun to resonate in the heads of the players. They are beginning to understand that the importance of being successful lies in ensuring the small steps are done properly in the long journey of reaching the final destination.
Understanding this is the key to how the Arsenal players will motivate themselves for this important fixture.
They must come out fully motivated and committed.
With a team that has the potential to beat anyone on its best day, Arsenal need to make sure they are on their best level when facing the formidable obstacle that Barcelona is.
It’s the team that keeps the image of the goal—the Champions League title in this case—and what it needs to do to get there that will emerge victorious.
Depending on the tactics, of course, the selection may differ. But let’s assume Wenger will adopt the ideas mentioned above.
In defense, Gael Clichy and Emmanuel Eboue will have to guard the sides. Bacary Sagna, absent due to suspension will be hugely missed, and that will put pressure on Eboue to perform.
In the centre of defence, the stability of the mutually beneficial partnership between Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny will be tested to the maximum by some of the best offensive-minded players in the world.
In midfield, the work load will need to be high.
Cesc Fabregas, Jack Wilshere and Alex Song will have to work like one and think ahead to neutralize playmakers Xavi, Andres Iniesta and holding-midfielder Sergio Busquets.
The high-work rate of youngster Jack Wilshere and the-ever-growing-in-influence Alex Song can provide Cesc Fabregas with a little more freedom to pass the ball upfront—preferably towards the wings from where crosses can be made.
But it needs to be ensured the team’s attacks do not become one-dimensional, so through balls through the centre should also be employed.
In attack, the pressure to perform, in defence as well as in attack, could be put on Theo Walcott and Andrei Arshavin.
On the edge of the sword, three options are available which could provide variety.
Niklas Bendtner and Maroune Chamakh can provide an aerial threat, but in the latter's case the holding of the ball can give Barcelona chances to counter-attack in case something goes wrong.
Robin van Persie’s presence can pose aerial threat for the Catalans, but it could also give another dimension to the Arsenal attack. A good way of solving the problem of selection would be substituting one attacker for another near the 60th minute mark.