Arsenal vs. Barcelona: The Fan's Perspective, Part One of Two
Tomorrow, Arsenal take on Barcelona in what will probably be the most intriguing matchup the Champions League has produced thus far.
Beautiful football against beautiful football, and the winner is the football fan. It's the match any neutral would be mad to miss.
Putting that aside for a second, myself (an Arsenal supporter and Featured Columnist for Arsenal) and Manuel Traquete (Barcelona supporter and Featured Columnist for Barcelona) have teamed up to produce a questionnaire to give what we believe is the fan's perspective of the tie.
Were you pleased to have a repeat of last year’s opponents?
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I’ve heard a lot of Arsenal fans and players talk about how excited they are to get Barcelona, and how it will be the year for revenge. But what I really care about is “Can we progress?” and drawing Barcelona means we have the toughest draw in the competition.
We also have an uncomfortable history against Barcelona, recently coming close to beating them (namely, in the 2006 Champions League final) but painfully falling short at the end. Statistics and history are not the best way to judge who will win, of course, but Barcelona are playing in such a way that it'll be very difficult to get past them.
Looking at the competition as a whole, I don’t think it’s good that one of the teams has to go out so early, as they’re both so capable. So, no, I wasn’t pleased.
Well, Barcelona’s sole objective in the Champions League is to win the competition. In order to do so, they must beat whatever opponent comes their way. If you feel the need to avoid certain opponents, then you won’t win the Champions League.
That said, I’m pleased that for the second successive year Barcelona gets to face Arsenal, this time in the first knockout round. Arsenal are a side that evoke great memories, like the 2006 final in Paris and the Leo Messi show last season at Camp Nou, in what was truly one of the most brilliant individual performances in football history.
More importantly, Arsenal are one of the few sides in the continent who are sure not to park the bus against Barcelona, which means these should be two great matches.
I’m also pleased with this draw because, even though Barcelona went through last season, it was far from convincing. The last 30 minutes at the Emirates saw Barcelona play arguably their worst football to date under Pep Guardiola and even the second leg wasn’t that great. If not for an inspired Leo Messi, things could have been a lot tougher. Inter Milan then exploited Barcelona’s weaknesses in the semifinals.
Fortunately, those weaknesses have since been overcome, and Barcelona seem ready for another successful Champions League campaign. There’s no injury crisis around the Camp Nou this season and the team has been playing at a much higher level, so a more convincing display is in order.
What do you think the major factors were in Barcelona progressing last year?
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Of course, Barcelona played some great football, both at the Emirates and at the Camp Nou, but for me the real problems Arsenal had were injuries. I remember Alex Song having to drop back into defence in the first leg, and not initially having the guile to read the passes through to Zlatan Imbrahimovich. Which I don’t blame him for; he’s a midfielder.
And then in the second leg, as soon as I saw that Mikael Silvestre was playing I knew we wouldn’t stand much of a chance. That's not me blaming him, or belittling their victory in any way.
I guess you can say that not being able to cover for injuries adequately speaks volumes about the squad, and I am not someone who completely thinks Arsène Wenger is right in not buying some more players, but that game really exposed the problems we had.
Of course, Barcelona can only beat what is put in front of them and they played excellently and deserved to go through. There is no bitterness from me, as they won fair and square.
There’s only one answer for this one: Lionel Messi.
For a very significant period of last season, Barcelona were truly Messi-dependant. With Iniesta sidelined, Xavi playing with a small injury and Ibrahimovic misfiring, Messi had to take charge and he did it brilliantly. His performance against Arsenal at Camp Nou drew acclaim even from Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger.
It’s very difficult to find another major factor in Barcelona’s last season win against Arsenal.
How is the match this year different from last year's?
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Both teams are stronger. David Villa was a massive signing for Barcelona, and he could lead them to a lot of success. In fact, I'm certain he will.
Similarly to Arsenal, all of Barcelona's young players will be a year older and wiser, and more confident. The league form they're showing (which you have to respect) is proof of that.
Arsenal have also added fairly wisely in the transfer market, although I’m not a member of the Sebastien Squillaci fan club. But if there was ever a time to prove yourself and impress, this must surely be it.
Chamakh is strong, but I doubt he'll be given much time now that van Persie is playing and in form. Koscielny's reading of the game is going to be really important, I hope he's up for the task.
Djourou has quietly been the most solid member of Arsenal's back line. I can't wait to see him and Vermaelen together. One of the most interesting battles will be in the midfield, with Wilshere. He was decent while playing for Bolton last season, but he's become an awesome player this year (PFA Young Player of the Year perhaps?) and I'm sure he'll be relishing the match. I just hope it's not all too much for him, I doubt it will be.
For starters, it’s in a different round and a month earlier in the season than last year’s tie.
Also, Barcelona have been much better this season. The addition of David Villa has proven crucial, as well as Iniesta’s return to full fitness. Players like Pedro and Busquets have established themselves as world beaters and team chemistry is at an all-time high. This explains why Barcelona have won 20 of their 22 La Liga matches and are currently the best attack and the best defense in all European leagues.
Last year, a tight affair was expected, while this season most people would put their money on Barcelona winning both games. Which is normal, considering the way Barcelona have been playing this season.
But Arsenal are a much-improved side as well and they won’t just roll over. Barcelona might be the favorites, but it’d foolish to completely rule out Arsenal’s chances.
Everything can happen in football and Arsenal undoubtedly possess a great squad with some very good players, like Cesc Fabregas, Robin Van Persie et al. Therefore, Barcelona will have to work hard if they wish to advance.
How confident are you for the tie?
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I would say Arsenal have a fairly low chance of progressing, but I thought the Steelers would win the Superbowl, so I’m probably not the best person to comment.
In all seriousness, I've liked what I've seen from Arsenal this season and had it been any other team in the Champions League I'd probably be feeling a lot more confident, but Barcelona is a team making history. It's no disrespect to lose to them at all.
I actually think we might sneak a win at the Emirates. It's forgotten how well we did to level the game, but in terms of my confidence for the whole tie, I honestly would not put money on Arsenal progressing.
Very confident, admittedly. The way Barcelona have been playing makes their supporters believe that they can beat anyone, and Arsenal is no exception.
Lionel Messi, David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez have scored a combined 76 goals this season so far, which, combined with Arsenal’s usually suspicious back line, means that scoring won’t be a problem, at least on paper. I’m extremely confident for the tie, and with good reason I’d say.
However, last season’s debacle against Inter has taught me that nothing can be taken for granted in the Champions League. One bad day (like the one at San Siro) and it’s all over.
How will advancing/not advancing affect the team in the remainder of the season?
Juggling is a little easier for some...
There are advantages to not progressing that people might not think about.
It takes a lot out of a team to balance three (you could say four) trophies at a time, so to be out of one and to focus on the bulk of matches that need to be played in the League and the FA Cup would not be the worst thing that could ever happen to Arsenal. Of course, it depends on the manner of the hypothetical loss.
However, progressing would boost the morale of the whole Arsenal team exponentially, although I question if the team have enough defenders to compete for four trophies. So there is good and bad to take from everything.
Advancing will keep Barcelona’s Champions League aspirations intact, which is obviously the objective.
For a team like this Barcelona side, not winning the Champions League is always considered a shortcoming. Getting knocked out at such an early stage would be utter failure.
The only advantage would be that Barcelona could then focus entirely on capturing La Liga and the Copa del Rey. But Pep and his players certainly don’t mind juggling the three competitions and they wish to become the first club ever to win two trebles.
Getting knocked out would certainly be a big blow to Barcelona, as winning the Champions League is a priority this season.
Who do you think might be the key players in this tie?
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I’m going to limit myself to two from each team. The obvious answer is Messi, but if Arsenal do their job properly then hopefully he won't be quite so important. If it turns out that he is one of the key players in the tie, it could make for some painful viewing for Gunners supporters.
Football is often won and lost in midfield, so Arsenal’s game deciders must be Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song. Competing against them are Andres Iniesta and Xavi.
Those four might not score a single goal between them, but I’d be surprised if there is a single goal that doesn't involve at least one of them. They are my key players.
This is a very difficult question.
For Arsenal, Song will be fundamental. While it’s impossible to completely stop Xavi and Iniesta, Song will at least have to contain them if Arsenal are to stand a chance. If they’re allowed to roam free, there’s no doubt that Pedro, Villa and Messi will capitalize on their service.
For Barcelona, while many players play key roles in making Pep’s team what it is today, Lionel Messi will be the key player. He’s the best player in the world and also one of the most complete footballers the world has ever seen.
Messi’s role as false nine has been the key to dismantling defenses this season. His movement often drags three or four defenders along, which makes it easy for him to feed assists to Villa and Pedro, while also scoring freely.
Who are your team's opponents' best or most dangerous players and why?
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The best player must be Lionel Messi. He’s proven himself to be the best player in the world, and quite comfortably the best player in the world. Nothing more needs to be said about him.
David Villa is also in excellent form for Barcelona this season. I’m sure the Arsenal defence are not looking forward to facing either of them.
Most of Arsenal’s midfield and attacking players are known to be quite dangerous, but I’d highlight Arshavin and Theo Walcott for this tie. The Russian magician can pull magic on his day and singlehandedly win a match, while Theo Walcott is the world’s fastest player and thus a huge threat on counterattacks.
While Arsenal usually dominate possession, it’s safe to assume that won’t be the case against Barcelona. Barcelona will have the initiative, but the defense will have to be extremely wary of Walcott’s extreme pace.
Of course, we can’t forget Cesc Fabregas; this match will be very important for him for reasons we’ve all heard ad nauseum and there’s really no point repeating.
How can Arsenal win the tactical battle?
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The key word here is discipline.
Arsenal aren’t going to have the ball as much as they’re used to, but they can’t get frustrated and hand Barcelona an easy win. Jack Wilshere is key; he has to be biting on the heels of the midfielders, hurrying their play, forcing a mistake.
The players with speed have to be ready to abandon their markers on the break, and van Persie—who I presume will start up front—has to be efficient.
Personally, I would play a four man back line, with two occupying the defensive midfield spot, Fabregas being the "quarterback," two to break, and two up front.
Well, first of all, there’s one thing that seems clear: Arsenal MUST win the tactical battle. If they don’t, they’ll most likely have the same fate as Real Madrid had in November.
All the praise Barcelona have been getting is fully deserved—they’re really that good. To beat them, opponents must be tactically perfect and even that is no guarantee of victory.
The key for Arsenal will be to contain Xavi, Iniesta and Messi . With Messi dropping deep, these three often form a midfield triangle that is the key to dismantling the opposition’s defense. For opponents, this is like a Bermuda triangle that devours all their chances to succeed. Disrupting the trio’s dynamic will increase Arsenal’s chances of success, obviously.
The only problem: it's never been done before.
With Messi, Xavi and Iniesta all starting, Barcelona have never lost a match under Pep Guardiola. All their defeats have come with at least one of the three Ballon d’Or finalists sidelined.
Arsenal’s double pivot will obviously play a key role in this, but they’ll need help. How Wenger will/won’t be able to deal with Barcelona’s Holy Trinity might prove to be decisive to Arsenal’s fortunes.
But it won’t be enough. Arsenal’s wingers will really need to help their fullbacks. More often than not, Daniel Alves and Iniesta’s movements originate two-on-one situations on the wings. Allowing this to happen would be suicidal for Arsenal, as Real Madrid can attest.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s unwillingness to drop back in November’s Clásico led to Sergio Ramos having to deal with Iniesta and Villa at the same time, and the results are well known. Arsenal’s wingers, presumably Walcott and Arshavin, will have to be wary of their defensive duties, or else Clichy and Eboué (as well as Arsenal’s centre-backs) will certainly be in for a very long night.
Arsenal can’t make this mistake, which means their wingers will have to help out defensively.
Arsenal are mainly an attacking team, but only with an adequate defensive plan can they have a chance. If they can neutralize Barcelona’s attacking power, then there’s a very good chance they can advance. But it’s a very big “if.” No one expects Arsenal to be a defensive-minded team—that’s not their modus operandi—but a negligent defensive approach will most certainly mean their elimination.
How can Barcelona win the tactical battle?
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They need to stick to their game, and play it to the highest level they're capable of. The defence needs to stay solid, and lively. There might be long stretches when they don't see the ball, but then all of a sudden they'll have Walcott running 25 mph at them, and beyond them. The break Arsenal showed against Wolves for van Persie's second goal is hopefully the kind of teamwork we can expect.
If things don't go right for Barcelona, they need to trust Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Villa to get the goals they need. All four of them are quality players, being supported by further quality. I can't see them radically changing the way they play (why would they?), but maybe some slight adaptions could be advantageous...but more than that and they'll play into Arsenal's hands.
Barcelona always have the upper hand tactically, since it’s always their opponent who adjusts to Barcelona and not the other way round. Barcelona are always faithful to the style that has brought them so much success over the past few years and this tie will be no exception: Barcelona will play their usual passing game.
But Arsenal are a more dangerous side than most teams Barcelona face in La Liga, and Barcelona must take precautions to avoid Arsenal’s counterattacks.
Pressuring very high up the pitch (as Barcelona always do) as soon as the ball is lost is essential; if Arsenal are allowed too much time and space on the ball, they’ll become very dangerous. Sergio Busquets (or Mascherano) will play an even more important role than usual in reading the game and breaking up play.
Daniel Alves will have to be careful venturing forward, especially if Puyol doesn’t recover in time. Barcelona’s captain provides excellent defensive cover on the right when Alves is caught out of position, but he’s still in doubt for the first leg.
The same applies to Abidal/Maxwell; whenever he ventures forward, Busquets must provide the necessary defensive cover.
Barcelona’s defense has been fantastic this season and it is imperative they maintain this level, as Arsenal have players who are more than capable of exploiting potential mistakes.
Finally, the attacking trio will have to exchange positions constantly, especially Lionel Messi.
Messi should not only drop deep and join Xavi and Iniesta in the creation process, but also drop to the wings occasionally, with Pedro and Villa appearing in the center. This attacking dynamic has proven too much for teams to handle so far this season, and on paper the same should happen with Arsenal.
Pep Guardiola or Arsène Wenger? Why?
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Let me say first of all that I am a big fan of Guardiola, not just as a manager but as a player. I even like his dress sense. When I play football, I play in a similar position to where he did, so I appreciate just how he played—although let me assure you, I am a million times worse than him.
But no Arsenal fan who has supported the club for any great length of time would choose him over Wenger.
Despite what Guardiola has achieved, and the football his team plays, you can’t not give the nod to Arsene Wenger. The reasons being: I think Barcelona could continue without Guardiola, he hasn’t built a legacy just yet, he hasn’t personally signed every player playing for Barcelona right now.
In fact, he's done what I would consider to be some awful business. I do appreciate it's not all him. Part of this is that he hasn't been the manager long enough to do so. But credit where it is due, Guardiola is a great manager.
Wenger will go down as the greatest foreign manager to ever command a Premier League club. His DNA is all over Arsenal; it is because of his success that Arsenal aren’t still playing at Highbury. Some of the business he has done in the transfer market is outrageous, almost inhumanly good, like he's playing a computer game and knows the potential of some players.
And all of this in a league where there is more than one club to compete with. Despite some of the frustrating things he does, Arsene Wenger is a legend.
Both managers have a similar approach to the game; both want their teams to play attractive attacking football for the full 90 minutes. Granted, Pep Guardiola’s was handed a much more talented squad, containing a once-in-a-generation player like Messi and world-class players at every position.
Still, his success is undeniable.
Never had anyone won six trophies in a single season, and Pep did it in only one year. Not content with that, in his second season he beat the European point record, winning the league with 99 points. He did all this while implementing a brand of football that has made fans and media alike fall in love with Barcelona.
You could say that it is thanks to Pep that Barcelona had all three Ballon d’Or finalists. It’d be hard to better start a career.
Still, Arsène Wenger has had a brilliant career at Arsenal. He’s responsible for three of Arsenal’s 13 Premier League titles and it was under him that Arsenal established themselves as a regular in European football’s landscape.
Also, Wenger has been turning youngsters into established players ever since he took over at Arsenal. The Champions League trophy, the most prestigious honour in European football, is the only thing missing for Wenger to cement his status as one of the great managers in the history of the game.
Hopefully, that will not happen this year.
Make sure you read Part Two!
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Thanks for reading. Please let me know what you think.
You can read part two, with ten more questions, if you click here.