Twenty four hours on, the dust is just about settling from the explosive encounter between Arsenal and FC Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League tie at the Emirates last night.
The old adage about a “game of two halves” was clearly in play last night, with Barca providing an education in possession play throughout the first half and entering the break a goal to the good thanks to David Villa’s clinical finish in the 26th minute.
The second half, particularly the last twenty minutes, was a different game entirely, with Arsenal gradually gaining a grip on the game and producing some devastating counter attacking play to score twice in the closing stages. First, Robin Van Persie smashed in at the near post in the 78th minute, then Andrey Arshavin side footed home five minutes later.
Much has been said since the final whistle, particularly in praise of Arsenal, and deservedly so given the quality and fight they produce to the get the better of Europe’s best side. Rather than pore over and debate the game incident by incident, this piece aims to look at some of the major lessons we can take from last night’s game, several of which may play a part in deciding the second leg in three week’s time.
It seems as if we’ve all known about Wilshere for years; the youngster has been proclaimed as the heir apparent to Arsenal and England’s midfield crown for some time now, based mainly on some dazzling appearances in Arsenal’s pre-season Emirates tournament. Yet for all the talk, Wilshere has only been a regular starter for a few months, benefiting from Cesc Fabregas and Abou Diaby ‘s injury issues to become a near ever-present this season.
So going into last night’s game, where he would be facing a midfield trio of the highest quality in the form of Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, the Emirates’ faithful waited with baited breath to see how young Jack would cope with the biggest test of his career to date. The answer was clear; Wilshere more than just coped, he grew in stature throughout the game and was the dominant midfield for the last half an hour.
Of course, this was only one game, but the level of Wilshere’s achievement should not be underestimated. On the pitch last night, in the form of opponents Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, as well as team mates Fabregas and Samir Nasri, Wilshere was in the company of five of the world’s best midfielders. Such company could prove daunting for an established star, let alone a teenager with less than 50 games for Arsenal, but the youngster was not fazed by the company or the occasion and clearly has the potential to be very special.
Many in the media scoffed at recent suggestions from England coach Fabio Capello’s suggestion that Wilshere would one day fulfil the ‘Makelele’ role for his country. Most see Wilshere as far more of an attacking threat and feel he would be wasted in a defensive role. Makelele was probably the wrong comparison from Capello, but Wilshere is looking increasingly accomplished at both ends of the pitch, and kept his defensive discipline on a night when central midfield colleague Alex Song was surprisingly erratic.
It is very early to say, but Wilshere has the potential to be a sitting midfielder more in the mould of Andrea Pirlo, with his cultured left foot and intelligent positioning allowing him to control the game from a deep lying position. Last night we caught a glimpse of the future, and it is an exciting one for Arsenal and England.
It seems ridiculous to say about a player of Iniesta’s quality and stature, but for all his ability, at times he does get lost in Barca’s system. With Xavi pulling the strings with his passing range, Messi relied upon to produce dazzling dribbles and Villa the supreme finisher, it can sometimes appear that Barca’s other midfield maestro is somewhat of an afterthought. Yet Iniesta showed once again last night that when given the opportunity, he is potentially Barca’s most devastating player.
Iniesta was instrumental in Barca’s first clear cut chance, intercepting a pass inside his own half and launching the attack that led to Messi clipping the ball over Szczesny and just past the far post. He also created the visitor’s best chance in the second half when he split the Arsenal defence and released Messi, only to see the Argentine fire into the side netting from close range.
Those two moments were far from Iniesta’s only contributions, he also produced numerous flashes of brilliance with his flicks and precision passing, particularly during the first half. The trouble was, most of his contributions were made far too far from the Arsenal goal, and Barca would be much better served were Iniesta to do his best work further up the field.
An increased attacking role for Iniesta would require neither a major tactical shift nor a change in personnel, with his role at the front of the midfield three the perfect place from which to hurt the opposition, as long as he is given enough of the ball to do so. If he does receive that increased opportunity, don’t be surprised if he pops up to make the difference in the return leg.
It’s fair to say that Arsenal are not the favourite opponent for Barca’s marauding left back. The Brazilian endured a painful sense of déjà vu last night as he had very little answer for the speed of Theo Walcott & co, just as when the two sides met at the Emirates in last year’s Champions League tie. On that occasion, Maxwell was run ragged by substitute Walcott, to the extent that he was taken out of the firing line for the second leg with Eric Abidal starting in his place.
This time, with Gerard Pique suspended for the second leg once again and Carles Puyol currently recovering from injury, Abidal may well be need at centre back, so there will be no hiding place for Maxwell at Camp Nou. Ironically, Arsenal’s goals didn’t come until immediately after Walcott had been withdrawn, but with the winger having made great strides this season, he will almost certainly start in the second leg and has the potential to cause Maxwell all kinds of problems.
While the first goal came down Barca’s right, for the second goal, Maxwell was well off the pace and rather than tracking Nasri’s forward run, he was caught upfield and Abidal had to leave his central position to challenge Nasri out wide. Maxwell finally arrived back at his own penalty area just as Nasri cut inside Abidal and squared across goal, though still too late to cut out the cross, and Arshavin smashed home to give Arsenal a vital one goal lead.
In all fairness, Maxwell is far from calamitous and has provided Barca with consistent quality over his year and a half at the club. Still, it is also true that Arsenal will see Maxwell as a clear weak link in the second leg, and Barca will be desperate to get Puyol back fit and in form to marshal a defence which is far from impenetrable.
Ever since David Seaman retired, Arsenal have been searching for a long term solution to their problems between the posts. Back in 2003, Jens Lehmann arrived as a 33 year old replacement for Seaman, and while he gave Arsenal some great moments during his five year tenure, he was never a long term answer and Arsenal were left with the same problem after his departure in 2008.
Since then, Manuel Almunia, for all his good qualities, has never inspired the full confidence of the Arsenal fans, and alternative option Lukasz Fabianski has too many fundamental flaws to be viewed as a top keeper. So after a number of less than inspiring replacements, the Gunners’ supporters are still crying out for a world class custodian. Could that man be Wojciech Szczesny?
The Polish stopper is still only 20 years old, but after his Premier League debut away at Old Trafford and last night’s pressure cooker tie on Europe’s biggest stage, he has already had his mettle tested and looked very assured. His debut may have come due to injuries to Arsenal’s other keepers, but it is a mark of Wenger’s confidence in the youngster that even now Almunia is fully fit, Szczesny has retained his role as the starting keeper.
Last night, he didn’t do anything spectacular, but he once again showed a confidence that belies his lack of experience, and also did his job in closing Messi down well to contribute to key misses in either half. Of course, it is far too early to proclaim Szczesny as Arsenal’s long-term solution so early in his career, but we have already seen enough to suggest that if he continues his progression, he could be a key player for years to come.
Just don’t quote me on that if he concedes four or five in the return leg.
Last night provided us with many lessons, one of which was a lesson in substitution, an area in which Arsenal clearly got the upper hand. While the swing in the game’s momentum cannot be put down to a single factor, it was no coincidence that Arsenal went from strength to strength once Seydou Keita replaced David Villa in the 68th minute. Barca’s switch coincided with Arsenal adding a further attacking dimension through the introduction of Andrey Arshavin in the place of Alex Song.
You could almost detect a visible sigh of relief from the Arsenal backline when Barca withdrew the man who had opened the scoring and whose presence provides a continual goal threat. While Johan Djorou and Laurent Koscielny performed admirably from first minute to last, they surely wouldn’t have had such a comfortable final twenty minutes if Villa had stayed on the pitch.
Far be it from me to question a man with the astonishing CV of Pep Guardiola, but the introduction of another midfielder in place of Villa simply invited pressure, an invitation that Arsenal took advantage of by turning the tie on its head with two goals in the last quarter hour. Of course, had Barca played out a single goal victory, or scored another, nobody would have questioned the withdrawal of their premiere striker, but games at this level can be decided on the smallest of factors, and Barca’s tactical change was one of those factors.
While it is true that Villa would not have prevented the goalkeeping error from Victor Valdes that led to Robin Van Persie’s opener, or been back in his own half to stop the counter attack that led to Arshavin’s winner, his presence at the attacking end may have made a difference, if only in relieving some of the pressure on Barca’s back line by providing an outlet pass further up the field.
The middle of the park suddenly seemed highly congested with the presence of four central midfielders, which forced Barca to look to the wide areas, with Dani Alves featuring on an almost constant basis. While the attacking freedom of Barca’s full backs is usually far more of a strength than a weakness for the Catalan side, last night they were destroyed on the counter attack late on, and surely have to think long and hard about the way they approach the second leg in that respect.