The mere fact that Barcelona attempted more shots on their own goal than Arsenal managed themselves (0) over the entire 90 minutes on Tuesday tells you about all you need to know. Yet in a sense, it really doesn’t. Arsene Wenger’s men were outplayed by an irresistible Barcelona side at the Nou Camp for the second straight year. Last campaign it was the magic of Messi – scorer of all four goals in a 4-1 win – that ended Arsenal’s search for a first Champions League triumph while this year saw an incredible combination of precision passing, off the ball movement and inexorable individual skill send the Gunners packing once again.
After pulling off an improbable yet stunning comeback in the first leg, Wenger claimed the win was also a victory for Arsenal’s philosophy. If that was the case, Tuesday night was a major defeat. No one can question the North Londoner’s attractive style of football, but Pep Guardiola’s team put forth a masterclass in attacking football that completely overshadowed any claim to an effective passing game, known as ‘liquid football’ by Arsenal. It may have only been 3-1 (4-3 on aggregate), but Arsenal have the Catalonians to thank for being wasteful, as well as substitute goalkeeper Manuel Almunia for pulling off a string of fine saves.
The truth is we’ve seen it all before. All too often Arsenal has prioritized playing the pure, flowing football that has the football purists reveling in every pass, awing at every attacking move, and praising the club for reminding us why it is called the ‘beautiful game’. Unfortunately for Arsenal, this has not won them any trophies. The last piece of silverware to make its way into Arsenal’s trophy cabinet was the 2005 FA Cup. And who was it who lifted that trophy that day? None other than Patrick Vieira, the epitome of everything Arsenal stood for during its most successful periods since the beginning of the Premier League: A strong, physical, dominating force.
Arsenal’s title winning sides of 1998, 2002, and 2004 were full of players just like Vieira; players not afraid to get ‘stuck in’ and allow their physical attributes and sheer determination and passion for the game outweigh their ability to play patient, attacking football. The likes of Tony Adams, Ray Parlour, Martin Keown, and Lee Dixon were all dependable and resolute players, capable of intimidating any opposition they faced. Am I saying Arsenal’s current squad is not determined and passionate? Absolutely not, but it has to be said they lack the same key ingredients the club’s title winning sides possessed.
On a day night when Arsenal needed to do nothing more than contain Barcelona’s midfield, they were run ragged and ripped to shreds. Disrupting Barcelona’s fluid passing game is no easy task, but it isn’t impossible. And preventing the free-scoring La Liga champions from picking and choosing what type of goals they feel like scoring that day is no easy feat either, as every club in Spain can attest to, including Real Madrid. Once again though, it’s not impossible.
The clubs who have all experienced success against Barcelona in Europe have focused on completely disrupting their midfield, even if it meant compromising its attacking tendencies in order to disallow Andres Iniesta and Xavi any room to weave their magic. Jose Mourinho’s Inter demonstrated the perfect example of ‘parking the bus’ at the Nou Camp last season and it resulted in them progressing to the semi-finals and eventually winning the final. Two years earlier Manchester United utilized the work rates of Park Ji Sung and Darren Fletcher to leave Barcelona’s defense without any breathing space. The plan paid off as Barcelona failed to score in both legs and United ended up lifting the trophy several weeks later.
To be fair, Barcelona have progressed immensely under the guidance of Guardiola, as United would discover in the final the following season. But against Arsenal, Iniesta and Messi were untouchable at times. Iniesta excelled in his freedom and all too often sprayed passes across the ptich or skipped by defenders with ease. The Gunners made just two touches inside Barcelona’s penalty area, while the home side had a total of 47, demonstrating the ease in which Barcelona moved forward. It shouldn’t come as a surprise at how much Barcelona dictated play and retained possession, but is a surprise at which ease they did so.
Arsenal’s greatest criticism is they are too soft, a word probably never once used to describe Wenger’s title winning sides. Although they boasted plenty of attacking options in Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord and Dennis Bergkamp, Arsenal’s main identity was being able to run the midfield and give any opposition striker nightmares. Where are those same qualities?
Arsenal currently boast plenty of attacking flair, but the ingredients of the most successful Arsenal teams in the Premier League’s history have long been transformed. If the Gunners really wanted to offset Barcelona and give themselves a chance of progressing, they needed to harass Iniesta and Xavi off the park and give Messi a taste of what it is like to play in the Premier League against teams like Stoke or Bolton. Instead, Arsenal allowed Barcelona to play its game and it resulted in the loss of yet another trophy opportunity and the rise of more question marks over their ability to win when it counts.
To rub salt in Arsenal’s wounds, Xavi has claimed the Gunners ‘made no intent to play football’. The statistics certainly back the Spaniard’s assertions, but so does the manner in which Arsenal allowed Barcelona to play their style of football. The absence of Alex Song hurt Arsenal, as it was evident they had no one up to the task of offsetting Barcelona’s rhythm. With the home side fielding two makeshift central defenders, the opportunity was there for Arsenal to take advantage. Instead, Barcelona were allowed to dominate once more, providing every reason to question Wenger’s failed philosophy once more. Fortunately for Arsenal, they could still resurrect their season on Saturday against Manchester United in the FA Cup sixth round. If that is to happen, however, a change in philosophy similar to the days of Vieira is a must.
Written by: Jeff Harbert