Arsenal press all the right buttons as Wenger changes game brilliantly
“We want to show them that we are a different team to last year”. Few believed Arsene Wenger’s optimism as he typically commended his team’s approach before the game. But the result would be an outstanding team performance, and a 2-1 win to take to the Nou Camp in what was Arsenal’s first ever win against a Barcelona side. It is true that Arsenal rode their luck at times in the first half – and could well have been 2 or 3 down had it not been for some poor Messi finishing and a dodgy line call – but Wenger can be proud of the way his team responded in the second half, and particularly proud of his own contribution to the success.
How they lined up:
Barcelona’s shape was lucid throughout the game, and often Busquets would drop deep as to become a third auxiliary centre half alongside Pique and Abidal (on paper this was 4-2-3-1); this was in no large part due to their fullbacks, and Alves in particular, who drove forward to support Pedro and Villa as much as they could.
Messi started central alongside Villa and Pedro in an advanced position, but it was noticeable how he tended to drop very deep in search of the ball, much in the same way he did versus Greece in the World Cup. Iniesta started in his usual central-left position but quickly reverted to a right-side position as the half wore on, mainly due to the fact Walcott dropped in on him whenever Arsenal were without the ball. Villa was constantly probing coming in from the left to a central position, which would eventually pay dividends for him later in the game.
Wenger adopted a typical 4-2-3-1 formation with Van Persie in a false 9 position, with Nasri and Walcott to the left and right respectively. Behind them, Fabregas pushed high on Busquets and Wilshere and Song formed a defensive shield ahead of the back four. Unlike Barcelona, Djourou and Koscielny stayed fairly close together, with the latter tasked with intercepting the ball at the earliest opportunity with Djourou sweeping in behind.
Nasri stayed high and left, presumably in the hope that he would pin Alves back – but all that happened was that Pique came across to cover the area vacated by Alves and Clichy was left exposed in a 3 v 1 scenario (see diagram 2).
Arsenal’s pressing game improved as the game progressed
What was noticeable from the outset was the unnaturally high line Arsenal kept, essentially matching Barcelona’s system of pressing the ball and defending from the front. Theoretically, this would have the effect of narrowing the middle third and restricting the space in which Xavi, Iniesta and Messi (who came deep on many an occasion), but Arsenal struggled to apply the system correctly in the first half. Barcelona controlled the midfield and the passing triangles were mesmeric at times with the diamond of players rotating in such a way so as to provide a different dynamic in each approach (as usual, Xavi finished top of the passing charts, and completed a staggering 95% of his passes).
Symptomatic of the issues facing Arsenal was when Messi went through on goal after 15 minutes, latching on to a lovely Villa through-ball; but as was typical of his night, he delayed and missed the target from a glorious position to score. Not long after however, Messi came deep for a pass from Pique and duly returned the favour to Villa with a precise pass from which the Spaniard coolly finished through the legs of Szelnsy.
Though Clichy had played Villa onside, the goal emanated from some poor pressing in midfield by Song tracking back from an offensive right position as Wilshere (who was supreme all evening) moved to press Iniesta; Messi’s pass was sumptuous, the ball threaded between Koscielny and Djourou whilst evading the tardy challenge of Song.
Arsenal were however defending reasonably well and were still in the game, but because there was so much space between the midfield and forward lines, they had no coherence or fluency on the counter-attack. Van Persie was often left isolated up front, patiently holding up the ball waiting for support. The Spanish side simply snuffled out the danger (Abidal especially played a blinder at he back) and much of the play was directed down the Arsenal left, with Alves completing nearly double the passes Maxwell. Guardiola had clearly targeted Clichy with Nasri staying far too high up the field.
Second half subtle alteration(s)
Arsenal’s tactic remained the ambition to press high up the pitch, but this time Fabregas pushed further forward and Nasri adopted some defensive duties. This and the fact that Messi was now playing a more orthodox false 9 role, meant that the bands of players were closer together meaning that the likes of Busquets who was initiating the attacking from deep with quick incisive passes in the first half, was pressured on the ball. Arsenal’s back line in tandem with Wilshere and Song, were also seemingly instructed to press the attacking midfielders as soon as the entered the Arsenal half; this paid off as Koscielny had perhaps his best game in an Arsenal shirt, restricting the space of Iniesta and Messi in particular, superbly (see image below); Though he didn’t win all his battles, the 3 tackles high up the field indicate how quick he was to every ball adding to the four interceptions he made on the night.
Fabregas receiving the ball all over the pitch (48/48).
Koscielny 6/10 tackles.
The bunching of the interceptions in the middle (se image below) indicates nicely how Arsenal coped with Barcelona’s threat from wide; Walcott doubled up with Eboue to show Maxwell and Iniesta (and later Kieta) inside; and on the right, Nasri (in the 2nd half at least) supported Clichy with the threat of Pedro and Alves. In the central zone, it was Wilshere and Fabregas in particular who dealt with the threat with Fabregas quietly outstanding – the statistics show how he was receiving the ball all over the pitch (48/48), excelling defensively and offensively.
Wilshere too was exemplary – tackling and passing with equal aplomb and justifying the lavish praise heaped upon him from Capello and others of late. Near the hour mark, Wilshere was the only player on the pitch to have a 100% pass completion record, and as the image depicts, his positional acumen when on the ball expresses an understanding of the game way beyond his years.
Wilshere completing 43/48 passes, positionally astute.
Arsenal total interceptions: 20
Diagrams via the Total Football application.
Wenger substitutions change the game
Arshavin replaced the cautioned Song on 67 minutes and Bendtner replaced Walcott 10 minutes later (pulling Nasri back to a more central position).
It was Arshavin who having found space down the left hand side, released Clichy who played an exquisite (and it was exquisite) first time pass with his weaker foot into the path of Van Persie; In turn the Dutchman beat the keeper with fantastic precision using a similar technique to Maicon at the World Cup v North Korea, having a cursory glance over to Bendtner in order to deceive Valdes in goal.
With Nasri, Fabregas and Wilshere now controlling the game in midfield for the first time in the match Arsenal were encouraged by the home crowd to go for the win. It was now Barcelona’s turn to look slightly disjointed and Messi’s options on the ball were becoming more limited (Keita had replaced Villa on 67 minutes, leaving Pedro slightly isolated); It was his poor control and resulting misplaced pass that enabled Koscielny to intercept and start the swift counter-attacking move that led to the winning goal. Bendtner found Wilshere – who’s first time pass to Fabregas was a gem – and the latter released Nasri who sprinted down the Barcelona left and pulled the ball back to the oncoming Arshavin; The Russian calmly setting himself for a lovely right foot finish into the bottom corner.
Arsenal’s first half performance, though vastly improved since the last visit of Barcelona, was lacking in efficiency and their pressing game didn’t have the desired effect. The lack of support for Van Persie meant he was only able to test Valdes from distance. Wenger changed the midfield dynamic slightly for the second half and the result was a mature performance from the whole team, with leaders emerging in the form of Koscielny, Fabregas and Wilshere. Barcelona were still able to keep possession of the ball but were forced into non-threatening areas. Crucially, the introduction of Arshavin completed the turnaround, as he played a key role in the equaliser and finished astutely for the winner.