Vintage performances from three of Barcelona’s amigos saw them progress in the Champions League at the expense of Arsenal, and Nik Storey breaks down the game for us.
How they lined up
Good news for Arsenal came in the shape of Van Persie, Diaby and Fabregas all returning to the starting lineup; Rosicky was chosen ahead of Arshavin for a right hand side birth. On paper this gave Arsenal a typical 4-2-3-1 formation, but in reality this was a compact 4-5-1 with Wilshere, Diaby and Fabregas, flanked by Rosicky, with the latter asked to support Van Persie when the team were in possession of the ball.
For Barcelona, Guardiola elected to start Adriano ahead of Maxwell at left back and Mascherano came into midfield, with Busquets dropping to centre half in the absence of Pique and Puyol. This meant the system was a variation of 4-3-3, with Messi coming deep and Villa and Pedro starting wide left and right respectively, but taking it in turns to adopt the centre forward position. Mascherano swept up behind a central pivot of Iniesta and Xavi.
Because both teams were keeping high lines and squeezing the middle areas, much of the play, especially in the first half was saturated in the middle third, with Barcelona seeing plenty of the ball (but Arsenal seemingly happy to concede possession allowing them to pass the ball from left to right). In fact, without the ball, Clichy’s position was very central meaning that Nasri often looked like an auxiliary left back. Much of the play was targeted down the Barcelona right, with Alves always an option for the home side; Looking at the Mascherano image we can see how most of his passes were focused in this area, apparently targeting Clichy and Nasri.
Mascherano: 52/59 passes
By half time, Barcelona unsurprisingly led the passing charts with 400 passes attempted to Arsenal’s 131. Yet Barcelona also completed more tackles and more interceptions meaning that Arsenal were on the back foot, clearing the ball 12 times in comparison to Barca’s 2. Essentially, Barcelona’s pressing game was even more intense than usual, with the midfield working in tandem with the forwards to pressure Arsenal’s back-line into silly mistakes (see ‘Interceptions’ image).
This also had the effect of keeping the away side’s midfield triumvirate unusually narrow and flat, as Fabregas and Wilshere struggled to exert any type of influence on the game – and certainly nowhere near as much as they did in the first leg at the Emirates.
Barcelona: 17 interceptions in first half
Barca’s pressure nearly paid off as Arsenal got lucky on the half-hour mark when Diaby brought down Messi in what seemed to be inside the area; Busacca was seemingly in too good a position to observe the contact, as no foul (or penalty) was given. On the stroke of half time Arsenal self-imploded, Fabregas guilty of giving away cheap possession with a careless back heel on the edge of the box; Iniesta pounced and weaved his way past two challenges before slipping it perfectly through to Messi, whose dink and finish over Almunia was a joy to behold.
Second half starts with a flurry of activity
A few minutes into the second half, Busquets headed into his own goal from an in-swinging corner by Nasri, and Arsenal were ahead once again in the tie. Having got back into the game however, Van Persie was sent from the field just minutes later, cautioned for the second time for perceived time wasting antics. The harsh sending off undoubtedly affected the game – Barcelona are not the side to be facing when in such a vulnerable position; the home side duly pushed Arsenal’s defensive line deeper and deeper as the half wore on, with Messi starting to influence the game more, and Xavi orchestrating the game from the centre much to the frustration of Wilshere and Fabregas in particular.
In much the same way Busquets was doing in the first leg, Mascherano was dropping in at centre half, allowing Abidal to make strides down the left to join the attack. Xavi and Iniesta, whilst dictating the tempo of the game, continually sought to move into space as a passing option, pulling Arsenal players out of position. The image below shows the variation in Xavi’s play and how high up the field his passes were concentrated in the second half.
Xavi: 121/138 passes (3 chances created)
Alves exploits space in behind Nasri
Similar to the first half, so much of the play was directed down Arsenal’s left with Alves was persistently offering the Barca midfield an outlet in attack; and with the excellent Nasri having to be more ambitious now that his side were behind in the tie, Alves sought to capitalise by staying high. It was he who initiated the move that led to the Xavi goal with a quarter of the game to go; Iniesta picked up the ball in a central position and ran at the Arsenal defence once again, zipping the ball into Villa who released Xavi to finish neatly. A minute later Barcelona killed the game with a Messi penalty (making amends for Busacca’s earlier oversight) given after a lovely through ball from Xavi to Pedro eliciting a poor challenge from Koscielny. Again, Alves’ movement was telling as Busquets released the fullback earlier in the move dragging Arsenal’s defenders out of position allowing Xavi to get on the ball and play the incisive pass.
Fabregas, who was notably struggling throughout the game was replaced by Bendtner as Wenger gambled late on in the hope of one final counter attack paying dividends. In the 87th minute, the gamble nearly paid off as Wilshere was released down the right who played in Bendtner who had got ahead of his marker; and had the Dane used his left foot instead of his right to cushion the youngster’s pass as he broke into the area, Arsenal may well have nicked the tie to progress.
In all, Barcelona were just too strong for the young Arsenal outfit and deserved to go through after a fantastic exhibition of passing and pressing across both legs, but particularly at home. Their system was so fluid, it was often hard to decipher who was playing in which position, with Mascherano dropping in for Busquets for Abidal, the fullbacks pushed high up the pitch and Villa interchanging with Iniesta. Arsene Wenger will no doubt think his side unlucky in that Van Persie was harshly sent off just minutes after the British side had scored; his side were after all defending resolutely, and coped well carrying half-fit players in the Dutchman and Fabregas, as well losing their goalkeeper so early in the game. Xavi and Iniesta however controlled the game in midfield, and Arsenal were simply unable to repel the wave of attacks in the final half an hour of the game.
Though all three goals came from central positions, Alves and to a lesser extent Adriano, were instrumental in providing their side with crucial width in threatening positions high up the field; ultimately it was this movement and its concomitant destabilising effect on Arsenal’s defensive line that contributed significantly to Barcelona’s success.