Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona: Tactical Review

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: 3-4-3

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.

Arsenal: 4-2-3-1

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.

In Summary

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.

The Author

Nik Storey

Tactics enthusiast, player and referee ...

24 thoughts on “Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona: Tactical Review

  1. Kudos to Arsenal, and kudos to Wenger in particular. The decision to play Nasri, and to start him even despite his fitness worries, was terrific and although he left them vulnerable defensively I felt his impact on the win was huge, and his attacking muscle on games was flexed again with his pass for the second goal which was masterfully finished by Arshavin, who too often misses those.

    Great analysis, and I agree with your Arshavin points. In my opinion he is better off the bench when he goes through these barren spells in exchange for the Nasri/Fab/RVP/Walcott attacking line up.

  2. Why did he take Villa off when he did?? In control, he seemed like the only player who could find the net…………..

  3. I’m a bit confused –

    “Wilshere was the only player on the pitch to have a 100% pass completion record”

    “Wilshere completing 43/48 passes, positionally astute.”

    I didn’t see the game so just wondering which it was as the Wilshire hype machine is going into overdrive tonight.

    1. Always had my doubts spuds could read. That’s why they have so many pictures in their programmes I suppose.

      Note the first four one syllable words…..

      Near the hour mark, Wilshere was the only player on the pitch to have a 100% pass completion record,

      Good win for your lot in Milan but Jordan bottled it.

  4. Near the hour mark, Wilshere was the only player on the pitch to have a 100% pass completion record.

    It took him an hour to give the ball away. He was outstanding, and playing like that against Barca, you’ve got to say the hype is justified.

  5. Rarely have I read so much that said so little.

    This game can be summed up in a couple of lines.

    Barcelona dominated to such an extent that they thought the game was over and turned off., allowing Arsenal to exploit their weakness at the back with quick counters.

      1. No need to be condescending but the tone and superiority complex it perpetrates probably sums up why you think you know so much and say so little.

  6. Think you slightly underplay the chances Arsenal created in the 1st half. Van Persie had two chances that, while not quite as blatant as Messi’s one on one, you would still expect him to score the majority of the time.

  7. “Arsenal’s first half performance, though vastly improved since the last visit of Barcelona, was lacking in efficiency … The lack of support for Van Persie meant he was only able to test Valdes from distance.”

    This isn’t true though, is it? Van Persie forced one save from a close-range shot and had another very good chance that he slashed wide from the left. Given that Arsenal didn’t enjoy too much possession, I’d say those two chances represented a decent return.

  8. Tom/Kenny thank you for your kind words.


    You are right of course in your observations, but it was hard with the word limit to describe every individual event; was merely trying to discuss the pattern or feel of the game – and Arsenal were vastly superior in the second half. I hope the article explores this broader point ….

  9. I thought you read the whole game pretty well, for what it’s worth. I only intended to skim but was drawn in by the astute analysis.

    Both sides had chances in the 1st half – Barcelona looked far more composed though.

    I’m not sure what you meant by “Messi was now playing a more orthodox false 9 role” – a typo perhaps?

    1. Messi was playing as a striker, that dropped deep.

      Although I don’t think he was playing the false 9 role against Barcelona. He was more playmaker, Trequistra.

      Guardiola got in wrong in the match, Wenger got it right. Taking Villa off did take some of the pressure off Arsenal and it seemed that Arsenal faired much better with the pace of the game, in the end Barcelona looked tired and lapse in concentration and tactics. At 1-1 why did Barcelona feel that they needed to win this one? They could have easily held out for the draw and then went for it at the Nou Camp.

    1. Formations can be a very subjective thing. I for one wouldnt have described the formation as such a 3-4-3.

      But equally you could say it was a 4-1-3-1-2 as Messi playing as the 1 behind the strikers.

      But I can see the argument in the 3-4-3 Basquets often drops back to help the two centre backs. Although I don’t think he had to do much of that against Arsenal, especially as the main threats came on the wings.

      Maxwell did get forward and played as a typical wingback but obviously not as attacking as Dani Alves who bombs forward as much as possible.

      Inesita played a pretty deep role and helped Maxwell track Walcott himself playing very deep too.

      Pedro and Villa were very obviously wide forwards. While I presume that you’d want to say that Messi was playing the false nine role as he has been playing this role pretty well and it can be a hard thing to distinguish somtimes about the false nine and an attacking midfielder. Especially when Arsenal played such a highline and were very good pressing the middle of the park.

      I for one would go for he was more of a playmaker in this game.

  10. Hi Owen

    Thanks for your comment. Im presuming you are being ironic? And that perhaps you did read on ahead where I explain that such a starting formation would typically be described as 4-2-3-1?

    Just to clarify, my point with the ‘3-4-3’ observation was simply that Maxwell and Alves pushed on and Busquets dropped in – and with Messi slightly further ahead of Xavi and Iniesta….well you can guess the rest …

    Hi Thomas

    You make some excellent comments on the subjectivity of formations, and the difference between the ‘teamsheet’ and concomitant difference displayed in the ‘rhythm of the game. I too thought Messi was more deeper than a false 9 (a false, false 9? :), and performed a role similar to that he did v Greece where Papastathopoulos did a splendid job of tracking him all over the pitch.

    One observation I have made with Messi is that he is often more effective when given a defined role, i.e. false 9/inverted winger – aside from perhaps the CL final in 2009, I dont think Messi has looked devastating in such a free-ranging role, and is certainly better ahead of Xavi/Iniesta. A topic that could be explored in a lot more depth in my opinion is his decision making when he plays in such a deep role; Playing further ahead relies much more on his instinct/natural inclination in attacking positions; and it is here where I think he is ‘phenomenal’.


    1. I did indeed read on, in honesty I think this was a better representation of Barca’s formation:

      Although I’d also have minor quibbles with that too. For me, Maxwell didn’t really venture forward that much so that’s why I liked the arrow just being on Alves.

      I also liked the way they represented the front three…although I’d perhaps have gone with an inverted triangle, Villa at the tip with Messi on the left (with arrows everywhere!) and Pedro on the right with a diagnol run forward to the box…because I felt like Pedro did most of his good work arriving into the box from the left and not being tracked by Djourou – if he could finish then the tie would be over, they worked him into good shooting positions many times in the first half!

      Another point I’d pick up on is Busquets being the “holding” player. For me that isn’t true, because you could see RVP dropping off into the pocket of space to collect the ball & also Arsenal runners darting through that area and not being tracked. Especially if you look at their second goal, it’s telling that Wilshere & Fabregas both go down the middle before Fabregas spreads it out to Nasri on the right…even then, he’s hardly hugging the touchline!

      What he was really doing was playing in almost a diagnol with Xavi and Iniesta. Whereby he was more to the right in order to cover for Alves…I saw him pop up high on the right on more than one ocassion & was thinking to myself “he needs to show more discipline”.

      That was one of the things that surprised me, that when Guardiola put on Keita he also didn’t think about replacing Busquets with Mascherano who is a much more disiciplined, ball winning central midfielder.

      Representing Busquets as the ‘holding midfielder’ and saying he operated ‘like a third CB’ is really just a lazy analysis because he didn’t do anything of the sort…he was more a central midfielder pulling across to a right wing back position when Alves was high up the pitch. But even then he would wander and not really maintain his discipline.

  11. I think that it was when Arsenal stopped trying to play like Barca that they excelled. Both goals came from long balls, not short, quick passing. They couldn’t beat them at their own game, so they reverted to a more direct style of play, and it worked. And, of course, Wilshere was fantastic.

  12. Hi Owen

    I take both of your points, I really do – my rationale for stating ‘3-4-3′ was really to highlight some of the observations you make; i.e. that Barca’s formation – especially on the night – is far from a simple 4-2-3-1, and with the roles of Messi, Villa and Busquets in particular, they really are hard to pin down.

    If you look at my diagram I actually represent a variation of 4-3-3 like you describe, and I had specifically placed Alves further ahead of Maxwell. On Busquets it was notable for me how he started the game, and then later finished the game. He certainly started in a deeper role to the two ahead of him and Fabregas was pushing on whenever he had possession of the ball – – when Busquets pressed higher up the pitch in the second half, Fabregas duly came deeper in search of the ball – often deeper than Wilshere as the images suggest.

    Ironically, it was this subtle switch that reinvigorated Arsenal in the second half as Fabregas exerted greater control of the game, and Busquets’ influence was reduced. Sorry I couldnt be more specific in the article, but sometimes you have to cut nearly half of the observations made to ensure some fluency! :)

  13. the legs of Szelnsy

    a blinder at he back

    who’s first time pass

    Van Persie; In turn

    slightly isolated); It was

    Arshavin; The Russian

    A touch more proofreading would serve you (and the site) well. KUTGW.

  14. I’m a little confused about the Fabregas ‘passes received’ statistic you’ve got up there. What is it supposed to show? Did he receive more passes than many other players, or in better areas? Because I remember his actual passing being really quite poor at times, regularly over-elaborating because he had been given the creative ‘free role’ which still isn’t really his best position.

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