Arsenal 2—Barcelona 1

Arsenal’s commitment to play Barcelona’s game was a risky strategy, but in all likelihood was the only one to pursue.

Robin van Persie celebrates equalizer with Arséne Wenger. A rare moment of public affection indicative of meaning and importance the match has for the team.

Only on the surface can the luck of the draw account for Arsenal having to face Barcelona in the Champions League unnamed knockout round. Without the quarter- or semi- to measure respectability, there is something ignoble about the generic, but consequential defeat.

Certainly the rule that teams from the same league cannot face each other at this stage of the tournament—four of the eight are Premier League teams—raised the probability of meeting them, those godly ones who don’t even have to be angry to defeat you.

This would have been irrelevant if Arsenal hadn’t compounded the chances by finishing second in the group stage. Bubbling balls ejected from a large clear vessel do not expose the cruelty of chance. Drawing Barcelona was also of Arsenal’s own doing. Their poor run of form through the latter matches of the group stage, peaking with a full-blown hamstring injury in the mind at Sporting Braga, was a display of free will far more determining than the whim of chance outcomes.

Two years running in the Champions League, and three of the last six Champions League knockout rounds, Arsenal will have faced Barcelona in a knockout round. For Arsenal, the results don’t look to be heading in the right direction—first the 2006 final, then the 2010 quarterfinal, and now possibly the round of 16. Arsenal’s pathologies seasonally recur and flare like bad allergies. Facing Barcelona again gives Arsenal another opportunity to cast out the demons or repeat traumatic experience. Arséne Wenger does not flinch from any challenge; when enshrouded in the belief zone he invites it. Maybe some part of them wanted to finish the group stage in second.

An injured Carles Puyol and suspended Bacary Sagna were the only changes to the starting lineups. Finally in possession of a healthy squad for a significant fixture, Wenger could wholeheartedly proclaim that his team would play “their game”, the difference on this occasion coming in the form of degree and intensity. This would be a match of competing, but identical fundamentalisms. Barcelona’s strategy, born of supreme confidence, if not well-established superiority, rarely deviates from the belief that their game can best any approach thrown at them. Arsenal showed their self-belief to be equal, albeit one born through risk and blindness as opposed to a sense of divine right.

Arsenal’s high defensive line reduces the pitch to a 30 meter strip.

From the opening whistle, Arsenal committed to applying pressure off the ball. They have been successful over the season taking back possession in the middle of the field by quickly closing down their opponents, but the intensity and relentless pressure, particularly from central midfield, was a page taken from Barcelona’s biblical guide to football, a codified understanding that fluidity and control come from reducing the impact of discontinuity when possession is lost.

The success of collective pressure meant closing down space and disrupting Barcelona’s passing game. But closing down shifting pockets of space was dependent upon reducing the overall space of the pitch, which Arsenal attempted by the defense holding a very high line. Holy Moly was this risky! But without the high line Arsenal’s midfield pressure would have fallen short; one mistake and Barcelona’s surgical passing would slice them from belly to chest.

In the opening twenty minutes both teams threatened—Barcelona with incisive incursions halted only by numerous offside calls and Arsenal on the counter-attack. Arsenal’s strategy did not aim to shut down Barcelona, but contain and dampen them. If one assumes that Barcelona would create chances regardless of Arsenal’s approach, as Lionel Messi proved in the 14th minute with a chip over Wojciech Szczesny that nearly stopped time as it skipped just wide, then the high defensive line proved successful despite bearing responsibility for Messi early chance and Villa’s goal. Catching Barcelona offside nine times during the game is nine times that rhythm was disrupted and possession surrendered.

Messi slices through Arsenal’s central defense. The high defensive line malfunctioned through Koscielny indecision.

Barcelona’s opening goal in the 26th minute seemed inevitability. Although thwarted, Barcelona would not be deterred. For all of Arsenal’s successful collective defense off the ball, persistence could not guarantee precise execution. In a single sequence, Arsenal’s pressure relaxed and high line failed. Barcelona was allowed to play calmly out of the back and set up the pass, which led David Villa between Arsenal’s center backs. Johann Djourou found himself marginalized behind Villa and, seeing Clichy too deep, was unsure whether or not hold the hold the line, while Laurent Koscielny, rightly preoccupied with Xavi in front of him, failed to see Villa slide behind.

For much of the remaining twenty minutes, Arsenal was on the back foot, but survived and went into halftime still within reach.

The first half began so sharply both teams bypassed the ritual “feeling each other out”, saving it for the opening minutes of the second half that saw with no strategic amendments and relatively few scoring chances until space opened up again behind Barcelona’s midfield, which Arsenal took advantage of as often as they could. Credit goes to Arsenal for sticking with their game plan.

Into the 63rd minute and Djourou has crossed the center line, radically compressing playable pitch.

Arsenal began to steadily apply pressure along the left side with Samir Nasri beginning to impress himself on the game as Walcott did in the first half. Clearly both Nasri and Walcott were forced to play deeper in the first half and Nasri’s willingness to press higher up the field was a sign of Arsenal’s growing confidence. The wingers’ deeper position, in combination with Song, Wilshere, and Fábregas anchoring the center, narrowed the pitch and forced Barcelona to attack more often up the middle, which proved to be difficult.

Throughout the match, the loss of possession in the center of the pitch provided the source of Arsenal’s counter-attack. Wilshere was brilliant on many occasions, gaining possession and initiating the break through Fábregas who found wide players breaking from deeper positions. Arshavin’s game-winner was the result of Wilshere and Fábregas playing through the middle and finding Nasri breaking up the right side.

Wilshere finds Fábregas with a one-touch pass initiating the break, which led to Arsenal’s second goal.

Both managers, perhaps sensitively tuned to slight shift of Arsenal’s building pressure, opted for a simultaneous tactical change. In response to Arsenal’s counter-attack up the middle, Pep Guardiola brought on Seydou Keite for David Villa as a secondary line of defense. On the surface, the conservatism of the move appeared to aim at protecting the slim lead, but this would be far out character. The substitution was an adjustment, an attempt to negate Arsenal’s narrow advantage. In turn, Wenger brought on Andrei Arshavin for Alex Song who had picked up an early yellow card. Despite having a substandard season, Arshavin still remained Wenger’s talisman. Dispatched wide on the left, the Russian could build on the increasing success found along the flank. It may have been a blessing that Arsenal did not find the equalizer earlier in the second half. At 1—1, Guardiola may have left Villa on the pitch, since the substitutions played out in Arsenal’s favor.

Arsenal’s first goal was a product of a precision chip emerging from a couple of breezy innocuous short passes involving Arshavin and Clichy. Arshavin’s inclination to take on opponents drew out the Barcelona defense just enough to open up space for van Persie to slide through. But the goal was equally attributable to Arshavin’s patient presence and preference for the short pass that contributed the time necessary for Clichy to execute the pass to van Persie.

Barcelona defenders, with one eye on Arshavin along the sideline, succumb to Clichy’s perfect chip to van Persie for the equalizing goal.

If sweeping tactical changes are exciting for their display of managerial genius, this match found an equal excitement in both managers’ display of an unbending faith in customary approach. Arsenal’s high defensive high line, the commitment to off-the-ball pressure, and quick counter-attack are in theory nothing new. The difference against Barcelona lay in the sustained effort and unbending focus. The tactical success goes some way to proving that this strategy has always been correct. It only lacked self-belief, focus, and commitment, which are not strictly strategic, but psychological, and absolutely necessary for the success of the approach.

Barcelona now has something to think about in the intervening three weeks. For the first time this season, they were not capable of taking with them all that was memorable in a match. Whether or no this is a problem for Barcelona is debatable. But if a problem undoubtedly persists at this point, it is Arsenal’s, because they have to do it all over again, and probably much better.

2/18/11

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