The following is a guest post from Daryl van Horn, a lifelong Arsenal fan from London who has been attending matches for 25 years. Daryl is also a performing singer, musician and songwriter who I encourage you to follow on Twitter.
The draw for round two of the Champions League seems like a lifetime ago.
Prior to the draw, made in December, I think most of us felt that we were destined to face Barcelona again. So it proved and Arsenal were immediately written off in all quarters, as contenders for the trophy. As we all know and have recently seen (hello Phil Dowd), anything can happen in a game of football, though the fact it is a two-legged tie does make the task more difficult.
At the time of the draw we were without the regular the services of Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, Johan Djourou and whilst the reassuring presence of Wojciech Szczesny had yet to be established into the starting eleven. Despite a couple of shocking results at home, I feel the squad had done tremendously well to stay in touch at the top of the league, up until we defeated Chelsea at Christmas. That performance was a watershed moment in our season and the way we convincingly out-played and out-thought the defending champions must have given the team enormous belief.
Since then, the team has gone on a fantastic run in the Premier League and domestic cups, leaving us well placed in all competitions. Also, considering the sheer amount of matches played since December began, the treatment table has been relatively clear.
The fact that the increasingly impressive Johan Djourou made such a swift recovery after taking a knock at Newcastle is something that cannot be underplayed in our chances of success. He is the kind of player who improves the performances of those around him, just as Fabregas does in midfield and van Persie does in attack. This season, Arsenal have not lost a game where those three have all started together.
This is the big one, the one the whole world will be watching. There is no finer side than Barcelona, which has been the case for 2-3 years. However, they are not unbeatable and their run of 16 consecutive La Liga victories was halted on Saturday with a surprise 1-1 draw at Sporting Gijon.
The matches in which Barcelona have dropped points have followed a similar theme; a well-drilled rearguard action breaking up Xavi’s and Iniesta’s passing, along with the taking of the few chances that come along. I do not expect Arsenal to wholly adopt this tactic although there is merit in this approach.
To have any chance of progressing in the Champions League, I feel Arsenal must win the first leg, taking a lead to Camp Nou. Last season’s score draw was not enough and we took the lead far too early in the second leg for Barcelona to panic about getting back into the tie. In last year’s semi-final second leg, Inter took a 3-1 lead to Camp Nou and were able to remain composed in defence, knowing that they had already won the game.
Below I have highlighted the key personnel and tactics that can negate the threat of Barcelona:
Theo’s form and productivity has been key to our recent run of good performances. The mere presence of Theo in our line-up completely changes things for the opposition and he made a massive difference in the Quarter Final first leg last year upon his introduced from the bench.
A key feature of the match at the Emirates was how high up the pitch Barcelona pressed us. Their forward line was constantly at the edge of our penalty area and their defence was pushed up to the halfway line, leaving us penned back for 45 minutes. The problem we had was that we had no ‘out ball’, due to a lack of pace in our own attack (Arshavin went off injured within the first 30 minutes) and therefore no option to play through-balls behind their high defensive line.
Barcelona’s game is all about pushing their full-backs forward, with Sergio Busquets dropping just in front of the centre-backs for extra cover. This works against most opposition they face as nobody has a player who can run behind a defensive line like Theo can. A key feature of the defeat of Chelsea was that Theo’s presence prevented Ashley Cole getting forward as he could not leave the slower John Terry exposed to the pace of Walcott.
Ashley Cole had been instrumental in the previous few matches where Chelsea had beaten us, providing several assists and problems when he got forward. Theo not only caused Cole to drop back more than he usually would, he also did a great job of tracking Cole’s forward runs and protecting Sagna.
If we find ourselves facing similar high-pressure tactics, we know that when we win back possession, Theo will be on the shoulder of Abidal or Maxwell looking to be released by through-balls from Fabregas and Wilshere. If Guardiola decides that such a high-line is too risky our midfield may find themselves with more space than they did last year, allowing Fabregas to have more time on the ball to construct attacks.
Andrey Arshavin is no slouch either and Dani Alves will have to be wary of the Russian when going forward himself. Though Andrey will have to track Alves’ forward runs when Barcelona have the ball, as Xavi is always looking to spread the play to their full-backs. Cutting off the supply from Xavi to his colleagues is crucial, which I’ll discuss in more detail later.
Sergio Busquests v Cesc Fabregas
I fully expect Sergio Busquets to man-mark Cesc Fabregas in this match. We know that Cesc is most effective pushed up behind van Persie, however teams have enjoyed some success when employing somebody to man-mark Cesc in his advanced role.
Recently Everton used Jack Rodwell for this task to great effect. Cesc had a quiet game until Wenger threw on Arshavin and Bendtner, allowing Fabregas to play a much deeper role. Had Rodwell continued to mark Cesc so high up the pitch, van Persie would drop behind Bendtner into the space vacated by Rodwell. In the end, Rodwell stayed where he was allowing Cesc more space to play higher passes from deeper positions, which led to Arshavin’s game changing equaliser.
It would be of no surprise to me that, if the game is tight, we will see Cesc dropping further back to shake off Busquets and start attacks from deeper positions. In recent Premier League matches, we have seen many more direct passe, over the top of opposition defences from Cesc to van Persie, Walcott and Arshavin that have resulted in chances and goals (take Wolves, for example). I firmly believe that Wenger has employed this tactic in preparation for the matches against Barcelona. They won’t have faced many teams in La Liga who employ these more direct tactics, though whether they are successful remains to be seen.
Messi may grab the headlines but it is Xavi who controls the games for Barcelona. This man’s influence cannot be underestimated and a year ago, he completely dictated both legs of the Quarter Final. We simply cannot allow Xavi time and space on the ball to look for the runs of his team mates and I expect to see somebody tight on him while Barca have possession. I don’t think Alex Song or Jack Wilshere will do this, as I believe these two will be screening our defence zonally, picking up runs of Iniesta and Messi, preventing the supply to these two.
I think that when Barcelona have the ball, Fabregas will be tight on Xavi, with van Persie chasing down any backward passes to Busquets and their centre-backs. I feel that the current XI of Arsenal are much improved and disciplined than the one that faced Barcelona last year and are more capable of upsetting their passing rhythm. This will require intense concentration and energy.
Nullify the threat of Messi, Iniesta and Pedro
When Messi has the ball at his feet there is not a lot you can do stop him. What teams can do is check his runs and block off the supply to him, as discussed above.
When he does get the ball, our defenders must stay composed and not commit to unwise challenges. This is where Wilshere and Song must work ever so hard to screen the defence and work with defenders to double up on Messi, Xavi and Pedro when they receive the ball from Xavi. I believe Djourou and Koscielny can handle David Villa if those in front of them are working hard to negate the Barca attacking midfielders. We cannot allow them to create the number of chances they did last year.
It will be a huge challenge for our players to contain Barcelona and create enough of our own chances to win the first leg. However, I think the squad learnt much from last season’s quarter final and the improvement of the team since then is more significant than any improvement Barcelona have made.
Barcelona have not faced a team of our quality since they thrashed Real Madrid some months ago and the general standard of the opposition in La Liga is not as high as the Premier League. Every match Arsenal play is a physical and mental test that Barcelona do not face often in Spain, which is why I believe we are mentally well equipped for this challenge. Aside from Real Madrid, there are no teams in Spain with players of the quality of Fabregas, van Persie, Nasri and Walcott.
I think the games will be tighter this year with not as many goal chances. That being the case, we need to cash on any set-pieces we earn, something we have begun to do in recent matches and a threat that Barcelona do not often face.
Barcelona are undoubtedly favourites over the two legs. However, if we can achieve any kind of victory on Wednesday we can approach the second leg in a much better frame of mind to last year’s second leg, where we essentially had to win to get through.
In any case it promises to be a fascinating tie and whatever the outcome, I think we will give a good account of ourselves. There would be no shame in losing to such a great side as long as we perform well.
If, as everyone expects, we do get knocked out, I believe we will go on to win the Premier League. The strain on a squad competing in the two hardest domestic competitions in European football is immense. An exit from Europe at this stage could allow the squad to focus their resources on catching Manchester United without distraction.
Let’s see what happens on Wednesday and then re-evaluate our chances of the tie overall.
Come on you Reds!
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