Theo’s pace, shackling Xavi and the Cesc factor: a tactical preview of Arsenal v Barcelona

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.

Van Persie has been in excellent form

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 Walcott

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.

Theo's speed will be vital

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.

Expecting Busquets to man-mark Cesc

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.

Stopping Xavi

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.

Xavi is Barcelona's heartbeat

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!

Have your say on the tactical battle of Arsenal v Barcelona by leaving a comment.



  1. I have a feeling Diaby might start in place of Jack. Key for us though is concentration. I think we can match them in terms of offensive threat, We have to stay composed in defense though.

  2. Great prose. Even better analysis.

    But do I sense a hint of impending doom? Or is it a scent of cynicism?
    If the matches against Barca from last year are the bench marks(which I don’t think they are) it is well to remember that Arsenal played with an understrength team.
    Having seen most of Barca’s matches in La Liga this season, I see chinks in their armor- some of which you pointed out.

    I really don’t see them as the favorites in this tie. Just like we have to cope with Xavi/Iniesta/Messi, they have to deal with Fab/RVP/Walcott.

  3. Absolutely brilliant post. That and the comment by regatta which I hope was not copied off another blog but it doesn’t seem so..these two posts give me such hope for the two legs in lieu of the fact that some Arsenal supporters themselves have written us off. If Fabregas, Walcott, VanPersie, Djourou and Song/Wilshere are mentally fortified and ready to fire all pistons, I reckon we will be banging on the door of victory. We might very well be walking to Nou Camp in a strong position and I think we should not be afraid at Nou Camp either. Arsenal is a great side and if Arsene Wenger does apply the right tactics (for example, the brilliant ones above), we can do it. Have faith guys. Thanks for the brilliant posts again. OPTIMISM!! Go you brilliant Gunners!!

  4. There are not many better players than Iniesta in the world, though I feel Xavi is significantly more influential in Barcelona’s general play. Every single Barcelona player deserves some analysis and praise, though I chose to highlight what are, in my view, the key tactical areas in which Arsenal can achieve a positive result.

  5. @Andy and Regatta – Superb Post – I hope the all the gunners fans read these articles – cmon lads – the time has come – q – Roky music – It’s a fight

  6. Sometime back Cesc mentioned something 2 do with CONFIDENCE! If only dat line-up can be that, den we shall win at Emirates. Den DISCIPLINE, we al remember Diaby indiscipline at da Magapies. Dis cost us a valuable 2pts. Else Nasri presence wil boost our morale. “HAVE FAITH”

  7. i love arsenal,i love winning every match..barca are no good like us recently,and we have to prove it by winning every game and every trophy,this is our time,we have waited for so long..beat barca home and away be our objective

  8. Wow,
    You guys are awesome and inspiring. It’s 4am game day and you’re already up and posting replies.
    If we cant whip the Catalans outright it ain’t for the want of a committed fanbase
    By the way Arshavin’s coming around again.If for some reason Nasri is still not ready to go I think he should get the nod. Pace on both flanks will keep Barca honest.
    Go you Gunners!!! Gruggy where are ya?

  9. I hope Squillaci may not be in the lineup list.I consider him as an unlucky player for Arsenal .We can beat Barcelona in home game.Why not?

  10. The “out ball” to Theo is a great tactic. It’s win-win.

    I’d be happy if Busquets focused on Cesc, coz I don’t think Busquets is a great man-marker because he is slow. So I don’t think that will happen, especially with a key difference to the last time we played – RVP. Busquets won’t have the luxury to hold Cesc with RVP such a threat and no Puyol to mind him.

    Cesc to Xavi is a great idea. When we’re pressing Barca, Xavi will be the man who is there supporting.

    Key players for us are Song and Wilshere. They’ll need to solidify our defense, and also will be critical in allowing us to keep possession.

    I am beginning to share in the optimism for this match, but am not forgetting that Barca are the best team in the world.

  11. Honestly Arsenal dont have a great deffence, Djurou is good, the only classy defender for gunners. Attackingly we are great, but we must win the midfield battle, which we can and this will lead to us having chances to score. Scoring goals is another art some gunners players have to improve on, they first have to defend without errors, and convert the chances they get then they win a game.

  12. A great write-up Daryl, such a privilege to put that up on the blog.

    I’ll have my thoughts on things a bit later, and will make a comment or two on what you’ve written.

    Come on Arsenal!

  13. I’ve already stated here and elsewhere, that it’s an honor to watch Barca most days (the exception being of course when we have to play them). You can’t claim to love/enjoy this game and not have some measure of respect for what will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest teams of this young century.

    That all being said and at the risk of some repetition let’s continue to remind ourselves of some things as we anticipate this fantastic tie of 2011:

    1. La Ligua, despite the presence of many fine teams (aside from Real Madrid and Barca), is not the Premier League. Arsenal are the best club in the best league in the world. Full stop.

    2. Barca have lost and drawn to humble opposition. Puyol is out. They looked tired and out of form against Sporting. They certainly look more vulnerable now than immediately after the first El Classico of the season.

    3. Arshavin has been steadily improving over the last few matches. This is an opportunity of a lifetime to lay down a marker and show the world who he is.

    4. Robin van Persie is sublime at the moment. He is in exactly the right kind of form for such a huge match.

    5. The 1st leg is at The Emirates. If I could cross an ocean to be there I certainly would. But many of you can and will be there. You can and will make a difference. The first leg at home is a fantastic opportunity and advantage. Let’s all use it to push us into the Nou Camp with a lead.



  14. As fans we always hope for the best in our favour. And as we write such we should have it in mind that as per now all that barca is having more is pedegree and nothing else so less wait wed. the ball will do the talking. Bravo to all the gooooonners.

  15. Play with passion, play with pride, play like lions, like you got nothing to loose, go get them my favorite gunners, and show the entire delusional manutd world out there that after seeing rooney’s goal they could never match the style, beauty and aggression that we gunners show.

  16. Great post Daryl.

    The game will be won in midfield , it will be interesting to watch Messi/Xavi/Iniesta against Song/Fabregas/Wilshere. The true danger from our side is not only Walcott but the unexpected Wilshere to them. I personally would not like to see Diaby or Denilson as they both have the mental frame to lose the ball under pressure.With Van Persie playing the false nine, they may find us difficult to handle in midfield. Both the team have similarity , that attack is their best defense.Having Djourou,Szczesny is a plus.But there is a fair chance of giving them their own medicine if Nasri is perfectly fit and back in form.

    I personally feel for Netherlands for not using the best of VanPersie ,just for the sake of egoism between Sneijder,Kurt and Robben in the world cup. Otherwise they would have attained great glory.

  17. brilliant article, as usual!
    but i just got to say one thing, Messi is only dangerous when he has the ball with him, otherwise its Xavi!
    i some how feel that Theo, Cesc, Wilshere, Djourou and van Persie hold the key to our success over barca!

  18. No time before work so I just want to say brilliant Daryl brilliant. Such a pleasure to read and your analysis is spot on. I hope Arshavin wakes up and announces to the world he’s back in this fixture.

  19. You guys are just plain inspiring. I’ve been wanting for us to lose against Barca and concentrate on the domestic cups but am not so sure that is what I want now. YES WE ARE WINNING THIS TIE AND BOTH LEGS TO BE SPECIFIC. Hope the professor is reading this! C’mon Gunners!!!

  20. Thanks for the positive feedback guys. Positivity and confidence, amongst players and fans, will be a massive factor tomorrow, along with tactics. I’m sure Wenger has his own plans, but I think we can see where Arsenal can be most effective, with the players we have.

  21. Well am not going off on a tangent here and saying were better than Barc, cause truth is we have not played a team that can hurt you at will as they can. When people pressure us we can’t play, and i think some arsenal fans have a short memory.

    The thought is “we’ve learned our lessons” Is that true? Some seasons ago spurs came back and drew a game with us, and this season they beat us, (come from behind) AND of course NewCastle,
    and we talk about improvement, short memory that’s what we have.

    Barc are not spur or Newcastle, so take your pick, am not going out on a limb for this team cause they can be great today and absolutely Rubbish tomorrow.

    We have no excuses for a poor performance on wednesday, and everyone knows that, ,lets see if we have improved or not it’s easy to play against westham, wolves, and some of the really poor teams in EPL but against a team that is hungry, skillful, and most of all know how to win, then totally a different kettle of fish

    Having said that, i can only support the team i love and i want the guys to know once they give their best the result won’t matter to me, i will still love this club.

    Mr wenger for Christ sake pls get you tactics right or were screwed……..

    Go Gunners

  22. Great post by DvH! I am concerned about Dani Alves steaming up their right side, our left. Nothing against Clichy and AA23 is much improved hustling back, but this could be their prime route to goal. Also, there is a reason Messi is nicknamed “the Flea” he doesn’t need the ball and he’s almost impossible to man mark. Like a flea, he has a way of just popping up in position to score. Hope it’s Song and Jack for us, most tenacious dm pairing, and hope we can stretch them with Walcott and AA23 on their blistering pace up top. It will be a great watch.
    O 2 B a Gooner at the Grove tomorrow night!

  23. What a Brilliant write up, hats off to you Andy for getting hold of this wonderful writer, WE HAVE EDGE OVER BARCELONA, there might be another Cesc and Nasri in Xavi and Iniesta! But they dont have Theo and RVP! Villa is no match to RVP, Wilshere on Messi, Game Over! 3-1 to the Arsenal

  24. Great insite on the game to come only one thing left out which is so important is Tempo of the game Barca will try to control the tempo with their possession game and slow it up a bit,, Arsenal must play at a fast epl tempo and not let barce settle I think we have an avantage their, and I agree if barca play a high line it will be to our advantage because off Theo,s pace so lets attack them both teams are not at their best defending. so let tempo of game and players personal pace be the decider 3 – 1 Arsenal.

  25. If Nasri is fit and starts, i’d have him on the left to counter the Alves Messi threat. I’d play Arsh head of Theo and then bring the latter on when legs getting tired in the second half. I just think that Arsh on form is better at keeping the ball than Walcott. Either way though I can’t wait, and fingers crossed we can banish forever the memory of that first half last season when let’s face it we should have been dead and buried.

  26. Yes like i said the time is now.The tempo of the game will dictate the out come. By constantly attacking Barcelona they will loose shape and the possesion they want to effect passes. We did the same to Money city and chelsea with applomb.We must not allow them put us under siege in our half like they did last season.We have to break them up and disorganise themidfield shape.Thats why we dont ned Diaby any where in this game. Wilshere and Song will do that. The only weakness fans have forgotten is that Eboue will be our right back due to Sagnas absence. I am tempted to think we play Gibbs instead of Eboue. Otherwise any thing of a win will be enough to settle the tie never mind visiting Nuo camp . We have gone and won at Bernabue. All we need is to beat them here.

  27. “Having said that, i can only support the team i love and i want the guys to know once they give their best the result won’t matter to me, i will still love this club.

    Mr wenger for Christ sake pls get you tactics right or were screwed……..”

    —-Oxymoron much…?

  28. Excellent post, it covers everything so well that I feel there’s little more to say. I just read on the official website that Nasri will be in the squad for tonight’s match, even though nobody is sure if he will be in the starting XI. I only miss Sagna for this game, but let’s hope Eboue can fill his role and that he will have cover from up front. As for other things, I will go in silent mode, repeating a simple mantra all day long, while biting my nails: Go Gunners, Go Gunners, Go Gunners…

  29. Daryl van Horn,
    The best post i have seen i recent times, bravo keep up the good work.

    Gunners, Daryl has just said it, catalans are not unbeatable, we can beat them and receive cheers from the rest of the teams who have sleepless nights when they think of meeting them.

  30. I don’t think that gunners can focus on big games like this! We are always optimistic saying a lot of good things b4 the match but in a matter of fact we will not win tonight.This is Barca and not Wolves guys! Wake up!

  31. 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. — Its quite clear then that you dont watch la liga matches.

  32. Rajesh; I’m not doubting the technical quality of La Liga, which is undoubtedly the best in Europe. However, aside from Barca & Real Madrid, I believe none of the remaining La Liga teams would make the Top 6 of the Premier League. The nature of the two leagues are very different of course but, Manchester United, Man City, Chelsea, Tottenham and of course Arsenal, are superior sides to the likes of Valencia, Sevilla and Villarreal. Each season, La Liga becomes a two-horse race from September onwards. The Premier League is much more competitive.

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