After last seasons meeting with Barcelona, Arsenal should have perhaps a better idea of how to try and deal with the Catalan giants when the two meet next week. Like last seasons quarter-final Arsenal play the first-leg at home before going to the Nou Camp in early March.
In the first-leg last season Arsenal were overwhelmed by Barcelona’s attacking prowess in the first-half before coming back to draw 2-2 thanks to Cesc Fabregas. Then in the second-leg they met a Barcelona who had Lionel Messi playing at another level, even for him! He scored all four to win 4-1. Barcelona had a weakened defence in this game after Carles Puyol was sent-off in the first game and Gerard Pique was suspended for accumulating yellow cards, meaning Gabriel Milito and Rafael Marquez came in. After his two goals at the Emirates Zlatan Ibrahimovic didn’t play due to injury, so Guardiola played Bojan Krkic. Their first eleven wasn’t close to their best which gave Arsenal hope. But even without Pique and Puyol Arsenal couldn’t do much to counter Messi’s heroics. What I have written below is by my reckoning some of the best ways to try and stop Barcelona play their way, which if Arsenal are to have any chance should try to do.
1. Stop Messi
Barcelona’s primary threat is without doubt Leo Messi. He has been the best player in World football over the last few years. If Arsenal are to keep Messi quiet they would have made their job much easier. Barcelona have shown this season that without the pintsized Argentinian they do not possess the same attacking threat and find it harder to break teams down. Against Levante they found it hard to break through a tough defence. For the first time in 10 matches Barcelona failed to score in the first-half. No doubt that Messi not playing was a reason why. What he’ll do like any great dribbler is drag defenders out of position, creating space for his team mates as well as making his opponents commit fouls.
Gael Clichy will be constantly running after Messi and will either have to move inside and track him or allow the Cbs to deal with him, or at least attempt. Clichy has not had the best season defensively and will need to produce a career-defining performance in order to nullify Messi.
2. Don’t give Iniesta and Xavi space and time
So much of Barcelona’s attacks stem from the two craftsman in midfield. Arsenal are likely to play Wilshere and Song together and both will have to track them and try and stop them dictating play. Wilshere has been an ever-present this season but at only 19 this game may be too much even for a player of his obvious ability to outclass his midfield opposites. Wilshere has played with Song for most of the season but despite his defensive side to his game, he’ll struggle against the likes of Xavi. Iniesta particularly can dribble superbly and like with the Messi/Clichy clash will either need to be tracked by Wilshere/Song or a CB could come forward. This though is where Arsenal may fall into a trap. In the El Classico this season Barcelona mainly due to Messi, as is often the case, ran at the Real defence committing players to come towards him, moving them forward and leaving space behind for others to run into. At the perfect moment he would make the perfect pass.
In this example leading to Barcelona’s third goal Messi draws Xabi Alonso towards him and plays a diagonal pass to David Villa. This example is down more to Messi’s passing ability and timing. But by drawing a defender or two you end up leaving the one defender or a small minority of the defence marking David Villa and crucially keeping Villa onside. He can then make a diagonal run away from his defender into the space left by the rest of the defenders.
Below Messi plays another diagonal pass to Villa, leading to the fourth goal.
Below against Valencia earlier this season Iniesta drags four opposing players towards him and creates space for Xavi. Xavi plays it perfectly for him to run into the area onto and finish. The key here is that Iniesta plays a one-two with Xavi but none of the Valencia players track Iniesta after he has passed to Xavi. If one had they may have intercepted the pass but they all follow the ball, something Arsenal must not do.
When Hercules played Barcelona at the Nou Camp near the start of this season they compacted their midfield and their forward Nelson Valdez dropped deeper to pick up Javier Mascherano. This gave Barcelona’s midfield less time on the ball and in doing so stopped the link from midfield to attack working as well as normal. In both games Barcelona have failed to win this season in La Liga, crucially perhaps Xavi has not played from the start. Against Hercules, Keita and Mascherano played with Iniesta further forward. This means that Barcelona have less attacking threat from midfield, Xavi, however, came on in the second-half to replace Mascherano but still couldn’t get Barca back in the game.
3. Play Barcelona at their own game
Although Barcelona play scintillating football when in possession they work incredibly hard to get it back. They’ll harass their opponents into mistakes by surrounding the man on the ball and limiting his options to pass to. Arsenal should try and press them high up the pitch.
This example below is from Barcelona against Villarreal earlier this season. Alves, Busquets and Pedro surround Cani forcing him to pass and make a mistake. The problem doing it against Barcelona is that they pass the ball so well in tight spaces and they spread out and use the pitch so well. But it still can be done. Arsenal should push their two wingers up to force Alves and Abidal back, and if they do get past them, double up with a full-back. If Song and Wilshere were to come across to help they would then give Barca’s midfield trio more space to work. So rather than having 3 v 3 it’s just 3 v 2.
Another example, this time against Real Madrid this season, Keita and Puyol enclose Ronaldo which forces him into a mistake, noticeably near the end of the match they’re winning 4-0.
￼4. Close down Pique and Puyol
Pique and Puyol often leave a much bigger gap than many other central defence pairings. Busquets can drop into this as he has done previously to make a three-man defence.
Dani Alves loves attacking and this will mean Pique may sometimes have to cover meaning Busquets could drop deeper to in-turn cover him. Abidal on the left doesn’t get forward quite as much. As mentioned previously, Wenger should try playing someone just behind Alves and exploit that space.
This is against Real Madrid, bottom left is Pique, bottom right Alves. This also shows how Barcelona love to use so much of the pitch as David Villa is positioned right on the touchline in the top right. By doing this they have numerous options for the player on the ball and they can stretch the opposing team to create space to pass into or run through the centre of the pitch.
5. Stop Alves
Dani Alves is another key to Barcelona’s attacks and particularly to Messi’s. Whilst Messi more than often cuts inside as most inverted wingers do, Alves will race down the touchline offering an outlet to cross and provide another man in the attack to preoccupy the opposing left-back. When forward, others can play diagonal balls to Alves ,who times his runs perfectly, he can then pull the ball across for a tap-in as shown below.
Dani Alves is one of the best right-backs and can run all up the right for 90 mins without looking exhausted. Here is a particularly interesting article on Alves’ influence in one particular game:
An example below:
Xavi plays a perfect pass to Alves (bottom right) against Malaga last season.
To conclude, Arsenal will have to play two of the best games under Wenger to get through. They’ll have to be incisive when they get the chance to attack and very disciplined in defence for sustained periods. They will go in as underdogs and considering this Barcelona team are arguably better than last years it would be an even greater achievement to win.