Barcelona 4-1 Arsenal: Messi dominates the game, but Arsenal let him

April 6, 2010

If there was any remaining doubt that Lionel Messi is the greatest football player of his generation, they were erased tonight, as Barcelona got the better of Arsenal in the much-hyped battle of the teams playing football ‘the right way’. Arsenal didn’t lose this match tactically, but they didn’t help themselves.

Barcelona went in as expected – keeping the alliteration at centre-half by choosing Milito and Marquez to replace the suspended Pique and Puyol. At left-back, Eric Abidal was back to replace Maxwell, who had a tough final 20 minutes at the Emirates against Theo Walcott. Upfront, Bojan replaced the injured Ibrahimovic, after his two goals at the weekend. Andres Iniesta was fit only for the bench, and so Barcelona again played their ‘alternative’ shape, with Messi deployed in a central role.

Arsene Wenger went on the offensive – selecting Theo Walcott from the start, and keeping Emmanuel Eboue on the bench. Mikael Silvestre started ahead of Sol Campbell, most likely purely because Barcelona’s threat comes from pace and movement, and therefore this probably wasn’t the right occasion for Campbell. Abou Diaby was pushed up alongside Samir Nasri, leaving Denilson on his own in a relatively adventurous 4-1-4-1 shape.

The game started off at a much slower pace than the first leg. Barcelona didn’t press as high up the pitch (perhaps wary of how much they tired in the first game) allowing the Arsenal defenders a fair amount of time on the ball. Barcelona twice went close from long-range Lionel Messi shots, and that served as a warning for what was to come later.

Arsenal took the lead through the player Barcelona feared most – Theo Walcott. His pace might be his only attribute, but it is very, very dangerous, and he sprung the Barcelona offside trap, taking advantage of their usual extraordinarily high defensive line, and squared for Nicklas Bendtner to score.

Then it was the Messi show. His first-half hattrick was superb because each of the goals were so different – a long-range belter, a poacher’s finish from close range, and then a sublime chip after outpacing the Arsenal defence over the top. It’s a cliche, but put Messi on the other side and the result might have been the reverse – the Milito-Marquez partnership was no more stable or unified than the Silvestre-Vermaelen one.

It’s tough to criticize Arsene Wenger’s tactics for this game. It’s probably fair to say that he was without his five most important players in a game he needed to score in – his best striker in Robin van Persie, his two most creative players in Cesc Fabregas and Andrei Arshavin, and his two most reliable defensive players in William Gallas and Alex Song. To get a result in the Nou Camp is tough at the best of times, but without those five it was a monumental task.

His selection of players was slightly surprising – against the pace and movement of Barcelona in the final third, Emmanuel Eboue would have been a useful player to have in the side, perhaps on the left against Barcelona’s greater threat from that flank. Tomas Rosicky is an excellent technical footballer and does his share of work defensively, but he simply doesn’t have the discipline and positional sense needed to play in a game like this, against the most attacking right-back in the world, Daniel Alves. Eboue has improved immeasurably in the past year or so, and though he may have been out of place on the left, he would have done a better job than Rosicky – who didn’t even impress going forward.

But the real issue must be Wenger’s decision to play a 4-1-4-1 shape, with Denilson stranded in front of the defence. With Messi playing centrally and with a license to drift around, the Brazilian was given the task of tracking him. Although it was far from an outright man-marking job, it was inevitable that he would constantly be drawn to Messi when he moved to the flank.

Messi celebrates his second

But that opened up Arsenal in front of the back four, creating space that was exploited at various times by Keita, Xavi, Pedro and Bojan. Arsenal needed another man in that zone, but with Diaby pushed forward alongside Nasri, their defence was left exposed. Diaby’s natural game is not as a holding midfielder, but if he had played there in a 4-2-3-1 Arsenal would have been tighter in front of their defence, and given less space to Barcelona where they really like to play.

Qique Sanchez Flores, whose Atletico Madrid team beat Barcelona in February, said he did it by“Keeping our shape short and narrow to make it hard for Barcelona to find players between the lines, which is what they do so well and what most causes you trouble”. The 4-1-4-1 didn’t make it hard for Barcelona to find players between the lines, it made it very, very easy.

And the most damning part is that Messi provided the initial pass to the player who then assisted his first two goals. For the first he played it to Pedro and later got it back, for the second he slipped it through to Abidal who put the cross in. On both occasions, he picked the ball up in space you would be disappointed to give any player in the competition, let alone the very best one.

The third (and to a certain extent) the fourth were caused – yet again – by a positional error from Thomas Vermaelen. And it’s the same mistake time and time again, coming too high up towards the ball to pick up a striker who has dropped deep. It happened against Manchester United, against West Ham, and now against Barcelona home and away, and it’s costing Arsenal a ridiculous number of goals. It’s such a blatant and persistent error that this website will feature an article on it within the next week, but it’s quite incredible that Vermaelen can keep making the same mistake and not face any criticism in the mainstream media for it.

Is it harsh to criticize tactics when Messi played as well as that, and won the game by himself? Probably, but he doesn’t score four goals every game, and Arsenal made it easy for him to work his magic. Wenger’s problem is that he isn’t good enough at setting up his side to neutralise the opposition’s main threats. He is a great football manager, but can he really be regarded as a great tactician? His commitment to good attacking football is wonderful and is appreciated by football supporters across the world – and we should not fall into the trap of thinking that football can be regarded as style v success – Barcelona have proven otherwise. But even they are capable of winning tactically, shutting down games, and completely switching their system according to their opponents strengths and weaknesses.

Wenger’s overall philosophy doesn’t need to change, but in specific, one-off games he surely must be a little bit more streetwise. If that means playing two players solidly in front of the back four, or playing a ‘defensive’ winger to keep the game tight in the first half, then Arsenal fans will hardly object to the brief lack of ‘classy’ football.

But these are probably debates for another day. Today was not about tactics, it was about Messi and the best individual performance of the season.

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