Arsenal v Barcelona: tactical preview

February 16, 2011

Possible starting line-ups

The previous tie between these two sides was a classic, fascinating technically, aesthetically and tactically.

This meeting offers Arsenal a chance to demonstrate that they’ve learned their lessons from the 6-3 aggregate defeat.

There will be significant personnel changes from last year – injury and suspension meant that neither side played anything like their first-choice XI in the second leg, when Lionel Messi ran riot with one of his finest performances in a Barcelona shirt. Robin van Persie, Jack Wilshere, David Villa and Andres Iniesta didn’t play a part in last year’s tie but all will be key here, whilst four of Arsenal’s back five will be different from the game at the Emirates.

Without the ball

Despite the change in faces, we’re likely to see familiar patterns to the game. The first half of last year’s first leg was characterised by Barcelona’s relentless pressing, something Arsenal have to try and match this time around. Sitting very deep and narrow is the best way to stifle Barcelona, but Arsenal can’t play that way – their back four isn’t good enough – they must instead defend more proactively.

Wilshere has indicated that this will be a part of Arsenal’s strategy:

“We’ve got to change our game a bit to play against Barcelona – we’ll learn from last year, but we need to get in their faces and, if you like, be a bit nasty, in a footballing sense, to get the ball back. We have to press them as a team – there’s no point just one of us going after them, so we have to close them down as a team and get the ball back from them.”

Alex Song has said similar:

“We need to press Barcelona very high from the first minute and give them no room.”

And Theo Walcott has had his say:

“Hopefully we win the ball back quicker because it’s a massive game this season, the biggest one I’m going to play in.”

Here’s an example of the contrast in pressing in last season’s tie:

Tactically, what the sides do without the ball is the key aspect of the game. More on that in ZM’s preview of the game for ITV here.

Assuming Arsenal do press Barcelona high up the pitch and play a consequently high line, we should be in for goals. The last side to try tactically aggressive defending against Barcelona was their city rivals Espanyol – they ended up getting beaten 5-1, though the game was much closer than the scoreline dictates. Villarreal tried something similar and also lost having caused problems, though in a very different system – a 4-2-2-2. Espanyol’s experience with a 4-2-3-1 is more salient here.

Barcelona tactics

Whilst Barcelona don’t change their style between games, they do change their tactics. As Sid Lowe wrote this week: “Few coaches are as tactically obsessive as Guardiola, as keen on two key points: positioning and pressure.” We broadly know what to expect in terms of pressure, but the positioning of his players will be fascinating.

In that game against Espanyol, Guardiola exploited Espanyol’s high line by instructing Lionel Messi to play very deep – not as a forward, not as a false nine, but more like a central attacking playmaker. Because the Espanyol centre-backs saw Messi as their responsibility, they kept coming out of the backline to track him – only to find Pedro and Villa running through the space, in on goal. This might be something Guardiola tries here – Arsenal’s high line has caught them out at various points in recent weeks, and if Huddersfield and Ipswich can take advantage, it’s doubtful that Barcelona will have any problems. The key for Arsenal’s centre-backs is decision-making about how far up the pitch to track Messi. The intelligence of Johan Djourou, a naturally ‘conservative’ centre-back in terms of moving up the pitch, will be important.

Another huge danger for Arsenal is Daniel Alves, who offers a tremendous attacking threat from full-back. Last season, Wenger was so concerned about his runs that he started Andrei Arshavin on the right in order to play the more defensively-aware Samir Nasri on the left. Nasri is a doubt for the game but it would be a huge boost for Wenger if he was available – in addition to his ability going forward, Arsenal will need him to put in a good stint going towards his own goal. Again, Guardiola may change the positioning of his players slightly here – in the Espanyol game, Alves played extremely high up on the right which allowed the three forwards to narrow, and combine more easily.

In terms of keeping Arsenal out, the loss of Carles Puyol is a huge blow. Not just because it means Barcelona are without their captain and a first-choice centre-back, but because it means that Eric Abidal will have to play at centre-back, exposing Maxwell to Theo Walcott’s pace. The Brazilian completely failed to cope with Walcott last year and the quicker Abidal was drafted in for the second leg. Guardiola will have considered everything possible to put Abidal at left-back – playing Gabriel Milito at centre-back, moving Sergio Busquets there – but the best option will just be to have faith in Maxwell.

Arsenal tactics

The most obvious weapon for Arsenal is the pace of Walcott. Arsenal are probably less of a counter-attacking side this season than they have been for much of Wenger’s reign, but hitting Barcelona with direct breaks – just like the second goal against Wolves at the weekend – is probably the way to go here.

Wenger is unlikely to deviate from his usual 4-2-3-1. His only change might be to use the midfield slightly deeper than usual, in turn pushing Cesc Fabregas higher up the pitch, in something that looks like a 4-4-1-1, in order to form two clear banks of four and see off early Barcelona pressure.

Being physical in the centre of the pitch might help Arsenal, as Wilshere mentioned above, but both teams should beware of referee Nicola Rizzoli, who isn’t afraid of getting his book out.

In terms of dealing with Barca’s front three, Arsenal need to make sure they always occupy the space in front of the back four. In the Nou Camp last year, Messi was fantastic, but Arsenal helped him by being so open in midfield. In that game Arsenal were playing 4-3-3 – or 4-1-2-3 – which meant just one holding player, but the shift to a double pivot in midfield creates a ’square’ that will occupy that space well. Watch Messi’s four goals, and it’s clear how poorly Arsenal tracked him.

The most fundamental part of Arsenal’s game is to be disciplined at the back – to be switched on at all times, and to communicate with one another. Barcelona constantly catch teams out with short corners, for example – two men go to the flag, two opponents go to meet them, and then Barcelona work a 3 v 2 by another player joining from the centre of the pitch in order to manufacture a crossing opportunity. That might sound simple, but it’s a small detail that could prove crucial.

In many games Arsenal can be confident they can beat opponents by technically outplaying them, but here they must make sure that they get things right in terms of strategy and organisation, and learn their lessons from last time.

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