Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona: Arsenal turn it around

February 17, 2011

The starting line-ups

Great goals from Robin van Persie and Andrei Arshavin gave Arsenal their first-ever victory over Barcelona.

Arsene Wenger was able to welcome back Samir Nasri from injury on the left. The rest of the side was as expected.

Pep Guardiola also named the predicted side, with Eric Abidal in Carles Puyol’s place, and Maxwell at left-back.

Crucially, Arsenal made a good start without the ball. Having been battered in the first ten minutes in this fixture last season, there was a much better attitude without the ball from the beginning this time around. The pressure on Barcelona’s midfield meant Arsenal forced Barcelona to give the ball away after 16 seconds, and though the away side had spells of clear dominance, they didn’t enjoy the ludicrous level of control they exerted a year ago.

Arsenal high line

With the increased pressure came a high defensive line, so as not to leave space between midfield and attack. The problem with this strategy is that it only takes one mistake to allow the opposition in, and the particular problem against Barcelona is that the combination of superb passers in midfield and forwards with tremendous acceleration makes it very risky, as Real Madrid found out last year.

In general, Arsenal kept a good line, although first Lionel Messi and then David Villa broke through. Messi missed, Villa scored, and Arsenal had a spell before half time when they looked nervous. Still, their pressing meant that Arsenal were in the game more, winning the ball back higher up the pitch and building attacks of their own. Only a lack of precision in the final third from Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie meant Arsenal didn’t turn decent breaks into goalscoring ones.

Lionel Messi picked the ball up in very deep positions (from TotalFootball iPhone app)

Arsenal positioning

Nasri and Theo Walcott played deep and formed a second bank of four, which gave them a good defensive base to work from, with Fabregas slightly further forward.

Arsenal also played more compact than usual – van Persie always drops into deep positions but was closer to his midfield than usual, making himself available for a quick forward pass. This was something Arsenal missed last season – good link-up play from the forward (van Persie was unavailable for both legs).

Barcelona dominate

Still, Barcelona had the better of the first half, after a slow start. As always, the key to their front three is fluidity and therefore trying to define the roles of Messi, Villa and Pedro is somewhat pointless, but Messi played very deep, often coming into midfield and linking play.

However, Arsenal coped quite well with him there – whereas Espanyol responded to the same threat by bringing their centre-backs up towards him and leaving space in behind, Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny were reserved and disciplined, leaving Messi to Alex Song and Jack Wilshere. Song was something of a worry for Arsenal after he picked up an early card.

The expected dangerman, Theo Walcott, was rather quiet. Maxwell didn’t have many problems in 1 v 1s and also received help from Andres Iniesta, whilst Walcott’s relatively deep positioning didn’t suit his game – he was getting balls played into his feet on the touchline, rather than being immediately on the defensive line and looking to use his pace in behind. That approach was something Arsenal didn’t take advantage of enough until late in the game.

Second half

Whilst never being a poor contest, the game went quiet at the beginning of the second half, with neither side taking control and no major tactical changes. The general pattern of play continued from the first half.

The formations from 76 minutes onwards

Guardiola’s decision to bring on Seydou Keita for David Villa on 67 minutes looks like a mistake in hindsight. Barcelona pushed Iniesta forward into the front three but they had less attacking threat – they sat back too much and focused on keeping possession rather than looking for further chances.

Wenger made an attacking switch – Song off, Arshavin on, and Nasri into the middle of the pitch. Those two substitutions happened at the same time, so it wasn’t either manager responding to the other, but it worked nicely for Arsenal. Whilst taking off their holding midfielder was something of a risk, the fact that Barcelona no longer had a driving, attack-minded central midfielder meant it wasn’t an issue. Song’s absence meant Iniesta would have thrived in the centre of midfield – the two were in direct competition.


Wenger made a further change – Walcott off, Nicklas Bendtner on. Whether this had much of an impact upon the subsequent proceedings is debatable, but it is the second time in less than a month that Arsenal have brought on Arshavin and Bendtner in the final 25 minutes, and turned a 0-1 into a 2-1.

It was van Persie’s excellent finish from a tight angle that got the equaliser, and then Barca responded and the game opened up. Twenty seconds before Arshavin scored the winner, Barca outnumbered Arsenal at the other end, but couldn’t work the opening. A lightning quick break down the right through Nasri (ironically, the kind of situation Walcott was praying for all game) saw the Frenchman pull the ball back for Arshavin to bend into the net. Gerard Pique was five yards behind his defence in a poor position, whilst Alves jogged back when he could have cut out the final pass with a quick burst.

Arshavin’s introduction provided the inevitable moment of defensive calamity when up against Alves late on, but Barcelona couldn’t manufacture a clear chance at 2-1 down. At 0-1 they’d gone into their shell, and found it impossible to emerge as an attacking threat again.


Arsenal’s tactics were largely correct from the start. Granted, they had less possession and had to endure some nervous moments, but that’s to be expected against Barcelona. No combination of tactics can prevent Messi from creating, and Arsenal rode their luck on a couple of occasions – but the pressing was consistent, integrated, and meant Arsenal were in the game as an attacking force.

The substitutions were extremely important. Guardiola took off his goalscorer at a time when Barcelona looked likely to have chances on the break, whilst Arsenal stepped up their attacking threat with the introduction of a wide forward for a holding midfielder. That gave Arsenal the attacking impetus and more creative quality in the centre of the pitch (with a Fabregas-Nasri-Wilshere trio) and made the comeback in the final 12 minutes possible.

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