Barcelona 3-1 Arsenal: Barca press and progress

March 9, 2011

The starting line-ups

Arsenal didn’t manage a single shot, as Barcelona go through to the quarter-finals.

Pep Guardiola chose Eric Abidal and Sergio Busquets at centre-back, as expected, though there was a surprise at left-back, where Adriano started over Maxwell.

Both Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie were fit to start. Arsene Wenger decided to play Tomas Rosicky on the right, and Abou Diaby got the nod over Denilson.

The game was very strange – neither side played as well as they can. Arsenal could barely string more than four passes together, and whilst Barcelona dominated the game, they were tremendously wasteful when they got into the penalty area.

Despite appearing extremely comfortable in the final ten minutes, Barca were somehow only a Nicklas Bendtner shot away from being dumped out, in what would have been one of the unlikeliest progressions in European Cup history.

Arsenal stand off

Arsenal played very differently without the ball, compared to the first leg. In London they pressed relentlessly at the start of the game, but here they stood off more, and focused on getting into a good shape.

The fitness of van Persie an Fabregas may have contributed to this tactic (Fabregas, in particular, was clearly not fully fit) – but Wenger probably also accepted that it’s not possible to press for 90 minutes away at the Nou Camp, and so Arsenal stood off.

Barcelona strategy

Barcelona’s tactics were not markedly different from their standard approach. The full-backs hugged the touchlines and were very advanced – often pushing Rosicky and Samir Nasri back into a back six – and the three forwards took it in turns to come towards the ball and then spin in behind. Arsenal still defended relatively high, but they were deeper than at the Emirates, and therefore were less prone to the ball over the top.

Messi was a threat throughout, and often received the ball in space, but was guilty of trying to do too much – he overran the ball when entering the penalty area on more than one occasion. Take the Arsenal back four against the Barcelona front three, and Arsenal were doing OK – the problem came, of course, from the movement of Barcelona players from deeper positions. Daniel Alves played an especially advanced role and was always on for a diagonal pass when Xavi got the ball in central midfield.

Barca pressing

Barcelona's pressing meant they won the ball high up the pitch (courtesy TotalFootball iPhone app)

The key feature of the game was something we all know Barcelona do well – pressing. Their energy and bravery in winning the ball back high up the pitch is now very well established, but tonight was a particularly good case study. The constant harrying meant that Arsenal were simply unable to work the ball up the pitch, and almost the entire game was spent in their own half of the pitch.

Fabregas’ backheel was a ludicrous decision, but Barca’s pressing can take some of the credit. Not just because there was a player closing down and intercepting at that moment, but because the pressure for 45 minutes had created the backheel. A backheel is something that you try on the edge of the opposition box, when you’re under pressure and need to do something ‘clever’ to get past an opponent. Fabregas is far from a stupid player, but Barcelona were pressuring so much that he felt he had to do something ‘clever’ merely to complete a pass on the edge of his own penalty area.

Second half

It’s not often a side scores a goal despite not having a shot in the entire match, but Busquets’ mistimed header from a corner gave Arsenal an unlikely lead in the tie. Three minutes later, the situation changed again with van Persie’s red card, and from then on, Arsenal could only dream of winning a corner kick.

The sending off alone can not explain the Barcelona victory (20 shots to none is a ridiculous statistic) but it’s fair to say Arsenal’s strategy was compromised. Having dominated the final twenty minutes of both first legs in the past year, Arsenal’s plan may have been to wait until the final quarter of the game and then push on, especially as Barcelona had pressed so much.

Arsenal clueless

Instead, they were barely able to play football. Sky Sports’ commentator Martin Tyler summed it up inadvertently when he suggested that when Manuel Almunia had the ball in his arms, he was attempting to kick the ball downfield at an angle, so there was a chance a Barcelona player would head it out for a throw. What a miserable state to be in – a side famed for their slick passing football reduced to trying to win a throw on the half way line from a goalkeeper’s clearance. The chalkboard on the left shows how few passes Arsenal played in attacking positions.

Arsenal's passing

Barcelona simply passed and passed and tired Arsenal. Xavi broke through for the second to round off a fantastic move, and Pedro won a penalty that Messi converted. Barcelona should have had more, but Almunia was making some good saves.


It was surprising that Wenger didn’t introduce Bendtner until the 77th minute – Arsenal clearly needed someone who could win the ball in the air from long balls, and also someone who could hold it up. The late chance was a bonus and came out of nothing, other than Wilshere’s determined closing down. He was Arsenal’s best player in each of the two legs.

Guardiola’s changes came after 80 minutes, and didn’t significantly alter the game.


Barcelona being good at pressing is hardly a revelation, and it hardly takes a genius to identify it as a crucial factor in this game – but it was the key feature. Arsenal couldn’t get the ball up the pitch, and Barcelona won possession in positions very close to the opposition goal.

Zero attempts on goal suggests that Arsenal ‘parked the bus’ – even Inter managed one shot in their semi-final last year – but they didn’t, they were simply unable to get past the first burst of closing down.

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