It’s difficult to ignore the emotional impact of our performance at the Emirates. Arsenal have a young team and I did expect us to suffer due to our inexperience but we also lacked courage, self-belief and organization for large parts of the game.
The second half showed that if we are prepared to ask the questions Barcelona won’t always have the answers. Still, their performance in the first half hour was nothing short of magnificent and came really close to perfect football. There is a lot this young squad can learn from the reigning champions.
The way Barcelona won the ball back was in itself an exhilarating aspect of their game. Each and every player was alert and aware of his position on the pitch and was reading the game really well. The visitors also knew exactly how to force the man on the ball into a corner or to rush him into a loose pass. Most importantly, when they closed an opponent down they didn’t just go and stand next to him. Each Barca player was willing to tackle. They won the ball so many times without the need for a dangerous foul or a slide. It’s an art almost every team in world football should learn.
In England, Arsenal are amongst the best teams at pressing and winning the ball back. But when we come across a team that is moving the ball quicker than the opponents we face on a weekly basis, we have to learn to adapt.
Pressing is an art that involves many players and one player chasing the ball or rushing at an opponent in possession does not work. I thought we were quite nervous in the beginning and just didn’t want to take the game to the visitors. Our players didn’t cover their zones well either. In the first half hour we were stretched all to easily and too many of our players didn’t read many obvious passes.
Possession football relies heavily on awareness, both offensive and defensive. Each player needs to know where he is on the pitch, where his team-mates are and where the opposition players are around him. At times, I felt, our players were caught unawares and we ended up conceding possession cheaply. The chief culprits in this regard where Diaby and Arshavin in the initial minutes.
Denilson, on the other hand, was our best player in terms of his reading of the game. Barcelona players played almost instinctively. Arsenal have played in the same manner in the past but only in patches.
I’m not sure why but there is something that holds us back. The “playing with handbrake” syndrome is still having a negative impact on our game. In some ways I feel the players’ minds are preoccupied with something and that affects their awareness. Maybe it is because we haven’t won something and have struggled in the big matches. This could be creating a negative mental pressure and if so Arsene must take steps to eliminate it.
Once you have the awareness and get your pressing right, it becomes easier to control the pace of the game. Unfortunately, we made it easier for them to control the tempo because we gave them all the room to play. This meant that Barcelona could slow things down when they wanted a breather and could raise the pace within seconds and at will.
Some people question the visitors’ stamina especially in the latter stages of the game. I must say, when I saw their intensity in the early part, I was wondering how long can they maintain this. To be fair to them it was long enough to establish a good lead.
I do feel Barca might be vulnerable late on because they use a lot of energy to keep the tempo high. That was also the reason why the fresh legs of Theo were such a worry for them.
If we can increase the tempo of our game in patches, we could surprise them at the Camp Nou.
I’d discussed our lack of organization while analysing the Birmingham goal in detail. It was quite evident even in this game and I can’t imagine it being any different for the rest of the season.
Against the lesser teams we get away with it because our attack is strong enough. In some ways it’s similar to how a weak Barca defence keeps clean sheets. When the ball is in the opposition half it doesn’t matter how chaotic your defence actually is!
Arsene must insist that the players stick to their zones and do justice to their defensive duties. In particular Fabregas was a major culprit in this area. This is not an attempt to criticize El Capitan but in his quest for winning the ball back he runs all over the pitch. At times he gets in the way of his team-mates and leaves holes in other areas. While I can appreciate his desire and hard work, we do need better discipline to counter strong attacks.
Width & Pace
The way Barcelona used their full backs was fascinating to watch. They didn’t spend a lot of time loitering in the attacking areas but moved forward with speed and purpose whenever an opportunity presented itself.
I feel our full backs don’t use their speed well enough. Perhaps I should say we don’t use the talents of our full backs to the full extent. On most occasions we take a long time in moving the ball from flank to flank thereby giving the opposition time to reorganize.
Part of this problem is due to the fact that when Fabregas plays other players just assume their job is limited to short passing. If Song, Diaby or Denilson take control of midfield and start spreading the ball faster we could really use the width much better and it would take some burden of Fabregas as well. Moreover, the opponents will have to worry about other players and just by double teaming Cesc they won’t be able to negate our creativity.
I’ve seen Song and Denilson do it but only rarely. At times when Nasri or Arshavin come into the centre they do help out but we need a lot more of this. Wide players have to make the runs when others are on the ball and every man on the ball should have the awareness of using the width.
The injuries from last night’s game could have a major impact on our end of season run-in. We might struggle to cope with Barca at Nou Camp. In spite of all the negatives, I’m hoping we won’t miss out on some big lessons that can really improve us as a team.