Arsenal come up against tournament favourites and the best club team in the world at the moment in the second round of the Champions League. In this article I just want to discuss the mental aspect of this game and will cover the tactics and starting eleven in the next one.
How do Arsenal approach this game? Do they go on the pitch with an all out attacking mindset with the hope of taking Barcelona on at the pressing game? Or should the Gunners play with a conservative approach which is unnatural to them but is the only style that has worked against Messi and Co.? Is there a middle path that would allow defensive solidity and attacking impetus to co-exist?
Personnel from both sides have acknowledged that last season Arsenal showed Barcelona too much respect at the beginning. I thought the Gunners were unsure of their approach and were caught on the back foot. The visitors carved them open time and again in the first 20 minutes. For a while it looked like a contest between top professionals and schoolboys. But the crucial fact that must not be forgotten is that this dominance lasted only for that 20-25 minute period. And more importantly, Arsenal did not concede a goal despite being ripped apart.
In the remaining 150-160 minutes the tie was a lot more balanced. Guardiola’s men dominated the ball but didn’t cut Arsenal apart as often as the initial spell. Despite that the crucial fact is that they scored 6 times in this time compared to the 3 managed by Arsenal. The key difference in that period was made by the individual genius of Messi.
I’m a fan of the Barcelona manager. I like his intelligence and honesty. Guardiola knows how special Messi is and what a big difference he makes to their side,
We wouldn’t be who we are now without him. We’d still be a good team, but this guy is at a different level. All history’s great teams have had a special player and that’s what Messi is for us.
Messi takes an excellent Barcelona team to a truly astonishing level. And that provides further mental challenges for Arsenal. Normally one would not expect special attention for one opposition player, but when the player under consideration is arguably the worlds best in the last couple of decades, it does merit serious thought. Without Messi this game would be same as playing other big teams like Man United or Chelsea. But with the Argentinean in the opposition, it’s a much bigger challenge.
The comments from Wenger and some of the Arsenal players have been interesting.
Arsene talked about special focus and an attacking approach,
I believe, if we manage to get them under pressure, we will create chances. Ideally that is something we can work on before the game. Sometimes you have that extra special focus in these kind of games which makes you more efficient, so hopefully we have that.
The question at the Nou Camp you can wonder is will we change the way we play? But here [at Emirates Stadium], we will try to play to our strengths. We will try to attack the other team.
If we play in the final third defensively, we will not only be happy, it will not be our game.
I don’t know if we can read much from those comments but I can assure you Arsenal will not do an Inter.
The interesting point that Wenger makes is about the ‘extra special focus’ that the players should have in such a game. Depending on the player’s mentality it can work as a boon or a burden.
For instance, if the players are fired up and go out to enjoy themselves while doing the best they can and not worrying about the result, it could turn into a very positive performance. They’ll take more risks, make better instinctive decisions and moves, and will make less mistakes
In contrast, if they feel the pressure of getting a result it could become a nightmare. In such a case every mistake would compound the pressure. We could see the same problems we’ve seen in the other big games resurfacing. Playing with a hand brake on against a side like Barcelona can be the most tortuous form of suicide.
I think the key here is the subject of the ‘extra special focus’. If it’s on the performance it should be positive. If it’s on the result it could be a problem. This is similar to the philosophy of the Bhagavad Geeta. I had discussed this in a different context last year, for details read this article.
So far, based on the comments I have read, the players are quite positive about this challenge. But the real test will come during and after the game. Not only will it have an impact on Arsenal’s chances in the Champions League, the performance and result of this tie will also have an impact on the other trophies that the Gunners are challenging for.
Personally speaking, I’d like to see Arsenal play with a nothing-to-lose mentality. That does not mean we should go for all out attack in a tactically naive manner but we should take this as a test of how we can perform against the best. If the Gunners acknowledge they are not the best team in the world just yet (something most realistic Gooners will agree with) and there is no shame in losing to a better side featuring one of the game’s all-time legends, this performance can be a benchmark for future improvements and even an adverse result can have a positive impact on the other challenges. Obviously, a positive result will provide an even greater boost. They key point here is that with such an approach, in neither case will the outcome of this tie drag the players or the club down.
Even with a nothing-to-lose mindset Arsenal will have to work hard during the game and will need a phenomenal tactical and technical display. I will discuss my thoughts on those aspects in the next article.
And just in case you’re wondering why I’m making such a big deal out of mentality and approach, just watch the Chelsea performances at the start of the season and compare them with those in the last couple of months. The players are not very different but the performances and results are. I put it down to the mental aspects of the Chelsea players as well as the opponents who no longer hold them in awe. It’s a hidden and intangible aspect of the game but it makes a distinctly discernible difference.