Why Can’t Both Teams Lose The Champions League Final

May 28, 2011

That’s the sad part of the biggest game of the season I guess. One of the two teams will go home as winners. I am finding it hard to pick a team to support and that will make watching the game that much more difficult.

When the same sides met each other three years ago it was easy to support Barcelona. Since then the antics and attitude of the various members of the club, from the players to the board, has been classless and shameful to put it politely. And I don’t have to remind gooners how intolerable United can get.

It will take me a long time to condition myself in order to focus on the game and not on the players/clubs. Those who will succeed in watching the game for the sake of football will find a lot to observe. Such a game might not be an enthralling end-to-end contest, but it will have immense educational value.

Many consider Barcelona to be favourites but I feel this game will be a very close battle with an odd moment of magic or individual mistake settling the tie in a 1-0 result. That’s another disappointing aspect of these big games; they tend to be cagey affairs with very few memorable moments.

Fergie will undoubtedly send his team out to stifle the opponents. It is their single biggest strength so we will get an excellent example of how to keep a defence organized even against the best of attacks. It might be interesting to watch this game and then revisit the Arsenal-Barca games soon after. The difference in styles between the two English sides will be stark even though both will be chasing the ball. I am pretty sure United’s performance will highlight some of the systemic issues that have been troubling the Gunners.

All the noise and nuisance created by the Dark Lord after his side were convincingly dispatched by the Catalans will help Fergie and his players. The referee in this game is likely to be extremely lenient and that will allow the English side to thrive. I also expect more focus on Barcelona so their theatrics might be punished even if they’re somewhat justified.

The point made by Wenger – Barcelona look tired – is valid and will have an impact. Don’t be surprised if Ferguson copies Arsene’s tactic of attacking these opponents late in the game. Guardiola’s team might start as favourites but if the game is deadlocked after an hour his side will struggle.

Both teams have relatively poor away records, certainly when compared to their respective home form. If I’m not mistaken, Messi hasn’t scored yet in England (unlucky to have the goal at the Emirates ruled out). Since the game is at Wembley United might have an edge.

For gooners, there are some aspects that we can learn from both teams. Barcelona will show how to play a patient possession game. This includes the art of defensive possession, preventing counter-attacks by unparalleled pressing and positioning, and picking the right moments to penetrate. There are times when Arsenal try too hard against opponents like United. It stretches the Gunners out of shape and opens the game up for the opponents. I’ll be surprised if Barcelona do it even once. The Manchester side will have to produce quality football to get a goal; they won’t get a gift (They might get one from a set-piece).

From a defensive point of view we will be able to see the importance of concentration as the English side chase the ball and close the opponents down. Their positioning, shape, and decision making (when to press and when to back off) will also be worth watching. I believe Arsenal struggle on this front. There are times when the players get their decisions wrong. On other occasions players are not in sync, some press while others back away. United will show what a well-drilled defensive machine they are. Exemplary if you can tolerate it.

Unless there is a freak early goal, this game is not likely to have too much goalmouth action. It will be boring from that point of view. But to those interested in the details it will be a fascinating duel. I’ve already started conditioning my mind in the effort to focus on the game. Hopefully, it will work out by tomorrow afternoon.

Thoughts On The Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Barcelona

March 8, 2011

Some of you might remember I’d discussed a slightly defensive approach before the home game. The main premise was that since the team is not going to dominate the ball they’ll have to put in a well organized defensive performance. As events unfolded we saw Barcelona dominating the game and taking a deserved lead but a disallowed goal and some missed chances meant that Arsenal were not out of the tie. The positive approach was rewarded towards the end as the visitors tired. One goalkeeping howler combined with a wonder-strike and a lighting fast counter attack were enough to give Arsenal the win.

Will that advantage be enough to qualify for the next stage by eliminating the favourites remains to be seen.

Arsene has talked about a slightly different approach to the away game whereas Cesc has said that we must stick to what we know. Both men know that Arsenal will not dominate possession against this Barcelona team.

For a while now, I’ve held the opinion that tactical modifications are one of the great man’s weaknesses so I’ll be keeping a close eye on the tactics that Wenger will deploy. Arsene said, “We can defend when we have to.” Some of the recent performances, and the fact that Arsenal have now conceded fewer goals than Manchester United in the League, do back up that claim but I’m not fully convinced.

I liked the way Fabregas talked about this game.

We have to be intelligent and mature enough to solve the problems they may cause. We know Barcelona keeps possession of the ball something like 70 per cent of the game and we are not used to that.

There is no doubt the problems Barcelona will cause will be completely different from the ones that Arsenal have to face twice a week in England. The Catalan giants with their trademark pressing will ensure that the Gunners will not have any time on the ball to pick out simple passes even at the back.

I expect the intensity of pressing in this game to be much higher than the first leg. I also expect more purposeful and focussed attacks from Barcelona. Their confidence while playing at home is at a different level and Arsenal will not get away with a performance like the first half at the emirates.

Barcelona have many avenues of attack but Arsenal will have to ensure at least three basic issues are handled without an error for the duration of the game.

1) Messi must not be allowed to turn and run at the defence without any pressure

While the hosts will have plenty of attacking threats there is none bigger than the diminutive Argentinean. If he is allowed to receive the ball without pressure and run at the defence he can wreck havoc against any opposition.

Since Messi literally roams all over the pitch these days, often dropping back into his own half to receive the ball, it’s not easy to stop him. However, I’d prefer to see more pressure on the best player in the world when he receives the ball in the Arsenal half. And at no point should he be allowed to just get between the lines without close attention.

One approach would be for the defenders (Koscielny) to track Messi as he did in the latter stages of the first leg. I’m not convinced that is a strategy that can be successfully used for ninety minutes as it leaves a big hole at the back for others to exploit and the Arsenal midfield is not renowned for tracking runs diligently.

Easier said than done no doubt, as any manager or player who has gone up against Messi will confirm. Arsenal will need impeccable communication between the defenders and the midfield to pull this off.

2) Gap between the lines must be narrow

Apart from communication, the Gunners will have to ensure that the gap between the midfield and defence is never too large, especially when the opponents have the ball. If this distance is as big as we see in the above image it will be like playing into the hands of the opponents.

Obviously, this is a tricky issue because if the players drop too deep they might end up in an overly defensive shape and lose all options of breaking forward. But in my opinion defence will have to take priority at least for the first half. If Arsenal are two or three down by half-time this game will be over and Barcelona will be able to sit back and play on the counter.

We have seen their weaknesses late in games and it’s imperative for Wenger’s team to keep this tie alive till the final few minutes.

3) Defensive line must not be broken due to lack of concentration or carelessness

Once again taking an example from their goal at the Emirates, we can see the defensive line losing shape way too easily making it easy for Villa to get in behind.

This is a fairly high line while playing against a team like Barcelona so it will be interesting to see if Wenger uses this tactic or pulls his team further back to reduce the space between the defenders and the Keeper.

In either case we are likely to see a lot more attacking runs from the opponents; Villa, Iniesta, Alves, and others. If Arsenal don’t maintain the defensive discipline Barcelona will be able to convert harmless possession into a goal at blink-and-you-miss speeds.

Apart from these three points there are some other issues that Arsenal will have to pay attention to. For instance, the gap between Eboue and Djourou is way too big in the above screenshot. Arsenal will have to be a lot more compact than that.

So far the only tactic that has had relative success for visitors to the Nou Camp in a big game has been a deep and narrow defensive line with a second layer of protection within five yards or so. I don’t think Arsenal can quite pull it off if they try this approach so they will have to find a middle point between an extremely defensive approach and their usual high-line attacking style.

The tactics that Arsene can use will also depend on the players available to him. Without Walcott it will be easier for Barcelona as Arshavin doesn’t have the same pace and will not put in an equivalent shift in defence either. In fact, I’d be tempted to play Eboue on the left ahead of the Russian for the first hour of the game. This will allow Nasri some breathing/attacking room on the right as he won’t have to spend time tracking Alves.

Preferred starting line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Djourou, Koscielny, Clichy – Diaby, Cesc, Wilshere – Nasri, Bendtner, Eboue.

There could also be an argument for playing Gibbs instead of the Ivorian but the youngster doesn’t have enough experience to play in a game of this stature.

I’m sure arguments can be made for starting with Arshavin and going into the game with a positive mentality. I can’t reject the thought outright but it seems like a high risk option to me.

With Van Persie’s surprise late inclusion in the squad there is a chance that the Dutchman might start this game. As I discussed in the previous article it’s an option that doesn’t worries me more than it excites me but I cannot reject that possibility either.

In response to the previous post some suggested that Chamakh should start this game. The logic of using the Moroccan’s superior work rate seems sound but I’m worried about his lack of confidence in front of goal. On the other hand, if he can get one of the central defenders sent off it will completely change the complexion of this tie.

Personally, I’d prefer a solid opening with some quick breaks. Barcelona will miss Puyol and Pique. If Arsenal can put Abidal and his partner under some pressure this game could yield exhilarating situations.

Szczesny will undoubtedly be called upon to make some big saves and Koscielny will need to at least repeat his excellent display from the first leg. This game offers the duo a glorious chance for redemption after their terrible gaffe in the League Cup final. I won’t blame them if they don’t succeed but will be extremely disappointed if they buckle under pressure.

I’d also like to see Arsenal make the best use of any set-piece opportunities that arise. In many matches the Gunners seem to take these lightly but they cannot afford to do so in this one. Valdes is one of Barcelona’s true weaknesses and must be tested at every opportunity.

The home side are likely to get the benefit of most of the close decisions from the ref so none of the players can risk flirting with fouls the way Song did in the first leg. This will be closely linked with the positions that Arsenal take up. If the gap between the lines is large then the midfielders will inevitably end up conceding some fouls as they chase opponents towards their own goal.

The Gunners must avoid the mistake of hooking the ball back into play from dangerous situations. Putting it out for a corner or a throw should not be a big problem against Barcelona as long as they are alert to the quickly taken ones. If the Arsenal players switch off even for a few moments, Barcelona can covert a free-kick or a throw into a goal with relative ease.

On the whole I don’t want to have too many expectations from this game with a guy like Messi in the opposition ranks. Arsenal have the players to make this an entertaining and closely fought encounter but I’m not convinced they have the defensive discipline and concentration to keep the Argentinean and his cohorts out for the duration of the game. Of course, I had similar thoughts before the first leg as well and look how it turned out. With a bit of luck you never know.

Video: Top 10 Goals Of The Year (Nasri 5th?) + Reserves Spanked

January 11, 2011

I just saw this video with the top 10 goals of the year and thought it’s worth sharing. Hamit Altintop won the ‘FIFA Puskas Award’ for the goal of the year but all the other goals are worth watching as well.

It seems Nasri’s mesmerizing run against Porto was 5th but I haven’t been able to find any official list declaring the order. This award was given based on the votes by fans on FIFA’s website. If you know more about the ranking of goals please let me know. This is the list I got from that video’s page on youtube.

1. Hamit Altintop, Turkey v Kazakhstan, Euro 2012 qualifier
2. Matthew Burrows, Glentoran v Portadown, Northern Ireland Premiership
3. Linus Hallenius, Hammarby v Syrianska, Sweden Superettan
4. Lionel Messi, Barcelona v Valencia, La Liga
5. Samir Nasri, Arsenal v Porto, Champions League
6. Neymar, Santos v Santo Andre, Paulista
7. Arjen Robben, Bayern Munich v Schalke, DFB Pokal
8. Siphiwe Tshabalala, South Africa v Mexico, World Cup
9. Giovanni van Bronckhort, Holland v Uruguay, World Cup
10. Kumi Yokoyama, Japan v North Korea, U17 Women’s World Cup

My personal favourite is number 10. Never thought Women’s football could have such … er, beauty! The one by Matty Burrows is inventive and really unique, while the one by Hallenius reminded me of Van Basten.

Altintop’s strike was stunning and I recall it was shared in the comments section soon after it was scored. I was impressed when I first saw the goal but never thought it would be Goal of the Year.

In the following video, the creator has included 11-15 of his or her (I have to include this after that 10th goal) own choice. As a Gooner you might want to avoid them (12,13, and 15), just a heads up.

I’m not sure why the wordpress system isn’t allowing me to make HD as the default for this video. Just in case you didn’t notice, you can choose the resolution and watch it in HD.

Moving on, not much on the Arsenal front today but talking of ‘Ten’ what about the 10 goals conceded by the reserves against the Villains! I haven’t seen that but judging by the text commentary and some reports, the game reflected some of the problems of the senior team,

  • Keeper made a mistake
  • Some players playing out of position
  • Probably the second string even by reserves standards (some first choice players on loan, others like Miquel with the first team)
  • Goals conceded on set-pieces
  • Has to be poor organization and lack of focus
  • No one really taking charge on the pitch (surely you don’t concede 10 goals even with 10 men against strong opposition if you remain organized and focussed)

I guess I’ll find more similarities after watching the highlights.

It’s just one game and I don’t want to read too much into it. The reserves have done really well even with a number of youngsters playing so we should not be too harsh.

I do have some concerns though, and I have talked about this in some earlier posts as well, because I’ve seen the youngsters and reserves players repeating some of the common mistakes we see from the first team in a number of games.

Obviously, they try to replicate the same system across all age groups but if the same problems are being repeated does it not mean the problems are more deep rooted within the system itself? Some have suggested that bringing someone like Steve Bould as No. 2 instead of Pat Rice might help Arsenal solve collective organizational issues, but if the young players are making the same mistakes I don’t see how Bould is going to make a big difference for the first team.

As I said, I don’t want to make a big deal out of this particular game but it is just another pointer (albeit a small one) that Arsenal could use a fresh mind especially for the defensive side of things.