Matching Barcelona in the Champions League is a step too high for the current Arsenal squad. We simply have major weaknesses in some key positions. A year ago, the Gunners showed that they lacked a strong spine by losing 3-1 to Monaco in the first leg of their last 16 encounter. So it was no surprise to see them lose 2-0 against the best team in the world on Tuesday.
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Under Guardiola, the Spanish club was more impressive in its passing game and created more chances from long spells of domination. Under Enrique, the Catalans still dominate ball possession but do not stifle the midfield like five years ago. The big difference is that the current Barcelona side is much more clinical on the fast break.
When the Gunners reached the Champions League final in 2006, they had a strong spine with Campbell at the back, Gilberto Silva as the ballwinner and Henry up front. On Tuesday, we had no commanding centerback, no top holding midfielder and no world-class striker on the pitch. We may be contenders in the Premier League, but as long as we don’t strengthen those key positions, we will never have a shot at the top competition in Europe.
A year ago, Arsenal played against Monaco with the handbrake on. They got off to a better start against Barcelona with a sound game plan in the first half. Basically, they played a low defensive line to deny space to Messi, Suarez and Neymar. When the Gunners pressed high up the pitch, there was a gap between the back four and the midfielders, which means that Coquelin, Ramsey and Ozil had to cover more ground than with a high defensive line. Surprisingly, Barcelona had no clear-cut chance until the 45th minute.
The Ox’s lack of composure
In the second half, the Gunners lost their tactical discipline and implemented a high defensive line, which is completely suicidal with Mertesacker. Then they lost their shape after the opening goal and could have finished the game with a three-goal deficit.
You know you are going to score eventually when you have a Henry or a Van Persie in your team. There’s no such certainty with the current squad, which has been struggling in front of goal this season. We had three chances in each half. Ramsey released Ozil down the left wing with a backheel flick in the seventh minute and the Germany international played the ball back to Ramsey, whose first-time effort was blocked by Mascherano.
Ozil created the second chance by cutting the ball back for Bellerin in the 22nd. Alves blocked Bellerin’s shot and the rebound fell to Oxlade-Chamberlain, who took two touches to control the ball and inexplicably shot straight at Ter Stegen from eight yards. The Barcelona goalkeeper was lying on the ground after anticipating Bellerin’s attempt, so the obvious option was to shoot into the roof of the net. Sanchez was just behind the Ox and you can bet he would have converted that chance.
The Ox wasted another opportunity when he led a counterattack in the 36th. He took one heavy touch that allowed Mascherano to kick the ball into touch. If the Ox had lifted his head a split second earlier, he would have spotted Ozil unmarked at the far post. His lack of composure in the final third has definitely cost the team. He’s only 22, so he still has time to work on that flaw, but if he doesn’t improve that part of his game, he could become the next Aaron Lennon.
Barcelona’s vulnerability in the air
Giroud could have scored the opening goal in the 60th when he met a cross from Monreal. The Frenchman outjumped Mascherano for a downward header that forced Ter Stegen into a diving save. Giroud had another chance in the 68th when a clearance fell into his path. He could have shot from 15 yards, but he opted for a pass to his right that went nowhere while Walcott was making a run to his left. Welbeck replaced Giroud in the 72nd and knocked a cross down for Ramsey, whose outstretched effort was parried by Ter Stegen in the 79th. I thought the Catalans were quite vulnerable in the air. Starting both Giroud and Welbeck in the second leg could be an interesting option if we can deliver pinpoint crosses.
Barcelona enjoyed 66% of ball possession. We could have made the contest a bit more even with a better performance in midfield. Don’t get me wrong, the Gunners worked their socks off, but their weaknesses were cruelly exposed against the best team in the world. The Ox only won 14.3% of his duels, according to Arsenal’s website, and Coquelin should have done better than 40%. Ramsey won 4 of 4 tackles and 50% of his duels, but his average ball retention skills let him down as he was dispossessed 3 times. Sanchez proved selfless too, winning 4 of 4 tackles and 64% of his duels, but his passing accuracy of 67.7% was poor compared to his teammates (Ozil 77.8%, Coquelin 81.3%, Ramsey 90%, Oxlade-Chamberlain 93.3%).
Same defensive mistakes
In his post-match news conference, Wenger implied that his players did not learn from their mistakes against Monaco last season. In fact, some of the plays look very similar. Mertesacker was involved in both goals scored by Messi. What the hell was he doing 70 yards from the Arsenal goal in the 71st? Mertesacker left Monreal dealing with both Neymar and Messi as he missed his interception of Neymar’s pass for Suarez with a sliding tackle. Suarez played the ball back to Neymar, who drew Monreal before slipping the ball to Messi. The Argentina striker opened the scoring by beating a wrongfooted Cech. The way Mertesacker showed poor decision-making was similar to the second goal scored by Monaco last season.
In the closing minutes, Mertesacker sent a poor clearance into the path of Messi. Flamini, who had replaced Coquelin a minute earlier, thought he could beat Messi to the ball but ended up kicking the Argentine striker’s leg while attempting a clearance. Messi converted the subsequent penalty by sending Cech the wrong way.
This Barcelona side is clearly feasting on turnovers and counterattacks. The Catalans’ first scoring chance came from Ramsey’s sloppy pass on the stroke of halftime. Suarez cut the ball back for Messi, who was about to tap home, but Monreal cleared the danger. Mertesacker failed to track Suarez on that play.
The Gunners were lucky that Suarez lost his shooting boots on Tuesday. A poor clearance from Monreal led to another Barcelona chance in the 66th but Suarez fired wide of the far post. Then Messi capitalized on a Sanchez turnover to outpace Ramsey and pick out Neymar, who dallied on the ball and had his shot blocked. The rebound fell to Messi, who fed an unmarked Suarez and the Uruguay striker hit the post from eight yards.
Improving our finishing
In stoppage time, another counterattack allowed Suarez to cross the ball for Neymar, whose header was tipped over the bar by Cech. Bellerin was caught ball-watching on that play as he lost track of Neymar, but the Spanish rightback was still our best defender with 3 of 3 tackles won.
Koscielny’s dodgy positional play cost Arsenal a third goal against Monaco a year ago. The French centerback gave away two chances against Barcelona, first by losing track of Suarez and then by screwing up an offside trap. Koscielny was three yards behind the other defenders, who attempted to play Neymar offside in the 49th. He clearly had no clue as he made a step forward only after Iniesta slipped a through ball to Neymar. Cech denied the Brazil striker with a leg save.
On the stroke of halftime, all the defenders were perfectly aligned to play Suarez offside, but Alves made a run down our left flank to bring Suarez back into play and volley a long ball into the path of the Uruguay striker, who headed wide. No one pressured Busquets on that play, while Sanchez failed to close down Alves and Koscielny forgot to mark Suarez. Why should we set the offside trap when the opponents are already in the final third and when Arsenal defenders are stronger in the air?
At the European level, it’s definitely our weak defense that has cost us games over the past few years. The manager needs to find a better centerback than Mertesacker or Koscielny this summer. Barcelona will knock us out of the Champions League as I don’t expect any miracle in the second leg. The Premier League has always been the top priority since opening day. If we don’t win the title, our average scoring form will be the main reason. Can the Gunners improve their finishing by the end of the season?