Barcelona vs. Arsenal: 3-1 loss shows long way to go before becoming European powerhouse

There’s no shame in getting knocked out of the Champions League by the best team in the world. However, Wednesday’s 3-1 loss in Spain showed again the huge gulf in class between Barcelona and Arsenal. Barcelona had simply more quality at both ends of the pitch. The Gunners created some chances but struggled to convert them. And the hosts capitalized on some poor decision-making from the Arsenal defense to find the net. The Catalan side always had the tie under control despite performing at just 80% of its potential while the Gunners had less time and space on the pitch than against any other club.

Barcelona vs. Arsenal

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Pace seemed a big concern for the manager as he started Koscielny and Paulista at centerback and Welbeck up front, leaving the slow-footed Mertesacker and Giroud on the bench. The only surprises in the starting lineup were Iwobi and Flamini. Did Wenger want to rest Coquelin before the Everton game on Saturday or did he simply trust a bit more Flamini’s experience on the European stage? Who knows. Iwobi obviously benefited from the inconsistent performances from Walcott and Campbell this season.

Barcelona feasted on counterattacks and turnovers in the first leg. The Gunners did not learn their lesson as they cheaply lost possession to give away two goals on Wednesday. Dealing with Barcelona’s pressing game, Koscielny tried to shake off Messi by dribbling past Suarez in the 18th minute. How dumb is that? It’s like running away from a wolf to start a fight with a bear. The ball fell to Busquets, who played it back to Suarez and the Uruguay striker fed Neymar for the opening goal.

Barcelona’s pressing game

In the first leg, it took Mertesacker 70 minutes to ruin his team’s defensive work by venturing 70 yards from the Arsenal goal and letting Monreal deal with both Neymar and Messi. In the second leg, Koscielny only needed 18 minutes to dig a deep hole for his team with a stupid decision. A back pass to Ospina or a long ball would have been much safer. Neymar sprinted goalward as soon as Koscielny lost possession. Bellerin needed one more second to react. By the time Bellerin started tracking back, Neymar was already clean through on goal with plenty of time to shoot past Ospina.

Credit to the Catalans for showing Arsenal how to hunt in packs. You need a team effort for an efficient pressing game. Messi, Suarez and Neymar combined to win 3 of 3 tackles. By contrast, Iwobi, Sanchez and Welbeck made no tackle. The Gunners tried to press high up the pitch but never succeeded in putting Barcelona in trouble. The Spanish side often stretched the pitch by playing the ball back to Ter Stegen, who has good passing skills for a goalkeeper.

Barcelona’s third goal in the 88th also resulted from some pressing, which led Giroud to overhit a back pass for Koscielny. While chasing the ball, Koscielny ran into Messi in an offside position. Unfortunately, the offside rule doesn’t apply when it’s a back pass. Instead of knocking the ball out of play, Koscielny kept the ball inside with a sliding tackle. The ball bounced off Messi and into the path of Neymar, who eluded Elneny’s challenge to pick out Suarez. Paulista read the play and diverted the ball toward Messi while attempting an interception. Messi got hold of the loose ball and lifted it over Ospina to seal the win.

Poor marking

Koscielny was also involved in Barcelona’s second goal. No one tracked Alves, who made a cross for Suarez at the far post. The Uruguay striker slammed the ball into the top corner with an acrobatic volley in the 65th. The goal was a bit similar to the second goal scored by Manchester United last month. The Gunners outnumbered Barcelona players inside the box but the marking was really poor on that play. Koscielny was in a too advanced position at the near post, not marking anybody, while Paulista and Coquelin were both tracking Neymar, letting Bellerin deal with Suarez and Messi at the far post. Elneny saw Suarez make a run toward the far post but did not realize Bellerin already had his hands full.

The scoreline could have been more flattering for the hosts if Ospina had not pulled off two outstanding saves. Neymar played Messi in with a backheel flick in the 56th and the Argentina striker fired a low effort that Ospina parried with a diving save. Neymar also found Messi with a long ball in the 17th. Messi ghosted past Koscielny to trap the ball with a perfect first touch but was denied by Ospina.

The Catalans are much more pragmatic under Enrique than under Guardiola. It was a bit weird to see them test the Arsenal defense with long balls. They especially targeted the space behind Bellerin down the right flank. Alba skipped past Bellerin in the 30th to collect a long ball from Mathieu and feed Neymar, whose low strike was stopped by Ospina. Bellerin is very talented for a 20-year-old defender, but he still needs to improve his reading of the game and anticipate plays like the one that led to the opener.

3 out of 20

The Spanish side also exposed Arsenal’s poor defending on set pieces. Only Mathieu, Busquets and Suarez can be considered strong in the air. That means three players to keep an eye on when there’s a set piece. Yet, Mathieu in the 17th and Busquets in the 82nd had free headers from corners.

While poor defending has been a recurrent theme in Arsenal’s European campaigns over the last few years, poor finishing is definitely the main issue this season. The statistics don’t lie. The Gunners only had 3 of 20 shots on target while Barcelona caught the frame with 8 of their 17 goal attempts.

When Arsenal signed Welbeck from Manchester United in 2014, they knew finishing was an issue as Welbeck had never scored more than nine goals in a Premier League season. Welbeck worked his socks off but none of his five shots was on target. The England international played a one-two with Iwobi in the 41st and was put off by Mascherano while attempting a curling shot. Welbeck then created a chance on his own by intercepting Mathieu’s back pass in the 58th but Mascherano blocked his effort. I thought Welbeck should have done better in the 63rd when he met a corner and headed wide from 10 yards. His best chance came in the 67th. Welbeck took a pass from Iwobi to hit the woodwork with an angled strike.

Iwobi making a strong impression

Sanchez’s performance was a mixed bag. He proved selfless with 4 key passes, the most among Arsenal players, but also had 7 turnovers, more than any other player. His finishing let him down in the 40th when he headed a Bellerin cross wide from eight yards. Sanchez then made the wrong decision in the 69th, losing possession with a dribbling move instead of feeding an unmarked Welbeck to his right.

Iwobi made the same kind of impression that Oxlade-Chamberlain did against AC Milan four years ago. The Nigerian teenager beat the offside trap in the 34th and should have won a penalty when Mascherano seemed to clip his leg. That was Arsenal’s first chance of the match. Four minutes later, Iwobi chested down a cross from Bellerin only to fire over the bar. In the second half, Iwobi had a shot deflected into the side-netting by a defender and was replaced by Walcott in the 73rd.

Walcott could have scored an equalizer in the 80th when Ter Stegen palmed away a Sanchez free kick. Giroud, who replaced Welbeck in the 73rd, pounced on the rebound and had his angled shot parried by the German goalkeeper. The ball looped in front of goal and Walcott headed wide from six yards. Walcott finished the game with none of his three shots on target. His average technique was exposed with a couple of poor touches.

Pace was everything 10 years ago. Nowadays, there are more speedy forwards in the Premier League: Sterling and Aguero at Manchester City, Martial at Manchester United, Sturridge at Liverpool, and Vardy at Leicester are the most obvious examples. And teams also cope better tactically with that kind of threat.

Elneny’s performance as a silver lining

Ozil had a disappointing game. He made 3 shot assists and won only 37.5% of his duels, the lowest percentage among all the midfielders. His passing accuracy also dropped to 79.3%, the lowest percentage among all the starting midfielders. I even thought Iwobi performed better than Ozil, who caught the eye at the start of the match and in the closing minutes but did very little in between. Ozil set up Welbeck in the second minute for an effort blocked by Mascherano. The Germany playmaker then dispossessed Busquets in the 10th to fire wide from 25 yards. In the 87th, Ozil slipped a through ball to Walcott, who let the ball run away from goal with a heavy first touch and had his cross intercepted by Ter Stegen.

The only silver lining in Wednesday’s defeat was Elneny’s performance. Barcelona was an opponent tailored for Elneny’s game because the Spanish league is more technical and less physical than the Premier League. Elneny made 2 key passes and 2 interceptions, and won 2 of 3 tackles and 66.7% of his duels, the most among Arsenal midfielders. His passing accuracy also reached 93%, the highest percentage among Arsenal players.

Elneny missed an opportunity to score in the 38th when Sanchez teed him up. Instead of attempting a first-time effort, Elneny preferred to control the ball and had his shot blocked. Elneny did not repeat the same mistake in the 51st. From the right wing, Sanchez slipped the ball to Elneny, who side-footed it into the top corner from 20 yards.

The most important game of the season?

That second leg against Barcelona was our least important game of the season. The Premier League game against Everton on Saturday might be the most important one. If we lose and Manchester City and West Ham win, Arsenal could drop to fifth place. That would mean a lot of negativity during the international break and a hostile crowd for the home game against Watford on April 2.

A lot of fans are unhappy with our season and want a new manager. They have the right to be angry and boo Wenger and the players. But I don’t think calls for the manager’s dismissal are helping the club now. Let Arsenal secure a Champions League spot first, and then display hostile banners and question Wenger’s contract in the last game of the season.