If you asked me to describe our yesterday’s performance in one word I would say “valiant”. It was a valiant effort from the Gunners for the entirety of the contest. That’s why the loss, especially by two goals, was so heartbreaking.
We were more than equal to Barcelona for 70 minutes, then, clearly as was pre-planned, pushed for a winner. This meant opening up space, giving Barcelona opportunities on the counter. We contained them brilliantly while playing in a low defensive block, but it was obvious we wouldn’t be as efficient once we abandoned it in favour of a high pressing line. And so it proved. I’ll start my review with the tactics bit then, and the bearings it had on the outcome.
After a brief period of 10-15 minutes at the beginning, during which Arsenal controlled the ball and dominated the proceedings, Arsene’s men retreated in their shells. Unable to find an early breakthrough whilst trying not to open themselves up at the same time, the Gunners fell back to soak up the pressure.
And they did so remarkably well. Up until the last two minutes of the half (when Suarez got his two chances), our defending was nothing short of admirable. The players moved around the pitch as a unit, didn’t leave gaps between the lines, stuck to their men and doubled up on Messi, Suarez and Neymar. On the rare occasions any of those three received the ball they did so with their backs to the goals, with their markers hot on their heels. Our wingers, meanwhile, also didn’t forget about their attacking duties and both Alexis and Oxlade looked very positive going forward.
The picture changed slightly at the beginning of the 2nd half. Barcelona forced us to defend near our own box and Neymar had a most brilliant chance to open the scoring, were it not for Petr Cech. Our right flank looked more vulnerable than it did during the 1st half, owing to the fact Oxlade limped off to be replaced by Walcott. I do not remember Theo doing anything of note up front, but at least he was disciplined enough in defense, which prevented Neymar from running riot.
We played in this fashion up until 65th minute and then decided it was time to push for a winner. Almost immediately we were caught on the counter and found ourselves behind.
The debate this morning centered (apart from individual mistakes, which I’ll get to anon) around whether it was a sensible thing for the Gunners to do, going forward like that. Perhaps we should have stuck to what wasn’t broken, ride the waves and get our 0-0? Perhaps we should have and, indeed, a draw of any kind is preferable to a loss, but the players were clearly under the instructions to go forward. It was a part of the plan, the players didn’t suddenly decide to abandon the low block of their own accord and go seek the fortunes elsewhere.
1-0 down wasn’t the end of the world and the Gunners took it on the chin. They stayed disciplined and utilised Welbeck’s strengths to great effect in going forward. Unfortunately, 8 minutes from time a miscommunication between Mertesacker and Flamini resulted in the latter hacking down Messi in the box. The Argentine coolly converted the penalty and it was all over. Arsenal mostly played damage limitation for the last ten minutes, unwilling to make an already bad situation even worse.
I’ve heard cries this morning about how Wenger adopted the wrong approach and I have to say I disagree. The same people berating Arsene for abandoning the style of football his teams usually preach would be the first in line to blame the Frenchman had we attempted to go toe-to-toe with Barca in the true sense of this word and got picked apart. And I think we would have been picked apart. The counter from which Barca scored the 1st was a terrifying glimpse of what they are capable off.
Arsene attempted what he did vs City (twice already), Bayern and some other teams. The difference being small things didn’t go our way this time. We were less composed in front of goal, our mistakes got punished ruthlessly and so on.
It’s fair to say only one switch yielded positive results: Welbeck for Giroud. Danny has been very good for the 3rd game running and I think the time has come to give him another shot at centre-forward. On top of Giroud being clearly exhausted and hitting a purple patch (8 games without a goal) Danny offers qualities our handsome Frenchman does not: speed on the counter, the ability to play facing the goal, the skillset to take on an opponent (cheers, Pique!) He also looks more able aerially than he did prior to the injury, less wasteful in front of goal and a whole lot of hungry to prove himself after 10 months out.
Walcott’s substitution, though forced, robbed us off Oxlade’s direct running and physical stature and I do wonder whether we would have been better off with Campbell. Joel would certainly be more helpful in defense and also more willing to get involved higher up the pitch. Guess Arsene was really angling for a win when he subbed Walcott on. Theo is more of a threat than Campbell, but unfortunately we didn’t see much of the Englishman at all.
Flamini’s sub was downright disastrous. And I’m not talking about the consequences of it only, I was dubious why it was made in the first place. Alright, supposing Coquelin had a knock and couldn’t continue (and I still haven’t seen anywhere information of this kind), why did it have to be Flamini? Why not Chambers, a much cooler head, a better distributor and a defender on top of that? Why not throw on Campbell? There were less than 10 minutes to go, after all. We were 1-0 down, maybe it was worth bringing another forward on? And where the hell was Elneny? Why guys like Gibbs and Flamini made the bench, but Elneny didn’t?
It was a strange thing for the manager to do whichever way you look at it and, unfortunately, we paid a heavy price for this miscalculation. Perhaps Mertesacker is just as guilty for not clearing the ball, but had Flamini been quicker, smarter or at least tactically more astute, he would know better than to plunge in a tackle like that in our own box.
Frankly, I was surprised by Wenger’s comments after the game. Have a look:
“I believe technically we were very average overall. But the regret I have is that once we looked to dominate the game in the last 15-20 minutes, we gave a goal away. Similar to Monaco, naive and that what is frustrating, because when we looked like we could win the game, we just gave it away.”
While Arsene certainly didn’t instruct the players to get caught on the counter, did he really think Barca wouldn’t have such a chance once we poured forward in the last 20 minutes? Who is being naive here?
I didn’t like the way we were caught, I didn’t like the way Coquelin and Ramsey were so high up the pitch, cut off from the action, once Barca sprang their attack and I certainly didn’t like how Mertesacker threw himself in a sliding tackle on the halfway line, and finally, I didn’t like how no one committed a cynical foul to stop this attack, but let’s be honest here: once we went searching for the winner, we were always going to be susceptible to counters. Wenger has the right to blame his players for this particular counter, but calling them naive overall when all they did was follow his instructions, is doing the players who gave their all a huge disservice.
It wasn’t the loss itself, but rather the manner of it that was highly disappointing. Barca, for all their possession, could have been defeated yesterday. They didn’t look all that special. They didn’t bully us into submission by playing incisive and direct football. They just pulled off a counter and got lucky for the penalty.
Barca were there for the taking, but we fell just short of capitalising on it. It seems to be the story of our life in the recent years, falling just short. It’s painful, agonising and heartbreaking, the way we lost and basically crashed out again, however, I still salute the players for this performance. Their gave their all, it just wasn’t enough.
Now we have to compartmentalise this loss, push it to the back of our minds and focus on getting our players back (fingers crossed Ramsey and Coquelin are fine, while Ox’s injury is not serious) and getting a result against United on Sunday.