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UEFA Champions League - Arsenal 0-2 Barcelona: Tactical Analysis

Barcelona defeated Arsenal 2-0 at the Emirates. But how did they do it?

lionel messi
Messi weaved his magic yet again

The pick of this week’s UEFA Champions League last-16 round of fixtures was a gripping encounter between Arsenal and Barcelona at the Emirates Stadium, but it was the visiting fans who left the ground in high spirits thanks to a well-taken brace from Lionel Messi.

There was no shortage of action and talking points on the night as two of Europe’s superpowers went toe-to-toe in search of a valuable first-leg victory, but two second-half strikes from the five-time Ballon d’Or winner – one from open play, the other from the penalty spot – ensured the La Liga outfit took a massive step towards the quarter-final stage.

The general consensus is that the Gunners will find it almost impossible to overturn a two-goal deficit at the Camp Nou while Barca will be looking to flex their muscles once more. That said, there were times during the midweek clash when this could have swung in favour of Arsene Wenger’s charges, so perhaps not all hope is lost.

Let’s cast a tactical eye over precisely how Luis Enrique got the better of his French counterpart.

Gunners’ lack of composure cost them dearly

chamberlain ars v bar
Chamberlain was forced off in the second half due to injury

From the very outset of this battle, Arsenal were causing all sorts of problems for Barcelona’s defence and a beautifully directed long ball played downfield by Alexis Sanchez in the seventh minute was an early indication of just how eager they were to grab a quick goal to unnerve the reigning champions.

When Aaron Ramsey controlled the positive delivery with a deft flick of his boot, his team were all of a sudden involved in a four-on-four skirmish deep in opposition territory. A clever backheel from the Welshman’s boot found Mesut Ozil out wide and his cut-back was perfectly weighted only for Ramsey’s shot to get blocked and then cleared to safety.

It was part route one football, part typical Arsenal because they were able to switch from belted passes to intricate exchanges in the blink of an eye. The end product left a lot to be desired, and though it was positive football from the hosts they failed to transform that promise into anything substantial. It was an unwanted inclination that just wouldn’t leave them.

Again, in the 22nd minute, they had another big chance and again there was a sizeable element of no-nonsense to their approach play as it was a throw-in that travelled a good 25 yards which helped set up the opportunity.

Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sanchez combined well on the left flank before bringing their team-mates in on the action as both Hector Bellerin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain fired efforts on goal within seconds of each other, only to see La Blaugrana finally eliminate the danger through a save from Marc-Andre Ter Stegen.

It was arguably by way of their impressive counter-attacking play, however, that the Premier League outfit got the most joy on the night, and it was generally the outlet of Oxlade-Chamberlain that they looked most dangerous driving forward.

Unfortunately for their fans, Ox looked off the pace on the night and despite making some good runs and taking up some threatening positions down the right flank, he lost his nerve when it came to delivering the right ball, rattling the back of the net or showing any real composure when it was needed - to compound his misery even more, he was forced off in the second half due to injury.

It wasn’t just the 22-year-old winger who was to blame either, however, as a number of other Gunners stars were wasteful, tetchy and more than a little deficient in some nerves of steel. After all, chances did come their way, and they worked hard to create them but they can only blame themselves for not grabbing them with both hands and forcing Enrique’s men to sweat a little over the end result.

North Londoners couldn’t sustain impressive industry

olivier giroud ars v bar
Giroud had a decent header saved by Ter Stegen

It was a regimented defensive system of two banks of four plus two dogged strikers, all of whom pressed, hassled and harried whenever the Catalan encroached upon the Arsenal half. Working tirelessly to pressure Barcelona until they got the ball or forced them back towards their own 18-yard box, their work-rate was beyond impressive and it looked for a time that it might actually succeed in frustrating them for as long as was necessary.

In fits and starts, Arsenal were shifting from defence to attack with rapidity, and they were also doing it the other way around, too; whenever they foraged forward with gusto and speed, they would just as quickly snap back into place – just like an elastic band. There was organisation and concentration to what they were doing, but they simply couldn’t keep the intensity up.

Olivier Giroud, Sanchez and Laurent Koscielny were particularly impressive, though there was determination right across the board.

Barca are not ones to be turned away from wave after wave of attack - and so it was the home side who wound up retreating a little too much as the match dragged on. Whether it was due to fatigue, diminished concentration or a desire to overcrowd the final third and make life difficult for Barcelona's tiki-taka passing style, it's not entirely clear, but it underlined just how much things had changed.

In the end, the statistics spoke for themselves:

In fact, from as early as the sixth minute of the restart, Arsenal’s entire outfield force had become increasingly camped 40 yards from their own goal. The time was clearly approaching for Barcelona’s first goal of the match (and so it proved as a break-away Barca attack led to the opener) and with Arsenal struggling to maintain the rigidity of their own plans, they were made to pay for gifting too much space and they could only watch on as Barca played through the press to score.

Barca’s MSN make the difference

msn ars v bar
The trio are an effortless unit when in full flow

It was inevitable that Barca’s front three of Messi, Neymar Jr and Luis Suarez would have a massive impact on this match, and that’s exactly how it panned out as the trio carved open a number of clear-cut chances between them.

Early on, it took them a while to really get going but once they found their rhythm, there was little the Gunners could do to stop them. Suarez came close on two occasions in the first half – the first shot on goal he managed came after a lovely interchange between him and his two favourite marksmen, only to see his left-footed effort blocked away to safety.

Then, right on the stroke of half-time, he came agonisingly close to breaking the deadlock with a glancing header, but it bounced wide.

The signs were there on the night that they would rattle the back of the net – after all before kick-off, as a team, Barcelona had gone 19 UCL matches since they had last failed to score. Simply, then, it wasn’t ever really an option. Indeed, in the process of achieving something seemingly routine, the club recently set a new record, something all three players have been crucial to.

The trio are an effortless unit when in full flow, and although the tactical genius of the way they work is often ignored to focus on the “magic” and “wizardry” they produce, it's fair to say that they thrive on exposing, and infiltrating, space left open near the final third, which is something they did expertly on a number of occasions during the week.

They are a thrilling trident to watch but they work hard to combine effectively and there is little in the way of luck involved. What they do on a consistent basis is brilliant and they did it again when faced with an organised Arsenal defence.

As the match dragged on, more and more space began to open up – in many ways Arsenal were undone by their own eagerness to score because that was where the opener came from. Ultimately, it was the tantalising trident of MNS who capitalised on the counter attack as Suarez played in Neymar, who set up Messi to steer the ball home.

There was an air of expectancy about the goal and as the second one followed minutes later thanks to a careless Mathieu Flamini foul, it was a job well done for the visitors.

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