Arsenal are on the verge of suffering their sixth consecutive Champions League last 16 exit, after suffering a 2-0 home defeat to the might of Barcelona at the Emirates on Tuesday evening. The Gunners contained the majestic attacking trio of Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi for sustained periods, but Messi struck twice in the last 20 minutes, to give the European Champions an almost unassailable advantage heading into the second leg in three weeks.
Arsène Wenger lamented his side’s ‘naivety’ after they were the victims of a clinical counter-attack from the Catalan giants, whilst the Arsenal boss also labelled them as ‘technically average’ in an uncharacteristic public chastening of his side. In his pre-match press conference, Wenger emphasised the importance of keeping a home clean sheet and refraining from making ‘stupid’ mistakes.
In the last three years, the North Londoners have been beaten by two goals in the first leg, and although they battled valiantly to overturn these deficits against Bayern Munich and Monaco, it ultimately culminated in heroic failure. The 66-year-old was absolutely desperate to avoid a repeat performance, which explains his fury at his side’s ill-discipline in the last quarter of the game.
Wenger's tactical shift
In the immediate aftermath of the defeat, Wenger admitted his side were ‘extremely guilty’ and had ‘no excuse’ for losing their shape in the latter stages of the contest. The Frenchman compared the defeat to last season’s humbling against Monaco. The standard in opposition differs significantly, but once again, Arsenal’s overly offensive mind-set proved to be their undoing. Wenger himself has been a target for criticism, although a large proportion of this was unwarranted.
There has been a long-running misconception that Wenger ‘doesn’t do tactics’. The Arsenal boss isn’t in the same egotistical mould as Jose Mourinho, who discusses and lauds his every tactical decision; nevertheless this doesn’t demean Wenger’s tactical nous.
The Gunners have significantly improved their record in big games over the past 12 months, which has seen them defeat the likes of Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Manchester United (x2) Manchester City (x2), both home and away. Wenger has curbed his side’s attacking and impetuous instincts somewhat, and they are able to employ a more disciplined and defensive approach when the situation demands; this approach very nearly paid dividends on Tuesday evening.
Barcelona are without doubt the best team on the planet. Their attacking trio understandably attract the headlines; they’ve scored an astonishing 91 goals between them this season! Nevertheless, they have enormous quality throughout their team. Even their defenders are ominously comfortable in possession and their instantaneous attacking transitions are genuinely frightening.
If there was one criticism of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side, they were occasionally stagnant in possession, but Luis Enrique’s men move the ball with greater purpose, pace and whilst they notoriously dominate matches, they also pose a significant counter-attacking threat. This is something Wenger noted in his post-match press conference, therefore he decided that his side would be forced to relinquish possession and play on the counter-attack.
However, Wenger’s game-plan was mightily effective, particularly in the first half. Barcelona failed to register a shot on target for the first time since Enrique took charge in May 2014. The Gunners employed a high-pressing block for periods of the first half, attempting to suffocate the Barca midfielders from initiating attacks. However, the hosts also managed to retain their discipline and they weren’t caught up the pitch, which was a major concern due to the lack of pace possessed by skipper Per Mertesacker. They restricted Barcelona to hopeful crosses or shots from distance, and the fabled front three had very little influence on proceedings.
Despite enjoying just 30% of possession, Arsenal had the best chances of the opening half, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain squandered a guilt-edged opportunity to open the scoring midway through the first period. The second half was a slightly more open affair and Barcelona played with greater intensity and urgency.
Petr Cech was forced into producing a smart save from Neymar as the hour mark elapsed, but Barcelona were still struggling to create clear-cut chances. Arsenal were looking a constant threat on the counter-attack, and Olivier Giroud’s powerful header was impressively saved by Ter Stegen as Wenger’s men searched for an opener.
Wenger fumes at 'naive' Arsenal
They began to establish a semblance of control with twenty minutes remaining, but crucially, their desire to seize the initiative saw them relinquish it, as Barcelona opened the scoring with a clinical counter-attacking goal; the transition between them dispossessing the Gunners in their own penalty area, and Messi scoring the opener was a mere 14 seconds. It was the key event Wenger had been desperate to avoid.
Francis Coquelin, who performed superbly for the most part, was caught up the pitch, whilst Mertesacker lunged in on the half-way line, leaving Neymar and Messi with just Koscielny and Monreal in their wake. Wenger was seething; his animated reaction on the touchline spoke volumes. He had referenced the fact that 0-0 was anything but a disaster, but his players were caught up in the hysteria of going toe-to-toe with the Champions League holders.
Wenger’s decision to start Olivier Giroud raised eyebrows, as the French forward isn’t considered as the ideal individual to employ when adopting a counter-attacking philosophy, but he held up the ball extremely well and worked tirelessly to close down Barcelona’s back-line. However, Wenger opted to replace the injured Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain with Theo Walcott, before removing Giroud for Danny Welbeck in the immediate aftermath of Barca’s opening goal.
Walcott terrorised Barcelona’s backline in the 2-2 draw at the Emirates back in 2010 and his pace was seen as a vital outlet for the Gunners. Welbeck also possesses raw pace on the counter, but crucially, the former Manchester United man also has the necessary hold-up play and work-rate to perform a similar role to Giroud. Welbeck had a very positive influence on the game and stretched the game on a number of occasions, but he was the victim of persistent and cynical fouling from the Catalans.
Coquelin's withdrawal proved costly
The only questionable decision made by Wenger was to replace Francis Coquelin with Mathieu Flamini with nine minutes remaining. If Wenger had brought on Flamini for Ramsey or Ozil to shore up the midfield, the decision would have seemed more logical, but it was a like-for-like replacement and a significantly inferior replacement at that.
Flamini had an instant impact, but not the one Wenger desired, as he conceded a penalty within 45 seconds of entering the field of play. In fairness, Per Mertesacker’s poor touch forced Flamini into a decision, but as too often with the combative French midfielder, he chose the wrong option.
It was an extremely disappointing defeat for the Gunners, although it was not disheartening. Barcelona are red-hot favourites to retain their Champions League crown and their attacking wealth is unprecedented; however as Wenger admitted, his team had the chances to win the game, before making two errors that were ruthlessly punished.
Players must take responsibility
It’s understandable that fans are frustrated to lose in such cruel circumstances, but perspective is required. Arsenal more than matched the best team in the world for over 70 minutes and if they can replicate their performance from Tuesday night, a domestic double is a genuine possibility.
Arsène’s desire to win the Champions League remains as prevalent as ever, and the prospect of succumbing to another last 16 exit is disappointing. People can point towards a lack of investment in Arsenal’s forward-line, with Olivier Giroud currently enduring an eight-match streak without a goal, and in that respect, Gunners fans may have legitimate cause for conjecture.
However, tactically Wenger got it spot on this Tuesday in the eyes of many. He supplied his side with the perfect framework to overcome Barcelona and but for profligate finishing, we could be dissecting another famous Arsenal European victory.
In the shape of Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Aaron Ramsey, Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud, Arsenal have the offensive ammunition to trouble any side. They also now have the maturity and experience within the squad to deal with these seismic occasions, but again some senior players were guilty of making careless and critical errors that cannot be accounted for by their manager. There is absolutely no shame in losing to the best team in world football, but if the blame is to be directed anywhere, it shouldn’t be towards Wenger. He did his job, but his players let him down.