On 2/23/2016 Arsenal will be at home to face Barcelona in the first leg in the round of 16 of the 2015/2016 UEFA Champions League tournament. In the round of 16 we typically see the kinds of match-ups that soccer fans dream about. The big clubs from the major Euro powers, given the chance to prove their global might, deploy their mega-stars with their hipster haircuts which remain impossibly rigid and perfectly coiffed despite the athletic rigors of 90+ minutes on the pitch.
The Arsenal/Barcelona match will be no different, but for some reason many of the analysts out there are predicting an absolute beat down by Barcelona on Arsenal’s English arses. The wretched crack of snapping selfie-sticks will supposedly be reverberating down the halls of Emirates.
But why? The obvious argument is that Barcelona has one of the all time greatest players surrounded by two of the almost-all time greatest players. It’s a fair point to make, and the attacking trio of Messi, Suarez, and Neymar are known to make world class defenders look straight up flatulent. But let’s not forget that the competition they regularly face isn’t quite what they’ll find up in London. Arsenal, despite their reputation, has more to them than beautiful abs. Let’s dig in to why they could pull this off:
Arsenal can deploy a strategy which can beat a top team like Barcelona
If Arsenal wants to contain the ferocious but beautiful attack of Barcelona, they’re going to need to adjust from their typical strategy. Arsene Wenger, Arsenal’s bird-like mastermind coach and long time double fist-pump practitioner, has been known over his long career at Arsenal to be a firm believer in only playing a brand of beautiful and fluid soccer. Winning the ball back from the opposition high up the pitch, maintaining possession, creating quick triangles of players in space and constantly moving the ball to create openings and opportunities for attack. It’s a style of play similar to what you see out of the great Barcelona teams. Tiki-taka football with a side of crumpets. Only little bit of trouble is that this is one of the great Barcelona teams. They’re better at it than Arsenal, and Barcelona simply isn’t going to let the Gunners out-possess them. Their midfield is too good and they’re too good at keeping the ball.
Lucky for Gooners (Arsenal fans), there’s another way to beat this record-breaking Barcelona team and it’s called “parking the bus” and hoping for lightening quick counter attack goals. You may recognize it as Jose Mourinho’s style of play at Inter Milan or Chelsea and what this year’s Leicester City club has become very good at executing. Basically you defend the crap out of your area, closing off all possible space and lanes for the offense and then hope to catch them on a counter attack. It’s worked against Barca in the past on a few occasions.
Historically, this brand of “ugly” soccer has been an absolute no-no for Arsene Wenger, but someone in the Arsenal ownership group must have given Wenger a wedgie, because all of a sudden he’s been willing to adjust his strategy on special occasions to actually concern himself more with winning games than playing a “perfect” brand of football. That mindset is going to be key to victory against Barcelona. They’re one of the best attacking teams of all time, and despite how good Arsenal’s outside defenders and goalkeeper are (I’ll get to that later), it’s going to take a keen focus on closing space and not giving them room to make opportunities for the Gunners to shut down Barcelon’s prolific goal-scoring.
Arsenal has proven that it can be successful against big time clubs using this strategy. Earlier this campaign they sat back against Bayern Munich and beat them 2-0. They did the same thing to Chelsea and Manchester City in the Premier League. Arsenal can pull it off. Yes, this means Arse will have to give up some of the magic that Ozil brings to the table when he’s spending his free time further up the pitch, but for them to think they are going to dominate possession on a team like Barca is pretty absurd. Arsenal needs to rely more on the counter and a dangerously fast Theo Walcott and Alexis to make opportunities count when they come.
Since Barca will likely have much of the possession, there are bound to be bright spots for them on the attack. Arsenal has the perfect answer…
Petr Cech is a much better goalkeeper than what Barca usually faces
The aging legendary goalkeeper, who was brought on this summer, still shows why he’s a starter for a world class club week in and week out. Let’s put aside the impact he has on the back four defenders; instilling confidence in them, communicating where to be positionally, and the support they need in the air when crosses come in to dangerous positions. Or the influence he has in the locker room; speaking up during and after matches, providing a positive influence in tough situations, and having literally won basically everything you can win as an English footballer. Forget all that. Can we just marvel at the reflexes this guy has?
He has single handily won Arsenal points this season with saves you’d expect from a guy 10 years younger with sixty foot arms. Arms made of titanium tennis rackets. A sixty foot titanium tennis racket armed bear-horse with crocodiles for feet who happens to wear a helmet and it’s totally cool. What a guy.
With 12 games left in the year Arsenal’s 12 clean sheets so far this year puts the team tied for the most in the premier league. They had 13 all of last year. Now after only two thirds of a season on the squad he’s supposedly being considered for captain. Barcelona doesn’t have to go up against a keeper of this quality very often.
Great save by Cech to deny Vardy. pic.twitter.com/BatvllQfx8
— Terje (@TerjeGoal) February 14, 2016
This goes in against 90% of goalies. 40% of tennis-bear-horses. 0% of Cech’s.
Francis Coquelin is returning at the right time
The french Coq was out with an injury for the good part of the last few months but has started seeing playing time the last couple of weeks. When he was out Arsenal lacked the depth at defensive midfield to really protect the back four defenders while playing smart passes out to the attacking midfielders. What they got instead was a FlamJam. Mathieu Flamini, footy player by day, genius bio engineering pioneer by night, is past his prime and at this point is basically just a double-footed slide tackling maniac out there. He also somehow always manages to get involved in the attack despite some extremely questionable finishing skills.
He did his best to not completely blow it but having him in for Coquelin was a big hurt to the stability of the team. Coquelin’s incisive tackling and intercepting of passes was sorely missed. The numbers clearly show the Flampact. Losing Coquelin and gaining Flamini is like dropping your Italian sub sandwich on the ground and instead of sensibly picking it up and dusting it off you pick up the nearest rock and just bite the crap out of that and need emergency dental surgery. Having Coq back protecting the defenders with his interceptions and midfield tackling will be a big help and hopefully also spark our counter attacks.
What’s the ideal lineup?
I think Wenger needs to be thinking defensively in his lineup. Offensively, there’s no need to go big with Giroud despite his good form of late. Theo’s speed will prove a more deadly weapon on the counter attack. Here’s my ideal lineup (playing defensively as a 4-5-1 formation):
- Cech – keeper
- Mertesacker – center back
- Koscielny – center back (Gabriel if Kos is unable to go)
- Bellerin – right back
- Monreal – left back
- Coquelin – defensive midfield
- Ramsey – central right midfielder
- Ozil – Central left midfielder
- Campbell – right forward
- Alexis – left forward
- Walcott – Striker
It may seem unlikely, but Arsenal has the skills and strategies to pull it off. We haven’t even mentioned the fact that Arsenal outside defensive backs Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal have been playing fantastic for the club this season. Hector is speedy enough to keep up with anyone in the world and Nacho’s positioning and runs are world class. Wenger has found the rising star Joel Campbell as a big asset in shoring up the right hand side and protecting Hector Bellerin from being left solo to defend. The guy somehow manages to be up attacking and back defending quicker than you can say Alexander Mark David “Alex” Oxlade-Chamberlain. There’s also a bit of added emotional motivation in this squad with Bellerin coming up in the Barca youth system and Alexis being a former star there. I believe Alexis especially will be looking to do some damage not only against his old club but in repentance for the half-baked finishing he put forth the last two matches.
Let’s hope for a solid matchup on Tuesday and an Arsenal victory. Otherwise this post was very long for no reason.