With many fans worried about tonight’s Barcelona tie, the tactical set-up that Arsenal employ will be vital in vanquishing those worries. Last year’s Barcelona games can serve as a starting point for the tactics the Gunners lay-out.
Considering the players available and with Arsene Wenger not willing to take any ‘medical risk’ on Samir Nasri, the starting line-up, at first glance, seems easy to predict. The players best equipped to stem the Barcelona attacks that we saw so regularly in last year’s Quarter-final also have more chance of unlocking the opposition’s underrated defence.
Attack – Theo Walcott
With the likes of Carles Puyol (who is an injury doubt ahead of the games), Gerard Pique and Gabriel Milito, the Barca centre-backs will always remain comfortable with the play in-front of them. Arsenal showed this last year; Theo Walcott’s pass and assist in the first and second legs respectively were as a result from direct runs in-behind from the Englishman. Dealing with pace is definitely not the strong point of the Barcelona defence, in fact it’s the weak point. The home side must attack the full-backs in this way to get any chance of goals which, considering Barcelona’s consistently high performances at the Nou Camp, Arsenal may well need from tonight’s game.
Walcott, therefore, will be a pivotal member of the attacking play from the wings. Barcelona’s lack of depth to their defence may pose a problem for Pep Guardiola when considering this threat. With another accomplished right-back in the ranks there would be the possibility of Daniel Alves moving to the left, as he has done for Brazil, in an attempt to quell Walcott’s off-the ball runs. Without that right-back, the Walcott issue is likely to be handed to Eric Abidal, a Frenchman not particularly blessed with pace at the age of 31. Walcott will need to be clever though; Abidal hasn’t earned 55 France caps on the back of poor defensive performances. If Walcott proves himself smart in his runs, Abidal will be on the back-foot every time the Gunners attack.
With Arsenal attacks needing to be behind the defence, maybe the doubt over Nasri’s fitness is a blessing in disguise. The Frenchman is highly-talented and influential but he will slow down the play and keep possession in front of the Barcelona defence. This may not be the best plan after all.
The service to Walcott off the back of any runs will need to be inch-perfect, as in the first goal in last year’s home tie. Without a broken leg, Cesc Fabregas should be able to probe the opposition defence more than against Barcelona last season. The Spaniard will be employed in a free-role when the Gunners look to get the ball, but defensively he will need to be disciplined.
As well as Fabregas, Robin van Persie must look to continue the partnership he has struck with Walcott over the past few games. Indeed, Arsenal’s most recent goal this season came from a Walcott square ball and a van Persie finish, with the initial pass coming from Fabregas in the deep position. These two instigators will be hugely important in claiming success from Walcott’s runs.
Van Persie’s technical ability should cause problems in the central areas; whichever central defenders are chosen for the away side, neither will be adept at coping with the Dutchman’s intricate forward play. He will need closing down and, considering his station in the centre, it may drag the defenders towards him. The opposing full-backs will need to be very disciplined.
Andrey Arshavin is the obvious choice on the left, although he is still highly inconsistent. Every so often he does produce in the big games however. Hopefully his unorthodox dribbling can stir up positional indiscipline from Daniel Alves. The little Russian will be far more deadly if the runs off him are smart and effective. He may have the easiest role of the attacking trio tonight as he is unlikely to be given the role of running in behind. However, this isn’t to diminish his importance; his forward passes will need to be more accurate than usual.
The defence and midfield will need to work together to hault the hordes of La Liga footballers who will inevitably come looking for space. People may point to Xavi and Andres Iniesta and call for them to be closed down at all times. In theory this seems as though it would work but, in likelihood, it will fail. Xavi and Iniesta will not allow themselves to be closed down; their ability to find space in front of the opposition defence is uncanny. If any Arsenal player is given the instruction solely to close down when defending it is Jack Wilshere. Alex Song is not the right man for the job as he lacks the pace or acceleration to reach the midfielders, especially when there will be two, and not one, who will aim to split the defence. Song’s job will be to cut off supply to any forward in a central area. How do you stop a playmaker from playmaking? Cut off his passing routes. With Song stationed in between and in front of the two, Xavi and Iniesta will have to look elsewhere. If Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny can concentrate on David Villa’s off-the-ball running and ability to get in the holes around defences, as all Spanish attackers seem to be able to do, then this will not be a consistent possibility for the two midfielders. However, if Lionel Messi attempts to instigate play from more central areas, as he did in last year’s home tie in particular, Arsenal have a third problem on their hands. This is where the importance of the defensive duties of Wilshere and Fabregas increases. No doubt, Arsenal’s two midfield playmakers will not sherk their duties but is it really possible to stop Messi’s passing, let alone get the ball from him?
Arsenal’s full-backs will be the most important members of the defence and, with Bacary Sagna’s suspension, the right side is a weakness. Most fans will agree that Emmanuel Eboue is not the most astute when it comes to defending. Although good in the tackle, the Ivorian is poor at the reading of the game. Any hope for the fans will come from an ineffectual performance from whoever is placed on Barcelona’s left wing, likely either Bojan Krkic or Pedro. Even then, Eboue will need to be on his guard at all times, as Villa has a tendency to drift out to the left and cut inside. The ex-Beveren man will have to keep his wits about him.
If Gael Clichy performs on the night, his anticipatory play will prove essential to the defensive unit of the team. During last season, the Frenchman had the highest number of interceptions in the Premier League but it is not only this which he will need to show against the threat of Lionel Messi dribbling. Additionally, the left-back cannot lose concentration when Messi drifts in-field as passes will still come the way of Barcelona’s right. This is total football after all; when a player temporarily changes position, another replaces him. One thing is for sure, Clichy cannot revert to roaming forward on every occasion and then fail to return to his defensive zone. He must be alert to any danger and show his skills to get to the ball first.
As far as the centre-backs are concerned, both need to turn up on the biggest stage. Djourou and Koscielny must keep their eye on any off-the-ball runs, not a strong point of the latter player. Koscielny must react when he sees the run; last ditch defending is too dangerous against the likes of Villa. The away side are unlikely to be swinging in many crosses, especially without a target-man in the shape of last year’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Therefore, the central defenders must work in tandem with the defensive midfielder in order to cut off the passes from midfield and the runs which go with them. Their job will double as soon as Messi gets involved in the centre. Neither of the centre-backs should sit deep. Very few Barca players show blistering pace off the ball, it is their intricate ball-control and short passing in between defenders which creates the danger. As Lee Dixon has pointed out, Arsenal’s defenders sat deep in the first half of last season’s home leg. In the second half each player moved their starting position slightly up the pitch and, although they conceded two goals at this time, a first half embarrassment was only prevented by a terrific Manuel Almunia performance.
Wojciech Szczesny will be in goal tonight. It will be a real test for the twice-capped Pole. Not only will he have to perform as a goalkeeper but also as an organiser. In terms of the latter job, he has shown a higher level of ability than any of the other goalkeepers in Arsenal’s ranks.
If the Gunners take note of the tactical intricacies of last season’s games they stand a great chance of beating the Spaniards at the Emirates tonight. Hopefully every player has learned from the many mistakes made in those games, but also the success they had in attack. Three goals in two games against the best team in the world is not a bad return but the question still remains: will they concede another six?