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article imageBarcelona's patience ignites counter-attacking lesson to Arsenal

By Tyrrell Meertins     Feb 23, 2016 in Sports
Since the pattern of the match and personnel were fairly predictable prior to kickoff, this was solely about Arsenal's defensive set-up.
In terms of results at the Emirates, Arsene Wenger’s men were successful against Barcelona in the past, but against the attacking trio consisting of Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi, the Gunners had to be nearly perfect. The major decision was base around whether the Gunners should press high and aim to win the ball near Barca’s box, or sit deeper in their half to limit space and service into the strikers, before charging forward on the counter-attack.
Arsenal chose the latter by willingly conceding possession and dropping into two banks of four with Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud closing down Sergio Busquets, opposed to the centre-backs. Wenger’s intent to limit passes into Busquets was logical, and stalled Barcelona’s attack in the opening stages. Alexis pressed from a narrow position to prevent Gerard Pique from playing passes into Dani Alves, whereas Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain sat a few yards ahead of Hector Bellerin to place Neymar in 1v2 battles.
Barcelona were simply lacking available passing options in this situation as Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta were pressed by Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin. Enrique’s men, however, were fairly patient in possession with Alves receiving space behind Alexis, and Neymar refusing to stray away from the touchline to maintain width. The only issue with reigning champions’ display was the sloppy passing from several players, most specifically, Suarez upfront.
Although Arsenal aimed to negate Busquets’ threat from deep the Spaniard still located his teammates between the lines on a few occasions. Barca’s best chance of the half resulted in the Spaniard’s diagonal to the byline for Alves, who nodded it back to Suarez, but the Uruguayan’s effort flew inches wide of the post.
Rakitic and Messi also received the ball between the lines to push the away side forward, which was inevitably down to the midfield pairing of Coquelin and Ramsey. Ramsey’s positioning in a midfield two has handicapped the Gunners recently, and here, is aim to surge forward at every opportunity left the hosts overloaded in central areas.
Enrique’s men attempted to pull Arsenal out of position to exploit space, but the hosts maintained a medium block to compress space in central areas. Even Marc-Andre ter Stegen quickly released his throws to Neymar with hopes of catching Arsenal on the break in the first half, which illustrated Barcelona’s intent to quickly break forward.
"Everyone who knows anything about football knows that you need a first half like this, so that in the second half you can do that,” said Enrique.
"They were tired out from supporting each other. We could open spaces and make chances.”
Arsenal’s best chances stemmed on the counter, but despite their quick ball circulation, the Gunners often made the wrong decision when they approached the box. Ramsey and Alexis surged forward from midfield with Ozil drifting into the channels, and the German released two pull-backs that involved the former’s shot being blocked, and Oxlade-Chamberlain firing a tame effort at ter Stegen.
The second half provided additional space for Enrique’s men due to tired legs, and as Arsenal sat deeper in their box, Barca’s counter-pressing improved. Still, it was the positioning of Arsenal’s midfield duo that saw Iniesta pick the ball up from the half way line to slalom forward and slide a pass behind the defence for Neymar, but Petr Cech made a key save.
The away side easily bypassed Arsenal’s high pressure and were slowly finding space when they counter-pressed, which explains why they persisted with sitting deeper. However, this meant they could solely offer a threat on the counter from open-play, which appeared futile due to their poor passing in dangerous areas. Therefore, Arsenal adopted an alternative method of attack by pinging balls towards the box for simple Giroud nod downs.
Monreal’s cross to Giroud forced a crucial save from ter Stegen, shortly afterwards Giroud’s nod down from an Ozil free-kick led to a scramble in the box that resulted in Ramsey firing his effort wide of the net. Coquelin also directed a cross into the path of Alexis who flashed his delivery through the six-yard box only to have it cleared by Alves.
Arsenal’s success playing direct balls to the forward encouraged Wenger’s men to finally push forward as a unit, but the away side quickly punished the Gunners on the counter with Barca’s front three all combining for Messi’s opener. Shortly afterwards, Rakitic dispossessed Alexis and Messi stormed down the right to combine with his two attacking teammates but Suarez hit the post.
Both situations witnessed Arsenal’s full-backs out of position when Enrique’s men launched counters from their box. This was the ideal scenario for Barca considering Arsenal’s midfield duo were constantly dragged out of position as well, meaning all the Spanish club required was execution.
Nevertheless, a simple Mertesacker mistake forced Mathieu Flamini to concede a penalty for a late challenge on Messi, which ultimately put the tie out of reach.
"We knew before the game that the one thing we could not afford is to give them counter-attacks, because they are very dangerous. And that is exactly what we did," Wenger said.
"We pushed too far into their half and we got caught. I knew in the last 20 minutes we'd have a chance to win the game if we didn't make any mistakes, and that is the frustration of the night."
Perhaps Barca weren’t at their best, and possibly a bit too patient throughout, but the contrast in quality via transitional attacks was stark. Where the Catalan side appeared certain to score with every attack, Arsenal’s pass selection was a major disappointment. Wenger’s overall approach was fully justified as it neutralized Barca in the opening half, but the attempt to dominate the match enabled Enrique’s men to hand Arsenal a counter-attacking lesson.
Another Arsenal meltdown may dominate headlines, yet this was simply another ingredient in the evolution of Enrique’s Barcelona.
More about Messi, Neymar, Luis suarez, Barcelona, Iniesta
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