Thursday, February 17, 2011

Five Thoughts on Barca-Arsenal

1. It seems sacrilegious to criticize Pep Guardiola for anything, but he made a major mistake pulling David Villa off and that was a factor that turned the game.  At the time that Guardiola made the move, Messi and Villa had been making outstanding combinations to take advantage of Arsenal playing a high defensive line.  Villa had slipped Messi in for a breakaway that Messi dinked wide; Messi returned the favor and Villa scored Barca’s goal.  When Villa came off, Messi lost his partner in the middle of attack.  Additionally, the move pushed Andres Iniesta out wide, which further weakened Barca’s offensive presence in the middle of the pitch.  The move seemed timid, which is rare for Guardiola.  Michael Cox agrees:

Guardiola’s decision to bring on Seydou Keita for David Villa on 67 minutes looks like a mistake in hindsight. Barcelona pushed Iniesta forward into the front three but they had less attacking threat – they sat back too much and focused on keeping possession rather than looking for further chances.

Wenger made an attacking switch – Song off, Arshavin on, and Nasri into the middle of the pitch. Those two substitutions happened at the same time, so it wasn’t either manager responding to the other, but it worked nicely for Arsenal. Whilst taking off their holding midfielder was something of a risk, the fact that Barcelona no longer had a driving, attack-minded central midfielder meant it wasn’t an issue. Song’s absence meant Iniesta would have thrived in the centre of midfield – the two were in direct competition.

2. To me, the difference in this Arsenal team and the edition from last year is Jack Wilshere.  Over the last several years, Arsenal have had good attacking players (especially when Robin van Persie is healthy), but the midfielders behind them have been suspect.  Wilshere is a revelation, an English midfielder who can actually pass the ball.  There are a number of troglodytes in England who are going to owe Arsene Wenger an apology when Wilshere gives the Three Lions something they haven’t had in years.  Wilshere is the platform off of which Fabregas, Nasri, and Walcott can function.  The platform certainly isn’t Alex Song, who didn’t look like he belonged on the pitch.

3. My one obligatory whine about the ref: it was amusing to hear Martin Tyler intone that Arsenal fans thought that Barca was getting all the calls as a replay was playing that showed Barca having a perfectly legitimate second goal ruled out for offside.

4. Victor Valdes, you’ve come so far and then you leave your near post like that?  If there is one piece of knowledge upon which you should be able to rely, it’s the knowledge that Robin van Persie will shoot at every possible opportunity. 

5. The 2-1 result makes for an interesting second leg.  Barca have progressed with road draws in five Champions League knock-out ties under Guardiola and they were knocked out after a 3-1 loss at Inter last year.  Now, we have a middle ground.  I’d make Barca the favorite because every single home result they have had under Guardiola in Champions League knock-out ties would be sufficient to allow them to progress.  Also, it’s unlikely that Messi will finish as poorly as he did tonight (although the rest of his game was outstanding).  That said, at 0-1 and even 1-1, the tie was pretty much over.  At 2-1 Arsenal, Barca’s chances aren’t much above 50%.  The big question is whether Arsenal’s backline can handle the pressure that they’ll see for 90 minutes.  What worked for Inter last year was a great center back pairing and terrific defensive midfielders in front of them.  Arsenal doesn’t have that personnel, so they have to be thinking about 2-2 instead of 0-0.


Anonymous said...

Obligatory responses (from Justin):

1) While I agree that Pep's gamble didn't work, I think you mistake the situation in which it was made. At the time, Arsenal had been dominating much of the second half, mostly through the heart of the midfield.

Sacrilige, but maybe the right move was to take out Messi or Iniesta rather than Villa.

And that gets me back to the mistake I think Pep did make - Maxwell at left back. I know you disagree, but I would still have played Abidel there and Keita or Maschereno to support Busquetes.

2) Song had an awful game, but he has been playing well so far this year. I had thought Arsenal should have made a move for a defensive midfielder (Ozil or even Bradley), but defensive midfield has not been an issue other than depth (and Arsenal do not need to go with 2 DMs against many of their domestic opponents anyway). I still might try and pick up Bradley or some other young, aggressive two-way midfielder in the offseason to provide depth and/or to upgrade from Song.

3) I don't think either side should be whining about the ref, but a) I don't think anyone can say with a straight face that it is conclusive whether Messi is still behind the ball when it deflects off Pedro after the shot (which is the moment of truth, so to speak), and Barca did get several calls. I've spoken my mind on this in the thread - it was a well-reffed game, and it's unreasonable for a team to think an AR will keep its flag down both times when there are two bang-bang, need-instant-replay-to-determine-offsides in a match. The AR was extremely brave to keep its flag down on the Villa goal (which proved correct), and given that we still don't have a replay that can show whether Messi was onsides when the ball bounces off Pedro, I think the only way the AR keeps his flag down again is if he misses the fact that it bounced off Pedro after the save.

4) Van Persie has passed the ball before. I've seen it with my own two eyes. Still, how many times does it need to be said - PROTECT YOUR NEAR POST. Valdez was too cute on that. He did, however, make an exceptional save on Walcott when Cesc's clever pass sprung him at about the 5 minute mark.

5) I'm trying to find something to disagree with here, but nothing. I will say it's also unlikely that RVP would have such a bad final touch in the return leg as well, but he's unlikely to have nearly as many chances either, as I can't see Arsenal dominating the midfield against Barca the way they did in the 2nd half at the Emirates.

Anonymous said...

Justin again

One other point: If Puyol isn't healthy, this tie is going to get very interesting. Pique is out.

(Wait: Was Maxwell playing center back? If so, Abidel played way too up and central during the whole game, and Maxwell way too up. Was that a 3-4-3 we saw Barca try against Arsenal?)

Anonymous said...

My weird observation/thought; both times Barca have played at Arsenal in the past two years, it has seemed like they have difficulty controlling the ball...especially in both 2nd halves. It "feels" like I am watching a team play with a ball that has too much air in it or something. Balls that are normally well-controlled and stay at the feet go flying off to be disposessed. It's damned near like watching the US Nat's play!

Certainly my perspective is colored by the blaugrana glasses I have on, and i am not suggesting hijinks, but I wonder if someone more soccer-savvy has the same observation.

Also, no Puyol hurt . I am nervous that Barca are leaving the door open for the asshole di tutti assholes (Mourinho) to walk thru.

Anonymous said...

Arsenal had no problem controlling the ball in the 2nd half. Maybe they installed a device at half that pumped too much air into the ball when Barca had possession, then let it out ass oon as possession changed. Ingenius!