I’ve been to two Premier League games in my life. The first was Spurs-Man City in September 2000. The game finished nil-nil and by the end, Spurs fans were shouting at one another. The highlight for me was that George Weah was playing for City, so I got to see a former World Player of the Year release Paulo Wanchope on a great solo run that ended with Wanchope poking the ball just past the post.
The second was Chelsea-Newcastle in November 2003. This match was at the outset of the Abramovich era at Chelsea and the Blues had just thrashed Lazio in Rome in mid-week. Chelsea were miles better than the Magpies, especially with Alan Shearer out, and the Blues won 5-0. The game stands out in my memory for two reasons. First, I was amused that the line of Bobbies between the two sets of fans extended out onto the concourse. At halftime, I watched Chelsea fans chant “how does it feel to not have any jobs?” at the Newcastle fans with a row of beleaguered police offers trying to separate the two sets as everyone else tried to queue up for concessions. Second, Sir Bobby Robson, who was the manager of Newcastle at the time, managed to gripe after the match about the fact that he had a player sent off. Now mind you, the red card occurred when Newcastle were already down 2-0. Moreover, the call was objectively correct, as Andy O’Brien brought down Adrian Mutu as Mutu was breaking away on goal. I was taken aback reading the paper in the morning that Robson, who is otherwise close to beyond reproach, managed to blame one referee’s decision in a match that was otherwise completely one-sided.
I was reminded of that anecdote when I read the predictable comments of Arsene Wenger after the match:
“How can you kill a football game like that?” said Wenger in his post-match press conference. “Two kinds of people can be unhappy. Those who love Arsenal and those who love football. It is very difficult to understand his [Busacca’s] attitude.
“Anyone who has played football at a certain level, you can’t understand how this decision can be taken at this level. It is impossible. It ruined a promising and fantastic football match. What for? If it is for a bad tackle, fair enough.
“Frankly, it is embarrassing if you love the game. I just spoke to Uefa people and they are shocked as well. If you are neutral you will never understand a decision like that.”
Arsene, you know why people who love football would have been unhappy with the match on Tuesday night? Because they were hoping for a match between two of the most attractive sides in the world and only one showed up. Because your side came and put on a second-rate imitation of Mourinho’s Inter. Because your team managed the amazing feat of not having a single shot at Barcelona’s goal over 90 minutes, including 55 minutes with 11 men. I’ve seen matches where a team will not get a shot on goal; I can’t remember a match in which a team didn’t even take an errant shot. According to Opta, this hasn’t happened in the Champions League since 2004. This is the equivalent of a football team not crossing midfield or a baseball team getting no-hit.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: the red card call against Robin van Persie was horrendous. Wenger and van Persie have every right to be upset about it. It’s dubious to give a yellow card to a player for shooting a second after the whistle in a loud, hostile environment; it’s criminal to give that yellow to a player who is already on a yellow. (I would like to say that van Persie deserved to go for generally being a douche, but if that were the case, then Dani Alves would have a less-than exemplary disciplinary record.) That said, van Persie’s was needed on the pitch about as much as a fish needs a bicycle because Arsenal had no attacking threat whatsoever. There are two possible explanations. One is that Wenger decided to take an uber-defensive approach in an effort to get a 0-0 or 1-1 draw. The second is that Arsenal were being utterly dominated by Barca’s pressing, such that they were trying to attack, but they couldn’t get the ball out of their own end. Michael Cox chooses the latter explanation:
Instead, they were barely able to play football. Sky Sports’ commentator Martin Tyler summed it up inadvertently when he suggested that when Manuel Almunia had the ball in his arms, he was attempting to kick the ball downfield at an angle, so there was a chance a Barcelona player would head it out for a throw. What a miserable state to be in – a side famed for their slick passing football reduced to trying to win a throw on the half way line from a goalkeeper’s clearance…
Barcelona being good at pressing is hardly a revelation, and it hardly takes a genius to identify it as a crucial factor in this game – but it was the key feature. Arsenal couldn’t get the ball up the pitch, and Barcelona won possession in positions very close to the opposition goal.
Zero attempts on goal suggests that Arsenal ‘parked the bus’ – even Inter managed one shot in their semi-final last year – but they didn’t, they were simply unable to get past the first burst of closing down.
The match was 1-1 (and thus, Arsenal was in a position to progress) when van Persie was red-carded, but that scoreline flattered Arsenal to no end. They hadn’t managed a single chance, while Barca had scored one goal, seen David Villa denied in a one-on-one with Manuel Almunia and Messi shoot straight at Almunia when he was free in the box, and been denied a clear penalty when Johann Djourou clearly clipped Messi’s feet in the box. (Silver lining for Arsenal fans: they have something good in Djourou and something great in Jack Wilshere. Also, what is it with Almunia standing on his head against the Blaugrana? He was immense in the first half of the first leg last year and he was the only reason why Arsenal did not concede five or six on Tuesday.) By the end of the match, 3-1 flattered Arsenal, as Barca had piled on the chances as the game progressed. Barca were aided by the red card, but on the evidence of the first 55 minutes, combined with the fact that Arsenal were naturally going to tire because they were chasing the game from the start, the red card was by no means decisive. Wenger ought to be questioning why his side were so comprehensively outplayed, either because they are not on Barca’s level or because Wenger was afraid of letting them play their normal game for fear that they would concede another four-goal performance from Messi. Instead, he is ignoring reality to have a go at the ref. Richard Williams takes him apart in The Guardian:
The surprise was in the way Arsenal approached the match. Wednesday morning's Spanish papers were withering in their condemnation of the English side's disinclination to attack, a derision compounded by Arsenal's failure to complete their mission. Spanish observers did not like it when José Mourinho ordered Internazionale to pack their defence in last year's semi-final, but at least Mourinho's success earned him a measure of respect.
The scornful cartoon in Mundo Deportivo had Wenger reading from the Mourinho coaching manual: "The fault for not having a shot on goal ... is the referee's, the referee's, the referee's, the referee's, the referee's." But when he reflects on Tuesday's events, he can hardly be proud that his side became the first since 2004 to fail to register a single shot in a Champions League match.
Dismay and perhaps even a measure of shame are the proper responses to such a lamentable feat. Barcelona are a wonderful team, but they were playing with two replacement centre-backs. Despite the freakishness of the possibility that Bendtner could have put his side through to the last eight, Arsenal did nothing to deserve any form of reward. The absence of Thomas Vermaelen, Alex Song and Theo Walcott played a part, and the marginal condition of Van Persie and Cesc Fábregas was clearly unhelpful. But the displays of Tomas Rosicky, Abou Diaby and Bendtner in particular cast doubt on Wenger's readiness to invest further deposits of faith in players who have spent most of their Arsenal careers underperforming.
Williams focuses on Wenger not being ruthless enough with the players on his roster. I’d add to that the fact that there is something wrong with Arsenal’s mentality when their own keeper is ripping on the team for giving in. I had the same reaction, as did Martin Tyler in the final minutes when Arsenal were casual in the extreme in seeking the goal that would send them to the quarterfinals. When Barca went down to ten men at Stamford Bridge in 2009 and needed a goal, they got it and went to Rome. When Inter went down to ten men at the Nou Camp, they fought harder and ground out the result that sent them to Madrid. When Arsenal went down to ten men, they used it as an excuse for the rout that was already well underway.
I suppose I ought to spend a moment talking about Barca. Next to the 5-0 thrashing of Real, this was the best performance of the season. The finishing was less than stellar (save for Messi’s ludicrous flick over Almunia for the opener), but the pressure that Barca put on Arsenal was outstanding. As Pep Guardiola said after the match, Arsenal couldn’t put three passes together and that was in no small part down to Barca’s front six attacking like a wolfpack whenever Arsenal had the ball. Special credit goes to Javier Mascherano. I was concerned when the center back situation meant that Mascherano was going to start, but Barca didn’t miss a beat in the midfield and Mascherano was instrumental in the pressing game. Additionally, his tracking back on Niclas Bendtner saved the team’s bacon late after a mistake by Adriano. Tuesday night was the night that Mascherano became a member of the team.