Barcelona extended their unbeaten run in all competitions to 33 games after overcoming a stubborn Arsenal side at the Emirates stadium.
Both teams started with their strongest available lineups with Oxlade-Chamberlain preferred ahead of Walcott in the right side of Arsenal’s midfield. Barcelona named a different trio in midfield for the 7th game in a row.
Team Lineups: Arsenal vs Barcelona
Arsenal flood the middle-third
Barcelona have been uncharacteristically poor in playing out the back in recent games and teams in La Liga(notably Malaga, Atletico and Las Palmas) have tried to take advantage of this and press Busquests and the centre-backs high up the pitch. This is where Arsenal were expected to press and trouble Barca before the match. However, Barca also have the capability of playing the ball over the top bypassing the high defensive line. Suarez’s winner against Atletico comes to mind. Arsenal simply couldn’t afford to line up with a high defensive line with this threat in mind, especially given Mertesacker’s inability to turn and run. Hence Arsenal went about targeting the middle third to cut off supply routes to Barca’s effervescent front three, maintaining a deep back line and 2 banks of players ahead of them.
Instead of employing any form of aggressive pressing, the Gunners positioned themselves to cover the Blaugrana’s midfield creators — mainly Iniesta and Rakitic — and closely shadowed Messi, Suarez and Neymar. They were perfectly happy allowing Busquets to drop back along with the centre-backs to get the ball. The idea here was to never allow Barca to have an extra man in midfield and especially the final third. Although it is (and was) very difficult to maintain the shape throughout the 90 minutes, Arsenal went about their job brilliantly, especially in the first half. Arsenal’s defensive transition from one side of the field to the other when Barca switched play was also commendably disciplined.
Arsenal’s horizontal transition without the ball
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With Barcelona not pressing aggressively as much as they were known to in the past, Arsenal were allowed time on it whenever they got the ball and were able to pass the ball forward. They got the best chance of the first half with the Ox only managing to scuff the shot straight at Ter Stegen. Arsenal were putting men forward when they were able to spring a couple of passes together. It suffices to say Barca’s best moments of the first half came through ball recoveries from these passes in Arsenal’s final third. At this time, Arsenal’s shape became disjointed and allowed Barcelona to play through them. This was probably one of the few concerns for Arsenal going into the second half, along with maintaining their concentration levels.
Drop in concentration
The drop in concentration levels was visible as Suarez and Neymar got a couple of shots at goal on either side of half time. Arsenal were slowly abandoning the shape they maintained in the first half, and were putting more bodies forward when they retrieved the ball and dropping too deep without it. Arsenal were almost rewarded for their attacking instincts with Giroud and Ramsey going close. Messi, noticing the spaces appearing in the centre, started to play more centrally and began to grow into the game. The turnover in Barcelona’s half, which was probably Arsenal’s only defect in the first half, finally was their undoing as the entire Arsenal midfield got caught high up the pitch leaving Messi, Suarez and Neymar to run at Arsenal’s backline. The lapse in concentration and missed chances cost the Gunners. Trailing by one goal, Arsenal lost their defensive shape completely. Suarez hit the post in the dying embers of the game before which Messi dispatched a penalty to put Barcelona in the driving seat.
Arsenal won over doubters showing a side of them which many thought did not exist anymore. The Gunners showed immense tactical discipline especially in the first half. The concentration levels were never going to last the entire game and Messi’s brilliance finally proved a bit too much. Wenger and Arsenal now travel to the Camp Nou in 2 weeks time ruing missed chances.