By Paul Gardner
We’ve been very lucky people lately -- thanks to the marvels of television, the past 10 days have brought us three wonderful games. There was the Argentina 4, Spain 1, friendly, which I have already commented on. This past week we’ve seen two UEFA Champions League games -- first, there was Barcelona romping to a 5-1 win over Panathinaikos (Greece), then we got Arsenal’s 6-0 dismembering of Braga (Portugal).
The soccer from both Barcelona and Arsenal was exhilarating to watch, the basics of athletic endeavor and good ball-control and passing adorned with the artistic flourishes and curlicues that vault soccer up from being just another sport to being the best of the lot.
Barca got the ball in the net five times, Arsenal scored six -- and it is those goals that I want to scrutinize. After Panathinaikos had opened the scoring, Barcelona struck back just two minutes later:
22nd minute -- a 30-yard forward pass from Xavi cuts through the Greek defense, to meet Lionel Messi as he races into the area and uses just one touch of his left foot to gently lob the ball over the goalkeeper.
33rd -- a Barca corner kick is flicked on to an unmarked David Villa at the far post who scores with ease.
45th -- Messi completes a one-two with Pedro then dribbles right through the middle of the Greek defense, beats three defenders, then splits the final two to score from 12 yards.
77th -- Bojan, at the corner of the Greek penalty area, plays in Messi, who shoots across the goal from a very narrow angle -- the ball hits the far post, bounces back along the goal line to hit the near post -- and Pedro taps it in.
93rd -- Messi, just outside the Greek penalty area, plays a 1-2 with Dani Alves, then chips the ball back as Alves darts through the middle and heads the ball over the goalkeeper.
The Arsenal goals went like this:
07th -- Cesc Fabregas penalty kick.
30th -- Andrey Arshavin, inside the Braga penalty area, receives from Fabregas and drills a low shot inside the far post.
37th -- A slick passing move down the middle sees the ball go from Jack Wilshere to Arshavin to Marouane Chamakh to Wilshere, now in the Braga penalty area, and his back heel plays Chamakh in to score.
52nd -- Arshavin, inside the Braga area, curls a short high cross to Fabregas who heads in at the far post.
68th -- Arshavin, inside the Braga area, plays a short pass to Carlos Vela who runs forward and chips the ball over the goalkeeper.
84th -- A long 35-yard pass down the middle from Wilshere is controlled by Fabregas, who lays the ball off, in the area, to Vela, who beats the goalkeeper with a low shot just inside the post.
Discounting the set-piece goals (Fabregas’s penalty kick and Villa’s goal from a corner kick), we have nine run-of-play goals, all of them beautifully worked, showing off a variety of goalscoring methods. There were two long, forward passes of about 30-35 yards -- both superbly accurate, finding the intended target -- Wilshere to Fabregas (who passed off to Vela) and Xavi to Messi, who scored. There were intricate passing sequences (the goals by Chamakh and Dani Alves). And there were simple short assists -- from Fabregas and Arshavin, to set up the goals by Vela, whose neat finishing underlined the importance of intelligence and accuracy for the goalscorer, as Arshavin’s fierce cross shot made the case for power.
And of course there was the personal magic of Messi, the unstoppable dribble that brought him his second goal, and the impudent no-angle shot that set up Pedro’s goal.
Then there was Fabregas’s second goal, scored with a header from Arshavin’s cross. But the thing to emphasize here is that Arshavin was inside the penalty area when he made his cross, which was more of a short, accurate pass than a traditional cross.
And that is worth thinking about. One of the most frequently heard pieces of tactical advice -- you can hear it proffered by the experts on almost every telecast -- is that a team has to play it wide”, or has to “get the ball wide”, or has to use “the full width of the field.” This magical formula for winning soccer is linked to the idea of crosses. I knowyou will see crosses in every game, cross after cross after cross, hopeful aerial balls from the left or the right, or from almost anywhere in fact, dropping into the opposing penalty area. Most of them are headed straight out, and they make for boring, repetitive soccer.
The idea of “using the flanks” is simply to avoid playing the ball up the middle -- where it is assumed there will be too many bodies and it will be impossible to break through. Wing play, it is claimed, stretches the opposing defense, making it impossible for them to simply concentrate players in the middle. It’s a nice theory, but it seems to me somewhat out of date in this age of nine-men-behind-the-ball defenses.
Packed defenses -- or compact defenses, which seems to be the new term -- don’t get pulled out of shape too often.
Whatever, those Hail Mary crosses are not a feature of either Arsenal’s and Barcelona’s game. Those teams, playing the best club soccer to be seen at the moment, prefer to keep the ball on the ground and to pass it accurately. In this way, their possession percentage is usually high (in the games cited, it was Barcelona 74 percent, Arsenal 58 percent), which is the basic requirement on which to build a passing game. They were able to score the majority of their goals by attacking, on the ground, down the middle into the heart of the enemy defense.
Yes, the opposing teams in these games, Panathinaikos and Braga, were hardly top teams. Maybe against better teams, Arsenal and Barcelona will have to modify their approach, maybe some aerial crosses would appear. Quite possibly -- but as a variation, not as a staple.
Talking of more powerful opponents ... what might we expect if Arsenal were to face Barcelona in the Champions League? A 5-5 tie maybe? No, for sure. We saw the two faced each other earlier this year -- it was 2-2 at the Emirates, and then a demolition job by Barcelona in the Camp Nou, with an irresistible Messi scoring all of Barcelona’s goals in a 4-1 romp.
But that second game featured an Arsenal line up depleted by injuries. They would claim to be a better team now, anyway, and a clash would be fascinating -- a clash of styles, of similar styles.
I’d take Barcelona to win again, because I feel they are more solid in their devotion to their style. Arsenal -- possibly because they have to live in the English Premier League -- seem to me more likely to get diverted into a running, rather than a passing, game.