By Paul Gardner
What to make of yesterday's Arsenal vs. Barcelona game? Both teams looked good, very good, in short, alternating spells. The penultimate spell belonged to Arsenal -- during which they got both their goals. Even after Andrei Arshavin’s goal, which turned out to be the winner, there was still time for a spell of Barcelona dominance that threatened, seriously threatened, to produce the tying goal.
A tie would, for sure, have been a fair result -- both teams did enough to win the game, or at least, not to lose it. A compelling game, but not quite compelling enough. At least, not in the way that one was hoping for.
For my taste, there was the presence of something that I’ve never noticed before -- neither in Arsenal’s nor Barcelona’s games: the chessboard. When tactics become too obvious, you can be sure that they will not do anything to improve the spectacle.
We saw how tactics cramped Spain’s style during the World Cup this summer and produced insipid games as its opponents tried to play staunch defense and hoped for a breakaway goal.
We got something similar here. For an away team to have 60 percent of the possession is unusual, but that’s what Barcelona got. One suspects that Arsenal was quite happy with that -- or at least were happy after the first 15 minutes or so had passed without Barcelona doing any damage. Lionel Messi came close, missing exactly the type of opportunity that he normally puts away with insulting ease.
That rare miss was suggestive -- maybe this was going to be Arsenal’s day. The Gunners got further assistance from referee Nicola Rizzoli who, after correctly yellow-carding Alex Song for a blatant tactical -- and dangerous -- foul on Messi after only six minutes, allowed him to get away with two or three clearly cautionable fouls after that. Apart from anything else, Song should have been given a second yellow card for persistent fouling. Six fouls is simply too many.
But Song stayed, and Arsenal grew into a dangerous counterattack game. And it was dangerous, with Theo Walcott’s speed, Cesc Fabregas’s clever passing and Sami Nasri’s trickery. Was this counterattacking game what Arsene Wenger meant later, when he said “We know how to beat them now”?
But that was just talk, rather silly talk, really. This business of tactics, of the coach sitting their calmly masterminding the whole show should not be taken too seriously.
Although the imposition of Wenger’s “we know how to beat them” tactics may well have shaped this game -- and given it a not exactly pleasing shape -- it was not the tactics that were the determining factor.
With two teams fielding so many skilled players it was always much more likely that it would be individual performances that would be the key here. For Barcelona it was a tale of the players who didn’t perform, or failed to do so at their expected level. This was particularly true of Messi. Sure, he had the crudities of Song to deal with, but he’s used to that sort of thing. The problem was more a lack of his usual touch and sharpness. A poor game for Messi. For goalkeeper Victor Valdes, it was a competent game, marred by one awful mistake that allowed Van Persie to slam the ball in at the near post. There was also a sub-par performance from the usually dominating Gerard Pique -- ending with a yellow card that puts him out of the second game.
Arsenal did much better with its individual performances, but more in the sense of avoiding mistakes and poor play than in producing anything remarkable -- though Jack Wilshere was consistently splendid throughout.
In short, Wenger’s implication that this was a clever tactical victory and that those tactics will carry over into the second game strikes me as being way off the mark. Arsenal won this game with two goals in the space of five minutes. Goals scored during a spell of sustained and fluent attacking.
It always interests me to see what happens to tactics in the later stages of a game -- tactics that are not working. At the 78th minute, Arsenal was losing this game 0-1. This was not a time for counterattacks, or even a time when Arsenal could counter -- because Barca was not that intent on pressing. It quickly became one of those times when you can almost hear the tactics being discarded -- time for all-out attack. And time for the game to take on an exhilarating life that, truth to tell, it had never really had up to that moment.
When Arsenal streams forward, it’s doing what it does best. Barcelona was severely shaken by the onslaught, and buckled. But not for long. Suddenly Barca’s game had a biting edge that it had lacked for most of the game -- an edge that produced two dangerous flurries of activity in the Arsenal goalmouth.
So Arsenal will take a 2-1 lead to Barcelona. Not many teams win at the Camp Nou -- will Arsenal play for the tie that would see it through? Which means playing defensively -- and relying on counterattacks for a vital goal. If that’s what Wenger meant with his comments on knowing how to beat Barcelona, then we’ll get another game in which tactics will again be a huge factor.
Barca will have no choice, of course, it has to win the game -- although the knowledge that even a thin 1-0 win will be enough may suggest more caution. But that does not sound like Barca, a team that does not “play defense.”
But this will have to be a Barcelona that “plays offense” with a good deal more fervor than it showed in London. I would expect this game to come down again to individual performances -- and that it will be the greatest individualist of the current game, Lionel Messi, who decides it -- in Arsenal’s favor by not playing well, or in Barcelona’s favor by being brilliant.