Hoping for less chess in Barca-Arsenal rematch

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.

17 comments about "Hoping for less chess in Barca-Arsenal rematch".
  1. Ian ether, February 17, 2011 at 1:12 a.m.

    Really? This the game you saw? Of course there were tactics. It's a soccer game. "Arsenal... did more in the sense of avoiding mistakes and poor play than producing anything remarkable" what? You must have just red a match summary somewhere and didn't actually catch the game. Both Arsenal goals, Van Persie's in particular were astounding. Sure Valdes just stood there, because who on earth would predict a shot on target from that impossible angle? You make it sound like Van Persie had a sitter and Valdes let him score. Disregard the tactics all you want but it was a sub (and a change of tactics, as is customary when you put on a forward for a defensive midfielder) that resulted in the winning, if not both goals. You make "tactics" the subject of your article and then neglect to actually write about any of them.

  2. Josh Edgmon, February 17, 2011 at 4 a.m.

    Ok yeah the dude who wrote this blog was an utter retard. He stated that tactics were and i quote "it was not the tactics that were the determining factor." and then later in the article and i quote "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." are f.n serious. I am reading this article a little drunk so i am not able to express the details of how i feel. But the guy who wrote this and i hope you do is an f.n. fool and should be fired. DID YOU WATCH THE GAME? what i saw was back and forth. and the song comment f-off seriously just because you have 6 fouls means you should get a red card. that is called tactical defense (not fouling but being physical along with other defensive help), disturbing the flow of an otherwise brilliant messi, who shouldve scored a goal but still had an assist to another unmentioned stud (david villa)messi seemed to have the ball every Barcelona possession. Absolutely no credit was given to arsenal and both teams played a good game. The advantage was to arsenal due to home field. I really cant believe the type of article this guy wrote (blow me) This was a great game. Now Barcelona has a chance at home. There was no mention of how GREAT arshavin played being a substitute and in an unfamiliar position playing outside mid. An assist and a goal. I literally want to punch the guy who wrote this article. He served no justice to the game and made it sound like arsenal was a second hand club who deserved to lose. Messi is great but Barcelona has multiple great players. (villa)-one of the lead scorers of the world cup champions. Numerous others im sorry i am not mentioning. Its like the irony of gattuso head-butting a coach and zinedine zidane head-butting an ITaly player. really? makes you think a little bit about emotion of the game. Zinedine head butted a player gattuso head butted a coach, he should get suspended the rest of the tournament... as a coach would if he head butted a player. like i said i have been drinking but seriously fire the writer who wrote this absurd, lame, deceiving article and hire someone who is unbiased and will see the game for the beautification it represents. Another non stated fact. first time arsenal has ever beaten barcelona. and also barcelona this season has defeated teams by an basic margin of 5 goals and when they are ahead they rarely lose. just saying. not that arsenal played the best game of their life but made the best of their chances. Barcelona did not. soccer is about taking care of business and when it comes down to it barcelona let this one slip away. arsenal made an epic comeback, both goals were amazing and when it rains it pours. it will be a great second leg in barcelona i just hope this journalist doesnt get anymore web-space except for the u-12 wreck leage. still will probably mis-represent the game.. im going to bed.

  3. Josh Edgmon, February 17, 2011 at 4:22 a.m.

    this was anything but a chess match! more like great substituting and positioning and mentally offsetting the opponent through physical play which messi has dealt with and overcome but still did not win the world cup and he is not the only player on the TTTTTEEEEAAAAAAMMMMMM (ITS A TEAM SPORT). and arshavin should have started anyway. I believe nasri was an absolute nuisance to barc. the whole game and opened up the wide playability. Im drunk im going to bed but start reporting actual game facts. if i didnt watch the game i wouldve thought arsenal was out classed and got super lucky. The v. persie goal was amazing and who wouldve thought he would shoot (apparently no-one, even the multimillionaire professional goalie). i was even looking for the cross hoping to score. then GOAL... but i digress and Barcelona looked at times to be able to take controll if they were able to take a two goal lead but arsenal had some missed opportunities as well and came out on top of the shoot out. Possession is a critical factor but is often obsolete in a game like this. As far as barc. playing a more defensive game after they took the lead, that is idiotic coaching and playing mistake. What was the second half possession? and why would you set cruise control in a champions league game on the road too early (or just clearing the ball to the corner (which Barcelona showed no sign of)). even if so, it shows the talent of arsenal breaking down the protective defense. Im drunk going to bed.. done venting. well done arsenal. and its going to be an amazing next leg

  4. Mick Whitewood, February 17, 2011 at 5:08 a.m.

    Josh my man, you said it all! This guy is an absolute spanner! Mr Wegner is Probably the best manager in the world of football and he proved it again in this game! Song was instructed to do what he did and he did it well, he ruffled the best player in the game at the moment and threw him off his game! As for the timing and the TACTICAL decision to bring on a forward for a holding midfielder was nothing short of brilliant! I just want to thank Paul Gardner for his comical account of a truly great win for Arsenal, and please keep your hilarious articles coming, because there is nothing funnier than a man who truly believes what he is writing about, but has no idea of how ridiculous he sounds to the people who actually know the game of football. I will be anxiously awaiting your next self embarrassing account of what ever else they let you write about, you fool! P.S. Josh did you have a few drinks tonight? Lol.

  5. Loren C. Klein, February 17, 2011 at 6:47 a.m.

    There's a fine line between being a contrarian to spurn debate and just being an obstinate idiot. Paul Gardner blew past that line ages ago. For all of his bloviating about the "beauty" of football, perhaps the best display of it since, well, the last time these two sides played, and all he can muster is a silly attempted win-up about tactics without ever mentioning them. In the immortal words of Andy Gray, Do us a favour, love...

  6. Kerry Ogden, February 17, 2011 at 7:56 a.m.

    HeartBreak for Barcelona, but glad to see Arsenal come out the winner regardless of tactical play on the pitch, Barcelona was constantly shut down by Arsenal, good job and hope you beat Barca in your next game.

  7. Mark Edge, February 17, 2011 at 8:18 a.m.

    Time to hang it up, Paul, you've obviously lost the plot. I'm not even sure you like football anymore. It looks like the modern game is passing you by. Face it, the 1970 Brazilian National team is not coming back. It must rile the heck out of you that the Premiership teams dominate this tournament.

  8. Emmanuel Vella, February 17, 2011 at 10:04 a.m.

    Mark Edge. You hit the nail on the head...He is acting out on his frustration regarding the supremacy of the EPL Paul consistently rants and raves about the supremacy of Spanish football and La Liga. What he fails to note is that there are 3 to 4 teams in the league that could be considered good enough for the EPL. This is a function of how TV rights money is distributed. In the UK it is distributed evenly across all EPL teams. I believe they get around 50 million Bitish Pounds each. In Spain the money is doled out based on the size and revenue generated by the club.So Real and Barcelona get the lion's share and the rest is dribbled out across the smaller clubs. As a result only two teams ever compete for honours in that league and there is little quality elsewhere. In England the tier 2 teams are becoming increasingly competitive so on any given day Wolved can beat United or Newcastle tie with Arsenal.

  9. Daniel Clifton, February 17, 2011 at 10:09 a.m.

    It is disappointing that teams don't play a more attacking style the whole game rather than waiting until they are desperate. I don't understand how a goalie at this level can make the mistake Valdes did on the Van Percie shot. He has to have that shot covered.

  10. Gak Foodsource, February 17, 2011 at 10:26 a.m.

    Paul, you failed to take into account that this was a Champions League match, not a La Liga one. Tactical football is a vital component to the Champions League because of its unique structure. In La Liga teams can play Barca straight up knowing that even if it fails, it will fail for every other team that plays them too. (When Barca can demolish Real Madrid AND Sevilla 5-0, why should Malaga worry about dropping points to Barcelona?) You cannot do that in the Champions League, when you have to consider how to beat a team over two games in two stadiums, with away goals maintaining such an increased importance. The format forces you to have a strategy, and then be willing to change it immediately if the conditions change - yellow cards to certain players, away goals, etc.)

    I love to watch how teams, especially ones as talented as Arsenal and with managers as brilliant as Wenger, create a game plan to beat Barca. Will they play with a high back line? Will they adjust their system if it Barca scores first? Champions League is for the soccer intellects, and is intelligent, team oriented soccer at its absolute best. Send me an email and I will teach you how to appreciate chess. Gak

  11. David Hardt, February 17, 2011 at 10:27 a.m.

    I thought I saw the beautiful game for a change. Both teams highly skilled. Yes both could have attacked a bit more but the one touch passing and possession was a thing of beauty. Would you rather have seen the usually Arsenal vs most of the EPL teams where one team plays 10.5 men in the box hoping for a tie? Of the boot ball that sends multiple long balls to the keepers. Boring!!. The beauty of both teams passes was a thing to behold. Thankfully I tevo'd it so I can watch it next time I see an EPL game were one team is all in the box

  12. Josh Edgmon, February 17, 2011 at 10:49 a.m.

    Im glad everyone agrees on this article. I am biased by loving the gunners but barcelona played a well game they just couldnt finish and arsenal had other opportunities as well that they didnt finish. and MR> clifton, come on dude, im not a goalie but im pretty sure if he took position on the post the cross wouldve scored anyway. valdes got schooled, i think the second goal by arshavin was more of a mistake on valdes than the first goal. It is more on persie for thinking to shoot the ball from that position on the field. And im not sure if you saw the same game either. but the ENTIRE game was offensive, back and forth back and forth... Next game is going to be hard to match, very face paced

  13. ed hernandez, February 17, 2011 at 12:16 p.m.

    Barca did get the 2nd goal unfortunately it was called off. What was missing in Barca defense Puyol. Do you recall 2009 Champions League when Renaldo could not score for ManU, why Puyol. Lets hope is ready to play the next game!

  14. Mick Whitewood, February 17, 2011 at 1 p.m.

    Mr. Hernandez, Barcelona did not get the 2nd goal because as you say it was called off, the reason it was called off is, that it was offside, therefore rendering it a non goal, so to say that they did score the 2nd goal would be inaccurate. I find it rather hysterical that with all the success that Barcelona have had, that their fans cant take a loss a little better. Barcelona are a class act and so should their fans. Mr. Hernandez please do not bring up the past as it bares no relevance to the subject at hand, your team got beaten in the first leg of a 2 match round, show some class eat some humble pie and say Great job Arsenal, instead of worrying about the ifs and buts.Puyol please! are you kidding me? LMAO.

  15. Andres Yturralde, February 17, 2011 at 3:42 p.m.

    Ah, the beauty of it all..... First, I gotta thank Paul for getting the show on the road, period. Second, thanks to Gak and his Foodsource: "send me an email and I will teach you how to appreciate chess." I love it! You are right about that, my man. But more than chess, most of that game looked like tap-dancing to me: too much back-and-forth, not enough strong-to-the-mic. For a second there, even Tuco rang in my ear: "when you're going to shoot, shoot-- don't talk. So I kept wondering, where the hell is Arshavin? This kind of game needs an Arshavin. Someone to disrupt all the jazz, someone to break the code. And then Wenger brings him in. And the kid is wearing those black gloves. To run faster-- allegedly. Tactics? I don't know, I'm not that good. All I know is the kid comes in, opens the field nice and wide, gets a few touches, and suddenly Barcelona looks more ruffled than ever. And then he makes a good run and taps in the winner. Nice and easy. Like magic. This is soccer! This is life!! And if you lose, take Mick's advice, "show some class, eat some humble pie..." Who knows, it might do you some good the next time around.

  16. . Lev, February 17, 2011 at 7:29 p.m.

    Chess it should be - it shows that soccer activity also happens above the waist.

    Sorry Paul. You are just in Barca-mourning. Barca has tactics too, but their are boring!!! Sublime mechanical skills make up for that - but only just. Barca is the most depressingly predictable team ever..
    Beautiful, but BORING!

  17. Chris Ogle, February 19, 2011 at 2:20 p.m.

    As far as the foul against Alex Song that he committed on Messi, anyone who doubts that it was dangerous go to the internet and look at the replay in slow motion. It would have been called a yellow card in any league and in reality it should have earned Song a straight red card.It was from behind,he didn't get near the ball and Messi was in full sprint when the foul took place. Then Song had the nerve to gesture like that at the official,he should have been red carded on the spot,it was a potentially carreer ending foul.

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