So the first leg of a potentially pulsating 2-legged knockout tie lived up to the hype and some, proof that maybe Tyldesley isn’t as bad as his Sky counterparts when it comes to over hyping games that inevitably result in drab affairs with barely a sniff of regular goal-scoring opportunities. That said after reflecting on the game, one can’t help but feel a little smug that Barcelona .. the prophets of football were brought down to earth by what many consider the false prophets, a brief playing out of the reformation if you like.. mighty infallible Catholics, found fallible by the Protestants who themselves were just as full of shit as their predecessors.
Anyway a brief recap of both sides tactical set up before we delve into the nitty gritty… Both sides were typical 4-3-3 with interchangeable forwards and scoring on the counter-attack after winning the ball high up the pitch was the name of the game. After a frantic opening exchange in which Arsenal briefly had the upper hand it soon settled into a rather predictable one sided rampage with Barcelona threatening to deflower the Gunners in a brutal manner reminiscent of last years showdown… thankfully for the Arse, they improved in the second half, displaying a hitherto not seen resolve and they took it to the superstars of Catalonia, grabbing two well-deserved goals, the latter which will live long in the memory. Without further ado, here are 5 Things I Noticed…
1. Predictable Walcott
After all the talk about how Barcelona feared the searing speed of ‘THE One’, and were soiling their pants at the thought of how to shackle him, one would not have been blamed for thinking in the summer Arsenal would be more worried about losing Walcott to the Nou Camp Necromancers, rather than their much sought after Captain.
Despite a promising opening in which he showed pretty nifty close control, taking on a few defenders before laying it off to Fabregas who proceeded to lift it over the Barcelona back line locating Van Persie, who was then thwarted by Valdes, Walcott soon lost his lustre and was met with the usual tactic utilised by opponents intent on snuffing him out… sitting back and cutting off the space he can run in behind, and forcing him to be more cute and clever. Its the sort of tactic that has been employed by the likes of Patrice Evra, one which nearly always works and one that Theo has not really showed any signs of overcoming.
What Walcott lacks is quality footwork, more precisely a few tricks in his locker and furthermore he doesn’t utilise his weaker foot enough which renders him rather predictable and devoid of ideas when robbed of his usual tactic of kicking it past a defender and running fast into the space in behind. If Arsenal had Nani in their side tonight on the right wing, the score could’ve been even more devastating in Arsenal’s favour.
2. Wizardly Wilshere
An excellent display tonight, in a role which was more befitting of his talent and experience than the one he was told to take up for England the other night against markedly inferior opponents than tonight. Alongside a more mobile defensive midfielder, Wilshere was given licence to break free when in possession instead of having to be careful, conservative and playing the easy pass backwards.
Tonight his excellent first touch, brilliant one touch passing, vision and ability to run with the ball all caught the eye, not to mention his quality turns in tight spaces under pressure, reminiscent of another Englishman Paul Scholes. To put in such a beguiling effortless display in such a heated atmosphere (by Emirates standards) and to even stick the foot in with precise tackling when required to, was simply put.. magical.
3. Colossus Koscielny
It is a rare sight to see Arsenal win a game of consequence, a rarer sight still to witness an Arsenal defender garner a great deal of plaudits for his tough no-nonsense defensive display. On a CL week of firsts, (Tottenham showing tactical astuteness and a great deal of grit & determination) Koscielny proved himself to be money well spent earlier in the summer and the wall which Barcelona struggled to climb over.
He possesses a fair bit of pace, a decent amount of strength and is very much Wenger’s version of Vidic-lite to Vermaleans ‘Rio’ impression. That said he has struggled over the course of the season which is fair enough considering its his début season, Gunners fans will hope this coming of age display will settle him down and make him feel like he’s an integral part of the first team for this season and beyond.
4. The Barcelona Triumvirate
We are constantly told by certain footballing aficionados that without Xavi/Iniesta.. Messi would be found wanting and that the recent World Cup was proof of that particular axiom, I on the other hand thought the Argentine was rather impressive despite not hitting the unrealistic heights expected of him by the majority of the footballing world.
Tonight despite a 25 min spell in the first half where Xavi and Iniesta pulled the strings with consummate ease, the majority of the game was about Arsenal shackling the all-powerful Messi and creating their own havoc, having successfully subdued the illustrious midfield duo who are usually responsible for providing the foundations behind most of Barcelona’s victories.
It’s not hyperbole to claim that Fabregas and Wilshere outplayed their World-Class counterparts tonight, pressing them if not into mistakes, than more conservative passes than they would usually make and preventing them from recieving as much possession as they would usually be accustomed to. Messi on the other hand, remained Barcelona’s ‘Go To’ player, constantly on the ball, running in between defenders and if not racking up efforts on goal then he was at least slotting team mates in with numerous well-disguised through passes and was unfortunate to have bagged himself a brace.. a brace which would’ve ended that wretched run of having scored no goals in England. He’ll be back in the return leg though, don’t you worry about that.
5. The Arsenal Triumvirate
In the first half I tweeted, ‘Van Persie, Fabregas, Nasri need to up their game #Arsenal’… little did I know Wenger used my Twitter as a motivational tool at half time.
In the initial 45 minutes, we were subjected to a out of sorts, still injured Nasri.. not really running directly at the opposition as we know he can, and reluctant to put the ball into the box, likewise Van Persie was also very cumbersome and the pace of the game seemed like it was too much for him and his usually assured touch and underrated heading ability seemed to have deserted him… there were calls in some corners for the introduction of Bendtner.. which would sum up his first half display.
As for Fabregas, whilst he was still pretty influential he was guilty of being caught on the ball in dangerous areas and not the sharpest of players in the final third. He like the aforementioned players, was a man transformed in the second half and if the likes of Wilshere came of age.. the same could be said for this particular trio of players, all of whom are considered very talented yet still to break through into the elite category of the Worlds leading footballers.
Van Persies finish past Valdes was fortunate but also intelligent, in that he seized onto the fact that Valdes had anticipated a cross and left his near post gaping wide… Fabregas’ through ball to unleash Nasri was mesmeric and typically Cesc… and Nasri topped it off with a composed pass across the box, perfectly weighted for Arshavin to expertly tuck away into the right hand corner.
Conclusion (looking towards the 2nd Leg..):
So a gutsy, one of those magical ‘I was there’ nights for the Arsenal. The question is… was this a one off Arsenal flukey display or a genuine coming of age performance which will mark a watershed for the gunners and propel them to the next level.
The answer in my opinion is that Arsenal have undoubtedly progressed in comparison to last season, Wilshere gives their Midfield a new dimension, Nasri likewise has developed into a pivotal figure, Szczesny looks the real deal so far in the problem area of goalkeeper and Koscielny might finally settle down and become the perfect partner for Vermalean if he ever overcomes injury. That said.. the Nou Camp might prove a step too far and one can’t see Barcelona struggling to score goals. The return of Puyol could go one of two ways, one outcome could be that they could tad tighter at the back, but on the other hand will their lack of pace defensively come back to haunt them and will this win give Arsenal the confidence to see it out and expose Barcelona’s shortcomings. The Stage is set for a quite wondrous finale….
Rae can be found on Twitter @RedRae7