Barcelona vs. Arsenal – here we are once again in the CL. While the club names are the same, both squads are playing in significantly different ways than they did last season. Isaiah’s overall match preview is here. I’ll be focusing on tactical issues in this post. I’m having difficulty uploading images to our server so this tactical preview won’t have any still shots or diagrams. Instead, let’s take a look at the match through some of the key tactical questions at play.
How Effectively will Arsenal Defend as a Team Through the Press?
The primary reason why Barça outplayed a talented Arsenal team so thoroughly last season was that the Gunners did not effectively defend as a unit. Arsenal, like Barça, need to press in order to regain possession quickly.
However, rather then pressing as ten men uniformly out of a block, Arsenal made defensive runs at the ball on in individual basis. As 1-2 players would look to repossess the ball in more advanced positions, the defenders behind them would not move forward in conjunction as a unit.
Many of the Arsenal defenders – the holding players in particular – seemed more concerned about Barça players getting in behind them than how their fellow defenders were playing in front of them.
Against Barça’s triangles, isolated defenders have little chance of winning back the ball. At the same time this lack of cohesion prevented Arsenal from staying compact, with large gaps opening up between Arsenal’s lines. Xavi and Busquets exploited these open gaps wonderfully.
The net result of these dynamics was a vicious cycle for Arsenal. Isolated men trying to press, loss of compactness with open space making it easier for Barça to retain the ball, inability to win repossess the ball causing them to play deeper, which made their press even less effective, and so on.
This season Arsenal has been pressing more cohesively as a unit and Wenger seems to have instilled in Arsenal a deeper sense of defending as a unit. That said, a major reason why Arsenal’s press was so ineffective against Barça was due to how large Barça made the pitch and how quickly they circulated the ball.
It is very difficult to press a team that moves the ball as quickly as Barça did against Arsenal. It’s one thing to press effectively against a Chelsea team that is tactically looking to defend deep and play on the counter, like Arsenal did earlier this season. It’s another thing to press a team such as Barça.
Teams that have pressed Barça effectively this season like FC Copenhagen and Athletic Bilbao combined intensity with physicality, particularly at the back. That is not particularly Arsenal’s style of pressing. Can Arsenal defend as an effective unit to repossess the ball enough to reduce Barça’s possession to 60% or less? How this dynamics plays out will be a major determining factor over the outcome of the match.
How Will Arsenal Choose to Defend Sergio Busquets?
Teams that commit to press Barça have to make several subsequent tactical decision, such as how high are they comfortable playing their back line given Barça’s ability to move the ball in space quickly by passing? One of the central questions that teams looking to press need to decide is how to defend Sergio Busquets.
Teams that press often try to prioritize defending Barça’s more advanced attacking players. When teams press they frequently have front line players drop back if the ball can’t be won high up the pitch so that they can pressure Barça’s advanced midfielders and also account for Messi as he drops back as a false 9. This creates a problem with what to do with Barça’s holding player.
Allocating resources to prioritize defending against the advanced midfielders and the false 9, can make it relatively easy for the holding player to find time and space on the ball. For some teams this is an acceptable trade off because they are conceding that Barça will dominate possession. The function of their press is to disrupt the smoothness of Barça’s possession, to reduce it marginally, and to turn the ball over high up the pitch so they can break at speed across a short field to score quickly (e.g. Sporting Gijon early on).
Arsenal has a different set of problems. They need to have the ball to be at their best? Given that, can they afford to allow Busquets time on the ball? If they do so, they will be giving Barça an open outlet through which they can possess the ball and given how strong Busquets is at protecting possession this may cause Arsenal significant difficulties.
At the same time, pressing Busquets aggressively means fewer players available to pressure Xavi, Iniesta and Messi. And because Busquets is so adept at playing one touch football he is simply not easy to take the ball from. How intensely Arsenal commit to pressuring Busquets (e.g. are they willing to send two players at him? Do they drop off him?) and how consistent they are in that approach will be key factors shaping the match.
How Aggressively Will Andres Iniesta Look to Attack the Goal?
Last year Ghostface did not play in either CL match against Arsenal. This season he’s been one of the world’s five best players. His impact on matches has been enormous.
Arsenal may be a more cohesive pressing squad this season – but the Barcelona midfield they will be facing this year is far better than the one they faced last season. As usual, Arsenal will need to prioritize stopping Messi in midfield. This will be a central concern for Alex Song. Because Arsenal needs to regain possession they will need to focus on pressuring Xavi. That will likely fall to Fabergas. In turn this means that Jack Wilshere will often be left to mark Iniesta. That is a very difficult task for an 18 year old whose greatest strength is his skill on the ball – not his defense.
Now, Wilshere will not be left 1 vs. 1 against Iniesta – Arsenal will try to defend as a team. But this does point out a very particular problem for Arsenal in an advanced position they will have trouble accounting for. How aggressively will Iniesta look to press this advantage?
Messi isn’t the Only False 9 in the Game. How will the CBs of Both Teams React?
Messi has been brilliant in his role as a false 9 this season, repeatedly drawing CB out of position and creating numerical advantages in midfield for Barcelona that holding players cannot account for. How Wenger instructs Djourou and Koscielny to defend Messi and how those two CB execute those tactics will be critical.
Teams that press have many moving parts to their defense. It is a real challenge to maintain some kind of basic shape as you look to close down the ball. Will the Arsenal CB step out and follow Messi as he drops back? How will they play him when he starts making his runs and perhaps even more importantly, how will Arsenal support the positioning of their CB if they do step out?
Koscielny in particular isn’t the strongest CB with respect to positioning. How he reacts to Messi vacating the traditional hole will be interesting to follow.
Messi isn’t the only false 9 in the match, however. Since returning from injury van Persie has been in outstanding form – not only in terms of goal scoring but overall play. When fit van Persie is a very multi-dimensional player and he’s having an outstanding season. He occupies a relatively free role for Arsenal and frequently drops into midfield and participates in both circulating the ball and making dangerous passes to goal.
Van Persie’s role as a false 9 is further augmented by Fabergas and Nasri. Fabergas often plays in a very advanced role almost as a shadow striker. The combination of shadow striker and false 9 is a very difficult combination to mark. At the same time, Samir Nasri plays a relatively flexible role and his further development in attack makes the space van Persie leaves open as the drops back even more dangerous.
The Barcelona defense has infrequently played against a striker like van Persie. It will be a significant challenge for them to not lose shape in the back while also not allowing van Persie to roam freely between the lines.
Fortunately, one of Barça’s great strengths is defending as a team so van Persie’s movements should be tracked across the lines by the Barça team defense. It will be a style of play however that Barça hasn’t seen much of.
Without a true “Holding Mid-Fielder” How Will Arsenal Not Make Dangerous Mistakes in Midfield?
Alex Song and Jack Wilshere are often described as “double pivots.” In some ways this is accurate, but in many ways it’s not. Song and Wilshere play as a duo, with each having the freedom to move forward with the other player providing cover. In this regard, they play in a style that is reminiscent to the partnership Bastian Scheweinsteiger and Sammy Khedira form for the German NT.
Song naturally is the more defensive player but this season he’s been given far more license to move forward. Wilshere is a more natural creative player but he has shown strong tactical discipline to stay deep when needed.
Given the dynamic way Barcelona plays and the continuous position switching Song and Wilshere will be under significant pressure to not get caught out of position due to a misunderstanding between them, particularly with Messi entering and exiting midfield rapidly.
How Will Barça Defend the Flanks, Particularly if Walcott Plays?
This season Barça’s full backs on both sides have pushed forward extraordinarily high. This provides the squad with important width. But it also leaves them somewhat exposed at the back.
Tactically one of the most important aspects of the match will be whether or not the Arsenal wingers can get behind the Barça flank defenders.
Samir Nasri has been deemed fit and before his injury he was having the best season of his career. Given how high Dani Alves plays, Nasri will present a very dangerous challenge. I expect Pique to play behind Alves on the right when the Barça CB’s split wide to defend as the FB push up. Pique’s been inconsistent this season. If Nasri is fit, Pique is going to need to have an outstanding match.
A major challenge for Barça is the loss of Puyol. The problem isn’t so much Puyol’s direct replacement – Abidal has been wonderful at CB this season. The major problem is the impact that losing Puyol has on the LB position when Abidal switches over. Maxwell is a squad player who is being forced to play more than one would want. In the process he is being exposed.
While Theo Walcott hasn’t been a regular starter so far this season, I would have to think there is a strong likelihood of him either starting or playing major minutes tomorrow. While not the best player to retain possession Walcott does two very important things for Arsenal in a match against Barcelona.
First, Walcott presses very well. Second, the match up of Walcott vs. Maxwell is one that would be difficult to pass up for Arsenal. Maxwell is prone to get caught out for pace by players of good pace.
Walcott is one of the fastest players in the world and we saw to what devastating effect he put that speed to last season against Maxwell during the CL first leg. With Abidal playing in the home leg against Arsenal last year, Walcott’s pace was significantly mitigated.
How Guardiola decides to defend against Arsenal’s wide players is probably the most important tactical decision he faces n the match.
With van Persie acting as a false 9, pace off the flanks is particularly dangerous. The striker is proficient at slotting passes through the channel between the CB-FB for wide players to run onto at pace.
If Walcott plays vs. Maxwell, it seems unlikely that he won’t be able to get behind the Barcelona defender at least a few times. Villa is a willing defender on the press but he doesn’t have great pace either to track runs. If Maxwell plays, Iniesta and Abidal will need to provide significant support along the left flank.
If he plays, Maxwell will be Barcelona’s least talented player on the pitch by a wide margin and one whose physical skill set matches up poorly with the opposition Arsenal players he will be facing.
Defensively Arsenal should overplay the middle of the pitch and leave Maxwell as Barça’s primary open outlet. In attack, getting behind Maxwell should be Arsenal’s primary tactical objective. Guardiola has been consistent in his use of Abidal at CB and Maxwell at LB this season when Puyol is not playing. It’s likely this pattern will continue to hold for this game.
The match ups along the left flank are likely to be Barça’s biggest tactical concerns.