There are two key areas for Barça to focus on today. The first is defending against the Arsenal counter. This is the route through which Arsenal is most likely to score, particularly given recent history between these clubs. The second is how Barça adjusts to Arsenal’s defensive tactics. We’re used to Barça needing to defend against the counter, so in this preview I’d like to focus on the adjustments Barça needs to make in attack.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the way Arsenal played Barça in leg one of the Champions League this year compared to last was the way the coordinated manner in which they defended. Barça still dominated possession, but Arsenal was able to make it difficult for Barcelona to use the ball to control space and organize play. Barça’s possession was often jagged and interrupted rather than building in an even fashion.
How Barcelona adjusts to Arsenal’s defensive tactics will be an important factor in who progresses. Two important dimensions characterized the way Arsenal defended:
1. Arsenal stayed remarkably compact for most of the match. This made the pitch extremely “small” and in turn easier to defend
2. Arsenal pressed in an unorthodox fashion. Rather than prioritizing pressure on the ball, Arsenal’s press was designed to “close down” the pass.
Arsenal Stay Compact
Arsenal pressed out of a 4-4-1-1/ 4-4-2 block in defense. Arsenal pressed in order to congest the pitch in the middle third so that they could disrupt Barça’s build up. Rather than implementing a high press to win the ball back up the pitch Arsenal half pressed applying pressure primarily when the ball reached midfield.
This allowed Arsenal to press but to do so while decreasing the risk at the back. By half pressing around midfield Arsenal did not need to play the kind of extremely high back line Barça play in order to stay compact. And staying extremely compact was the key to their defense as doing so made the pitch extremely small.
In the still shot above Arsenal is well organized in a block evenly distributed across the pitch. The key issue here is how compact they are. From van Persie to the back line there is very little space. Van Persie’s role was one of the key’s to the Arsenal press the entire evening.
Along with Fabergas, he plays at the top of the two lines of four Arsenal defends with. Often strikers will only nominally involve themselves with pressing. But van Persie dropped back and actively participated in defense and this was critical to Arsenal’s ability to make the pitch small.
Above, Arsenal continue to maintain their compact shape and shrinking the pitch. Van Persie has dropped very deep. While the play is in front of him he is still playing a critical role.
By dropping back he is compressing the field and marking Busquets, who himself often finds free space between the lines to act as an open outlet for the ball when Barça runs into trouble in their attacking third. By moving back to stay compact, van Persie has eliminated the space between the midfielders and strikers that Busquets likes to exploit.
Arsenal was effective in maintaining this compact shape across the pitch.
The still shot above follows a few seconds after the second picture in this post. Barça has advanced the ball towards goal. Notice how Arsenal continue to fall back deeper but do so as a compressed block. Their shape is similar to the first two pictures in this post but now it’s stationed deeper. This kind of coordinated action is central to staying consistently compact.
Staying compact allows a defense to make the pitch functionally small. This is essential against Barcelona otherwise their skill on the ball will make the game unplayable for the defense.
By staying this compact Arsenal created a high density of defenders that clustered together making it more difficult for Barça to direct the ball into more dangerous opportunities. Of particular importance, it allowed Arsenal to clot the middle, which is where Barcelona tried to play the ball for much of the match.
Arsenal Pressing the Pass More than the Ball
One of the most interesting aspects to how Arsenal played was how they pressed. Rather than prioritizing direct pressure on the ball, Arsenal chose to focus their pressing on stopping the pass by pressuring the player who might receive the ball. Arsenal has played this way tactically for much of the season. But against Barça they utilized it to an even greater effect.
Essentially what Wenger was saying was that the best way to stop the one touch game isn’t to play the man with the ball. He won’t have it long enough. Instead, pressure who the man with the ball is likely to pass to. In the one touch passing game it’s most likely going to be a short pass and the ball will most likely be played to the receiver’s feet – not into space. Find the man closest to the player with the ball and aggressively close down that player.
The still shot above captures Arsenal’s defensive approach succinctly. First, notice again how extremely compact Arsenal is. They have made the field extremely small. Barça, trying to play the game they are comfortable with, in turn is looking to find space – but there just isn’t much room to work with between the lines because of Arsenal’s compressed shape.
Abidal has the ball – but notice how Song and Walcott are not looking to close him down. What is critical here isn’t Abidal and the way he’s being played despite the fact that he has the ball. The key tactics are unfolding away from the ball. Both Djourou and Eboue are aggressively closing down a player – but that player is Villa not Abidal the man with the ball.
They are looking to close down the player who they think is going to receive the ball rather than the player with the ball. What makes this even more remarkable is that Maxwell (not pictured) is also positioned on the flank and goes unmarked as both Arsenal defenders prioritize closing out Villa.
Above is another angle of the play. Arsenal are so aggressive in closing down Abidal’s route to the short pass they leave Maxwell completely unmarked. Abidal sees this and has the right idea but his pass to Maxwell is in an offside position and Abidal’s pass is not accurate.
This form of pressing made it particularly difficult for Messi. Arsenal would look to close him down before he even got ball to feet.
Iniesta has the ball and Messi is looking to link up play. Neither Song nor van Persie aggressively close down Iniesta, despite how close in space they are to him, the man with the ball.
Instead they both prioritize putting themselves in defensive position to pressure the potential receiver of the pass – Messi. Van Persie actually tracks Messi on this play rather than Iniesta.
Iniesta should respond by running at the defenders with the ball to force them to play him which would in turn free up Messi. But instead as the pass gets cut off Iniesta chooses to pass the ball backwards.
This is a good example of ineffective possession. Yes Barça has kept the ball but their build up forward has broken down.
This happened repeatedly throughout the match.
Here is an even more extreme example. Iniesta has the ball but the none of the three defenders around him are pressuring him despite the fact he has the ball. They simply assume he’s going to pass the ball quickly and to a short position. Van Persie is marking Abidal. And two defenders are already playing Messi. Despite this Iniesta goes onto try to thread a pass through to Messi who is then dispossessed of the ball.
How Should Barça Respond?
Barça did not adjust as effectively as they could have in the first leg to either the way Arsenal made the pitch functionally small by staying compact or to the way they prioritized pressing the receiver of the pass rather than the ball.
The second issue in particular was an area that Barcelona simply did not do a good job with because it goes against their style and instinct which is to play the ball quickly and short. Here are some potential ways Barça can alter their approach.
1. Run at defenders to make them commit to the ball
Barça cannot just look to play the ball short and quick if the receiver of the pass is being overplayed. They must run at defenders to make them commit. This doesn’t need to be dramatic – it only needs to be a few steps. The goal of running at the defenders in this context is to free up the potential receiver of the pass not necessarily to beat the defenders. This is in fact how Barça scored it’s goal and generated many of it’s most dangerous chances.
The still shot above is the build up play that immediately led to Barça’s goal. Messi has the ball and has started his run. Rather than close him down, Arsenal actually prioritizes the pass. Song is out of position and Wilshere looks to make sure he is marking Iniesta.
Messi continues his run and is not closed down by the holding players quickly enough. Song and Wilshere are late to defend. As they did for most of the game Koscielny and Djourou try not to step forward to play Messi knowing that this will open up passing lanes behind them.
However, Messi continues his run – he does not look to pass the ball early. This forces the CB’s in between decisions – close down Messi or play the pass. And that run forces Arsenal into poor positioning. Villa slides to the middle and Messi threads through a perfect pass.
What’s interesting about this play is how Villa and Pedro crowding together opens up the large channel between the CBs and RB. This is the space Messi exploits and Villa ultimately runs into.
Messi cannot however be the only one to provide this to the Barcelona attack. This gets to the next point.
2. Take advantage of the Arsenal high defensive line with more through balls, particularly diagonals
While Arsenal did not look to push its defensive line up the way Barça does, it still played relatively high up the field leaving space at the back. In staying compact Arsenal inevitably had to leave space open behind.
Here Iniesta and Alves are really critical. Arsenal are going to look to overplay Messi. Iniesta has the ability to run at defenders, beat them and play brilliant passes. He just wasn’t aggressive or direct enough the first match. Alves also has this ability – he needs to see more of the ball (more on this in point 4 below).
3. Form better triangles and form them faster particularly along the flanks
Barça’s positioning was uncharacteristically ineffective, particularly along the flanks. They did not form triangles dynamically enough. Triangles are the key to beating the way Arsenal was pressing because it gives the man with the ball two options to pass to. The play along the flanks – the area where they had the most space was too often linear rather than triangular
4. Stretch the field by using width and attacking from wide positions
Arsenal is looking to stay compact. Barça must better utilize width to give them more dangerous attacking angles and force Arsenal to defend more space. In the first leg Barça played too much through the middle. And importantly – when the did get the ball to the flank they often just utilized it as an outlet to retain possession rather than to make dangerous plays.
Dani Alves needs to see more of the ball. Barça should shunt their offense through him as Arsenal’s style of defending will be much more stressed at the edges than in the middle. Moving Messi to the right to link up with Alves will also help.
Similarly, whoever plays at left back must become a threat. They cannot simply act as an open outlet for the ball because if they do this will only facilitate Arsenal staying compact and clotting the middle. In turn this will make it easier for Arsenal to turn the ball over higher up the pitch and attack on the counter. Barcelona needs to make the pitch large again – and to to do that the left back must provide width and direct play towards goal otherwise Arsenal will overplay the passing routes and stay in shape.
5. Vary the attack more by playing the ball into space rather than to feet
Barcelona’s one touch game prioritizes playing the ball to feet rather than into space for players to run onto. But when a defense is playing as compact as Arsenals’s there’s just not much interior space if the players all want to receive the ball to foot. Adding variety to the attack and making it less predictable will force Arsenal to change how they want to defend.
Barça will need to try to play more longer passes – both over the top and diagonals – into space and let their players with pace run onto them. Pedro in particular has the ability to hurt Arsenal in this fashion.
This will be a challenging match. Barcelona looked caught off guard in the first leg with how Arsenal defended. I expect that they will make the needed adjustments today.