Tactical Preview: Barcelona – Arsenal Champions League Leg Two

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.

van Persie Drops Back to Defend Compressing Busquet's Space


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.

Arsenal Stays Compact as a Block Even When Falling Back


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.

Arsenal Pressuring Villa to Play the Pass Rather than Abidal the Man with the Ball

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.

Arsenal Think Pass is Going to Villa and Leave Maxwell Unmarked

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.

Arsenal Plays Pass to Messi Rather than Pressuring Iniesta who has the Ball


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.

van Persi Tracks Messi Cutting Off Iniesta's Forward Pass

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.

Arsenal Presses Passing Outlets Rather than the Ball

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.

Messi Not Closed Down As Arsenal Plays For the Pass

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.

Arsenal Centerbacks Don't Step Up and Get Dragged Out of Position By Messi's Run and Villa's Movement

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.



  1. Ooooooooh! We’ve been Eulergized! Have to drive now…can’t wait ’til I’m at my destination so I can read it!

  2. “Messi: “I was very frustrated after the 1st leg. We deserved better but didn’t score our chances. I didn’t talk for 24 hours.” [barcastuff]

    Making runs won’t be a problem 😉

    1. Thing is, did anyone notice that Messi didn’t talk? Isn’t he usually playing Legos by himself in his room? (which has a bunk bed but no roommate)

    2. Playing PES, eating rocketpops…..

      If we win Isaiah, can we have a rocketpop eating, lego and PES playing Messi scene? Pretty please?

  3. Great stuff, Euler.

    Let’s hope Pep and the team have learned from their mistakes and make the proper adjustments this time.

    1. I won’t, but it’s going to be tough if we lose. I don’t really know how I’ll react.

      I already told my Arsenal loving father that I won’t talk to him for 3 months, though. 😉

  4. Brilliant article Euler!
    Seeing as you singled out leftback as a crucial position for this match, I’m wondering who you would choose as a leftback for this match?

    1. I would play Adriano in this match on the left and instruct him to attack off the edges. He has the ability to run at defenders with pace.

      Also, I don’t see Pep changing how Barca plays and make them more cautious about conceding an away goal back. I think he’s going to play 3 at the back and push the FB’s forward.

      As such having a defender with pace on the left is particularly important to defend against the arsenal counter.

      If you look at Arsenal’s second goal Maxwell was up the pitch. He pressed when Arsenal took possession but then got beat high up. He worked hard to recover position but just didn’t have the pace to get back to stop the ball. Nasri’s pull back cross to Arshavin that scores the goal passed just in front of maxwell as he tried to get back.

      If you press FB high up the pitch pace because of paramount importance at that position.

  5. Wow, over a hundred readers online, and a whole lot of them from the UK! Hi, Gooners! *waves* Have a manita! 😀

  6. Great analysis as usual, though this only makes me more nervous.I guess its telling that for all their good tactics in this game we still had enough chances to sentence the game.If we miss the same number of chances then it will be curtains.I have faith in them though.Its too bad Carles and Pique aren’t playing though.Not only for their defending but we could have used their setpiece ability today.The old Pique decoy, Xavi to Carles bullet header comes to mind.Kind of hoping Adriano starts today for his attacking aggression.

  7. oooh this is so good Euler. I didn’t pick up on the way they were backing off the player with the ball. Iniesta, Messi and Alves will be the destabilizing factors if they dare do this again. Something tells me however Arsenal will sit back alot more this time.

  8. A big thanks from me as well Euler! You make this awful waiting time pass faster and and much more constructively. Anyone else other than me and Ramzi feeling more confident with Busi on the defense than Pique who is on a horrid form? my major concern is for Smach to try and play the ball as fast as possible so we would have our precious fluidity..but I think I trust him, he’ll be good…this is too big a match for him not to be good, so let;s trust our team… 🙂

    I was lucky enough to be in last years 4-1 and for some wierd reason i didn’t worry the slightest when arsenal got the 0-1 that for the moment send them to the semis…You could just feel it in the stadium that there was no way we wouldn’t advance…

    If we have the same attitude now-and Arsenal don’t become Inter in the way the play defense, I’m sure that NOTHING will stop us…
    It’s all on us boys and gals so lets grab it!
    Visca Barca!

  9. I have no idea why, but I’m gonna predict a 3-0 scoreline. (Normally I don’t do this, but I accurately predicted 3-1 for the Liverpool-Man United game last weekend, and I wasn’t even all that confident that Liverpool would win! They’re my English team.)

    Fingers crossed, and Visca Barca.

  10. Getting Ready for the match

    Watching Last Year’s 4-1 Victory. Check.

    Defeating Arsenal 14-0 on PES11 using Villareal. Check.

    Colleges postponed in Egypt till further notice. Check.

    I think I’m ready 😀

  11. As an aside – not that it’s going to happen – but given the way Arsenal defended last match, the player on the Barca squad whose skill set seems particularly well suited to playing against Arsenal is Thiago.

    He is very good in compressed space. From what I’ve seen from him that strikes me as his greatest strength.

    Again, he’s not going to play today, but at this time next year he would be a player who would be very effective to utilize.

    1. Also, Players with Pace who could use the space behind Arsenal’s Defence like Afellay but he won’t be used.

    2. Afellay would be great. Every time he has shined this half-season has been with space; his long passing skills are so awesome. Thiago is interesting. He’s great at running at defenders and making a last second pass. He actually took part in the quick training session today so he’s in the squad. Could Pep use him? Who knows!? But, like everyone else, I don’t see how he could play Thiago ahead of the rest of the bench. I think that is also the problem with Maxwell. If Pep benches him, that might be a problem for him mentally. Switching him for Adriano this game would be like saying “I know you’ve played so many games this year and last, but you suck.” I can only imagine that is why Maxwell and Milito get playing time over Adriano and someone like Fontas. Think for a moment why we haven’t played Fontas: Milito’s confidence. Yeah, we are going to go all the way to the reserves to play someone in front of you, Gabi. Even small egos have to be cared for.

    3. Pep’s last ditch effort vs. Inter was bringing on Jeffren, I’m sure he wouldn’t be scared to bring on Thiago late for a CB.

    4. Problem is, Thiago will probably be the man who doesn’t make the final squad list.

    5. True, but you’re forgetting something:
      Pep’s standard emergency procedures
      1. 80′ Bring on Bojan
      2. 85′ Bring on Jeffren
      3. 95′ Fly in the Hleb

      So glad we have never made it to #3

    6. Funny enough, I day dreamt one of our midfielders got hurt and Thiago came in and got 3 assists.

      Wilshere asked for his jersey after the match, btw.

  12. What do you think of the possibility of Alves at LB, to confuse Wenger? Alves at LB would allow a more defensively sturdy Maxwell at RB (where he’s played before), and he could stop the threat of Nasri playing there. Last year AA was on the right because Alves would eat him up on the left. So what about Alves at LB, Maxwell at RB. Shores up the right side, allows Abidal to play CBL and shore up his side, and gives us a presence on the left and screws with Wenger’s gameplan.

  13. Always wanted Adriano to play, I really hope our players take advantage of not being marked when with the ball … this game will be a lot about individual brilliance it seems as a single dribble and a decent run will lead to a goal due to Arsenal’s commitment to defend the receiver.

    Excellent review as always Euler.

  14. Width, movement, width, movement and width.
    Faster, more accurate, even faster, more accurate, especially when you shoot.

    We didn’t use our width effectively last time, but this time, we will correct the mistake because it’s too obvious. Maxwell did poorly in that regard because he wasn’t taking any advantage of Arsenal’s compact defending tactic. Also, I am tired of his back passes. Therefore, Adriano should be the left winger. I don’t expect him to be the full back, because his potential defending deficiency has to be calculated and we cannot allow that to hurt us. So, I agree with Euler with the 3-4-3 formation which will see Busquets and Mascherano playing interchanging positions from time to time.

    Alves, on the other side of the pitch, has been quite spectacular in everything except his shooting/finishing. Let’s hope to see him make a deep impact today!

    We will win, I am nervous, but not worried. I’d have doubts if we play an aircraft-parking team, but against a side that plays, we will simply win. Yes, very confident, but I believe we will. Camp Nou is a dream stadium for us after all.

    1. Game screams for Adriano over Maxwell. I like him much better on the left. Besides, on the right, he was never gonna live up to Dani comparisons. Two attack minded Brazilians, comin’ atcha from each side…that’ll give fullbacks something to worry about and us more width.

  15. Allas14 will be posting his videos at metacafe from now on so his videos won’t be deleted.



  16. Allas14 will be posting his videos at metacafe from now on so his videos won’t be deleted.



  17. Euler, you should be careful! Arsene Wenger is probably trolling this site right now and you have given away all our tactical secrets!

  18. awesome, ferris euler!

    covered, head to toe, in axe body spray. going to the pub!

  19. According to some Dutch source RVP will not only play but he’s STARTING today.

    I’m sure his injury was terrrrrrible. Wenger is like Bill Belichick without the championships.

    1. “Zee player, ee was shot at close range wizz a bazooka, et ees dead. But, um, we will not rule him out for the weekend. It is a big match, and we will see.” (Kxevin)

    2. Whatevs.

      He was fully fit and on form and they still lost to Birmingham. Just sayin’.

      (He is (still) very dangerous, of course. Especially considering our defense).

  20. I have an idea that we should try.

    Next time Alves has an opportunity to shoot, We all scream at the same time at our screens “Shoot Dani Shoot”

    1. It might come down to the timing of y’alls peanuts shout out! Still don’t get it!?

  21. LiveBlog will start 15 minutes early today.

    It’s a vicsoc-Kari collab, so it’s full of win, but since there have been stream problems of late (Feds are cracking down hard), I’ll leave a a 15 min. window for people to be approved and get links/ back up links ready.

    I’m in a rock in a hard place, since the game is on TV, but people are coming over and may use it (I don’t wish to comment further on this development, for fear I might cyber-kill someone).

    1. I can’t believe I have to watch this one DVR’d. Sometimes it’s extra hard to be a mom. Might get home for part of it.

  22. Darnit Blitz, you offered the gooners a manita! I want one too! With extra “Mascherano” cherries!

    1. I’m at work! And it was only a fake manita, anyway. helge is the one with all the ingredients lined up, ask him to make you one.

    2. I still have to drive home. I can’t drink. Please make me a virtual one.

  23. And I’ve been wanting to say this for a while:

    jnelson’s avatar is made of all things awesome. Yesh.

    1. Thanks. I was looking for something with King Eric and lucky for me I found Pep in it as well.

  24. JNice said if we win he’s going to play song of storms on his ocarina and upload it on youtube

    1. O.O

      I love Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (that’s like the best game).

      He should play the Sun Song when if we win and the Song of Storm if we lose.

    2. okay I may be fabricating jnice quotes from now on.. I don’t know if he even knows what an ocarina is…
      but since I work for the daily mail he has said he’s forming an oasis cover band with ocarinas only.

    3. So he didn’t actually say that? Awww 🙁

      I thought I had some solidarity with another Zelda fan. It would have been awesome if he was. Oh well…

    4. Just butting in to say that I love Zelda 64. 😀 How about the Song of Time? Hehe.

  25. Okay, so I was just on barcastuff, and they have pictures of the players arriving at the stadium on the barca-bus…and I don’t know if my brain has just become addled with excitement, but why do they have suitcases?!

    1. the suitcases are to carry all the cans of ass-whupping that they are bringing to camp nou

  26. I actually prefer RvP to start as opposed to Pep making a 60th minute substitution and Wenger countering it by bringing in RvP

  27. Barcelona line-up (official): Valdes – Alves Busquets Abidal Maxwell – Xavi Mascherano Iniesta – Pedro Messi Villa #fcblive

    1. I knew I couldn’t be seeing things as I cut and pasted- Thanks for the catch! Adriano makes me happier for this particular game.

    2. barcastuff
      1. Arsenal line-up (official): Szczesny – Sagna Djorou Koscielny Clichy – Rosicky Wilshere Cesc Diaby Nasri – Van Persie #fcblive

  28. Valdes – Alves Busquets Abidal Adriano – Xavi Mascherano Iniesta – Pedro Messi Villa

    Adriano left back Busquets CB

  29. Gotta say, this was a very impressive review.

    While the way we pressed at the Grove was far more pronounced and energetic than usual, this is an aspect of AFC’s (and AW’s) defensive policy which seems to have completely gone over the heads of the British football ‘pundits.’ We generally take a lot of criticism for not being big or physical enough when defending high balls into the box (and subsequently labelled as weak at the back), but ever since the disillusion of the invincibles, faking a press and instead attacking the passing lanes has been our primary means of winning the ball back. We don’t often make the sorts of crunching tackles most popular in this country, but on our day we can be very efficient at nicking away any ill-conceived pass.

    Personally, I’m hoping that AW throws a bit of a curve-ball and plays Kieran Gibbs on the left instead of Andrei Arshavin, leaving the Russian to be brought on as an impact sub similar to the 1st Leg.

    The fitness (or lack thereof) of RVP will be very important for the Arsenal. For defensive reasons, as highlighted in the OP, as well as offensively. However, if he is borderline, I think AW has to leave him on the bench. This is a massive game, but for me, having him fit for the league run-in would be more important than having his involvement tonight.

    Good luck folks, and may the best team win.

    1. “this is an aspect of AFC’s (and AW’s) defensive policy which seems to have completely gone over the heads of the British football ‘pundits.’ ”

      Best part of the ITV coverage of the first leg. The announcers saying that Koscielny and Djourou were “ball watching” on Messi’s run.

      They didn’t even understand the basic strategy Wenger was deploying on how to defend Messi as a false 9.

    2. If you quized them, I sincerely doubt they could even tell you what a false-9 is…

      ‘what, no.9, he’s the big man up front who puts his head on the ball! That gardiola doesn’t know what he’s doing!’

      I was massively impressed with the discipline shown by both JD and Kos in that game, especially after Messi’s movement last year dragged TV5 about so badly.

      Dear God, I sincerely hope that Rosicky is playing on the left, if he starts in the middle you could see a cricket score!

      Of course him drifting in off the left could well draw Alves inside with him, removing the width that you were calling for in the OP… will see in a minute or two I guess.

  30. Ok. Here we go. Worried defensively but as long as we hold the ball we’re still marginal favourites.

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