Barcelona counter Arsenal as Messi's goals make the difference
LONDON -- In a game between two sides renowned for their possession play, it was a lightning quick counter-attack which proved crucial.
Barcelona's front three -- Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar -- are so irresistible not merely because of their individual quality but also because of their combination play and the opening goal in their side's 2-0 win showed their relationship perfectly.
Andres Iniesta collected the ball and immediately played in Suarez, dribbling up against Laurent Koscielny in Arsenal's right-back zone. The Uruguayan then poked the ball through the defender's legs and into the path of Neymar.
Before the Brazilian even received possession, he glanced over his shoulder to see Messi breaking forward on the right. At that point, Neymar deliberately sucked Nacho Monreal inside as much as possible before transferring the ball onto the Argentine.
And then, at the end of a move enthralling for its incredible speed, Messi slowed things down just slightly by taking a touch before shooting. It put goalkeeper Petr Cech on the floor and made Messi's task easier. 1-0, Barcelona.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was furious at the time and would concentrate heavily upon the nature of this concession during his post-match press conference.
"We lost the goal in the period of game when [we were] looking better," he said. "We lost a goal in a way we knew we couldn't afford. It's disappointing to give them a goal like we did on the first goal; we are guilty and have no excuse for that goal. Two of three opportunities to stop the first goal, we didn't do that; we didn't have the responsibility in the situation the players faced. We knew we had not to give them a goal on the counter-attack; that is when they are most dangerous."
Prior to that concession had been 70 mature minutes from Arsenal; precisely the type of strategic performance they haven't offered often enough in Champions League knockout games. In previous meetings with Barcelona they seemed shocked at their opponents' tempo and pressing, but here they came prepared.
There was an obvious Arsenal game plan without possession that proved effective for long periods: They pressed Barcelona high up the pitch at goal kicks, but otherwise dropped off into a medium block, keeping a reasonably high defensive line but concentrating heavily on remaining compact.
Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil didn't close down Barca central defenders Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano, but instead dropped off and prevented simple passes into the feet of Sergio Busquets, the man who really gets Barcelona playing in midfield these days.
There were some nervous moments for the hosts early on when the game was frenetic. Hector Bellerin was turned easily by Neymar, while Monreal was booked within the opening 10 minutes for a foul on Leo Messi and both Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey both dived into tackles.
But when the game settled down after around 15 minutes -- usually the time when Barcelona's superiority becomes obvious -- Arsenal looked increasingly comfortable. Their defensive shape was good, and they were starving service into Messi, Suarez and Neymar.
What Arsenal lacked, however, was quality transitions. Many sides have caused Barcelona problems this season by pressing high up the pitch and forcing turnovers: Malaga and Atletico Madrid in recent weeks, for example.
But because Arsenal weren't doing that and didn't enjoy too many spells of heavy possession inside the opposition half, they needed to play on the counter-attack.
And to do that, they needed to ensure their transitions were good, switching smoothly from the defensive phase to the attacking phase. In that respect, Arsenal were poor. Their decision-making and composure at key moments let them down and some of their best "opportunities" were wasted on the break before a chance had been created.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who made his name at this stage four years ago with a fine counter-attacking performance against Milan, struggled to provide quality on the break that Arsenal desperately required. One moment, when he miscontrolled a ball on the run in the first half, allowing Mascherano to intercept and win a foul, summarised the struggles.
It wasn't all Oxlade-Chamberlain's fault -- one pass from Giroud was needlessly overhit and trickled out of play -- but the winger wasn't fulfilling his job description. Ozil also became frustrated with poor passes out of defence; often Arsenal hacked the ball clear aimlessly, when they could have provided intelligent out-balls to prompt good breaks.
"We were impatient in the build-up", Wenger said after the game. "We lost balls we don't usually lose, not because Barcelona forced us to, but because we were not precise enough in our passing."
After half-time, Barcelona improved and transferred the ball quickly into the path of their front trio. Neymar became particularly dangerous during this period, combining well with Messi at one point and then forcing Cech into an absolutely superb one-on-one save, the goalkeeper racing forward quickly and flinging out a right leg to turn the ball away.
After this period of pressure, though, Arsenal moved into the game again and for the first time in the match, had serious spells inside the Barcelona half.
Giroud, in particular, was involved more but his decision-making wasn't always impressive; at one point, he collected the ball in an inside-right position, but played a pass on the overlap to absolutely no-one.
It was this type of thing that Arsenal simply didn't get right all night: It wasn't that their finishing was poor, but that they didn't play the right passes to create chances.
Nevertheless, the volume at the Emirates picked up and two of the biggest cheers came when Arsenal players dispossessed Messi. First Sanchez sprinted back 40 yards to make a superb tackle, winning a free-kick in the process, before Koscielny won back possession through his sheer persistence.
Arsenal were on top, only for Barcelona to produce a perfect counter to wrestle control of the tie. Messi's opener was the type of goal Wenger's side have often conceded in big games at the Emirates, particularly against Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United.
More pertinently, it was the type of attack they should have been constructing themselves but, instead, with Arsenal higher up the pitch and pushing more men forward, there was less of a barrier between Barca's front three and the rest of their side.
Arsenal didn't react well to going behind and, from their point of view, the second goal was calamitous. Mertesacker clumsily playing the ball towards Mathieu Flamini, on as a substitute just seconds earlier, and the Frenchman brought down Messi, who converted the penalty to double his own tally and almost certainly put the tie out of Arsenal's reach.
Wenger was honest about his side's chances: "Barcelona are 95 percent through," he said. With Arsenal needing to force the issue in the Camp Nou, they'll be even more vulnerable to counter-attacks.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.