Arsenal can't beat Barcelona? Not so fast -- here's their blueprint to victory
It has been a long time since Barcelona lost a game. When Lionel Messi & Co. travel to the Emirates on Tuesday to face off against Arsenal, the Gunners are going to have to do something that 32 previous Barcelona opponents have failed to do, win, if they are to have any hope of advancing.
How exactly can Arsenal accomplish that? After they are done praying long and hard to the soccer gods, Arsene Wenger's men will have to figure out a game plan that is tailored to the unique challenges that Barcelona under Luis Enrique pose.
No matter what Arsenal do the odds will be long, but addressing the specific things Barcelona excel at will give the North London side the best chance possible. Here are the do's and don'ts of playing Barcelona.
Enrique's Barcelona are primarily interested in attacking the space behind their opponents' defensive line. It used to be, under Pep Guardiola, that Barcelona would use possession to break through defences with strings of short passes and interchanges in the midfield designed to get Leo Messi running unimpeded at the defence.
That's not Plan A anymore. Now, Barcelona's possession is intended to free up passers in midfield to have the time and space to pick out lethal through-balls to the otherworldly attacking trio of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. Their intricate off-ball movement, often times combined with a midfielder or fullback as well, is the engine that drives the attack.
Combatting that much talent is obviously no easy task, and it's a matter of picking which poison you might just survive a heavy dose of on a good day. There are two main options to take. First is playing extremely deep and keeping nine to 10 men behind the ball at all times. The purpose is to simply make those passes as hard as possible to complete. Playing deep and compact means that if attacking players come to the ball there are midfielders in the pockets of space, and that there are simply no spaces behind to fit defence-splitting passes into.
The major drawback here is that even if it works, it becomes incredibly difficult to maintain possession once Barcelona lose the ball. The team still counter-presses extremely well, especially in tight spaces. And if Arsenal have a limited number of safe outlet pass options, it plays right into the hands of defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets, possibly the best defensive reader of the game in the world.
If Busquets can spend the day picking off Arsenal clearances and staying at the edges of the attacking third of the pitch, instead of being forced back into his own half, it's only a matter of time before he exploits a brief minute of Arsenal confusion in transition, finds a microscopic opening and slips a pass through to a forward clean in on goal.
The more aggressive option for Arsenal is one predicated on not giving passers enough time and space to find those magic through-balls. This is obviously easier said than done. A good coordinated press in the middle third of the pitch can make life somewhat complicated for Barcelona and disrupt the rhythm and timing of their attack.
In effect, the plan is to turn midfielders Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic into dribblers rather than passers, and make them beat a midfielder or winger or both before having the time and space to look up. And, even if they can do that, then foul them and stop play before a pass eviscerates the defence.
Barcelona's answer to a heavy press is often to have Messi turn provider, dropping deeper and more central to pick up the ball off of his midfielders, and then produce his magic. The reality of playing Barcelona though, is that a defensive strategy of making Messi beat two players off the dribble before scooping a perfectly weighted through ball to Suarez may be the best approach.
Messi as creator also means that Messi isn't testing the backline away from the ball. Usually Dani Alves, from his right-back slot, makes up the numbers when Messi is quarterbacking. And if Arsenal are playing the percentages, it's a lot easier to live with Alves getting the ball in a dangerous area the times that passes are completed than it is to deal with Messi. Alves will at least sometimes have a bad day.
What's most likely is that Arsenal will have to mix the two strategies, perhaps playing the more aggressive one until the fouls and cards start piling up and then pulling back. The key is to avoid getting caught in the middle. Too many teams end up with their defensive lines pushing high to restrict midfield space, while the midfielders and attackers drop off to remain behind the ball.
That's where Barcelona want teams to do, as they begin launching inch-perfect pass after inch-perfect pass, completely bypassing entire tightly knit defensive units. That's the situation that Arsenal need to avoid at all costs.
If moving Messi around to the positions he can do the least damage is the goal when defending against Barcelona, then moving Busquets around is the goal when attacking. Barcelona's primary defensive strategy is an aggressive counter-press to win the ball back quickly, with Busquets sweeping in behind to cut off the outlet pass.
The absolute worst thing that can happen to Arsenal is having Busquets intercept clearances to Olivier Giroud, while the Gunners are transitioning into attack. The Barcelona midfielder is simply too good at both anticipating those passes, intercepting them and then turning them back into attacking moves going the other direction.
Instead, Arsenal need to counterattack against Barcelona down the wings. Specifically Arsenal need to focus on Barcelona's right side, which is often times left fairly open when Messi moves centrally and Dani Alves pushes high up the field.
Whether it's Giroud pulling extremely wide, or one of the wingers breaking out quickly, Arsenal need to work the sidelines in transition. That way, even if Busquets successfully contests the pass (and since he's superhuman it's completely likely he'll just magically pop up on the sideline where he's supposed to be), he'll be in worse position to play a killer pass afterward, and hopefully that gives Arsenal more time to recover.
Getting past Busquets is only step one of the attacking program. Usually the point of counterattacking is to get down the field and get a shot faster than the defence can get set. Against Barcelona that's not always the case. Because Barcelona spend so much time on the ball their defence is constructed to be at its best when faced with counterattacking situations.
Both first-choice centre-backs, Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano, excel at doing last-ditch defending in space. And by getting opponents to attack quickly, Barcelona succeeds in getting the ball back quickly as well, and going right back into their relentless attack.
No, against Barcelona the point of the counterattack is that it's the easiest way to get from your own final third into theirs, as opposed to trying to pass through their press. Arsenal would be well served to counterattack, but rather than look for quick shots, look to sustain possession in dangerous areas.
Playing that way serves a few purposes. First, it's an additional way of defending. By hanging onto possession the team keeps the ball out of Barcelona's hands, which is the best way to stop Neymar, Messi and Suarez from embarrassing defenders.
Secondly, keeping the ball is the best way for Arsenal to get numbers forward. Barcelona's counter-press is so good that initially full-backs and midfielders can't really spring into attack, they have to guard against the very real chance that Barcelona will win the ball right back. But break that counter-press and now Aaron Ramsey can get forward from midfield, while Hector Bellerin can overlap from right-back and force Neymar to do defensive work.
Arsenal can't be afraid to get players forward into attack, but they have to do so at times when they've already secured possession of the ball, so they won't be immediately exploited.
Lastly, while Pique and Mascherano might be excellent at transition defence, both can be exploited if forced to defend for long periods of time. On a bad day, Pique's aggressiveness in attempting to win the ball back can make him a liability if forced to face up against attackers in his own box, and on every day Mascherano's smaller stature makes him exploitable in the air.
Barcelona are simply not built to defend like a typical team, which is why that's exactly what Arsenal need to make them do. Get into the final third fast, then patiently construct attacks. That's when full-backs Nacho Monreal and Bellerin need to come forward in support as Arsenal attempt to isolate Giroud against Mascherano in the box, and get space for Alexis Sanchez to run at Pique. Both of those matchups can work to Arsenal's advantage, if they can keep the ball long enough to set them up.
Obviously all of this is much easier said than done and Barcelona as a team hunts the ball down like few others. Even if Arsenal execute this plan flawlessly, Barcelona will still catch them upfield a number of times with the lightning-fast counterattacks of their superstar front three.
But just like on the defensive side, Arsenal's game plan needs to be about giving themselves as good a chance as possible. If Arsenal can execute a coherent strategy, with a little bit of luck and maybe an off day from one or two Barcelona stars, they'll have a shot.
However, if they play into Barcelona's hands -- even if the Catalan club doesn't hit their usual heights -- Messi & Co. will coast to victory.
The Gunners aren't likely to win, but they need to give themselves the best chance.
Mike L. Goodman is a Washington, D.C.-based soccer writer and analyst covering primarily European soccer. Follow him on Twitter @TheM_L_G.