How Arsenal must play in order to beat Barcelona in the Champions League
Arsenal's clash with Barcelona has been billed as another contest between two sides in a continual series, but it's actually been half a decade since the sides previously met. It was so long ago that Cesc Fabregas was still with Arsenal -- never mind him joining Barcelona, being turned down by Arsene Wenger when he wanted to return to England and then winning the Premier League with Chelsea.
More importantly, Arsenal have evolved significantly since then while Barcelona have changed coach three times. Nevertheless, Wenger will be analysing the previous meetings between the sides before deciding upon his tactical approach.
The two ties against Barcelona were something of a learning experience for Arsenal. For the first contest, in 2010, Wenger was at his most frustrating in terms of tactical inflexibility; it seemed as though he barely considered the opposition when instructing his side. Arsenal seemed utterly shocked when Barcelona used their staggeringly aggressive press and Pep Guardiola's side should have been 5-0 up at half-time. Somehow the sides went in goal-less and the game eventually finished 2-2 as Barcelona's early pressing eventually left them exhausted. Lionel Messi almost single-handedly won the return game.
The next tie, in 2011, saw Arsenal prepared for the challenge. Having half-heartedly started to press midway through the previous year's first leg, Arsenal decided to play Barcelona at their own game. They pressed well, and more importantly, they coped with Barcelona's press. It remains Jack Wilshere's standout performance in an Arsenal shirt, because he was so effective at receiving the ball on the half-turn, easing past the opposition pressure, and smoothly moving forward into attack.
In the return leg, which Arsenal eventually lost narrowly after Robin van Persie's controversial dismissal, Arsenal sat much deeper and tried to frustrate Barcelona. The Catalan side eventually prevailed but Arsenal were winning 3-2 when Van Persie was dismissed.
Wenger must decide how to take on Barcelona: should his team press or sit deep? Realistically, however, Arsenal will probably need to do both, albeit at different times.
In the opening stages, Arsenal should press and make it a high-tempo game. They've done this excellently in previous matches against this standard of opposition, particularly in the meeting with Bayern Munich a couple of seasons ago when their excellent start would have been rewarded with the lead had Ozil not missed a penalty. The blitz at home to Manchester United in October, during which Arsenal raced into a 3-0 lead, was also an example of a match where Wenger had clearly told his players to start extremely quickly.
Barcelona's passing out from the back hasn't been particularly good in the past couple of months. They're still obviously the best in Europe at this concept, but there have been some nervous moments -- a narrow 2-1 away win at Malaga last month, for example, saw a ludicrous succession of errors in deep positions albeit with an unfamiliar back four. Once the tempo dropped Barca were in control, but it took a while for them to earn that control.
It's a relatively familiar theme -- even at their best under Pep Guardiola, they were most vulnerable to pressing in the opening stages. Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid side often had joy in this respect. Atletico Madrid, meanwhile, took the lead at the Camp Nou having aggressively squeezed Barcelona high up the pitch throughout the first 10 minutes, although eventually lost 2-1.
Arsenal have players who can press. Olivier Giroud works hard even if he's not particularly impressive in terms of stamina, while Ozil gets through more running than he's given credit for. Alexis Sanchez is the absolutely ideal player to press Barcelona given his three years at the club, while right-sided options Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott are both fine athletes and Aaron Ramsey naturally closes down rather than sits deep. Arsenal must pounce quickly. Danny Welbeck also merits a mention here; two of his best games prior to joining Arsenal were for Man United against Real Madrid in 2013, when he played off Van Persie and shadowed Xabi Alonso.
It's impossible to press for the entire game, however, and at some point Arsenal must retreat. This retreat probably needs to be extremely dramatic and definitely needs to be cohesive because if Arsenal stop pressing high up the pitch and continue to hold a high line, they'll be punished with long balls in behind the defence. Indeed, that was precisely their problem against Barcelona in the 2-2 draw back in 2010 -- Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored both goals following long balls from defence. Similarly, the winner in Barca's aforementioned recent win against Atletico came when Dani Alves knocked a simple long ball in behind for Luis Suarez, a combination that has proved effective this season.
Suarez has caused Arsenal problems previously, of course. Meanwhile, it looks like Per Mertesacker will play to the right of Arsenal's centre-back partnership because Gabriel is highly doubtful due to injury. Mertesacker's lack of pace is sometimes exaggerated and against poor opposition he's fine; against Suarez and Neymar, however, you don't want to be taking any chances. Arsenal will need to drop deep.
Although it's not their natural approach, Arsenal have occasionally proved effective at this against good Champions League opposition in recent seasons. The 1-0 win at Dortmund two seasons ago was a classic backs-to-the-wall performance while the counter-attacking 2-0 win against Guardiola's Bayern earlier this campaign saw Arsenal sitting extremely deep and soaking up pressure for long periods. Wenger praised Ozil, in particular, for getting through his defensive responsibilities well, sacrificing himself for the team. Up against Sergio Busquets, the man who usually puts Barca in control, he'll need to perform excellently for Arsenal to get a result.
Even the best-laid plans can fail, of course, against arguably the most terrifying front three the Champions League has ever seen but Arsenal must be intelligent in their approach. They will probably look to starve Messi, Suarez and Neymar of service in the early stages before starving them of space for the majority of the game.
With a bit of luck and a Petr Cech masterclass, Arsenal will have half a chance.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.