Barcelona and Arsenal share values but have become worlds apart in execution
The most recent time Arsenal came to the Camp Nou, back in 2011, there was intense drama, loads of it, both on and off the pitch. That helps chart the gulf that has opened between the two clubs since they met in the 2006 Champions League Final.
Since Juliano Belletti's dramatic late goal in Paris, a strike that ensured Arsene Wenger's valiant 10-man effort yielded nothing but praise, Arsenal have won four trophies over nearly 10 long years. Half of those trophies have been Community Shields.
Over the same decade, Barcelona have lifted silverware 22 times, including, crucially, three more Champions Leagues and three World Club Cups. Their dominance has been over all -- not just Spain's best.
Back to the meeting of these clubs five years ago at the Camp Nou. The drama started before the match, with Pep Guardiola responding to a question from the UK media about Jack Wilshere. "[He] is a top player. He's excellent -- not just at Arsenal but for the national team. However, he's lucky because we have many players in our youth sections like him, but he plays because there is no pressure at his club to win titles."
What a telling phrase -- not about Wilshere, but about Arsenal and Wenger. At that stage, in 2011, the Gunners had won nothing in five years and wouldn't do so again for another three. That's even longer than the period of trophy-less time at the Camp Nou (1999-2003) that caused a social and sporting revolution. Sick of failure, uncompetitive football and having Luis Figo easily plucked away by Real Madrid, FC Barcelona's socios spoke. They voted the old guard out and swept in the young, dynamic Joan Laporta regime, which was driven by the philosophies of Johan Cruyff.
It was a move that catalyzed the most successful, sustained, attractive and dynamic 12 years in the history of football. What runs through that dynasty is the absolute demand that this club both plays attractive football and wins. More specifically, the demand that it wins against the big teams of Spain and Europe, the demand for trophies.
What has been equally demanded at Arsenal in the same period? You know the answer. There was a time when Guardiola, in the no-man's-land between finishing as a player and taking fledgling coaching steps, admired the brand of football under Wenger and quietly mused about Arsenal being a stopping point in his future. But his remark in 2011 wasn't at all derogatory of Wilshere. It was simply aimed at a culture he completely disapproved of: the culture at Arsenal, where Champions League qualification, rather than winning that competition or the Premier League, was the absolute, basic requirement.
Just a few months later, Guardiola told me: "When you train a massive club or a little third-division outfit, when you go out to play football in any situation, it is always about winning, full-stop. The only thing which interests us is achieving the victory. If that wasn't the case, if that wasn't what drives me every day, then I wouldn't be here."
Irrespective of how much simpler Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta made winning, what Guardiola had deduced even then was that a pragmatism existed at Arsenal, and it didn't appeal to him. He couldn't understand it. Arsenal's board might call it prudence or realism, taking advantage of the massive financial magnetism of finishing in England's top four each season. Even their shareholders and some of their fans might have approved. Guardiola saw it as coasting.
Cut to today, and though Barcelona seek a second successive trophy treble and Spurs compete with Leicester for the Premier League title, might he have had a point? What of the players in the Camp Nou youth system to whom Guardiola referred in his comparison to Wilshere? More or less, he meant Sergi Roberto, Nolito, Oriol Romeu, Sergi Gomez, Jonathan Dos Santos, Thiago, Rafinha, Martin Montoya and Gerard Deulofeu.
All of them are now elsewhere, bar Sergi Roberto and Rafinha. The former made his debut later in that 2011 Champions League but took until this season to be appreciated and established. Rafinha is valued but needed a loan spell at Celta Vigo and, thanks to injury, still hasn't nailed down anything like a regular starting place.
Yes, Thiago left in search of regular first-team football and to stay under Guardiola's tuition. But as Guardiola predicted, the rest were briefly tested and then sold while their club searched restlessly to continue the golden run of success that began in 2005.
The Camp Nou remains a place where progress from the cantera (youth system) to first team is cherished, but it's brutally competitive, as many promising Barça kids have found out. The other side of that, when you compare Barcelona and Arsenal in recent years, also leaves Arsene Wenger under the microscope. If you don't buy with bravery, vision and nerve ... you lose.
It's a fair comment that while Petr Cech has been a terrific success, it took the Frenchman too long to properly replace Jens Lehmann. In comparison, Barcelona were faced with the abrupt departure of Victor Valdes, their greatest keeper ever, and plucked two extraordinary replacements, Claudio Bravo and Marc Andre Ter Stegen, out of their hat at the same time.
Not only was Luis Suarez coveted by Arsenal, but also Wenger bid for him, and he failed by trying to play clever instead of ruthless. Ivan Rakitic? Custom-made for the Gunners. Jeremy Mathieu? Tall, fast and technical enough for any Premier League team. Javier Mascherano? Precisely the attitude and will-to-win Arsenal have lacked in midfield and defence for years. When he moved from Liverpool in 2010, he took a wage cut at the Camp Nou. Wouldn't he have been a sensible purchase for Arsenal?
In that 2011 knockout tie, Mascherano saved Guardiola's bacon with a last-ditch, perfectly timed, penalty-box tackle of Nicklas Bendtner. He managed pretty similar feats at the Emirates a couple weeks ago when Messi's brace put Barcelona in the driver's seat.
Neymar? Perhaps the Brazilian was always destined for Spain instead of England. But were Arsenal in there, queuing at Santos' front door with a record-breaking bid for such a mercurial talent? No, they weren't.
While Barcelona have dominated world football, they have also speculated to accumulate. Arsenal, in comparison, have tended to not accumulate enough world-class players to remain properly competitive. Has Wenger been sufficiently bold and sufficiently visionary in his signings, strong enough to take calculated financial risks? One would have to say no, particularly if Wenger's like-for-like decisions and success rate are compared to those of Wednesday's Camp Nou rivals.
When Samuel Eto'o left the Camp Nou in 2009, Wenger considered the striker, once a favourite of his, past his best. Eto'o won the treble with Inter the following season. Suarez fell through because it took a powerful bid from Arsenal, rather than a couple quid over the supposed buyout clause, to lever him out of Anfield. Gonzalo Higuain was scouted and persuaded but then discarded at the final hurdle.
Developing first-rate talent such as Messi, Pique, Puyol, Iniesta, Xavi, Valdes, Busquets and Pedro is the emblem of the current Barça era. But even given Barca's occasional market failures, overall they buy well too.
Shouldn't Arsene Wenger have been watching and learning? Barcelona are bigger and bolder, and they operate with a philosophy enshrined at the club -- not one belonging unilaterally to the current manager.
Back to the drama in 2011. Robin Van Persie was sent off for a second booking after 56 minutes. Arguably, he represents Arsenal's best signing since the 2006 Champions League final. But within a year of the 2011 defeat at the Camp Nou, he announced that he was joining Manchester United. In his first season, he won the title, something he had yearned for.
Once he left Arsenal, Van Persie told me that Marco Van Basten had been an enormous influence on his mentality. "The way he looked at football was cold, ice cold," the younger Dutchman said. "It was just, 'In football you have to win -- whatever it takes.'"
One of Van Persie's Manchester United colleagues told me that within a couple months, the Dutchman turned to him during training, pointed at Sir Alex Ferguson and said: "All that time I was at Arsenal, I couldn't understand why you always had the upper hand on us. But now I understand -- he was the difference."
With Gerard Pique missing through suspension and Arsenal having so little to lose, perhaps Wenger's side can create a shock at the Camp Nou this week. But the odds -- and the lessons of the past decade -- don't favour any such thing.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.