Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Arsenal vs. Barcelona... Arsenal can’t lose...

...well, obviously they can, and I imagine most people believe they will.

However, in the context of this Arsenal side’s ongoing development, is it really a bad thing that the draw for the UEFA Champions League has, for the second year running, paired them with FC Barcelona?

It’s a mouth watering tie. FC Barcelona vs. the team that some refer to as ‘Barcelona-lite’.

Both teams are capable of wonderful flowing football. However, in the past few years, only one has converted the aesthetics into silverware. This will be an interesting insight into how far away the Gunners are in their mission to emulate ‘the best team in the world’.

Barcelona are seen as the benchmark for anyone who is interested in ‘The Beautiful Game™’. Their high tempo, possession focused, ‘tiki-taka’ football is a delight to watch and, more importantly, it is sweeping aside all those in front of them. Their dominance in La Liga was on full display earlier this season in the quite terrifying 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid. The control they had in that game was simply outstanding. Madrid barely had the ball - they couldn’t get a kick. Barcelona toyed with their closest rivals and, almost at will, pierced their rearguard with five exquisite goals.

I watched that game, mesmerised, excited and absolutely convinced Arsenal would have to play Barcelona this season. It was one of life’s little inevitabilities - a Robin Van Persie injury, a Sebastian Squillaci mistake, a pointless transfer window signing by Harry Redknapp...

But, look - Barcelona have been on a very specific journey to get where they are today.

You don’t just wake up one morning and find the world’s best team at the training ground. Over the past couple of decades, they’ve invested in youth and hammered home the Barca ethos at every level. Xavi Hernandez testified to this in his quite brilliant interview with the Guardian’s Sid Lowe:

“Some youth academies worry about winning, we worry about education. You see a kid who lifts his head up, who plays the pass first time, pum, and you think, 'Yep, he'll do.' Bring him in, coach him…. It's all about rondos [piggy in the middle]. Rondo, rondo, rondo. Every. Single. Day. It's the best exercise there is. You learn responsibility and not to lose the ball.”

In my opinion, Arsenal are on a similar journey - they’re just a little behind. This tie will be a reasonable marker of just how far behind they are.

Towards the beginning of his tenure at the club, Arsené Wenger said that it would take him 10 years to bring through an English player with the required technical qualities to play at the top level. Well here we are.

In a similar fashion to Barcelona, the Gunners have invested in youth, and Wenger has rigidly stuck to his principles of playing a ‘tiki-taka’ style in a league that traditionally rewards a more direct, physical approach. His greatest trick has been to do this while also financing the construction of a brand new stadium and all the time staying competitive in the Premier League.

Recently, much has been made of Arsenal’s five years without a trophy. However, it’s worth noting that Barcelona themselves had six barren years between 1999 and 2005. In 2005, the current crop of players ‘clicked’, a league title followed and they never looked back. My hope is that Arsenal are now on the cusp of a similar moment.

The Arsenal first team is now predominantly made up of maturing players who have grown up together and all completely understand ‘the Arsenal way’. I’m convinced that now, a year down the line, they are in a position to give a more convincing account of themselves than the performances that saw them go out to Barcelona 6-3 on aggregate last season.

In my opinion the key to Barcelona's success is their midfield three.

The combination of ‘Busquets - Xavi - Iniesta’ is absolutely brilliant. The steel and distribution of Busquets, the movement and vision of Xavi along with the quick feet and creativity Iniesta - it makes for a perfectly balanced middle of the park.

Maybe as an Arsenal fan I'm a little biased, but I think you can make reasonable comparisons with the ‘Song - Fabregas - Wilshere’ combination in terms of balance and roles within the side. Barcelona’s three are obviously more experienced and decorated with top honours, but the Arsenal personnel are extremely talented, younger and still learning. This tie represents a magnificent opportunity for the three to show just how good they can be.

In the final third Barcelona have Lionel Messi - without a doubt the best player in the world right now - whereas Arsenal now have the increasingly influential Samir Nasri to provide that little bit of magic.

News that Nasri may be fit for the first leg on Wednesday is heartening. Not just because I’m an Arsenal fan, but also because I feel that ties such as this deserve to have each team playing their strongest 11.

This wasn’t the case last year, when Arsenal were without Robin Van Persie for either leg, lost Gallas within minutes of the start of the first leg, Arshavin shortly after and then Fabregas and Song for the second leg. Hardly ideal, and I still wonder how things might have turned out if we’d had anywhere near our strongest 11 for the trip to Spain.

I feel this Arsenal side are well equipped to finally win something this year. They’re already in one cup final, have Leyton Orient to come in the fifth round of the FA Cup and are arguably now the only realistic challengers to Manchester Utd in the league.

As we get to the business end of the season, the later stages of European competitions can be a real drain due to the intensity of the games and the travelling involved.

In my view, if Arsenal aren’t going to win the Champions League they will actually be better off going out now and putting everything into the domestic competitions.

In a way, the most important work this week was done on Saturday when Arsenal beat Wolves to ensure they’re still in the title race. They can now go into the Barcelona game knowing that:

1) If they win the tie, beating the hot favourites, they should have the belief that they can go all the way in the Champions League having proved themselves against Europe’s best.


2) If they lose the tie, it’s not the end of the world. The team will have continued their education at the top level and can now put their full concentration into the three remaining domestic competitions.

I really believe the end of Arsenal’s barren spell is nearing and, having followed a similar developmental path as the ‘best team in the world’ - the future is looking brighter than ever, regardless of what happens on Wednesday.

Let’s just sit back, and enjoy the battle of the football purists.

*** This post was also published on the Football Pubcast website ***

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