THE BARCELONA PROJECT IS FINISHED. DONE. LA MASIA? OVERRATED. THE TEAM RELIES ON MESSI AND HE’S BEEN FOUND OUT. FÀBREGAS IS DESTROYING BOTH HIS AN INIESTA’S CAREERS. FÀBREGAS IS BLOWING BARCELONA’S HOUSE OF CARDS OVER. XAVI AND PUYOL ARE TOO OLD. BURN IT ALL DOWN. BEST TEAM EVER? NOT EVEN THE BEST TEAM IN CATALONIA. THE EXPERIMENT IS FINISHED. I’M OFF TO FIND A NEW BANDWAGON. ALL HAIL BAYERN AND THEIR GLORIOUS MAGNIFICENCE.
That may seem somewhat overstated as a reaction to Barcelona’s current plight, but take away the capital letters and a worryingly little amount of sensationalism and you have a verdict very similar to those of a few of the actual journalists on my Twitter during the most recent episode of El Clásico. It was as hilarious as it was infuriating, and a few of the comments on Cesc Fàbregas and Andrés Iniesta’s respective performances went their way to showing up the actual watchers from the pseuds. Barcelona, for once, have been this week’s Arsenal Lite, for all the oh-so occasional viewers opportunistically looking to gain a few views by throwing their two cents at anyone they think may pick them up. And no, that isn’t what I’m doing here!
A few things worth noting at this point: Barcelona are 15 points clear at the top in La Liga before the end of February; they have lost a game in a cup competition that is not particularly well-regarded – although it was admittedly a full side and an emphatic loss – and are 2-0 down, with a home leg looming, against arguably the poorest (yet confidence-filled) AC Milan side in a generation which they are more than capable of overcoming. Quite the crisis for the crumbling empire. Are they still the best side in Europe? Undoubtedly, even if not on current form.
Before Tito Vilanova’s cancer relapse and subsequent absence from the sidelines (since mid-January), they had played 20 league games, winning 18 of them and drawing and losing just one: against Real Madrid and Real Sociedad, respectively. As well as this, they amassed four wins, one loss and a draw in a dead rubber against Benfica in the Champions League. They were more ruthless than previous forms of themselves – I wrote about their philosophical shift in this, focussing mainly on Fàbregas and Xavi Hernández – and on the evidence provided, potentially even more effective. Since Vilanova’s absense they dropped two points against Valencia, and despite winning the remaining five in the league, they fell to the two aforementioned cup losses against Milan and Real Madrid.
What the raw stats only capture in part is the difference in how strong they looked in the two periods. While the sample sizes are significantly smaller, their falling behind and points dropped at Mestalla and cup performances, with the uncharacteristically scrappy nature of the wins against Sevilla and Granada are demonstrative of this. There can be no disputing the fact that they have looked disjointed and tactically confused since his departure, and no two have epitomised this more than Fàbregas and Iniesta.
Without guidance from Vilanova, the team has become almost self-managing, reverting, with Xavi’s guidance, back to a style far closer to Pep Guardiola’s than the one adopted this season. But Jordi Roura, presumably operating under his boss’ instructions, is fielding the team built for Vilanova’s more direct method: namely with Fàbregas in the midfield next to Xavi, Iniesta out on the left and David Villa on the bench. So much of what made their style so effective was their strength in midfield, specifically the Xavi-Iniesta partnership, and how well- versed the two are at playing a lateral style, not to mention their near-telepathic relationship. Fàbregas, however, prefers the more direct route and does his best creative work high up the pitch.
The problem lies in that without Vilanova, they feel the need to bring Iniesta into play wherever and whenever possible, which sees him sit slightly deeper and further infield, which inhibits Fàbregas’ space and in turn leads to Fàbregas inhibiting Iniesta’s. The fact that the former Arsenal captain has scored just one of his 9 goals and not added to his 9 assists speaks to this, just as Iniesta contributing just 1 goal and 2 assists to his total of 5 and 13 does. And a further looks shows that the goal and one of the assists came in the 6-1 thrashing of Getafe and the second assist was when they were already 3-0 down to Real Madrid. The effectiveness of both has suffered considerably.
It is important to note their pre-Vilanova-absence stats to make clear that Iniesta has not been marginalised in Fàbregas’ name. Far from it; both had been more effective than they had been in some time. In fact, Iniesta has produced the same number of goals and four more assists than he did all of last season. And similarly, Fàbregas is already on the same number of goals and is one assist better off than the whole of last season. Of course, the stats never tell the full story, but their respective levels of productivity being higher this February than they were last May says a lot of what it needs to.
So what is the solution, until Vilanova is back? Without him they have no one to direct the way he wants them to play, so they are stuck between the two ways. Roura cannot change games as the pair preceding him could, nor set up in different ways to counter their opponents. His best hope is probably to drop the unfortunate Fàbregas and bring Villa on in his place, moving Iniesta inside, back to Guardiola’s preferred setup.
If nothing else, recent events should put to bed the myth that anyone can manage Barcelona and with it should increase the appreciation for the job Guardiola did and Vilanova was doing and will hopefully continue to do upon his return. They have another Clásico this evening and the Milan second leg in 10 days time, both of which are very difficult to call. But reports of Barcelona’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Some may think it’s all over, but in reality it is far, far from it.
This first featured on SabotageTimes.com
If one were to make a checklist of things to expect from this match before it started, it would probably have included ‘Bayern to dominate’, ‘Arsenal defensive error(s) leading to Bayern goal(s)’, ‘Arsenal made to look toothless’, and ‘Arsenal fans do booing and then leave early’. There is something nice about a page full of ticks, if a little demoralising in this case. Only being exposed to the British media, all the talk has been about Arsenal, so it seems as good a place as any start.
It was not their best night, by some distance. It is far from uncommon to see Arsenal – especially this vintage – left without ideas and unable to open new avenues; it remains relatively rare to see them outclassed, as they were last night. The most common passing combination being from Per Mertesacker to Mikel Arteta (both of whom struggled greatly) says all it needs to. Many teams who force Arsenal back do so at the expense of the on-the-ball talent, whereas with the Bavarians, it remained second to their creative talent. The result can be of no surprise to Arsenal: the two sides are worlds apart.
What is prevalent, from an Arsenal perspective, are the players who were shown up – and not for the first time, and more crucially, those who were not. Wojciech Szczęsny is an extremely talented goalkeeper, but his youth has got the better of him too many times this season. There is little doubt in my mind that he will become a ‘top’ goalkeeper, but as things are now he is inconsistent and error-prone. As itself, this is no great worry as it is common for young players, yet when combined with other factors, it creates greater problems. That being said, Szczęsny’s penchant for the moronic has reached new heights this year and worryingly he appears not to have progressed from the raw but brilliantly able 20 year old who broke through at the start of 2011.
Thomas Vermaelen had a torrid evening, but it would be unfair to call him out to too great a degree, seeing as he was playing out-of-position against one of the toughest wingers in the world on both form and talent, in the form of Thomas Müller, with Philipp Lahm aiding the cause. However, it is far from the first time he has struggled this and last season, and it is becoming a worrying trend. Laurent Koscielny emerged with some credit, doing well in attempting to clean up the messes of the other three members of the backline. Bacary Sagna’s performance was true to the form he has shown since returning from his second leg break back in October. Arteta epitomised more than any other Arsenal’s total absence of ideas and coupled with his struggles at this stage of the competition last year and against some of the better league teams, it raises further doubts about his ability at ‘Champions League level’.
Aaron Ramsey is ever the divisive figure. Some will vociferously tell you he was terrible, he has always been terrible and being shot out of a canon would be too good a fate for him. In reality he had a strong game, always driving forward, trying to push the team on, which is more than can be said for most of the others. He found openings here and there and constantly remained ‘in the game’. Jack Wilshere was similar, in a more eye-capturing fashion, but only really grew into the game when moved further back. Before then, he was prominent but often crowded out and unable to find the space he needed to make the on-the-ball runs at which he is so good. Just as with Santi Cazorla, Bayern had clearly isolated him as one who could cause trouble and hence worked to keep him quiet – it had a greater effect on the latter.
After Lukas Podolski headed Arsenal into something resembling hope, the game became more open and hence he became a part of it. Before it he had been similar to Cazorla; namely quieter than, well, the Emirates Stadium, most games. It may have been worth keeping him on and taking Cazorla off when the substitutions were made, but with one having been as absent as the other and Podolski being on a booking, the rationale made sense. As for Theo Walcott, why put a player who could be so useful on the counterattack in an area where he will see less of the ball and even when he does, is near-unable to hold it up? And with that, why remove a player who is so important to ball retention and the maintenance of attacking shape, in Olivier Giroud? A truly baffling decision from Arsène Wenger. Even if he wanted Arsenal to be more potent on the counter, Walcott would have been significantly more useful on the right.
Giroud, when he came on, saw little of the ball, but had a good chance saved after it fell to his weaker right foot. Tomáš Rosický impressed, but his time on the pitch was all too short. A special word for the Emirates crowd: they are outdoing themselves. Even though things are not well around The Arsenal at the moment, to boo at a loss to the second best team in Europe is especially pathetic. Last night’s loss was not the problem – the others, to many a lesser team, are – but that one is for another time. The hoards of empty seats around 10 minutes from time go to show all too much the attitude of most of the fans. And preempting any possible comments, I was there last night and am every game, so it is not armchair criticism and is fully justified.
I would have preferred not to focus this on Arsenal but is is how it has turned out. It makes sense to look at Arsenal player-for-player, factor-for-factor, because it is a reflection of their disjointed nature. Bayern, by contrast, can be reviewed far more succinctly and more as a collective. They work as a unit in every area of the pitch. They move seamlessly from defence to attack. Like Barcelona, but in a very different way, they strangle their opponents. They have the ability to manipulate the smallest gaps in a team’s defence and force them into errors.
If there is a weakness in this team, it is the centre of defence, even when all of their options are fit, yet it remains unexposed. They set up as a team who its opposition’s weaker and stronger areas as well as it knew its own. In front of the centre backs they had Javi Martínez and Bastian Schweinsteiger, the latter following the former in the queue for the man of the match award. It must be emphasised that Martínez, the embodiment of all Arsenal lack in what they so wish to be, was truly outstanding, giving his best performance since joining in August. He has been bereft of the cohesion issues that maifest themselves on so many players who arrive into such finely honed units. In time, the £34million paid for him will prove to be a bargain. He, along with the aforementioned Schweinsteiger and goalscorers Toni Kroos and Müller were the standouts on a demonstration of excellent from Bayern.
The tie itself was all-but over back in December when it was drawn. The result was inevitable and while two of the goals were avoidable for Arsenal, they carried with them a full inevitability. Arsenal are not out of it completely – when is anyone ever after just a first leg? – but the odds are wildly against them for a reason. Not impossible, but highly improbable. It probably marks another season without a trophy for them. Tiresome cliché though it is, ascertaining Champions League football again is the ‘real’ trophy, though this does not mean it should be mutually exclusive from the domestic cups at all. A squad rebuild is in order and with a summer ahead in which they are unlikely to lose a big player again, the chance to build is nigh, with the money at their disposal. Then again, we have seen this film before.
Bayern again showed what a wonderful team they are. They have been accused of ‘not getting out of second gear’ in a few of their matches this season while being able to win comfortably, much like Barcelona since the start of the Guardiola era, and similarly when they have actually turn up to get the win (for 45 minutes last night, at least), they know how to turn the screws. It will take something special to bring them down over two legs, or even in one.
This first featured on TheShortFuse.com.
Last time Arsenal and Bayern Munich met, it was at this stage in the Champions League, eight years ago. And as Arsenal fans will testify, a lot can happen in eight years. So much so that only two players from either side were at their clubs back in 2005: Bastian Schweinsteiger, who was an unused substitute in both legs, and Claudio Pizzaro, who returned to Bayern last summer after five years away. That tie ended 3-2 on aggregate in the Germans’ favour, which was arguably a big misrepresentation of the two teams’ abilities in comparison to one another. A lot can happen in eight years.
Bayern’s 15 point lead in the Bundesliga is as good an illustration as anything of their excellence. After 21 league games they have dropped just 9 points (three draws, one loss); they are currently on a run of four straight wins following the return from the winter break, and have conceded just 7 goals all season. In short, they are extremely good. Their distance in the league means that they can afford to put more focus into earning the Champions League that was so cruelly taken from them in May, and hence will be able to rest players in their Friday night game at Wolfsburg.
Arsenal, however, feel as though they move from crisis to encouraging progress, to crisis, to encouraging progress (repeat to fade) every few hours. They are a team as volatile and unstable as their supporters. They often put together very strong passages of play within games but fail to maintain them through the 90 minutes, just as they have had very positive performances but failed to turn them into solid runs thus far. They have won their last three games, all against lesser opposition, but their more Classic Arsenal-esque instances of attacking play – as referred to in this – in recent weeks has been promising. They sit 5th in the Premier League, four points from rivals Tottenham in fourth and in desperate need of a trophy, which means they are likely to field a fairly strong team in their FA Cup game against Blackburn on Sunday.
Both teams play a 4-2-3-1 system and share a similar attacking philosophy. While the Germans are more comfortable playing on the counter, they have not needed to play in this fashion very much this year. In games in which they have faced stronger attacking threats – the matches against Borussia Dortmund and Valencia, for example (both 1-1 draws) – their defence has looked susceptible to having players run at it, but they, as a side, have been more than adept at turning their enforced defending into attacks. Their main comfort lies in controlling games.
The same is true of Arsenal, though to a lesser extent. They have played their best football when in control of games, but suffered more greatly when forced back. Their defence has looked susceptible to just about everything from quick wingers to gusts of winds, at times, this year, but it is full of competent individuals. The likelihood is that both will play more cautiously when away, both looking to take charge at their respective home grounds.
With this in mind, Bayern’s first leg setup will probably be geared for defensive solidity and counterattacking strength. They will be without Holger Badstuber, due to injury, and Jérôme Boateng on account of suspension. The (barring the unforeseen) near-certified starters are the back five of Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Daniel van Buyten, Dante and David Alaba, as well as Javi Martínez, Schweinsteiger and Franck Ribéry. The spaces that remain uncertain are on the right-hand side – the choice being between Thomas Müller and Arjen Robben; in attacking midfield – Toni Kroos or Müller and up front – the two Marios, Gómez and Mandžukić. Robben and Gómez have both been out long-term with injuries for much of the season and despite returning to fitness months ago, they have been kept out by their ‘stand-ins’. They were preferred in last week’s match against Schalke, which could be an indicator of Jupp Heynckess’ wish for them to get back into the proverbial ‘swing’ of things ahead of this game, or could even be seen as demonstrating a greater trust in the more experienced pair, but solid conclusions can only be drawn from who is rested in tonight’s game.
It seems to be 50:50 as to who Heynckess will pick. Both Mandžukić and Müller have been in fantastic form, but Robben impressed against Schalke. Gómez less so, but it was just his second start in the league all season. From this I expect Mandžukić to play, along with Toni Kroos (though both of those calls may be spectacularly wrong), but I have even less idea as to who will be selected on the right hand side.
Arsenal, at this point, for perhaps the first time ever, have something close a full squad, with their only current major injury being to Kieran Gibbs. André Santos’ loan and Natxo Monreal’s being cup-tied means they are without a natural left back. Thomas Vermaelen announced on Twitter that he had been training all week, so assuming he makes it (a dangerous assumption), he will be played at left back and Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker at centre back. But if not they are left with the options of playing Bacary Sagna there with Carl Jenkinson at right back, or playing Francis Coquelin there. Jenkinson did very well in the early part of the season but showed his rustiness and immaturity with his red card against Sunderland. Coquelin is extremely inconsistent but his speed, ability to cover ground and right footedness dictates that he could be a good choice there, especially against Robben, should Vermaelen not make it.
Considering the strength of Bayern’s right hand side, whichever they play there, and Arsenal’s left back situation, it is an area they will almost certainly look to exploit, and they have the choice between bombarding it with Robben, or look to exploit the space between the midfield and defence more with Müller running between the lines. The latter has more potential to devastate Arsenal, with the unevenness of their midfield shape, and Müller’s mastery for manipulating space.
With the virtue of a near-full squad, and specifically a fully fit set of midfield options, they have chosen to deploy Santi Cazorla on the left hand side with Jack Wilshere in the ‘number 10’ role in a couple of games – games in which, they have generally looked extremely threatening and well-balanced. With Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta as the midfield three they have often been unbalanced – as explored better in this – but Wilshere is far from incapable of playing in a more disciplined way in the deeper midfield role; he did so with great aplomb in his breakthrough season, but his eagerness to be involved in play has seen him attempt to push further up. It is likely that Arsène Wenger will choose to play with him deep and attempt to ensure he does not listen to Alex Song’s take on positional discipline beforehand, instead using his performance against Barcelona as a reference point.
This would mean that Lukas Podolski will start against his former side, as well as Theo Walcott on the opposite wing and Olivier Giroud between them. There is a worry that Walcott may struggle greatly against Alaba, whose pace is almost on a level with his own, but he has recently been imposing himself much more on games in which his pace has been rendered useless; against the Austrian, this may end up being one of those games. There is the possibility of playing him in the central role and attempting to exploit van Buyten’s lack of pace, but in a deeper-sitting back line there would be little point.
If Arsenal were a more stable defensive unit, it could be worth pursuing a more defensive style, but at home against opposition of Bayern’s calibre and strength, they need to attempt to establish as much of an advantage as possible. The disparity in talent aside, this is the main difference between the two teams. One could make an argument that Arsenal’s main three centre backs are more individually talented than Bayern’s, but the latter are infinitely more secure as a defensive unit. They have Martínez or Luiz Gustavo protecting the back line and a stronger, more defined structure within the side – the kind Arsenal have looked to replicate, to varying degrees of success, which has only looked possible so far this year with Wilshere further forward in midfield or not in the side (see their start to the season).
The Bavarians are the stronger side by a long, long way, but if Chelsea last year taught us anything it is that cup football favours the lucky. If Arsenal can perform something close to perfectly, they have a chance. Bayern are up there with the favourites for a reason. They are expected to win, but if nothing else we should expect a fantastic Champions League tie.
Predicted line ups; AFC (4231) Szczęsny; Sagna-Koscielny-Mertesacker-Vermaelen; Arteta-Wilshere; Walcott-Cazorla-Podolski; Giroud.
FCB (4231) – Neuer; Lahm-van Buyten-Dante-Alaba; Martínez-Schweinsteiger; Ribéry-Kroos-Müller; Mandžukić.