UCL: Wenger and Arsenal Made to Pay in Transition Again

Arsene_Wenger_-_Arsenal_-_Barcelona

In the wake of Arsenal’s 2-0 home loss to Barcelona, in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 clash, Arsene Wenger did little to hide his displeasure. “Of course I’m disappointed because we put a lot of energy into this game,” he said. “I felt that we lost at the moment that we looked more capable of winning the game, and we also lost it in a way which we could not afford to give them. It’s a bit disappointing to give them the goals that we did, especially the first goal. I feel that we were extremely guilty and have no excuses for that goal.”

It isn’t typical for Wenger to use such emotive language, but the manner in which Arsenal conceded their first goal against Barcelona, in the 71st minute of the match, clearly bothered him. It may have been a superb piece of transition play from the Catalan club, one marked by a combination of speed, slickness and clever finishing, but the Arsenal boss couldn’t view it that way. He had been asking his team all week to defend against the counter-attack, to watch out for the likes of Neymar, Luis Suarez and Messi in transition. Yet as Messi took a sublime touch to take Petr Cech out of the equation and stroke the ball home in front of a packed Emirates Stadium, the Frenchman was fuming at their inability to carry out the prescribed game plan.

To make matters worse, the Gunners were generally excellent, in a defensive sense, up until then. Their two most advanced attackers, Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil, did a solid job of blocking passes into the feet of Barca star Sergio Busquets, a player now widely considered one of the world’s very best midfielders. This was a good starting point for Arsenal, but behind Grioud and Ozil, the team was equally proficient. The bank of four in midfield remained both compact and narrow, ensuring that their opponents couldn’t easily move the ball through the middle, while the back four held a line high enough to prevent Barca from getting their now-famed possession game going.

This was what Wenger wanted from his players and, up until half-time, this is exactly what he got from them. Arsenal restricted Barca to only five shots throughout the first 45, none of which were on target. Of those, only one was particularly notable, a Suarez header which flashed wide of goal, but aside from that Arsenal were seemingly secure. More generally, too, they only really looked troubled by individual pieces of skill or, on the rare occasions when Messi switched the play from the right to the left, the overlapping runs of left-back Jordi Alba. Of course, against such a strong Barca side the odd moment of trouble could only be expected, and even when taking those into account, the home side were doing a good job of limiting such moments.

Then the second half arrived and so too did a warning for Arsenal. A number of players had moved forward to attack and, 49 minutes into the match, Neymar found himself one-on-one with Cech. The imposing goalkeeper saved them on this occasion, sprawling to the floor to make a block with his right leg, and it should have served as a reminder. It should have reinforced the importance of keeping things tight, of avoiding the pitfalls attached to Barca’s lightning-fast transition game.

But it didn’t. Arsenal started to gain a foothold in a stretch that spanned about 15 to 20 minutes, and perhaps because of that, they became more interested in scoring than guarding against Barca’s world-class forwards. Giroud had a header saved and Alexis had a shot blocked. Arsenal’s confidence was growing and the crowd were responding to their upturn in attacking impetus. For Wenger, however, that nagging thought about being exposed on the break would still have remained. “What we knew was going to be vital for us was not to give them a counter-attack, that’s where they’re at their most dangerous,” he asserted in the post-game.

Then, with about 20 minutes left to play, Arsenal, in Wenger’s words, “just gave it away.” They poured forward along the right-hand side, and following a Hector Bellerin cross into the box, Barca cleared the ball to safety. Andres Iniesta flicked it even further afield and, with an element of fortune, managed to find Neymar. Arsenal centre-back Per Mertesacker probably could have stuck a little more tightly to the Brazilian flyer, but he instead sat off just a little bit.

That allowed Neymar to turn towards goal and slide a pass along the left-hand side for Suarez. He soon returned the favour and, with Mertesacker left trailing in his wake, Neymar sprinted into the final third and then into the area. Nacho Monreal moved to close him down, but the 24-year-old was too swift for that. He cut the ball back across the face of goal. Messi latched onto it, taking a mini-touch to outfox Cech in the process, before curling in a crucial away goal. “I feel that maybe we felt on the pitch that we could win the game and we lost our cautiousness to defend,” Wenger said.

Messi would go on to score a late penalty, after some careless Arsenal defending, to make it 2-0, a scoreline which makes it very difficult for the Gunners to get back into the tie. Wenger’s men may be heartened by the fact that they did create a decent number of opportunities on the night, and if they can do this at the Camp Nou in the return leg, there is an extremely slight chance that they could make the game interesting.

For now, though, Wenger seems to be feeling an overwhelming sense of disappointment. Just as they did against Monaco in last season’s Champions League, they found themselves exposed to the opposition’s counter-attacking threat at the Emirates. They didn’t do enough to protect against it on that occasion either, and when considered alongside one another, the two games will create a lingering notion that the team didn’t learn from their previous mistakes.

Given Wenger’s newly acquired penchant for pragmatic coaching, that’s something that will be extremely difficult to take.