The UEFA Champions League Knockout Stage draw is generally an exciting time for those clubs involved, but for Arsenal and their supporters, it tends to bring more frustration than anything else. While they don’t do themselves any favors by finishing second in the group stage, of all the potential opponents, we seem to be tied at the hip with either Barcelona or Bayern Munich. The footy gods love to see us suffer!
We now must prepare ourselves mentally heading into Tuesday’s match, trying to find the balancing point between reality and hope.
Calming Their Emotions Will Be The Toughest Part
Can Arsenal knock out the Spanish giants over a two-leg elimination? Of course they can. As we all know, if the Gunners are on their day, they can compete with the best in the world. Now, is it a realistic scenario for the North London outfit to come out on top after 180+ minutes of football? Oddsmakers would say you’re slightly delusional if you say yes. Well, I guess myself and many others fall into that category.
It sure as hell isn’t going to be easy, but Arsenal have more than enough weapons to cause problems for Luis Enrique’s men. In order to do that, the hosts will need to understand their role in the match and accept it.
Barcelona are likely going to dominate possession and make a ridiculous amount of passes in their defensive third, because that’s what they like to do. They keep the ball and suck you out, exposing you when you eventually get frustrated of watching them knock the ball around. That’s one thing Arsene Wenger needs to make sure his side doesn’t do.
These guys can knock the ball around in their sleep, so don’t try to reinvent the wheel. There needs to be a solid defensive shape starting just over the midfield line. That is where Barcelona will look to construct their offense, so while Arsenal shouldn’t throw the kitchen sink at them, they will need to put a bit of pressure, making things uncomfortable for the visitors. If they sit too deep and let Barcelona walk the ball beyond midfield, there will be wave after wave of pressure, which is not what Arsenal supporters will want to see.
In order to accomplish that, the wingers will also have to make sure they tuck in, not allowing the Blaugrana to do what they want down the middle of the park.
They have to accept they will probably only have 30 per cent possession and must be so efficient when they do get the ball. The whole team must defend more as a unit and the wingers must tuck in and play more in their own half.
Arsenal must be brave on the ball. They need to stay compact, play on the counter and score every time they get in their penalty area.
They can’t be exposed in the middle and must force Barcelona to run back 60 yards before they get the ball. If you allow them to stay in your half for wave after wave, it becomes almost impossible to defend.
– Thierry Henry
Efficiency On & Off The Ball
Going up against a side like Barcelona is never easy, and seeing as Arsenal won’t have as much possession as they normally would, taking care of the ball when they have it will be important. The visitors are going to pressure the Gunners, especially when Per Mertesacker has the ball. When he has the ball at his feet, the German looks extremely uncomfortable, which I’m sure Luis Enrique will try to take advantage of.
Knowing that, the Arsenal defensive unit as well as the two central midfielders need to make sure they don’t leave Mertesacker exposed. Failure to protect him will result in a field day for the likes of Messi, Suarez and Neymar. I sure as hell don’t want to be watching the German in a foot race with MSN.
Apart from that, in the middle of the park, Coquelin and Ramsey are going to really need to put in a shift.
We know the Frenchman will run his socks off, but Ramsey can get lazy at times, which is a bit concerning. When he gets into those lazy moods, he tends to get caught out of position, which could force Coq to not only cover more ground, but he may be forced to pick up a few needless fouls. An early yellow card for either Ramsey or Coq could really spell bad news for the Gunners. Good thing Mike Dean isn’t the match official!
In the final third, we know what Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez are capable of. It will be interesting to see if Arsene Wenger throws in Theo Walcott who looked good against Hull City, or if he will hand Danny Welbeck his first Champions League appearance.
Regardless of which Englishman he opts to throw into the mix, Arsenal can’t afford to give the ball away cheaply just outside the Barcelona 18-yard box.
Bellerin is quick and can cover much ground, as can Coq, Monreal and Koscielny, but the Gunners can’t afford to get caught in transition. That’s Barcelona’s bread and butter, so how about we make sure the bread and butter aren’t on the table?!
Lastly, Olivier Giroud’s presence will be extremely important.
I’ve never been an admirer of Barcelona’s back four, and it surprises me that over the years they haven’t spent money on big names to enforce their defensive unit. But, I guess that when you spend most of your time on the offensive end, your defensive unit is rarely exposed. And, it’s obviously working for them, so why fix what’s not broken right?
The big Frenchman will need to be physical to throw off Barcelona’s central defenders. With Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez providing service, Giroud will need to be more efficient than ever. He may be limited to two, maybe three real goal scoring chances, so if he’s not able to take them, it could be a frustrating night for the Gunners and their supporters.
With nothing to lose seeing as Barcelona are expected by everyone to progress into the next round, the Gunners should be able to play with a bit more freedom. If we were able to overcome Barcelona on that magical night when Arshavin slotted home the match winner, looking at our current squad, why can’t they do it again?! It’s time for the squad and supporters to believe. A victory on Tuesday could really give the Gunners a much needed confidence injection heading into a crucial stretch in the English Premier League.