It was not the same old story for Arsenal at Old Trafford. It was worse than that. The 1-0 defeat at the hands of their archrivals brought out one more disturbing fact about Arsenal this season- that they don’t seem to have the goals against the bigger teams. They just didn’t look like scoring as they did against Liverpool in the season opener, in the loss against Chelsea nor in the home loss against Newcastle. But Cesc Fabregas did not start any of these matches and that tells a story in itself. Without him Arsenal crave for some brilliance from either Nasri or the enigmatic Arshavin. While Nasri has been in top form, Arshavin has struggled to make an impact this season. Surprisingly though, when Fabregas is not available, Wenger hasn’t often played Nasri through the middle and has preferred the lesser creative Rosicky or inexplicably Denilson for a couple of games. In what could be the season deciding three weeks, United have drawn first blood. Arsenal are probably the English team that takes the Champions League most casually at least in the early stages and have now paid the price by setting up a clash against Barcelona. Things couldn’t have got tougher for them but here’s what Wenger could do to move towards that elusive silverware.
At the moment, the best silverware chance for Arsenal comes in the form of the Carling Cup and that silverware may not be enough for the club to retain Cesc Fabregas and Arsene Wenger his “Trust” if not the job. In Arsene they may trust but it has not been easy to guess in what Arsene trusts. It was indeed baffling to see them finish second and all that Wenger can do now is to return to the cliché that in every adversity lies an opportunity. Arsenal and Barcelona are teams with similar philosophies. They play their passing game irrespective of opponents and venue. They have immense faith in ball possession and flair is top priority for their managers. Both the teams try to score the “Perfect Goal” though Barcelona score more often than Arsenal do. Arsenal were a quick passing and fast breaking team during the times of Thierry Henry and Robert Pires but this season have slightly leaned towards the Barcelona style of slow but sure passing albeit against the weaker teams only. So what trick does Wenger miss that Pep Guordiaolla doesn’t?? And what could Arsenal do to pull off a surprise by advancing to the quarters??
One would be tempted to blame the Arsenal defence. But it has been considerably strengthened by the twin signings of Koscielny and Squillaci and Arsenal are still awaiting the return of their best defender in Vermaelen. The next blame might fall on the forward Chamakh who is nowhere as clinical as a David Villa. For all his ability in the air Chamakh along with Kenwyn Jones must be the two forwards who simply don’t have a shot in them. There was this funny yet revealing moment in the game against Fulham when Arshavin sent Chamakh through for a one on one with the keeper and Chamakh turned back to set up a shot for Arshavin as if to say “that’s not my job”. But given all that, Chamakh has had a wonderful season up front having a hand in most of the goals scored. So he surely isn’t my area of concern for Arsenal. To me the position that marks the difference between Arsenal and Barcelona is that of the holding midfielder. Alexander Song is being termed the most improved player at Arsenal this season, but the drastic personal improvement has come at the team’s cost. It’s hard to recall when Arsenal last kept a clean sheet, but it’s easy to remember that they were often caught on the counter, even as late as the Fulham game by Diamanti Camara. Attribute that to a defensive collision but also to a defensive midfielder failing in his primary duty. Jack Wilshere when he does play that role of a tackler, also ventures too far forward unlike a Sergio Busquets. While it is exciting to see your defensive midfielder score goals as Wenger himself claimed about Song fast turning into a “Forward”, getting carried away with that has been Wenger’s problem. Mathieu Flamini and Gilberto Silva seemed to know the line that shouldn’t be crossed which Song and Wilshere so often seem to do. Sergio Busquets knows that line to a T. For all his attacking exploits this season Song is just not equipped to be a playmaker. But Song is the best tackler in the team even though he picks up cards regularly. So the first thing Wenger has to ensure against Barcelona is that the defense has the right cover on its top against the world’s best attack.
While it’s been quite evident that Arsenal struggle to play the cutting edge pass against a well organized defence even if they have lopsided possession stats, they wont have to worry about that against Barcelone. Because they simply wont have more possession. That just might prove to be a blessing in disguise. Counterattack is the only way to beat Barcelone, though it’s easier said than done. Counterattack needs pace and Theo Walcott is a must against Barcelona without whom its tough to see Arsenal scoring at Emirates let alone Nou Camp. Barcelona’s wing backs do go a long way forward. While Daniel Alves does have the pace to run back, Walcott will test Abidal. Nasri against Alves will be worth the watch too. The third thing Wenger has to do is to play both Van Persie and Chamakh up front. Wenger cannot stop the Barcelona midfield from playing like how Sir Alex, so predictably yet effectively, did against Arsenal themselves by playing Anderson. So Wenger has to call on the heading ability of Chamakh for set pieces and the interplay that Van Persie brings with the wingers.
It is worth noting that the teams that beat Barcelona in the Champions Legue last two times went on to win the competition- Inter Milan and Manchester United. “If you can beat Barcelona you can beat anybody” seems to be the word going around. But in that case Hercules should be La Liga Champions. Reality doesn’t work out that way and Arsenal are still quite some way from looking a Champions League class club. How to beat Barcelona might be the million dollar question but beating them can be the spark for Arsenal to set the season on fire. Whether they are able to do that in cold winter nights is what has to be seen.