Barca-Lessons Learned, Time to Put Them To Use; Ox out, Santi In

Well, not quite yet, but hopefully soon enough.

In the meantime, having been well schooled by perhaps the strongest team assembled in the history of the sport, Arsenal have to put their Champions League disappointments to one side and focus on their domestic fights.  This Sunday they travel to Old Trafford where they haven’t won a league match in almost a decade.  Next Wednesday they play relegation threatened Swansea back in London, a fixture they lost 1-nil last Spring.  Then it’s the North London Derby at White Hart Lane (Lunchtime, next Saturday) in a match which could play a role in determining the destination of the Premier League Title.  A year ago we lost that one too, by a scoreline of 2-1, after having scored the opening goal.  It doesn’t end there, either.  If we can win our replay at Hull City on Tuesday the 8th of March, we will host Watford in the quarterfinals the following weekend.

Sheesh, just listing the matches makes me tired.  How will our squad cope?  Santi’s not ready yet and we have also lost Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who suffered knee ligament damage in the Barca game.

We’ve got issues

While we played even with Barcelona for 70 minutes, ultimately, we were undone. Manager Arsene Wenger claims–just as he did after the same round of 16 home fixture vs AS Monaco a year ago–that his players were naive.  I concur, although the suggestion that the manager might also take some responsibility seems valid.  As the hunger in the stadium for a goal which might have given us a lead to take to the Nou Camp grew, so too did positional indiscipline. A year ago, Monaco punished us three times on the break, Tuesday Barca only did twice.  Improvement?  Hardly…

No, instead the lesson should be doubly hammered home.  Goals are great, but, conceding, especially with the away-goals rule in effect, is devastating.  Something is off.  Going for the former should not entail exposure to the latter.  This is the lesson to be taken from Barcelona: bend but do not break…That is, until you have the chance to really break, i.e., strike with lightning speed and punish your opponent with balls in their net.  Just as they did to us.

What would Santi do?

In late November, in consecutive matches, we lost Francis Coquelin (and Mikel Arteta) and then Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla.  Many Gooners thought our season was over.  Fortunately, the depth in the squad came to the fore and strong showings by guys like Joel Campbell, Mathieu Flamini and Calum Chambers, combined with a fairly gentle run of fixtures, staved off the worst fears of doom.

In the new year, as Alexis and Coquelin got close to returning to the squad, the results began slipping.  League draws at Liverpool and Stoke followed by a very disappointing home loss to Chelsea took Arsenal down from the top of the table.  We’ve righted the ship somewhat since and we appear a far deeper team with those two back in the fold.  Still, home draws vs Southampton and Hull City and a last gasp home win vs 10 man Leicester City–not to mention Tuesday’s capitulation vs Barca–show that something isn’t quite clicking.  Since the 3-3 draw at Anfield we’ve played eight matches in all competitions and only scored six goals.  What gives?

Some of it could come down to luck, some to goalkeepers playing out of their skulls, and some to our scoring players being just not quite sharp enough.  Mostly, however, I believe we’re not able to create enough meaningful pressure on teams–both with and without the ball–to control the critical areas of the pitch, create sufficient doubt and confusion in their minds and take real control of these matches.  You would never suspect that smiling Santi, a guy who hadn’t scored a goal all season, could be the missing ingredient, but that is exactly my hypothesis.

In my opinion, the players we’re using are giving their all and should not be faulted in that regard.  What we lack is the guile and deception, individually and in combination play, to take advantage of those big moments in a match–the turnover that can spring a counterattack, or when we’ve got the ball in or near the opponent’s penalty box, that little bit of subterfuge that turns possession into chances and chances into goals.

Power vs Trickery

The English game–again, in my opinion–is different from the Spanish game in this key element.  Directness and power are prized and celebrated in England whereas those elements are used in Spain more to set up team play, i.e., passing, than as ends in themselves.  These are generalizations, of course, but also real cultural differences.  How else can a guy like little Santi, who no longer can (if he ever could) get off his own shot without being closed out by bigger, fully committed English defenders, be of value to a team like Arsenal whose aspirations are as high as any in the land?

Of course, I’ve also been told that Santi is (was?) the problem at Arsenal, that he’s been found out (as described above) and that, especially, relative to the losses of Alexis and Coquelin, he would hardly be missed.  Our less than fully satisfying results, of course, prove nothing, and, even if they did, Santi–aiming for a return to action for the nearly hopeless trip to the Nou Camp–isn’t available to save the day for this critical run of matches.

I’m just stating my thoughts on the matter, and, I think, others will have to do what Santi might’ve done: use whatever skills and athleticism they possess but also play with a bit more intelligence and subtlety to help us keep the balance between attack and defending as it should be so that more balls go in the opponent’s net than in ours.  It’s a simple game, after all.  😀


With the Ox also unavailable we will rely upon combinations of midfielders including Aaron Ramsey, Mohammed Elneny and Mathieu Flamini until Santi–and, touch wood, Jack Wilshere and maybe, touching even more wood, Mikel Arteta–are available to help out toward the rear of our midfield.  We also need our more attack minded mids–and our most gifted players–Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, to help in Santi-style, dropping deeper, putting well timed toes in while we’re out of and, when we do get the ball, switching fields quickly with dribbles and passes to keep defenders out of their comfort zones.  Get the ball to those guys in those instant moments of transition, and, I believe, good things will happen.

It’s not that different from what Barca did on our home pitch on Tuesday. Sergio Busquets anchors their midfield and rarely ventures forward (as we hope Coquelin or Flamini might).  Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakatic (our Ozil and Ramsey?) are the next line and use their fine dribbling as a threat which forces defenders to choose between an attempt on the ball or backing off.  The corollary effect is more space and time to choose a pass, always the easier way to move the ball.  Add in the superior footballing skills (they’re not just goal scorers…) of Messi, Neymar and Suarez, and defenders are left chasing shadows.

Arsenal actually did well against that group, I thought, but Barca remained patient and ultimately turned the tide.  In these 90 minute matches where we want the win, we won’t quite have that same luxury.  Still, if we use the quality we’ve got, keep the pitch balanced and perhaps emphasize guile, deception and teamwork over individual heroics and too much bombing forward, we may have what it takes to get the results we need.  We can–maybe–even save our energy in this tightly spaced group of matches by using our opponents’ English style aggression as a weapon against them.

Much as Tuesday’s first leg was probably the definitive blow for our Champions League chances, this stretch will likely determine our domestic fate; there’s clearly nowhere to hide at this crucial juncture. They must be taken with full commitment but also one at a time.  As Santi might say: Venga (Come on), Vale (every other word down in Spain, but it translates to “it’s good,” or OK…), Vamos (let’s go)!!!

So, Venga, Vale, Vamos… Victoria Concordia Crescit… Or maybe, Go (the f**k) On!!!

by 17highburyterrace


26 thoughts on “Barca-Lessons Learned, Time to Put Them To Use; Ox out, Santi In

  • Well written Seventeenho even though there are no real surprises in your post for me. All your personal and well thought through views seem represented in this one. 😜

    Your trust in Santi is great and you see things in him that I do not see. You are right to compare Rambo with Rakatic and I thought they were both the best players, with busquets coming close.

    The problem is not so much guile but just finishing off our changes. We create a hell of a lot of them in every game, even more than a few against the cheating Divers on Tuesday, but we are not converting them. You indicate rightly that Santi doesn’t score anymore these days, so he is unlikely to make a difference in this department. Of course Santi still offers something Spanish and clever to the team and I look forward to his return, but my real hope is on our attackers finding their shooting boots again. And I am sure they will.

  • Agreed on the next few games being important and possibly crucial, and a good result at OT would do wonders to the team. I would play the same team but with Welbeck or Campbell on the right.

  • we should try 2 CFs: giroud and welbeck working together. giroud heads it down and welbeck is right there.
    also, we need to focus for 90min, not 70. we played a great 70 but forgot the plot and started thinking we could score, and thats when we leave space behind. this is a issue for discipline and for wenger to drill into his players. they are pro’s. they shouldnt be forgetting the plot for the last 20min. we’ve conceded a lot in last 20min.

  • Hey TA…Comments took so long in coming that I almost posted this one…

    Oops, I guess I did post it… 😀

    That guy says Alexis is his favorite Chilean player…

    Yeah, agreed about shooting boots, but I also think we should use a little more of the Santi-Ninja style and bait the English opponents with a little of their own over-zealousness… I just watched ManU and they will feel good to have beaten the Danish team…Talk about injury troubles… Our boys, however, should be able to take the extra pass (or touch) on Sunday, though it will all come down to “passion” and “desire” as always amongst you folks… On that note, in other big news…Santi says Braveheart is his favorite movie… 😀

  • I don’t know if it’s really about our strikers finishing chances at all

    On reflection, and looking back at those goals scored by Freddie Lljungberg back in the day,, I think the problem is not the number of chances we are creating, but the quality of those chances. Look at the chance that fell to the Ox.- he controlled the ball quickly and shot early, but the area was congested with Barca defenders and his shot was blocked. How many one-on-one chances, striker vs. keeper, do we actually create?

    We seem to be so measured in attack, moving the ball left and right, probing around the fringes of massed defenses, relying on one-two’s or knockdowns, and this way we will rarely create more than a sharp chance. Typically we might see Ramsey-Bellerin-Ozil all combining to cross to Giroud who may get a header in (the defence is ready and waiting) or who might knock the ball down for the Ox or Theo (who again are outnumbered).

    The problem is not Giroud, but the approach of trying to play everything through Giroud. Our attacking approach has become far too patient and indirect, and we give opposition teams too much time to regroup and organise their defences. The top teams are much faster to break forward and create top quality chances for their strikers, and the best of these in the Premier League are Leicester and Man City. Vardy and Aguero score so many goals not because they are so much more clinical, but because they are provided with so many top quality chances with just the keeper to beat.

  • HT, that’s a great post. You dealt very well with fine points that are so difficult to articulate.

    There is a certain allroundedness in the play of Santi, Nacho, Arteta that directs one’s conclusion to a Spanish culture. This allroundedness is everywhere to be seen in the Barca team. The allroundedness which can be equated to intelligence has two distinct aspects to it. One is technical proficiency. The other, a rarer quality amongst players, is total commitment to team play which is a situation in which a player thinks the team all of the time and never experiences a rush of blood to the head that installs his ego over and above the team.

    I sincerely believe that this unique level of commitment to team play is the most valuable derivative from the tiki-taka grooming of players. They learn early to trust one another. They learn also that there is magic in the simple pass, and the simple pass and the simple pass. The thrill they grow to know resides in the orgy of combinations and not the solo runs. Each has lost himself in the mass of the group and team play has become the ecstasy.

    Barca is the epitome of this philosophy. I never mourn too much when we loose to them. A chunk of me is the artist that must doff its hat to excellence. When you evaluate our team against this background you see that we still have some distance to cover. Sanchez game has mechanical intelligence. Ozil is so specialized that he needs the right compliment of intelligence around for him to hit his dizzy heights. Carzola’s intelligence is conscious and therefore adaptive. How the team misses him!

  • Great comment Davyx2

    Playing through Giroud is Wenger’s signature even though he is also there to create an option/space for others. The holding strikers with a real goal threat who also enables the mid wings and nr10 to score is a good plan, and actually worked best when we had Chamakh leading the line for half a season and when we scored about 2.4 goals per game on average through Cesc, Nasri etc. The problem is that the goals have dried up despite us creating many chances (but against park the bus teams against whom it is harder to create clear cut chances that you refer to). Alexis is missing something and we all know that Theo is in the worst scoring and assisting patch of his career, and Rambo and Ozil also are not scoring enough. Hopefully this is just a matter of form and time.

  • Fine comment PE 🙂

    Wenger has consciously moved away from passing and possession football and, to some extent, Barca have too. The days of Cesc, Hleb, Nasri etc passing the ball round for fun seems over.

    We sit back and absorb more now and like to score from rebounds but this doesn’t work too well against those determined to park the tractors. If and when we can hem opponents in around their box, Santi is a real asset but his lack of speed and defensive skills is a considerable risk. Rambo was our best player against the cheating divers because he is the ideal b2b for the game we are now playing and I am not sure how Santi fits in going forward.

    I hope he will become our new Arteta, a super midfield sub and occasional starter in next season.

  • Thanks TA.

    I wasn’t advocating a shift to tiki-taka. I was just commenting that expousure to tiki-taka especially at an early age, seems to inculcates the perfect team spirit in a player that forms the perfect basis for teams to venture or expand into other dimensions of the game. Exactly what Barca has done. We are not too different, only lagging slightly behind.

    Rambo is great, but for me, Santi’s greater footballing intelligence gives him the edge his size notwithstanding. The Barca team that has dominated the world over the last decade is full of little men. Intelligence and quickness have overtaken power and raw determination.

  • Hey great post TA. Just briefly I think we were overconfident in the Hull game that a goal would come our way, and conversely against Barca their was an underlying fear to our game (almost impossible to rid when up against Barca) that eventually led to us losing our heads for a short moment enough to let them in. Going forward in the league we have teams that are a better match to our skill level and in that challenge will allow us to focus and not be overconfident. Although missing chances has been a trend all season for us, the way forward that I believe Wenger well understands is to remain calm and play our game. This was the message to Alexis before Barca and when we remain calm, play our game as a team the chances will be converted at a higher rate.

  • Just a small comment on PE & TA’s discussion here about the way teams play and Barca Tiki-Taka philosophy. After the game I read an article published when Pep was manager, have you come across it before? Good read:

    “Football, Cruijff once said, is choreography. Nobody else thinks like that.”

    Wenger aspires to it, but there needs to be a more fundamental evolution in our training and change in mentality of our players here at Arsenal to get to that level and unlock those ‘secrets’ that Barca utilise.

  • Interesting article, FMJ.

    Reading it, one senses a well conceived and evolved philosophy. Not only that, the players are drilled to conform to the philosophy. The philosophy is the team. If as a player you are unable to conform to the system it ejects you out, however great a player you might be, Cesc, Zlatan, Alexis, Song ……..

    Barca’s cannot be the only valid philosophy. Their advantage over others is that they have been very competent in managing its evolution.

  • The power of the team unit is indeed invaluable, PE, and that is what I grew up with in Holland (Ajax and national team). Wenger wants a sort of total football but with individual freedom for players (as does Cruijff). Van Gaal and Guardiola really want their teams to play like an all concurring machine with eleven elements that can be replaced without affecting the beastliness and effectiveness of the machine. It is clear that Van Gaal is failing miserably at Manure and the reason for that is he is going far too much against the club’s DNA, but that is another story.

  • TA, I believe the two philosophies (Wenger/Cruijff v Pep/LVG) eventually converge. Wenger starts with freedom and the players then slowly work it out. Pep works it out and the players slowly attain freedom. Considering that there is always a time frame for any group of players, I wonder which approach is more pragmatic.

  • Yes, TA, different approaches, but final destination is the same. Maybe there is very little to choose between the two approaches. The constraint of the traveling time to that destination must be an equal issue for the two approaches. Barca’s advantage here is the existence of their excellent Academy which in effect means that they start their journey earlier in the day.

  • Starting their journey earlier in the day, I suppose, is part of their well articulated philosophy.

  • Do you think Barca are still bringing youngsters through, PE? You could be right, but I cannot think of anybody in their first team who made it through recently.

  • TA, you got a point there. The la Masia production line for the Barca 1st team seems to be in decline. All the same about 50% of the squad as well as the 1st team players are Masia tutored and they form a nucleus that readily sucks new ‘special’ signings into the Barca culture.

  • PE, TA,

    That was why players like Chav Cesc and Bells got out of La Masia and into Arsenal to carry on their development in football.

    Our young Gunners have done the same, as year in and year out we have so many graduates, but only a special few will go into the first team.

    Shall we bring out the match preview?


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