Ahead of this week’s Champions League round of 16 clash against Barcelona at the Emirates, Arsene Wenger must be racking his brains as to the best strategy to stop probably the deadliest attacking triumvirate in world football currently, perhaps ever.
When Arsenal drew Barcelona in the second round of the Champions League, they knew that they had tempted fate to deal them a tough hand.
Drawn in a pool comprising Bayern Munich, Olympiacos and Dinamo Zagreb in the group stages, it was expected to be a straight forward fight for top spot between the Gunners and the Die Roten.
However, Arsenal, familiar with the perverse joy of making life difficult for themselves contrived to lose their first 2 matches against expected easy pickings, Olympiacos and Dinamo Zagreb.
It took a late rally, sealed by an emphatic 3-0 win against Olympiacos in Athens to guarantee them passage into the safety of their seasonal last 16 berth.
The spectre of meeting one of the continent’s top sides was always a grim prospect that hung ominously over the Gunners and they got what looks to be the worst possible draw, a just reward for their carelessness.
But Arsenal have also been known to rise to the occasion, especially in match-ups they were rated as underdogs. Even as recent as the Champions League group stages, the Gunners beat a star-studded Bayern Munich 2-0 at the Emirates on Match-day 3.
If the Gunners are to pull off an improbable result against Europe’s most in-form team, then there are a few key things they need to do.
- Drop Mertesacker: World Cup winner, Per Mertesacker is a fine defender. Currently the captain of the side, the towering German has formed an excellent partnership with Laurent Koscielny. However, for all his excellent positioning and ability to read the game brilliantly, he has one fatal flaw; his geriatric pace. If Wenger allows his heart to rule his head, he would deploy Mertesacker as Koscielny’s defensive partner. The problem with that decision is that it could prove to be fatal as the electric pace of Neymar and Messi may end up exposing him leaving the backline vulnerable and prone to leak goals. Gabriel, a decent option no doubt, should be given a run-out for this game. His mobility would be a match for Barca’s lethal front three.
- Defend Deep: This game would be won in defence. Borrowing a few lessons from that win against Bayern at the Emirates, the Gunners need to put 10 men behind the ball and defend as though their lives depended on it. They have to be switched on for the entirety of the game as any momentary lapse in concentration would see them severely punished.
- Draw at the Emirates: Sequel to the above point, Arsenal’s best route out of this tie is to do everything humanly possible to eke out a draw in London. Why? With a draw, the game would still be finely poised and they’d be going to Camp Nou knowing that any manner of a score draw would see them enter the Quarter Finals. Desperate to score, the Catalans would be all over them. Lure them to the ropes and then use the pace of Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez to catch the normally forward-maurauding full-backs Dani Alves and Jordi Alba out of their position. If they can get an early goal, Barcelona would panic and as they throw more bodies forward, the Gunners can punish them on the counter with a second goal.
- Deploy Giroud at the D: Olivier Giroud is perhaps the most divisive character in this Arsenal side. Midway into his second season at Arsenal, it became obvious that he wasn’t going to metamorphose into a Thierry Henry. While sometimes he is capable of the sublime, he at other times contrives to miss absolute sitters. Despite his oft trumpeted flaws and failings, he suits Wenger’s current system to a T. When he’s not scoring, he holds up play excellently, thereby opening spaces for diminutive teammates like Aaron Ramsey, Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott to run in and score. His neat flicks and knock-downs are also instrumental to the way the Gunners play. Leaving him at the top of Barca’s box would cause a lot of worry to the likes of Jeremy Matthieu, Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano. Mesut Ozil should find him with those incisive passes while the likes of Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal can try and float in crosses for him on the rare occasions that the pendulum of possession swings in their favor. Although beating Barca is certainly a difficult task, it is not an altogether impossible one.