Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Arsenal 0 Barcelona 2: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal succumbed to the title holders as Barcelona took a 2-0 Champions League victory at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday evening.

Lionel Messi’s two second-half goals, the first on a counter-attack in the 71st minute and the second from the penalty spot 12 minutes later, sealed Arsenal’s first-leg fate and, in all probability, a sixth-consecutive exit at this stage of the competition.

It’s not worth wallowing in or overanalyzing a loss to such a talented, accomplished, and dominant side, but here are three things we can take away from this match.

Arsenal lacked the required precision

Against opponents of this caliber, Arsenal had to be almost perfect in both planning and execution. The overall approach—to defend with diligence and coordination and to take opportunities on the break—kept the Gunners level through three quarters of the match.

In the early stages, Arsenal actually posed a threat, suggesting that manager Arsène Wenger thought an early goal could have been decisive or, barring that, an assertive stance might give Barcelona some doubts about its own defensive solidity.

This plan worked reasonably well. Through 65 minutes, the two teams had the same number of shots on target.

Then the execution wavered, just for a moment, all the ruthless attacking trio of Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez needed.

A headed clearance from the Barcelona area goes left, with all 11 Arsenal players inside the Barcelona half. Right back Hector Bellerin, midfielder Francis Coquelin, and center half Per Mertesacker converge on Neymar, who avoids all their attentions and passes to Suarez on the touch line. Laurent Koscielny is there with Suarez but fails to prevent his return ball to Neymar. From that point, the gig is up.

As Wenger said after the match, there were several ways to stop or slow that move, and the Gunners took none of them. More precise thought and action by Mertesacker, Coquelin, and Koscielny, in particular, might have snuffed out that particular attack. If that came at the expense of a yellow card, well, that would have been a worthwhile sacrifice under the circumstances.

The second goal resulted from another sequence of imprecise decisions and actions, these by Mertesacker and substitute Mathieu Flamini. Messi, as he does, exacted the punishment.

Arsenal’s goalmouth contagion shows no signs of subsiding

Most everyone expected that Arsenal would get few chances to score against this dominant Barcelona side. The directive, then, was to put away those opportunities that did come. The problem was that this objective ran against the Gunners’ recent attacking habits.

They finished goalless for the fifth time in the last eight matches.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had the most obvious chance, when Bellerin’s shot rebounded to him right in front of goal in the 22nd minute. With Barcelona keeper Marc-André ter Stegen already prostrate, Chamberlain kicked straight at the keeper when it may have been easier to score.

That was one of Arsenal’s three “Big Chances,” according to FourFourTwo StatsZone. The others fell to Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey. Giroud forced a decent save from ter Stegen with a contested header in the 60th minute, while Ramsey couldn’t poke home the equalizer from Danny Welbeck’s knockdown.

The suffering was more widespread in Arsenal’s scoreless FA Cup draw with Hull City last weekend, when eight Gunners took a total of 15 shots inside the Hull penalty area. Someone needs to overcome this grippe soon.

Hector Bellerin is the real deal

Bellerin’s emergence isn’t news. But on the biggest European stage, against the most formidable European opponent who happen to be his former employers, the young Spanish right back excelled.

When he came face-to-face with the tricky Neymar, Bellerin held his own. He was also able to wriggle out of pressure and made mostly sound decisions to clear the ball or to work it to a teammate. Bellerin’s speed also enhanced Arsenal’s counter-attacking threat, as in his blocked shot that fell to Oxlade-Chamberlain.

The stats reveal Bellerin’s solid performance. He succeeded on three of four tackles, made both the clearances he tried, and logged seven ball recoveries, tied for the most on the team with Koscielny. Bellerin also got past his man with four of seven dribbles, second on Arsenal behind Alexis, who was six of nine.

Extra time

Danny Welbeck is making a strong case for a regular starting spot. The forward, just three matches back from injury, played almost 20 minutes on Tuesday after 67 minutes three days earlier and brought a combination of speed and strength that troubled Barcelona. He outwitted and outran Javier Mascherano for one long ball, and his strong yet adept header to Ramsey nearly produced the equalizing goal.

It may not matter whether Oxlade-Chamberlain’s injury forces him to the sidelines; Welbeck, his own fitness permitting, should get a run in the team.

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