An irritating platitude in recent seasons has been the labelling of Arsenal as “the Barcelona of England” or some similar comparison with Pep Guardiola’s men. This reached its peak when the two sides met last season, and the season before, with Arsenal’s style at one stage being regularly described as “tippy tappy” in a manner that suggested it was an exact English translation of Barcelona’s “tika taka”.
Why irritating? Simply, because it is not true – and never has been. While some Gooners may take offence at any comparison with the club that provoked such resentment during the Cesc Fabregas saga, my complaint is more of a geeky kind. Tactically the two teams are not particularly alike.
The label emanated from a simplistic reading of the game: Pep’s Barcelona are a passing team, their strategy relies on possession. And Arsenal tend to pass the ball around quite a lot as well.
Yet look any deeper and these superficial similarities wither away. For a start, Arsene Wenger is constantly willing to employ players who directly contradict Barcelona’s tika-taka philosophy. Arsenal last faced Barca in the Champions League in the 2010-11 season – a year in which Nicklas Bendtner, a player suited to a more direct style, made 32 appearances.
As if to prove the point, Bendtner was culpable of a first touch at the Camp Nou that went further than most of Xavi’s passes, when the big Dane was presented with a chance to get a vital second away goal. Towards the end of the season, when desperate for points, Wenger could be seen shoving Bendtner up front alongside Marouane Chamakh while his team lumped the ball into the box. Don’t believe me? See West Brom away, from the end of that 2010-11 season.
Even this season, without Bendtner (and virtually without Chamakh), Arsenal have still shown a willingness to propel the ball into the box as a means of counteracting a deep and tight defence. Admittedly not via a hoof from deep, but certainly via crosses. As the clock ticked down in games against both Newcastle and Man City, with the scores level, the team pelted a constant number of balls into the box from out wide. Sometimes it works – such as with Vermaelen’s wonderful last minute winner against the Geordies. The winner against City came from a different method, yet Arsenal put in more crosses (38!) in that game than in any other this season.
By means of comparison, last night two direct teams (Villa and Bolton) put in only 29 and 16 crosses respectively. (Figures from @statszone)
While Barcelona are both lauded and criticised for persevering with quick passing and movement, even when desperate for a goal, Arsenal regularly abandon the policy of scoring via short passes in the final third – or are unable to pull off that kind of game when the opposition defends well.
A further difference occurs in the transfer market. Barcelona have developed a notably snobbish policy in buying players, only singling out those who they feel are technically gifted enough to blend in (perhaps having learned the lesson from Ibrahimovic, Chygrynsky et cetera). Several of their core players, including Xavi, have spoken publicly about how difficult it can be for new players to cope with their adopted team’s intense passing, pressing and movement. Recently Dani Alves made the same point in an interview in the Guardian, saying that Barca’s directors only pick out players with specific attributes, such as Alexis Sanchez.
Wenger is far more pragmatic in the type of player that he deploys, often favouring a footballer for a specific strength unrelated to (or even not suiting) a quick passing game – such as Bendtner and Chamakh. Theo Walcott is another example. While his short passing, control and decision-making sometimes let him down, Theo’s pace and ability to terrorise a defence (such as Barcelona’s, funnily enough) have made him a Wenger favourite.
Theo, on his good days, reminds us of how Wenger’s Arsenal used to play in the old glory times – hitting teams on the break with ruthless simplicity. As Michael Cox notes in the Arsenal tome “So Paddy Got Up”, Arsene has not always used possession football as a primary tactic. Like Fergie’s Man Utd, the team used to thrive more on the counter, but have adapted to the modern game by accepting a need to keep the ball. Again, this is far more pragmatic than Barcelona’s Cruyff-inspired doctrine of the virtues of possession.
Another Wenger favourite is Abou Diaby, who still holds the manager’s confidence despite seemingly never-ending injuries and patchy form. Diaby often frustrates fans with his slow decision-making. This is because he is not a quick passing “tika taka” kind of player. His strengths are his direct forward runs and ability to beat players, and also to win headers. While a talented player, he would never be picked for a team like Barca.
One of the primary characteristics of tika taka is the religious insistence on passing the ball to feet everywhere on the pitch, even at the back. Barca have become famed for triangles played between their ‘keeper and defenders. Yet Arsenal are nowhere near so puritanical and Wenger, while favouring sophisticated defenders (at least by some British standards), has constantly been happy to bring in centre backs who are far from being technically gifted (Squillaci and Senderos being just two fairly recent examples).
A little habit which has constantly frustrated me while watching Arsenal is precisely that defenders typically do not move to help each other out with the ball – often an under-pressure full back is forced to nudge it back to the ‘keeper who then plays it long. And when Arsenal play it out from the back, it is usually through those full backs and/or a deep lying midfielder (eg. Mikel Arteta) – a far more traditional method than at Barcelona. Watch Arsenal the next time the centre backs are pressed – the team does not cope with it in a way even remotely similar to Barcelona.
Talking of pressing, here lies another difference. In today’s Arseblog column, ‘Blogger notes that Arsenal have been strangely inconsistent with pressing the opposition – even in recent seasons when the tactic has gained widespread support, and been emulated by many teams. Sometimes Arsenal press well, but sometimes they slack off. Often this change happens not only between games, but actually during games. This may be one reason why Arsenal have conceded a huge number of goals in recent years, while Barcelona have not.
Referring back to Arsene’s more pragmatic approach to signings, one thinks of Andrei Arshavin and wonders – if Wenger was truly wedded to a high pressing game, would he have bought the Russian? Arshavin has always been very open about his desire to play for Barcelona. Was their reluctance to sign him due to his own reluctance to defend from the front? Either way, it’s clear that Wenger wasn’t so concerned.
So what is the one way that Barcelona are like Wenger’s Arsenal?
In an excellent write-up of last night’s game, Miguel Delaney noted that the following happened after Barca’s second goal:
The only problem was that, as we’ve seen a few times this season and indeed since 2009, that immediate advantage in the scoreline and numbers on the pitch created a complacency within Barcelona. Although there was still only a goal in it, they started to temporarily pop the ball about in almost a lackadaisical manner.
Watching the game I was reminded of two things – firstly, the semi-final that Guardiola’s team lost to Mourinho’s Inter. Secondly, the extremely naïve way that they conceded Chelsea’s first goal had a strong hint of the modern day Arsenal about it.
Back in Arsenal’s Wenger heyday, I remember failing to understand why the team only “raised its game” when in serious need of a goal. If they were capable of being so good (which they were) they why not play like that all the time?
If there’s one thing I have learned about the game in recent years, it is that such questions are pretty much futile. As fascinating as the sport’s tactical developments have been, we are not watching a robotic play-out; we are looking at 22 (or, last night, 21) fallible human beings who are often under quite heavy psychological pressure.
Guardiola recently pointed to how many games his squad have had to play in recent seasons. The argument is valid – they have been competing on all fronts, thus having to endure far more games than even most rival top level sides (a British commentator during the first leg said “Barca have actually played MORE games than Chelsea this season”, as if that should come as some kind of shock). While Pep’s words may have alluded to physical tiredness, they could equally have concerned the difficulty in constantly raising motivation enough to get through “must win” game after game after game. The weekend’s home defeat to Real Madrid was arguably the most limp of Guardiola’s reign, leading to fierce local criticism.
Earlier in the season, Guardiola actually raised the question of how to motivate players who have already won every trophy placed in front of them. This dilemma has combined with his need to rotate and evolve the team during the season, leading to a surprising number of defeats and draws. While Arsenal’s situation is very different (competing at a lower notch these days), Wenger also spoke of the psychology of end of season finishes recently – saying that last season he found it difficult to motivate the players once they realised that they would not win the League.
Back in 2004, another Champions League defeat to Chelsea, this time by Arsenal, was extremely difficult to accept. While the tie wasn’t as stark a contrast of attack v defence as Barcelona’s latest capitulation, it was clear at the time that Arsenal were by far the better team. And yet they blew it. And they also blew it against Man United in the FA Cup (albeit harmed by some abysmal refereeing). Barca fans today must be feeling how Gooners often felt back then – why has the team bottled it at the crucial point of the season? And unlike Arsenal in 2004, Barca don’t have an unbeaten league campaign to fall back on. “Why did the team go slack once it (wrongly) thought it was in a comfortable position?” we can almost hear them cry.
Helpfully for our comparison, another example of this came when Barcelona beat Arsenal in the aforementioned 3-1 home win last season. Despite progressing, Barca were on the brink of defeat when the ball fell to Bendtner late in the game. A better first touch and the Catalans could have been out. Yet they had 75% possession that night and 20 attempts on goal – Arsenal, infamously, had zero attempts on goal, and only completed a Stoke-level number of passes. Why were Barca happy to sit on the precarious lead? After Messi’s penalty they sat for 20 minutes, complacent that they were through. A dangerous and needless game.
Guardiola’s sides have been very successful and shown an awful lot of “mental strength”, as Wenger would say. Yet on occasions they reveal their human failings and succumb to complacency or even its equally destructive opposite – panic. While they have won a lot more than Wenger’s Invincibles, last night they reminded me of some of Arsene’s teams – sitting on a lead, naively conceding a goal, and then failing to unpick a resolute defence.
The final stages of the European Cup are often more fascinating for their psychological battles than their tactical ones. The best managers understand this. Jose Mourinho will possibly be remembered more for his often ugly determination to win than his fastidious tactics. Ferguson has become famed for his almost mysterious ability to get the most from his players towards the end of a game, and in the final stretch of a league season or cup competition. Wenger’s emphasis on the psychological was revealed a while ago when a crib sheet was leaked, showing the mantras that were drilled into the Arsenal players before a game.
And Guardiola knows the importance of psychology perhaps more than any other, having spoken several times about the mental pressure that he faces himself as manager of Barcelona – and how it could force him out of the job. As the break up of the Invincibles showed, keeping a successful team going is extremely difficult. Like Arsenal, Barcelona have shown that they can dominate games without winning. The struggle for both teams, now, is to show that they can return to winning ways.