Arsenal head into Wednesday night’s Champions League clash with Barcelona as significant underdogs, having completely torpedoed their chances of progression with a wasteful display of dominance at the Emirates.
After sitting deep and springing Barca perfectly on the counter, Arsenal completely lacked the poise and extra quality to be able to finish the chances they were creating.
The moment that perhaps demonstrated their struggles better than any other was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain injuring himself after a heavy first touch ruined another brilliant opening on the counter-attack.
That penchant for self-harm came back to haunt Arsenal when Lionel Messi scored two vital away goals late-on, but what could Arsenal do to pull off the miracle?
Ed Malyon looked at the games they’ve lost and times they’ve struggled this season to try and uncover a blueprint for beating Barcelona.
Arsene, this is what you’ve got to do:
1. PRESS BARCELONA’S DEFENDERS HIGH
The high press seems to be the fashionable thing right now, but Barca have struggled with teams getting in their faces and putting pressure on defenders in possession.
Crucially, this cuts off the supply of clean ball to Sergio Busquets and disrupts their desired patterns of play.
Atletico Madrid played a pair of wingers as a front two so they had the speed and energy to shut down Barca, while Malaga and Athletic Club have also caused Luis Enrique’s side problems by hassling their back four.
Arsenal sat deep in the first leg but didn’t have the precision to make counters count. Winning the ball high will serve them far better.
Olivier Giroud doesn’t have the speed across the ground to trouble Barcelona’s defenders, but a fast, energetic twosome – like Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott – could be the perfect tonic.
2. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF BARCA’S FIRST-HALF STRUGGLES
It’s becoming a bit of a theme this season that Barcelona are struggling in the first half of games – and we saw it again in the first leg of this very tie.
Often it’s because teams come into these matches with huge motivation and a very specific gameplan that succeeds in stifling Barca.
Of course, there’s an element of Barcelona simply being better in the second half, when their probing and stretching begins to take its toll on tired legs, but there have been plenty of teams who have bloodied the Blaugrana early-on in games.
What Arsenal will need to do, if they can fly out of the blocks, is get a crucial away goal. It will put the tie back in the balance and unsettle the home crowd.
But not having taken advantage of a wobbling Barcelona in the first half at the Emirates could end up effectively signing their Champions League death warrant.
3. CAPITALISE ON SLIGHTLY FRESHER LEGS
Arsene Wenger claimed that his side will never have a better chance of beating Barcelona – but he’s only partly correct.
On one hand, this is arguably a better side than the Pep Guardiola sides that brushed him aside in years gone by.
On the other, there is a feeling that these Barca players can’t simply keep going as they have been.
When you look at the amount of games the likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar have played over the last few years – with the Copa America last summer, the World Cup before, the Confederations Cup before that – it’s amazing that Luis Enrique has decided not to rest them more.
Messi missed two months of the season with injury but instead of being looked after for fear of recurrence, Barca are running him into the ground and he played another 90 minutes this weekend in the 6-0 win over Getafe.
A team that has won this many trophies shouldn’t struggle to get themselves motivated for a game as big as Wednesday night’s, but whether they can shrug off the physical toll of their solid run of fixtures is something that’s impossible to control.
Arsenal have to hope they catch Barca on the right day.
4. CONSIDER DROPPING MERTESACKER
Against a frontline as ludicrously talented as this, it may be that Arsene Wenger has to consider making a big-game decision to drop Per Mertesacker.
A no-doubt brilliantly effective defender, the towering German’s clash of styles with Barca’s front three couldn’t be more obvious.
And while there’s the chance that his positioning, strength and physicality could block the likes of Luis Suarez out of the game, far more worrying is that Neymar and Lionel Messi target him coming in off the flank.
While Arsenal will likely (and perhaps inadvisably) go with a ‘low block’, sitting their defensive line relatively deep, Mertesacker’s lack of covering speed in the transitions is where he will be exposed – as he was when dismissed in the Gunners’ last big domestic game (against Chelsea) and by Messi’s dribbling at the Emirates.
5. GET LUCKY
The best team doesn’t always win in football and, while Barcelona have more quality, the reason we like this sport is that it doesn’t offer them any guarantee of success.