If Saturday’s performance proved anything, it was surely that Arsène Wenger’s plan to bring Barca-style football to North London is succeeding.
It’s no secret that the boss admires the style and manner with which the Catalans play. Now he has shamelessly lifted their football manual (or should that be Manuel?) from under their very noses and put a red and white stamp on it.
Barca’s front six of Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro, Villa and one of Keita or Mascherano play beautiful pass-and-move football, denying their opponents the ball and carving their way through the most resolute of defences.
After much experimentation, Arsène now has his own ‘Super Six’: Cesc, Song, van Persie, Nasri, Walcott and Wilshere.
What both ‘sixes’ have in common (and why I have referred to them as ‘front sixes’ rather than the more familiar midfield/attack definitions) is that all the players swap positions at will and all pose an attacking threat.
After the two Champions League games against Barca last Spring I wrote a post saying that “Arselona is Closer Than We Think.”
Despite the outstanding first half from the Spaniards at The Grove and despite the Messi master class at the Nou Camp, I took heart from Barca’s exhibition because it showed what Arsenal could aspire to.
I reflected that there were three differences between the sides: Barcelona had more money, they had better players and they worked harder.
Revisiting those thoughts today, the picture has changed.
Do Barcelona have more money? It subsequently became clear last season that they were grossly in debt and in no position to keep making huge-money purchases. Then some rich Qataris came calling and in the blink of a cheque book Barca threw their much-vaunted principles in the bin (along, presumably, with all their Unicef shirts) and accepted a shirt sponsor in exchange for £125m. Given how high their debts were, this is hardly a licence to buy big, although it gives them more clout in the transfer market than they would otherwise have had. Arsenal, meanwhile, continue to revel in the best financial model in big time football, and you really get the feeling that if Arsène made the case to the Board for a £50m signing they would give him the money. Admittedly, he’s as likely to ask for fifty million quid as Wayne Bridge is to ask John Terry to tea.
Do Barcelona have better players? They may just still shade it, but that gap has closed considerably. Fabregas or Iniesta? Nasri or Messi? Pedro or Walcott? Van Persie or Villa? Those questions don’t produce the simple answers they would have done a year ago. And both our so-called holding players, Song and Wilshere, have more innate footballing talent than either Keita or Mascherano. Earlier this season I was moaning about Alex Song’s forward tendencies, but he has won me over completely. He is becoming a true box-to-box player with silky skills to go along side his wrought iron commitment. Wilshere, meanwhile, at just-turned 19, is surely heading for world superstardom. We’ll certainly be cheering on little Jack long after the name Balotelli has faded from memory.
Do Barca work harder? The answer to that one is still ‘yes’ overall. The genius of that team is that they work as hard when they don’t have the ball as when they do have it. And it’s still an aspect of the game that has let Arsenal down this season. However, I truly believe that our first team DOES have the right work ethic and has demonstrated it repeatedly since the Christmas period.
To summarise, I would hazard that Arselona is just about here. The players, the style of play, the swagger – it’s all coming together beautifully.
We’re reaping the benefits in the domestic competitions and there’s no reason why we can’t also succeed in Europe.
Certainly the games against Barcelona this year will be very different. Barca are a great team and may still beat us over two legs, but I expect things to be much more competitive this time round. Our players know exactly what they’re up against and, let’s not forget, we were decimated by injuries last year.
All of which is not to say there are no concerns.
This Arsenal team still desperately needs some silverware and, psychologically, that may yet be a big step to climb. The Carling Cup would be a great way to start.
I would also like us to sign a good centre back this January. I would feel even more comfortable with some cover for Alex Song, who has become so crucial to our success. And I fret every game about the fitness of key players like Robin, Cesc, Theo and Samir.
But if Lady Luck favours us with a smile, good things could really happen this year.