It’s easy to point to the statistics in the game against Barcelona and say “Arsenal was completely outplayed”, but I believe that’s a gross oversimplification.
Yes, Arsenal lost the tie. They failed to get a shot on goal, had little-to-no possession for long spells, and escaped several near-misses that could have put the score much further out of sight. However, Arsenal entered the game with a clear gameplan: use the advantage earned in the first leg to see off one of the world’s hottest teams.
Arsenal set up to counterattack to get a crucial away goal, and were more than willing to soak up Barcelona’s pressure in the first half. There was little doubt that Barca would score, but that was not the concern of Arsenal’s; the concern was always to finish the game with a favorable aggregate. People foolishly expecting a repeat of the 1st leg were not pleased to see what seemed like a “dominant” Barca display at Camp Nou, but in truth Arsenal never desired another run-and-gun game that would only play to Barcelona’s strengths – especially considering the numerous injuries Arsenal had picked up prior to the 2nd match.
Of course, any sort of tactical plan was completely undone by an outrageous red card that truly ruined the contest. The referee, Massimo Busacca , stamped his authority on the game with some extremely harsh yellow cards to Arsenal early for “time wasting” (Sagna’s on 29 minutes was laughable) and blew for fouls virtually every time a Barcelona player fell over. For the sake of not making myself angry, I won’t discuss the criminal nature of RVP’s sending off on 55 minutes. Let’s just say, I wouldn’t hear much with 95,000 people all around me either.
What had happened 3 minutes prior to that? Arsenal had scored. One of Arsenal’s rare ventures forward culminated in a disastrous own-goal that reminded fans that Barcelona’s backline was lacking their leaders Gerrard Pique and Carles Puyol. At 1-1, the game was considerably in Arsenal’s favor, and the morale had been restored after Cesc had foolishly cost us late into the first half. While Barcelona fans may point to their team’s offensive flair, I point to their brittle defending that could have easily been undone again late-on to give Arsenal a potential game-winning goal.
And that’s what almost happened. Barca fans will – and have – been quick to forget that Nicklas Bendtner almost sent Barcelona out of the competition on 86 minutes when he had a majestic opportunity, one-on-one, to put the game to 3-2 and give Arsenal the lead on away goals. Naturally, our clumsy Dane missed the chance to live up to his own hype and he was then tackled by a good defensive move. But the chance was there, and Barcelona were nearly rocked by it.
So let’s take a smarter look at the game as the product of 180 minutes of football, instead of 90 minutes of statistic collecting. Barcelona LOST the first leg and had a deficit to make up. Arsenal went on the pitch to put up a stubborn defense, tire out a side that isn’t used to pushing without result for 90 minutes, and hit them on a typically fast counterattack for a vital away goal. That plan worked once on 52 minutes, nearly did on 86 minutes, and quite conceivably could have worked many more times had our front-line attacker not been sent off by a referee who’s another victim to the Barcelona myth.
What’s the “Barcelona myth”? Everyone knows Barcelona plays beautiful, flowing, attractive football. It takes incredible skill and they do it every week in Spain and often in Europe; I take nothing away from their talent. However, I find many people see Barcelona as the “good guy”, the Heaven-sent team that all other teams are just trying to interfere with. Particularly guilty of this are their fans, who are so accustomed to seeing their team win that they cannot visualize Barcelona losing without it being the fault of an official, or a dirty other team. One of the biggest victims of this myth is the media, who’s constant praise for Barcelona often results in disrespect for the other team. Hearing things from commentators like “Arsenal is trying to play up to their role-model Barcelona” are incredibly one-sided and suggests that all teams in the world should (or must) play the Barcelona way – though, they’ll never be better at it than glorious “Mes Que un Club”.
This silly belief often seeps its way into officiating, whether UEFA realizes it or not. I’m not much for conspiracy theories, so I’m not going to consider the fact that UEFA could perhaps be sending out officials to make sure the world’s club does well. (I mean they sponsor UNICEF, so they must be everyone’s team, right?). Now perhaps this sounds like the ranting of a bitter Arsenal fan, but I can assure you it’s much more objective than that. Let’s take a look a couple recent examples that aren’t Arsenal.
3-2 Aggregate win of Inter Milan over Barcelona, 2010
How many people remember this one? Mourinho’s Inter put on a tour-de-force of defending in the second leg, and Barcelona failed to turn over a first leg loss of 3-1. Of course for the credit that the Nerazzurri defense got, more time was spent talking about the “negativity” of Mourinho’s defensive set up that failed to score at Camp Nou. Of course, this all glosses over the fact that Inter were reduced to 10-men on 28 minutes due to a blatant simulation on behalf of Sergio Busquets; another cheap foul bought by the ref that could have changed the whole affair… but Barcelona’s honesty is never in question. Statistics too would suggest that Barcelona was the “better” side in this tie: DailyMail lists the final stats at 76% possession Barcelona; 737 passes to Inter’s 116; 15 shots to Inter’s 4.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? A glaring example where the stats don’t tell the whole story, and where Barcelona gets too much credit while their vulnerabilities get ignored – instead turned into criticism levied against the defending team.
1-1 Aggregate Away Goals win of Barcelona over Chelsea, 2009
Another case where the ref’ helped hand Barcelona progression through to the next round… pun intended. This time, it was the tactician Guus Hiddink attempting to hold his 1-0 first leg lead by defending against Barca in the 2nd leg at Stamford Bridge. Once Lampard had made the breakthrough early on, Chelsea resorted to the kind of counterattacking style that Arsenal was aiming for in 2011. Chelsea should have had the opportunity to put the game away with several strong penalty claims, including an in-box tackle that was ruled outside of it, a pull on Drogba’s jersey on a scoring chance, and most of all, a blatantly clear handball in the penalty box by a sloppy Pique. However, none of these were called against the mythical do-no-evil team, and Barcelona was left with a chance to fight again as the good guys – culminating in a dramatic injury time goal that many heralded as “justice” against Chelsea’s 10-man defending. Perhaps worse yet, Ballack was denied another handball claim after this as Chelsea poured on the pressure in the game’s final moments, with Eto’o blocking a decent shot from the player now at Leverkusen. Tom Ovrebo, the refree on this occasion, was another individual who simply failed to punish Barcelona in the same manner that lesser teams surely would be.
What does this point to? Teams that play against Barcelona are demeaned. Referees constantly favor Barcelona because they are the attacking the team, the team that “wants” to play offensive football and show off, the team that all others are obstructing. Defending heavily against them is often looked at as sinful by pundits and observers alike – as teams that are “ruining” the game and the experience for everyone else. If you don’t play the Barcelona way, regardless of aggregate scores or prizes on the line, you are the bad guy. You are not playing properly. Barcelona is pure football incarnate.
This persisting myth that results in Barcelona getting all this credit from everyone is a JOKE. Barcelona are as guilty as any of football’s “evil teams” (Chelsea, Madrid, Man City) for tapping up and spending lavish amounts on players. They fall over, dive and simulate at a rate probably consistent with all of La Liga, but certainly more than most of Europe’s top sides. They attack constantly because they can; the referee helping them to gain an edge on 50/50 balls in the middle of the pitch, allowing amateur defensive blunders, and ensuring that every opposition defender must think three times before making a tackle because a penalty call is always nearby. Sure they’re talented, but they’ve also got a lot of assistance from the football world around them.
So before you say “Arsenal just wasn’t up to Barcelona” over two legs, just look at the bigger picture. A 10-man Arsenal came that close to putting out Barcelona, using a method practiced successfully by other teams in years gone by. And perhaps if it wasn’t for the pervasiveness of the Barcelona myth, maybe Busacca’s call would have been different and Arsenal would’ve been the ones moving on. But for now, the world’s poorer commentator’s on the game will continue to heap praise on the Catalans and continue to drive forward this ridiculous notion of Barcelona’s holier-than-thou superiority.