A victory for pragmatism
A homecoming of sorts at the Stade de France in Paris on May 18 (Australian time) when Arsenal and Barcelona meet in a sumptuous Champions League final, and while the combatants are recognised globally as two of the most flowing football practitioners, paradoxically their success in Europe this season has been built on a more pragmatic approach.
For Arsene Wenger and his skipper Thierry Henry, Paris will represent the pinnacle of an eight year English odyssey, an opportunity to return home and show off how they have revolutionised the Gunners, a once dour London outfit know for their 1-0 victories, now one of the most sophisticated football clubs in the world.
For Barcelona’s sublimely gifted twice world footballer of the year Ronaldinho, Paris represents an opportunity to return to the place it started for him in 2001 when he chose French Ligue 1 outfit Paris St Germain to launch himself onto the world stage.
The appetite wets at the prospect of seeing these two attacking forces grace the wonderful occasion that is the Champions League final, Arsenal with the lightning quick feet of Henry and his supporting cast from midfield, Barcelona with all the artistry of Ronaldinho and Deco and the directness of Samuel Eto’o and Ludovic Giuly, another returning Frenchman.
Yet for all the obvious attacking weapons that both sides possess, it has been their work off the ball, both in the dugout and on the pitch, that has categorised their respective runs to the final.
The Gunners, after almost a decade of trying, have finally enjoyed the taste of European success in the season they probably least expected. With Patrick Viera long gone, form at home fluctuating, and the backline decimated by three long term injuries to veterans Lauren, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole, Arsenal have had little choice but to re-adjust, and what a splendid job the maestro Wenger has done at that.
Undefeated in all 12 European games this season, they’ve now made it 10 clean sheets on the trot, a Champions League record, not conceding a goal since Ajax’s Markus Rosenberg put one past Manuel Almunia way back on Matchday 2, seven months ago.
Indeed, Wednesday morning’s (Australian time) hero, German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, who saved a last minute penalty from a nervous looking Juan Ramon Riquelme, has been their lucky charm, not conceding a goal since coming into the team on Matchday 3.
While Lehmann, one of Arsenal’s most consistent performers in the premiership this season, has been miserly in Europe, he’s been helped in no small part by the inexperienced defensive trio of Emmanuel Eboue, Philippe Senderos and Mathieu Flamini.
Indeed, the trio, who have formed a formidable back four along with Kolo Toure since the turn of the year, are a credit to the masterful management abilities of Wenger, who, in the space of one season, has been able to re-build a team that looked decimated when Viera left, blending in just the right amount of youth to complement some of his ageing stars.
His work to turn Toure, brought to the club as an attacking right midfielder a few years ago, into one of the best central defenders around, has been the work of a genius. Ditto his use of Flamini, a central midfielder, as a stop gap left back.
Further kudos comes from his change in formation from the 4-4-2 we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in the Premier League and in previous Champions League campaigns to a 4-5-1, with Henry on his own up front, getting support from the likes of Alexander Hleb, Cesc Fabregas, Freddie Ljungberg, Jose Antonio Reyes and Robert Pires breaking forward from midfield at pace, not to mention the brilliant overlapping of Eboue from right back, such a feature of the second round win over Real Madrid, when he toyed with Brazilian Robinho.
It was this tie, particular the first up win at the Bernabeu that has set up the Gunners European run. By flooding his midfield, Wenger has been able to fix the problem that seemed most obvious earlier in the season – how to replace Viera? – by providing enough shield for the defence and the requisite numbers to spring forward in support of Henry.
Whereas in previous seasons Arsenal have attacked as gospel, this season the motto has been defend first, get men behind the ball, and then launch forward rapidly, to which the great Henry has been key.
While tactically there’s been an adjustment, the thing that hasn’t changed about Wenger’s team has been the emphasis on technique and pace. Each of his players is hand-picked for his good ability on the ball and then given the confidence to express it. Witness the revelation that Alexander Hleb, driving from central and wide midfield, has been since Christmas. Prior to that he looked terribly over-priced, but Wenger’s magic touch has been able to bring out the best in him.
A lesser manager may have given up, but Wenger appears to have instilled in Hleb the necessary confidence to do the job.
His identification and subsequent development of Spaniard Cesc Fabregas has been another masterstroke, best highlighted by two outstanding quarter finals against his predecessor Viera, where his ability both as a distributor and driving midfielder were evident.
Just how good his new look defence has been was best highlighted on Wednesday morning. With Senderos out and Flamini limping off early, the balance at the back was altered by Campbell and Gael Clichy coming in. Suddenly, a defence that has seemed so calm and assured for the past five matches looked rushed and more hesitant, best highlighted when Clichy gave away the late penalty and Campbell failed to deal with a couple of excellent crosses from Villarreal right back Javi Venta.
If Senderos is available for the final, don’t be surprised to see him chosen ahead of Campbell, ditto Flamini on the left.
Regardless of the team make-up in Paris, Arsenal feel it is their destiny to win a first European crown, but their opposition also feel they have an equal right to a trophy they have remarkably only won once, not good enough for a club of its stature.
Indeed, it has now been 12 years since they last graced the final, a poor return for a club that should be regularly competing with the likes of AC Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid.
In the past few years, Barcelona have only had themselves to blame for their repeated failures in Europe, sticking to their all out attacking philosophies as other teams used more balanced approaches to dominate the continent. Even Real, when they won the title in 2001/2002, had a more pragmatic approach, ensuring their were enough defensive minded players – the likes of Fernanado Hierro, Ivan Helguerra and Claude Makelele - to allow their attackers to flourish.
The same goes with Liverpool last year and Porto the year before. The teams that do well in Europe have often been the ones that strike the right balance between defending and attacking, ensuring they aren’t exposed defensively when they press forward.
In previous years Barcelona haven’t placed enough importance on their work without the ball, believing they will always outscore the opposition. If they get three, we’ll get four, that’s been the principle.
Last season it was so blatantly exposed by Chelsea, who absorbed whatever Barcelona threw at them in the second round, countering with ruthless efficiency to expose the gaps left by a team committing too many men forward.
Watching right back Juliano Belletti last season you could almost be convinced he was a winger, such was his propensity to press forward. Watching him on Thursday morning (our time) you had to wait 29 minutes to see him venture into the Milan final third.
Herein lies the change in philosophy by Barcelona this season, which was so evident in the second round against Chelsea. With talents like Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Deco, Lionel Messi, Henrik Larsson and Giuly likely to create opportunities against any opposition, Frank Rijkaard adopted a more conservative rearguard, with Presas Oleguer at right back, Rafael Marquez and Carles Puyol central and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst on the left. They were screened by the equally defensive minded Brazilians Edmilson and Thiago Motta in central midfield, ensuring Barcelona could compete not only in the attacking third, but in the middle and back thirds.
It worked a treat, with Deco and Motta getting in the face of Makelele and Frank Lampard, stopping the supply to Chelsea’s wide men. It was redemption for Rijkaard over Jose Mourinho after being out-thought last season.
Despite a plethora of injuries in the subsequent ties against Benfica and Milan, it is a formula that Rijkaard has stuck to; as long as we can keep the opposition out at our end, we have enough fire-power to do the job at the other.
Undoubtedly it has been the tinkering with his personnel at the back that has made all the difference. These days Marquez is thought of as a central defender, Edmilson as a defensive midfielder and Oleguer as a right back. These subtle changes have given Rijkaard control at the back, allowing his attackers to flourish.
For a team known the world over for its attacking might, the statistics are damning. Only two goals conceded in its six knock-out games, both against Chelsea, and four clean sheets on the trot.
With a platform like that, it’s almost tempting to dub them Barca the Boring. Not on your life and certainly not with Ronaldinho on a mission to add the ‘trophy with big ears’ to his growing collection.
While Barca’s attack hasn’t been as ruthless since the sublimely gifted Messi was injured in the second leg against Chelsea, it has been doing enough, and will undoubtedly give Arsenal’s new back four their biggest test to date.
Barcelona will feel that if Marquez and Puyol can control Henry, and Edmilson can stop Arsenal’s midfielders driving forward, they have enough punch up front to finally breach the Gunners rearguard.
But it’s won’t be all out attack from Rijkaard’s men, they will always ensure they have the numbers to halt any rapid Arsenal counter-thrust. Indeed, times have changed for two of the attacking underachievers of the world game.