Sunday 25 September 2016

Wenger's best-laid plans prove futile against Three Amigos

Barcelona's brilliant attacking trio were always going to make their mark, writes Paul Hayward

Paul Hayward

Published 24/02/2016 | 02:30

Lionel Messi celebrates with Neymar and Luis Suarez after scoring the first goal against Arsenal last February
Lionel Messi celebrates with Neymar and Luis Suarez after scoring the first goal against Arsenal last February

To have Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez on a pitch in London was not really a fixture - more of a happening, a kind of state visit. But the welcome was not the sort they often receive in Spain, with an open pitch and befuddled opponents. Here they ran into the great Arsenal block.

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For 71 minutes a fine tactical plan worked but there is nothing on a whiteboard that can compensate you for a lack of composure in front of goal: Arsenal's curse this calendar year. As Arsene Wenger's men took control of the game midway though the second half they pressed Marc-Andre ter Stegen's goal without steadying their nerve sufficiently to breach his net.

You know what happens next. Barcelona survive, break through a disorganised Arsenal rearguard and Neymar rolls the ball across to Messi, who logs his first goal against Petr Cech in seven matches.

Barcelona goals are like death and taxes: there is no avoiding them. The wiping out of all that hard work had dire consequences.

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First Suarez hit the post, then Mathieu Flamini fouled Messi in the box and allowed the little giant to double Barcelona's lead.

'Even with Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez (pictured) to call on, Arsenal lack the majesty to engage in a straight talent contest with three megastars'. Reuters / Dylan Martinez
'Even with Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez (pictured) to call on, Arsenal lack the majesty to engage in a straight talent contest with three megastars'. Reuters / Dylan Martinez

Wenger's red and white Maginot Line is reserved for those rare occasions when Arsenal expect to see less of the ball than the opposition.

In the Premier League only Manchester City force the Arsenal manager to rip up his principles to frustrate the other team. This is not a concession Wenger would have made three seasons ago. But how else to deal with having the devil's trident of Messi, Neymar and Suarez poked up your nose?

There is no other way. Arguably the greatest attacking trio since Alfredo Di Stefano, Francisco Gento and Ferenc Puskas in the illustrious Real Madrid sides of the '50s and '60s are not open to the meet-fire-with-fire approach. In such a battle they would burn your eyebrows off.

Even with Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez to call on, Arsenal lack the majesty to engage in a straight talent contest with three megastars who had scored 109 Champions League goals between them in 149 fixtures, with Messi accounting for 80 of those in 102 outings.

These phenomenal stats are further burnished by the understanding that runs between the three: the willingness to co-operate for the collective good.

In an age when footballers are one-man corporations with vast entourages, this dilution of ego is incredibly hard to achieve. They are a Best, Law and Charlton for the X Box age, but without the political tensions you would expect.

Messi saw that Suarez's arrival made his own life better, not worse, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic's had. Neymar saw that playing with Messi and Suarez would hasten his ascent to World No 1. And Suarez himself still has the grateful look of one who still struggles to believe his ultimate dream came true.

As Brazilian great Zico said recently: "The trident is fantastic because they play as a team and suit each other perfectly." Or as Wenger said before the game: "They have a great solidarity. When you see someone like Messi, who could score his 300th La Liga goal, pass a penalty to Suarez, that means there's really something in there."

So there was no choice for Wenger but to acknowledge the brilliance of the force arrayed against him, not only with the front three but Andres Iniesta as the purveyor of fine goods to royalty, as he has been for so long.

The 93 goals scored by the Terrible Trio have their roots in the freedom afforded them by a well-balanced midfield three (Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets are Iniesta's accomplices). Yet glimmers of hope open eventually for the opponents of all great teams.

Barcelona's pure tika taka generation became vulnerable to set-pieces and power through the middle, which forced Luis Enrique to shift the balance, and the club to buy Suarez, an authentic centre-forward.

Arsenal showed for long periods here that the current constellation really can be defied, not just by pulling men behind the ball (as any team could do) but presenting a tight, alert, aggressive defensive formation to stop Barca sweeping the ball around the edge of the penalty area.

"What do I say to Messi, Suarez and Neymar? Abracadabra. And then the magic sparks," claimed Barca coach Luis Enrique. Abracadabra failed to work for much of this game, because Arsenal refused to be dazzled by the three amigos and kept up a constant attacking threat. How many times have we said, though, that good approach work is not producing the desired results?

Messi (28) scored his 300th La Liga goal last week; he now has 82 goals in 103 Champions League fixtures. Aaron Ramsey, who seems to have the yips in front of goal, did a good job of hunting him down. The scorecard, however, will show that Messi damaged Arsenal on the break and again when Flamini marked his arrival off the bench by giving away a penalty.

Arsenal's early defensive block was impressive. But their mental block in front of goal was ruinous. It was the sign of weakness Messi needed. You just knew he was going to pounce. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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