Sport Champions League

Saturday 24 February 2018

Wenger aims to expose Barca's defensive vulnerability

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger Photo: Reuters / Tony O'Brien
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger Photo: Reuters / Tony O'Brien

Jeremy Wilson

The ominous size of the task that will confront Arsenal at the Emirates tonight is summed up in a single fact. While Arsene Wenger yesterday openly described the concession of a European away goal as a "knife in your heart", the simple truth is that Barcelona have been prevented from scoring only once this season in 31 matches in La Liga and the Champions League.

With the near certainty of having to absorb significant internal damage during 180 minutes on the pitch with the best team in the world, the question for Arsenal is how best to limit those incisions while retaining a threat of their own.

Wenger, as ever, is adamant that attack must form at least part of his team's defence.

"I think we will score," he said. "I cannot go into a game and think I will just play for a 0-0. It is against my nature. We need to find the right balance between being audacious and being strong defensively as a unit. Barcelona is a very offensive team so you have to try to score against them because, if they have a vulnerability, like we have, it is defensively."

Although Wenger did then acknowledge the possible nightmare scenario of simply being "played off the park" by Messi, Suarez, Neymar, Iniesta and Co, he did also repeatedly emphasise that they do have deficiencies.

Compared to Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, Wenger believes that the current vintage of Luis Enrique are less dominant in possession but more incisive with their attacks.

"They are not far from it but no team is perfect; our world is not perfect," he said. "They are the best team in the world. Nobody questions that but in football... we played Hull and it was 0-0. We can go to Sheffield Wednesday and lose 3-0. So why can't it be possible the other way around? We have to use every moment in the game where we have the chance to score."

Some hope can certainly be found in Arsenal's performances against the very best opposition over the past year. Consecutive wins against Manchester United and Manchester City, as well as that surprise 2-0 victory against Guardiola's Bayern Munich, have underlined an enhanced capacity to absorb pressure and play on the counterattack.

The presence of a genuinely defensive midfielder in Francis Coquelin, as well as a world-class goalkeeper in Petr Cech, are tangible differences. Indeed, while Lionel Messi has amassed 430 goals for Barcelona in the 10 years since they beat Arsenal in the 2006 Champions League final, Cech is one of the few leading keepers that he has still never scored past.

Wenger accepts Arsenal fell behind Barcelona after 2006 but believes the landscape has again shifted and that his club can now compete for the world's best talent. In players such as Cech, Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla and Per Mertesacker, the Arsenal squad certainly have many more proven winners than when they were eliminated by Barcelona in 2010 and 2011.

"The difference was that Barcelona spent much more money," said Wenger. "In 2006, they also had stars on the way up. They had Messi and Iniesta. They bought Neymar. We could not have bought Neymar. Maybe today we can. Real and Barcelona; the dimension of these two clubs is not only financial. It is historical, symbolic of big, big clubs but I believe that financially the English clubs can compete with them.

"We are better equipped in the way we have assembled experience now. For a number of years we had players of 20, 21, 22. You become a top level player between 23 and 30. It's as simple as that. "

One of those established players is Sanchez, who Arsenal signed from Barcelona in 2014. "He will be fired up, but that doesn't mean he will be in the right zone," said Wenger. "It is more difficult to prepare against Hull than Barcelona, because against Barcelona everyone is naturally focused. It is more to create belief and confidence.

"Against Hull it is more to raise the urgency level. The performance zone is where you are focused and relaxed. Sometimes when you play against your former club you are not necessarily in that zone."

So will he talk to Sanchez about striking the right balance? "A little word, yes," he said.

After generally blowing their chances in the first leg before being beaten at this stage of the Champions League in each of the past five seasons, Wenger will emphasise the crucial importance of patience. "We need to find a good mixture between commitment and keeping our nerves and discipline," he said. "No stupid fouls, no stupid red cards like what happened before."

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