Saturday 20 January 2018

Reversal of fortune offers another spin of the wheel

Tommy Conlon

I t was one of the many pleasures of the night that when the post-match analysis began in earnest, the boys back in studio kept the superlatives to a minimum and chose the road less travelled.

Because no amount of adjectives would have done justice to Barcelona's display and, what's more, they weren't needed anyway. Everyone had seen it for themselves. The champions had delivered a performance which historians of the game may one day decree was a new frontier in the arts of pass-and-move, balance and control.

The first-half stats were out of this world. Barcelona had 71 per cent possession compared to Arsenal's 29. Barcelona made 338 passes, Arsenal 129. Cesc Fabregas led the Arsenal passing stats in that first half with 19; seven Barcelona players exceeded that total. Xavi, their master puppeteer in midfield, made an incredible 58. The 0-0 interval scoreline was the kind of figure that gives statistics a bad name. It had been a massacre.

By then, Arsenal, like Chelsea last year, had been reduced to a state of hypnosis. They stood off their opponents as if frozen by the fear of what might happen next if they were to make a sudden move. Barca's players were literally strolling around with the ball at their feet. Several times Lionel Messi nonchalantly laid off the ball while just standing up, as if there were no defenders on the field at all. They scored straight after half-time and again on the hour. Ten minutes later, Arsenal had a goal and, ridiculously, were back in the game. With five minutes left, they equalised from the penalty spot.

On ITV and Sky Sports, across all newspapers the next morning, the talk was of Barca's brilliance and Arsenal's resilience.

On RTE, they took a more sceptical position. They praised Barcelona but didn't go overboard because firstly it would've been stating the obvious and secondly, it would have ignored the inconvenient fact that the match ended 2-2. They could have explained the comeback in terms of Arsenal's much-touted new mental toughness, but they weren't selling that line either.

Instead of dwelling on the what, they went digging for the why. It made for a very satisfying debate in the aftermath of a thrilling match. And, one could say, it was an exemplary demonstration of that battered old ideal known as public service broadcasting.

The only problem with their analysis is that it was wrong. Giles, Whelan and Dunphy were unanimous in their explanation for the late turn of events: Arsenal made their comeback only because Barcelona relaxed and became complacent after going two up.

The facts are this: Barca scored their second in the 59th, Arsenal their first in the 69th. It was in that ten-minute window therefore that Barca took their foot off the pedal. But they didn't: they owned the ball during that period too. The pattern was the same as it had been for the previous hour.

Theo Walcott's goal in the 69th was not the culmination of ten minutes of pressure by Arsenal. It came in fact directly from another Barcelona passing sequence in midfield that broke down -- and if you're going to make 636 passes in a match, some are bound to go astray. Arsenal had enough class to punish the mistake. But the goal was not the result of an Arsenal revival that had begun ten minutes earlier -- it was the catalyst for that revival.

What followed was a scenario familiar from any team sport: the side that was hitherto down and out is suddenly liberated, the side that was dominant instantly looks spent. There and then, a reversal of fortune occurs.

It happens all the time but it remains a mysterious process, this sudden transfer of what one Australian coach describes as "psychic energy", from one team to another. It can happen without the electric jolt of a goal. One team is on top for a period of play and then suddenly, without warning, the other team takes over. It happens frequently without any visible reason, as if some unseen hand flicks the 'off' switch in one team and the 'on' switch in the other.

In this case, Giles also argued that Arsenal only started playing when the match as a contest was

effectively over -- that period late in a game which the Americans call 'garbage time'. They had gone missing when the battle was there to be won; now that the pressure was off, they came out of their shells.

It was no harm to make the protest: all too often teams who've made a dramatic comeback get credited with a fighting spirit that was conspicuous by its absence when the real fighting had to be done earlier in the game.

But on this occasion he was retrofitting a theory to an outcome that had its cause in more banal circumstances. Arsene Wenger had sent on Walcott in the 67th minute -- it was a last throw of the dice. Walcott's pace down the right immediately exposed a flaw in Barca's defence that had hitherto been invisible. Two minutes later, Sergio Busquets coughed up the ball in midfield and Arsenal worked a quick move that released Walcott in on goal.

His goal transformed the game, and the dynamics for the second leg at the Camp Nou on Tuesday. The skill on the surface will be dazzling, the psychology beneath it should be equally compelling.

Sunday Independent

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