Sunday 17 December 2017

Wenger must learn lessons of Barca's beautiful reality

The case that Arsenal are answering to a higher calling is not as easy to make when they're being dismantled, writes Dion Fanning

Arsenal took their devotion to a pure aesthete a bit too far on Wednesday night. They took their highly sensitive commitment to beautiful football to its logical conclusion. It made sense for Arsenal to allow Barcelona destroy them.

We have become used to Arsenal's shrill cries when they encounter teams that are not able to match their skills and use other methods. For an hour at the Emirates, Arsenal showed that their commitment to these values is absolute as they did nothing to stop Barcelona. They will not be able to stop them at the Nou Camp and again Arsenal will be shown not to match their manager's philosophy.

Arsene Wenger believes in the football Barcelona play. He has a version of it but it is superficial fantasy, undermined by his players' self-absorption. On Wednesday night, they encountered beautiful reality. Pep Guardiola said afterwards that the first 45 minutes was the best football Barcelona had played in his time at the club.

Keith Richards once gave his definition of the blues, saying it was not about self-indulgent solos or playing as fast as you could, it was about something deeper. "What do you want to do in this world? Why did you start it and how do you want to finish it? Now that's the blues."

This is what Wenger wants but it is also, in all its transcendent melancholy, what Barcelona have. They are a team of serious intent. They demonstrated that last week when Arsenal spent an hour looking for somewhere to hide and 30 minutes high on the improbability of having escaped.

So Barcelona have nights like Wednesday's, when they offer everybody who ever fell in love with football all they could ever ask for and still it is not enough. Arsenal did not remain doggedly in pursuit, they found the will to play in garbage time and they found in Theo Walcott a player who thrives in those moments.

By the end, Arsenal's comeback was being portrayed as the making of the team and Cesc Fabregas was being compared, with varying degrees of ludicrousness, to Roy Keane in Turin in 1999 or to Bert Trautmann at Wembley in 1956. Trautmann played in that year's Cup final for Manchester City with a broken neck, Fabregas took a penalty before he found out he had fractured his shin.

Fabregas is an immense player whose personality has ensured there is some heart in the Arsenal side. But he did not bring Arsenal back as Keane did in '99. For most of the game he was absent, let down by his frozen team-mates who could neither pass nor tackle.

Barcelona allowed him and Arsenal back but they will not make the same mistake on Tuesday. Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique will be missing and Andres Iniesta is probably out but Arsenal's problems are more serious. There will be no Fabregas, no Arshavin and no Gallas. Wenger angered Raymond Domenech who did some grandstanding about the defender's injury.

"I'm livid and pissed off," Domenech said. "It's outrageous and irresponsible to have played him so early after the injury. It's scandalous. He'd better be fit for the World Cup." Or what? Wenger dismissed those criticisms but he will know that a team with Sol Campbell in it is an accident waiting to happen against Barcelona.

Wenger knows other truths too. He has been the outstanding manager in English football and a revolutionary figure but, for various reasons, many outside his control, he has been forced to commit to a side which offers lip-service to the kind of football he believes in.

At his best, Wenger has always sent his teams out to fight as well as create. But the refusal of this team to toil and to see suffering as some sort of infringement of their rights has led to a belief that Arsenal's dilettantism is, in fact, an assertion of football at its purist. When they are being harassed by Birmingham or bullied by Blackburn, Arsenal can easily make the case that they are answering to a higher calling but it is not as straightforward when Barcelona dismantle your side.

Wenger was again able to state, as he has done for many years, that his team had character. The comeback allowed him to sound convincing for once when he made the case -- or at least more convincing than he had when his team played Manchester United or Chelsea.

Yet it is the figure of Walcott that undermines everything. Walcott is a schoolboy. A lovely, well brought up schoolboy who has no place in the Nou Camp on Tuesday. Last week, England got excited about him again. He may possess, as many reports gushed, "what every defender fears: pace" but he also lacks what every manager craves: a football brain. Wenger was right not to send him on when Arshavin went off and, if he had the options, he wouldn't start him in the Nou Camp.

He will have no option and it will represent a gamble and a concession. Arsenal have remained in the title race despite their capitulation when playing the only strong teams in England and despite themselves. Barcelona's weaknesses are the only reason they believe they are still in with a chance in the Champions' League.

Walcott will have to show something he never has previously if he is to make an impact on Tuesday. Everybody knows he is fast but he has never shown any understanding of how to involve himself in a game. There are moments when space opens up in front of him and he runs as fast as he can and causes havoc but there are many, many more moments during a game when he is a lost schoolboy.

If Arsenal are to play as they are supposed to then Walcott will have to change. He will have to display some understanding of the quick-passing Arsenal game in the Nou Camp. On the basis of last Wednesday, Arsenal will have to show a finer understanding of it too.

Sunday Independent

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