The two most ideologically similar clubs in world football face off in a mouth-watering tie in the champions league tomorrow. Both inculcate principles of possession based, attacking football borne out of a youth system invested with utter faith in players’ eventual matriculation. The mutual affection and recognition of a similar philosophy has historically been evidenced, not just by their style, but by the transfer of players between the two. Arsenal have at times been a feeder club for Barcelona, selling them the likes of Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars, Alexander Hleb and Giovanni Van Bronckhurst, but have profited more in the long run with the capture of ‘Cesc Fabregas from their youth team.
Of course, there are some differences between the two clubs. For one, despite their emphasis on home-grown, Catalan players schooled in the art of pass and move, they are not averse to spending, and spending big at that. The 40 million Euros they lavished on Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the summer, to say nothing of the value of Eto’o they bartered in exchange (at least 20 million), is far in excess of the amount of money Arsenal have spent, not just in the last year, but in the last 5. They also spent around 40 million Euros to sign Brazilian full-back Dani Alves two years ago, all of which lends a faint whiff of hypocrisy to the sanctimonious tone of club comments regarding Real Madrid’s extravagance in the market.
In contrast, Arsenal are loathe to spend money and strive to run a self-sufficient business. Their very laudable and at times, slightly self-righteous, emphasis on youth, has so far seen them poach many of their best youngsters from foreign academies. Which in itself is an act of plunder, but it would be wrong to let this override the nobility of what Wenger strives for; his adherence to the development of youth and football as art is a welcome rarity in the modern day landscape, particularly amidst what he terms ‘financial doping.’
Stylistically, there are slight differences in how they play. Barcelona’s method for dictating possession is done at a much slower pace than Arsenals and is generally less direct. They probe for weakness and spring into action, rather than attack in waves like Arsenal in full song. Alexander Hleb referred to this recently when he said Arsenal have a great chance in the tie because they ‘move the ball at such speed.’
It’s a striking similarity that in their respective leagues, the two clubs have achieved a synthesis of styles. Wenger imported and fashioned highly technical players who made retaining possession at such high speeds and under such intense pressing from English opposition, possible. And Guardiola demanded that his team press with an English intensity and defend from the front when shorn of the ball – which was a key reason his side won the Champions League last year.
It would therefore be no surprise to see Barcelona raising a few eyebrows tomorrow night with a robust approach – particularly when it comes to attempting to nullify the influence of ‘Cesc Fabregas ,should he bit fit enough to play. The Spaniard pulls the strings in the Arsenal team the way Xavi does for Barcelona, but carries more of a goal threat than his Catalan counterpart.
In truth, as a collective, Barcelona have not been functioning that effectively in past matches. Josep Guardiola said recently that if it wasn’t for Messi had be managing in the second division, which was obviously tongue in cheek, but there was a shard of truth buried in the quip – Messi has single-handedly won them games through his brilliance and, but for him, they may have struggled.
Messi embodies at present everything that is lauded in La Liga and by extension, the influence of his Barca teammates on the Spanish National team; he is a small player with outrageous close control, dervish speed and awareness of space, a sublime capacity for the incisive pass because of the angles he creates, and sangfroid in and around the box. His capacity for flamboyance does not blur the demarcation line between theatricality and humiliation, and this is, undoubtedly, an epigenetic expression of a character trait: Messi is a wonderful combination of humility and confidence that never seems to spill into egotism.
The way Arsenal deal with him over two legs will be the key to the tie. There is no doubt they have the dynamism, technique and enterprise to give Barcelona the type of challenge they seldom face in football, and one that should make for a stunning spectacle. They will have to be very careful at being caught on the break – something Manchester United and Chelsea have exploited to devastating effect this season, but the beauty of this tie is that both teams will have to be wary of being caught out; this could be one of the few times fighting fire with fire will actually be a reality in a Champions League match. Let’s hope both teams stay true to their beliefs.