By Tim Todd, jefe periodista España
Hands up for those who didn’t think, and by that I mean know like you just know that when you’re called into the boss’ office it’s because you’re in trouble, that Arsenal were going to get Barcelona in the Champions League…
I mean, thinking we were going to get Barcelona is different than wishing we didn’t get Barcelona. Apparently everyone wanted to get Zenit St. Racistburg so that we could watch Arsenal play football in sub-zero temperatures on the frozen tundra just a few miles south of Finland. Me, I was hoping for a closer tie, something like Wolfsburg, but I get the reasons why everyone wanted Zenit. They are the easiest team to beat, in theory, and they are an absolute shambles in terms of their cohesion thanks to manager Andres Villas-Boas and his Mourinho-esque paranoia.
But we didn’t get them, we got Barcelona in what was probably the most widely predicted draw in the history of the Champions League. There are several universal constants; the speed of light, death, Arsenal injury crisis, and Arsenal finishing 2nd in their group followed by Arsenal drawing Barcelona or Bayern Munich and Arsenal being knocked out of the Champions League after a disastrous first leg followed by an old fashioned “nearly got through” second leg.
(ALERT JAYMIN, TIM IS GOING TO SAY SOMETHING YOU THINK IS WEIRD) What if… what if this Arsenal team are actually as good as Barcelona and has a real chance of beating them?
I know, right? That’s nuts. Impossible. This is the mighty Barcelona we are talking about here: Messi, Neymar, Suarez, Thomas Vermaelen. And… you know.. we are the Arsenal: Alexis, Özil, Giroud, Coquelin.
But what if Arsenal are better than you think?
WhoScored.com ranks Arsenal as the 5th best team in Europe at the moment. You can complain about their metric and whether it’s an accurate measure of anything but look at this list and tell me if there is another team currently playing better football than Arsenal:
Arsenal take about the same number of shots per game as Barcelona and take them from relatively the same place on the pitch. Arsenal also allow about the same number of shots per game as Barcelona. Both teams top their leagues in dribbles, possession, and play virtually the same style of football.
There are some major differences, Barcelona get more shots on target and score more. And of course, Barcelona have three game-changers in their attack: Messi, the best player of any generation; Neymar, Messi’s heir; and Luis Suarez, their weakest link but a player with real bite. But Arsenal have the best playmaker in Europe, Özil; the most dogged fighter I’ve ever seen play the game in Alexis; and the best keeper in the League in Cech who is organizing Arsenal’s defense and who won the Champions League playing a park the bus strategy.
And Arsenal as a team aren’t half bad, not nearly half as bad as some of our own fans would have us believe. The Gunners have just beaten Olympiacos, Sunderland and Villa while missing several of their most important players, specifically Alexis, Cazorla, and Coquelin. Barcelona have just managed three draws against Valencia, Leverkusen, and Deportivo and show some weaknesses in defense that Arsenal might be able to exploit. And let’s not forget that Arsenal at full strength beat Bayern Munich. And that they came back from last place in the group to finish second.
I think Arsenal are proving a lot of critics wrong this season. In the summer, they wanted more buying but in the last three matches Wenger is showing that he might have been right about Arsenal’s squad depth. He’s getting the best out of Ramsey and Flamini in midfield and developing Joel Campbell into a player that many are hailing as the new Coquelin.
And after the summer buy buy buy frenzy, Arsenal lost the home opener and “the title was out of reach” yet here’s little ole Arsenal at the top of the Premier League table, creating more, better chances than any other team, and just struggling a bit (at the start of the season) to finish. Meanwhile, Arsenal’s defense is among the most stingy in Europe allowing fewer than a goal a game, while Barcelona are right on 1 per game.
For me, the chances of this Arsenal team beating Barcelona hinges entirely on fitness. It’s one thing to field Ramsey and Flamini in the midfield and play without Alexis up front against the worst team in the Premier League and yet another thing entirely to do that against Barcelona.
To be realistic, I think Arsenal’s chances of beating Barcelona over both legs is small, probably 60-40 in favor of Barcelona* but it’s not the automatic loss that everyone seems to think. I mean, it’s not like Arsenal are Chelsea who are sitting in 16th place and were drawn to play the best team in Europe**, PSG.
So, I’m looking forward to these matches. This is a real chance for Arsenal to test themselves against a big club who are heavy favorites. My hope is that as many of the Arsenal first-team as possible can be there to show what they can do. And if we get a result, unlike the nattering naybobs of negativity who think that continued play in Europe is detrimental to the team, I think it will boost Arsenal’s chances of winning the League because it will give the whole team a huge belief in themselves and their ability.
*mainly because Cazorla is out and I don’t know who to pair with Coquelin when/if he returns in time to play them.
**according to WhoScored.com — I still think Bayern are the team to beat.