Tag Archives: Champions League

Atleti v. Barcelona provides nice contrast between Arsenal v. Barcelona

Yesterday’s Champions League featured a nuevo-classico between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona. As expected Barcelona dominated possession with an astonishing 77-23%. In passing terms, Barcelona completed 594-122 passes. But we should ask what Barcelona created with all that possession? 13 shots, while Atleti created 9. And if we look at shot quality Atleti got 6 on target, to Barcelona’s 4 and Barcelona only got two shots on target inside the 18 yard box compared to Atletico’s 4. It wasn’t just possession and shot quality or finishing and organization but from top to bottom this was two radically different teams pitted against one another for a chance to move on in the Champions League. And on the night, it was the most efficient team, and not the most expensive, nor the most vaunted, team that won.

Atleti scored both goals in a fashion that should be familiar to any Arsenal fan who grew up watching Arsenal in the Cesc era: the opposition capitalized on a mistake for the first, then doggedly defended, and hit them on the counter for the second.

For the first, Barcelona failed to clear properly, Gabi collected, and passed a poor ball to Saúl. Saúl took the pass and on the half-volley, with the outside of his left boot, played an outswinging cross to Griezmann. Griezmann was completely unmarked, the defense had fallen asleep, and headed in an unsaveable goal.

It was a goal that was a long time coming. Atletico’s game plan in that first half was to set to and harass the Barcelona players. B

arcelona, for their part, were flustered and managed just three shots total and one shot on target in the entire first half.  Atletico did this by limiting Barcelona’s penetration. And so despite the 72% possession advantage, both teams went in to half time with 60-67 passes in the opposition final third and thus explains the problems Barcelona had creating shots.

The second half started much better for Barcelona as Atletico conceded the midfield and set up the wall for Barcelona to try to pummel. But this was also part of Simeone’s game plan: knowing that he had Griezmann in the team, and the crucial away goal at the Nou Camp from the first leg, the Atletico manager sent his team out with one command “hold what we have”.

It wasn’t easy. At one point Gabi was forced to clear a shot off the line that literally could have gone anywhere and Barcelona were unusually profligate with crosses, seeing the ball dribble harmlessly in front of goal, rather than Messi or Suarez latching on for a tap in.

But the second goal was coming for Atletico and they had struck a few warnings earlier that called on Mascherano to nip in on the lively Griezmann. But eventually, Atleti hit Barcelona on a rapier like counter in which Iniesta was left guarding two Atletico attackers. When the ball was crossed to Griezmann, who would have been through on goal, Iniesta stopped the play with a handball. It was a denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity and by the letter of the law Iniesta should have been sent off. Any foul that would result in a free kick or penalty kick that denies an obvious goal scoring opportunity is a red card. But the referee showed just yellow as he pointed to the spot.

Griezmann stepped up and by my account looked nervous. He seemed to mis-hit the penalty and it took an age to dribble past Ter Stegen who had guessed the correct way but still couldn’t get to the shot. Two-nil and there was no way back for Barcelona.

Well, there would have been a way back. One minute after Griezmann’s penalty, Gabi handled the ball inside the Atletico box and the referee instead awarded the spot kick outside the box. Barcelona players swarmed the referee and in their yellow strips looked like a flight of angry bees but the referee wouldn’t be swayed. Barcelona will no doubt point to that decision as the one which cost them the match but Atletico could point to the Iniesta handball and to the red card shown to Torres in the first leg as evidence that they too suffered from poor referee decisions.

As the match wore down, Diego Simeone cut a fiery figure on the sideline as he visibly encouraged the home fans to support their team. While Simeone was whipping the crowd and his players into a hot lather, Luis Enrique’s quiescent Sad Keanu on the other bench was a stark contrast. Two vastly different managers, two vastly different teams, two vastly different playing styles.

This is where I would normally end this article but I was curious how Arsenal and Atletico stacked up against Barcelona in this season’s Champions League.  The contrast is interesting and we can see what Arsenal did well and what Atletico did well against the reigning Champions League champions.


First, Atletico’s numbers are going to be skewed because they played most of the first leg down a player owing to Torres’ red card. Second, Atletico’s numbers are going to be skewed because they played defensively for roughly 135 minutes over the two legs. So, I expect to see more shots against Atletico, more passes for Barcelona, and more tackles and fouls by Atletico. All of those are true.

What’s interesting, though, is that while Arsenal were clearly the better attacking team between Atletico and Arsenal, it was Simeone’s side who were better at controlling the Big Chances. As we all remember from watching Arsenal v. Barcelona and the reverse fixture, Arsenal made some huge errors on both legs leading to a lot of great shots for the Catalan team. This is how Barcelona created 12 big chances against Arsenal over the series but only three against Atletico. Many pundits will say that Arsenal’s attacking philosophy is exactly what gets them into this situation with teams like Barcelona and it’s hard to disagree.

Meanwhile, it’s also a problem that Arsenal created almost as many chances as Barcelona but did not have nearly enough quality to score more than the one goal. It’s encouraging that Arsenal have spent the entire season creating great chances but also frustrating that Arsenal don’t have the quality to finish them. Perhaps if they did, the season would have turned out different.


Hey look it's old big ears!

Champions League under threat wants to change format to benefit the richest

News leaked yesterday that UEFA plans to revamp the Champions League format. Exact details aren’t available but a source is suggesting that UEFA want to minimize the chances of having minnow clubs, like BATE, play against big clubs like Real Madrid and that UEFA also want to turn the group stages into two “mini-super-leagues” consisting of 8 teams each with 14 home and away matches. Under the leaked plan, the winners of the two mini-super-leagues would battle it out in a final. A mini-super-league-bowl if you will.

The reasons for this change are obvious, the Champions League is under threat from the Premier League.

The Premier League is such a money making behemoth that it’s become a threat to clubs outside of England. As Jamie Jackson put it writing for the Guardian,

Next season, the side relegated bottom from the Premier League will receive £100m, as much as Chelsea received when claiming the title in May (2015). The champions in May 2017 will be rewarded with prize-money of around £150m.

When monies from ticket sales and commercial deals, each worth £15-20m, are factored in, then Aston Villa, who are likely to be relegated this season, would receive a reward of around £140m next season, nearly three times the budget of many continental clubs. La Liga’s Sevilla, for example, operate on around £50m a year. Winning the Champions League offers a reward of £40-50m, a third of the prize money received by next year’s Premier League champions.

Like I said, this rules change is simply about survival.

After the announcement of UEFA’s new plan to invert the group stages and put the knockout rounds earlier and then effectively turn the Champions League into two leagues competing for one title I was reminded of Arsene Wenger’s warning in 2009 that eventually Europe would form a “super league”.

“I see more a European league developing over time rather than one team going out of the country,” said Wenger, when he was asked whether he could envisage Celtic or Rangers joining the Premier League. “The national leagues will survive but maybe in 10 years, you will have a European league.

“I’m not sure 100% that I’m right but I feel inside our game there are some voices behind the scenes coming up to do something about that, especially if the rules become too restrictive for these clubs.”

The worry for Wenger would be if the European league were to be created by an elite cartel or, to use his term, a “franchise”, breaking away to divvy up the wealth rather than it being constructed on a system of merit, involving promotions from the various national leagues.

“Personally, I believe only in sporting merit,” he said. “So, if such a league is created, it has to be by transfers up and down, although that is practically very difficult to resolve and we do not want to kill the national leagues. Teams would have to play in both the European league in midweek and the national league at the weekend. It means all these teams have two teams.

“The way we are going financially is that even the money that will be coming in from the Champions League will not be enough for some clubs because they spend too much money. The income is basically owned by Uefa and they distribute the money to the clubs.”

While the major papers are reporting that as a possible outcome, as a pundit I can simply state, that’s clearly the logical outcome: first form two mini-super-leagues, get the teams accustomed to playing mid-week, and before long, you have a European super-league. And they almost have to do this if they, the biggest clubs in Europe, are going to survive the threat of the Premier League.

At the time Wenger made his remarks (2009) English teams, and especially Arsenal, needed the money from the Champions League. But that is no longer the case: Aston Villa, will win more in prize money for being relegated than Bayern Munich will win if they win the Champions League and their domestic league combined.


Of course, clubs like Bayern have other sources of income and will remain one of the richest clubs in the world but that position of power in under threat from a burgeoning Premier League and their all-encompassing TV deals.

If the English Premier League continues to reap the benefit from massive TV contracts they will continue to buy the best players and field the best competition. We may see the Premier League become the main football spectacle and the Champions League could be treated like a bit of a side show by English clubs.

Imagine in 2022, the manager of Arsenal could be accused of not taking the Champions League seriously after he fields a youth team in the first leg at home in a 2-1 win over Barcelona. The manager could answer his critics, “yes, we have a tie against Barcelona away at the Nou Camp on Wednesday but I have to keep the squad fresh for the match against Derby County this weekend, so we will probably play the same team we fielded in the Trump Cola League Cup and rest key players for the weekend.”

It may seem far fetched but with the prize money at stake in the English Premier League already dwarfing the prize money at stake with the Champions League, we could eventually see teams treat the Champions League like the FA Cup.



Arsenal hit all the bullet points in the most predictable loss of the season

Arsenal’s season in bullet points:

  • Arsenal give us hope with some great play
  • Arsenal create a ton of shots in statistically great positions
  • Arsenal miss/get blocked/don’t score
  • Referee controversy
  • Arsenal play disorganized defense
  • Opposition scores
  • Injuries
  • Arsenal restore hope with a goal or a series of good plays
  • Hope dashed through errors or bad luck
  • Arsenal need a goal scorer
  • Arsenal are mentally fragile

Here, let’s talk about this same thing that we’ve been talking about all season, shall we?

First, my pet peeve: disorganized defending. The game was tied at 0-0, Gabriel passes the ball to Koscielny, and Messi closes him down. Arsenal are playing a 4-2-4 and so Koz is struggling to get the ball to midfield, leaving him two choices: lump it forward or kick it back to the keeper, Ospina. He does neither and instead tries to dribble into the midfield and gives the ball to Barcelona in a dangerous area.


But even still, Arsenal should be able to cover this error because Barcelona have 4 attackers and Arsenal have 5 defenders. The goal is actually going to come from the top of the screen where Neymar starts behind the Arsenal defender, Bellerin. The problem is that Bellerin switched off, letting Neymar run past him.


I think Gabriel was trying to get an offside. He makes a looping run toward the middle but ends up playing Suarez onside. Still, the big problem is that Bellerin has let Neymar run past him without passing him off to Elneny or Gabriel.


It’s at this point that Bellerin realizes he’s a defender and that Neymar is his man. It’s also at this point that Neymar is salivating at the prospect of scoring a wide-open goal. Which he does, one touch later.

I can do this for every goal. Suarez scores an amazing volley for the second goal. The kind of shot that people say “you just have to throw your hands up and shrug” at the level of talent. Or as Wenger so poetically put it, they transform life into art.

And Barcelona is that kind of team, they are a group of special talents. But if they are turning life into art, Arsenal are they mixing the pigments for them, preparing the canvas, making sure the lighting is just right, and setting the scene for the master artists to come in and make that art.

For Suarez’ goal, look at where Arsenal are defending:



This is Arsenal’s cluster defense and it should be very familiar by now. It’s great that Arsenal have 6 players back for once, but not so great that all 6 are packed into the D at the top of the box. At the top of your picture is Monreal and like Bellerin another fan favorite. Also like Bellerin, another fullback not covering his wide areas.

Dani Alves, arguably one of the best crossing fullbacks in the world, has all the time and space he could ever want and floats in a perfect cross for Suarez to volley.

I know some of you are sitting there thinking “this is harsh on Bellerin and Monreal” but I’m not actually blaming them. This disorganization at the back and constant switching off is endemic to the team. You saw it this weekend against Watford, with totally different players. It doesn’t matter who Arsenal put in defense, they make the same types of errors. Game in and game out. And they have been doing this for 10 years. Sometimes they get burned by it and sometimes not but against great artists like Barcelona, if you hand them the paints, they are going to paint you a masterpiece.

And it’s extra frustrating because there is talent in this Arsenal team. Alexis and Özil are two of the best players in Europe. And even Arsene’s latest gambles – Elneny and Iwobi, players who are supposedly second string at best – showed some real brilliance against Barcelona.

And that talent creates chances. With Özil, Iwobi, and Alexis on the field Arsenal create their chances. And they are great chances as well! Arsene has a philosophy of getting the ball deep into the box before shooting and Arsenal did that, actually did that more than Barcelona. But you’ll notice that almost half of Arsenal’s shots were blocked whereas half of their shots were on target. And that’s because it takes Arsenal’s players an extra touch to get the shot off. Or if they get an open shot in front of goal, they are rusty (like poor Welbeck) and they shoot the ball 40 yards wide. Have you heard this one already? This one about how Arsenal could really use a goal scorer?

Well, just look at who scored Barcelona’s goals: their three forwards and their three top goal scorers. And look at who scored Arsenal’s goal: their midfielder. Because Arsenal lack the goal-threat up front, they have to push the midfielders up. The result was a fine goal by Elneny, but it’s unsustainable to demand that your center mids bomb forward every possession and run 13km (which Elneny did) every game.

In the end, it was a boring game. Barcelona were never going to lose. You could see that after Arsenal scored, they simply raised the level of play a single gear and took the game from Arsenal.

Wenger put on Walcott and Giroud and they were the only other Arsenal players to get a shot on goal the rest of the game. Producing a fine double-save from Ter Stegen.

Barcelona won 3-1, each of their three forwards scoring, Arsenal were denied a penalty, Flamini went off injured, Arsenal made a bunch of basic mistakes, Elneny scored, Iwobi looked good… and Arsenal were kicked out at the round of 16 for the 6th consecutive year. Every bullet point at the top of the page was hit and at the final whistle it was the most predictable result of the season.

Next up, Everton at home. A team who have only taken 0.20 points per game at home against teams in the top third of the table, in other words, a team with an atrocious record against teams just like Arsenal.

How many bullet points will we hit, then? All of them again?