21 February 2016

Messi and Suárez and Neymar, oh my! Here's how Arsenal trump that triumvirate...

After struggling to see off Hull City this weekend, enquiring minds will wonder just how badly we'll get beaten by Barcelona, a squad that hasn't lost in 32 matches and which boasts the prowess of Messi, Suárez, and Neymar, not to mention various others who lurk in the long shadows that trio casts. Even before that dour draw in the FA Cup, there was fear of the depths of devastation the Blaugrana would wreak—at a risk of overdoing the alliteration, blitzkrieg comes to mind. Calm yourselves. You can only play the opponent in front of you.

Hell, if these two could do it...
Did I say "calm yourselves"? Across all competitions, Suárez has scored 25 and assisted ten more; Neymar, 18 and nine; Messi, "only" 15 and seven. By season's end, all three will have scored 20 league goals, if not 30.

Sorry. I was trying to settle jangled nerves, not jostle them.

More to the point, there are very few lessons to be drawn from our draw with Hull. They were, after all, an overmatched side hoping against all hopes to earn a positive result. As such, they sat back and defended in numbers, risking only the occasional foray forward to see what might transpire by way of counter-attack or set-piece. Pitted against a superior opponent with an intimidating array of attacking options, they strategized and very nearly capitalized. But for a few fluffed chances and perhaps generous refereeing (how often has that been said of Mike Dean?), they might have pulled off the unthinkable. Come to think of it, there might be at least one lesson to be drawn...

Is the gap between Barcelona and Arsenal any bigger than the one between Arsenal and Hull? Maybe. If there is, it might even play to Arsenal's advantage. Barça have been living high off the hog, bossing and bullying opponents hither and yon. They haven't really had to dig deep for a long while. and all of that gluttony might came back to haunt them, just a bit, in the end.

Over the course of this season, Barça have learnt very well how to deal with parked-bus counter-attackers. After all, it's what they face in almost every single match, Coming on the heels of our draw against the Hull, the conventional wisdom will suggest that we reprise their role, the role we ourselves played against Bayern and Man City, and there may very well be a time for that. All in due time. I say we come out hard and hit them even harder, playing a bit of smash-mouth for the first 15-20 minutes, to see what we can come away with. You tell me whether players like Alexis or Özil won't be up for showing what they're good for. Convince me that Walcott and Welbeck won't want to make up for indifferent performances after inspirational ones a week ago.

If those first 15 minutes or so don't give us a goal, well, then, we fall back and dare that trio to fight through a thicket while also knowing that we have a perfectly lethal counter-attack waiting in the wings, literally and figuratively. Press forward too hard and watch as Kos springs a pass to Özil, who finds one of Welbeck, Alexis, or Walcott in full gallop, one of whom collects and puts one past Bravo (who, despite Barça's dominance, has failed to keep a clean sheet in his last three appearances).

Then again, we could deliver the kind of performance we've delivered in the last few seasons, getting absolutely battered in the first leg only to (a) use that as a springboard in domestic competitions, and/or (b) rise to an almost-famous second-leg result that serves as the same kind of springboard in domestic competitions. 'Twixt the two, it's hard to find fault with our options. I still think we'll find our way to a shocking result on Wednesday...