If there was ever two exponents of the beautiful game Arsenal and Barcelona would very much come under that category, to varying degrees of success. Arsenal, winners of the FA Cup in 2005 have not won a major trophy for over four years. Barcelona however, since the Champions League success in 2006 against the Gunners have gone on to win six major trophies, including their incredible treble winning success in 2009 in Pep Guardiola’s first season.
This season Arsenal has replicated the formation of Barca by shaping up in a 4-3-3 line-up. A subtle, progressive style based on quick, short passing and perpetual movement in midfield with both an entertaining and attacking emphasis that has had the Emirates outfit scoring a staggering 61 goals in just 26 league matches this season. Arsene Wenger noted that “the total number of goals we have scored so far shows our style suits our teams. The way we play football, the way we are organised and go forward suits our players too.” Playing stylish yet effective football seems to be the mantra of both these clubs but the Gunners’ results against title rivals this season Manchester United and Chelsea has shown that imitating this formation has not been to their advantage. The former and latter recently took advantage of Arsenal’s weaknesses where an over reliance on attack leaves the team vulnerable and open to exploit when possession is lost.
Barca, with the same formation rely on quick support and regular movement both on and off the ball. Guardiola has instilled a style that includes short, one touch passing and moving into positions that create openings that links the midfield to the attack. Part of the treble winning success last season was the Catalan’s ability to retain possession with close control and have the patience to wait for the right opportunity to exploit the defensive gaps. Last season Barca demonstrated their ruthlessness and success with an astonishing 105 goals scored en route to the La Liga title. A true reflection of this superb style of play was displayed at fierce rivals Real Madrid in a season defining fixture, triumphing 6-2 at the Bernabeau. The midfield duo of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta ran the midfield of Fernando Gago and Lassana Diarra ragged, typifying the la Masia approach of ‘receive, pass and offer’ with two goals from Thierry Henry, Lionel Messi and one apiece from defensive duo Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique.
The appointment of Guardiola was seen as a surprise from club president Joan Laporta after only one season of coaching the club’s B team with his relative inexperience into such a high profile and demanding job. Of Barcelona’s starting XI in the Champions League final, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets were the only members who did not feature in Frank Rijkaard’s disastrous last season in 2007/08, the club finishing third, 18 points behind champions Real Madrid. Guardiola assembled virtually the same squad but took an immediate hard stance by offloading big name players in Ronaldinho and Deco. The Coach has since motivated his players, reinstating their self confidence and asking them to play football the way it should be played, knowing that he had a core of the side that conquered Europe two years previous. To this day he has now made Xavi and Iniesta arguably the best midfield partnership in the world, Messi a more versatile and occasional withdrawn second striker and Dani Alves an “outside” full back.
The acquisition of Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Inter this season for £40m and Samuel Eto’o raised a few eyebrows. The Cameroonian international had scored an incredible 36 goals in all competitions in 52 appearances, in the treble winning season. Ibrahimovic, after 26 games has so far bagged just 14 goals, raising questions as to how much of an impact Eto’o’s goals had on the club’s success and whether the Swedish striker has that predatory instinct in front of goal.
Wenger has been renowned as a studious coach with a rare ability to spot and develop players from around the world. The Frenchman previously told the Press the club do not buy superstars, they make them. The canny manager has both served the financial and football needs of his team by establishing – relatively cheaply – a factory of brilliant footballers. Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie were both relatively unknown players when they signed from their respective clubs of Barcelona and Feyenoord at a young age before moulding the pair into world class players for both club and country. Such is Wenger’s faith in youth that the former has since become captain of the club at the age of 21 and has been a major influence in Arsenal’s performances this season, becoming the club’s current top scorer with 11 goals.
With an economics degree under his belt it is understandable how Wenger has managed to keep the club on a level footing with massive profits from the sale of players that the manager has brought in. The likes of Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure and Thierry Henry have all moved on but the replacements are still young and unproven at the highest level.. Is this to Arsenal’s disadvantage that the talent being sold has disrupted the core and experience the youth players are looking to rely on in their pursuit of domestic and European success? Only time will tell, but Wenger’s and Guardiola’s policy and way of playing the beautiful game is just that – beautiful. However for one, it seems they are sacrificing success in favour of these methods, whilst for the other,they are living the dream – beautiful football with beautiful results.