“When you win the ball against Barcelona, you see, and I know Tim Stillman does some really, really good analytics after the game (Thanks Jonas!) and I think this one is really interesting because this one isn’t so tactical. When we win the ball against Barcelona you see there is so much space diagonally because all of their players go towards the ball, they are swarming the ball so there is so much space. It is evident for everyone that plays against Barcelona, they will be so exposed if you can get the ball out of that area.
“When you play the ball up to the 9 up to Caitlin, their central defender will follow her anywhere, so the space behind her is so big. But this is not a tactical thing to be able to exploit that because the window of that opportunity is only open for a couple of seconds, maybe just one second. You have only one touch or one pass to get there and the only way to get there is to be really, really good at intercepting the ball and then passing it into the right area. With the right precision, you can execute that really, really well.”
These were Jonas Eidevall’s words after Thursday night’s defeat to Barcelona and so I have decided to pull out some examples of what Jonas was talking about.
In the 5th minute, Arsenal are trying to play out from Barca’s pressure and we can see how crowded Kim Little is by Barca players pressing her.
But we also know that Kim Little’s biggest asset is her ability to dribble away from pressure, which she manages here, with two Barca players on the ground because they have tried so hard to take the ball from her- unsuccessfully on this occasion.
Little finds McCabe who moves the ball up to Mead first time on the left flank. Arsenal are in a promising situation here, Barca have three players back and they are all incredibly high up the pitch.
Mead takes the ball up the line and Foord and Nobbs look to run in behind.
To repeat some of Jonas’ words, “The window of that opportunity is only open for a couple of seconds, maybe just one second. You have only one touch or one pass to get there.”
Within two touches Mead is surrounded by three Barca players, who duly win the ball back. Those are the margins against Barca, you have to try the difficult pass first time and you have to do it perfectly.
Arsenal force their closest opportunity of the first half with a good turnover and swift action. Maanum, Nobbs, Little, Foord and Mead are all close to the ball as Hermoso tries to turn here.
Maanum comes away with the ball and, again, Nobbs, Mead and Foord commit to the attack with Barca exposed. We can see from this freezeframe Barca’s intent to swarm Maanum on the ball with three of their players ready to engage.
Faced with that sort of pressure, Maanum can’t get the pass off and Alexia intercepts.
However, Alexia falls as she does so and Jordan Nobbs is straight onto her.
Nobbs smuggles the ball away. Foord and Mead’s runs are well covered and Parris, whose clearance next to her own corner flag started this passage of play, can’t quite make up the 70 yards or so to run into the gap behind Rolfo. Nobbs tries a chip which sails just over. This was an example of Arsenal being decisive in their counterpressing though they needed a second bite at it.
3 seconds showing what separates Barcelona from the rest. pic.twitter.com/x2bUPOoKQH
— Blair Newman (@thesecondball) December 9, 2021
Here we see a real collectors’ item, Mariona overhitting a pass to Paredes who, believe it or not from that shot, is the closest outfield player to her own goal. Beth Mead quickly changes direction and sprints towards the loose touch. Paredes is off balance and miles from goal with nothing bit grass behind her.
But Mead’s change of direction followed by the speed with which she closes down means she is off balance and just can’t collect the ball in her stride.
This is where Barca show their trust in one another defensively. Despite being in such a compromising spot, Paredes still tracks Mead and puts her under pressure, abandoning her post to do so. But look at Alexia running over to cover the space she has left. That is a mixture of trust on Paredes’ part that one of her teammates will cover her and a team chemistry and philosophy years in the making. Alexia played as a centre-half when these teams met in this competition in 2012. Jen Beattie started that day upfront for Arsenal.
Paredes swarms Mead and wins the ball back. Not only has she defended the opportunity for Arsenal, she has counterpressed Barca into an opportunity of their own.
This time Marta slightly overcooks her pass to Hermoso and Nobbs is quickly on the scene.
But look at how determined Hermoso is to win it back, she doesn’t win the ball back from Nobbs but she succeeds in stopping her from playing the ball into Caitlin Foord, who has green space in front of her.
Nobbs is forced to go back to Maanum and Barca are reset. There isn’t an obvious pass and Foord no longer has lots of green grass ahead of her.
Maanum is left with little choice but to dribble into traffic. Mead has taken up a good space on the left if someone can find her but it’s redundant because it’s not possible to get a pass off with the pressure Maanum is under.
Barca take the ball and now Parris, Nobbs, Mead and Maanum are all committed to attack and Barca have space.
Shortly after the second goal, Arsenal find space behind the Barca backline again. McCabe prods the ball up the line to Mead and she turns away from Marta excellently. Again, look at how high and exposed that Barca line is.
Mead cuts across Marta and can see Nikita Parris in acres of space on the right flank.
Parris collects the pass and she needs no invitation to take on Fridolina Rolfo with all the space she has. Foord and Nobbs have sprinted forward in support too.
Parris cuts inside and shoots wide when she really should tee up Jordan Nobbs on the edge of the box.
Barca “open the window” again here as Iwabuchi smartly closes Bonmati down. If she can bring the ball under control she can get Viv through on goal.
Alas, she just can’t quite stretch enough to do anything other than toe the ball in front of her and Barca mop up.
Arsenal make their best opportunity of the game when they act very quickly to a turnover. Paredes uncharacteristically gets this pass wrong out the back and it’s intercepted. Look at Beth Mead here, at the moment she is not standing in an especially dangerous position.
Wälti intercepts the pass and Arsenal act very quickly on this occasion.
Mead gets on her bike and Wälti plays the pass straight away. Remember Jonas’ words again, “You have only one touch or one pass to get there and the only way to get there is to be really, really good at intercepting the ball and then passing it into the right area.” That is exactly what Wälti does.
Unfortunately on this occasion, Panos stands up and saves Mead’s effort. But this is the sort of swift thinking and swift action you need to produce constantly to try to break Barca down. When the window opens a crack, you have to be prepared to crawl through it straight away.