Arsenal have been handed the hardest task in world football. Solving a problem like Barcelona is not easy, and quite frankly it is hard to see the Gunners coming up with an answer over two legs. However, Barca can be beaten over 90 minutes and Arsene Wenger’s men simply have to take a lead to the Camp Nou to stand any chance of progression.
The French boss will have to make some big decisions and he will have been working solidly with his starting XI ahead of tonight’s clash, in the hope that they can stir up a famous European night in north London.
So, how can he unpick the Catalan lock while keeping his team’s back door firmly slammed shut?
Coming up against Barcelona requires bold selections and almost seemingly submissive decisions. That is something that Arsenal have struggled with in the past. Wenger has always been loyal to his possession-based game, no matter who the opposition but in order to beat the Champions League holders, he must adopt a different tact.
Arsenal showed they could operate in a different manner impressively against Bayern Munich when winning 2-0 on home soil and they must hope that that combination of discipline, luck and opposition wastefulness can combine to some extent here.
Here are the big calls the Gunners boss should make if his team are to win the first leg.
Drop Olivier Giroud
Giving Olivier Giroud the boot may seem a bit odd. He is the team’s leading goalscorer with 18 strikes to his name this term and has five goals in Europe already. However, his lack of mobility could be a serious issue for the English club in this contest.
In order to beat Barca you have to put pressure on their back four and stop the supply line into Sergio Busquets. Every team that has caused them problems this term has pressed them when their defenders are on the ball and forced mistakes out of the likes of Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano.
Atletico Madrid hinted at a way of causing the champions problems when they opted to utilise Anotine Griezmann up top with support from two wingers. Essentially playing with three pacey, energetic wide men, allowing them to pressurise the centre halves and weaken the stable base of Pique, Mascherano and Busquets. If they hadn’t seen two players dismissed they would have taken something from the game.
While Giroud may be a major goal threat, he is easily bypassed and cannot press and harry enough to worry the Blaugrana defenders.
Instead, it may be wise to unleash Theo Walcott this evening and allow the likes of him, Danny Welbeck and the relentless Alexis Sanchez to hassle from the front, much like Atletico, Malaga and Athletic Bilbao have recently, in the hope that a mistake comes.
Giroud will have a role to play in this tie. Be that in the last 20 minutes here with his team leading and needing to hold the ball up, or even more crucially, when they travel to Spain with a priceless lead.
Start Calum Chambers Ahead Of Per Mertesacker
This may seem immensely bold and wildly rogue but bear with me.
Per Mertesacker is a vastly experienced defender with World Cup winners medal in his cabinet but he is also extremely slow and is the sort of defender you can envision Luis Suarez destroying. Throw in Lionel Messi and Neymar and you already fear for the German before the game has started.
The injury to Gabriel is a real blow. He would almost certainly have started this match had he been fit. That means that Wenger’s only real other option is to utilise Calum Chambers as a central defender.
The former Southampton man has long been touted as a player made for a central berth and a chance here could see him emerge as a genuine option at the heart of the back four.
People will see it as a massive gamble and will claim that Mertesacker’s experience will prove invaluable, however, Wenger has already shown he is wary of the German’s flaws, promoting Gabriel above him in recent weeks, and anyone can see that he will be torn apart by the movement and balance of this enviable trio.
Starting Chambers would at least give Wenger some reassurance that he has a defence that can at least attempt to track the runs of the Barcelona forwards. If Chambers fails, so what? It is almost obvious that Mertesacker will be bamboozled at some point anyway. This match is pretty much a free-hit for the Gunners.
Pick Mo Elneny Instead of Aaron Ramsey
Arsenal could play this as almost two separate games. Wenger may opt to pretty much split his team into two.
The front four must put immense pressure on the Barcelona defence and Sergio Busquets as mentioned above, while the back six must contend with arguably the greatest attacking force in football history. Easy.
That back six are pretty likely to sit deep when Barca work their way past the first press of the attacking players and they must have players with discipline and bite.
Aaron Ramsey has ably filled in for Santi Cazorla alongside a more defensive midfielder since the Spaniard’s injury but this may be a game for the Welshman to sit out. He was left out of the side against Hull thanks to his heavy workload of late, which may hint that the pace is getting to him a little, or it coudl mean he is being held back for tonight.
Mo Elneny came in to his position against the Tigers and was impressive. In fact, he has been every time he has pulled on a red shirt since his January switch. Opting to throw him into the starting line-up here would not be the worst idea in the world.
He is a more imposing figure than Ramsey and much more at home in a deeper role. His reading of the game could prove crucial and a pairing of he and Francis Coquelin would go a long way to cutting off the supply line to the front three and providing cover to the presumably over-worked Arsenal defence.
The Egyptian also look a class act on the ball and has the capability to be the link-up man when transferring the ball quickly for the counter, something the Gunners must do if they are to win here.