Despite the spectacle being downgraded by the latest in a long recent line of abject refereeing decisions, the bottom line at the Nou Camp was that Barcelona again forced Arsenal to abandon their footballing principles.
Such is the Spanish champions’ superiority that the Gunners reverted to a limp attempt at replicating Inter Milan’s rearguard action of last season. But Arsenal do not have the players or the manager to execute such a strategy, and they are left to cling to the idea that a different kind of match would have materialised if van Persie had stayed on the pitch.
There is no shame in losing to a side that many contend may be the best ever, but what should disturb Arsenal followers is that, whether by accident or by design, their team did not stick to their supposed bread and butter – pass and move.
Perhaps the Arsenal players were simply unable to impose themselves in the face of Barca’s relentless pressing. Or perhaps Arsene Wenger approached the game with what is, by his standards, a negative mindset. Either possibility can be seen as disturbing. If Arsenal’s players are unable to play to their self-proclaimed strengths under pressure in big games, it raises further questions over the strength of their collective mentality.
And if their manager abandons the core principles of his own vaunted philosophy when Arsenal come up against superior teams, one can ask whether he truly has the courage of his own convictions.
Guillem Balague, the Spanish journalist who appears on Sky’s Revista de la Liga, was scathing in his assessment of Arsenal’s performance, insisting that they had abandoned their own commitment to passing football, lacking the courage to try to impose their own style. They might as well have lost playing their own way as trying to play in another style- one they have proven incapable of adopting.
He suggested that teams like Valencia and Villareal had, even in the act of losing, at least played football, tried to keep the ball from Barca, and even outplayed them for periods- something Arsenal never threatened to do last night.
Pep Guardiola bristled at the suggestion that Arsenal may have progressed with the game continuing 11 v 11, and his statement that Barca had not allowed Arsenal to string four passes together was more accurate than a lot of the home side’s finishing.
One can speculate as to whether Arsenal could have mounted more resistance with the full compliment of players, and we should not forget that they were in a position to go through when the referee took centre stage, but their goal was a slice of absurd luck and they did not muster a shot all night. Barca had nineteen, and had they been less profligate they could have racked up a score to leave Arsenal with red faces to match that red card.
Maybe it was not the best night to judge Arsenal, as Fabregas and Van Persie were unfit for a game of this magnitude, and Song and Walcott may have given the away team’s performance another dimension. Still, blaming springtime implosions on injury problems has become a painfully familiar theme in recent years. Last year’s 4-1 capitulation in the same stadium came with the same excuse, and it will provide little comfort if Arsenal are to end the season empty-handed again.
At a time of the season when Wenger has no choice but to use his squad to the fullest possible extent, the likes of Denilson, Chamakh and Bendtner were seemingly deemed unfit for the occasion, and having witnessed the awkward Dane’s miserable attempt when presented with an opportunity to swing the tie back Arsenal’s way, you could have sympathy with the decision to gamble on Van Persie.
But Arsenal’s season did not end at the Nou Camp and Wenger will hope that his two best attacking players have not suffered fresh injuries because he may be prey to a backlash if the campaign continues to unravel.
Odhran Harrison is the editor of Moral Courage