Football isn’t just about addressing the most glaring problems within a squad, but also changing the perception of a team to make up for the shortcomings in particular areas.
Barcelona, off the back of a domestic title win that was more or less wrapped up by Christmas, had the chance to improve an area that had caused them plenty of problems over the best part of the last two years. When the club lost out on Javi Martinez to Bayern Munich and Thiago Silva to PSG, Alex Song was brought in as a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone option. The Cameroonian was sold to the club’s supporters by its hierarchy as someone who would be an asset at both centre-back and in midfield. Obviously that hasn’t come to pass.
The Thiago Silva chase had spilled into this past summer, as well as David Luiz and Daniel Agger cropping up as possible targets for new manager Gerardo Martino. Silva was a long shot; in fact a better description would be that he was an impossible target. The club, for one reason or another, failed to land the alternatives, with Martino stating that he was happy with a squad that had only one fit senior centre-back and a partner who was converted into that position upon his arrival in Catalonia. Marc Bartra may come good, but at the same time it’s a hell of a gamble to put so much faith in a 35-year-old Carles Puyol who has had a horrendous year on the injury front.
So how have Barcelona combated this, and where are the parallels to Arsenal? Instead of addressing their weakest area, and both clubs are notably light at centre-half, they’ve upgraded their attack, with Neymar arriving at the Camp Nou for €57million and Mesut Ozil’s signing smashing Arsenal’s previous transfer record.
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The problems remain but the perception from outside has changed.
Barcelona without Lionel Messi, either through injury or not being at optimum fitness, were toothless, ineffectual and in no way a representation of the team who were about to win their fourth La Liga title in five years. Against AC Milan they were beaten in the San Siro, while a return to the David Villa, Lionel Messi, Pedro front three saw Barcelona past the Italians in the second leg of the last 16 in the Champions League. Bayern Munich was similar. No Messi, little to no hope. Though that’s not to say Barcelona crumble without the Argentine, but more to say that there is little threat from elsewhere. By bringing in Neymar, the attack is far more potent, far more likely to surprise, stun and ultimately win.
With Ozil on board at Arsenal, the team’s attack is not too far from being perfect. Adding another forward may have been desired, but had the injury to Lukas Podolski (and throw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain into the equation too) not occurred, the club would have had enough in terms of numbers. Remember, Podolski, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud each recorded double figures for scoring last season. Goals at Arsenal were not such a problem.
The key for both clubs has been in unlocking further attacking potential. The focus is always to attack, that’s why Barcelona feel they’ve been able to get away with Adriano, a full-back by trade, at centre-back at various points last season. That’s why, despite the frustration, Arsene Wenger feels that a shuffle around of Bacary Sagna (plus the addition of Mathieu Flamini) will be enough for the team’s defence. The focus for both clubs and their playing tradition very much remains to score more than your opponent. It’s the foremost mentality.
With Barcelona’s new attack there is a sense of unpredictability, if that wasn’t already the case. There is pace and goals from all angles; Sergio Busquets can slice open a defence as well as any of his midfield colleagues. At Arsenal, the club don’t want or need a defensive midfielder – or at least they don’t need a player to perform in the ‘defensive midfield’ role. When attacking is the greater focus, as well as retaining possession, there is careful consideration as to how much a player who contrasts the rest of the team will hamper the overall performance. As has already been suggested, Alex Song is not a Barcelona player. By that same thought, a Marouane Fellaini type may have the same negative impact at Arsenal.
But it’s not to say both clubs are perfectly set and it’s certainly not to say that both clubs aren’t in the wrong. Yet it’s still a case of numbers being needed, rather than added quality. Very few are questioning whether Barcelona are good enough to win the La Liga title again, or if Arsenal can finish in the top four, if that is the aim for this season. Instead, it’s a question and concern as to whether their squads can handle the pressure of a congested schedule. But adding a fear factor or a new dimension to their respective attacks can make a world of difference. Games become easier to win and players are able to call upon their energy reserves when they know world-class support has been added to the ranks.
Both sets of supporters will still feel aggrieved that little has been done defensively. But under these circumstances there needs to be faith that the quality at the other end will be enough to counter any deficiencies elsewhere.
Will Arsenal’s greatly improved attack be enough to counter the lack of numbers in defence?
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