x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Arsenal are more than a tribute act

Arsene Wenger reconfigured his side in the summer in the 4-3-3 system that, from Johan Cruyff through to Guardiola, has been Barcelona's default formation.

Arsenal trained without Cesc Fabregas yesterday ahead of tonight's Champions League quarter-final first leg against Barcelona. He will be given a late fitness test.
Arsenal trained without Cesc Fabregas yesterday ahead of tonight's Champions League quarter-final first leg against Barcelona. He will be given a late fitness test.
If, as cliché dictates, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Barcelona may feel themselves surrounded by sycophants tonight. Emulating Pep Guardiola's team may be an aspiration every opponent shares, given their unprecedented haul of six trophies in 2009, but few attempt to adopt the same methods.
In this, as in much else, the Gunners are the exceptions. Arsene Wenger reconfigured his side in the summer in the 4-3-3 system that, from Johan Cruyff through to Guardiola, has been Barcelona's default formation. Shape is an issue, too, because whereas Arsenal's "Invincibles" allied height and physical power with technique and talent, the current crop are altogether slighter. If Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi do not need to be giants, the theory goes, why should Samir Nasri, Andrey Arshavin or Tomas Rosicky?
Even the anomalies have a likeness. For Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a Scandinavian target man with a deft touch and an occasional tendency to frustrate, read Nicklas Bendtner, who shares similar characteristics, but can irritate more often. But one is the world's second costliest player, the other Arsenal's second-choice striker. It hints at the differences between the clubs: Barcelona's is a winning philosophy in every respect. Arsenal's is deemed naive whenever more pragmatic rivals prosper. Guardiola has a surfeit of silverware, Wenger none in the last five years. Is it Barca versus a Barca tribute act, then?
And, if so, is that the ideal draw for the defending champions? Barcelona came perilously close to elimination last season against Chelsea, a side sent out to stifle and kept a clean sheet in Camp Nou in the first leg. The Arsenal way, however, is to outplay. Taking on Barca at their own game is a move few risk and still fewer succeed in. Wenger's commands can seem simple - go out and play - but for him, it is a case of being proactive rather than reactive and allowing Barcelona to dictate his team selection and tactics.
"It's best that we don't speak too much about the Barca players ahead of this game because we don't want to create too much around them," he said. "So all we need to say is we are playing a great team and it is more important that we turn in an exceptional performance to go through. Worrying about what the opposition will do will not help us." His cause should be aided by the probability that Cesc Fabregas will play. He will have a late fitness test today. Arsenal's captain is more likely to start than a predecessor; on his return to the Emirates Stadium, Thierry Henry may be confined to the bench, even with Iniesta out injured. Henry represents Arsenal's past, Fabregas may yet be Barcelona's future.
Henry scratched an itch by winning the Champions League last season. It is a prize that eludes Wenger. The pantheon of managerial greats includes the men who have conquered Europe. His name belongs alongside those of Sir Alex Ferguson and Fabio Capello, of Cruyff and Guardiola. And Barcelona provide the reason it is not there. For the Arsenal manager, the memories of the 2006 final refuse to fade. Recruiting Sol Campbell, Arsenal's scorer that night in Paris, may have made them still more vivid.
sports@thenational.ae