Barcelona 2 – 1 Arsenal
Pre-season or not, we could have done without that late Barca winner. A minor hurt to go with all the majors over the years. A tiny knife wound this time that came when a midfielder was allowed copious time to pick a perfect pass to a killer striker running free between a large centre back gap. A reminder that, well, we haven’t been great in defense for some time and pre-season has yielded nothing to suggest that will change this season.
But anyway… The first half was…pretty good, though I am absolutely not the man who is impervious to score-lines when judging performances. Ainsley demonstrated why you should always wait til the end before commenting too much. He had a heck of a good half, to the extent I believe he would have impressed Barca eyes; speed, great composure, nice technique, picking passes, making tackles…hmmm. Willock did well; extremely encouraging that a player, who has caught eye primarily for his offensive work to date, looked so diligent and capable in the defensive side of game. Nelson grew into a very decent performance. Ozil made nice pass to Auba, who finished brilliantly, looking like a master striker.
On other side of it, a few internal cries of ‘Oh Mkhi, you so’, and not in a good way. Through his time with us he has seemed far too much a 50:50 man, in that it seems he will take a good touch, make a good pass or not; with plenty of the not involving below average execution in modestly difficult situations. However, I don’t trust my judgment entirely with him. I made up my mind a good while back, and believe that interferes with how I watch him now.
Wanting and failing to be one of the best teams
As a team, it never sits well with me watching us be subject to intense pressing high in our own half. Of course, it is only sensible to make allowances for the fact it was Barca and even shorn of key players, still had a few hundred million players on show in the likes of Pique, Dembele, Umtiti, Rakitic, Alba and the new star De Jong. Beyond that factor, it should also be understood that…we’re not Barca, i.e. we are not at present one of the best 5 teams in world, and are probably quite some way from that status.
So, when very good teams go right at us, at their place, sometimes we will be properly pinned back. What I can say though, I still dislike that experience a lot; pinned back, under intense pressure, when we do have the ball, grave danger as we try to plot a way through. Pressure, pressure, stress, stress.
Though it is damn sweet when you hold out, then go on a break and score a goal, especially a quality one.
To go back, though, before the goal, in first 25 of game especially, we had four or five decent breaks where the execution was off, sometimes poorly. By no means are we talking players fluffing golden chances but these were very decent opportunities to make something happen and, against an elite team, that number of decent chances to create isn’t at all bad and is bloody good if you are a deadly counter team.
Prior to the goal, I couldn’t have given us more than 5/10 in how we used those opportunities. In the playing from back aspect, maybe 7/10- felt hairy the whole time but actually did ok. Keeping in shape and all the rest of defensive mode, also about 7/10.
The conflict for me is a constant: I want us to be the best team in the world, yet understand we aren’t and that there are good reasons for that. In short, for us to be better than the small, dastardly group of clubs who have significantly better resources than us, we would either have to outperform our budget (short to mid range) in spectacular fashion or all those richer clubs would have had to underperform on their budget, for a sustained period, to an equal or greater degree. Think how unlikely it is for 5-6 teams to be as inefficient with their great wealth as United have been since Ferguson’s exit!
So I know I shouldn’t expect us to be the best at playing from back, nor at defending with most of team pulled back, nor at stopping counters, nor going on counters at speed. Yet I have a hell of a job not judging us by the highest possible standards, as though we should be as good as anyone, including the top of the elite. This budget reality should not stop us wanting to be a very good team, especially as we sit so high among that final, swine-filled, cash saturated group. Anyway.
2nd half drop-off
Half time came and I was feeling pretty good. Missed the half time subs so had to get my bearings unaided. Nelson had gone, and it was evident we had dropped into a 4-4-2ish shape, with Ozil on one side Mkhi the other. Guendo was on and with Xhaka made a central two. Willock it seemed was tasked with being man to support Auba when possible.
The new shape didn’t seem to help in defense nor attack. There was no extra security and, worse, we lost a counter threat almost entirely, which in turn increased their confidence and capacity to push onto us. To boot, our errors increased. Ainsley ,in particular, seemed to have dropped from his high first half level and look a likely suspect for conceding possession in a bad area. They should have scored when he failed to boot out a contested ball in our box but the luck was with us. Then, it really wasn’t. Ainsley executed a wrong-foot backpass, lamentably inside frame of goal and not towards keeper’s kicking side. Own goal. He looked suitably gutted. I was, too. Hope it doesn’t knock his confidence. Also that he can find this 5% improvement in concentration required in order to fulfil his considerable potential and enjoy a strong career with us. Fingers crossed is all there is for it.
At some point not long after we picked up. A bunch of substitutions saw Ceballos, Saka and Martinelli enter fray and for final 15 or so we again possessed a threat and looked lively. Saka’s potential is undoubtedly tremendous. Ceballos showed delicious glimpses of skill. Martinelli had a couple of moments, including a stunning outside of foot pass, that made me again slightly alter my formative, in flux opinion of him; he might really be something.
Once more I wondered about just how much zest these young players can give the team, and simultaneously how short we might be of such qualities at times with the older alternatives. I don’t know. The wish to see these youngsters excel could warp my thinking somewhat. Saka, Nketiah, Willock, Nelson, Martinelli, etc. all have decent or good speed to them and generally play energetically. Surely these are qualities that can benefit the 1st team.
A few decent opportunities came. Saka made playing a wonderful cross look a fairly easy thing, and Martinelli came quite close to finding a matching volley for it. In the last minute, however, with nine outfield men in our defensive third, behind ball, and the 10th, Nketiah, close by, their midfielder was presented total freedom to look up and pick a pass; he did so expertly, and somehow there was a large gap between our centre backs and a box worth of space behind. Perfect pass, Suarez with the expert run, good connection, goal.
Prospects for the new season
So, a loss to end pre-season. Only a mad person should cry over that and, touch wood, I’m not there yet. Rather the sane part of me, is happy to report an interesting night of football. We have plenty of good youngsters at this football club. It would be something between a crying shame and a calamity if they are not afforded serious opportunities to continue developing with us. Fingers crossed again. Meanwhile, we have plenty of talent in the rest of the squad, including some seriously good attacking players. There is, surely, an imbalance presently between offensive and defensive resources. There is also an awful lot to be settled in terms of playing style, partnerships and formation. Let’s cross our fingers a final time and hope next weekend we get the season off to a good start.
Interesting times ahead.
By Rich aka @whatsinaname81