The moment which summed up the ability disparity between Arsenal and Barcelona was not the exquisite counter-attack which brought the opening goal at Emirates Stadium, although it did demonstrate it very clearly.
No, the most revealing snapshot came precisely three minutes earlier. There were 68 minutes on the clock when the ball dropped at the feet of Olivier Giroud in the box and, ignoring a good chance to shoot himself, he gazed determinedly at the ball, gently engaged his left foot in an attempt to disguise his intentions and carefully and deliberately passed to absolutely nobody.
Theo Walcott, making a diagonal run into the box, held out his outstretched arms in a comically futile gesture, demanding the ball which had already rolled innocuously away from any red shirts. Alexis Sanchez spun a full 360 degrees, throwing his hands up into the air in frustration. Giroud clasped his own against his mouth in a show of disbelief.
Unlike Giroud, Barcelona rarely waste a pass. Not every carefully choreographed move comes to fruition – even in the Guardiola/Xavi years they were unable to completely monopolise possession, much as they would try – but behind every action is a thought. And more than that: a structure, a culture and a history.
When Barca play a blind pass, someone invariably arrives to collect it. It’s the consequence of having the best players in the world but also the structural framework, laid down over decades and instilled through hundreds of thousands of hours of coaching, to accommodate such ingenuity and synchronicity of movement. All the parts work as one; it’s football played via intuition.
On Tuesday night, Arsenal just passed it to no one.
It was 0-0 at that stage and Arsenal’s gameplan had actually been functioning successfully; which only made it more galling for Arsene Wenger when, just three minutes later, and after 71 minutes of containing Barcelona, those best laid plans fell apart. Arsenal were caught over-committing in attack and Luis Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi combined for a perfect counter-attack which should be used as an example in all future training manuals. The match had turned in 15 seconds of perfection.
“I felt that we lost at the moment that we looked more capable of winning the game, and we also lost it in a way which we could not afford to give them,” said Wenger. “It’s a bit disappointing to give them the goals that we did, especially the first goal. I feel that we were extremely guilty and have no excuses for that goal.
“Of course you’re frustrated when you lose the game and it’s always easy to identify the moment where you made the mistake. I feel that maybe we felt on the pitch that we could win the game and we lost our cautiousness to defend. What we knew was going to be vital for us was not to give them a counter-attack, that’s where they’re at their most dangerous.”
That’s the problem with facing Barcelona: you can be immaculate for all of 70 minutes but the first time you slip up, they will ruthlessly punish you. Arsenal will have planned all week how to avoid being taken apart on the counter, but with the decibels rising as the crowd cheered them on, and the blood pumping ever quicker through their bodies, they allowed themselves to be seduced by the thought of winning with glory. And as soon as the structure disappeared, so too did their hopes and dreams.
A momentary defensive lapse proved fatal, but what also contributed was Arsenal’s inability to finish the impressive number of chances they created in the final third. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should have scored after 22 minutes before scuffing his effort – an “unbelievable chance” according to Wenger – Olivier Giroud saw a header turned wide by Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Aaron Ramsey’s infuriatingly inconsistent finishing swung back towards ‘wasteful’.
It was instructive that so many players highlighted Arsenal’s inability to score as being crucial; it is a weakness that has manifested with regularity this season. Mertesacker put it succinctly: “We had to score. Which is why we do not deserve anything.” It is a lesson which has been divined a few times now, though never acted on.
In three of the past five matches – Barcelona in the Champions League, Hull City in the FA Cup and Southampton in the Premier League – Arsenal have possessed less cutting edge than a beach ball. They need to address this urgently, as it could be the issue which defines the complexion of their season, with a domestic double still very much under consideration, if rather unlikely.
In fact, with Wenger conceding that Barcelona are “95%” through, and no team having ever come back from a 2-0 first-leg loss at home in 85 previous attempts, the latest chastening European night can at least serve as a catalyst to focus attention on a competition where Arsenal do not look out of place: the rather more forgiving enclave of the English top flight, where quality has evaporated this season.
But if they cannot address their evident problems and win the Premier League, even in the most open campaign in the competition’s history, it will have been a season of aimless drift for Arsenal. A ball rolling nowhere, to no one.