Unless you live in North Korea and have no ability to access what is happening in the rest of the world, you know that Barcelona will of course be facing Arsenal in the first round knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League. The first leg takes place at the Emirates on Feb 16th and the second leg at the Camp Nou on March 8th. By all accounts this should be a very exciting fixture as both sides are known for playing a very attacking, pass-oriented game.
Last year these clubs met in the Champions League quarterfinals, with Barca advancing 6-3 on aggregate. The contest was much closer than the score indicates however, as the Gunners led 3-2 early in the second match before the blaugrana went on a torrid scoring spree. It was Lionel Messi, the reigning Ballon d'Or winner and finalist for this years trophy, who scored four goals to turn the 3-2 deficit into a 6-3 victory. Barca beat Arsenal in the 2006 final as well and have never lost to the Gunners in five outings, of which Arsene Wenger has managed all five. With Barcelona playing the best football on the planet right now, the Gunners must be hoping the Spanish giants will cool off by early next year.
Barcelona won Group D by taking 14 of 18 points on offer. A closer look into the numbers shows us what we already suspected, they did it through passing the ball. It's not just that they pass the ball better than anyone else, it's the margin of difference with which they dominate this category that is so striking! When you consider that 32 teams took place in the CL group stages it is absolutely amazing that Barca have the top four players in the category of passes completed in the attacking third.
SUCCESSFUL PASSES IN THE ATTACKING THIRD
This category is important because while passing at the midfield line is not particularly threatening, dominating the attacking third of the pitch crushes the will of the opposing team. Opponents spend so much time and energy pursuing the ball that they are forced to rest on offense, and consequently are not very effective. Meanwhile, Barca players do not tire at the same rate as they are not the ones doing the running, they let the ball do all the work. Of all 32 teams that participated in the group stage, the top four players in this category are Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Xavi, and Dani Alves. Overall, Barcelona as a team completed 1647 passes in the final third of the pitch in six matches. The second place team is Bayern Munich, with 1116. Arsenal are fifth in this category with 979. While Arsenal are perhaps known in England for their beautiful passing game, they are not in the same league as Barcelona on the world stage.
The category of "total assists" measures not just "goal assists" but "shot assists" as well. Barcelona average 13.83 per game and rank 3/32 in this category (behind Real Madrid and Bayern Munich). Arsenal did not rank in the top 10. This is interesting from a tactical standpoint because Arsenal scored 18 goals in the group stage, equal to Tottenham and more than any other team. Both Arsenal and Barcelona had 41 shots on goal over the six games. The fact Arsenal are not in the top 10 for total assists might help Barcelona defend them. When Arsenal approach the final third of the pitch and make their way into the box you can be sure a shot is much more likely to be coming than another pass. This is in stark contrast to Barcelona, where the unselfishness that is such a integral part of the team philosophy means players are always looking for that next pass, regardless of whether they think they can get a shot for themselves.
Arsenal do possess threatening firepower in Cesc Fabregas, Andrei Arshavin, and Marouane Chamakh. I think this will put more pressure on Barcelona than they are used to feeling, and if Arsenal score the first goal it could really force the Catalan team to dig deep. The attacking formation that Arsenal will be forced to use in an attempt to score, with midfielders pushing forward to lend support, will allow Xavi and Iniesta to absolutely carve them wide open. If Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol can hold the line in front of Victor Valdes this could be open season for the dynamic Barcelona attack. While we don't know who will win this years Ballon d'Or trophy between Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi, we do know that the trio will propel Barca past Arsenal and into the Champions League quarterfinals.