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Arsenal vs Barcelona

Depth Charge

by Carlos Amato / 08.03.2011

“Depth” is a belter of a word. Sonically, it’s one of the finest items that English has to offer. Say it out loud: it starts underground and ends up in the clouds, all within half a second. Much deeper than “deepness”. (If you’re interested, these are the etymological cousins of “depth”: Old Saxon diupitha, Dutch diepte, Old Norse dypð, Gothic diupiþa.)

But enough phonetic phrippery. Let’s talk phootball.

FC Barcelona have depth, in both senses of the word. Firstly, they have it in the shallow football sense: a powerful bench. An all-star cast of supporting actors who can keep the show alive when the leads stumble.

Tonight’s game is a good example. Kingpins Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique are both unavailable (due to injury and suspension) when Arsenal come calling for the return leg of their Champions League war. But Barca coach Pep Guardiola will be able to restock his central defence with minimal anxiety, by reassigning his regular leftback, the exceptional Eric Abidal, and his superb central midfielder Sergio Busquets. Maxwell will slot in at leftback, while the world-class Javier Mascherano will deputise for Busquets in the engine room.

No worries. The tiki-taka circus will roll happily on. If Arsenal advance instead of Barcelona, I will eat an avocado, which would be harder for me than eating my hat.

But the strange thing about Barcelona’s depth is that Guardiola’s squad is actually quite small: just 20 players, compared to Arsenal’s 24. But all the peripheral players in Barca’s 20 are either seasoned soldiers of exceptional quality – such as Mascherano and Maxwell – or homegrown youngsters so carefully tutored in the beautiful science of possession football that they are able to function on the highest stage with little experience.

By contrast, Arsenal’s chronic shallowness has been exposed yet again by a run of injuries. Robin van Persie, Alex Song and Theo Walcott are definitely out of tonight’s game due to injury, while Cesc Fabregas may not play. In their stead, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger will have to entrust his European dream to perennially unconvincing players like Nicklas Bendtner, Tomas Rosicky, Abou Diaby and Denilson. They won’t be up to the task.

Andre Arshavin

Why is Arsenal’s depth never deep enough, year after year? Some blame Wenger’s stinginess. But it’s not that simple. How do you convince someone like Mascherano to play for Arsenal as an understudy to Song? You could pay him over the odds to do so, but that would throw your entire salary structure out of whack. Wenger lives within his means; Guardiola doesn’t.

Mascherano is happy to understudy Busquets because a) he gets paid silly sums to do so; b) he gets to play quite often for the coolest team in the world; c) he gets to live in Barcelona; and c) he avoids the brutal physical warfare of the Premiership, where he used to get a dose of his own dirty medicine every four days.

The quasi-feudal structure of Spanish football is deepening the hegemony of Barcelona in Europe, both in economic and physical terms. All the Spanish minnows are happy servants, tenants, extras: most of La Liga’s television money goes to Real Madrid and Barcelona. As a result, they barely ever lose in Spain to anyone but each other.

Plus, the servants don’t kick the shit out of their masters. Spanish footie culture doesn’t accept the kind of wild, intimidatory tackling of “craque” players that’s still tolerated in England. There are no Stoke Cities among the La Liga underclass, and the reign of civility helps Leo Messi to stay fit all season. While Messi’s ridiculous speed of foot and thought allows him to dodge most flying boots before they hit, it’s a safe bet he wouldn’t be as safe in the anarchic fray of the Premiership. Sometimes you just can’t get away in time – ask Aaron Ramsey, Eduardo da Silva and Abou Diaby.

Short of emigrating to Spain, there’s no clear route ahead for Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, and the various continental challengers to Barcelona’s power. Spending alone won’t shake off their shallowness. Yes, Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan saw off Barca, but that was a freakish feat of defensive mania; it was never a sustainable counter-force to Guardiola’s regime.

UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, soon to come into effect, will not change the balance of power significantly. Everyone will have to confine their spending to football-related income; hence Barcelona will have to become a little more prudent, but the lucrative reach of their brand will soften the blow. Already they spend less on players than Real, Manchester City and Chelsea.

And they have depth, in a deeper sense of the word. Barcelona don’t possess any profound moral truth about their sport, much as Xavi and company fancy themselves as philosophers and revolutionaries in shorts. Football is not a moral pursuit. But they have made football deeper, by making it better.


*Images © Nike Football.

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  1. Dplanet says:

    Anyone would have thought that Barcelona had already been crowned European Champions – which is odd considering that they’re not even the current European Champions.

    As much as I admire Barcelona’s football (and there’s a lot to admire), the sense of entitlement that emanates from the club makes makes them hard to love. The fact that they play in a league where the gap between 2nd and 3rd place was almost 30 points last season, makes the claim that they are the Best Team Ever seem slightly ridiculous, especially in light of their European failure.

    To write off Inter’s majestic performance over two legs against Barcelona in last season’s Champions League as a ‘freakish feat of defensive mania’ further betrays this sense of entitlement. As us Arsenal fans know, playing pretty football doesn’t always get the job done.

    You talk about depth, but Arsenal are missing the equivalent of Puyol (Vermaelen), Xavi (Cesc), Messi (Van Persie), Busquets (Song) and Iniesta (Walcott). Take those players out of the Barca team we’d have a real test of their strength. The latest news suggests that Van Persie and Cesc will be playing although, to me, that would be a crazy gamble.

    The Premiership is more physical than La Liga but it’s disingenuous to characterise it as nothing more than a bunch of thugs running around kicking lumps out of each other. Many of the more modest teams actually attempt to play football most of the time (see Wolves, Sunderland, Blackpool, West Ham – all teams which are capable of taking points from the top 4 on their day).

    Barcelona stay injury free because La Liga is so uncompetitive – most of Barca’s games in La Liga are literally a walk in the park. As you pointed out, Barcelona and Madrid are allowed to negotiate their own TV deals which means that all the money in La Liga goes to two clubs whilst they others are mired in debt, unable to keep their best players or reinforce their squads.

    With our ‘shallow’ squad, we are still only 3 points behind the Premiership leaders (with a game in hand). We’re still in the FA Cup. We made it to the final of the League Cup (losing to a freak goal in the 94th minute). And we’re still in the Champions League, taking a lead to Camp Nou.

    It’s always easy to predict that a favourite will win a game. I didn’t read one article claiming Arsenal would win the previous encounter either. Most people were predicting we’d lose 3 or 4 nil – just like this evening. I just hope the Barca team underestimates us as much as Barca’s fans and the sycophantic media!

    Come on Arsenal!!

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  2. Mathew says:

    as an avid arsenal supporter I really hope we move along to the next leg, the club really needs a victory over Barca! I do have to say this will probably be the longest game of football I will ever watch!

    @Dplanet it is true that the spanish giants have an easier route to the Champs league final, they can play a second string side all year long in la liga and save their first side solely for the champs league where as arsenal and epl sides do not have that luxury…
    I dounbt that argument would ever touch sides with fifa though..

    Tonight will be a great game between my two favourite sides…I hope the gunner come out on top!

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  3. JD says:

    Great article

    And as a Barcelona supporter I agree with alot of what the previous comment from Mathew and Dplanet had to say…

    What fascinates me about Arsenal v Barca is the clash of similar styles, so interesting to watch

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