Perception and reality: Arsenal 2 Barcelona 1

18 Feb

The vast majority of football supporters and the sporting media are human beings. This difficult fact means that the gap between perception of events and the reality of them is often very wide indeed. Take Wednesday’s Champions League tie between Arsenal and Barcelona as an example. Arsenal have had acres of column inches written about them in praise for their victory over the Catalan giants – a team who are considered to be the greatest in the world – if not the greatest of all time.

Yet, how fair, how measured and how accurate is that praise?

I’ve read some tweets and a couple of articles making the “Elephant in the Room” point that the tie is effectively only at the half-way stage and that the first tie will count for nought if Arsenal are ultimately eliminated from the competition after being beaten at the Nou Camp.

Despite these warnings it hasn’t stopped praise being heaped upon Jack Wilshere (quite rightly) and Arsene Wenger, many labelling this game as Wenger’s best ever in charge of Arsenal. But surely this result has to be seen in the context of the 180 minute tie? No one ever gives Carlo Ancelotti any credit for guiding his Milan side to a 3-0 half time lead in the Champions League Final of 2005 do they? Had the Champions League final been played over two legs of 45 minutes I’m sure Ancelotti’s Milan would have had a week or so between the legs of being lauded as one of the best European finalists of all time. As it was they collapsed in the second-half and eventually lost on a penalty shoot-out. They were only praised for quarter of an hour at half-time by gormless pundits (and a decent proportion of that fifteen minutes of half-time was filled with adverts!)

Professional footballers’ training regimes are designed to enable a player to play at the highest level possible for a full ninety minutes. Anyone who has seen a group of highly paid footballers flounder around a pitch during extra-time (especially at World Cups) will know that players struggle when this extra physical question is asked of them. Similarly it appears that journalists and fans struggle when they are asked to consider a tie that lasts longer than 90 minutes. Arsenal leading Barcelona 2-1 at half-time is obviously a great achievement, however it has to be viewed in the context of a two-legged tie in order to make any sense. Had the game at the Emirates Stadium been a league match it’s likely that Barcelona would have thrown more bodies forward in order to secure an equalising goal. I remember Barry Town beating Porto 3-1 in European competition, on the face of it a great result, but it’s not until you see that Barry lost 8-0 in the first leg that you realise that their win was ultimately fruitless.

Despite the diatribe above, I (almost paradoxically) think Arsenal deserve a lot of credit for the result last Wednesday. If in the world of 180-minute games the first-half performance is given far too much focus, in the 90-minute game the first-half is often forgotten entirely. Consider a fan’s view of their team if their side had come back from a goal down at half-time to win 2-1 over a fan who has seen their team win 2-1 with a great first-half performance (leading 2-0 at the break) only to concede in the second-half. It’s the former who is happier with their side, waxing lyrical about the character of their side for coming back from a goal down to reign victorious, whilst the second fan is left feeling worried about his side’s ability to hold onto leads in future matches. You only have to look at how Arsenal’s 4-4 draw with Newcastle was covered by the media and commented on by fans to see that. Arsenal, slated for throwing away a 4-0 lead and Newcastle United praised for their team spirit in coming back from such a perilous situation. Surely giving Arsenal credit for storming into a four-nil lead by half-time and criticising a moribund Newcastle first-half defensive performance is a valid way of looking at it?

The proximity of events is obviously important to football supporters and the media, things that happened recently are given the most consideration and the most coverage. It’s probably the reason why this blogpost isn’t about Gennaro Gattuso’s magnificent head-butt on Joe Jordan.

The second-legs of these games are likely to be covered a little differently to the first. Arsenal could well come away with a disappointing 1-0 loss, or a magnificent 3-2 defeat. As always, it’s perception that decides whether a result should be lauded and not always the reality.


Posted by on February 18, 2011 in Club, European


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15 responses to “Perception and reality: Arsenal 2 Barcelona 1

  1. Myra

    February 18, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    I take your points, and add:

    If Arsenal go out in the Camp Nou it will hurt, but it won’t take away the fact that Arsenal beat Barcelona over 90 minutes. This matters b/c…

    It shows that although Arsenal are sometimes fragile, they can also be brilliant; it changes the narrative from Arsenal can’t do it against the big clubs to Arsenal can get a result, and the media, the refs, and the opposition now have to take this on board
    It shows Cesc that what he’s got isn’t to be sniffed at
    It shows that Arsenal are very good and very young – their future is bright and perhaps arriving earlier than scheduled
    It shows that Wenger’s philosophy isn’t necessarily the best, but its valid
    It tells Abramovich that he better get a few more 20 million pound players in to get back on top
    It shows that a club playing and paying within its means can compete with the financially doped (and make no mistake, Barca is a combination of the best academy in the world AND massive debts)
    It shows that Arsenal are improving young English players and the future England team

  2. RockyLives

    February 18, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    Your first two sentences are spot on. Then I feel your article (well written though it is) goes on to miss the point completely.
    You start by saying: “…the gap between perception of events and the reality of them is often very wide indeed.”
    Very true, and your piece is an illustration of this.
    I don’t know what media you’ve been reading/watching/listening to, but most of what I’ve read/seen/heard fell exactly into the perception v reality trap: the perceived wisdom was that Barcelona are the best team in the world and therefore the reports of Wednesday’s game were that Arsenal had been comprehensively out-played but had somehow scrambled a fortunate win that would be quickly overturned at the Nou Camp.
    That was an interpretation influenced by perception and expectation.
    But the reality – the game I watched – was one of two good teams both going at it and having an equal number of good goal scoring chances. Yes, there were times when Barca kept the ball brilliantly and a short spell in the first half where they were cutting open the Arsenal defence at will. There were also times (including in the first half) when Arsenal were pulling the Barca defence all over the place and posing threat after threat (van Persie could have scored twice in the first 15 minutes).
    ‘Harry’, commenting on Arsenal Arsenal yesterday (, summarised the game brilliantly with a breakdown by time period:

    0-10 mins: Arsenal in charge
    10-20: Shared Toe 2 Toe
    20-35: Barca dominated
    35-45: Barca Shaded but we had some good moments.
    45-50: Arsenal Shaded
    50-60: Barca Dominated
    60-70: Shared
    70-75: Arsenal Shaded
    75+: Arsenal dominated……

    In other words a very balanced, well fought game.

    Not that any of the reports I’ve read in the mainstream media saw it that way. Yes, they were full of praise for Wilshere, but in the context of Arsenal having been taught a footballing lesson in an admittedly thrilling game.

    People often see what they want to see (and before you level that charge at me, as an Arsenal fan, I would point out that I was at The Grove last year when, I’m happy to admit, Barcelona did indeed give a footballing lesson to a very depleted Arsenal line-up).

    The build-up about Barca’s brilliance this time round meant that a lot of people expected/wanted to see them dominate Arsenal. They didn’t dominate, but the script was so firmly pre-written that few pundits and journalists were prepared to alter it to reflect the reality.

    Barca are brilliant. But so are Arsenal, which is why it was such a good game, whatever happens at the Nou Camp.

    But don’t be surprised if there’s another lot of journalistic head-scratching about how Arsenal have managed to triumph over the titans of modern football.

    • Steven

      February 18, 2011 at 10:17 pm

      My article was about how clubs approach (or at least should approach) two legged ties in a different way to they approach “one legged” league games or one off cup games (as in the FA Cup). I’m not really too bothered whether or not Arsenal or Barcelona are better than each other, or deserved to win the match or not. Arsenal probably deserved to win the 90 minutes on balance of play. However, what cannot be denied is that the clubs would have approached the match very differently had it been a one-off cup tie.

  3. simon

    February 18, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    Comparing a two-legged tie to a half time / full time result is utter bollocks

    • Steven

      February 18, 2011 at 10:18 pm

      Of course it isn’t.

      I’m sure if Arsenal are losing 1-0 in Barca with five minutes to go that Wenger won’t be urging his team forward to attack Valdes’ goal.

  4. drwtw

    February 18, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    The reaction you are seeing is borne out of the hyperbole that the media lavishly throw around oblivious to the true nature of things. So when FC ‘Unbeatable Best Team Ever’ Barcelona were drawn against Arsenal everyone promptly dismissed Arsenal, as they have always done*, not just from winning but from even keeping the score competitive.

    Now there’s nothing wrong with doing this usually but when the hyperbole comes a cropper and something that had every chance of happening but was utterly dismissed actually happens the media needs to completely over-inflate the events to near miraculous proportions.

    * The amount of times team X was going to break into the top 4 at Arsenal’s expense is amazing, for example. I still remember the media mocking Wenger for suggesting Arsenal could go a whole season unbeaten. Arsenal didn’t go that season unbeaten and upon losing he was mercilessly mocked only for the team to then go 49 games unbeaten in league play and now the media begrudgingly gives them the nickname they deserve.

  5. Paul N

    February 18, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    RockyLives, brilliant comment!!

    This article is out of touch with reality. Most are not commending Arsenal and not even Barcelona are gracious enough to give credit where it is due , they are saying it was a mistake. Its as if we took candy from a baby or something. We were lucky and all that nonsense.

    This statement says it all to me.

    “Had the game at the Emirates Stadium been a league match it’s likely that Barcelona would have thrown more bodies forward in order to secure an equalising goal.”

    Thats what they did when the last goal was scored. It shouldve been worse had NB looked up and picked out RVP.

  6. Andrew

    February 18, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    Great article Steve, really enjoyed it. Puts the “tie” in context really well. If Arsenal go out then Barcelona surely have played the better over the two legs and the 2-1 at the Emirates in the end counts for nothing.

    Arsenal could actually play a lot worse and beat Birmingham and win a trophy which in the end would mean more than a 2-1 home victory before going out.

    Great job

  7. Mark (

    February 18, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    Perception is a funny thing in that it is possible for there to be two different perceptions of the same event without either actually being wrong.

    Yes, it was a fantastic Arsenal performance, particularly when considered in the context of the “can’t do it against big teams” tag that they have now shaken off. At the same time it is entirely correct to refer to the result as ultimately meaningless until the tie is completed.

    The fact that the 2nd leg is at Camp Nou shifts the perspective – compare with Spurs victory in the San Siro, which has not been met with the same reaction. Do we assume that because the second leg is at White Hart Lane there is no way that Gomes will haul down Robinho, concede a penalty and get sent off after 20 minutes? Spurs’ job is no more complete than Arsenal’s yet the same debate does not apply.

    This is also indicative of the perception of the comparative strengths of Barcelona and Milan, but that in itself is also, perhaps, irrelevant.

  8. RockyLives

    February 18, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    Paul N
    Well said.

    Thanks for your reply. Of course you’re right that we’re only half way through the tie, but I genuinely don’t think many people have been writing up the first leg as an Arsenal triumph, which seemed to be the premise in your opening couple of paragraphs.

    • Steven

      February 18, 2011 at 10:35 pm

      That’s what I’ve picked up from the media and fan reaction but obviously our media points vary, and they are numerous. I’m guessing as an Arsenal fan you probably speak to other fans (who are almost certainly pessimistic about the club’s chances – all fans naturally are), whilst I listen to inane commentary from football forums, the internet, selected newspapers and ITV..

  9. Paul N

    February 18, 2011 at 10:55 pm

    Steven, here is what I believe your article totally overlooks. The fact is Arsenal were not supposed to win, they were supposed to get smashed. So as for Arsenal supporters we can tell Most Barca supporters and Football Pundits to go and jump in the lake. The second leg is not irrelevant but irrelevant to that point I am making to an extent. Irregardless of it we win, lose or draw at Camp Nou, we proved 99.9% of the people wrong on wednesday night and it feels really good.

    Yes the tie is only half way but Arsenal find themselves in the drivers seat (again, against all odds) up until Barca prove otherwise, so we rejoice for the time being.

    Seriously, did you see the goals we scored? the epitome of good football. However to show you how bad it was and is, the blasted commentator called the Arshavin goal a Barcelona goal!!!! what utter nonsense!

    • Steven

      February 19, 2011 at 12:03 am

      My article was based upon an Arsenal game but could quite easily have been based upon many other two legged ties. I can fully understand an Arsenal fan’s opinion of the Barca win, and can fully understand the joy at “proving people wrong”.

  10. consolsbob

    February 19, 2011 at 10:38 am

    It’s apples and oranges.

    Your article certainly nails the point that a two legged tie is won over two legs. Clear enough.

    Unfortunately, the Arsenal perspective is that the club gets little credit for the way it plays and it’s approach to challenging the big spending clubs. In fact the difference between the medias’ love for Barca and it’s contempt for Arsenal is hard to explain unless it is accepted that they just do not like Arsenal.

    In that context Steve, your article just read like another piece damning a great club performance with faint praise while remiding the world that Barca would, of course, hammer Arsenal in the second leg.

    Perception and Reality?

  11. Steven

    February 20, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    My article above is not supposed to be there for damning Arsenal, I would say exactly the same about Ipswich Town’s 1-0 first leg win over Arsenal earlier this season.

    What is very interesting from the replies in this thread that have taken umbrage with the content is that each and every one of them is from an Arsenal supporter. It never ceases to amaze me just how much football supporters feel their own club is hard done by in some way, or that their club gets an unfair deal in the press. Not only that but fans are desperate for the media to praise their side. I’m not entirely sure why it matters.

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