How do the class of 2011 compare to last year’s Barca test?

Szczesny in action against Barcelona

Szczesny makes himself big enough to put off Messi

Now I’ve had a chance to revel in the Barcelona win, I was asking myself the crucial question: how far have we come since our last Barca test? After all, the match followed a very similar pattern to the first leg last season – outclassed for an hour, only to stage a late rally and get rewards that, on the balance of play, we probably didn’t deserve.

This was the line up on March 31st 2010 for the 2-2 draw:

Almunia
Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Clichy
Song, Fabregas, Diaby
Arshavin, Bendtner, Nasri

Compared to Wednesday’s team:

Szczesny
Eboue, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy
Song, Fabregas, Wilshere
Walcott, van Persie, Nasri

The Defence

The first thing that jumps out at me is that at the back, only Clichy played both games. I would argue that last year’s back four are stronger on paper, although I accept that Koscielny had a great game. So if you stick the suspended Sagna and injured Vermaelen back in the team, Koscielny or Djourou for Gallas makes us only slightly weaker, if at all, although Gallas is an old man with only a few months left at the top whilst Koscielny and Djourou have years.

The glaring difference is in goal. Yes, Almunia had a majestic first half last year, which he spoiled straight after the restart by running out of his goal like a lost lamb and allowing Ibrahimovich to lob him. That apart the Spanish waiter had a terrible season and Szczesny is better than him already at the age of 20 with just a handful of games under his belt.

Indeed, if you take all the attributes and skills of Almunia and Fabianski and combine them into one hybrid keeper, Fabialmunia would still be no patch on Szczesny. For a rookie to produce such a composed display on his debut at old Trafford was very encouraging. To follow it up with excellent performances since then when he hasn’t been at fault for a single goal is fantastic. The only mistake he made is nearly decapitating Sagna when he came for and missed a cross against Huddersfield, and his kicking needs some work (although a chimp could eventually be taught to kick properly so I’m not worried about that).

When he comes out to confront an onrushing striker he makes himself appear 6 foot wide and 6 foot tall. It’s very similar in style to the way Seaman presented a formidable barrier for his opponent, chest puffed out, arms spread wide as though he was going to give the striker a big hug, challenging him to get the ball past him and still hit the target. He forced Messi to dink just wide in the first half, shoot into the side netting in the second and brilliantly blocked Pedro’s point blank shot before Messi netted the rebound from an offside position.

The likeable Pole is our first very good keeper since Lehmann and is on course to become our first world class one since Seaman. And to think six months ago we were crossing our fingers that Schwarzer would join.

The Midfield

Our midfield trio was the same except we had Wilshere this year instead of Diaby. Hands up if you’d prefer Diaby to be playing? Thought not. Jack has come in and progressed so fast in the last couple of months that he’s now England’s new hope, a regular in the Arsenal team and outshone three of the greatest midfielders in the world last Wednesday in Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas. In fact if you believe some newspapers it may be harder to keep hold of Wilshere in the summer than Cesc! His composure under immense mental and physical pressure from Barca’s pressing game was fantastic and you have to agree our midfield is looking good.

The Forwards

Bendtner only played last year because van Persie was injured, so having our glass Dutchman fit (for now) makes a great difference. Nasri played both games, the only difference was Walcott started while Arshavin sat on the bench (last year the roles were reversed and yet ironically, both came off the bench to score crucial goals!) I think Walcott is looking like the player we hoped he’s become four years ago, looking more confident and finishing more of his chances well, although he still has moments where he tries to pass instead of shoot, a sign that his predatory instinct and total confidence is not yet there. He is still young and can only get even better, whereas Arshavin – much as I love him – is looking increasingly disinterested and at the age of 29 isn’t as valuable to us as Walcott.

Conclusion

Ignoring last year’s injured van Persie and this year’s Vermaelen, the main differences are therefore:
Szczesny (20) for Almunia (33)
Koscielny (25) / Djourou (24) for Gallas (33)
Wilshere (19) for Diaby (24)
Walcott (21) for Arshavin (29)

All of this year’s guys are better and younger than last year, as was demonstrated in the improved performance and result. Yes we’re still a long way behind Barcelona, but Wenger has put together a young, talented, hungry squad and the gap is narrowing.

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