As much as there was a small part of me that did think the improbable was possible, Arsenal were realistically never going to overturn the 2-0 deficit going to the Nou Camp to face Barcelona. All that could be gained was some confidence and some momentum to take into the league after a wretched run of form. Even though the Gunners lost 3-1, the performance was encouraging and much improved on some of the recent dire showings.
The biggest problem was Arsenal’s finishing in front of goal. It’s a problem that can’t be pinned on one player, but has been a squad-wide issue for too much of this season. The Gunners managed to have 20 shots on goal away to Barcelona, which is good going, but only three of those were on target. In contrast, Barcelona weren’t quite at their best, but when they needed to, they were clinical and took their chances. Neymar, Messi and Suarez are the best front three in the world, and they gave Arsenal a lesson in how to finish. As soon as they got a sniff of goal, they punished Arsenal, whereas everything seemed much harder work for the visitors when they got to the final third.
The sort of chances Arsenal missed has only reignited the calls for a world class striker. There’s no doubt that the front-line is an area of the team in need of reinforcement.
One man who did appear in the front-line on Wednesday and did his reputation no harm at all was young Alex Iwobi. It was a surprise to see him in the starting line-up, but given the poor recent performances from Theo Walcott, and the need to have players fresh for the vital league game at Everton on Saturday lunchtime, it wasn’t the worst idea to throw a fearless, talented, 19 year-old into the game. Iwobi was bright on the left of the front three, he always made himself available to take the ball and he didn’t look overawed by the occasion. In a terrible few weeks for Arsenal, the performances of Iwobi have been a real positive, and I fully expect to see him play a role in the league before the end of the season.
The other positive performance came from Mohamed Elneny in central midfield. With most others in the squad in that area of the field out with injury, there’s been a lot of pressure on Arsenal’s newest player to play the key box-to-box role in midfield. Against Barcelona, he was effective at breaking play up and then looking for the forward passes to try and make something happen for the Gunners. Playing alongside Flamini, and then Coquelin, he had license to burst forward, and he did so effectively. He should have scored in the first half following a late run into the box, but made amends with a beauty in the second half.
Arsenal worked the ball well and created some space on the right for Alexis, who rolled the ball across the edge of the penalty area. Elneny strode forward, opened his body up and curled a superb finish into the net via the underside of the bar. Like Iwobi, Elneny has to be involved in the remaining league games as he is one of the few in the squad who is playing well at the moment.
It’s disappointing to go out of the Champions League in the round of 16 again, but this season the exit was at the hands of the best team on the planet. Arsenal weren’t embarrassed in the Nou Camp, and showed plenty of ambition and quality to create chances, they just couldn’t finish those chances. The missed chances, both in individual games and in the league as a whole, unfortunately is an over-riding theme this season, and until that finishing improves, frustrations and negativity around the club will only increase.