Arsenal is currently leading England’s Women’s Super League, having taken four wins from four matches to start the campaign, with a league-high 16 goals scored against only two in the other direction. The Gunners have the greatest scorer in soccer right now in Vivianne Miedema, and American skiller Tobin Heath recently made her way over to North London to provide a creative spark. Arsenal is very good, in other words.
But Arsenal is not Barcelona. And the reigning Women’s Champions League winners taught the Gunners that lesson in brutal fashion on Tuesday.
The scoresheet says 4–1 to Barcelona, which, albeit a sizable margin, does not capture the full extent of Barça’s supremacy. For roughly 80 of the 90 minutes at the Johan Cruyff Stadium, the hosts played like a team living on a different plane of existence to Arsenal. The Catalan club’s famed obsession with controlling the ball and tiki taka–style passing was on full display, as the hosts possessed the ball for over two-thirds of the first 45 minutes of the match. (They finished with “just” 64 percent by the end of the night.) More impressively, that possession wasn’t just in the interest of careful probing into dangerous positions. Barcelona was a constant barrage, peppering Arsenal’s goal with 19 shots in the first half, and 37 for the game.
What’s perhaps most dispiriting for Arsenal is that Barcelona’s dominance was not down to any one player taking control of the game. Those types of performances can leave an opponent helpless in the moment, but they also are harder to repeat. What Barcelona did on Tuesday was more comprehensive. That there were four different goal-scorers serves as a tidy bit of evidence, but the most exhilarating sequences of play involved quick passing between a variety of players, both wide and narrow.
Take this move in the second half: Arsenal does what it meant to do, clogging up to the center of the park to make passing plays exactly like this one near impossible. Barcelona didn’t care. The team’s ability to quickly shift the ball from a non-dangerous position in the left back zone to a wide open midfield in just eight seconds is astounding in its efficiency:
If there was a standout player on Tuesday, it probably was Mariona Caldentey, who followed up her 31st minute goal with a ridiculous, defense-breaking pass to Asisat Oshoala, who finished coolly right down the middle:
Even that goal alone wasn’t just the work of two players; as Om Arvind pointed out during the game, it was the movement by newly-crowned UEFA Women’s Player of the Year Alexia Putellas that cleared up the space to make Mariona’s pass possible. The off-ball movement, combined with pinpoint passing, was impossible for Arsenal to stop, and that’s just the way Barcelona is right now.
If there’s some solace to be found for the Gunners, it’s that they are not alone in capitulating against this side. In May, Barcelona did much of the same to fellow WSL headliners Chelsea in the Champions League final, though at least Arsenal got a late goal via a pinpoint Heath set piece cross in the 74th minute to avoid the shutout:
That goal gave Arsenal a glimmer of hope that was swiftly snuffed out by Lieke Martens. Martens subbed on for Oshoala, and the team didn’t miss a single beat. (That Barcelona can comfortably beat a top team while bringing on a former World Player of the Year like Martens as a substitute in the 71st minute is the rudest part of all.) The Dutch winger immediately attacked Arsenal’s right side, ripping off a couple of dangerous shots before another gorgeous pass left her in a one-on-one with beleaguered Arsenal goalie Manuela Zinsberger. If the pass from Patricia Guijarro was evil, Martens’s finish was simply sublime:
Given that Tuesday’s match was billed as a heavyweight bout, the one-sided nature of it might have felt a little disappointing. Surely that is the case for Arsenal fans. There’s no point in getting too bummed, though. The Champions League season is long, and these teams will meet again in December, in England. Perhaps the time away will allow Arsenal to figure out how to prevent another demolition job. Or—and this feels more likely after Tuesday and in light of last season—perhaps Barcelona simply is this good, this cohesive, this ruthless, and we should all be prepared for them to demonstrate that fact over and over again.