Villarreal vs Osasuna – Three Short Observations

Contrasting Styles

Although generally uninteresting from a tactical perspective, the game did showcase the two differing styles of football by both teams. Unsurprisingly, Villarreal enjoyed more possession than their visitors and had a far better pass completion rate whilst Osasuna won the aerial battles.

Osasuna have a clear identity and under Mendilibar it has been emphasised. The preference is for a very vertical style of play, using the wings and delivering the ball into the penalty area frequently. A very high defensive line is also incorporated to push the opposition back.

Perhaps it was due to this tendency to deliver the ball from wide that resulted in Lotina asking his full back, Mario and Costa to stay deeper than normal. With Villarreal reliant upon their full backs for width over the past few seasons, it was somewhat strange to see such a subdued performance from them. It was expected from Costa, the 3rd choice left back, given that Osasuna are stronger on their own right side but more was expected of Mario on the right.

Under Lotina, Villarreal still demonstrate patches of their intricate short passing game honed under Pellegrini. It is a style that is somewhat inevitable when you have technical players like Borja Valero, Bruno and Senna in your team. With the inclusion of Hernan Perez on the wing, Villarreal can be more direct. What is clear so far is that, in the midst of a relegation scrap, Lotina is taking a safety first approach. He is a fairly conservative manager. From 8 games under the guidance of Lotina thus far, Villarreal have 2 wins, 5 draws and 1 defeat.

Slow, but steady progress.

Osasuna Attacking

With 46% of their goals so far this season the result of a set piece, it was no surprise to see Osasuna frequently deliver the ball into the Villarreal penalty area especially from long throws in an attempt to benefit from their aerial superiority.

The problem for Osasuna is a propensity for long, high balls yet they play Nino, a small forward, centrally. As a consequence, Villarreal, although somewhat scrappy at times, were able to deal with the high balls and Osasuna gained little from this direct approach. They had just 9 attempts at goal in the whole game and their equalising goal was an excellent long range strike from, yet again, Raul Garcia.

Garcia had four of the nine Osasuna strikes at goal. He is the club’s top goalscorer with ten goals this season and the main creative force with eight assists.

He is also only on loan from Atletico Madrid and although a permanent recall under Simeone may be unlikely, his form only serves to increase his value, possibly outwith of Osasuna’s reach.

Borja Valero

Under Garrido and with Cazorla in the team, Borja Valero previously played as one of the pivots in front of the back four where he was always available to receive a pass and recycle the ball quickly to a team mate in space. His positional sense and passing range were essential components in the yellow submarine.

Borja Valero – Caught sucking his thumb

This season, with Cazorla gone and both Bruno and Senna full fit, Valero has adopted a range of positions. From initially being deployed as an interiore, in an attempt to replicate the same system without Cazorla, to a more advanced central position against Osasuna where Valero played behind Marco Ruben but with the freedom to move both laterally and vertically.

Valero was involved in almost all of Villarreal’s constructive attacking play and overall, had an excellent game.

He often broke beyond Ruben but was also found tracking back and undertaking more than his fair share of defensive duties.

Was Valero trying to do too much?

He is arguably a more effective player as a defensive pivot but the alternatives in attack for Villarreal are de Guzman and Camunas who have both disappointed this season.

Looking ahead, does Borja Valero require a change of scenery to break back into the Spain squad and elevate his game to the next level?

Marcelo Bielsa – Method in the Madness

Athletic Bilbao face Atletico Madrid in the final of this season’s Europa League final following their pulsating 4-3 aggregate success over Sporting Lisbon last night. The game will mark their first appearance in the final of a European Competition since 1976/77 when they finished runners-up in the Uefa Cup, losing out on away goals to the all Italian Juventus side of Bettega, Tardelli et al.

On their path to the final, Athletic had dispatched such luminaries as AC Milan, Barcelona and enjoyed a semi final triumph on away goals over RWD Molenbeek (from Belgium in case you are wondering).

The route to this final has seen them eliminate Lokomotiv Moscow, Man Utd, Schalke and Sporting Lisbon from the knock out phase. Initially viewed as outsiders, Athletic are now the favourites for the competition.

Yet the man who delivered European football to Athletic, Joaquin Caparros, has not been around to enjoy it. A victim of the club’s presidential elections in the summer, despite steering Athletic to 6th place in La Liga and reaching the final of the Copa del Rey last season, Caparros’ contract was not renewed. Doubts over Caparros ability were surfacing, his image tarnished as being nothing more than a long ball merchant. Despite the traditional of direct football at Athletic, support for him was declining. In opportunistic fashion, the incoming President, Josu Urrutia, aware of the shifting mood, promised to deliver Marcelo Bielsa as manager if he won the election.

He did and he duly delivered Bielsa

His arrival at Athletic has generated considerable media interest which has only heightened and continually increased since their extremely impressive performances when defeating Man Utd home and away.

It had been 13 years since Bielsa last managed a club side, an ill-fated 6 game spell in charge of Espanyol which ended with his departure for the Argentine national side and Espanyol sitting in 18th position in La Liga.

How would his strict ideals for fast attacking football fit in with the physical robust football of Athletic?

Marcelo Bielsa

Marcelo “el loco” Bielsa is an idiosyncratic, obsessive character. With a thorough tactical mind and a desire for attacking football, he perfectly straddles the traditional Menotti – Bilardo dichotomy in Argentinean football.

Countless stories exist about Bielsa and his eccentricity / genius. From pacing out the length and width of opponents pitches in advance of delivering his final tactical  instructions to his team, to soaking training pitches heavily prior to a session commencing due to weather forecasts suggesting heavy rain on the day of a game.

With his now famous squatting position in the technical area, a keen journalist observed how Bielsa, during a game against Villarreal, took exactly 13 paces across the technical area before squatting down again each time Villarreal attacked. This could not be a coincidence. Was this another example of his attention to detail? The same number of paces marking a ritual?

“What is coincidence, is that when there’s such a nice game going on, someone spends time counting my paces.” was Bielsa’s deeply unimpressed response.

Always an innovator, the tactical developments he has made have heavily influenced a number of key themes in the modern game especially at Barcelona were Guardiola cites Bielsa as the “best coach in the world”.

Marcelo Bielsa - A Madman

The Set Up

“Our simple ethos is this: we try and win the ball back as quickly as possible from our opponents as far up the field as we can. And by that I mean everyone is involved in regaining the ball, from the forwards through to anyone else”

“Then once we have the ball, we try and find a way of getting forward as quickly as possible, in a vertical direction if you like. But we don’t get frustrated if we can’t get it forward immediately, we aim to be comfortable on the ball, and if it’s not a case of going forward straight away, we keep it.”

Bielsa adopted a 3-3-1-3 formation with both Argentina and Chile (detailed below).

Chile Starting Team vs Brazil - 2010 World Cup

As can be seen above, the team was more or less split into two units. The 4 defensive players comprising the three defenders and the defensive midfielder and the 6 attacking players comprising the two wing backs and un enganche y tres punta (a playmaker and three forwards). As Bielsa himself outlines, the idea was to play the game in your opponents half of the pitch, hold a high defensive line and press your opponent very aggressively. An attacking but physically demanding system to employ.

Arrigo Saachi spoke of there being an ideal 25 metres between centre-forward and centre-back and Bielsa shares this sentiment even allowing for the liberalisation of the offside law, something which Saachi’s great Milan never had to contend with. The high line must always be accompanied by an intense press.

He recognises the importance of the rapid movement of the ball from front to back to catch opponents off balance, but he also sees the value in retaining possession, which is what differentiates him from the likes of Egil Olsen, a coach who always prioritises position on the field over possession and favours a percentage based approach to football in the Reepian tradition.

The wing backs push forward to support the wingers, creating 2 on 1’s against opposing full backs. Interestingly, the full back normally goes on the inside of the winger. The wingers stay high and wide to stretch the opponents defence creating the gaps which the full backs, when attacking, and the midfield runners from the second line can exploit.

There was no specific No10 with Chile. Playmaking duties can be attributed to a few differing players, and in that respect, Bielsa again aligns himself with the Saachian notion of whoever had the ball was the regista. Similarly, Bielsa talks about the value in squeezing the game into a 25-metre area, another Saachian trait.

Always the innovator, Bielsa pioneered the use of defensive midfielders in the defensive line to aid distribution. With superior passing ability, a defensive midfielder can circulate the ball quickly and their increased mobility compared against traditional central defenders allows the higher line to function better.

Using midfielders in the defensive line also increases the flexibility of the team to adapt to differing circumstances. If the opponent had two strikers, Chile would adopt a back three. If the opponent switched to 1 or 3 strikers, Chile would respond accordingly, always keeping one defender extra at the back.

Bielsa enjoyed contrasting fortunes with his native Argentina and Chile. Despite arriving as favourites for the 2002 World Cup, Argentina failed to qualify from the group stage. One of the reasons cited for the poor showing of Argentina was severe fatigue from arduous domestic campaigns preventing the players from fulfilling the extreme physical demands demanded by the Bielsa model.

Yet this contrasts sharply with Chile, although expectations were lower, his success here was still considerable. His achievements here partially stem from inheriting a group of young players from the Chile U20 team which finished in 3rd place at the 2007 U20 World Cup. Players such as Sanchez, Medel, Carmona and Vidal emerged from that team and form the backbone of the current international set up.

Chile has no particular footballing identity or traditions unlike some of its South American neighbours such as Argentina and Brazil . The Chileans bought into Bielsa’s methods and a team that finished bottom of South American World Cup qualifying group in 2002, qualified easily in 2010, finishing second. The willingness of Bielsa to play the young players promoted from the U20 team, fast tracking them to the first team was central. Young impressionable minds who were physically fit and accepting of the exacting Bielsa philosophy.

Despite a second round defeat to Brazil in 2010, Bielsa and his players gained considerable recognition and appreciation not least because of their extreme attacking mentality at a time of increased conservatism in the game and the proliferation of a defensive minded 4-2-3-1 approach.

Given all of the above, how would he fare with Athletic?

Athletic Bilbao

Athletic are widely considered the most “English” of Spanish sides with a reputation for a direct style of play which dates back to the management of the influential Fred Pentland in the late 1920’s and 1930’s.

Pentland was regarded as a radical coach who favoured a short-passing game (still comparably long by modern standards. His was definitely not a tiki-taka approach) but he liked his central defenders and centre-forwards big and robust. The likes of Fernando Llorente and Fernando Amorebieta are the modern incarnations of that tradition.

Athletic retain a direct, but not long ball, style.

The signing policy of Athletic is well documented. However loose and flexible it has become in recent times, Athletic can still only play Basques or those coming through la cantera (the literal translation is the quarry. Players, like diamonds, are found in the quarry / ground and polished, becoming the finished article). Athletic can, and have, plundered neighbouring teams for their best players such as Joseba Exteberria, Javi Martinez, David Lopez and Gaizka Torquero but there will always be a considerable reliance upon la cantera for future players too.

Upon joining Athletic, Bielsa did not ask for any new signings, working with the existing squad. Interestingly, at the start of the season, Bielsa jettisoned a number of senior players at Athletic. Whether they were considered unable to adapt to the Bielsa methods physically or would challenge his methods intellectually is open for debate.

The key ingredients existed from the outset for Bielsa to succeed.

The tradition for a direct style of football played at a high tempo was central to both Athletic and Bielsa. The reliance upon young players from la cantera gave Bielsa the opportunity to again mould young players to his footballing philosophy just as he did with Chile.

Like la cantera, Bielsa has found fertile ground at Athletic.

The Start

In pre-season Bielsa used varying formations with players operating in a number of different positions. The pre-season game against Spurs demonstrated his willingness to consider a range of possibilities and ideas in search of answers.

Athletic vs Spurs - Second Half Line Up

The use of a back three was in response to Spurs playing two strikers whilst Gabilondo and Torquero were positioned on the wings as Bielsa sought the correct solution.

This experimentation continued into the early league games. A lack of structure and cohesion leading to decidedly poor performances with the team lacking clarity as they toiled with the implementation of Bielsa’s ideas. The odd line ups continued too, only serving to add confusion to the team as players found themselves fulfilling new roles and adapting to a completely new method of playing.

The case of Oscar De Marcos is a perfect example. Notionally a striker or winger, he started the season playing at left back against Rayo Vallecano. The following week he was in midfield against Espanyol before moving back to left back and then left wing back.

With no wins in their opening 5 games, this was Athletic’s worst start to a league in 32 years accumulating just 2 points. Athletic travelled to Sociedad for the Basque derby in September and the formation changed again, back to a 4-2-3-1, a recognised formation and one they players were assured with, but more importantly than that, players were now adjusting to the Bielsa style and being played in appropriate positions.

De Marcos was now firmly in midfield, deployed as a shuttler moving back and forth, linking with the attack. Autenexte had been brought back into the fold at left back. A proper left back and a good one. Llorente had adjusted to actually moving across the front line as opposed to being stationary waiting for the ball to land on his head. His new role required much greater movement than he had been used to.

A double from Llorente sealed the points and Athletic began moving forward with some purpose. The win brought belief as well as a healthy dose of relief, easing the pressure on Bielsa.

It has taken time for Bielsa time to settle in Bilbao. Upon arrival he began instigating radical changes, offloading nine players and training became far more theoretical with key moves repeatedly practised on the training ground. This represented a clear departure from Caparros and Bielsa himself acknowledged the early errors which he made.

But as with Chile, the players accepted his ideas and began implementing them. And the results arrived.

The Current Position

The team currently play in a fluid 4-3-3 system.

Athletic First Choice Starting Line Up

Both full backs push high up the pitch supporting the wingers although Iraola is noticeably more attacking than Autenexte. It is also worth commenting that Susaeta is happy to hug the right touchline whereas Muniain starts further infield and has increased lateral movement, drifting across the pitch. This sometimes leaves Autenexte with no support in front of him at transitions. Consequently, he is slightly more cautious in his attacking play.

The central defensive pairing is Martinez and Amorebieta. Typically, Amorebieta will mark and Martinez will drop deeper to cover although this switches during games.

Unlike South America where 2 striker systems are still common, La Liga witnesses the domination of the 4-2-3-1 formation. With a single striker, the Bielsa system needs two central defenders therefore the back four is utilised. This can, and does, change during games but the back four is the default position.

Iturraspe sits deepest in midfield and is pivotal to Athletic, moving vertically between defence and midfield to destroy and create as the situation requires. The defence becomes a three when he drops deep and the midfield becomes a trio when he pushes forward. Against Man Utd, he was always close to Rooney, neutralising his overall impact on the game yet Man Utd and Rooney failed to close Iturraspe down and permitted him time and space to construct attacks.

Bielsa favours a midfield with a sitter (Iturraspe), playmaker (Herrara) and runner (De Marcos). Nominally the playmaker in midfield, Herrara shares these duties with Muniain. Similar to Chile, there is no single No10. De Marcos is the runner, breaking forward at pace to support the strikers and linking well with Susaeta and Iraola on the right.

Llorente is the central striker flanked by Muniain and Susaeta and supported by the runners from the second line.

Athletic have adopted a patient build up, happy to play laterally initially as they seek solutions to their opponents game plan. Amorebieta and Martinez are comfortable bringing the ball forward but equally, will look for Llorente or the wingers with long diagonals. This variety in developing play aids Athletic considerably. As they approach their opponents third, the pace visibly increases as they play 1-2’s and look for runners from the second line.

The role of Llorente here is key as a target man shielding the ball and providing knock downs and lay offs to the runners. A developing role and appreciation of the system allows Llorente to differentiate between holding possession when required and dispatching quickly as the circumstances dictate. The long ball and immediate knock down / pass, although still occurring in the right circumstances, has declined starkly.

Athletic often seek to overload an opponent predominantly on their right flank. Susaeta is supported by Iraola and De Marcos. With Susaeta wide, both Iraola and De Marcos have the option of moving diagonally infield. This season, 41% of Athletic’s attacks have originated on the right flank.

Athletic Attacking Down The Right

Llorente moves towards the edge of the box, acting as a focal point for passes. Assuming he receives the ball then Susaeta moves down the touchline, drawing the full back out. As Susaeta does this, it creates the space for Iraola to drive in diagonally and either he or De Marcos can receive the ball from Llorente. Muniain, meanwhile, is drifting across, adopting a more central position and ready to receive a pass.

Athletic still retain a direct element to their play, crossing the ball and hitting long passes with an average of 23 crosses and 62 long passes per game (almost identical to last season’s statistics). One of the most noticeable characteristics about the changing direction under Bielsa is the number of short passes they play, increasing by 25% from last season. Under Caparros, Athletic were one dimensional, hitting long balls towards Llorente or Torquero favouring a 1-2-3 approach from Iraizoz to Llorente. Now, they play on average 420 short passes per game. This has aided them enormously in terms of retaining possession.

They now enjoy much more possession in each game, averaging 58% per game in La Liga compared to just 47% last season. Possession does not automatically equate to control of a game however. It is possible to control a game without possession of the ball. A fine example in a UK context was the recent performance of Newcastle away to Swansea. Swansea average 58% possession per game, making around 590 passes in the process. Newcastle were never going to compete for an equal share of possession, focussing instead on retaining shape and defending deep. Despite not having much possession, Newcastle controlled the game by controlling the space, scoring from two counter attacks and winning comfortably. There is a lesson for Athletic here.

Athletic average 58% possession per game (the third highest in La Liga behind the big two) and their pass completion rate is 79%. They retain their shape when pressing far better than Chile and avoid hunting in packs high up the pitch.

Their discipline when pressing has prevented them falling into the same trap as Chile – conceeding cheap fouls and picking up needless yellow cards. Athletic concede far fewer fouls compared to Chile who were prone to being caught too high and committed a number of cynical fouls to allow the team to regroup. Athletic have avoided this. They have a relatively low figure of just 15 fouls conceded per game.

In the defensive phase of the game Llorente splits the centre backs and closes them down whilst the wingers Susaeta and Muniain close down the full backs, supported by either De Marcos or Herrara respectively.  When the opponent switches play, say from their left flank to their right flank, this is the moment when Susaeta drops back into position and Muniain advances to close down his opponent.

Both Susaeta and Muniain track back consistently to win the ball. Indeed, one of the defining moments for Athletic this season has been witnessing Muniain in a sort of perpetual motion shuttling back and forth on the left wing with short, sharp sprints as he presses opponents. For a precocious attacking talent, his workrate is phenomenal.

One of the central defenders marks the opposition striker whilst the spare defender sweeps. Iturraspe will stay in midfield or drop into defence, again in response to the opposition’s attacking set up.

Bielsa has married the best of the Athletic ways with his own philosophy. The direct, vertical nature at an increased tempo with constant movement and sharp exchanges of passes.

“We always go out to attack our opponents and go for victory,” Bielsa said. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but we won’t alter the style of play we have.”

One of the reasons why it sometimes does not work, is the weaknesses within the system which opponents can take advantage of.

Weaknesses

Similar to Chile, Athletic are vulnerable to the counter attack and specifically in two areas.

There is space behind both full backs, especially Iraola who attacks much more than Autenexte. This can be exploited by long diagonals in behind the full backs which pulls the centre backs wide. Javi Martinez does not enjoy moving wide at all and is weak when forced to turn quickly.

Athletic - Weak Defensively on the Flanks at Transitions


The space behind both Iraola, and to a lesser extent, Autenexte can be seen above.

Some opponents have sought to attack in this area with quick kick outs from the goalkeeper. PSG attempted it in the Europa League group phase match and on occasion last night, Patricio in the Sporting goal also looked for his wingers, usually Diego Capel. The problem for opponents is when they get pushed back too far, the team takes longer as a unit to move back upfield and Athletic can regroup.

Secondly, when Athletic press, both Herrara and De Marcos push very high supporting the attack to provide opportunities for combination play and provide options from the second line. This leaves Iturraspe with two choices. He can stay close to the centre backs and leave space in front of himself or he can push further forward and leave space behind him. Either way, the central area can also be exposed in a quick counter attack by a clever opponent.

Athletic typically have 12 shots at goal per game yet opponents have 15 shots per game. Athletic need to adjust slightly to close off the defensive weakness within their game without negating their attacking impetus. It’s an extremely difficult balancing attack to achieve.

Due to the incessant attacking under Bielsa, games sometimes flow end to end which makes for enthralling viewing for the neutral but which demonstrates the lack of control Athletic have over proceedings. Defensively, they sometimes appear chaotic as players recover and move back into position whilst also attempting to press the opponent.

The key for Athletic is taking the next step – channel the possession into a more controlled and measured approach and then create and convert chances.

Cup Team?

Perhaps unfairly, although to a degree understandable at the time, Athletic have been written off as a cup team this season.

At what point do you stop being labelled a cup team? Is it after qualification for a national cup final or qualification to a European final? Or is it both? Surely Athletic must now be recognised for what they are? A very good team.

Athletic now sit 6th in La Liga just 4 points behind Malaga who occupy the fourth and final Champions League qualification place. With 4 games remaining, they retain an outside chance of securing a Champions League position especially in a season when no side has taken a secure hold over 3rd or 4th place. Valencia appear to be imploding in the death throes of the Unai Emery era whilst neither Malaga or Levante seem to have the stamina to make it over the finishing line. Achieve league consistency for the final few games and the Champions League place could be yours.

The cup team specialist tag appeared to surface for two reasons:- the physical demands of the system and their small squad.

Athletic struggled to maintain their performance level in successive games, being unable to manage back to back victories for some time. The physical demands of the Bielsa system are too great and Athletic are susceptible to conceding late goals the critics claimed. They provided the “evidence”. Real Betis scored in the 90th minute to win 2-1, Sporting Lisbon scored twice in the last 15 minutes to win 2-1 in the Europa League first leg and Sporting Gijon equalised in the final minute to salvage a draw.

Yet this conveniently overlooks the late goals that Athletic themselves have scored this season e.g. Muniain against Man Utd, Muniain and De Marcos against Schalke, Llorente and De Marcos away to Granada and of course, the crucial goal by Llorente after 87 minutes against Sporting Lisbon which secured their place in the Europa League final.

Secondly, the poor run of form following the Man Utd victories led some to argue that the demands of the system were incompatible with a small squad. The drop in form coincided with an intensive period of games in February and March. As the pressure has eased and midweek fixtures reduced, Athletic’s form has picked up.

When operating with a pool of around 18 first team players, rotation becomes difficult and the drop in quality between a first choice like Llorente and a squad player such as Torqero is considerable. This is not to denigrate the qualities that Torqero brings to the squad but they differ considerably from Llorente and the drop in class is apparent.

Next Steps

So what now for Bielsa and Athletic?

A Copa del Rey final awaits against Barcelona and a Europa League final against Atletico. Leaving aside the potential trophies, the next step in the process is the arguably the most interesting, and from an Athletic perspective, vital, step.

How does Bielsa develop Athletic?

Bielsa’s team may not have had the same calibre of players as a side such as Man Utd, but with six players aged 22 years or under starting against United, they are a team which has the potential to develop.

If, and it’s a massive if, he can keep the likes of Llorente, Muniain, Susaeta etc together. Llorente has one season remaining on his contract. If he refuses to sign an extension, it seems inconceivable that the club would keep him and lose out on a sizeable transfer fee.

Thereafter, can la cantera continue to produce young players who can make the grade?

If Bielsa delivers silverware, it makes the job of retaining these key players easier. The Basque country enjoys more favourable taxation than elsewhere in Spain and Athletic are a wealthy club. The players would be financially secure staying at Athletic but is that the extent of their ambitions?

Off the pitch, the club will shortly move to the new San Mames and further investment is planned for the training academy at Lezama to support la cantera and the future stars of Athletic.

If the squad can be kept intact for one more season, with Athletic warding off the predators who are surely likely to tempt them in the summer with large transfer fees for key players, and if the understanding and acceptance of his system continues, could Athletic challenge for 3rd in La Liga?

Valencia are likely to be under new management and Malaga are still under development. With Sevilla and Atletico continuing to be inconsistent, the time is ripe for a team to establish themselves as the 3rd force in Spanish football.

Is it Athletic’s time?

When asked about his methods and idiosyncracies, Bielsa responded

“A man with new ideas is mad – until he succeeds”

With Athletic, el loco Bielsa can keep his name and succeed.

Welcome to the club

What was it WH Auden said again?

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone …

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

And they are mourning right now in Barcelona. But is it for a defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League semi final? Or is it because they fear Pep Guardiola will now walk away?

For the first time this season, Guardiola has indicated he will speak with both Tito Vilanova and Sandro Rosell in the next few days to clarify his future.

Coming off the back of defeats to Real Madrid, which has more or less confirmed Los Blancos as La Liga champions, and elimination at the hands of Chelsea in the Champions League, the future looks bleak. With his preference for 12 month rolling contracts, there is always a degree of speculation about his future each year. It has now been significantly intensified.

In light of these disappointments, will Guardiola overreact and make a rash decision?

I doubt it.

In his four years in charge of Barcelona, Guardiola has made very few rash decisions. It’s not a trend I see him starting now. Two seasons ago, Inter arrived at Camp Nou and put up the defensive shutters and left victorious in the tie. Barcelona came back stronger the following season, reclaiming the Champions League.

If he chooses to go now, it will be because he believes he has taken the team as far as he can and because he believes the hunger within the players is no longer there. It will not be a kneejerk reaction over the past week. These games may have confirmed his decision but they will not be the only factors. There is also the strain and pressure of managing Barcelona and the effect this has upon him privately.

Guardiola is now coming to the end of his fourth season in charge. He has won a remarkable 13 competitions from 17 entered. Win the Copa del Rey in May and the tally moves to 14 wins in 18 competitions.

Remember the great Bela Guttmann and his advice? “the third season is fatal”.

Guardiola is beyond that but what more can he win and achieve with Barcelona?

The Champions League this season represented something of a holy grail. To become the first team in the modern day Champions League to win and defend the trophy. To replicate the magnificent achievement of the great AC Milan team under the stewardship of Arrigo Saachi, the last team to successfully defend the old European Cup.

Remember, Arrigo Saachi, arguably the last great tactical innovator only lasted 4 seasons in charge of his great AC Milan side before they burned out, consumed by his intensive training and the aggressive pressing style of play on the pitch.

Are we witnessing that with Barcelona?

There are certain key components of the team that have changed. Evolution is necessary of course and Guardiola has actively sought to improve the team’s tactics to overcome the obstacles opponents place in front of them.  However, certain key elements have altered and changed the dynamic of the team.

The intensive pressing to regain possession is still there but it has dropped down a notch. With Messi operating deeper, there are sometimes only two forward players doing the pressing and so it becomes easier for opponents to evade.

Opponents have more time on the ball in midfield which leads to more accurate forward passes. This is a real issue for a Barcelona side which attempts to compress the game by holding a high offside line.

A few seasons ago, Chelsea defeated Barcelona in a Champions League tie and Rijkaard and Henk Ten Cate discussed what Barcelona required to become champions of Europe. Surely we should go for more athletic types and move away from these small players? Wisely, and with assistance with Txiki Begiristain, Barcelona chose their current path. And with another elimination at the hands of a powerful, physical Chelsea, the questions over a Plan B will resurface again.

At this junction, irrespective of who manages Barcelona, the club must remain true to it’s style, remembering Cruyff and his influence and his belief in cherishing “style” over all else.

There have been defeats before and Barcelona has bounced back. There will be further defeats in the future.

When questioned after the game about what he would tell a child who has cried for Barcelona for the first time after the exit to Chelsea, Guardiola calmly responded “Welcome to the club. You will cry more times”

Barcelona vs Chelsea – 3 Short Observations

Three short observations on the Barcelona vs Chelsea game last night:-

Chelsea‘s Organisation

The two goals Barcelona scored both occurred when Chelsea lost their shape and Barcelona were able to exploit it.

Firstly, the corner kick which led to Busquets goal was cleared but too many Chelsea players lost their discipline and tried to charge Dani Alves when he collected the ball about thirty yards out. The ball was slipped to Cuenca and Barcelona were in behind Chelsea.

Secondly, following a Chelsea attack, the players did not retreat quickly enough and tried to press too high. Once Messi received the ball and broke through the midfield, he was able to run directly at the back four before playing in Iniesta for the goal.

Two moments in the game when Chelsea lost their organisation temporarily and were punished. However, it also demonstrated how difficult Barcelona were finding it to break down the Chelsea defence.

With a mass of bodies,Chelsea prevented Barcelona from going around them and made Barcelona attempt to play through them. Chelsea retained their shape even when down to 10 men with a back four and five in midfield, Drogba switched to playing as an auxiliary left back in the second half.

The discipline, organisation and workrate shown by Chelsea was very impressive and ultimately, very successful.

Why won’t Barcelona shoot?

As it says on the tin.

Barcelona very seldom shoot from about 25 yards, preferring to continue passing to create an opening. But when that opening does not arrive they need to shoot from distance more often. Mascherano had two shots from outside the penalty area and Messi shot from the edge of the area which struck the post after a slight touch from Cech.

Why does nobody want to shoot?

This was an area that I had assumed Fabregas would help resolve following his arrival from Arsenal. As the most attacking of the midfielders at the Gunners, Fabregas frequently shot at goal in and around the area.

When he joined Barcelona, Fabregas was criticised by some of the coaches for his direct style and there was talk of him bringing “anarchy” to the team due to his English “indiscipline”. Perhaps Barcelona could have used some of that anarchy last night.

Where is the Plan B?

In the second half especially (although somewhat understandable given that they were only playing with 10 men),Chelsea were camped around their own penalty area.Barcelona had 82% possession yet could not break them down.

Does it sound familiar?

Have the lessons from Inter not been learned? Do they need a Plan B?

True, Barcelona were only a refereeing decision away from knocking Inter out (Bojan perhaps unfairly penalised for handball before he scored) and last night had Messi not missed a penalty or Ivanovic blocked the shot from Iniesta, Barcelona would have progressed.

However, the similarities between before games in terms of Barcelona being faced by a wall and unable to break it down were abundantly clear.

There will be countless arguments now over why Barcelona need a Plan B. In typical tabloid fashion this will be the big target man i.e. Llorente.

Llorente may well add something to this Barcelona team but now is not the time for the club to panic.

Let’s place it in context.

Chelsea had 4 shots on target in 180 minutes of football and scored 3 times. That is quite remarkable. Over both games,Barcelona had 47 attempts at goal to Chelsea’s 11.

Do Barcelona actually need to change anything? Surely the statistics prove who the better team is?

But, in cliched football parlance, at the end of the day it is the result that matters.

Or is it?

A decent footballer once said “There is no greater prize than being acclaimed for your style”

And that is why Barcelona cannot and must not deviate from their current methods. They must remain true to the style of football installed by Cryuff and refined and improved under Guardiola.

When questioned after the game about what he would tell a child who has cried forBarcelonafor the first time after the exit to Chelsea, Guardiola calmly responded “Welcome to the club. You will cry more times”

el clasico: Tactical Analysis

And so the league title is almost certainly bound for Madrid after a fine 2-1 win at the Camp Nou. With recent clasico’s providing a fair dose of play acting, melee’s along with a very high degree of technical quality, this game was something of a disappointment, missing all of those ingredients which make them such gripping viewing.

It was tense and the crowd were subdued for much of the game. As were the technical areas. Mourinho stayed sitting for most of the game, he would have been extremely happy with how things panned out whereas Guardiola never showed any urgency towards his team.

After clawing back the deficit from 10 points to 4 points, perhaps he knew it was just too much and the team could not sustain the level of effort required any longer.

Barcelona

Guardiola is known for throwing a curveball in his selections and tactics for clasico’s but I doubt anyone saw his selection or formation in advance. Tello and Thiago starting with Pique, Fabregas, Sanchez, Pedro and Keita on the bench. Cuenca did not even make the squad.

A 4-3-3 when defending but switching to a 3-3-4 when in possession and moving forward. As I had suggested in the preview, Puyol initially tracked Ronaldo meaning Dani Alves started higher up the pitch on the right. On the opposite flank, Tello provided the width. Thiago operated at the base of midfield with Busquets moving between midfield and central defence as required.

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Real Madrid

Mourinho kept faith in the team which lost to Bayern and went with his usual 4-2-3-1 formation resisting the temptation to switch to a 4-3-3 and adopt a more conservative approach.

Real Madrid Starting Line Up

Madrid did not press as heavily or as coordinated as they have done in previous clasico encounters. The front four were pressing but nowhere near as aggressively and the remainder of the team were dropping off. This “false” pressing from Madrid was adversely affecting Barcelona though as they made a number of forced and unforced errors in their passing.

Have Busquets, Thiago and Iniesta ever made so many incomplete passes in the same game?

This was a game that Barcelona had to win to keep alive their hopes of winning the title. The onus was on Barcelona to take the initiative whereas Madrid would have been content with a draw. As such, all of the interesting features arise from a Barcelona perspective.

Nothing that Madrid did was unexpected or unusual. They did their jobs very well with discipline, organisation and a high workrate.

Lack of Central Focus

With Messi dropping deep and Tello and Alves wide, there was no player to occupy the Madrid central defensive pairing of Pepe and Ramos. Subsequently, when Messi took possession and tried to run with the ball, he was easily crowded out centrally.

Barcelona enjoyed 78% possession but much of it was in a central area and in front of the Madrid backline. Busquets, Thaigo, Xavi and Iniesta were all central and only on a few occasions did anyone break further forward ahead of the ball offering a passing opportunity into the Madrid penalty area and pulling the Madrid defence. Too often the passes were across the pitch.

Barcelona needed much more vertical movement from their players and in this respect the late arrival of the subs was very surprising.

How much has Barcelona missed not only the goalscoring of both Pedro and Villa this season, but the movement and finishing that they offer?

Alves Starting Position

Dani Alves played the entire game as a right winger and had little impact on proceedings.

The strength of Alves is when he breaks from deep and at pace, attacking the opposition full back and also providing an overlapping outlet for Barcelona and linking with his team mate higher up the pitch e.g. his link play with Messi previously and now with Sanchez.

On his own and from a standing start, he is not going to beat his opponent so Barcelona were left with Alves on the right, either failing to get around Coentrao or turning back inside.

There were also a number of occasions in the first half when Alves received the ball wide right and no Barcelona player was near him. Each time, Alves was forced to turn back infield. If Sanchez or Pedro had received that pass, Alves would have been overlapping and providing an outlet.

Removal of Xavi

Barcelona have played a slightly more direct fashion at times this season due to two key factors.

1. Sanchez and Fabregas are willing to make more vertical runs, particularly Sanchez coming from out to in and off the shoulder of the deepest defender. As a consequence, Barcelona will look for both players more often and play slightly riskier passes as a result.

2. Xavi has missed some games due to injury. With Xavi, no other player in the Barcelona squad can fulfill the same role. Without his controlling and measured approach, the other midfielders will play more direct passes.

The removal of Xavi after 68 minutes has been misinterpreted in some quarters. Xavi has been struggling with an Achilles injury for some time. He is also severely fatigued now. This has implications not just for Barcelona but also for Spain at the Euro’s.

Also, that Messi was more effective, making the run which led to the goal after Xavi was removed, has also been misinterpreted. The removal of Xavi and the run from Messi are not related. The introduction of Sanchez was key. He occupied Madrid’s central defenders and pulled Pepe wider when Messi broke allowing him enough space to drive towards the Madrid penalty area. The goal resulted after a few deflections.

Focus on the Champions League?

Mourinho went with his strongest eleven. It was clear were his priority lay.

For Guardiola it is not that straightforward. Tello made only his third senior start and Thiago at the base of midfield was also unusual. Why not Keita who provides a stronger presence? Why does Pique remain on the bench?

Fabregas and Sanchez were clearly being rested ahead of the Chelsea game.

It’s an extremely risky strategy which could backfire if Chelsea manage to emerge from Tuesday night with a positive result.

Conclusions

In the clasico preview here, I listed 5 key factors which I considered would have an influence on the game.

Will fatigue be a factor?

Madrid surprisingly kept the same eleven who had started the game against Bayern and the team performed well including Di Maria who put in a considerable defensive effort. If anything, it was Barcelona and Xavi especially who looked tired.

Will Madrid press?

Yes, for the first 25 minutes or so they pressed and held a relatively high defensive line. At 1-0 up, they dropped deeper and looked for quick counters.

Will Madrid continue to be so direct?

Madrid continued their recent direct approach both in terms of hitting some longer passing and also by moving directly towards their opponents goal when they won the ball. Barcelona are always much more considered when the regain possession.

Ronaldo’s role

Ronaldo did his share of defence duties and also scored the winning goal. All in all, a very successful night for him.

Barcelona will dominate possession.

And they did with 78% to Madrid’s 22% but as at Stamford Bridge, the possession was in a comfortable zone for their opponent. Barcelona passed and passed in front of the Madrid backline.

How can Barcelona retain width?

The use of Tello and Alves high and wide failed. Tello in only his 3rd start showed glimpses of his pace but against a deep backline, he could produce little. Alves, as outlined above, is not a winger.

el clasico: Tactical Preview

The sixth, and hopefully penultimate, clasico of the season takes place on Saturday night. According to conventional wisdom, this is the game which will see Madrid’s 4 point lead over Barcelona fall to a solitary point. After this, Barcelona’s remaining games are mere formalities whilst Madrid still have to entertain an inconsistent Sevilla side before going to Bilbao where Bielsa, one of the biggest influences over Guardiola’s career, lies in wait, ready to sabotage Madrid’s title bid.

If that sounds overly dramatic, it’s because it probably is. The popular belief is that Real Madrid will roll into the Camp Nou on Saturday night before rolling over. I simply don’t see it that way.

Proponents of this view will point to Mourinho enjoying just 1 win in 10 as Madrid manager against Barcelona (and that was a win in extra time too they shout). True, but the raw statistics hide much of the story particularly in recent encounters.

From the five games played so far this season, a great deal can be gleaned particularly how the gap between the two sides is narrowing all the time. This is most definitely not the same Real Madrid side who turned up at the Camp Nou on a cold November night in 2010, attempted to go toe to toe with Barcelona and were duly thumped 5-0. Not only have a few of the personnel changed but the mentality of the side has changed also with a further 18 months under the tutelage of Mourinho.

The Story So Far

Despite the 1 win in 10 games stat which crops up time and time again, it overlooks the fine lines which now exist between the sides. There have been 3 Barcelona wins and 2 draws in the meeings so far this season. Madrid arguably produced their best performance against Barcelona under Mourinho in the 2-2 Copa del Rey game when they came from 2-0 down and in all probability, should have won the game had it not been for some profligate finishing.

Real Madrid have adopted a much more attacking mentality in the games this season especially in the aforementioned 2-2 draw at Camp Nou when a number of the Madrid players were keen to play as they normally do. This change in mentality stretches back to a clasico in 2011 when Ronaldo disobeyed Mourinho’s instructions and attempted to press and attack Barcelona before complaining bitterly about the team strategy afterwards. Ronaldo was subsequently “rested” for the following game but the issue of whether to defend or attack Barcelona resurfaced again this season. Following internal “discussion” Madrid have been much more pro-active against their rivals.

Given the various tweaks and changes which have happened in their meetings thus far, not to mention the huge number of possible permutations in line ups etc, it is both difficult and a little foolish to try and predict the line ups and overall strategy ahead of Saturday.

That is something which I will try to do however.

The Champions League

It was never meant to be like this.

Both Real Madrid and Barcelona losing the opening leg of their respective semi finals? Both delivering sluggish performances when it looked obvious that they were playing within themselves, holding back, not going flat out. Distracted by the impending clasico? Probably.

How will both sides handle the demands of the clasico sandwiched in between the two legs of a Champions League semi final?

Some players will clearly be able to play all three games in a row e.g. Ronaldo, Messi, Pepe, Busquets etc. But what about key players who are more susceptible to injury or are just returning from injury? Can Di Maria play this Saturday and manage his third game in a week? Can Puyol handle three successive games at the age of 34?

Similarly, Alonso continues to look tired. Stats have shown the number of passes he is attempting is dropping and his pass completion rate is also dropping. However, Madrid have been playing a much more direct style lately. Hitting longer and riskier passes adversely affects statistics but can reap rewards by creating more goalscoring chances.

Has the change in Madrid’s style been partly due to Alonso’s fatigue?

It is inconceivable that the exact same eleven from both sides will play these three games therefore some changes from the first leg of the Champions League tie is likely on both sides.

Neither side is assured of qualification for the final of the Champions League. No matter how much they deny it, Guardiola and Mourinho will now be glancing ahead to their respective second legs and how to maximise their team for both games.

Real Madrid

The key issue facing Mourinho on Saturday is whether he sticks or twists.

Does he go for his normal 4-2-3-1 formation or does change to a more defensive minded 4-3-3 line up?

The 4-2-3-1 lets Madrid press high and allows Busquets to be marked, preventing him from having time and space. The problem though is that it allows Messi space further up the pitch and requires Khedira and Alonso to work very hard.

The defence more or less takes care of itself. The only decision will be whether Mourinho selects the attack minded Marcelo or the more conservative and defensively solid Coentrao. Given the better attacking relationship with Ronaldo and the need to push Dani Alves back, Marcelo seems more likely to start albeit he has been at fault for goals in recent clasico’s as Guardiola pinpoint ‘s him as a weakness. Coentrao was poor against Bayern but he received no defensive cover from Ronaldo.

How can Mourinho maximise Ronaldo’s attacking ability and release him from defensive duties?

In attack Ronaldo will start. The rest appears up for grabs depending upon how they react from the game on Tuesday night.

Due to his defensive cover and workrate, Di Maria would most likely start but could he manage three games in a week after returning from injury?

Similarly, Benzema played the majority of the game on Tuesday night and links well with Ronaldo however Mourinho favours swift breaks particularly against Barcleona therefore the pace of Higuain, only making a brief substitute appearance against Bayern, is much more useful.

The central decision is then whether Mourinho chooses Ozil, who has contributed little in previous clasico’s, and permits him to drift from side to side, looking to exploit gaps in the Barcelona backline or should an additional defensive minded midfielder be selected to strengthen the central area and sit alongside Alonso and Khedira?

Nuri Sahin has made several appearances lately. He could feature in the central area. Does he have the fitness levels to operate fully at such a high level however? Similar concerns exist over Diarra, who has seldom featured recently. In clichéd football parlance, it’s a big ask expecting either to step straight into the team for such a massive game

This leaves Granero. Would Mourinho consider borrowing from the Unai Emery school of tactics and play Granero deeper than normal to help ball retention? Emery successfully played Parejo deep against Madrid in the recent 0-0 draw.

Barcelona need to win the game whilst Madrid can accept a draw thereby maintaining their 4 point lead. A draw grants Madrid the safety net of one further slip up in the league campaign. Mourinho is first and foremost, a conservative coach. For these reasons and as detailed above, I believe that Madrid will go with a 4-3-3.

I think Mourinho will play Coentrao centrally allowing him to double up with Marcelo when required and letting Ronaldo focus entirely upon the attacking aspects of his game, staying high up the pitch. This will require Coentrao to shuttle from the centre to the left frequently but he has the fitness to do this. It prevents Alves from pushing forward.

Madrid to line up as shown below:-

 

Real Madrid Predicted Starting Line Up

Barcelona

Guardiola has utilised so many variations in his formations this season from the basic 4-3-3 to the highly attack orientated 3-3-4 against Getafe recently that a number of subtle system changes during the match are inevitable.

The performances of Ronaldo in the clasico’s has not been at the same level as in other key games for Madrid although he has scored 3 goals in the last 4 games. One possible reason for this has been the performance of Puyol when played directly against him.

With Abidal missing, will Puyol start at full back to match up to Ronaldo?

Will Barcelona go with a 3 man defence of Puyol, Mascherano and Pique and allow Alves to push further upfield? Part of the success of Alves is his ability to drive forward from deep positions. Starting him higher up the pitch removes this element but it hinders the Madrid left from supporting Ronaldo.

The midfield selects itself. Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta should all start in their normal positions. The ability of Busquets constructing moves is essential if Barcelona are to function properly. If Madrid adopt a 4-3-3, Busquets is likely to get time and space on the ball.

Which brings us to the attack. It seems safe to assume that Messi will begin as a false 9 but with license to roam possibly dropping deep or to the right.

Sanchez has demonstrated his worth to Barcelona already this season and has performed well against Madrid. His starting berth seems assured on the right and cutting inward to a central position playing off the shoulder of Ramos.

This leaves the vacant position on the left of the attack. Pedro has returned to full fitness and is showing glimpses of rediscovering last season’s form. He is fast, direct and prepared to undertake defensive duties also. The alternative wildcard, as such, could be the inclusion of Cuenca. He would stretch the Madrid defence and offers genuine width.

I think Barcelona will begin with a 4-3-3 which is capable of changing to a 3-4-3 with Dani Alves pushing further upfield. Puyol to start as a notional left back but to mark Ronaldo and the defence to switch to a back three as and when required. If Puyol follows Ronaldo across the pitch, Alves can stay high. Pedro starts on the left and with Alves pushing further on, Sanchez starts wide right and cut inward.

Defensively, the Barcelona left will be less concerned if Di Maria starts on the right due to his tendency to drift inward and Arbeloa is not the most attack minded full back. We could up end with a lop sided game, all of the attacking potential on the one side of the pitch.

Barcelona line up:-

Barcelona Predicted Starting Line Up

 

The Key Issues

There are countless issues surrounding this game. I have listed below a few issues which I believe are central to the outcome of the game.

Will fatigue be a factor?

Both sides face three massive games in a 7/8 day period. Rotation will be necessary and key players may not play the whole game. How will this affect the teams? Will both field their strongest line up or will changes be enforced?

Will Madrid press?

In the last few clasico’s, Madrid have pressed very aggressively early on but have been unable, understandably given the demands of it, to maintain this for the full duration of the game. They have looked tired lately. Do they want to press, can they press and for how long?

Will Madrid continue to be so direct?

Madrid have become increasingly direct recently, bypassing any build up play and adopting a “get the ball to Ronaldo” strategy. With a front 3, Madrid are likely to be just as direct. The role of Alonso and his passing range becomes particularly important here.

Ronaldo’s role

Does Ronaldo track back to offer support for his full back? Or does he remain further forward, occupying Dani Alves and conserving energy for sprints onto through passes? Or should Madrid play Coentrao and Marcelo to free Ronaldo?

Barcelona will dominate possession.

It’s what Barcelona want to do and it’s not something that will unduly concern Madrid as they counter attack so effectively. Will Madrid concede possession freely and retain shape at all costs a la Inter? Will Madrid adopt a 7-3 split in their team?

How can Barcelona retain width?

Barcelona have struggled against opponents when they have lacked width. The temptation to use Fabregas, Messi and Sanchez to gain further control of the game comes at a price – a narrow approach. With Pedro struggling for form, could there be a place for Cuenca in the starting eleven?

 

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