January 14, 2013 Leave a comment
Malaga and Barcelona clashed at La Rosaleda last night in the first of three games in ten days for the clubs with the sides meeting in the forthcoming Copa del Rey tie.
The first blow in this triple header went to Barcelona. Given the display that Barcelona produced, few would now bet against a clean sweep of three successive victories against the Andalusian’s.
There were two changes to the Malaga side following their 1-0 loss away to Deportivo. Jesus Gamez was replaced by Sergio Sanchez at right back and the defensive midfielder Jeremy Toulalan came in for the more offensive Portillo in midfield.
Pellegrini chose to use a double pivot in midfield to try and compete against Barcelona.
There was just one change to the Barcelona side that had dispatched Espanyol so convincingly last week with Mascherano replacing Puyol in central defence.
Iniesta continued in the attacking left hand position with Cesc accommodated in midfield.
The Malaga Approach
The Chilean was quite clear pre-match what he expected from his side and they tackled the challenge with the style we have come to expect from a Pellegrini side with a twist. With Roque Santa Cruz as the central striker, Malaga had a physical reference point in attack who could be used to hold the ball up and win aerial battles.
It worked to a degree. Santa Cruz won a number of headers and was able to retain a presence in attack but his skills were diminished when he moved wide lacking the pace and mobility of a Saviola.
Furthermore, he never managed a header in the opposition box. He was operating deep and looking to find Joaquin and Isco from flick-ons. Isco had one of his quietest games of the season whilst Joaquin offered a number of surging runs but lacked quality in the final third.
The remainder of the Malaga team had a familiar look to it. Although employing a double pivot of Toulalan and Camacho, the home side still maintained their customary short passing game.
During the defensive phase, the side dropped back to a 4-4-1-1 with Santa Cruz left upfield and supported by Isco. Joaquin was always prepared to join them. The remaining seven players performed the defensive function. By leaving players in attack, Malaga prevented Barcelona from becoming encamped in their half of the pitch, always weary to the threat posed by los bocquernos.
The effort required to sustain a challenge against Barcelona inevitably took it’s toll and tiredness set in enabling Barcelona to dominate much of the second half.
The Midfield Battle
The game opened with both sides seeking to impose their style on the opposition. Both teams were pressing the opposition goalkeeper when in position forcing long kick outs. With the quality on both sides, winning the midfield battle would be key. Early on Malaga competed well and forced Barcelona back. It is unusual to see a Barcelona side defend with the entire team back but that occurred during the first half.
The diagram below shows the average positions for the players with Malaga in blue and Barcelona in red:-
The Malaga players are clustered vertically whilst the Barcelona midfield and full backs are positioned horizontally. With Messi drifting laterally in front it creates ideal passing triangles.
The position of Dani Alves is extremely high, almost level with Pedro. Iniesta and Cesc are side by side, ready to swap places as the situation develops.
Sanchez was often isolated at right back with Joaquin further forward and cutting inward. Such a move simply aided Barcelona’s left.
Left, Left, Left
Against Espanyol, the interplay and positional changing of Iniesta and Cesc was a key component of the victory. These players linked yet again against Malaga to provide Barcelona with an alternative to the reliance upon the right side of the team where Pedro, Messi, primarily, and Alves operate.
The above heat map shows the tendency for attacks entering the penalty area to be on the left hand side. It’s a theme that has been developing recently and only looks like increasing further through the combination play of Iniesta, Cesc and Alba.
The lack of penetration on the right is heightened by the tendency for Pedro to drive diagonally inward and act as a No9 when required. It leaves Dani Alves alone to patrol the right flank.
Iniesta has previously spoken of not fully enjoying the wide left role but there is now a major difference with the interchanging:-
“Playing at different position? Main thing is you feel good. We try to switch positions, the team does well, that’s what matters.”
With the game finely balanced although Barcelona were enjoying more possession, the opening goal would be pivotal. That it arose via a defensive blunder considering the quality on offer was a surprise. Camacho hit a back pass to Cabellero failing to see that Messi was some way behind the Malaga defence. The forward was able to intercept the pass and round Cabellero before slotting home.
Fabregas scored shortly after half time. As with all Pellegrini teams, Malaga hold a well organised defensive line and attempt to stay relatively high rather than falling back. This time however, Weligton dropped deeper than his team mates and Fabregas was able to run in behind Sanchez for the second goal. The real moment of genius here though was the chipped pass from Messi, weighted perfectly for Fabregas to run onto.
The goal was further evidence of the positional changes which Barcelona can now utilise. Iniesta was supposedly on the wide attacking left position, but at the goal he was in a central position and Cesc Fabregas was wide on the left. The constant movement and interplay making it increasingly difficult for opponents to successfully defend. This level of understanding comes to fruition after a considerable time period. It’s not easily learned.
The second goal killed the game to a certain extent. Barcelona dominated possession and Malaga only offered minimal threat sporadically, both teams sensing that the contest was over. It led to a situation of less pressure for Barcelona and some fantastic midfield passing movements helped by their horizontal positioning noted above.
Barcelona has now gone nine games home and away without defeat against Malaga with Messi scoring ten goals in his last ten games against los bocquernos.
Buonanotte scored a consolation goal, a lovely free kick curled over the defensive wall. It was a deserved goal considering their efforts.
Malaga suffer back to back league defeats and, more importantly, become caught up in a battle to secure the final Champions League berth. Whilst the loss was disappointing, Dimechelis was quick to recognise the superiority of Barcelona:-
“Honestly, in the second half Barcelona made me want to applaud them.”
An unprecedented league campaign for Barcelona thus far. Eighteen wins and a solitary draw in their nineteen matches to date. Vilanova has already acknowledged that a repeat of such form in the second half of the season is unlikely but given their recent form, could Barcelona at least remain unbeaten for the duration of the season?