Celtic vs Barcelona

We seen this film before, haven’t we?

We know every single exact little detail. The script has been written then read and re-read time and time again. Barcelona come up against a team who are very defensive, hold a line at the edge of the penalty area, congest the centre, counter attack and they struggle to break the opponent down.

“We did what we needed to do in these types of games, we’ve seen this on other occasions”

Vilanova

There are lies, damned lies and statistics – Barcelona “enjoyed” 84% possession, 91% pass completion, 25 shot at goal and 8 shots on target. Final score Celtic 2 Barcelona 1. Vilanova’s assessment is correct.

To the names of Inter and Chelsea, Celtic can now be added. The only consolation for Vilanova and his players is that this defeat has arisen in the group stage and not later on in the competition. There is time left to address the issues which this game has raised.

To Be Direct or Not Be Direct – Pass, Pass, Pass

There is a general view that Barcelona has become slightly more direct this season under Vilanova with the dichotomy of Xavi or Cesc being the crux of this issue.

Xavi guarantees game control via ball retention whereas Cesc, his style of play greatly influenced by both La Masia and the Premiership, plays further forward with less emphasis upon control and a focus upon creating more goal scoring opportunities.

Is it a straight choice between the styles? Which style is best?

Last night, Barcelona produced their least direct performance of the season and in doing so overwhelmingly dominated possession enjoying 84%. Their hosts, Celtic, set a new Champions League record for winning a game with the least amount of possession standing at just 16%.

As is so often the case, Barcelona continually passed the ball but against such a deep lying defence and midfield, they found openings extremely difficult to create.

A further problem for Barcelona was their lack of presence within the penalty area. There was no central focal point.

The lack of a reference point in attack is exacerbated when the players play cross balls into the box. Alves made 18 crosses into the penalty area whilst Alba made just 5. This highlighted the reliance upon the right-wing for attacking by Barcelona. Alves was also the third highest passer in the team with 122 attempted passes (93% completion rate).

The reason for this is probably due to Messi moving to the right as the game progressed to find space. From there however, Messi frequently moved inward towards the congestion.

Barcelona only made two through balls in the entire game, both from Messi. If he drops deep, somebody has to move into a central position but until Villa and Cesc arrived, this was not really happening. Sanchez tried this, but he lacks confidence at the moment and is off form.

Celtic Approach

As highlighted, the problem for Barcelona was that Celtic were so deep that there was no space behind their defence to run. All the play occurred in front of Celtic who held the defensive line around the edge of the penalty area with the midfield sitting just ahead.

Having said that, Samaras remained high up the field and was supported by Miku who dropped to the left when Celtic lost possession. Celtic were defensive, but they were also forced back but attempted to retain an attacking dimension to their game.

Both full backs and wide midfielders tucked in narrowly too, moving towards their respective opponents in wide positions when the ball was played there. Pedro, Alves and Alba were positioned very wide and always had space until they received the ball.

Barcelona needed to draw Celtic forward but instead suffocated them which ultimately hindered Barcelona. The first goal in this contest would prove to be pivotal.

Critics of the zonal marking system will attack Barcelona’s concession of the opening goal. This ignores two key points.

Firstly, the delivery of the corner kick from Mulgrew was excellent. The ball was whipped in with pace. Secondly, Wanyama attacked the ball from just beyond the back post. Given the lack of height in the Barcelona team, who would have man marked Wanyama and then would they have been able to prevent him scoring? The first goal was simply Celtic using their superior physical strength over the Barcelona team. Sometimes, good goals should just be enjoyed rather than seeking defensive inadequacies.

With the opening goal going to Celtic, the rest of the game became more straightforward from a tactical perspective, and almost like a training game. Celtic simply asked Barcelona the question, can you break us down?

Despite the superiority of possession, Barcelona were unable to do so until they trailed by two goals.

Celtic were never going to compete with Barcelona in terms of possession so they attempted to control space and did so extremely effectively. Wanyama was central to Celtic’s performance. Despite making just 16 passes, he made 6 tackles and performed an essential job in the heart of midfield, closing down and disrupting the likes of Xavi. His performances will not go unnoticed either and it seems likely he will depart Celtic Park shortly for a higher profile league.

Without sounding clichéd, the Celtic players displayed the sort of characteristics which the British game is well known for. This was a performance of character, determination and strength. But add to the mix the mental qualities to complement the physical attributes. A high degree of intelligence and discipline was shown as Celtic conceded just 11 fouls.

The second goal was a simple kick out from Forster which inexplicably evaded Xavi when he had a fresh air swipe at the ball allowing it to run through to Watt who finished with aplomb.

How Important is Busquets?

Was the defining moment of this game actually the dismissal of Busquets in the 88th minute against Benfica?

The subsequent two match ban saw him miss both games against Celtic

It’s widely accepted that Messi is central to the functioning of this Barcelona team. Xavi and Iniesta are essential components too.

Why does nobody ever highlight just how effective Busquets is? Yet how can a defensive midfielder be so central to the team?

Busquets contributes defensively and offensively from his deep midfield position. His positional sense enables team mates to find him when in trouble and keep play flowing whilst his quick one touch passing allows him to recycle possession quickly. Song is adapting to life at the Camp Nou but he’s not yet at the level Barcelona require. That much was evident tonight when he somehow evaded a second yellow card and remained on the pitch for a few additional moments before Vilanova withdrew him.

Song is given a fairly restricted role in the side. He switched places with Mascherano to allow the Argentinean to bring the ball out of defence but Song so far has not pushed forward to offer anything resembling his Arsenal form in an attacking sense.

The statistics suggest that Song performed well with a 95% completion rate from his 62 attempted passes. Song also played six long balls, all of which were accurate. This was a key aspect of his play whilst at Arsenal and he should have used this more often last night. Too often the long balls were lateral rather than vertical. The real cause for concern though is the concession of three fouls.

Xavi never broke forward into the penalty area and Iniesta was also very conservative. Was this due to having Song behind them? Were there concerns over the lack of security Song offers compared to Busquets?

 

The win should secure Celtic’s place in the knockout stages which probably surpasses their initial expectations in the group.

This game will give renewed hope to those teams who advocate adopting an ultra defensive approach against the Catalans but it must be remembered that when such a gameplan succeeds, it is the exception and not the rule.

Barcelona will still qualify as group winners for the knockout stage but it’s a timely reminder to Vilanova that when teams “park the bus” Barcelona are vulnerable especially when too many of their players have a drop in their level of performance.

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4 Responses to Celtic vs Barcelona

  1. dave says:

    Top review, some good points.

  2. kaneprior says:

    I would have liked to have seen xavi start in deep midfield with busquets missing. His stable passing would have helped keep possession and he is an underrated tackler. I would then have liked to have seen song higher up, making vertical runs up the pitch, it could have given barca a surprise element.

    • Rajesh says:

      Thats an excellent point. Xavi as a holder and Song playing higher would have made Iniesta more comfortable to do his thing higher up, linking with Messi. Though most people are not impressed by Song, I think in many games he has shown flashes of brilliance in his short passing. He just needs more time.

  3. I agree that Xavi deeper could have been useful even if only to develop play further down the pitch and draw Celtic forward.

    FCB need to develop a plan for when teams park the bus and they cannot make the breakthrough. It may only happen once or twice a season but it normally does so in key games.

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