The Rain in Spain

Ronaldo and Navarro Challenge for the Ball                                          http://www.Realmadrid.com

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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.

Real Madrid vs Dortmund

An excellent and hard fought 2-2 draw was played out at Santiago Bernabeu between the reigning Spanish and German Champions. This was the much clichéd game of two half’s with Dortmund being in the ascendency during the opening period of the game before Madrid took control and completely dominated the second half.

The game started at a very high tempo particularly by Madrid who made a number of early attempts to get in behind the high Dortmund defence with long diagonal passes. When the game began to settle down around the 10th minute, a number of issues were becoming more prevalent.

Real Madrid Defence

Dortmund were using Lewandowski as a central target to play off, exploiting the space between the Madrid defence and midfield on fast transitions. Twice in the opening stages, Dortmund moved down their left on quick breaks with Casillas saving from Schmelzer in the 8th minute

It was notable how Di Maria temporarily adopted a slightly deeper defensive position on the right, aware of the problems which Ramos was encountering in the right back position.

Without Khedira alongside him, Alonso was being pressed and playing slightly higher providing the gap between defence and midfield which Dortmund were aiming to exploit with forward running from the midfield area.

The opening goal was an example of confusion in the Madrid defence and space behind the full backs.

Following a period of possession by Dortmund, the ball was moved backwards before a long ball was aimed towards Lewandowski who had pulled onto Varane. Pepe moved from left centre back to challenge but lost out to the Pole who flicked the ball onto the forward moving Reus who had ran off Arbeloa. Had Pepe not moved across, he would have been in position to challenge Reus.

The second Dortmund goal again exploited space behind the full back, this occasion it was on the left and behind Ramos. Again, a long ball was won in the air by Lewandowski and Grosskreutz moved into space behind Ramos before passing through to Gotze. Arbeloa unfortunately made the final touch, prodding the ball beyond Casillas.

By contrast, Dortmund were holding a high line with the midfield sitting just in front, preventing any space from developing between the lines and reducing the impact of Ozil. With coordinated pressing when Madrid reached the halfway line, the defence could push high. Madrid contributed to their own downfall by becoming too vertical and playing too many forward passes.

The one significant defensive error which Dortmund committed in the first half enabled Pepe to score the first equalising goal. The Germans failing to clear a corner adequately and Pepe powerfully headed home from the second cross.

Tempo

The fast tempo of the game with the emphasis on transitions suited Dortmund who were able to press Madrid aggressively and play on the counter attack. Dortmund are well known for playing a high energy style of football with a young team capable of sustaining such an approach for the full duration of a game.

With aggressive pressing and Madrid playing directly, Dortmund were able to maintain their high defensive line. Madrid needed to slow the game down and force their style of play onto the Bundesliga Champions. By constructing moves patiently, Madrid would be able to force Dortmund deeper.

Taking that into consideration, the starting line up from Madrid was perhaps slightly unexpected. With Dortmund bringing a physical game in terms of effort, it would surely have made more sense for Mourinho to begin the game with Essien supporting Alonso in a deep midfield role?

Essien is not renowned for quick passing either and would have slowed the tempo of the game.

Khedira Out – The Modric or Essien Dilemma

The changes which Mourinho made at half time were somewhat inevitable. Higuain was withdrawn even though he should have been removed much earlier when it became apparent that a hamstring injury had rendered him ineffective, reducing his mobility considerably. Callejon immediately offered more movement than Higuain.

The second change saw Essien replace Modric and slot into central midfield. This switch should arguably have been undertaken in the original team selection.

These changes allowed Madrid to completely dominate their opponents.

Modric has the potential to be a fine player for Madrid. Intelligent, creative and with a great range of passing, he will progress to become an asset. At this stage of his Madrid career, there are still, understandably, teething issues. Despite having a high pass completion rate of 87% (completing 33 from 38 passes) during his 45 minutes on the pitch, Modric may need to temper his tendency to seek forward passes. Arriving from the Premiership were the pace of the game is greater and much more vertical, a slight adjustment in style is needed to strike a balance between a vertical approach and more lateral passing to stretch opponents.

This is what Essien offered in the second half. With a pass completion rate of 83% (30 passes from 36 completed), the Ghanian was more content to slow the game down and stretch Dortmund with lateral passing.

Slower passing enable Madrid to move up the pitch as a unit and combined with the increased movement from Callejon, this forced Dortmund further back. The graphics below show Dortmund’s back four becoming tighter and the midfield moving closer together as they defended more.

Dortmund Average Positions 1st Half http://www.uefa.com

Dortmund Average Positions 2nd Half http://www.uefa.com

One slight concern for Madrid though was how narrow they became at times with Callejon and Di Maria cutting in from the left and right respectively. The width had to arrive from full back but Arbeloa is a naturally conservative full back and the marauding runs of Ramos were curtailed by the events of the first half.

Despite Madrid dominating possession, the equalising goal almost never arrived. In the 89th minute Ozil scored a lovely goal from a free kick to draw the game level. Questions may be asked over Weidenfeller as he appeared cumbersome as he moved across towards the ball. The free kick was positioned perfectly in the corner but the precision came at the cost of pace. The outcome was entirely deserved and a reward was the more patient probing which Madrid showed during the second half.

The result leaves the group delicately poised. Dortmund now have a home game against Ajax whilst Madrid travel to the Etihad to face Man City in a game which both teams need points for differing reasons.Madrid have the safety of their final group game being at home against Ajax should there be an upset at the Etihad. And that is what it would be if Man City somehow managed to overcome Madrid.

Madrid will quality from the group but perhaps not in 1st position which could lead to a more awkward opponent in the last 16 of the competition. Mourinho would quickly point out however, that on the two occasions he has led teams to Champions League success, they finished second in the group stage.

Finest Hour?

Eliseu celebrates after scoring the opening goal vs Milan

Pellegrini guides the Andalusian’s into the last 16 of the Champions League