Shared Differences

In so many ways, the fixture at the Camp Nou last night went according to plan on many levels. Barcelona dominated possession but created very little. Real Madrid were content to defend before counter attacking quickly, utilising space on the flanks exploiting Barcelona weaknesses during transitions.

Did we learn anything new?

Yes, and no.

For the game raises more questions than it manages to answer for both sides.

In their last five visits to the Camp Nou , Madrid has an impressive record of one win, one defeat and three draws. Mourinho made a mistake in his first visit to the Camp Nou with Real Madrid, believing his team to be the equal of Barcelona in terms of the production of a stylish possession based performance. He suffered heavily for such a belief. The 5-0 defeat remains Mourinho’s biggest loss as a manager. Since then, the tactical plan has been more conservative, more pragmatic. With each passing clasico the perceived gap between the sides, never as significant as many claimed, has narrowed. Tactical plans were hatched and repeatedly tweaked as Mourinho sought the perfect gameplan. Sometimes Madrid would press high; sometimes they adopted a low block.

Last night’s result is not the outcome of a few ideas hastily cobbled together on the training ground this week. It is the result of considerable thought, hard work and ultimately, trial and error, sometimes costly error for Madrid on the pitch. But the recent results at the Camp Nou demonstrate that Madrid is now consistently achieving results against Barcelona .

The inability of Barcelona to break down disciplined, organised, defensive teams employing a low block in key games has been highlighted before but Milan and now Madrid have not parked the bus. Far from it. They have controlled space and prevented Barcelona having shooting opportunities. There was no luck involved in either victory.

Leaving aside the issues surrounding team selection etc for Barcelona , there is something more fundamental to address. Why does Barcelona inevitably seek to attack even when there is no compulsion to do so? The tactical alteration to include an additional midfielder was designed to give control first and foremost. Why does FCB eschew that control by pursuing victory? There was no requirement for Barcelona to push forward or attack with such vigour as they did in the early stages last night before being undone by a typically swift and lethal Madrid counter.

When exploring the present tactical issues, there are two which need consideration. Firstly, the current Blaugrana attack lacks vertical penetration. The inclusion of Cesc Fabregas at the expense of an attacker and the propensity for Messi to drop deeper has eroded the dynamics of the attack. A cutting edge has been traded for greater control through possession. This has incresingly become sterile domination. Secondly, the attacking thrust of Alba allied to Alves leaves Barcelona vulnerable on attack / defence transitions. The left side in particular is weak. Milan exploited this as did Madrid last night

And yet if the victory of Madrid at the Camp Nou last night highlighted the inadequacies of Barcelona sharply, what does it say of Madrid in the process? What if the roles were reversed? Could los blancos have broken down their rivals?

The victory at the Camp Nou must not be allowed to conveniently conceal the issues presently existing within the Real Madrid side.This is the same Madrid side which performed so abjectly as they crashed 1-0 away to Granada just under four weeks ago. A Madrid side that has also lost away to Getafe , Real Betis, Sevilla and Malaga. A Madrid side that finds it difficult to break down disciplined, organised, defensive teams employing a low block who allow Madrid to set the tempo of the game and take the initiative.
The question for Madrid is not how to face up to Barcelona anymore. The question is now how Madrid should tackle lesser sides such as Granada . Sides who adopt the very same approach that Madrid use against Barcelona albeit with less talented players but more of a collective focus. The game plan which Madrid uses to such effect against Barcelona is broadly the same plan which undermines them.

And whilst possession is so necessary for Barcelona , for Madrid the opposite is true, the side don’t require possession to win their games. Indeed there is an argument that Madrid are closer to Simeone’s Atleti team who maintain their shape above all else forgoing possession in the process. Madrid is at their most dangerous without the ball, awaiting an error by their opponent to exploit. Is there a better counter attacking side in world football? What other team can take an opposition corner, a potential weakness, and transform that into a strength?
For as diametrically opposed as their present footballing philosophies may be, the clash of proactive and reactive football, there is shared ground between both sides when it comes to their Achilles heel.

Both sides struggle when faced with deep lying and organised defences for differing reasons. Whilst Barcelona seeks to weave passing patterns around their opponents, they are easily crowded out. Madrid , meanwhile, look to utilise their pace and power during fast transitions but struggle to construct meaningful possession. Both sides need space to break toward, to offer dynamism, offer opportunities and above all, to create.

Whilst Mourinho is happy to vary his tactics, to allow pragmatism to reign supreme and always focus on the result ahead of the performance, the reverse is true, to a degree, in Barcelona where the performance matters just as much as the result. Where, as Cryuff stated, “there is no greater prize than being acclaimed for your style”. This is not an idealistic dream however, for Barcelona believes that their style of football presents them with the greatest opportunity of winning. They style is still a means to an end.

If Barcelona perform yet succumb to defeat, they can cling to their belief in still adhering to their philosophy of delivering stylish, aesthetically pleasing football. If the present Real Madrid side fall there is a vacuum built around Mourinho’s mantra that he is a winner above all else. When he fails to win, there is no fallback position.
In football, it is always easier to destroy than it is to create. Barcelona has found that out often in the recent past. It may be Madrid ’s turn to discover it next week at Old Trafford.

Barcelona vs Sevilla – Tactical Analysis

And so it continues. Unai Emery has now coached five different teams against Barcelona on fifteen separate occasions and has yet to taste victory. He has managed to secure draws five times but has become accustomed to defeat with ten losses against the Blaugrana. His record perhaps does not reflect the problems that some of his charges have caused Barcelona. For the second time this season, an Emery side led at the Camp Nou before being overcome in the second half.

This was a different game from their first meeting in Andalusia in September when Barcelona somehow won 3-2 despite trailing for 89 minutes of the game. Analysis of that game can be found here

Barcelona win at home yet again and yet again the performance was stuttering. A slow first half tempered by an improved second half performance.

Line Ups

With both sides facing the second leg of their respective Cope del Rey semi finals midweek, it was inevitable that neither would field a full strength team.

Interim manager Jorid Roura made six changes to the side that had faced AC Milan in midweek. Only Valdes, Alves, Pique, Iniesta and Messi began both games.

Montoya, Mascherano, Song, Thiago, Villa and Sanchez were all recalled to the starting line up with Montoya deputising at left back.

Starting Line Ups

Starting Line Ups

For Emery and Sevilla, Negredo, Reyes and Kondogbia all began on the bench with Babacar and Manu in the starting line up.

Sevilla began with a rough 4-4-2 formation, Rakitic playing alongside Babacar but with the freedom to drift laterally and support Manu and Navas on the flanks.

First Half

Both sides appeared to be giving some thoughts towards their forthcoming Copa ties initially.

An early chance for Iniesta was blocked. A delay from the talented midfielder provided sufficient time for the defender to recover. Perhaps a more natural finisher would have released the shot earlier?

Sevilla generally sought to stay compact and narrow, employing a mid level block with Babacar and Rakitic remaining high up the pitch. In response to this, both Villa and Sanchez tried to stay wide to stretch the Sevilla defence and create gaps which could be exploited but such opportunities were not grasped.

Villa, in particular, made several good runs dragging defenders with him and opening space but passes often went elsewhere. In the 17th minute, a quick throw out from Valdes found Thiago who crossed the halfway line in possession initiating a quick counter attack. Villa was positioned on the left and in space but the midfielder failed to spot his team mate and turned back inside and the momentum was lost.

Whilst Barcelona will never score the sort of goals that Real Madrid do on a regular basis, with blazing speed during a transition, this is an area that Barcelona need to improve upon especially when playing opponents who defend intelligently and resolutely.

Sevilla Under Emery

Emery has begun his time at Sevilla well, taking 10 points from 15 available points in his five league games to date. His record in all competitions prior to last night was four wins, two draws and two defeats from the eight games in charge. Yet Sevilla still languish in mid table with a European spot looking as far away as it has for large parts of the season.

The side have improved and are more compact and with the likes of Rakitic and Navas supplying Negredo, they possess an attacking threat too. The jewel in the Sevilla team however could well be young Kondogbia. He began life on the becnh last night, Emery resting the 20 year old as he is almost certain to start against Atleti. The Frenchman completed 21 passes from 24 attempted in his cameo on the pitch:-

Kondogbia Passes

Kondogbia Passes                      http://www.squawka.com

With his power and physique, the player is certain to play a pivotal role for Sevilla for the remaining part of the season.

The main focus for Emery, in these closing months, will be to win the Copa del Rey semi final and triumph over Atleti, gaining a place in the final and a European spot in the process.  For now, the Copa takes precedence. Sevilla need the funds available from a European run to tackle their financial problems.

Second Half

Barcelona began the second half in a brighter fashion and played with greater urgency. Sevilla were also being pressed quicker and forced into clearing the ball more often rather tan playing their way out of trouble.

Tello replaced the ineffective Sanchez at half providing Coke with a new problem; the raw pace of the Barcelona youngster.

Barcelona drew level with Villa heading home from an Alves cross. The striker was the only Barcelona player in the penalty area and pulled off Botia to score.

With the game opening up and the play more stretched, Tello had space. In the first half, Navas was able to provide cover for Coke against Sanchez but the full back was increasingly left isolated as Sevilla sought to gain a way back into the game.

The wining goal arrived a few minutes later. Tello was in acres of space and received a pass from Messi, who darted into the centre of the area. Whilst all the Sevilla defenders ran back towards their goal, expecting a low cross , Tello pulled the ball back for Messi who had held his run slightly, providing him with a yard of space.

Sevilla though, attempted to get back into the game and play continued to be open and move from end to end. Barcelona made two substitutions to regain control of the game. Firstly, Xavi was introduced in 68 minutes followed by Busquets coming on in 78 minutes.

There was one more chance for Sevilla to earn a point in the 74th minute. Song was caught ahead of Rakitic providing the Croatian with the space to receive the ball, turn and then slide a through ball into the path of Negredo. The frontman blazed over with only Valdes to beat.

Tello had a final chance to place a greater winning margin between the sides but, as he did against Granada last week, he fired high. Perhaps a little more composure is needed from the young striker.

Dani Alves

During the earlier part of the seasons there were those commentators who questioned Dani Alves commitment. The Brazilian’s head seemingly being turned by potential lucrative moves elsewhere. For a short spell, Montoya performed admirably at right back and offered reasons why he should be the long term successor to Alves.  That will happen but not yet. Alves has recaptured his best form in a Barcelona shirt.

The graphic below shows his first half positioning:-

Alves 1st Half Positioning

Alves 1st Half Positioning                  http://www.squawka.com

At the start of the second half, Villa was moved into a central position with Messi operating behind him. Tello replaced Sanchez and occupied the left wing meaning that no player other than Alves was on the right handside. It’s a precarious situation and requires the balance to be struck perfectly to avoid the opposition taking advantage and creating 2 on 1 situations against the full back.

Alves maintained a high and wide position for much of the second half s shown below.

Alves 2nd Half Positioning

Alves 2nd Half Positioning                 http://www.squawka.com

The ability of Alves to operate alone on the right side should not be underestimated. One aspect which could still be improved upon is his passing into the penalty area. Despite attempting 100 passes, only four of these were into the area with just two being successful. This cannot solely be attributed to Alves tough. For players must be in the penalty area for the full back to pass to. The provision of the assist for the opening goal of the game from David Villa is proof of his quality when options exist.

David Villa – He Shoots, He Scores.

For all of Barcelona’s control in games, their ability to remorselessly control possession, the use of midfielders in advanced positions coupled with Messi’s deeper positioning can often leave Barcelona appearing toothless in attack. There is a lack of a cutting edge to complement their possession. Opponents know if they close out Messi, they significantly reduce the chances of Barcelona creating or scoring.

The Blaugrana need a striker. With Sanchez woefully out of form, and Pedro preferring to begin in a wider position, the side need the option of playing a genuine no9. It’s that reason which makes David Villa so crucial to the team right now:-

David Villa Shots

David Villa Shots              http://www.squawka.com

The striker had one attempt at goal and scored but his performance was more than that. It was the runs into space, pulling defenders with him and creating openings for others. It was the reference point in attack that Barcelona often lack. With Messi playing as a classic no10, it kept the Sevilla central defensive pairing of Botia and Fazio busy.

It’s an option which Barcelona must retain within their arsenal. It’s why Villa did not move during the January transfer window and it’s why he must find a starting berth in the side more often.

Conclusions

A difficult week concludes for Barcelona with two unimpressive, but nevertheless wins, and a defeat. The problem is that another difficult week approaches for a side lacking fluency and defensive worries.

With such a large lead over Atleti in the league, the three points, as welcome as they are, were not the primary issue last night. The performance arguably was.

Sevilla head into their contest with Atleti knowing that they almost snatched a draw had Negredo shown more composure with his finish. Their season remains alive as long as their Copa involvement continues.

AC Milan vs Barcelona – Questions, questions, questions

The game was a foregone conclusion. It was simply a matter of turning up and taking the victory. Even some Milan fans held out little hope of achieving a result. It was Barcelona who were presenting all the questions to be answered. With Balotelli cup tied, how could the Milan frontline score? How would Milan stop Messi? How would the central defensive pairing of Zapater and Mexes cope? These were only a few of the issues for Milan to contend with. The outcome would be inevitable.

Milan’s recent form was conveniently overlooked. The early season struggles have been overcome with 12 wins in their last 17 games in all competitions. Milan have clambered back into contention for a top three finish in Serie A again. Still, they would roll over.

Yet nobody bothered to inform Max Allegri and his players what their perceived role was to be. They had questions of their own which they sought answers to from Barcelona. The questions from the Rossoneri would be more revealing.

Milan Defence – Park the Bus?

As inevitable and misguided as the notion of Barcelona requiring a Plan B, it did not take long for the assertion, incorrectly, that this was a result due to Milan “parking the bus”.

It’s a notion that is as wrong as it is misguided.

True, Milan only had 27% possession as they made just 210 successful passes from 285 attempted passes but this was not a performance that relies upon a deep defensive line and an element of luck against a team that is peppering your goal with attempts.

Firstly, Milan was content to alter their defensive line in different periods of the game. They initially set up with a fairly high defensive line and they tried to squeeze Barcelona. Valdes forced into kicking out from goal kicks twice in the opening minutes. In the 3rd minute, Prince-Boateng could be seen waving his team forward to squeeze their opponents at a throw in deep inside Barcelona territory. In the second half they again sought to push higher.

Yet they were equally content to drop deeper and hold a defensive line on the edge of their penalty area during periods of prolonged Barcelona possession.

Milan were highly disciplined, winning 17 tackles from 22 attempted and conceding just 10 fouls throughout compared to the 16 fouls given away by Barcelona.

With defence and midfield lines moving tightly together when needed, Milan were able to continually intercept Barcelona passes as shown below:-

 

Milan Interceptions

Milan Interceptions

Finally, there was nothing lucky about Milan and their approach. Last season, Barcelona had 47 attempts in two games against Chelsea yet lost. They would lament their bad luck with their finishing and Chelsea’s luck in not conceding. They could have no such gripes this morning.

This was the product of a fine tactical plan from Allegri allied to a collective performance from the entire Milan team. A tactical plan that adapted to the circumstances as the game progressed displaying intelligence and understanding. It’s difficult to pinpoint individuals but the diligence of El-Shaarawy and Prince-Boateng in performing defensive duties and effectively sacrificing their attacking qualities for the team must be mentioned.

And so must the midfield warhorse, Massimo Ambrosini.

Massimo Ambrosini – Still Going.

As the veteran midfielder enters the twilight of his career, he delivered the type of performance that captures why Milan were so intent on securing his services for a further season whilst so many other Milan players departed in the summer of 2012.

Ambrosini was instrumental in stopping Barcelona from progressing through the midfield area. From the 28 interceptions made by Milan, Ambrosini was responsible for nine of them:-

Ambrosini Interceptions vs Barcelona

Ambrosini Interceptions         http://www.footballclub.cnn.com

He was also able to help Milan retain possession and construct their attacks when they had the opportunity completing 25 of his 27 attempted passes.

In a career with twelve major honours at club level, this could well be one of Ambrosini’s most satisfying performances on both a personal level and also, for his club.

The Achilles Heel – Left, left, left

Over the past two months, Barcelona have produced some dazzling moments of interplay on their left hand side. Jordi Alba marauds forward from left back and links with the interchanging pairing of Cesc and Iniesta. Opponents must ponder who is the left sided attacker and who is the midfielder as they swap places at will as the left side of Barcelona begins to possess the same level of attacking intent and penetration that has existed over the past few seasons with Dani Alves, Messi and Pedro on the right.

Now, the weakness of the left has been highlighted in successive games.  It has existed for some time but events have brought it sharply into focus. Granada attacked down the left and their goal arrived following a deep cross from this flank.

And last night, Milan repeatedly attacked the left with Prince-Boateng performing the dual role of defence and attack admirably. The graphic below shows the total crosses Milan made. From 11 in total, nine came in from the Barcelona left.

Milan Crosses

Milan Crosses                   http://www.footballclub.cnn.com

The question is why has the left become a weak point for Barcelona?

The loss of Abidal has been significant. His versatility as a left back able to slot into a back three when required but also able to attack. The acquisition of Jordi Alba brings many positives but with both Alves and Alba so attack minded, Barcelona need to consider the defensive imbalance this brings. Previously, if Alves attacked, Abidal would hold his position and be more conservative. This is not happening with Alba.

Does Alba recover quickly enough or is he too lax, not recovering with the same intensity as others?

Alba often had space to attack with Prince-Boateng tucking in to provide support to his midfield colleagues yet he failed to take advantage. Barcelona’s passing was too slow, their game lacked intensity. A higher tempo was needed. They appeared content to retain possession despite lacking the cutting edge.

Sterile Domination

Max Allegri spoke prior to the game of the likelihood of Barcelona having 65% possession as per normal with Milan’s occupation being to limit the effectiveness of that possession. To make it sterile. It was a plan which came to fruition perfectly. Barcelona dominated possession, more than Allegri suggested,with 73% possession as they made 714 passes from an attempted 791 passes.

Despite monopolising the ball, Barcelona managed only seven attempts at goal of which just two were from inside the Milan  penalty area. Their sole attempt on target was a 25 yard effort from Xavi. This is shown in the graphic below:-

Barcelona Shots

Barcelona Shots              http://www.footballclub.cnn.com

Barcelona were too static in attack. There was not sufficient movement from the midfield area forward. There needed to be greater vertically from the likes of Cesc and Pedro. Instead, when Milan fell deeper and Barcelona moved higher, there was no burst from the Blaugrana. No moment of explosiveness. The players were static, unable to break forward as there was no space.

Now there are just questions.

Should Barcelona play deeper and tempt the opponent out?

When Barcelona do more forward, why will they not shoot from distance more frequently?

Does the inclusion of so many midfielders at the expense of strikers remove the tendency to be selfish and go for goal?

Previous Barcelona teams have contained a more varied goalscoring threat with the likes of Eto’o, Henry, Villa and Pedro.  More midfielders brings greater control but should there still be room for Villa or even the out of form Sanchez on the left in the majority of games?

And if Barcelona do seek control with midfielders, then why not simply play the game out last night as a 0-0. Why place pressure upon themselves to attack when opponents are waiting for the moment when Barcelona over commit and are vulnerable on transitions. Why not accept the 0-0 or even the 1-0 loss.

There was no need to commit men forward and needlessly concede possession at a throw in and allow themselves to be placed under immediate pressure.

And finally, there is the thorny issue of whether the side are now reliant upon Messi, to the detriment of both the individual and the team. Has the balance tilted to far in one direction? Is corrective action needed?

This is an issue which may need to be confronted however ridiculous and unpalatable as it may seem.

Conclusions

Milan posed a series of questions tonight which Barcelona were unable to answer. Milan will need to present further questions in three weeks time if they are to navigate this tie successfully. The tie is balanced in Milan’s favour but they must prepare for a thorough examination at the Camp Nou. They have one foot in the next round when most observers would had them written off before a ball was kicked. Allegri and his players need one more great performance to proceed.

For Barcelona, can they score two or even three goals in the return leg at the Camp Nou?

Of course, absolutely.

Can Barcelona keep a clean sheet in the process?

That is the question.

Real Madrid vs Rayo Vallecano – Perfect or Perfunctory?

Following their midweek exertions in the Champions League, Madrid returned to domestic duty with a derby against Rayo Vallecano. Madrid entered this game confident of victory as you would expect when they play at home with comfortable home wins over Rayo in  each of their last five meetings with 19 goals being scored in their favour.

Arbeloa, Higuain and Modric were all suspended for this game but Mourinho was still able to surprise people with his line up. Morata began the game for his first league start with Benzema on the substitutes bench, where he would remain for the entire game.

Six wins in their last eight league games had catapulted Rayo into contention for a European slot. Paco Jemez had no injury or suspension issues for his squad ahead of this game, the most pressing concern being his own suspension following his expulsion in last weekend’s 2-1 home win over Atleti. There was one change for the game with Jordi Amat being replaced by Figeuras in central defence

The Game

Depending upon your viewpoint, this was either a perfunctory win for Madrid or a perfect win given the prevailing circumstances such as injuries and suspensions. This game was much easier for Madrid than perhaps anticipated and even the dismissal of Sergio Ramos did not distract los blancos from the task in hand.

A night of mixed emotion for Sergio Ramos. The defender was making his 250th La Liga appearance, scored a goal and collected the 16th red card of his career. There was something inevitable about the red card after Ramos was harshly cautioned for an innocuous foul on the halfway line in the 16th minute. Following his complaints, he attempted to block a cross from Rayo and with the ball striking his hand, he collected his second caution in just one minute.

The red card saw Madrid revert to a 4-4-1 for much of the game and drop deep, allowing Rayo to dominate possession but ultimately create few meaningful chances

Kaka delivered another good performance in only his third La Liga start of the season. Again, his willingness to help out defensively was a bonus for Madrid as he won the ball for the opening goal before releasing Ozil on a diagonal run to cut back for Morata to open the scoring.

The Madrid Midfield – Who Takes Control?

Even prior to the dismissal of Ramos and the reduction of Madrid to 10 men, there was legitimate concern over how the midfield would function. With Essien and Khedira as the central pair and Kaka ahead of them, who would assist Madrid with the construction of play and retain possession?

Or does that matter for the best counter attacking team in the world?

Madrid completed 163 passes from just 227 attempts translating to 40% possession against a Rayo team comfortable on the ball but lacking penetration when they entered the final third. Madrid were never exposed in this game as Rayo offered little to trouble their defence or Diego Lopez in goal therefore should the inability to retain possession be a concern for Madrid or should the result be all that matters here?

As ever, Madrid looked extremely dangerous during transitions but against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey and then Man Utd in the Champions League, adopting a similar position will not be sufficient as Madrid need to at least score in both games. If Man Utd were to consider a defensive position such as that adopted during the second half at the Bernabeu, Madrid could find their dream of la decima ending abruptly.

It’s a difficult balancing act over the next few games prior to Man Utd. Alonso must be handled carefully to recuperate from his niggling injury whilst Modric need further game time to bed down at Madrid but with a double header against Barcelona on the horizon, what are the solutions?

Would Mourinho rest players for the league match given the circumstances to ensure that players are fresh for the two games that really matter?

Rayo – Dare to Believe?

Faced with playing 10 men for 73 minutes and with those 10 men falling back into a 4-4-1 formation with two deep banks of four, Rayo should have offered something better in attack. In some situations though, it’s not a lack of technical quality which can adversely affect a team. It’s a lack of belief. Too few Rayo players believed that they could get something from the game even though they trailed 2-0 at this point. It’s a significant departure from their performance at home last week against Atleti when they seized control of the game.

Baptistao was unable to become involved in the game sufficiently leaving “Chori” Dominguez with the bulk of attacking duties. The Argentinean is on a season loan from Valencia and performed well with two efforts had goal although he should have produced something better with his first attempt which went narrowly wide.

The graphic below highlights Rayo’s failings. Too little activity within the Madrid penalty area:-

Rayo Vallecano Heat Map

Rayo Vallecano Heat Map                          http://www.squawka.com

Paco Jemez acknowledged his side’s failings:-

“I’m not leaving here happy. We should have been able to cause their ten men more problems. We lacked something in the final third.”

Were Rayo so preoccupied with avoiding the concession of goals during transitions that they altered their own set up? Certainly in the first half, they seemed reluctant to produce their normal game.

Conclusions

For Mourinho, it’s another league game out of the way and the Copa del Rey semi final and Champions League are a step closer.

The red card for Ramos may present problems in the league  but a suspension should ensure he remains fresh for the game at Old Trafford, the key game at this point of the season.

A very disappointing performance from Rayo. The red card for Ramos presented an opportunity for Paco Jemez’s men that they never seized. Their away form remains very poor and will probably be the reason that they fail to secure a European berth at the end of the season. It’s now four wins and eight defeats in their twelve away games this season.

Granada vs Barcelona – Suffering Pays Dividends

Barcelona began a run of five games in the next 16 days with an away fixture at Granada. With Sevilla, Milan and a double header against Madrid awaiting, this fixture was the easiest on paper and offered the opportunity to rest players and freshen up the side.

Statistically, the game was straightforward for Barcelona with 64% possession and 18 shots at goal compared to Granada’s seven shots but football is not played on paper and the game was tighter than the the statistics suggest. This was an awkward fixture with Granada taking the lead only to eventually succumb to two goals from Messi.

Recent Form

With an improvement in form over the past few weeks, Granada have climbed from the relegation zone thanks to three wins in their last four games which includes their surprise victory over Real Madrid. New coach Lucas Alcaraz has presided over two of these wins and kept faith with the same side that had defeated Deportivo 3-0 away last weekend.

Barcelona have won one, drawn one and lost one in their last three away league games. With testing games ahead, interim coach Jordi Roura took the opportunity to make five changes from the win over Getafe. Alves, Busquets, Mascherano, Cesc and Adriano were all brought into the side. Xavi was rested completely whilst Iniesta, Alba and Puyol all began on the bench.

Tactical Set Up

Granada set up as a 4-4-2 with Aranda and Ighalo both deployed as out and out strikers. From the outset, Alcaraz chose to completely concede possession and retain shape. The back four and the midfield four were very narrow and close together when defending, conceding the flanks to Barcelona but preventing any space from developing between the lines. Granada also seldom pressed their opponents until Barcelona were in their half

The graphic below shows the heat map for the Granada team:-

Granada Heat Map vs Barcelona

Granada Heat Map vs Barcelona                     http://www.squawka.com

The map illustrates how narrow Granada defended with virtually no involvement deep in the full backs areas. It also captures how narrowly Barcelona were attacking. Even with Sanchez and Pedro on, there was still a tendency to cut diagonally inward towards the centre. No Barcelona player stayed on the touchline and offed genuine width. This approach enable Granada to stay compact in the centre and half attacks.

With limited possession, Granada made only 162 passes from an attempted 230 but they were focused with their passing, attacking the left back area of Barcelona in the first half again visible in the graphic. With Adriano surging forward, Granada sought to launch quick attacks in this area before hitting deep cross balls into the penalty area towards Alves. Nolito tested Valdes in the 7th minute with Alves offering the winger too much space before Ighalo opened the scoring in the 25th minute. A deep cross from the right and Alves was caught too tight to Pique enabling a free header to pick out Ighalo who opened the scoring.

A similar ploy almost brought Granada the equaliser in the 87th minute. Another cross from the right and Granada overloaded Alves at the back post but Lopez headed straight at Valdes.

Barcelona were caught offside six times during the match as Granada held a line on the edge of their penalty area for as long as they could during Barcelona attacks. A combination of poorly timed runs and delayed passes foiling Barcelona attacks. The Blaugrana made 666 successful passes from 739 attempted but despite their dominance of possession, in the first half there was a lack of penetration to add to that control. The tempo of the game was often too low with a real lack of pace to their passing.

With Xavi missing, Messi dropped deeper than normal in the first half and played more like a classic No10. To do so effectively, he needed greater vertical movement from team mates. Despite there being space on the flanks, the movement inevitably came through the centre which Granada could squeeze. Pedro was very quiet and Sanchez is out of sorts.

Thiago Alcantara

With Xavi rested completely for this game, fairly or unfairly, much of the spotlight surrounding the construction of play fell upon Thiago Alcantara. With suggestions by some that Thiago will eventually replace Xavi in the side, it is essential to clarify that Thiago may eventually take Xavi’s place in the side but he possesses a different skill set from Xavi.

Thiago is not a replacement for Xavi. Indeed, nobody will replace Xavi, a player who has come to represent an idea of how the game should be played. Thiago must be assessed upon how he develops as a player and the qualities which he can offer Barcelona. Last night he provided evidence of this.

Making 111 successful passes from 119 attempted, Thiago made more passes than anyone else on the pitch but it was his all round contribution in an unassuming, effective fashion which was so important. The young midfielder also made three successful tackles from three attempted as well as six interceptions across the whole pitch as shown on the graphic below:-

Thiago Interceptions

Thiago Interceptions vs Granada                        http://www.squawka.com

In the attacking phase, he attempted and completed three opposition player take ons during the game. This was a more rounded display from the youngster although there was a defensive error when he needlessly gave the ball to Aranda from a free kick but the striker’s shot was tame and Valdes saved. A lapse in concentration that went unpunished but needs to be eradicated from his game as he matures and his development phase progresses.

Messi – 301 Not Out

Messi has now scored an incredible 301 goals from Barcelona in 365 official games.

As noted above, the Argentinian adopted a deeper role during the game, playing more like a classic no10. The graphic below shows Messi’s passes during the game:-

Messi Passes vs Granada

Messi Passes vs Granada                            http://www.squawka.com

Numerous passes were made outside of the opposition penalty area and a few of the longer passes into the area failed, a consequence of the approach from Granada which meant that space inside their penalty area was at a premium.

In the second half, Messi moved a little higher which enable him to score from the rebound from Cesc’s shot.

His and Barcelona’s second was a direct free kick. Perhaps questions may be asked about Tono’s positioning but that should not detract from the pace at which the free kick was delivered.

The continued success of Messi is considerably different from the poor form shown by Alexi Sanchez. Removed after 60minutes, the Chilean had a few good opportunities which were spoiled by poor first touches or delayed decisions. With just four goals for the season, he is clearly lacking in confidence. Roura offered some words of support for the versatile frontman but until he begins scoring goals again, they will offer little comfort:-

“Alexis missing chances? We have to support him and make sure he keeps going. That’s our obligation. His attitude is very good.”

Conclusions

Alcaraz will be targeting the games his side need to win to avoid relegation. Anything gained against Barcelona would have been considered as a bonus.  With just 11 goals scored at home but 12 away from home, the coach knows the areas he needs to address.

Jordi Roura acknowledged the difficulty his side had faced:-

“We suffered, but it’s logical against Granada. We knew it would be difficult. Those are three important points, we’re very happy.”

This is precisely the sort of game that Barcelona would have failed to win last year and it’s precisely the sort of game that Real Madrid are failing to win this season.

With their lead stretched ahead of Atleti playing on Sunday evening ,Barcelona can move their attention to Milan and the midweek game in the Champions League. The first step in this hectic 16 day period has been navigated.

On and Off the Pitch

This promises to be an interesting few months for both Real Madrid and Jose Mourinho. With their league title effectively gone, attention will now turn to the two remaining prizes on offer for los blancos; the Copa del Rey and the real prize, the Champions League. Madrid now finds themselves at the midway point in their clash with Barcelona in the Copa del Rey with the tie delicately poised at 1-1 after the first leg and about to face Man Utd in the Champions League with a place in the quarter finals awaiting the winners.

The success of Madrid this season will dictate how Jose Mourinho is remembered when, if as widely expected, he departs the Santiago Bernabeu in June 2013. In his two seasons thus far, Mourinho has delivered a Copa del Rey and a La Liga title. If he can deliver the Champions League, la decima for Madrid , then irrespective of his own personal position and reputation, Mourinho’s place amongst the pantheon of Real Madrid greats will be secured.

Where will he sit if he fails to deliver any trophies this season?

The Portuguese coach has more power than any previous incumbent of the hot seat at the Bernabeu having gained Florentino Perez’ backing in his struggle with Jorge Valdano. Yet if he fails to add to his two trophies this season, would his tenure at Madrid be considered as a failure? It’s doubtful if another Copa del Rey would satisfy the Madrid faithful or even Mourinho himself for that matter. It’s the Champions League that everyone at Madrid covets. It’s been ten long years since they last claimed European club footballs greatest prize. The club remaining with nine titles to their name as they wait for their tenth title. Will this be the year for Madrid ?

If there is considerable debate over what is happening on the pitch, there does seem to be a greater sense of structure off the pitch.

Heading into this season, many Madridista’s were wondering who the new shirt sponsor would be for the start of season 2013/14 as it was clear that bwin was on the way out as sponsor.  Fortunately, the fans soon found out that discussions had reached fruition and a new deal was in the works with that one of the team’s partners and official airline, Fly Emirates, would be the team’s new shirt sponsor starting in August 2013.

Fly Emirates first signed a contract with Real Madrid in 2011 when they became an official partner and the official airline of the team but they did not become the new official shirt sponsor at that time.  That deal was worth around $7.2 Million per year at the time. However, things changed around April 2012 when it was revealed that Fly Emirates had negotiated a deal with Real Madrid to become the team’s shirt sponsor.  The new deal with the team will see Emirates shell out $26.7 Million annually to the club.

That number could have been a lot larger had the team agreed to new stadium naming rights.  Emirates offered the club $60.8 Million a year to rename the Santiago Bernabéu stadium.  The club, understandably given the history and tradition of the stadium and it’s name, turned down that proposal but reportedly did leave the door open for a corporate sponsor’s name preceding the stadium name.

Real Madrid ‘s changing of sponsors is just another in a string of changes that bwin has been going through in the past year.  The first came when the company’s merger with Partypoker was completed, with the new company now known as bwin.party.  Later, bwin.Party sold a surplus asset in the Ongame Network.  The network was a top five poker network, but bwin.Party wanted to focus on their own brand, currently number two in the world for online poker. 

Finally, bwin.Party signed a new team to a shirt sponsorship deal.  In August, bwin.Party signed a shirt sponsorship deal with Madrid ’s opponents tomorrow evening, Premier League club Manchester United, a deal that will begin in 2013.

Fans can now look forward to the future as the team has a solid sponsor in place with Fly Emirates.  The cash influx from the new sponsor will enable the new manager to strengthen the first team and the squad as a whole, as they continue to compete for trophies both at home and abroad.