Depor vs Atleti – Is the Great Escape Still on?

A game at the Riazor on Saturday evening which offered so much and yet delivered so little as both sides played out a fairly uneventful goalless draw.

Line Ups

Fernando Vasquez made a number of changes form the side which drew away to Real Betis. Both Silvio and Pizzi were unable to player against their parent club and were replaced by Camunas and Ayoze. With Aguilar unavailable, Bergantinos took his place and Castro started ahead of Kaka in central defence.

Deportivo vs Atletico Starting Line Ups

Deportivo vs Atletico Starting Line Ups

There were two changes for Atleti with Diego Costa being suspended, his replacement was Adrian. Rodriguez came in for Koke.

The change in personnel meant a change in system for Simeone’s men. Movement away from the 4-4-2 which they have utilised recently and back to the 4-2-3-1 which served them so well early in the season with Raul Garcia positioned behind Falcao.


The most striking feature of this game from just how narrow and clogged Depor were. The graphic below shows the average player positions for the game:-

Depor vs Atleti Influence

Depor vs Atleti Influence

Atleti tried to press at times but if they lost possession, they tended to drop off and regain shape. Occasionally they pressed but not with any real conviction.

There was an industriousness to Depor with players tracking back and working diligently closing space. The problem though is that when players track back, there is nobody in attack when they win the ball and thus the team were not really able to move high as a unit and exert real pressure on Atleti.

Atleti Dropping Deep

One of the important aspects behind Atleti’s success thus far, and particularly, early on in the season has been their ability to control space and limit the opposition from getting too close to their goal. It also means that Atleti are poised to counter attack quickly through short passing. The team sits in two banks of four and becomes difficult to break down.

The graphic below highlights the tackles both side attempted during the game. Whereas Depor are making tackles very deep within their half, Atleti are more structured in the tackles they make, almost forming a barrier:-

Depor vs Atleti Tackles

Depor vs Atleti Tackles

Atleti close opponents down and tackle midway inside their own half. The difference as the season has progressed as been that Atleti have dropped off opponents much quicker to regain shape.

Look at how the tackles above compare to when the two sides met at the Calderon back in December:-

Atleti vs Depor Tackles 091212

Atleti vs Depor Tackles 091212

Atleti were making far more tackles in their opponents half of the field. True, Atleti have been more conservative away from home but dropping deeper present a couple of problems. Firstly, it isolates Falcao and moves away from the side being compact and having quick, short passes being interchanged. Secondly, it limits the ability to hit on transitions with much further to travel to the opponents goal.

The use of Diego Costa has facilitated this change with the side deeper and hitting more long passes towards the front man for him to pursue into the channels. Strange as it may seem having said that, Atleti could have done with the Brazilian on Saturday evening even if it was just for some of his more unsavoury habits to win up the opposition and gain a slight advantage.

Lack of Attacking Threat

This game was bogged down in the middle of the pitch with neither side really offering any creative outlet. Even Valeron was unable to inspire with the central area so crowded.

There were only three attempts on target in the whole game, all from Depor and all from outside of the penalty area as shown on the graphic below:-

Depor vs Atleti Shots

Depor vs Atleti Shots

Godin had Atleti’s best chance in the 27th minute but hesitated and Castro was able to block. Los Rojiblancos could not pressure a nervous looking Depor defence in the early stages of the game with the experienced Aranzubia looking particularly susceptible.

Valeron was slightly deeper for a Depor side who clearly missed Aguilar’s ability to recycle possession timeously. Without the Colombian, Bergantinos was an adequate replacement defensively but unable to construct attacks leaving a void to be filled. Camunas could not offer the attacking verve of Pizzi, operating further back with subsequent loss of balance for Depor.

These factors combined with the problems which Atleti were experiencing as detailed above and the game moved towards a midfield stalemate and the inevitable scoreless draw.

Moving on up?

Depor are now undefeated in their last seven league games with four wins and three draws yet this superb run of form has been unable to lift them clear of the relegation zone with surrounding teams also enjoying favourable results. And it’s been three draws in a row now for Depor. Are they losing momentum at the wrong moment?

The next two games must see Depor collect points away to Valladolid and at home to Espanyol. After this the Galicians finish with Malaga and Real Sociedad. Teams who will still have something to play for.

For Atleti, the season is begging to fizzle out. Simeone must keep his men sharp ahead of the Copa del Rey final and some rotation would not go amiss at this stage. Rotation which could, coincidentally, aid Depor’s Galician neighbours with Atleti facing Celta next.

Simeone knows the areas he must address for next season; the lack of creativity from the central area. It’s a tricky situation to get right however as he must find a creative player who can play at the same tempo of the team during transitions and not alter the dynamic.

Sevilla vs Atleti – Some Thoughts

Atleti left the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan with full points after a disappointing game which was tetchy, lacked any real flow and neither side was able to provide the quality required to make the difference until Raul Garcia’s shot was flicked home in the 75th minute.

Line Ups

With no Gary Medel to anchor the midfield, Emery went with Kondogbia and Rakitic as the double pivot and Reyes as the central point in the attacking trident behind Negredo. It never really worked with Reyes having a limited impact upon the game.

Sevilla vs Atleti Starting Line Ups

Sevilla vs Atleti Starting Line Ups

Simone opted for a 4-4-1-1 formation with Diego Costs supporting Falcao in attack. It was very familiar from Atleti. Maintain shape and control space whilst waiting to exploit Sevilla on the transitions.

Lack of Flow

As stated earlier, this game never really developed any real flow. There were a number of petulant fouls conceded and many further incidents of players going to ground easily trying to win free kicks etc. There were 30 fouls in the game and 6 cautions with 5 of these going to the away side.

Despite the nature of the game, Sevilla only collected a solitary caution, surprising given their extremely poor disciplinary record in the league this season that has seen them collect 12 red cards already. Suspensions have cost them dearly this season.

Whilst many players become infuriated by a disrupted game, unable to develop any rhythm, there are those players who thrive in such circumstances and only add to the situation through their own calculated behaviour. Diego Costa is one such individual.

Anger Management

Diego Costa has earned quite a reputation this season to the extent that the LFP have offered to provide him with anger management classes, seemingly in an effort to curb the worst excesses of this behaviour. Somewhere along the way, everyone seems to have overlooked the quality that Costa can offer the team and also the small issue that Costa may actually enjoy performing such a role on the pitch. Why? It works.

The Brazilian, who has recently received his first two caps for his country, possess that rare quality. The ability to infuriate opponents through his demeanor, attitude and general play acting which often overlooks his quality.

Costa has weighed in with seven goals and six assists in the league so far this season but his caution count is more impressive standing at 10. Against Sevilla he was fairly quiet in terms of his quality committing one foul and being fouled twice.  He completed 9 passes from 12 attempted and managed just a single shot at goal which was off target.

Yet he was still the focus with his play acting after he and Navarro went head to head in the second half.

Some may say that Costa has to eradicate these unsavoury elements from his game if he is to reach the next level but there is most definitely a case to be made that those same elements are what makes Diego Costa so successful in the first place.

The Game

Much of what happened could have been easily predicted before the start. Sevilla controlled possession with 62% as Atleti dropped into their usual format away from home, retaining their shape and allowing the opposition to come forward.

Sevilla completed 468 passes from 576 attempted but the pass statistics from Atleti are surprising. Despite having just 38%, Atleti only made 134 successful passes form 194 attempted. The men from Madrid were very direct, going long as soon as possible. Simone is an advocate of doing something with the ball when you have it but this is still an extremely direct approach to take.

Yet Simeone would not have been concerned. For the first 75 minutes despite having so much possession, Sevilla could only manage seven attempts at goal with just one shot on target. The side were lacking in the final third with no real ideas and Negredo, in the first half especially, not linking with the rest of the team. The frontman made just three successful passes in the first half. He lacked mobility. The home side managed a further six shots at goal in the final 15 minutes as Atleti fell deeper to protect their slim advantage but just two shots were on target. Courtois was never placed in any real difficulties.

The poor forward play was also visible on the Atleti side too as the visitors had one shot on target in the entire game and scored.

The problem for Sevilla was in originating in the midfield are.

Sevilla Midfield

With Medel missing and Maduro on the bench, Emery went with Kondogbia as the deepest midfielder alongside Rakitic who could move higher. The problem was that this removed Rakitic’s passing from the final third and Reyes simply offered too little in an attacking sense.

The graphic below shows the Croatian’s passes:-

Rakitic Passes

Rakitic Passes

Sevilla needed Rakitic higher up the pitch and could have removed Reyes fro Maduro earlier, allowing Kondogbia to become more of a box to box midfielder. This trio may have been more effective.

Yet compare Rakitic against the Atleti central duo of Gabi and Mario. The duo completed 42 passes form 48 attempted, considerably less than Rakitic did on his own. Creation is not their role though. They are there to shield the back four. To always be in position. Gabi and Mario made 5 successful tackles from 6 attempted and completed 5 interceptions. Their job is primarily destructive and provides the platform for the team to play and they are highly effective at their occupation within the Atleti set up.


The possibility of a European place for Sevilla was always a long shot but it’s now almost certainly over. Their away form is very poor and they had to secure maximum points from their home games if they were to have any hope of clinching a place.

Atleti now have the ideal opportunity to move into second place in the league and end a horrendous run of form stretching back to last century against their cross city rivals when they host Madrid at the Calderon on Saturday evening. Just three points separates the sides but Madrid must contend with a Champions League semi final either side of the derby.

Espanyol vs Real Sociedad – Some Thoughts

Espanyol and Real Sociedad fought out a highly entertaining 2-2 draw at the Cornella el Prat on Sunday evening. Aguirre has performed well to date, lifting Espanyol from bottom to mid-table safety even at this stage of the season but their recent form has tailed off slightly. They entered this game with just one win in their previous four games. This contrasted sharply with a Sociedad side that now harbours prospects of Champions League football next season at the Anoeta.

With Carlos Vela missing, Montannier opted to bring Zurutuza into the side in midfield.

The graphic below shows the team’s starting line up:-

Espanyol vs Real Sociedad Starting Line Ups

Espanyol vs Real Sociedad Starting Line Ups

Whilst Espanyol chose a 4-2-3-1, La Real were more like a 4-1-4-1 although the wide pairing of Griezmann and Prieto pushed higher than the midfield duo or Zurutuza and Illarramendi.

Real started the game better, more aggressive than their opponents but they were caught out after just eight minutes when Sergio Garcia opened the scoring. The attack began on the right but quickly shifted to the left with Xabi Prieto flighting a ball for Simao to collect. It meant Sociedad were turning and backpeddling towards their own goal rather than have the opponent face them. Simao’s low cross was deftly slotted home by Garcia who had run beyond both De La Bella and Inigo Martinez to get to the ball first. The early goal allowed Espanyol to counter and forced Sociedad to take the initiative.

Espanyol Attacking

The graphic below shows all of the attempted crosses undertaken by Espanyol during the game. There was a clear bias, especially in the first half for attacks to come down the Real Sociedad right with as shown below:-

Espanyol Crosses

Espanyol Crosses          

Of the 16 crosses attempted, only two found an Espanyol player and both resulted in goals during the first half. A number of crosses were blocked but with less cover in the Sociedad midfield, it was easier for Espanyol to create the openings by spreading the play with crossfield passes. It meant Sociedad were more exposed and in less control than they like to be. And Espanyol were able to profit with the assistance of their striker, Sergio Garcia.

Sergio Garcia

He may not be everybody’s favourite striker and he may not be the most prolific goalscorer either but last night Sergio Garcia produced the sort of display that has always been capable of delivering even if he was often frustratingly inconsistent.

The graphic below shows the heat map for his performance:-

Sergio Garcia Heat Map

Sergio Garcia Heat Map             

Statistically, his performance was not that impressive. Just one shot at goal albeit with which he scored. Only one successful take on against eight attempted. Garcia lost out on his two aerial duels as well.  But he completed 26 out of his 37 attempted passes. He is not disconnected form the team. Always available to take a pass and link play. The key to his performance was his movement, intelligence and ability to link up with the remainder of his team particularly Verdu who roamed behind him. Their combination led to Espanyol’s second goal, Garcia playing a tidy one-two with his captain before Stuani converted the cross.

Real Sociedad Set Up

In their recent away game at Atleti, La Real were very conservative from the outset of the game, playing a highly cautious counter attacking style. Although that is their preference, they were more aggressive here perhaps sensing this as an ideal opportunity to claim all three points.

The most noticeable difference from recent away games was Illarramendi being pushed higher not and not being used as part of a double pivot alongside Bergara. The higher position uses Illarramendi’s qualities in a better fashion. His more direct passing can aid the team and led to the equalising goal.

Prieto made a diagonal run from left to centre and Illarramendi lofted a pass through to him. Casilla cleared the ball which fell to Zurutuza around 25 yards out and his first time lobbed finish found the net. The finish was one of the highest technique but in the process the pass and run which led to the goal were overlooked.

The graphic below shows Illarramendi’s passing:-

Illarramendi Passes

Illarramendi Passes            

Although a different player from Xabi Alonso, the fact that both began their careers with La Real will lead to comparisons especially when there is something of the Alonso about the passing of Illarramendi on occasion. The misplaced passes above all tended to be longer, flighted passes searching out runners in behind the Espanyol defence. One led to the first goal and in the 55th minute a similar ball found Aggirexte but Casilla saved the resulting shot.

As it was, Illarramendi was withdrawn for the gifted Pardo in 62minutes. And the youngster lofted another ball over the Espanyol defence for the timed run of Griezmann. Despite miscontrolling the ball, it ricocheted off Lopez into the bottom corner to provide Sociedad with the equaliser. The goal came following a period of Sociedad pressure. The attacking talent of Verdu, Garcia and Stuani were curtailed as the game had wore on and Sociedad were able to exert more authority on proceedings as a consequence.


Javier Aguirre has guided Espanyol from the bottom of the table to mid-table security, a tremendous achievement given how he found the club when he took over. As ever though, how he builds from here for next season is key. Verdu is out of contract in the summer and is not the type of player that Espanyol can afford to lose especially as they will receive no fee.

It’s now just one defeat in 19 games for La Real, a very impressive run of form that sees them maintain interest in the Champions League place. They remain on course to record their best league finish since their great side of 2002/03 which narrowly missed out on the title. The number of recent draws though, could cost them. That is four draws in their last seven league games. Even if they do not secure Champions League football, under Montanier they have developed a clear style of play which is highly enjoyable to watch with a number of excellent young prospects. This time last season, if you had to choose a Basque side that would be challenging for Champions League football just now, how many people would have chosen La Real over Bielsa’s Athletic?

Barcelona vs AC Milan – Answers, answers, answers

Barcelona create history by overturning a 2-0 deficit from the first leg and, in doing so, handed Milan one of their heaviest ever defeats in European competition.

The first leg at the San Siro had witnessed a superb Milan performance epitomised by defensive discipline and control complemented by a willingness to alter their defensive line during the course of the game to support the attack when possible. A review of the first game can be found here

It seemed certain that Milan would seek to replicate that performance as far as possible. The question revolved around Barcelona and their inability in recent games to move beyond sterile domination of the midfield area with a lack of movement and options in the final third.

Last night saw a return to the kind of game which Barcelona produced during the Guardiola era and which they have done so sporadically this season. It’s not a style of play they have ever abandoned but they have become lackadaisical with specific facets of it most notably the aggressive pressing and off the ball movement. By doing so they also demonstrated the fallacy of the overly discussed Plan B approach particularly when the implementation of Plan A is this good.


Barcelona Set Up

On paper what appeared to be the customary 4-3-3 was in fact considerably different in application:-

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Firstly, the defence composed Pique, Mascherano and Alba with the left back playing a much more conservative role but not quite the left sided centre back in a trio. Pique was the furthest to the right leaving Alves to start high on the right and operate that entire side alone.

Pedro stayed high on the left providing the width and enabling Alba to remain deep. With Cesc on the bench, Iniesta was able to perform his favoured central midfield role but he offered so much more. This was arguably one of his best defensive performances despite being so advanced.

The positioning of Messi and Villa was central to the game. This diagram from shows their positions being virtually the same. Villa was operating as a no9 with Messi occupying the space directly behind him as a no10. With Villa positioned between Mexes and Zapata, neither defender could step out to close Messi down for fear of leaving Villa in space.  Milan’s ability to crowd out Messi with defenders and midfielders form the first leg was subsequently reduced. El Guaje justified his selection with the pivotal third goal combined with a performance of chasing opponents and opening up space with darting runs for team mates.


Milan – Right then Wrong?

From the Milan perspective, the area to be addressed is the starting positions as detailed in the graphic below:-

AC Milan Starting Line Up

AC Milan Starting Line Up

Did Allegri set the side out to defend as deep as they did or were they simply pushed back by the ferocity of Barcelona in the opening period? Allegri and Milan had decided an effective strategy for defeating Barcelona in the first leg. Did Allegri really choose to abandon this with a conservative approach, inviting trouble from the beginning? Or were Barcelona more adventurous and more like the side of a few season ago?

I doubt he wanted to be so deep but for the first twenty minutes of the game, his side were encamped around their penalty area, pushed back by Barcelona attacks built upon fast passing, movement and an eagerness to retrieve possession.  Milan were left to hang onto the game especially after the concession of the opening goal after four minutes.

The graphic below details where Milan were making interceptions last night:-

Milan Interceptions

Milan Interceptions

Compare the position of the interceptions last night with how Milan defended in the first game as shown here

Barcelona were getting further upfield before Milan were intercepting. They were also able to hit a number of long range efforts as there was space between the lines. Ambrosini, so instrumental in the first leg, was ineffective in a constructive sense completing just 14 from 25 passes attempted whilst defensively he made only one successful tackle from four attempted. The midfield general was robbed of the ball for Iniesta midway inside his own half which led to the second goal by Messi. This is not an attack on Ambrosini just one of the clearest examples of how a player who was pivotal in the first leg was now slept away with his side.

The defence was deeper aware of Villa positioning, Barcelona were moving quicker and circulating the ball faster leaving Milan to chase shadows.

For all of their problems, Milan settled after around 20 minutes and began to offer something better in attack as Barcelona eased off form their initial press. Overall, Milan also proved that Barcelona still have issues to address. Despite having just two shots on target from their ten attempts at goal, eight of these were from inside the penalty area. Milan had opportunities not least the effort from Niang which struck the post.

This Barcelona side still provide you with hope.

Jordi Roura was clear in his understanding of the game:-

“but I would not talk about things that Milan did wrong; I would talk about the attitude of Barcelona, about how they pressured and worked. They made it look like Milan did things wrong but it was more that we did things right”

What Barcelona did right were the basic elements that’s made them so successful. They press you high quickly up the park to win back position and offer off the ball movement for team mates combined with recycling the ball at high speed.


Barcelona Positioning – Busquets

The revised formation from Barcelona was central to creating space with the play of Sergio Busquets instrumental. This was possibly the most advanced positional performance from a defensive midfielder you will see.

The heat map below shows Busquets positioning during the game:-

Busquets Heat Map

Busquets Heat Map

Nominally the deepest midfielder, Busquets was aggressive in his play last night stepping forward to defend high up the pitch. In doing so, he prevented Milan from even constructing attacks as he swept up behind Xavi and Iniesta whilst also launching a number of attacks.

Busquets completed 103 passes from 112 attempted, the bulk of which were in the Milan half of the pitch. His ability to play first time vertical passes presented a constant problem even if they did not always hit their target. That Pedro and Villa were such willing runners offered an additional threat to Milan, stretching the defence behind the midfield and creating the opportunities for Busquets to pass. The off the ball movement was another ingredient that has been missing in recent months.

Busquets also completed his defensive responsibilities well. He completed three tackles from three attempted including two on the right hand side covering for Dani Alves and made two interceptions both in the Milan half of the pitch.


Barcelona Press High

The second element in Barcelona’s play was the intensity shown in pressing and tackling their opponents. The location of their interceptions is shown below:-

FCB Interceptions

FCB Interceptions

Niang commented afterwards:-

“Barça were impressive. It was as if they were playing with 22 players. In first half, we were running around like madmen”

The Blaugrana began to exert significant pressure on their opponents high up the pitch. Pedro, so often the player who sets the tempo, chased and harried and was joined by team mates. The weakness of the defence was under less scrutiny as Milan were unable to build any attacks without being pressed.

The interceptions were aided by tackling:-

FCB Tackles

FCB Tackles

Barcelona were tackling higher too.  Ten of their successful tackles were in the Milan half of the pitch. The Rossonieri were being suffocated in the opening stages of the game.

Sometimes it’s easy to forgot just how much of the less glamourous side of the game certain footballers perform. Such as Andres Iniesta. The little creative midfielder made five successful tackles, the joint highest along with Mascherano of anyone on the pitch. His tackle on Ambrosini led to the second goal and his controlled pas to Xavi helped set up the third for Villa. People will recall his deft flicks or little passes but his team mates will remember his graft and determination allied to his undoubted intelligence to draw the Milan defence forward before attacking them.


Lower Tempo & Milan Higher

When the tempo inevitably dropped with pressing less intensive and movement off the ball falling, Milan were able to begin passing and move higher upfield. The problems reappeared for Barcelona offering optimism for Milan. Only a superb block by Jordi Alba prevented Robinho for scoring the elusive away goal for Milan which would surely have sent the Rossonieri through.

The side became static again, understandable to a degree given their huge effort early in the game. It’s a part of their game that should improve as they reach their peak physical condition as April approaches.

Jordi Roura

The game was also important in the development of Jordi Roura. Thrown into a job that he neither wanted or is seemingly enjoying, he has often displayed the look of a frustrated man, unable to make the necessary changes from the sidelines. Last night saw a change. The withdrawal of Pedro for Adriano recognised the increased threat of Abate on the Barcelona left. The introduction of the Brazilian strengthened that area and enabled Alba to push forward in the knowledge that Adriano could defend behind him.

Likewise, the withdrawal of a tiring Villa to be replaced by Sanchez offered vitality to the attack but also covering pace for the defensive phase too, aiding Alves on the right.


Reports of the demise of Barcelona have been greatly exaggerated. Or have they?

There can be no doubt that many of the qualities which made Barcelona such a dominant force over the past five seasons were in evidence last night. Equally, some of the negative traits that have weakened the side particularly during the last month or so were also visible.

The challenge facing Roura and Vilanova upon his return is to maintain the level of intensity shown by the side last night whilst also ensuring the players return to peak physical condition. This also means rotation in league games. Xavi must be rested and Puyol needs to be nursed to full fitness.

This is just one hurdle overcome. To successfully reclaim the Champions League there are other opponents who can ask similar demanding questions of Barcelona including a Madrid side focused entirely upon their main objective.

Last night the standard was set once more. Maintaining it again is the hard part.

Man Utd vs Real Madrid – Decisions, decisions.

An enthralling encounter at Old Trafford that produced a fascinating tactical battle. Whilst much debate will surround the referee and the dismissal of Nani in the 56th minute, that was not the sole reason why this contest altered direction. This article will focus on three issues in the game and a fourth topic on the fall out.

Man Utd Shape – As Madrid play Barcelona, so too will Man Utd play Madrid.

Even allowing for Ferguson surprising many with his starting eleven and the decision to keep Rooney on the bench, the key point from the outset was the strategy being employed. Just as Real Madrid approach clasico’s now, allowing Barcelona to have possession with a mid-level block and only pressing when they enter your territory, Man Utd would perform a similar tactical ploy against them. A tactical “what goes around comes around” from Ferguson albeit without the desired final outcome.

One of the key issues pre-match focused around the ability of Man Utd to play a patient, disciplined defensive form the outset to frustrate Madrid. The side selected produced a tactically superb performance for 56 minutes.

Giggs, making his 1,000th career appearance, began on the right to support Rafael who was tracking Ronaldo. In the first leg, Rooney had let Coentrao escape his attention on three separate occasions and the side narrowly avoided punishment. These were errors which Giggs would not replicate.

The graphic below shows Man Utd interceptions:-

Man Utd Interceptions

Man Utd Interceptions

The majority of interceptions arrived on the Man Utd right where Rafael and Giggs performed well. They were also aided by Madrid’s passing coming via the central defenders and not Alonso as discussed later.

The central midfield composed Carrick and Cleverly with Nani on the left, stationed higher than Giggs on the opposite side in an attempt to take advantage of Arbeloa’s lack of attacking intent. The full back is more conservative enabling Nani to focus more on his offensive ambitions.

Wellbeck was behind Van Persie with the task of suppressing Alonso. It was a task which he performed extremely well whilst still offering an attacking outlet, bursting from a deep position at pace.

Xabi Alonso – The Conductor

Has Xabi Alonso ever produced a quieter first half?

The deep lying playmaker attempted just 20 passes and completed just 14 as he found himself being squeezed, principally by Wellbeck with assistance from Van Persie.

Man Utd were content to allow both Varane and Ramos to have possession and bring the ball forward with Wellbeck and Van Persie positioned either side of Alonso and ready to close him down. Mourinho must have anticipated this to an extent, as Alonso seldom altered his position during the first half, remaining deep and allowing Arbeloa and Coentrao to move higher on the flanks.

The graphic below shows Alonso’s first half passes:-

Alonso Passes First Half

Alonso Passes First Half

The majority of passes are very short and any longer passes tended to be inaccurate, a consequence of being pressed quickly but also Man Utd controlling space effectively in their final third.

As the first half wore on, the quality which Alonso brings to the side becomes more prevalent. Build up play slows down as they enter the Man Utd half and there is no pattern to attack. The orchestra has lost its conductor.

As soon as Man Utd were reduced to 10 men, Xabi Alonso immediately benefited. His shadow, Danny Wellbeck, was repositioned onto the left wing and Alonso had space to move forward, collect passes and begin probing and building play with his customary diagonal passing which stretches opponents.

The man who would benefit most though, was still on the bench but would be quickly introduced at the expense of Alvaro Arbeloa.

Luka Modric – Impact and Effectiveness

As soon as Man Utd were deuced to 10 men, Mourinho responded by withdrawing Arbeloa and introducing Modric.

The Croatian had an immediate impact with a driving forward run, easily side stepping Michael Carrick and scoring the equaliser from 22 yards out. He was able to link play and stretch Man Utd across the whole pitch as he completed 32 passes out of 33 attempted.

The graphic below shows his passes:-

Modric Passes

Modric Passes

Yet it’s worth considering why this was Modric’s best performance in a Real Madrid jersey. Why was he able to influence the game so effectively when he has struggled in La Liga. The answer is probably that he was facing only 10 men and had space to play as Man Utd collapsed onto the edge of their penalty area after a period of about 10minutes incessant pressure from Madrid. Modric found the space that he is so often denied in Spain.

The decision to introduce Modric was the correct one. Arbeloa was sacrificed an Khedira moved to a right wing back position but this performance from Modric should mark the beginning of his Madrid career and not the high point. He must build upon it.

Prophets of the Past – The Revisionist Perspective

And now enter the Prophets of the Past. Those individuals who will assess the game entirely and it’s pivotal moments purely in the light of the result and the decision to dismiss Nani. Decisions before and after that moment become inconsequential as the narrative is altered to suit the pre-determined agenda.

The acquisition of Modric will be vindicated despite his inconsistent domestic form and Ferguson will avoid more probing questions regarding his tactical decisions during the game.

The outcome of this game was not decided by the red card. It was a key moment but the outcome thereafter was not inevitable. The resulting space in the midfield area was a direct consequence of a Man Utd tactical reshuffle, enabling Madrid and primarily Alonso and then Modric to begin constructing play.

That Modrid was only introduced after the red card is worthy of closer scrutiny. Why not introduce him when Di Maria was removed through injury? Why was Kaka chosen to come on when both play centrally and Ozil was shuffled to the right? Does Mourinho still not rate the Croatian that highly? Or does he recognise that in tight spaces, the effectiveness of Modric is reduced?

Man Utd played Madrid perfectly; to a point. By closing out Alonso and allowing Madrid possession in safe areas, they reduced the effectiveness of Madrid and falling back to a low block greatly altered Madrid’s tempo when they entered the final third.

In the aftermath of this game, the tactical success that Man Utd enjoyed until the dismissal of Nani must not be forgotten. Ferguson has established a template for defeating Real Madrid. True, some sides such as Jurgen Klopps’ Borussia Dortmund will attack them but for the vast majority, the plan to be followed has now been clearly identified.

But equally, should questions not be asked of Ferguson’s response to his side being reduced to 10 men?

Just as Mourinho reacted quickly, introducing Modric and seizing the initiative, could Ferguson have taken an alternative course of action? Given how crucial controlling Alonso had been, should Wellbeck have remained positioned on him leaving Khedira free on the right wing instead?

The German does not possess the same passing range as his midfield counterpart. It would have been a risk enabling Khedira and Ozil to combine on the right but it was a significantly greater risk allowing Alonso time and space. Evra would have been told to stay back and retain shape with assistance from Cleverly.

Could Van Persie have been sacrificed with an additional player such as Kagawa in midfield to enable Man Utd to hold out? Perhaps even introducing Evans as a third centre back for 30 minutes permitting Celverly and Carrick to run and harass the Madrid pairing of Alonso and Modric.

It’s all entirely hypothetical of course but there is the lingering thought that as good as Ferguson’s initial team selection had been, when key decision were made correctly, when Mourinho reacted and forced the issue, allowing for the mitigating circumstances, Ferguson failed to respond.

Mourinho’s assertion following the match that:-

“Independent of the decision, the best team lost. We didn’t deserve to win but football is like this”

is easy to say when you win. Would he have been so magnanimous if Madrid had vacated the tournament?

For Madrid, there remain questions. Mourinho has built an excellent side but has he now tweaked his side to achieve one aim and one aim only; the defeat of Barcelona.

And in doing so has Madrid lost sight of the requirements to break down sides who adopt a defensive approach with a low block?

Does Madrid possess an alternative course of action? When Man Utd tightened up during the second half in the Bernabeu and followed a similar gameplan for 56 mines last night, Madrid were bereft of ideas.

Mourinho and Madrid still have time to address this area as they enter the quarter finals, their pursuit of la decima still intact following a thorough examination.

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

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         

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    

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.


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.