Malaga vs Barcelona – Tactical Analysis

Malaga and Barcelona clashed at La Rosaleda last night in the first of three games in ten days for the clubs with the sides meeting in the forthcoming Copa del Rey tie.

The first blow in this triple header went to Barcelona. Given the display that Barcelona produced, few would now bet against a clean sweep of three successive victories against the Andalusian’s.

Line Ups

There were two changes to the Malaga side following their 1-0 loss away to Deportivo. Jesus Gamez was replaced by Sergio Sanchez at right back and the defensive midfielder Jeremy Toulalan came in for the more offensive Portillo in midfield.

Malaga Starting Line Up

Malaga Starting Line Up

Pellegrini chose to use a double pivot in midfield to try and compete against Barcelona.

There was just one change to the Barcelona side that had dispatched Espanyol so convincingly last week with Mascherano replacing Puyol in central defence.

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Iniesta continued in the attacking left hand position with Cesc accommodated in midfield.

The Malaga Approach

“We need to start the game convinced Barça can lose. We will have to play a great game. If we still lose, fine.”

Pellegrini

The Chilean was quite clear pre-match what he expected from his side and they tackled the challenge with the style we have come to expect from a Pellegrini side with a twist. With Roque Santa Cruz as the central striker, Malaga had a physical reference point in attack who could be used to hold the ball up and win aerial battles.

It worked to a degree. Santa Cruz won a number of headers and was able to retain a presence in attack but his skills were diminished when he moved wide lacking the pace and mobility of a Saviola.

 
Roque Santa Cruz Headers

Roque Santa Cruz Headers        http://www.squawka.com

Furthermore, he never managed a header in the opposition box. He was operating deep and looking to find Joaquin and Isco from flick-ons. Isco had one of his quietest games of the season whilst Joaquin offered a number of surging runs but lacked quality in the final third.

The remainder of the Malaga team had a familiar look to it. Although employing a double pivot of Toulalan and Camacho, the home side still maintained their customary short passing game.

During the defensive phase, the side dropped back to a 4-4-1-1 with Santa Cruz left upfield and supported by Isco. Joaquin was always prepared to join them. The remaining seven players performed the defensive function. By leaving players in attack, Malaga prevented Barcelona from becoming encamped in their half of the pitch, always weary to the threat posed by los bocquernos.

The effort required to sustain a challenge against Barcelona inevitably took it’s toll and tiredness set in enabling Barcelona to dominate much of the second half.

 

The Midfield Battle

The game opened with both sides seeking to impose their style on the opposition. Both teams were pressing the opposition goalkeeper when in position forcing long kick outs. With the quality on both sides, winning the midfield battle would be key. Early on Malaga competed well and forced Barcelona back. It is unusual to see a Barcelona side defend with the entire team back but that occurred during the first half.

The diagram below shows the average positions for the players with Malaga in blue and Barcelona in red:-

Malaga vs Barcelona - Average Player Positions

Malaga vs Barcelona – Average Player Positions         http://www.whoscored.com

The Malaga players are clustered vertically whilst the Barcelona midfield and full backs are positioned horizontally. With Messi drifting laterally in front it creates ideal passing triangles.

The position of Dani Alves is extremely high, almost level with Pedro. Iniesta and Cesc are side by side, ready to swap places as the situation develops.

Sanchez was often isolated at right back with Joaquin further forward and cutting inward. Such a move simply aided Barcelona’s left.

Left, Left, Left

Against Espanyol, the interplay and positional changing of Iniesta and Cesc was a key component of the victory. These players linked yet again against Malaga to provide Barcelona with an alternative to the reliance upon the right side of the team where Pedro, Messi, primarily, and Alves operate.

Barcelona Heat Map vs Malaga

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

The above heat map shows the tendency for attacks entering the penalty area to be on the left hand side. It’s a theme that has been developing recently and only looks like increasing further through the combination play of Iniesta, Cesc and Alba.

The lack of penetration on the right is heightened by the tendency for Pedro to drive diagonally inward and act as a No9 when required. It leaves Dani Alves alone to patrol the right flank.

Iniesta has previously spoken of not fully enjoying the wide left role but there is now a major difference with the interchanging:-

“Playing at different position? Main thing is you feel good. We try to switch positions, the team does well, that’s what matters.”

Iniesta

The Goals

With the game finely balanced although Barcelona were enjoying more possession, the opening goal would be pivotal. That it arose via a defensive blunder considering the quality on offer was a surprise. Camacho hit a back pass to Cabellero failing to see that Messi was some way behind the Malaga defence. The forward was able to intercept the pass and round Cabellero before slotting home.

Fabregas scored shortly after half time. As with all Pellegrini teams, Malaga hold a well organised defensive line and attempt to stay relatively high rather than falling back. This time however, Weligton dropped deeper than his team mates and Fabregas was able to run in behind Sanchez for the second goal. The real moment of genius here though was the chipped pass from Messi, weighted perfectly for Fabregas to run onto.

The goal was further evidence of the positional changes which Barcelona can now utilise. Iniesta was supposedly on the wide attacking left position, but at the goal he was in a central position and Cesc Fabregas was wide on the left. The constant movement and interplay making it increasingly difficult for opponents to successfully defend. This level of understanding comes to fruition after a considerable time period. It’s not easily learned.

The second goal killed the game to a certain extent. Barcelona dominated possession and Malaga only offered minimal threat sporadically, both teams sensing that the contest was over. It led to a situation of less pressure for Barcelona and some fantastic midfield passing movements helped by their horizontal positioning noted above.

Barcelona now also possess the ability to attack teams quickly during transitions. The qualities have always existed but are now being employed. In the 63 minute, Barcelona attacked swiftly following a Malaga corner with Pique leading the break.  This has been an underused weapon within the arsenal for some time but there are signs it is being used more frequently now.
 
The third and final goal for Barcelona was an individual effort from Thiago. Collecting a throw in on the right, he easily evaded poorly attempted tackles from Iturra and Camacho before drilling the ball low past Cabellero.

Barcelona has now gone nine games home and away without defeat against Malaga with Messi scoring ten goals in his last ten games against los bocquernos.

Buonanotte scored a consolation goal, a lovely free kick curled over the defensive wall. It was a deserved goal considering their efforts.

Conclusions

Malaga suffer back to back league defeats and, more importantly, become caught up in a battle to secure the final Champions League berth. Whilst the loss was disappointing, Dimechelis was quick to recognise the superiority of Barcelona:-

“Honestly, in the second half Barcelona made me want to applaud them.”

An unprecedented league campaign for Barcelona thus far. Eighteen wins and a solitary draw in their nineteen matches to date. Vilanova has already acknowledged that a repeat of such form in the second half of the season is unlikely but given their recent form, could Barcelona at least remain unbeaten for the duration of the season?

Advertisements

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.

Cesc Fabregas – Moments

The moment when emotions pause

And then clicks into place.

Spain vs France: Tactical Analysis

Spain win 2-0 and progress to the semi final of the European Championships.

Again, this was a performance characterised by control and tactical discipline throughout although there were one or two moments in the second half when France attempted to gain a foothold in the match. Almost, but not quite.

We have been here before, haven’t we?

Line Ups

Del Bosque once more reverted to the false 9 system which is causing so much controversy with Fabregas replacing Torres.

Spain vs France – Spanish Starting Line Up

Laurent Blanc made four changes following the disappointing defeat to Sweden in the final group game.

Koscielny replaced the suspended Mexes whilst Nasri, Ben Arfa and, most surprisingly, Diarra all dropped to the bench. Cabaye and Malouda were both reintroduced in central midfield. Anthony Reveillere made his first start of the tournament. Something of a lucky omen in previous games for France, Reveillere had yet to taste defeat on the twelve occasions he had started for les bleus.

Spain vs France – French Starting Line Up

The most interesting feature of the French side though, was the deployment of both Reveillere and Debuchy on the right flank. A move clearly designed to prevent Alba and Iniesta pushing down the left side.

French Set Up

We like when other teams leave out their ball players. It’s good for us when others change their system. We never change ours.” Xavi Hernandez

It’s hard to avoid the view that Blanc thought long and hard about his formation, probably too hard. He moved beyond the point of balancing his team’s aspirations and negating the Spanish, and concluded with a line up designed purely to stop Spain.

The inclusion of Debuchy almost as a right wing back with Reveillere behind was designed to combat the attacking thrust of Alba and his combination play with Iniesta. However, on the one occasion when Iniesta released Alba on the left, the resulting cross was converted by Xabi Alonso.

The move also meant France lacked any sort of attacking impetus on their right and allowed Alba to push forward.

The double full back idea has been successfully put into practise at Valencia by Jeremy Mathieu and Jordi Alba, the man who helped undo it tonight, with both players understanding their responsibilities defensively and attacking. Debuchy and Reveillere seemed unsure in the first half. Despite being the right sided midfielder, in theory, Debuchy dropped to deep from the outset, allowing Alba to position himself further up the pitch.

The inclusion of Malouda in midfield was obviously designed as a link between midfield and attack but provided neither. The manner in which Alonso ran from a stationary Malouda for his goal must have alarmed Blanc. There may have been some tactical errors within the team but the players themselves must also share a portion of the blame for something as basic as failure to track a runner.

Spanish Mobility

With the use of the false 9 system, the requirement for midfielders to make forward runs is paramount. Spain have failed to do that so far with the exception of Fabregas.

Tonight, the Spanish midfield all demonstrated their ability to move forward.

The French midfield will be sorely criticised for their performance especially Malouda but it’s probably the first time in the tournament when the Spanish midfield have all offered higher levels of movement epitomised not only by Alonso scoring the opening goal but also by Busquets pushing forward and being the most advanced played at one point in the first half. The trend continued into the second half when Xavi operated almost as a second striker at times, tucked in behind Torres.

Xabi Alonso provided his best performance of the tournament so far showcasing his passing range and operating in a slightly more advanced position:-

Alonso – Passes vs France

But does the mobility, and the improved performance of Alonso, come with a downside?

This was arguably Xavi’s weakest performance of the tournament. With Alonso more influential and Xavi moving further forward, we see the problems that were envisaged pre-tournament.

Xavi Passes vs France

Xavi made fewer passes tonight and when he was positioned slightly further forward, the incisiveness of the pass begins to fade slightly with more horizontal passing becoming prominent. Alonso and Xavi need to operate in different areas of the pitch to both be effective. If Alonso steps forward, Xavi is squeezed.

The Barcelona lynchpin remains unnervingly accurate with his passing through.

French Left vs Spanish Right

This had the potential to be a key battleground in the game yet it never quite materialised.

The French are very strong on their left side with Ribery stationed there and joined by the drifting Benzema.

Against the weak link in the Spanish defence, Arbeloa, there was the possibility of success in this flank particularly as attacks would draw Pique out from his central comfort zone. Despite some forays, the attack seldom amounted to any real orchestrated period of pressure.

In the defensive phase of the game, Ribery seldom bothered tracking back and remained high up the pitch, letting Arbeloa push forward.

Missed Opportunity?

Once again, Alvaro Arbeloa had acres of space to himself on the Spanish right with France preoccupied with Alba on the left and Ribery uninterested in backtracking.

Whereas Alba is involved in combination play with the midfield, primarily Iniesta, Arbeloa is often left isolated on the right and typically only becomes involved in the play via crossfield passes. The ball tends to be played to him as opposed to ahead of him meaning he can be closed down quickly. Arbeloa is therefore forced to turn inside or pass backwards.

Opponents are not considering Arbeloa to be a threat. Against Ireland, Croatia and now France he has been left in space.

Spain need to better utilise the space which opponents are presenting Arbeloa with.

Second Half

From an entertainment point of view, the second half was probably the dullest 45 minutes of the tournament to date.

France tried to increase the tempo of their play but struggled to find any sort of rhythm in their play, failing to register a shot on target during the second half. Spain, showing signs of tiredness, appeared content to play within themselves but just above the level of the French.

A number of substitutions in the second half offered potential to change the game yet had little effect.

The introduction of Menez and Nasri for Debuchy and Malouda offered more attacking options for the French. Del Bosque responded immediately with two substitutions, Pedro and Torres replacing Silva and Fabregas. The move provided Spain with more of a direct threat and seemed sensible with the increased likelihood of the game being stretched as les bleus pushed forward in search of the equaliser.

Pedro, rather than move to the right was positioned on the left perhaps to support Alba against the new threat from Menez and the attack minded Reveillere.

The substitutions failed to have any real effect for either side although Spain began losing an element of control. Their possession dropping from 63% in the 60th minute down to 56% in the 80th minute. Indeed, between the 60th minute and 75th minute, France had 55% possession yet throughout this period, Spain always looked secure.

The removal of M’Vila was Blanc’s last gamble in the 78th minute and it failed when Cazorla, a replacement for the tiring Iniesta, found space in front of the French defence, in the space which M’Vila had previously occupied, to thread the ball through to Pedro who was subsequently fouled for the penalty.

Cesc vs Torres – The Issue of Control

Fabregas and Torres – Passes Received vs France

The chart above illustrates where Cesc and Torres receive or attempt to receive passes.

Whilst Cesc stays relatively deep in comparison to a conventional striker, Torres is moving towards the penalty area in most cases, operating off the shoulder of the last defender and always waiting for the through ball when he can utilise his pace.

Opponents of the false 9 system will point to this as further evidence of the need for a striker. Torres helps stretch the French defence and pushed them further back whereas Fabregas operates in front of the defence. Even if Torres is not performing well, his presence on the pitch forces defenders into a decision. If they push high, there is always the chance of Torres breaking free therefore, the opponent recognises this and defends deeper.

Whilst that is true, what is also important to note is the additional control which Fabregas offers. The introduction of Torres and a more vertical Spain resulted in possession dropping and a loss of control for a period in the match. Playing through balls to suit the natural game of Torres comes at a premium. Not all passes will be successful and the opposition then have the ball back and Spain need to press once more.

With the movement of Fabregas and his combination play, Spain dominate possession and tire the opponent out.

In the games against Italy, Croatia and France, del Bosque has made a change around the 60 minute mark, introducing pace and width to the side initially via Navas and now with Pedro.

Spain control the game, suffocating you with possession and when you are beginning to tire, they introduce an element of verticality to their play.

It’s becoming the del Bosque standard and allows the Spanish players to operate at a lower physical level during the match as they control the tempo. The players have greater recovery periods during the match whilst the opponents chase shadows. The Spanish players need this recovery time too. There are signs of tiredness now.

Space Creation

Against both Croatia and France, opposition substitutions have created space for Spain to attack. The removal of Vukojevic in the 81st minute allowed Fabregas space to move forward unopposed and play the pass which released Iniesta against Croatia. Against France, the removal of M’Vila after 79 minutes provided Cazorla with time and space to pass forward to Pedro under no pressure.

Teams set out defensive formations against Spain but the loss of a goal alters the paradigm of the match. The opposition coach must react, typically, by removing a defensive payer and replacing him with an attacking player. But so far this has not yielded results and only offered Spain more room to create attacks and ultimately, score goals.

Conclusions

There were some issues for concern for Spain tonight but perhaps not what many people expected. Spain showed glimpses of fatigue.

“I am thinking about this problem,”  admitted del Bosque

With two days less rest before they meet Portugal in the semi finals, don’t expect Spain to showcase expansive attacking football in the remainder of the competition. Although capable of it, this tournament now becomes solely about the result and the opportunity to make history.

Will this result now end the discussion around the Spanish set up? Probably not even though the players themselves appear convinced as Alonso states:-

The issue is not the system, but how you use the system

Spain will not change. They will continue to play the same way they have done over these past four years with an inherent belief that what they are doing is correct. It’s proven a highly successful tactic thus far.

The question which Paulo Bento must ask is whether he changes tact or does have he have the same level of faith is his players which del Bosque shows in the Spanish?