Athletic Bilbao vs Barcelona: Tactical Analysis

And so, in his 247th game in charge, Guardiola secured his 179th win as manager of Barcelona. In doing so, Barcelona won the 110th final of the Copa del Rey and collected their 14th trophy in four remarkable seasons under the stewardship of Guardiola.

The Copa del Rey final between Atheltic Bilbao and Barcelona lived up to the hype surrounding the game with a thrilling, if somewhat one sided at times, game which was ultimately over after an explosive first 30 minutes.

Barcelona claimed their 26th win in the competition whilst Athletic remain stuck on 23 wins. For Athletic, the wait for a trophy continues and it will shortly be 29 years since their last trophy. Opportunities have been missed in this game and the recent Europa League final against Atletico. But in truth, Athletic nerve had a chance against a reinvigorated Barcelona which played the sort of intensive, attacking football which was their hallmark throughout the Guardiola era.

As Sid Lowe stated prior to the game, the Copa final was the culmination of a journey for Guardiola. From his meeting with Bielsa which inspired him to become a manager, to beating Athletic in the Copa del Rey final in 2009 to win his first trophy as Barcelona manager to the present day. Facing Athletic, again, in the Copa del Rey final in his last game in charge. An Athletic side guided by Bielsa. The journey ended with Guardiola winning. Again.

Despite all the trophies, Pep still enjoys being thrown around

Starting Line Ups

In Guardiola’s last game in charge, the starting eleven had to contend with a couple of injuries.

Barcelona Starting Line Up – Copa del Rey Final 2012

The most notable omission from the Barcelona team line was of course, that of Puyol, sidelined following an operation on his knee. Pique was the replacement here. Alves failed to recover from injury and so Martin Montoya started at right back.

Pinto was in goal as is normal in Copa del Rey games. Up front, Pedro and Sanchez supported Messi from the flanks.

Fabregas was only on the bench which surprised some however he inevitably drifts into a central position on the pitch. Barcelona needed two wide players who were fast, direct and would stretch the game whilst also offering workrate to compete on both attacking and defensive fronts against Athletic’s full backs. Sanchez and Pedro were easy choices in that respect.

The Athletic line up contained two notable omissions. Iturraspe and Ander Herrara both overlooked due to illness although Herrara made the bench.

The neccessitated a minor reshuffle of personnel with Ekiza and Amorebieta forming the central defence allowing Martinez to push into midfield.

Further forward, Ibai Gomez took the left wing berth with Muniain adopting a more central position from the outset. Ibai offers a more vertical approach on the left than Muniain who tends to drift laterally.

Athletic Starting Line Up – Copa del Rey Final 2012

Despite the changes in personnel, it initially appeared that Athletic would utilise the same 4-3-3 system which has been their mainstay since early October as outlined here. However, they altered this to form more of a 4-2-3-1 with Muniain in a much more advanced position and the wingers slightly more reserved than normal.

As the game unfolded, it seemed that Bielsa was preoccupied with denying Messi space to the extent that the remainder of the team’s structure suffered. This will be examined in the themes below.

Pressing

The game started at a frantic pace with both sides pressing aggressively.

Twice in the opening five minutes, Athletic pressed Pinto and twice this resulted in them securing possession higher up the pitch as Pinto failed to find team mates with his clearances.

It is well known that Pinto is not as accompolished as Valdes with his distribution yet Athletic did not grasp this opportunity as the match progressed.

Pinto – Almost as mad as Bielsa. But not quite.

Their pressing was muted. Llorente would attempt to split the centre backs as normal but De Marcos was deeper in midfield alongside Martinez and they offered no support to Llorente. Ibai and Susaeta were isolated on the flanks.

Pressing in such a half hearted fashion allowed Barcelona to pass their way around Athletic. Was this a deliberate tactic by Bielsa? This was the 63rd game of the season for Athletic and their first choice players have all played more than 50 times. Markel Susaeta has played in every game. Was this a case of one step too far for them?

Barcelona, by way of contrast, pressed in a coordinated fashion early on and the mood was set for the remainder of the game as a consequence. When Barcelona’s pressing dropped off, the Athletic players continued to react in the same fashion as if they were being pressed. Used to being pressed quickly and simply clearing the ball, despite now having slightly more time in possession, the same reaction occurs. Amorebieta’s poor clearance prior to the second goal being the perfect illustration of this.

The pressing of Barcelona was reminiscent of their early success under Guardiola. Intensive pressing around the pitch with the front players working hard to close down opposition defenders quickly.

Barcelona had rediscovered their intensity which was missing for large parts of the season. Allied to their intensity was a ruthlessness not seen often enough either.

Athletic Loose vs Barcelona Compact

Athletic were extremely stretched in the first half with large spaces between the lines which Barcelona continually exploited especially through the movement and probing passing of Xavi and Iniesta.

Yet it was not just the Barcelona midfield duo who were at their imperious best. Montoya started high and regularly forced Ibai Gomez, a very direct player, onto the back foot.

A central tenant of Athletic’s play this season as been the quick combinations between two or three players near the opponents penalty area with the full backs, particularly Iraola, pushing on. Yet here, neither Iraola or Aurtenxte were seen in the Barcelona half of the pitch during the opening 30 minutes. There were no combinations due to Barcelona pressing high.

Athletic were open with too much space between players, an immediate impact of their desire to be direct with the resulting loss of possession. There were few combinations and each pass became difficult to achieve given the distance between the players.

This was rectified somewhat after the half time break as Athletic switched to a more structured 4-5-1 with coherent pressing. They quickly regained they shape too when required. The damge however, had already been done. Barcelona, although under slightly more pressure on occasion, still possessed an attacking threat but the damage had been inflicted.

Amorebieta

The Venezuelan International, who endured a torrid evening against Falcao in the Europa League Final, had a similar experience against Barcelona.

From the outset, Amoebieta appeared to be man marking Messi, often following him around the pitch but on some occasions letting him go free. Amorebieta followed Messi to the halfay line in the 1st minute with Barcelona exploiting the resulting space to create an opportunity.

The decision to employ a tall, physical centre half in a man marking role on Messi was wrong. A more nimble, mobile player should have been utilised.

Amorebieta’s misplaced clearance in the 19th minute, despite being under no immediate pressure, led to Barcelona’s second goal.

Amorebieta was dragged down the pitch by Messi vacating space which Xavi looked to move into during the first half. This aggressive, forwarding running by Xavi provided the assist for the 3rd Barcelona goal, laying the ball off to Pedro on the edge of the Athletic penalty area.

When Amorebieta followed Messi, Athletic required to reshuffle to compensate. They achieved this by tucking their full backs in to provide a narrow three. This in turn meant the full backs were deep and unable to support the wingers. The end result of this was that Athletic struggled to get higher up the pitch.

The player who should have been used to man mark Messi was Iturraspe.

The Midfield Battle

With Martinez and De Marcos in midfield facing up against Iniesta and Xavi, the midfield battle seemed perfectly poised. Barcelona, however, consistently had better options in this area due to their intelligent movement against a somewhat static Athletic.

With Athletic not pressing coherently as outlined above, Pique and Mascherano were faced only by Llorente. Both are comfortable in possession and were happy to take on Llorente and step into midfield. As soon as Llorente was passed, either Martinez or De Marcos had a decision to make. Challenge the man in possession or stay with their direct opponent. There was no consistent strategy here. When Athletic closed down the man in possession, Xavi or Iniesta would make forward runs or drift into space.

Athletic were very linear with clear space between the defensive and midfield lines. Exactly the area which Iturraspe would have occupied had he been fit. However, with Muniain playing higher up, Martinez was forced to stay alongside De Marcos to provide support.

The introduction of Herrara at half time provided more composure to the Athletic midfield and assisted their ball retention. The direct nature of their play in the first half was tempered with a little more guile.

Conclusions

A tremendous performance from Barcelona provided Guardiola with the ideal send off – his 14th trophy as manager in just 4 seasons. A sensational achievement and one which is unlikely to replicated for some considerable time, if at all.

Xavi Hernandez. Small man, big trophy

A performance of quality in possesion matched by hunger without possession was simply too much for Athletic.

For Athletic, a crucial period is almost upon them. With an average age of just 24 years old, the potential within the squad to build and develop is consdierable. Whether the squad remains intact is the first issue. Intertwined with this is whether Bielsa continues with the project at Athletic remains to be seen.

Perhaps Bielsa, encapsulated the level of perforamnce from Barcelona perfectly: – “comparing players rarely serves to eulogise the chosen one, rather to belittle the other one”.

We seek faults within the Athletic performance instead of marveling at the display from Barcelona perhaps because we expect it from them. Last night, in Guardiola’s final game, they produced a truly great performance.

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Barcelona vs Espanyol – Tactical Analysis

Pep Guardiola’s final home game in charge of Barcelona welcomed the visit of Pochettino’s Espanyol side to Camp Nou. What turned out to be a very comfortable win for Barcelona was played, with a few exceptions, at a generally low tempo throughout especially the first half. The game had the feel of an end of season encounter with nothing at stake. The highlights, as ever, arrived via Messi.

T’estimem Pep – “We Love You Pep”

Line Ups.

Following the clasico defeat, Barcelona have scored 11 goals and conceded just 1 in their two games against Rayo Vallecano and Malaga, each game seeing a few changes in personnel.

Pinto continued in goal ahead of Victor Valdes owing to a combination of Valdes wishing to win the Zamora Award and also due to Pinto’s appearance in the forthcoming Copa del Rey final, the game provided much needed match practice.

Montoya made his second start at right back in the last three games and there were also starting places for Thiago, Keita and Pedro.

Barcelona vs Espanyol – Starting Line Ups

Espanyol entered the game with their season more or less over. Similar to last season, they began brightly and harboured hopes of European football before declining sharply in the new year. Never in any danger of relegation this season, los periquito’s recent form of just one win in eight games effectively killed off any thoughts of entertaining European football at the Estadi Cornella-El Prat next season.

Pochettino made just one change from the side which lost away to Granada midweek, with Moreno replacing Romaric. This necessitated a reshuffle with Forlin moved out to right back and Javi Lopez starting in a defensive midfield position.

First Half

Espanyol started the game with their normal high line and aggressive, pressing style, seeking to disrupt Barcelona and prevent them from establishing any sort of rhythm. They probably started a little too aggressively, conceding four fouls in the opening five minutes with Forlin cautioned for pulling back Iniesta.

As Barcelona began to exert a little more influence over proceedings mainly via Iniesta on the left drifting inward, and Forlin at right back hindered by his early caution, Messi won and scored from a free kick after 11 minutes.

To some extent, this killed the game with the tempo remaining particularly flat for the remainder of the half only enlivened by free kicks from Iniesta and Messi which went close.

Espanyol retained a narrow 4-3-3 shape with a high defensive line and little space between the lines due to their generally compact shape. There was space wide with Espanyol holding a narrow line across the width of their penalty area but this was never really exploited by Barcelona. Iniesta preferring to move inside and Pedro still searching for form. When Espanyol attacked, all their creative play came via Verdu operating centrally and Weiss coming inside form the right.

With both sides happy to press high and push their defensive line up, there was ample space in behind the respective defences yet neither team took advantage of this in the first half.

Second Half

Espanyol continued to press high, making life awkward for Barcelona when trying to pass out from defence.

Espanyol never had the opportunity to put real pressure on Pinto when he had the ball at his feet. Barcelona will always seek to play the ball out from defence even when under pressure and the goalkeeper becomes an important link in the chain, providing angles for a backpass and switching the play across the pitch. Pinto is noticeably uncomfortable with the ball at his feet and his range of passing is substantially less than Valdes. Considering their aggressive pressing style, this should have been an area for Espanyol to attack yet it never materialised.

With five cautions, Espanyol continued their assault on the fair play league and are now second behind Valencia in terms of the number of yellow and red cards they have accumulated this season.

There is nothing unusual statistically about the number of tackles they make per game or the number of fouls they concede per game but their yellow card count is very high. Due to their high defensive line and tendency to press, perhaps they commit more cynical fouls than others to help the team recover their shape?

The second Barcelona goal arrived via a debatable penalty for handball. There was considerable protest from Espanyol players leading to three cautions being received. Aggrieved by the decision, Espanyol began to lose their shape.

Trailing 2-0, Pochettino replaced Alvaro with Coutinho leaving Espanyol with no recognised striker on the pitch for the remaining 27 minutes of the game. There were options on the bench in the shape of Uche and Pandiani but neither is going to provide the level of mobility and fluidity that Pochettino was clearly seeking from his team in an attacking sense.

Messi’s hat trick took advantage of Espanyol sending a number of players forward for a corner. With the corner successfully defended, Thiago floated a ball over the Espanyol defence for Messi to run onto to. This was the first real exploitation of the Espanyol high line. Three touches later it was 3-0.

Messi – 1 touch, 2 touch, 3 touch – goal

Barcelona and Messi’s fourth followed shortly with another penalty kick.

The Espanyol defensive line became ragged as the game drew to a conclusion with the back four now stretched across a wider area and the compactness of the team now gone. This led directly to Messi’s late chance from Thiago’s threaded pass but overall, the defensive lines of both sides were maintained well, supported by the twelve offside decisions in the game.

Conclusions

Espanyol have caused Barcelona some difficult moments in recent meetings but there was never any sense that a shock was likely to happen here. A very routine win for Barcelona in Guardiola’s last home match in charge.

Welcome to the club

What was it WH Auden said again?

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone …

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

And they are mourning right now in Barcelona. But is it for a defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League semi final? Or is it because they fear Pep Guardiola will now walk away?

For the first time this season, Guardiola has indicated he will speak with both Tito Vilanova and Sandro Rosell in the next few days to clarify his future.

Coming off the back of defeats to Real Madrid, which has more or less confirmed Los Blancos as La Liga champions, and elimination at the hands of Chelsea in the Champions League, the future looks bleak. With his preference for 12 month rolling contracts, there is always a degree of speculation about his future each year. It has now been significantly intensified.

In light of these disappointments, will Guardiola overreact and make a rash decision?

I doubt it.

In his four years in charge of Barcelona, Guardiola has made very few rash decisions. It’s not a trend I see him starting now. Two seasons ago, Inter arrived at Camp Nou and put up the defensive shutters and left victorious in the tie. Barcelona came back stronger the following season, reclaiming the Champions League.

If he chooses to go now, it will be because he believes he has taken the team as far as he can and because he believes the hunger within the players is no longer there. It will not be a kneejerk reaction over the past week. These games may have confirmed his decision but they will not be the only factors. There is also the strain and pressure of managing Barcelona and the effect this has upon him privately.

Guardiola is now coming to the end of his fourth season in charge. He has won a remarkable 13 competitions from 17 entered. Win the Copa del Rey in May and the tally moves to 14 wins in 18 competitions.

Remember the great Bela Guttmann and his advice? “the third season is fatal”.

Guardiola is beyond that but what more can he win and achieve with Barcelona?

The Champions League this season represented something of a holy grail. To become the first team in the modern day Champions League to win and defend the trophy. To replicate the magnificent achievement of the great AC Milan team under the stewardship of Arrigo Saachi, the last team to successfully defend the old European Cup.

Remember, Arrigo Saachi, arguably the last great tactical innovator only lasted 4 seasons in charge of his great AC Milan side before they burned out, consumed by his intensive training and the aggressive pressing style of play on the pitch.

Are we witnessing that with Barcelona?

There are certain key components of the team that have changed. Evolution is necessary of course and Guardiola has actively sought to improve the team’s tactics to overcome the obstacles opponents place in front of them.  However, certain key elements have altered and changed the dynamic of the team.

The intensive pressing to regain possession is still there but it has dropped down a notch. With Messi operating deeper, there are sometimes only two forward players doing the pressing and so it becomes easier for opponents to evade.

Opponents have more time on the ball in midfield which leads to more accurate forward passes. This is a real issue for a Barcelona side which attempts to compress the game by holding a high offside line.

A few seasons ago, Chelsea defeated Barcelona in a Champions League tie and Rijkaard and Henk Ten Cate discussed what Barcelona required to become champions of Europe. Surely we should go for more athletic types and move away from these small players? Wisely, and with assistance with Txiki Begiristain, Barcelona chose their current path. And with another elimination at the hands of a powerful, physical Chelsea, the questions over a Plan B will resurface again.

At this junction, irrespective of who manages Barcelona, the club must remain true to it’s style, remembering Cruyff and his influence and his belief in cherishing “style” over all else.

There have been defeats before and Barcelona has bounced back. There will be further defeats in the future.

When questioned after the game about what he would tell a child who has cried for Barcelona for the first time after the exit to Chelsea, Guardiola calmly responded “Welcome to the club. You will cry more times”

el clasico: Tactical Analysis

And so the league title is almost certainly bound for Madrid after a fine 2-1 win at the Camp Nou. With recent clasico’s providing a fair dose of play acting, melee’s along with a very high degree of technical quality, this game was something of a disappointment, missing all of those ingredients which make them such gripping viewing.

It was tense and the crowd were subdued for much of the game. As were the technical areas. Mourinho stayed sitting for most of the game, he would have been extremely happy with how things panned out whereas Guardiola never showed any urgency towards his team.

After clawing back the deficit from 10 points to 4 points, perhaps he knew it was just too much and the team could not sustain the level of effort required any longer.

Barcelona

Guardiola is known for throwing a curveball in his selections and tactics for clasico’s but I doubt anyone saw his selection or formation in advance. Tello and Thiago starting with Pique, Fabregas, Sanchez, Pedro and Keita on the bench. Cuenca did not even make the squad.

A 4-3-3 when defending but switching to a 3-3-4 when in possession and moving forward. As I had suggested in the preview, Puyol initially tracked Ronaldo meaning Dani Alves started higher up the pitch on the right. On the opposite flank, Tello provided the width. Thiago operated at the base of midfield with Busquets moving between midfield and central defence as required.

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Real Madrid

Mourinho kept faith in the team which lost to Bayern and went with his usual 4-2-3-1 formation resisting the temptation to switch to a 4-3-3 and adopt a more conservative approach.

Real Madrid Starting Line Up

Madrid did not press as heavily or as coordinated as they have done in previous clasico encounters. The front four were pressing but nowhere near as aggressively and the remainder of the team were dropping off. This “false” pressing from Madrid was adversely affecting Barcelona though as they made a number of forced and unforced errors in their passing.

Have Busquets, Thiago and Iniesta ever made so many incomplete passes in the same game?

This was a game that Barcelona had to win to keep alive their hopes of winning the title. The onus was on Barcelona to take the initiative whereas Madrid would have been content with a draw. As such, all of the interesting features arise from a Barcelona perspective.

Nothing that Madrid did was unexpected or unusual. They did their jobs very well with discipline, organisation and a high workrate.

Lack of Central Focus

With Messi dropping deep and Tello and Alves wide, there was no player to occupy the Madrid central defensive pairing of Pepe and Ramos. Subsequently, when Messi took possession and tried to run with the ball, he was easily crowded out centrally.

Barcelona enjoyed 78% possession but much of it was in a central area and in front of the Madrid backline. Busquets, Thaigo, Xavi and Iniesta were all central and only on a few occasions did anyone break further forward ahead of the ball offering a passing opportunity into the Madrid penalty area and pulling the Madrid defence. Too often the passes were across the pitch.

Barcelona needed much more vertical movement from their players and in this respect the late arrival of the subs was very surprising.

How much has Barcelona missed not only the goalscoring of both Pedro and Villa this season, but the movement and finishing that they offer?

Alves Starting Position

Dani Alves played the entire game as a right winger and had little impact on proceedings.

The strength of Alves is when he breaks from deep and at pace, attacking the opposition full back and also providing an overlapping outlet for Barcelona and linking with his team mate higher up the pitch e.g. his link play with Messi previously and now with Sanchez.

On his own and from a standing start, he is not going to beat his opponent so Barcelona were left with Alves on the right, either failing to get around Coentrao or turning back inside.

There were also a number of occasions in the first half when Alves received the ball wide right and no Barcelona player was near him. Each time, Alves was forced to turn back infield. If Sanchez or Pedro had received that pass, Alves would have been overlapping and providing an outlet.

Removal of Xavi

Barcelona have played a slightly more direct fashion at times this season due to two key factors.

1. Sanchez and Fabregas are willing to make more vertical runs, particularly Sanchez coming from out to in and off the shoulder of the deepest defender. As a consequence, Barcelona will look for both players more often and play slightly riskier passes as a result.

2. Xavi has missed some games due to injury. With Xavi, no other player in the Barcelona squad can fulfill the same role. Without his controlling and measured approach, the other midfielders will play more direct passes.

The removal of Xavi after 68 minutes has been misinterpreted in some quarters. Xavi has been struggling with an Achilles injury for some time. He is also severely fatigued now. This has implications not just for Barcelona but also for Spain at the Euro’s.

Also, that Messi was more effective, making the run which led to the goal after Xavi was removed, has also been misinterpreted. The removal of Xavi and the run from Messi are not related. The introduction of Sanchez was key. He occupied Madrid’s central defenders and pulled Pepe wider when Messi broke allowing him enough space to drive towards the Madrid penalty area. The goal resulted after a few deflections.

Focus on the Champions League?

Mourinho went with his strongest eleven. It was clear were his priority lay.

For Guardiola it is not that straightforward. Tello made only his third senior start and Thiago at the base of midfield was also unusual. Why not Keita who provides a stronger presence? Why does Pique remain on the bench?

Fabregas and Sanchez were clearly being rested ahead of the Chelsea game.

It’s an extremely risky strategy which could backfire if Chelsea manage to emerge from Tuesday night with a positive result.

Conclusions

In the clasico preview here, I listed 5 key factors which I considered would have an influence on the game.

Will fatigue be a factor?

Madrid surprisingly kept the same eleven who had started the game against Bayern and the team performed well including Di Maria who put in a considerable defensive effort. If anything, it was Barcelona and Xavi especially who looked tired.

Will Madrid press?

Yes, for the first 25 minutes or so they pressed and held a relatively high defensive line. At 1-0 up, they dropped deeper and looked for quick counters.

Will Madrid continue to be so direct?

Madrid continued their recent direct approach both in terms of hitting some longer passing and also by moving directly towards their opponents goal when they won the ball. Barcelona are always much more considered when the regain possession.

Ronaldo’s role

Ronaldo did his share of defence duties and also scored the winning goal. All in all, a very successful night for him.

Barcelona will dominate possession.

And they did with 78% to Madrid’s 22% but as at Stamford Bridge, the possession was in a comfortable zone for their opponent. Barcelona passed and passed in front of the Madrid backline.

How can Barcelona retain width?

The use of Tello and Alves high and wide failed. Tello in only his 3rd start showed glimpses of his pace but against a deep backline, he could produce little. Alves, as outlined above, is not a winger.

Barcelona vs AC Milan: 3 short observations

Three short observations on the Barcelona vs AC Milan game last night.

3 Man Defence

Guardiola has used a 3 man defence on occasion at home this season particularly against weaker opposition but this was the first time they have used it against a strong opponent. It allowed an additional man to play in the midfield area which is important against a narrow Milan side who strength lies in the central midfield area and gave Alves the freedom to start very high up on the right.

The 3 man defence still provided Barca with a spare man against the Milan front two of Robinho and Zlatan.

Guardiola talked at the press conference afterwards about the flexibility of Alves and how this assist’s the team.

Width

Both Alves but especially Cuenca played high and wide, staying on the touchline to stretch their opponents. In the first game at the San Siro, Barca were far too narrow probably a combination of line up and pitch quality (remember Arsenal had also struggled to gain any width at the San Siro).

Cuenca had little influence on the game but by being permanently stationed on the touchline it pulled Milan’s back 4 across the full width of the 18 yard box. The success that Milan enjoyed at the San Siro had been forcing Barca narrow.

With the back 4 stretched, the midfield dropped deeper to prevent Barca exploiting the gaps in the defensive line.

Fabregas

Recalled to the starting eleven after injury, Cesc alternated between playing in and around Messi often moving beyond him on occasion but also dropped deeper than Messi to collect the ball. This led to Messi being isolated on occasion with Alves and Cuenca very wide. This was the exact problem Barca faced in the clasico last season early on when the role of Cesc was confused and he strayed too far from Messi but too close to Xavi.

Perhaps there is still a little bit more work required on the training pitch to iron out the small problems on how Messi and Fabregas should link against better opposition.