Barcelona vs Real Madrid

Given the regularity with which these teams have met in recent times, we have often been spoiled with the quality being displayed alongside the theatre of the spectacle. Saturday evening at the Camp Nou provided sporadic moments of quality within a game played at a relatively low tempo and lacking in the theatrical, and sometimes Machiavellian, behaviour that we have grown accustomed to.

Line Ups

The main decision for Martino was who would feature in the attacking positions. There was discussion that either Pedro or Alexis Sanchez would join Messi and Neymar in attack. Both would begin on the bench with Cesc Fabregas favoured in the central attacking position. Neymar would begin on the left as per usual with Messi operating from the right.

Starting Line Ups

Starting Line Ups

For Ancelotti, much of the focus surrounded whether or not Gareth Bale would start the game. He did but that wasn’t the most surprising feature. Varane, Pepe and Ramos were all in the starting line up with Ramos placed in a defensive midfield role. At right back, perhaps wary of the problems Neymar had given Arbeloa in the Confederations Cup, Carvejal started.

Madrid would begin the game in a 4-3-3.

Low Key Game

As suggested at the outset, this game was played at a lower tempo than recent clasico’s. The higher level of intensity was missing from the game.  Madrid seemed content to regroup and sit off Barcelona, allowing the hosts time in possession. There was nothing unusual about this scenario. It’s one that Madrid have played out so often in clasico’s, absorbing pressure and striking on the break. Yet this attacking threat was missing from Madrid.

There is a problem with the structure of the Madrid team which was evident on Saturday. The coach is responsible for maximising the potential of his players whist camouflaging their weaknesses. Ancelotti has proven he can do this elsewhere but the Italian contributed to the problem experienced by Madrid against Barcelona.

Ancelotti Errors?

There’s a fine line to strike between deploying players in alternative positions as part of a wider tactical masterplan and just making a mess of things. The key to succeeding with the former and avoiding the latter is early recognition when you have made an error and rectifying it. It took Ancelotti far too long to rectify things in the game.

The graphic below shows the average positions for the players in this game:-

Average Positions

Average Positions

Di Maria, Khedira and Bale are bunched together, occupying similar space. The three players will attract close attention from Barcelona denying Bale the space that he craves.

The question over why Ramos was positioned in central midfield also has to be asked. The last time Ramos played in midfield was back in 2005. The partnership of Varane and Ramos offered great potential last season when Pepe fell out of favour. If a stronger defensive midfield presence was required, why not place Pepe back in there? He has played there before although he often played right on the edge before tipping over. When Ramos collected a yellow card in the 14th minute, it rendered him useless. The combative edge he was supposed to bring was suppressed.

Iniesta ran off Ramos in the 19th minute forcing Carvejal to move in from right back. Iniesta released Neymar and his low shot was deflected into the bottom corner to give Barcelona the lead.

The role of Ramos caused confusion for Khedira and Modric with Ramos clearly uncomfortable in this odd position and giving Barcelona too much space as Xavi admitted afterwards. Khedira was pushing too high leaving Modric  in trouble.

The use of Bale in the striking role flanked by Di Maria and Ronaldo may look great on paper but given his lack of fitness, it was always a risk to play Bale in a game such as this. Bale had no impact other than to collect a caution for a foul on Pique and was removed early in the second half. It was another gamble that didn’t pay off.

Messi Positioned Wide Right

The deployment of Cesc in the striking position was designed to provide great depth and verticality to the Barcelona attack. It required Messi to move back to a right wing position and although both Fabregas and Messi would switch positions, the move required Messi to help provide cover for Dani Alves at right back against the Madrid left of Marcelo and Ronaldo. He did this frequently, perhaps not at the level required for a normal right sided attacker though.

Still not quite 100% fit, Messi would have to undertake his share of defensive duties to protect Alves. Whilst his application may have been questioned in the past, it was an area of his performance that could not be faulted on Saturday:-

Messi Tackles

Messi Tackles

Alongside Iniesta, Messi made five successful tackles during the game, more than any other player on the pitch. Combined with his work rate when required to close down Madrid players and although he may not have stamped his quality in this game like he done previously, his presence was still an important factor for Barcelona.

In some ways this captured one of the key battles in the game. Barcelona showed hunger, desire and work rate throughout.

Barcelona More Direct

It’s become a common theme this season to state that Barcelona are becoming more direct under new boss Gerardo Martino. By playing deeper at times and encouraging opponents on to them, Barcelona then hope to counter attack in a direct fashion.

The graphic below shows passes from Victor Valdes. It’s noticeable how many passes are now long kicks forward as opposed to building from the back. True, sometimes Madrid pressed high at goal kicks to force Valdes to go long but the short passes under pressure have been removed for a safety first approach:-

Valdes Passes

Valdes Passes

The shot by Neymar in the 54th minute was another example of the more direct style. A long raking pass from Iniesta found Neymar running off Carvejal and able to shoot at goal. Lopez pushed away the shot but the threat being carried was clear. Another opportunity fell for Neymar in the 61st minute after a through ball from Messi but Varane showed fantastic recovery skills to block the shot.

The second goal came via Alexis Sanchez. Introduced in the 8th minute to profit from the space now being created in the Madrid team by Barcelona defending deep. The goal was an excellent piece of improvisation, unable to outpace Varane, he cut back inside the defender before chipping Lopez.

Pressing Remains

In the second half with Barcelona leading 1-0, it was notable how the home side began to sit deeper combined with a greater sense of urgency from Madrid supported by Ancelotti’s positive substitutions. This encouraged Madrid to come forward and enjoy their best spell of the game. Whilst such an approach is nothing new, it is unusual to witness Barcelona moving so deep particularly given the weaknesses within their defensive unit:-

Tackles

Tackles

When Barcelona did press coherently, they won the ball back high up the pitch as shown in the graphic above. When they sat deeper, they managed to stop Madrid getting too close to goal although the woodwork saved them following a superb hit from Benzema.

Attempting 30 tackles to Madrid’s 19 again shows how timid Madrid were at times. They seemed to lack desire and gave their opponents far too much respect in the opening exchanges. The withdrawal of Iniesta to be replaced by Song as the second half wore enable Barcelona to regain a degree of control with both Busquets and Song screening the defence. Martino confirmed post match this was a defensive move but it helped re-establish control.

Madrid Lack Association

What style of team is Ancelotti building at Madrid? It’s a question that’s been asked already this season and the performance in the clasico provides no further evidence as to what team will emerge.

Bale and Ronaldo both want to receive the ball to run into space. Neither wants to come deep to link play and associate with other team members. That left the burden of creativity on the shoulders of Modric. Di Maria was essentially shuttling between attack when in possession and midfield when out of possession as Madrid alternated between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 with or without the ball.

The front three were largely left to their own devices with little support from a midfield that dropped off to quickly when the forwards tried to press or failed to provide adequate passing options in the attacking phase.

This was a disjointed team performance that only really came together in the last 25 minutes when Illarramendi and Benzema entered the field with Bale and Ramos being removed. Madrid now had a better balance in midfield and attack. Illarramendi could collect the ball and distribute quicker from a deep position enabling Modric to play higher whilst Benzema is happy to move deep and link play.  In his brief spell on the pitch, Illarramendi attempted 26 passes compared to the 24 attempted by Ramos in his 55 minutes on the pitch.

The consolation goal from Jese was scored via a counter attack in stoppage time.

A New Challenge from Madrid?

A distinctly average clasico as these games go with Barcelona taking all three points. There are still issues for both teams to resolve in the coming weeks not just for the domestic game but also for their ambitions at European level. At the moment, Ancelotti has a significantly harder task on his hands. The alteration in style is still an ongoing process for Madrid whereas Martino has made smaller, easier changes for Barcelona to assimilate.

Madrid are now 6 points behind Barcelona after 10 games whilst neighbours Atleti are just 1 point behind. Will the challenge from the Capital this season come in red and white stripes?

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 whoscored.com 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.

Conclusions

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.

AC Milan vs Barcelona – Questions, questions, questions

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

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

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

Milan Defence – Park the Bus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Milan Interceptions

Milan Interceptions

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

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

And so must the midfield warhorse, Massimo Ambrosini.

Massimo Ambrosini – Still Going.

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

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

Ambrosini Interceptions vs Barcelona

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

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

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

The Achilles Heel – Left, left, left

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

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

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

Milan Crosses

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

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

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

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

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

Sterile Domination

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

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

Barcelona Shots

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

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

Now there are just questions.

Should Barcelona play deeper and tempt the opponent out?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

Of course, absolutely.

Can Barcelona keep a clean sheet in the process?

That is the question.

Granada vs Barcelona – Suffering Pays Dividends

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

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

Recent Form

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

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

Tactical Set Up

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

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

Granada Heat Map vs Barcelona

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thiago Alcantara

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

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

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

Thiago Interceptions

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

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

Messi – 301 Not Out

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

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

Messi Passes vs Granada

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

Jordi Roura acknowledged the difficulty his side had faced:-

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

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

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

Week 21 Observations – Anything You Can Do…

Another week in La Liga brings another routine victory for each of the big two and yet more scoring exploits from their two main protagonists seemingly locked into a constant game of “Anything you can do, I can do better”.

Real Madrid began the day with a 4-0 victory over Getafe with Ronaldo scoring a hat trick. His goal scoring feat was later surpassed when Messi helped himself to four goals during a 5-1 demolition of Osasuna.

Both benefitted from decisions that were favourable at key points in the game.

Real Madrid 4 Getafe  0

Luis Garcia’s Getafe side have now gone nine games in all competitions without a win. With games against Deportivo, Celta Vigo and Mallorca coming up, El Geta must pick up points to prevent the slide down the table taking them dangerously close to the relegation zone.

Madrid finds its self in something of a quandary. Trailing Barcelona by 15 points in the league, their title is all but lost with nearly half the season remaining. Motivation becomes an issue for the squad as their focus shifts towards the two remaining prizes which they can win; the Copa del Rey and the Champions League. It’s not that simple though. Mediocre league form cannot be transformed overnight to a level sufficient to win the real prize, la decima. It’s an issue that the team as a whole need to address.

The first half was almost instantly forgettable. Getafe hinted at offering something in attack, particularly on quick transitions with Essien not being the most mobile and Modric caught further upfield. Without Khedira or Alonso starting, the midfield looked weak and demonstrated both players worth to the side. The visitors played some neat football but Adan in goal was never properly tested by the sporadic Getafe attacks.

The game changed in the second half with the opening goal being controversial. Whilst it is clear that Carvalho’s arm caught Moya in goal, the keeper really should have done better than to drop the ball enabling Ramos to poke home the opener. Having sad that, it was a foul.

Getafe were then complicit in their own downfall to an extent. Following a corner, Khedira won the ball in his own penalty area and 12 seconds later Ronaldo scored. Castro then conceded possession at the halfway line and 9 seconds later Ronaldo scoed his second and the sides third. There was no patient build up play. Instead, Madrid ruthlessly took advantage of their opponents weakness during a transitional phase. With Madrid, your corner kick is their attacking opportunity.

The final goal followed the award of a penalty which could possibly be called soft but the challenge on Modric was still foolish. The Madrid move was instigated by Moya needlessly attempting a quick throw out which was easily intercepted and fed back into the penalty area.

A harsh 4-0 defeat for a Getafe side who contributed to their own downfall after a first half performance which offered a degree of optimism. Their compact shape and sound defending undone by both individual and collective errors.

Three clean sheets in a row in the league now for Madrid  following a poor run in the preceding four games when they conceded 10 league goals. If the performances, with the exception of the Valencia game, in the league have been inconsistent, Mourinho will at least be content with the clinical nature of the attack just now with nine goals in two games.

 

Barcelona 5 Osasuna 1

Jose Luis Mendilibar took his Osasuna side to the Camp Nou, scene of their 8-0 humbling last season, on Sunday evening. This time around, maybe things would be different. Osasuna arrived with the 4th best defence in La Liga and goalkeeper Andres Fernandez sitting second in the Zamora.  The defensive solidity masks attacking problems that has seen Osasuna fall into the relegation zone with the worst goalscoring record in La Liga.

Real Sociedad had demonstrated a workrate allied to ability to beat Barcelona 3-2 at the Anoeta last week and Osasuna would adopt the same ethic by pressing Barcelona early to stop them building from the back. The high defensive line also pushed Barcelona back and made them begin constructing moves much deeper than they would prefer. Mendilibar had spoken prior to the game about Osasuna playing the way they “normally do” in reference to the lack of a clear plan by any team to defeat Barcelona.

The issue for Mendilibar is that high pressing is not matched with short passing to retain possession when they win the ball back. Osasuna prefer a very direct and vertical style of play. They lack the technical quality of La Real.  With that in mind, Mendilibar opted to start with Joseba Llorente as the central striker. Llorente does not offer the greatest level of mobility but he is able compete aerially and offer a central reference point for the team, something that the style of play dictates.

The normal high defensive line and aggressive pressing from a Mendilibar team was identifiable as Osasuna pushed Barcelona back in the opening minutes, recording more possession than their illustrious hosts in the opening minutes of the game. The warning signs were evident for Osasuna however. With a high press, the team tried to stay fairly narrow. There was ample space between the high defensive line and Fernandez in goal to exploit. Thiago failed to collect a pass early on but a David Villa run onto a through ball led to Fernandez coming off his line. The keeper’s clearance was poor but when Xavi collected the ball there was no immediate danger. There was no shot on goal for the diminutive midfielder and Fernandez recovered his position. Xavi was able to beat his opponent and weight a perfect ball to Messi to open the scoring. Many players would have attempted an audacious shot in such circumstances and wasted the opportunity.

Osasuna continued to push high, seeking to impose their style of play on the game and also aware that adopting a defensive gameplan would most likely be their undoing. An equaliser came via a long range effort from Loe. Barcelona failed to adequately clear their lines and the Frenchman moved onto the ball freely.

Any semblance of hope which arrived with the equaliser was soon removed with the award of a harsh penalty for handball against Arribas. A second yellow card was given to the defender and the 10 men would soon trail 2-1 when Messi scored from the spot. The game ended as a contest just before half time when Dani Alves made a forward run to receive a pass, cutting back for Pedro to score. Alves was offside when the pass was made but it was a ball that Barcelona were increasingly looking for.

The second half focussed on damage limitation with Messi scoring two further goals as Barcelona cantered to a 5-1 victory. As important as that was the opportunity to remove Xavi from the action after 66 mins and provide him with much needed rest ahead of a key period in the season starting with the first leg clasico in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday evening.

Two victories ahead of Wednesday’s meeting at the Bernabeu. With injuries and suspensions, it may well be a patched up Madrid side that takes the field. Both sides will need to lift their game if they wish to gain a first leg advantage.

 

Sevilla vs Barcelona: Tactical Analysis

Barcelona somehow managed to leave the Sanchez Pizjuan on Saturday with their 100% record still intact. Two late goals secured the three points in a thrilling 3-2 win that left hosts Sevilla empty handed and removed their unbeaten record in the league this season.

Setting the result aside, there were positives and negatives for both managers to ponder as the season progresses.

Line Ups

Michel kept faith with the same starting eleven that had defeated Real Madrid and then Deportivo La Coruna in the previous two league games.

Sevilla Starting Line Up

Tito Vilanova made three changes to the side that defeated Granada reinstating Xavi to the starting line up in place of Thiago. At left back, Jordi Alba replaced the injured Adriano whilst Pedro started in place of Villa on the left wing.

Barcelona Starting Line Up

There have been a number of subtle changes to the manner in which Barcelona are playing this season under Vilanova and these are discussed below.

Opening Phase

Michel adopted broadly the same shape that had proven successful against Real Madrid.

Navas offered width and pace on the right whilst Trochowski tucked in on the left providing support to the midfield centrally. The diagonal pass to Navas was a feature of Sevilla’s play for the entire game and it helped curb Alba’s attacking enthusiasm.

Was Pedro stationed on the left wing in the first half to provide additional defensive cover to Alba against the pairing of Navas and Cicinho?

Trochowski’s positioning offered Alves the ability to push on during transitions with Trochowski caught infield but this seldom occurred. Barcelona were slow in possession, often choosing the correct passing option but making the decision to slowly. Consequently, Sevilla were normally able to regain shape and structure with Medel and Maduro congesting the centre of the pitch directly in front of the centre back pairing.

As they did so successfully against Real Madrid, Sevilla sought to hold a high line, aiding the congestion in the middle of the pitch.

When Barcelona were able to increase the tempo of the game, their combination play presented problems for the hosts and a number of half chances were created, typically through the trio of Xavi, Messi and Cesc.

Barcelona Shape & Defensive Frailty

The first noticeable difference for Barcelona this season is the shape of the side. Whilst the various TV and media sources still use graphics displaying Barcelona as lining up in their usual 4-3-3, on the pitch it’s somewhat different.

Messi moves deeper now into a classic No10 position on the pitch and is more or less laterally aligned with the most advanced of Barcelona’s midfielders. Last night this was Cesc. With Xavi operating slightly deeper alongside Busquets, it’s not unusual to see the two wide players being positioned furthest forward. In this respect, Barcelona often now resemble a loose 4-2-2-2.

The essential aspects of the system, as adopted by Barcelona, are that the wide players must drive in diagonally when required to provide the central focal point of the attack. When Messi moves very deep, there is an onus on Xavi to drive forward into space. Whether Xavi can sustain such a role over a long season remains to be seen. Also worth consideration is Busquets now moves slightly further forward in games, offering less potential cover to the defence.

Sevilla’ opening goal arose when Song needlessly challenge Negredo for a ball in the Sevilla half. Rakitic collected the loose ball and was already ahead of Busquets eliminating him from this phase of play. Medel received a pass in the right hand channel and was allowed to shoot without being pressed, his deflected shot collected by Trochowski who fired home despite Dani Alves being in close proximity. Alves, lazily, made no attempt to close him down, almost inviting the shot. Song, meanwhile, was unable to recover his position in this moment.

There were further episodes of Barcelona being disorgansied and not communicating properly in defence. A few moments later, Song and Busquets almost collided when they contested the same aerial ball despite no Sevilla player being close by.

The defensive confusion reached a peak in the 36th minute when four defenders pursued Navas as he ran diagonally from right to left. Nobody tracked Negredo as he made the opposite run from left to right. When Rakitic released him, Negredo’s shot from the edge of the penalty area went just wide.

The decision not to purchase another centre back in the summer has been highlighted by injuries to Pique and Puyol simultaneously. Individually Busquets, Mascherano and Song are all options for centre back alongside an established central defender. With any two used in a pairing however, there is a lack of awareness and communication.

Where to Play Messi

The development of Messi has seen him move from a right winger to a central striker to his current deployment in the false 9 role but increasingly Messi starts in a deep position and advances rather than starting in an advanced position and dropping deep. Messi is now functioning more like a classic No10.

The heat map below shows Messi’s positioning against Sevilla.

Messi Heat Map vs Sevilla                                                    http://www.squawka.com

Messi is now starting deep and advancing but opponents have realised this and with no central striker for Barcelona, defences can push high, congest the central area and squeeze the space between defence and midfield. How do Barcelona counter this?

Barcelona need a reference point in attack. This does not necessarily mean a traditional No9 but they need someone in that role to occupy the opponent’s central defenders. This role is no longer performed by Messi.

Last night, this meant it was Cesc who moved forward into the No9 role but there were also times when Xavi, Pedro and Sanchez all broke into central positions to perform that duty. Both goals from Cesc were examples of this. In each case he was already ahead of Messi when either moving onto or receiving the ball.

Barcelona More Direct?

Have Barcelona become a little more direct this season under Vilanova?

Last season Barcelona averaged 17 crosses per game. With six games played so far, they are averaging 19 crosses per game. Last night this figure increased substantially as they attempted 29 crosses into the Sevilla box. Only 8 were successful.

Barcelona Cross vs Sevilla                                                     http://www.squawka.com

With such a small team physically, unless the cross is exceptionally accurate or the penalty area is sparsely populated, Barcelona are going to win few aerial duels in their opponents penalty area.

Furthermore, a notable recent development has been the gradual increase in the number of long kicks / passes by Valdes in goal. The table below shows Valdes distributing the ball on 19 occasions, only 12 of which were successful. By kicking longer, more often, Valdes reduces the risk of a misplaced pass to a team mate in a dangerous area of the pitch. The exact type of pass which led to goals against Real Madrid over the past two seasons.

Valdes Passes                                                                               http://www.squawka.com

The converse of this is that it enables opponents to regain possession more frequently thus increasing the pressure on Barcelona’s somewhat fragile defence.

Second Half

Barcelona struggled at times during the first half due to Sevilla’s set up and also because they lacked intensity in their own play. Too often the ball was passed correctly but too slowly allowing Sevilla to regroup.  This altered in the second half as they began to play at a higher tempo and with greater width, both full backs now moving forward particularly Alba on the left. With Sevilla tiring, Xavi began to receive more space to pass and dictate the tempo.

The most significant development in the second half however was not a tactical move by either side. It was arguably the sending off of Gary Medel. It’s difficult to see how Sevilla would have lost the game had Medel remained on the pitch. Both of Barcelona’s late goals emerged in the central area which had been protected partly by Medel. On both occasions, Messi had time to lay off a pass to a team mate.

With only 10 men, Sevilla inevitably fell deeper and had less of an opportunity to break with nobody remaining high up the pitch.

Sevilla Substitutions

Michel made three substitutions against Barcelona. Rakitic, Trochowski and Negredo were all replaced with the introduction of Kondogbia, Manu and Luna.

The same three players were withdrawn against Real Madrid and the same three players were introduced. Whilst Manu was introduced due to injury to Trochowski midway through the first half, the other substitutions were reactive as Michel sought to hold on for victory.

Following the dismissal of Medel, the tiring and more attack minded Rakitic was replaced by Kondogbia to provide greater defensive stability and energy in the centre of the pitch.

In the 80th minute Negredo was replaced by the defensive Luna in response to Vilanova’s attacking gamble to remove Alves for Villa. Luna moved to the left side of midfield and Manu moved, notionally, to the central striking position as Sevilla were now operating along the lines of a 4-4-1.

In both games against Madrid and Barcelona, Sevilla have been tactically sound with Michel reacting to developments on the sidelines astutely.

Creativity and Workrate

Sevilla look different this season. With stories emerging of Michel having a more harmonious dressing room, the results can be seen on the pitch. The team have creativity and flair but are prepared to work extremely hard too, particularly the attacking players in the team.

In two key games, Rakitic has been asked to close down the opposition’s main midfield playmaker, Alonso for Madrid and Xavi for Barcelona whilst simultaneously being the most advanced midfield player for his own side. The Croatian has managed to perform both tasks but understandably tired in both games and was substituted.

There have been similar performances too from Trochowski, Negredo and Navas especially. Each player performing their defensive duties with a tremendous worth ethic earning the right to then launch attacking moves.

Conclusions

Barcelona, as is normal, dominated possession. With 624 successful passes form 731 attempted compared against Sevilla’s 212 successful passes form 297 attempted. The ability to convert that possession into goals however proved a touch more difficult as a highly organised Sevilla side came very close to successive home victories over the big two.

Amongst the host of positive points arising from the game from a Sevilla perspective, two issues will leave Michel disappointed. The loss of two late goals and the dismissal of Gary Medel. Irrespective of whether the red card was correct or not, the Chilean should know better than to confront an opponent in such an aggressive fashion forcing the referee to make a decision.

If this performance level can be maintained, Sevilla will surely be contesting the Champions League positions at the end of the season as once again the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan becomes an inhospitable venue for opponents.

Barcelona have now won their opening six league games of the season. Only on one occasion have they won the first six league games and not secured the league title.

Yet defensive frailties persist and there is the feeling that the team are not yet operating at maximum. With Benfica and Real Madrid coming up in the next seven days, the reports of Puyol traveling with the squad to Lisbon will raise hopes.

For despite the six wins, there is still much for Vilanova to ponder.