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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

On The Brink

From Vienna to Kiev via Johannesburg.

The final destination is known but the outcome remains unclear.

Spain and Italy will meet for the second time at Euro 2012. The opening group game which ended in a 1-1 draw, was a slow, tactical affair with Prandelli surprising Spain with his use of a 3-5-2 system which provided the Italians with strength in the midfield and nullified the threat of the Spanish full backs. An in depth analysis of the opening group match can be viewed here.

And so to Sunday and again, there will be much deliberation by Prandelli and how he lines up his side.The personal may be largely known but the system to be deployed is the key question which he must address. Whatever system is chosen, the same conundrums that have vexed opposing coaches throughout this tournament need to be addressed and answered. Firstly, how to contain Spain and thereafter, how to beat Spain.

Italy

Prandelli faces one main issue ahead of this game.

Does he stick with the loose 4-4-2 system with a diamond in midfield which has aided Italian success thus far or does he return to the 3-5-2 system which created so many problems for Spain in the opening game. That he has the luxury of using either system is both his fortune and his burden ahead of this game. Win and his tactical set up was correct. Lose and his tactics failed him.

Such assertions can be wholly inaccurate but are thrown around as if gospel. The inability of those to understand that the result merely represents the final outcome and not what occurred during the game itself. Of course, a correct tactical system would be scant consolation should the result not favour you at this stage of the competition.

Neither system will prevent Spain from dominating possession. Prandelli has already acknowledged this:-

“We don’t expect to be in charge of this game.”

Instead, Prandelli must choose which system can maximise Italian potential.

Should Prandelli favour the 3-5-2, it’s likely to mean a recall for Maggio at right wing back with Balzaretti returning on the left. Balzagli, Bonucci and Chielini would form the defensive trio.

The key question which Prandelli must then answer is who would he drop from Montolivo, De Rossi and Marchisio? The three have played well throughout the tournament and De Rossi and Marchisio offer the perfect screen for Pirlo, pushing forward onto opponents midfield and leaving Pirlo deep to circulate the ball. If the midfielders cannot push further up the pitch, Pirlo has less space to operate.

If Pirlo has time, he will automatically look for the strikers with long passes as the Italians have sought to do throughout. The tactic was used repeatedly early in the game against England and achieved success in the first half against Germany.

Cassano and Balotelli will remain as the two strikers, seeking to isolate the Spanish central defensive pairing of Pique and Ramos as often as possible, pulling them into the channels and the space vacated by the full backs pushing high.

Although wing backs naturally start higher up the pitch, it’s highly unlikely that the Spanish full backs would adopt such conservative positioning again as they did in the first game. Could Maggio and Balzaretti push Albs and Arbeloa back?

The other concern with the 3-5-2 would be the role that the central defenders fulfill if Fabregas starts. Who do they mark? Fabregas will drop deep and leave three central defenders with no clear role. The solution would be to start De Rossi in the back line again and Montolivo to retain his position in midfield but this loses the aggression and robustness of De Rossi from a central area which would be required to assist with breaking up Spanish attacks.

Should Prandelli retain faith in the 4-4-2 diamond it allows the midfield trio to stay intact and push onto the Spanish. The downside though is the loss of width as the Italian full backs will be pushed back by the advancing Alba and Arbeloa. Abate could be recalled at right back if injury permits or the impressive Balzaretti may start here again. Maggio is too adventurous for a full back position and would be overlooked. Pirlo is also likely to be hindered by Fabregas dropping deep and occupying the space in which he operates. A reduction in his possession will limit his ability to influence the game.

Spain

Spain will line up with their normal 4-3-3 with the usual questions surrounding two positions; the striker and the right sided attacking berth.

And yet it seems so obvious that del Bosque will opt for Fabregas in the false 9 role to establish control. The thought of Pirlo controlling another game from deep must be anathema to the Spanish. Fabregas will, as we know by now, drop deeper than Torres and link with the midfield.

To combat the Italian numbers in midfield, Fabregas must start and drop deep to provide options. One of the successes of the Spanish game at this tournament as been the manner in which they press quickly to regain possession in a structured fashion. There will be no set instructions for someone to press Pirlo. Whoever is nearer from a fluid midfield must take responsibility and close him down. This could mean Fabregas if central or Iniesta and Silva when tucking in from the wings.

Silva continues to deliver and yet infuriate on the right wing. With one goal and three assists to his name, Silva has played a major role in Spain’s progress to date. Doubt lingers though over what he could be doing. The need for an extra touch sometimes when a simple, quicker pass would be the more profitable option. Del Bosque has removed Silva in each game thus far.

Alba and Arbeloa must advance for Spain. Italy are very narrow and whilst Spain are often accused of a similar failing, they have the ability to change and alter this via Navas and Pedro if need be. In the first instance though, the full backs must push high and stretch the narrow Italian midfield.

Andrea Pirlo

Judging by the reaction to the performance of Andrea Pirlo against England, you may be somewhat surprised to learn that Pirlo is in fact 33 years old with a long and distinguished career behind him which includes most major titles. Except that of European Champion.

The performance of Pirlo against England was often majestic as he glided around the center of the pitch with considerable ease, spraying the ball around and dictating the play. The clamour for him to be crowned player of the tournament has grown steadily aided by another performance infused with class against Germany.

If there is a player who can prevent Pirlo from collecting this individual award, he is lining up opposite Pirlo in the shirt of la furia roja, the man who calmly states that the ball is “my friend”; Andres Iniesta. The Spanish No8 remains one of the few players from la seleccion to have escaped criticism during this tournament. Possessing the ability to accept the ball under pressure and invite challenges before releasing it, Iniesta has provided Spain with a constant driving presence from the left thus far. From within the seemingly relentless passing of the Spanish midfield, Iniesta will break and surge forward and commit defenders creating space for team mates.

Although not in direct competition, the battle between the winners of the Man of the Match awards from the past two World Cup Finals, promises to be something special as they seek to shape and influence the game.

Enter the Pantheon

And so, we journey to Kiev.

A Spain win brings footballing history. Three successive international trophies, the first team to successfully defend their European Championship crown. Winning the trophy brings much more however. It cements Spain’s place in the pantheon of the greats, rightfully taking their place amongst the winners in the history of the game. The pantheon contains more than just winners however. For some teams are fondly recalled for the manner in which they played, their legacy cherished by all who were fortunate enough to glimpse these teams at their footballing peak as they defined an era irrespective of whether they won or not.

Spain will be spoken of alongside the free flowing Brazil of 1970, the total football of Cryuff and Holland in 1974 and 1978, Brazil in 1982 who remain arguably remain the greatest side never to win the World Cup, France in 1998 and 2000 guided by the genius of Zidane. And now Spain in 2008, 2010 and 2012.

This is the era of tiki-taka.

Spain are standing on the brink.

Spain vs Portugal: Tactical Analysis – Cesc’s Moment Part 2

Spain progress to their third successive major international final and join an elite club with just two members; Germany and Brazil.

Spain will now contest their fourth European Championship final, aiming to become the first team to successfully defend their title.

This was a highly interesting game, if seldom electrifying until the conclusion, which witnessed a Portuguese team determined to attack Spain and yet failing to register a single attempt on target in 120 minutes of play.

Line Up

Del Bosque made one change to the side that had defeated France in the Quarter Finals. It was not the change that many had envisaged, that being the choice between Torres and Fabregas again.

Alvaro Negredo made his first start of the tournament in the central striking role.

Spain vs Portugal – Spanish Starting Line Up

Bento had one change enforced upon him with Hugo Almeida replacing the injured Helder Postiga otherwise Bento kept faith with his normal starting eleven.

Spain vs Portugal – Portuguese Starting Line Up

Portugal Approach

Prior to the game Bento had stated his intention not to park the bus. Portugal would attack. For the first time in the tournament, we saw a team prepared to push high up against Spain and press them all over the pitch

Throughout the game, Portugal defended well and sought to push forward and create scoring opportunities. They pressed aggressively and energetically across the whole pitch, forcing Spain to play long balls which the aerial ability of Alves and Pepe could deal with easily.

Spain were clearly unsettled by this and yet for all of the effort displayed, Portugal ultimately failed to muster a single shot on target.

Why Negredo?

“Negredo suits our needs more than Soldado. He’s better aerially and he links up more with the team”

del Bosque

The inclusion of Alvaro Negredo surprised many yet in some respects it made perfect sense. Negredo can provide the compromise solution between Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas. He offers a range of qualities most notably his powerful physical presence allied to his finishing but his ability to drop deeper than a normal striker on occasion and link with the midfield arguably helped gain him the starting slot.

The Spanish Assistant Toni Grade noted:-

“Each forward has different characteristics. Negredo is ideal today – power, athleticism & height defending corners.”

One area where Spain have struggled so far is how to use the high number of corner kicks they win. Despite having seven corners last night, Spain inevitably lose possession if the corner is played into the penalty area. Negredo, in theory, should have helped with this.

Spain Corners vs Portugal

The potential which was highlighted never came to fruition though and Negredo departed after just 52 minutes.

Alvaro Negredo – vs Portugal

Negredo had just 22 touches of the ball before he was substituted. What many had considered to be a gamble, even though it was nothing of the sort, had failed. Negredo appeared static and often isolated and whilst he much accept a portion of the criticism for this, part of the reason must also lie with his team mates. Arbeloa has the opportunity to cross to Negredo in the opening 15 minutes but delayed and lost possession. If you select Negredo, you also need to supply him.

The final part of the reason for his lacklustre performance was the manner in which Portugal performed and in particular, their midfield trio.

Portugal Midfield

The usual midfield trio lined up in the midfield for Portuguese with Veluso the deepest of the three, Meireles seeking to link defence and attack and Moutinho providing the creative spark in a more advanced role. Yet to label the three players in such a fashion does them a great disservice. The trio showed tremendous versatility as they provided triangular rotation throughout as the situation dictated.

They were able to press Spain aided by the high defensive line being held. When Spain broke through the midfield, Pepe was very quick to step forward and close down space.

The pressing though was also apparent higher up the pitch. Moutinho stealing the ball from Alba in the 29th minute to offer Ronaldo an opportunity to shoot.

The trio broadly shadowed their Spanish opponents in central midfield with Veluso given tha task of marking Xavi. This was visible in the 19th minute when Xavi, frustrated by his limited involvement, became the deepest Spanish midfielder dropping between the centre backs to collect possession where Veluso followed him.

The result of the aggressive pressing by the Portuguese was that Spain’s pass completion rate in the first half dropped to their lowest level thus far in the competition at 85.3%. Spain ended the first half with 56% possession, again a substantial drop on their normal levels.

It was obvious how much Spain had been affected by the pressing of their opponents. Spain played 29 long balls in the first half beginning at the very outset with a long ball forward to Negredo straight from kick off. The longs balls continued in the second half when Spain played 44 long balls forward.

It should be abundantly clear why Spain play in the manner in which they do. When forced to play long balls and enter a more physical contest, the Spanish are lacking.

This tight marking and aggressive pressing by Portugal resulted in a loss of fluency in the game especially during the second half which developed into a fraught, tense affair.

Xavi Squeezed Again

Just as he had been squeezed against France, last night witnessed another performance by Xavi which is not in keeping with his normal performance level.

His starting position was once again, much higher than normal creating two key problems; he has fewer passing options ahead of him when he receives the ball and he is easier to mark by opposition players, in this instance, Miguel Veluso.

Against France, Spain coped with the performance of Xabi Alonso by as he too was pressed, te Spanish lost their fluent style and any creativity from midfield forward arrived via the driving runs of Andres Iniesta.

Portuguese Left vs Spanish Right

What was billed as being a pivotal duel in the contest never quite lived up to expectations. Much of the pre-match hype surrounded Ronaldo and his ability to cause his team mate at club level, Alvaro Arbeloa, numerous problems.

Arbeloa managed to stay high and attack early on rendering the conventional viewpoint that he would remain defensive, redundant. He linked well with David Silva whilst Ronaldo took up slightly more central positions.

As the second half progressed, Almeida looked to drift across to the left into the space vacated by Arbeloa. This resulted in Almeida having two clear shots on goal but on both occasions, his shooting was wayward.

Ronaldo Shots vs Spain

Billed as the weak link in the Spanish defence, Arbeloa proved defensively solid throughout. Indeed, both he and Pique combined successfully to nullify the threat from Ronaldo. All of Pique’s tackles coming in the right back area as he offered cover to Arbeloa.

Arbeloa did have an element of fortune in his performance through. He committed 8 fouls, the most by any player at Euro 2012 so far, yet his inevitable yellow card arrived due to a handball and not one of the more cynical fouls he committed higher up the pitch.

Arbeloa and Pique – Tackles

Extra Time

As with their other games to date, Spain gradually took control of the game as their opponents tired. The introduction of both Pedro and Navas on the wings helped stretch a tiring defence wider apart and offered the necessary space for Iniesta to have an increasing influence as the game progressed.

Jordi Alba also provided ample evidence of why Barcelona have just signed him with a number of surgng runs forward on the left as Portugal sought to contain their opponents, no longer able to maintain their pressing. Portugal dropped deeper into defence as the extra time wore on.

Penalties

“I looked for people who were confident. Cesc said he wanted to take one which could be decisive.”

del Bosque

Just as he had done on Sunday 22 June 2008, Cesc Fabregas stepped up and scored the decisive penalty kick which took Spain into the European Championship final.

The Spanish Players surround Cesc and Iker

Conclusions

Despite their exit, Bento must be happy with the performance of the Portuguese team at these finals considering the opposition they faced in their initial group.

That Portugal were able to stick with Spain for so long, only really showing visible signs of tiredness as extra time began is a testament to both the tactical system employed by Bento and the ability of his players to implement it.

For Spain, the performance will not do anything to alleviate the critics of the team but at this stage those critics are highly unlikely to change their viewpoint and arguably fail to understand how and why the team is functioning as it is.

For all the talk of teams knowing how to stop Spain, they have still to meet a team who can achieve that objective.

Spain now stand on the cusp of footballing history.

Spain vs Croatia: Tactical Analysis

The final group game for both sides brought the usual list of permutations which could ensure qualification for either side.

Amidst all the talk around the multiple outcomes and Italian cries of fair play, without any hint of irony, for Spain and Croatia to avoid a 2-2 which would see Italy eliminated irrespective of their result, a game of football threatened to break out. Almost, but not quite.

Spain won with a late goal from Jesus Navas and, combined with Italy’s 2-0 win over Ireland, this sent Croatia home from Euro 2012.

This was a drab, scrappy game with Spain poor. It became increasingly nervy for supporters of a Spanish persuasion as the game wore on. Del Bosque confirmed the lack of quality on display :-

“The truth is it was not a great game overall and this should concern us. Things didn’t go according to plan.”

Line Ups

Del Bosque retained faith with the same players who had beaten Ireland with ease in the previous group game.

Spain vs Croatia – Spanish Starting Line Up

Jelavic and Perisic dropped to the bench for Croatia to be replaced by Pranjic on the left of midfield and Vida at right back.

Although appearing as something akin to a 4-2-3-1 on paper, Croatia switched to a 5-3-2 in the defensive phase with Srna dropping deep to cover for the forward runs of Alba. Vida subsequently tucked in as something of a makeshift centre back.

Modric took up an advanced role just behind Mandzukic and sought to run into the channels, primarily to the left, either side of the central striker.

Spain vs Croatia – Croatian Starting Line Up

The Italian Job – Part 2?

From the outset, it was clear that, although Croatia were not following the same game plan as Prandelli had utilised with Italy, there were many broad similarities.

Croatia fell into a back five when defending with Srna acting as more of a conventional right wing back than Strinic, who was more conservative, on the left.

The midfield three stayed close to the defence and narrow to prevent Spain from passing their way through the midfield. Pranjic tucked in on the left which left Arebloa free but he was never able to take advantage of this space.

In the attacking department, Modric and Mandzukic, to a lesser extent, both sought to run into the channels and find the space vacated by the Spanish full backs who occupied very high starting positions.

Allied to this was the deliberate ploy of breaking the game up with fouls ranging from niggly to the downright cynical during the first half  (Srna being the prime suspect here) which prevented Spain from developing any rhythm.

Pass, pass, pass etc

Spain continued their trend at Euro 2012 of dominating possession but playing with little intensity during the opening half of the game.

Alba and Arbeloa took up very high positions from the outset but Arebloa was seldom utilised on the right despite his space whilst Alba was closely watched by Srna.

In the centre Alonso dropped between Pique and Ramos when Spain took possession, helping switch play on occasion but the passing was far too slow and ponderous.

Silva frequently left his right wing berth and adopted a very central position further narrowing the game.

As ever, the central area of the pitch was congested and the passing speed deteriorated as the half progressed.

The one player who sought to eschew the incessant passing was Iniesta who, as demonstrated against Italy, would make darting forward runs towards the Croatian defence.

Overall, Spain had 64% possession but they need to produce a final product to ensure overall control of the game.

Croatian Set Pieces

On the few occasions that Croatia won a set piece in the Spanish half, a number of players moved forward in anticipation of an aerial delivery into the penalty area. Spain are weak aerially and often appear chaotic when defending se pieces. Yet, this can often be an ideal opportunity for Spain to break down a defensive opponent.

The transition offers Spain a number of possibilities if they can move forward at pace whilst the opponent is still moving back into position.

These opportunities though are seldom grasped by the Spanish either through a lack of pace or through seeking an additional touch or pass when a more direct movement is required. The lack of directness is apparent in other elements of the Spanish play.

David Silva is often the guilty party. In the 40th minute he was over indulgent in the penalty area, shifting the ball from side to side before his shot was blocked. In the 62nd minute, Spain had a quick counter attack but Silva took an additional touch on the halfway line instead of releasing the forward pass and was tackled, losing possession.

Substitutions

Del Bosque made the first Spanish change with Torres exiting to be replaced by Navas in the 59th minute. Although this provided Spain with more width and variation in their game, the removal of Torres was arguably wrong.

When Spain had opportunities they were arriving on the transition. Silva lacks genuine pace and always prefers to take an additional touch as discussed above.

In addition to this, removing Torres meant Spain lacked a central reference point. If Navas beat his opponent and reached the goal line, who would he cross to?

The substitution was a conservative move and demonstrated del Bosque’s belief in keeping control of the game.

The heat map below demonstrates the worth of Navas in stretching the game and providing width and pace in the Spanish attack. Navas will attack the goal line and look for cut backs. It forces defenders to turn and move back towards their goal whereas normally the Spanish play in front of you.

Even if Navas can be frustrating on occasion and his final ball can lack quality, he brings something else to the game which no other Spanish player offers.

Spain vs Croatia – Spain with and without Jesus Navas

This contrasts sharply with the Croatian substitutions although Bilic had to seek a winning goal, a draw was no use to Croatia at this point. Had this been the first or second group game, Bilic would most likely have continued with the same game plan. Here, he had to seek a solution.

Croatia moved from their 5-3-2 formation to a more positive 4-4-2 with the removal of Vida and Pranjic with Jelavic and Perisic coming on.

With hindsight, perhaps Bilic should have made the move earlier in the second half rather than waiting.

Del Bosque’s second substitution was the straight swap of Fabregas for Silva which must leave Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo wondering why they are in the squad.

Another conservative move and one which seeks the control of the midfield area at all costs.

Jesus Navas Goal

Supporters of del Bosque will claim the goal exonerates his decisions and to a degree there is truth in that. However, the goal arose because Fabregas had space to move into with Croatia abandoning their more circumspect formation as they chased the game. With neither Vukojevic now off the pitch and Rakitic also pushing forward, the Spanish could run at the Croatian defence.

The goal itself was superbly crafted and executed with a deftly lobbed ball through to Iniesta who square for Navas to walk the ball into the net.

Conclusions

Spain are through and publicly, the squad and staff are likely to confirm that the first goal of the tournament has been achieved but privately there must be reservations over the manner of their play at times.

The ball was recycled far too slowly and the lack of width has still not been fully resolved.

Del Bosque will be criticised for the performance in the Spanish press. Bilic set his team out well and can take credit despite the defeat.

Spain won by remaining true to their beliefs in tiki taka but the margin for error tonight was virtually non-existent. They could easily have drawn or even lost the game.

The easy games for Spain, as such, are over. More demanding and tougher challenges await when there will be no margin for error.