This weekend will see Tito’s first clash against rivals Real Madrid in La Liga since he took over the reigns from Josep Guardiola. Whilst Guardiola began with a victory in this fixture, he ended on a defeat with Vilanova watching over his shoulder. Soon after Vilanova was named as Pep’s successor.
Currently we have an eight point cushion from Mourinho’s men, but how decisive will this match be, and what pattern of play can we expect to see from both sides? totalBarça will guide you through some of the realistic, prospective tactical battles.
There cannot be any doubt at all that Vilanova desperately wanted Carles Puyol to be our rock at the back against Madrid. His final stage of recovery was match practice against Benfica, which he almost got through perfectly, before his injury broke culé hearts. With Gerard Pique fighting hard to be fit but seeming unlikely to succeed, it will most likely be a partnership of Javier Mascherano and Alex Song at the back.
The average on-looker can tell that Mascherano has not been at his best this season and that Song established himself as a central midfielder in London, rendering us fans extremely vexed when faced with Ronaldo and co. It is true to say that we will need a sharp improvement from both in that position, because playing centre back for Barcelona is much more than a defensive position.
Barcelona likes to play a high line defensively. This is because the centre backs can squeeze the space in front of them, making it impossible for opponents to get out unless they play a risky long ball. The entire pressing game depends upon the entire team being in a position to press. However, with Mascherano’s lack of pace and with Song’s lack of acceleration, the centre backs prefer to drop off much earlier as the space in behind scares them somewhat. This takes away from our pressing game, and this allows opponents to enjoy possession in behind our midfield, which is extremely dangerous.
Although Vilanova’s men kept clean sheets against Granada and Benfica, Barcelona still gave up dangerous chances. Granada could have netted just before Xavi did, and Benfica tested Victor Valdés early in the Champions League clash. Tactical experts, such as Paco Ayestarán Barandiarán, have alluded to the fact that Barcelona attempt to build from the back in a way that leaves them more open than ever to the counter attack. The fact that Negredo was allowed to run straight towards goal without receiving any significant challenge is proof that, in Paco’s words, “Barcelona is defending against the counter attack worse than ever.”
Anyone who has studied Mourinho’s preferred style of play knows that he opts for counter attacking football whenever possible. Against Barcelona, it is always counter attacking football. It would be highly unlikely to see anything else on Sunday. Ajax and Barcelona share similar systems, and having just played against Ajax, one could say that Madrid have just practiced the exact game plan they intend on executing against Barcelona. Their first goal was based on stealing the ball in the middle, countering quickly and going directly into the six yard box. Benzema’s goal was special, but again can be put down as a counter attacking goal, as can Ronaldo’s final effort. With two hat tricks in the last two games, can Mascherano and Song really allow space in behind for Ronaldo to run onto? But if they defend deeper, will that allow Madrid to enjoy more possession than they usually do? This will be a serious area of concern for Vilanova.
“At the beginning of the season, the midfielders were quite slow building the game and with too many players behind the ball, and in the Sevilla game, especially in the first fifteen to twenty minutes, there were enough players in front of the defensive midfielder which allowed them to play better between the lines, especially from the middle. Even though they have recovered players like Villa and they have the quality to change the results; still they have one big problem, which is transition (when possession changes hands).”
We have seen Busquets pushing up and joining in with the attack more than under the last regime. He was fairly high up the pitch when receiving a red card against Benfica. If indeed Busquets pushes up slightly, and the centre backs drop off slightly, a huge gap will appear in the middle of the field, which could create serious problems.
However, not only does Vilanova possess one of the best midfielders in the world right now in Xavi, he also has a free scoring Cesc Fàbregas and a back-from-injury Andres Iniesta at his disposal. Xavi continues to enjoy spreading the ball about the pitch however he sees fit within the Barcelona philosophy. Cesc Fàbregas, on the other hand, has tried to incorporate Xavi’s excellence within his own game, but finds it more natural to be direct in either hitting a front man or making runs himself straight into the box. The unpredictability is much needed within Barça’s game, because as Iniesta stated recently, teams know exactly how to play against Barcelona nowadays, so our players have to come up with something special very often.
If the Barcelona centre backs push back, leaving more space in the middle of the pitch, it also means that the Real Madrid defence will have to push up slightly in order to shut down space for the Barcelona midfielders. This extra space in central areas will not only help Barça’s midfielders to create, but could also allow Madrid time to hoof balls over the top for Ronaldo to chase, something which we saw at the Santiago Bernabeu in the second leg of the Supercopa.
What Barcelona will need is the wide forwards to be on top form. Vilanova has adopted a policy of letting the starters wear down the opposition full backs before throwing on a deadly David Villa or a super fast Cristian Tello, or both as Sevilla would testify! Alexis Sanchez rated himself as five out of ten so far this season, a performance level which is way below acceptable for the current Club World Cup champions. Barcelona fans across the world will be praying that his goal against Benfica has given him confidence to go on a goalscoring run.
Goals from wide areas are exactly what we need. If David Villa is to come off the bench, hopefully he will be up against a tired right back. On the Real Madrid left, Marcelo is constantly bombing forward, leaving Xabi Alonso to cover in the left back position. If this does occur on Sunday, Vilanova must deploy tactics to exploit a lack of pace in covering Marcelo. Sanchez, Tello and Pedro all have the required pace to outstrip Xabi Alonso, and if Marcelo does commence any counter attacks, keep an eye on the space that he vacates.
Lionel Messi has a hat full of assists in the last few games, but hasn’t scored himself since the Spartak Moscow match. He has dropped deeper recently, which works well most of the time, but has the potential to be suicidal because he demands the ball from his team mates and opponents know this and close him down. This was how Negredo’s goal came about. However, this is Real Madrid and everyone reading this will know that Messi will bring his A game. And when you have Lionel Messi in your team, you’ve always got a chance! Visca el Barça!
Image: AFP Photo/Quique Garcia