It’s really quite simple. Barcelona lost Wednesday night against a team that rarely left their half and scored their one solitary, purposefully created chance. Barça lost, but did not play a bad game, far from. It is incorrect to grieve for a lack of penetration, urgency, and even more incorrect to state we played poorly. I’m not trying to sound holier than thou, but there seems to be a specific degree of unrealistic, even naïve expectations.
Chelsea used the now famed “parked bus” tactic, setting up two clear, disciplined lines of defense where at least nine and at most all 10 outfield players are positioned within 1/3 of the pitch. Even stating 1/3 of the pitch, roughly 34.3 meters in London, is untrue, as the defense wouldn’t sit deeper than the outside box, which is about 16 meters long, so on the whole between 16 (8 Chelsea [minus Cech], 8 Barça) and 18 (10 Chelsea [minus Cech)], 8 Barça) players occupied a length of pitch of 18 meters, 17.9% of Stamford Bridge. Basically, there is nearly no space to work in. Penetration, where? There is simply no space to penetrate. Quicker movement?
Sure, that’s one of Barça’s hallmarks, but it’s only effective if there is space to play into. Of course it was fantastic and enthralling when Barça were ripping clubs apart years before, zip zapping our passes through defenses, running at full pace towards goal, but that just is not going to happen any more. Teams have moved back, tightened up, and eliminated the sheer necessary space to do that.
Pep and his team are the masters of tight spaces, of doing the best with minimal time and area. Why? Our technical superiority yes, but also because it is a tactic we have been forced to adapt to. There is no other team, literally none, that encounter as much blatant and repetitive bus parking tactics as FC Barcelona. Furthermore, there is no top European team that has to counter this tactic against another top European club. Yes, some play more cautiously away from home, but at home, none completely abscond possession and attacking intent versus any other team but Barça. Have you ever seen Manchester United just go “Here Arsenal, have all the ball at Old Trafford, we are just going to defend, thanks, and if lucky score”.
Seen any top European side do that to another? I haven’t. Teams may be cautious at most, but they go out prepared to fight one another, not cover up and absorb as many punches as possible, hoping to not get knocked out and in between deliver a sucker punch. There is no other model we could even attempt to follow, because it does not happen elsewhere.
Faced with no space, completely defensive-minded top quality professionals, what can the team do? What they did Wednesday night, be patient. In games of these circumstances, Barça will never create more than 5 or 6 (on average) proper goal-scoring opportunities. That’s reality. I fail to understand how this isn’t accepted as truth.
Barça succeeded in their game plan. They were patient, passed it around, drew players in and out of their tactical set ups, and eventually a space did appear. And not only once, like in 2009, but multiple times. Alexis was clear on goal, twice. Fàbregas should have scored, twice. We hit the post, twice.
Barça’s plan worked up until it became an individual moment. Messi can’t score for Alexis, Xavi can’t be Fàbregas’ foot. The team got those players into those moments, and on Wednesday night, the individual “failed”. We created our 6 chances, just didn’t convert them. That’s a massive, meaningful difference.
So, it’s really quite simple. Very limited space + limited time +10 large physical players only intent on defending = limited chances. Cules, if you’re waiting for a succession of guilt-edge chances when we attack an elite European “bus”, please don’t hold your breath. The tipping point is clinical finishing, without that Barça can never win. However, clinical finishing is not a tactic, it is an individual burden.
The team can only get a player that far. It can only get him to the moment where he and solely he can reward his team’s efforts by finishing off the move. Another subtle but enormous difference. Barça lost to Chelsea but not because the team played poorly or without purpose, but because the individual could not seize those few critical moments. And a good slice of glaring rotten luck. There are 90 more minutes to go. In those 90 minutes we will create 5 or 6 clear chances, we did last Wednesday, the only difference is we need to score 2 or 3 of them. Barça need to be 30-40% more efficient, while Chelsea need to be again 100% effective. Sounds plausible to me.
Image Credit: REUTERS/Eddie Keogh