While the fashion of victory for Barcelona over Spartak Moscow to open Group G of the 2012-13 Champions League wasn’t as effortless as some cules would have liked, it wasn’t altogether unexpected: Unai Emery, Moscow’s manager, continually brought a game side against Barça during his time at the helm of Valencia.
Well, that didn’t disappoint.
Not even forty-eight hours after a Europa League fixture in Germany against Schalke 04, Athletic Bilbao gave a massive, inspired performance at the Camp Nou, all while fielding a starting eleven more resembling understudies for a dress rehearsal than a first-choice squad. Although Barcelona defeated Athletic, the Marcelo Bielsa-managed Basque side managed 45% of the possession for the game, a figure unmatched by a side visiting the Catalan giants for almost two years.
Pep Guardiola’s 4-3-3, the progeny of Total Football, Johan Cruijff and Guardiola’s own machinations, saw to the absolute thrashing of Manchester United in last season’s Champions League final, maddening Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad with untold fluidity and roles seemingly filled by positional ideals. But, favouring evolution above all else, above even a shape responsible for a historic season and the masterclass of its culmination, Guardiola used the return of Barcelona youth product Cesc Fàbregas not to fortify his midfield but to, as the neologism goes, embiggen it, embracing a new 3-4-3 and various exotics featuring a three-man back-line.
Barcelona entered the weekend ten points adrift of Real Madrid atop La Liga, and should the still-to-play Los Merengues take care of business at home against Espanyol, that’s how they’ll exit. It’s a domestic campaign that is all but lost for Barça, a climb back to the top made all the more unlikely by the squad depth of Madrid consuming all non-blaugrana opponents. With a Champions League title still to defend, a Copa del Rey final against Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao awaiting and a number of Barça B players knocking on the door of the first team, it would be more than understandable if Pep Guardiola used the remainder of the league to audition the likes of Cristian Tello, Martín Montoya, Marc Bartra and Sergi Roberto. It, even, would take a special kind of rationale to oppose such a decision.
When George Foreman fought The Rumble in the Jungle against Muhammad Ali, he entered not just as the heavyweight champion but as the decided favourite: at only twenty-five years old, Foreman was seven years Ali’s junior and had already compiled a professional won-loss record of 40-0 which featured a staggering thirty-seven knockouts, to say nothing of his previous eight fights failing to get out of the second round. Ali, finally getting another chance after The Fight of the Century to reclaim the title he never lost, was almost entirely written off, having earlier lost to Ken Norton who Foreman then had swiftly dispatched. Ali’s ability as an in-ring tactician was dependent upon his thought-to-be-aging speed and technique, and little was thought of his chances against the fighter believed by the great Joe Louis to possess fists capable of unparalleled punching power.
After a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their semi-final tie with Valencia, Barcelona was lucky to be square on aggregate with Los Che: Barça’s only goal came from a corner kick and goalkeeper José Manuel Pinto escaped a rightful red-card for an outside-the-box hand-ball before even a half-hour went by. Valencia was ever dangerous, featuring Jordi Alba and Jérémy Mathieu, a capable and adept left-flank partnership, and Roberto Soldado, Spain’s potential replacement at Euro 2012 for David Villa. Valencia’s result was at worst deserved and at best egregiously unfair, and at third in La Liga, five points clear of Levante and Espanyol, Valencia came to Camp Nou emboldened and brave.
Even before the recent run of injuries featuring a hamstring knock for Andrés Iniesta and a training what-have-you for Pedro Rodríguez, Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola had been featuring the versatile Dani Alves as a right-winger. It’s a wise attacking move: Alves has assisted more of Lionel Messi’s career goals than any other Barça player, and a more-forward position allows for easier link-up than if he were still at right-back. Moreover, Alves’ superior fitness allows him to still maintain a high defensive work-rate, an important consideration given Barça’s new standard of playing only three in defense. The two-way positive that is his advanced role was best on display against Real Madrid in December, nullifying Madrid’s left-back Marcelo so much that his fellow countryman didn’t see the pitch in the yet-to-come Copa del Rey Clásicos.
Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.
Therefore the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him. – Sun Tzu’s The Art of War
Or, to put it another way: tempo.
In the the opening leg of the Clásico quarter-final in the Copa del Rey, Real Madrid manager José Mourinho fielded a starting eleven sans German playmaker Mesut Özil. It wasn’t an undeserved seat on the bench for Özil: he had, after all, been nullified in Madrid’s first La Liga meeting with Barcelona in December. But instead of playing Kaká in his place, Mourinho changed Madrid’s shape from a 4-2-3-1 to a defensive 4-3-3, opting to play Pepe, a centre-defender, in midfield over the Brazilian, the idea being to disrupt the rhythm and intricate passing that is Barça’s offense.
The opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey follows a marauding band of apes on Earth well before the dawn of any great human civilization and even the birth of humanity, sharply contrasting the interplanetary exploration seemingly promised by the title. So outside of expectations was the extended sequence that 241 people walked out of the premiere, with Rock Hudson notably asking, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?” The answer is notoriously difficult in film circles to arrive at but exceedingly simple to say: evolution.
The idea of Santos manager Muricy Ramalho to drop the midfielder Elano for another defender in Leo, while not being the most positive of moves, had merit. If Barcelona is going to control the centre of midfield — a condition exceedingly likely, no matter their opponent — the extra defender can help release the added pressure on the back line sure to follow.
But with a holding midfielder in Arouca already playing deep, Santos didn’t have any consistent method of advancing the ball upon gaining possession, and with Barcelona’s pressuring, Santos was reduced to a dog chasing a car: even if they won the ball back, they had no idea what to do with it.
Man-mark Messi is difficult because you never know what he’ll do. And there are many players to keep an eye on. – Muricy Ramalho
Once again, totalBarça and twelve point courier collaborate to bring to you a review and analysis of the tactics employed in Barca’s FIFA Club World Cup opener.
“I watched Barcelona’s recent matches against Mallorca and Getafe and I don’t see much difference in standard between Al Sadd and those two teams.” — Al-Sadd Manager Jorge Fossati
It is neither complimentary nor abrasive to say Fossati was right: Al-Sadd, the AFC Champions League winners, played Barcelona much how most of the opponents of the defending European champions have done so this campaign. By parking a nine-man bus in front of goal — one bank of five, one of four — Al-Sadd hoped to remain structurally sure defensively and, upon weathering the storms of Barca’s attack, counter quickly in the pursuit of 1 on 1, 2 on 2 and 3 on 2 match-ups. It cannot be said Al-Sadd was not successful at the latter: both Abdoul Kader Keita and Mamadou Niang worked on separate occasions to find themselves a stride clear of the Barca line, and only a hustling defense catching a slowing Keita and a Carles Puyol challenge and foul on Niang prevented Victor Valdes from being asked a great deal.
For yesterday’s Clásico, totalBarça and twelve point courier collaborate to bring to you a review and analysis of the tactics employed in Barca’s victory at Bernabeu.
The first Clásico of the 2011-2012 La Liga campaign opened with the fastest goal ever scored in a match between Barcelona and Real Madrid. With Madrid pressing their archrival deep in their own end, Victor Valdes found himself with the ball and was looking to play Eric Abidal out to the touchline. While not an awful idea, Valdes missed Madrid winger Ángel di María staying in the passing lane, not closing down Gerard Piqué. The resulting pass was easily intercepted by di María, and after a Sergio Busquets block of both the ensuing through ball and rebounded shot by Mesut Özil, Karim Benzema volleyed home, giving Los Blancos a lead in all of twenty-two seconds. While the goal itself wasn’t a result of either side’s tactics, Madrid’s pressuring was confirmation of the suggestion put forth by José Mourinho’s surprising inclusion of Özil in his starting eleven: Madrid, up three points in the league race with a game in hand and favoured to win, was going to play a positive game.
And, in turn, Madrid was positively bested in every area of the game by a dominant Barca.