domenica 22 aprile 2012

The Way to contain

 The matches against Barcelona are often a clash between two contrasting styles. Barcelona goes for a ball-control approach; the opponents for a counter-attack one, playing deeper defensively. Roberto Di Matteo lined up a 4-5-1 formation with a lone forward during the first-leg of Champions League' semi-finals. Chelsea manager, meanwhile, said Barcelona doesn't like playing against his side. Almost ever. This is for one reason: Chelsea’s pitch is short and tight, no good for a possession soccer based on spread the rivals’ defenses. Chelsea’s first task was trying to prevent Barcelona playing through the centre, and force them out wide. One needn't keep possession to beat Barcelona. Some teams such as Real Madrid and AC Milan started off pressuring Barcelona high in the way to prevent their construction phase and they enjoyed success. Other teams employed another way. That was showed by Josè Mourinho with InterMilan and also by Kurban Berdyyev with the Rubin Kazan the 20-Oct-09. Though it was not an important match like the other two, Berdyyev showed the way: Barcelona pressed hard throughout the 90 minutes against a disciplined opponent and had a 76% of ball possession, but lost against a 4-4-1-1 line up well organized defensively. It worked also with Chelsea. Those teams played a 10-men defensive approach in which the role of the forwards was pivotal. A great job also did by David Trezeguet and Nelson Valdez during the Barcelona’s loss against newly-promoted Hercules the 14-Sep-10. At that time, Hercules played with a diamond midfield when the ball was with the Barcelona full-backs. When a Barcelona player had the ball, interior midfielder nearest to the ball went to meet him, while the opposite side going inside to cover the centre. One of the Hercules forwards would pick up the Barcelona’s pivote, leaving the Hercules’ holding midfielder free to play like an advanced sweeper. Di Matteo went for a different approach. He pick to cover the field in the width, leaving Didier Drogba free of defensive duties, almost initially. And Drogba did a great job giving his team precious time by earning free kicks as the game went on. Chelsea also parked the bus in the centre of the pitch, playing with three holding midfielders very closed to the back line. And they created problems to Barcelona exploiting one of the weakness of Guardiola’s team: the set pieces situations. Just take a look to Barcelonas’ problems on corner kicks against, where they defend with few men in the way to keep rivals’ defensive headers out from the action to minimize the number of headers to cover. AC Milan's Thiago Sillva and Real Madrid' Sami Khedira both exposed this weakness this season. Chelsea’s tactics worked well at the end but if you take a look to the most famous defensive approach matches against Barcelona, those of InterMilan’s Mourinho and Chelsea’s Di Matteo, you can see as a lot of wasted chances affected the results for Pep Guardiola’s side. So it’s hard to say that solid defense and tactics played a significant role. The 28-Apr-10 match against Mourinho was explicative. On this game, Barcelona’s forward Bojan Krkic missed a big goalscoring opportunity while referee Frank de Bleeckere's cancelled a goal for a doubtful handball by Yaya Toure. Both InterMilan and Chelsea teams didn’t’ put pressure on Barcelona side: they just covered the spaces. But doing so, they left a lot of time to Barcelona’s midfielders to play the ball. A pressure action, high or low, has to be aggressive. In fact, the goal scored by the Chelsea happened after an aggressive pressing movement played on Messi. To destroy the rivals’ timing and affect their playing tempo, the defensive phase has to be aggressive. This was the approach utilized by Holland head coach Bert van Marwijk in the 2012 WC final.  In that game, Holland started pressing high up the pitch, trying to destroy the passing play of Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso. Though Holland sometimes struggled on its pressing, this action became more effective as the game went on. And Holland hade the biggest goal scoring chances, specially with Arjen Robben. And while Holland exceeded going though, it showed as a physical game can be effective against a more technical side. Mourinho and Di Matteo’s approach was to press Barcelona within 25 yards of their goal. InterMilan and Chelsea played counter-attacks getting the ball in their own third but generating counter-attacks moving from midfield positions can be also effective against ball control teams. 

This is the way, with some modifications, utilized by Mourinho with Real Madrid in the 1-2 win against Barcelona on 21-Apr-12. This time, Mourinho asked for his team to play with a high defensive line. Take a look to first half average positions in the match. His idea to keep the back four line close down to the two holding midfielders was employed by telling his defence to play extremely close to the midfield.

 The result was to close the spaces around Messi and company on the offense and to keep them far from the final third.  

Having not overlapping full-backs but playing in the middle of the picth, Barcelona left Real Madrid with no needs to utilize wings to cover those full-backs, and with the opportunity to have more players in the middle, in the zone Messi's zone.


Real Madrid also contested every pass, every tackle. It was also the approach utilized by Sporting Lisboa against another technical teams that employed an offensive system similar to Barcelona: Athletic Bilbao. Against them, Sà Pinto’s side pick to press high but to leave Athletic free to move the ball between the holding midfielder and the two centre-backs. In the construction phase, Sporting played to cover at the line of midfield, playing a 2 vs 3 on the opposite defensive line and leaving free the rival farthest from the ball:

In this way, employing the forwards in the defensive action, Sporting was able to play with a 4-4-2 formation against a 4-3-3, nullifying the central inferiority.

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