Sunday, 19 June 2011

How to Beat Barcelona - Case Study v Inter

My last post was somewhat vague. This post centres on Barcelona's biggest loss of the past two years. Not the biggest by margin - Hercules beat them 2-0 at the Nou Camp in the second game of this season just past - but also by occasion, a Champions League semi-final no less. Now before I begin, many will recall the volcano which disrupted their preparations, forcing them to travel by coach. An entirely valid point but worth tempering by the realisation that they were not on a school trip to Dover. Money could not buy a more comfortable coach. It was also true that Barcelona were missing Iniesta. Similarly valid, but it seems to be as much a criticism as an excuse to blame a two goal defeat on the absence of one player.

It's worth noting that Sky got the Inter tactics horribly wrong there. It is truly embarrassing that they hadn't had a researcher watch a single Inter game that season before a Champions League Semi-final. Inter played a 4-2-3-1 as they did for most of the 2009/2010 season, with Pandev on the left wing, Eto'o on the right and Milito alone upfront. This point will become extremely important later.

A quick refresher. Ibrahimovic played upfront for Barcelona. This suited Lucio and Samuel who adore a scrap. Watch Lucio's masterclass against Drogba earlier on in the competition, here. Messi played off him. Nominally he started on the right wing and cut inside but in actual fact he drifted across the width of the pitch. He did not play as the central forward he does now. That has changed. The similarity is perhaps in Messi's willingness to drop deep to collect the ball.

Before the game Mourinho said this:

Messi is the number one danger. He is an important player who needs major attention but, according to my culture, man-marking is impossible. It will not be one of ours against Messi and 10 against 10 others, but 11 against 11.

This was true. However Inter's formation was perfectly designed to cope with Barcelona then, particularly Messi. Take a look at this video of Messi's touches during the game. Note the following:

1) Cambiassso and Thiago Motta provided a tight screen between Messi and the goal. This made a pass the more attractive option a lot of the time. see: 36 seconds on the video.

2) When Messi was able to isolate one of them - usually Cambiasso when Motta had got forward - the holding player would not dive in but instead stand off him, looking to hold Messi up. Motta would always be back quickly to hussle. see: 55 seconds.

3) Cesar made some terrific stops, particularly from the freekick. see: 3:35.

4) Sneijder and sometimes even Eto'o would help out if Messi dropped deep. see: 1:45.
The temptation could be for Cambiasso and Motta to come out to pressure Messi when he gets closer to his backline but this makes the side less compact. As Mourinho said after the 2nd leg, Inter never wanted to surrender their position. Moving the defensive shield forward leaves a gap in front of the defenders to exploit.

This point is really brought into relief when you consider the dishevelled defending Inter displayed at home to Barcelona earlier in the season. Watch it here. When Messi has the ball he is confronted by a scattered defence. Zanetti and Motta performed the holding roles and it failed to work. Zanetti in particular was torn apart.

The difference? Compactness and positional discipline. The embodiment of this was Cambiasso. He rightly drew a lot of praise for his semi-final performances. Here is his 1st leg contribution:

Without the ball he does three things superbly. Firstly, he is extremely disciplined in shielding the defence. Motta is given free reign to move forward. Cambiasso is expected to keep his position more strictly. Secondly, his tackling was first class. Thirdly, he knew when to dive in and when to stand off. When faced with Messi he would back off forcing Messi to take the initiative. Other times he harried players on their first touch, not giving them a single metre. This puts pressure on less technically gifted players and is psychologically tough when you know that everytime you get the ball s fierce Argentine with no hair is going to bully you.

With the ball he is also interesting. He consistently targeted the position between centreback and fullback with quick balls. See 20 seconds, 39 seconds, 1 minute, 1 minute 30 seconds... among others. He rarely took the time to think about these. The reliance was on pace. This brings into play another interesting feature of Inter's game plan...

Those pesky wide players: Pandev and Eto'o. When Cambiasso had the ball he played quick balls into the space left by the advancing Brazilian fullbacks, Alves and Maxwell. By playing these balls quickly they ensured the Barcelona fullbacks didn't have time to recover. To take full advantage, Pandev and Eto'o would have been told to be extremely sharp during the transition periods. The transition against Barcelona is key because they press the ball so aggressively. In order to transition effectively against a side like Barcelona you have to identify a simple way of doing so that all involved parties will be able to execute. Exploiting that gap at fullback with players like Pandev and Eto'o seems perfect. In fact the standard model was to have Sneijder and Pandev overload the left, and Maicon and Eto'o overload the right. This left Milito free to hold more central positions and for inter to attack quickly with just 5 players.

Indeed if defensively Inter's victory can be attributed to their vertical compactness, offensively it was their lateral control which won them the match. Not only did they try to effect quick switches but all four forward players looked to exploit the space left at fullback, through quick transition play. All 3 goals came this way. Check them here from 42 seconds.

Goal 1: A quick switch by Sneijder to Eto'o seeks to exploit space down the right. Eto'o has time to chest the ball down comfortably. Milito eventually gets the ball in the middle who knocks it to Sneijder who holds his position wonderfully to score on the far side. Terrible defending by Alves but the initial overload on the right handside with Eto'o and Maicon caused panic in the Barcelona defence.

Goal 2: Sneijder surges forward with the ball. He plays a ball into Milito's diagonal run cutting out Maxwell (whose interception fails). Classic ball into that area. Yet again Maicon's appearance creates the overload, and he scores with a cool finish.

Goal 3: Maicon again forward and again not trying to be the widest player, but moving inside. Play breaks down but it is a quick ball to Eto'o who is AGAIN in space which leads to the cross from which the goal is scored.

It is clear from this that Sneijder's passing was instrumental to the first two goals. He inadvertantly set up the third. The forward's width - particularly Eto'o - resulted in all three goals. And Maicon's runs inside to give Eto'o space out wide was key in two goals and may have played a part in the third.

Deep breaths.

Inter were compact in defence. Cambiasso and Motta were key in protecting the back four, taking the pressure off Lucio and Samuel. Inter always had a spare man or two at the back because of this. Furthermore their transitions were quick, looking to exploit both space at fullback and lateral space left by intense pressing. They created an overload on Barcelona's weaker left side.

How much of this is relevant to beating Barcelona today?

Well there is no more Ibrahimovic. Messi has a more fluid role in the term, ostensibly playing as the central forward. Messi loves to drop deep and when he does there is confusion as to who should be tracking him. Playing a shield with players like Motta and Cambiasso could be key to following his runs. They should be extremely disciplined and remain close to the central defenders.

Barcelona have a greater threat on the wings now with Villa. This takes the pressure off the leftback to come forward. In big games this season Barcelona have often played Puyol there, knowing that the overlap isn't so important down the left side. However it is still true that Alves leaves space down the right to be exploited. Winning the ball on the right of midfield and playing quick balls into that space with a left winger or centre forward eager to pick up on it, perhaps with the support of a marauding leftback could be key. Alves may well be strong going forward, and his defensive frailties are often overstated, but it remains true that whilst he holds a position high up the pitch there is space in behind to be exploited.

Finally every single player must be willing to work hard an exert pressure on the ball. Sneijder helped out in the middle, Eto'o and Pandev worked incredibly hard on the wings, and Milito ran so hard he suffered from cramp. Prima donnas are not a luxury you can afford against Barcelona. This point was emphasised when Balotelli was brought on for Milito late on. Watch his exceptionally daft cameo performance here.

Players must be quick on the ball and exceptionally committed off it. As Mourinho said, the game is played 11 v 11. A simple, sobering truth.

Edit: As an aside, it was notable how often Alex Ferguson was telling his players to play wide - Rooney in particular - during the Champions League final. Where they failed, according to my above analysis, is both in protecting the back four and in transitioning quickly enough.

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