Sunday, 12 June 2011

How to Beat Barcelona

Watching the Champions League final I was goaded into offering my "professional" opinion on how to beat Barcelona. At the time I declined to comment. Mourinho, Ferguson and Wenger have all been beaten by two goals or more this season. It would be odd, I thought, to profess greater insight than these illustrious names. Nonetheless, for some odd reason, I find myself compelled to offer a few solutions.

1 - Muzzle Busquets

Makalele's holding role was one of the most talked about tactical developments in the last decade. His role off the ball garnered far more attention than his role in recycling possession. Once he had a man marker, he was far less effective.

Busquets role - aside from theatrically throwing himself to the floor - is to recycle possession. This means to play simple passes to keep possession rather than risk it. They only risk possession higher up the field when Xavi and Iniesta have it. What Busquets does very well is provide stability in front of the back four. Barcelona never lose possession in that dangerous area in front of the back four because Busquets is such a talented passer. When Mascherano - an inferior passer, if perhaps a better tackler - was played in that role before Christmas, Barcelona looked a lot poorer. Xavi is a big fan of Busquets, saying:

"He is a soccer player who sees everything very fast. He has an excellent first touch and great balance."

A surprising element of the Champions League Final was the amount of space Busquets frequently had. Rooney was the obvious candidate to muzzle him with suitable aggression and technical proficiency, but instead concentrated on assuming wide positions to exploit space at fullback.

A lot is said of Messi but I feel that preventing the ball from reaching him (by way of Xavi and Iniesta) is key. Prevention not cure. Muzzling Busquets could be key. This will mean the centrebacks have to spend more time on the ball. Whilst they are accomplished for centrebacks they remain the weakest outfield players on the ball. Messi may well feel compelled to come even deeper to claim the ball, and the further away from your goal Messi is, the better.

As an aside, Mourinho's tactic in the Champions League Semi-Final first leg might well have worked, had they had a player like Tevez rather than Ronaldo playing. Ronaldo's unwillingness to press makes him a luxury player at times. A player like Tevez - who has now publicly stated his unwillingness to return to Manchester - might be the perfect solution for Mourinho.

In general hard working forwards are needed to contain Barcelona's fullbacks and press from the front. Inter's 3-1 victory at home to Barcelona last season is partly testament to this.

2 - Control the momentum of the match

Momentum is fantastically important in football. A team losing 3-2 will feel very differently if they surrendered a 2-0 lead than if they have pulled two goals back in quick succession.

Barcelona do a fantastic job of controlling momentum through keeping possession. Their abundance of sideways passes which accounts for a good proportion of their ridiculously high possession statistics are not valuable in terms of match-winning merit - although some football purists certainly see it that way - but in the asphyxiating effect they have on the game. Whilst they have the ball the momentum of the game is in their hands. The other team are playing in reaction to them. Psychologically this is extremely important.

Notably when things aren't going their way they are more than happy to play dirty. Diving, hounding the referee, winding up opponents... you name it, they will do it. Whatever it takes to unnerve the opposition.

Whilst you are unlikely to be able to outpass Barcelona, disrupting their rhythm - as Real Madrid sometimes managed this season - could be key to defeating them.

An extension of this is to be mentally resilient. When you don't have the ball it is important to remain disciplined, composed, concentrated and be willing to contest every ball. A game against Barcelona will be won in the head as much as on the field.

Make the most of set-pieces

Manchester United didn't have a single corner against Barcelona in the Champions League final. When their side is so short it seems to me to be a missed opportunity. Excellently taken free kicks and corners into the penalty area are surely a good way to beat Barcelona.

Switching Play

When Barcelona lose the ball they hound the opposition very quickly in an attempt to win it back. When Inter beat Barcelona 3-1 at the San Siro, they focused on playing a lot of switches from one side of the pitch to the other. If Barcelona press aggressively it means they have fewer players elsewhere. Players like Sneijder and Xabi Alonso, combined with some positive forward play could be enough to expose Barcelona, particularly when their fullbacks hold such high positions on the field.

So, to summarise...

Pressing, fighting, crossing and switching.

Whilst this is a far from comprehensive VOILA post, it could provide some keys to beating Barcelona. The key is in playing to win and remaining compact.

It is symptomatic of the failure to beat Barcelona that sides talk predominantly about how to stop Barcelona (Xavi, Messi et al) rather than on exposing their weaknesses. A reactive strategy is not enough to beat Barcelona. The best performances have involved a strong proactive element (e.g. Arsenal at Home, and Real Madrid in the Coppa del Rey). The successful side will take the initiative.

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