Sunday, May 29, 2011

Barcelona - Masters of Art and Science, as well as Europe

As a Manchester United supporter, it was hard to sit back and watch the Red Devils get humbled by Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League Final.

As a true admirer of the sport, it was easy to appreciate the aesthetics and beauty that Barcelona plays with - precision passing and movement by the best players on the best team in the world.

As a self-described 'soccer scientist', I have spent the waking minutes following Barca's 3-1 rout of Manchester United at Wembley Stadium searching for answers of how Barcelona are able to do what they do, and how to find tactics to counter it.

I watched the Catalan display with my friends, children and their friends at a local restaurant, and as I saw the open-mouthed gaze on my 9-year old's face as he watched Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Co. dart around the field, it led me to wonder both how to coach a team to play the way Barca does, and how to stop a team like that. As a Monday morning quarterback, it always looks easier from the stands or watching on television. Every fan has answers as they watch of how to play and who to put in the team - I can't imagine the challenges for Sir Alex Ferguson and his staff in putting together a game plan of how to play against arguably the greatest side of the modern era.

After watching the game live and again on tape, and reading all the post-game reports from pundits, my post-game thoughts and potential answers (or more questions) to my questions all came back to Barcelona's engine room in midfield.

Barcelona's Midfield

Each of Barcelona's goals were scored by their front line of Pedro, Messi and Villa, but every Barcelona attack is created by their brilliant midfield of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. They are able to retain possession for long stretches of all the matches they play, and dictate a rhythm and tempo that puts the opposition on their heels and has them chasing for huge portions of games. The like of Real Madrid and Arsenal have already been asked to defend for most of their matches, and United were asked to do the same in their UEFA Champions League final in 2009.

From a purely analytical standpoint, it stands to reason that if you can cut off the source, you can cut off the legs of the animal that is Barcelona.

Easier said than done - regardless as to the alignment or tactics you use, it ends up robbing from Peter to pay Paul to do so in most cases. Teams that have created a log-jam in midfield or sitting deep in their own third of the field have been left with very little to attack when they do win the ball.

Transition Defense

The other challenge is that the most underrated part of Barcelona's game is their ability to press defensively, and specifically in transition - they are able to put immediate pressure on the ball and regain possession faster and better than anyone else in the world. Even if you put numbers around their midfield and are able to win small battles in gaining possession, you have the even greater challenge of now retaining it against immense pressure. Arsenal conceded a goal to Barcelona in the earlier stages of the Champions League after Barca countered after winning possession back off a Fabregas back-heel in their own third of the field; Barcelona's third goal in yesterday's final came off Busquets dispossessing Nani deep in United's third to counter with a strke from Villa.

Alignment Options

So how do you cut off the source of Barca's brilliance without limiting your own attack and not giving the ball back to them so quickly? Looking at what was left to Sir Alex Ferguson's disposal, I can see why he started in a 4-4-1-1 alignment. Rooney was tasked with dropping in on Busquets when Barca has the ball. I do believe that he thought he would be even numbers in midfield by doing so, but with Rooney looking to create space and opportunities for himself when United had the ball, it was a tough challenge to expect him to transition quickly to find Busquets.

Busquets influence in both Barcelona and Spain's teams are the most hidden and overshadowed by the brilliance of magicians Xavi and Iniesta. Where Xavi is mastery in possession and Iniesta may be the best pentrating passer in the world, Busquets balances the two of them to perfection. He is the consumate 'connect the dots' player - always linking play into one of his primary attacking players, or switching play out through one of Barca's outside backs. Busquets is the quarterback in Barcelona's own half of the field, and has the ability to bring Xavi, Iniesta or Alves into the game.

Carrick and Giggs had formed a strong partnership during the course of the season, but it is hard to envision that they would be able to press both Xavi and Iniesta for long stretches in this match. Fletcher and Anderson have worked themselves back into the team in battles with fitness, but neither are 100%. Looking at creating an alignment or system to combat Barcelona after the match has already been played (which Sir Alex Ferguson doesn't have the luxury of doing), my guess is that deploying an alignment of 4-2-3-1 might be the best way to match up with Barcelona's engine room. Two of the opponents who managed to defeat Barcelona this season - Real Madrid and Arsenal - lined up with two holding midfielders to match up with Xavi and Iniesta, and 3 attacking midfielders who would rotate into the roles to keep the outside backs in front of them and deal with Busquets or Mascherano (whichever was in that balancing midfield fulcrum role).

Manchester United opted to deal with this challenge by playing with Giggs and Carrick in midfield, Rooney dropping in on Busquets whenever he could, and Park and Valencia tucking in help give defensive balance.

The challenges with doing so were the following - asking Park or Valencia to tuck in defensively now exposed the flanks when the ball can get switched out; Park was asked to chase and do a lot of work in midfield, and as the match went on, Alves got more involved down Barca's right side; Rooney couldn't grab a hold of Busquets, and he was able to bring others into the game; as Xavi and Iniesta really got going off the ball, both Giggs and Carrick had challenges keeping a hold of the midfield trio; once Messi started checking back deeper into midfield, it appeared like a game of keep-away between that group versus Carrick.

Sir Alex appeared to switch Giggs with Park at halftime, which appeared to render Giggs even more ineffective as he was overwhelmed a bit defensively with the task of chasing Alves, and as the half started, Alves twice bombed down the right flank. Park offered more energy in midfield, but he was left to chase a cavernous space that became the middle third of the field.

Could United have used two defensive midfielders in their central roles - perhaps Carrick and Fletcher - and charge them with staying up the two Barcelona creators all over the pitch? I don't know that they could have accomplished that for 90 minutes, but with Giggs, Scholes and Anderson in reserve, perhaps a combination of players sharing those responsibilities are the best way to accomplish that.

Rather than Rooney dropping in on Busquets, could Park have been able to do that job and have Roon play out in the left channel more? Park has the energy and commitment to cover large spaces on the field for long durations and is one of United's chief defensive weapons, but a move like that would create a robbing from Peter to pay Paul scenario- I don't know that he would have scored the goal that tied the match up if he was chasing Dani Alves down the left flank. Saying that, maybe Roon out on the left side would keep Alves honest - or give United a weapon to attack down the side that Alves would leave vacant.

Rooney is not comfortable playing as a lone central striker, as he prefers to drop in under the central striker to play in a freelance role in attack. He tends to either drop underneath or drift out into the left channel. I don't know that he would have been taken out of his comfort zone by being asked to play out on the left side.

The inclusion of Berbatov as a target that could hold onto the ball would have helped as the game went on - as United struggled to grab a hold of the ball and retain possession as the game went on, Hernandez was rendered uselss. He was caught offside on several occasions early on as he fell victim to Barca's offside trap at the back. The inclusion of Berbatov could have allowed United to hold the ball up front, and perhaps help them to get out of their own half of the field and initiate their counter-attack. Unfortunately, he was dropped and not available as a reserve.

Pressing vs. Block defending

The idea of pressing Barcelona worked in 2009 for the first 10 minutes of their match, and United were not able to sustain that kind of pressure. United started off this match in much the same context, and similar to 2009, came out punching and were able to apply pressure and create scoring chances. They had dictated tempo for about 15 minutes this time around, but after a Xavi cross almost found an open Pedro in the 16th minute, the floodgates started to open.

Similar to boxing with the punching analogy, the tactics stand that if a puncher can't knock his opposition out early in their prize fight, that they will run out of gas at some point. Very similar to the 2009 final, United were not able to sustain that kind of pressure. Once their lines of defense got pulled apart and the midfield was stretched, it was too vast a space for the likes of Giggs and Carrick to maintain. Even with the engine of Park racing all over the field, when the midfield space was opened up, United was exposed to the brilliance of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta.

Even if they came out in the 4-2-3-1 recommendation I made earlier, I think a key to the system deployed would be the lines of confrontation and their ability to block the midfield out. They would have to stay tight in that midfield block to make it hard for Xavi, Iniesta and Co. to develop a rhythm.

The master of block defending - Jose Mourinho - had defeated Barcelona in successive seasons with Inter Milan (2010) and Real Madrid (2011) by not only congesting midfield with numbers, but by blocking that space with a tight group and making it harder for the Barca maestros to find time/space.

Keeping the lines tighter by block defending might have aided the massive challenge that Vidic and Ferdinand had in keeping an eye on Lionel Messi. I don't know that there is really a way to shut down Messi - he scored an amazing 53 goals this season, and is the greatest player of the modern era.

The only way to even have a shot and containing him is with numbers - whether that is by man-marking, using a screen in midfield, or just keeping the lines tighter. Vidic did a great job of staying up him early in the match, but once the midfield got stretched, the Argentine magician had too much room to operate.

I am a massive supporter of Sir Alex Ferguson, and I love the fact that he came out with a puncher's mentality of trying to knock Barcelona out. When it came to picking your poison, Ferguson was brave to attempt to come out swinging against the Catalan giants.

In the end of the day, United were not able to expose Barcelona to their fast-paced counter-attack. To be able to counter-attack, you need to be able to retain possession when you win the ball and attack down vacated spaces on the field. Barcelona's smothering midfield defense kept both Carrick and Giggs under wraps, and the defense of Eric Abidal kept Valencia shackled on the right flank. Other than the great combination between Carrick, Giggs and Rooney to create United's goal (and only shot on target), Barcelona won the chess match of imposing their style on the opposition.

Xavi, Iniesta and Messi were the stars of the show; Busquets and Abidal were unsung heros in Barcelona's footballing carnival. Barcelona dominated from every statistical category, and were clearly the class of the 2011 UEFA Champions League.

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