Zidane adapting to Barcelona providing the result for Real; Barcelona v Real Madrid match analysis

In last two years El Clasico was very kind to us. With four goals on average it was a match that kept us all on the verge of our seats. However, the game played at Camp Nou on Saturday seemed to have two different teams disguised as top Spanish sides.

Yet, if we consider the circumstances, it is quite understandable why we have seen two timid teams that were more interested in outsmarting than outscoring each other.

Real Madrid came into the derby match without an away loss since December 2015 and in impressive form that saw them win five matches in row. Barcelona, on the other hand, was already behind great rival by six points. Worse than their points summary were the performances they have put together recently. Three draws in last five games and very unconvincing ones.

Therefore, Luis Enrique had to be cautious going into the match that could see him nine points behind the top team of the league. The form and difference in points meant that Zinedine Zidane could afford himself the luxury of repeating the strategy from recent derby match against Atletico Madrid.

SLIKA 1.jpg
Although Real seems in control of the situation, Barcelona has numerical advantage in the centre of the pitch

Real sat deep and reluctant to press Barcelona high unless it meant chasing down back passes. They opted to stay deep and wait their chance on counter attacks as we can see on the image above. Lucas Velazquez had an important role of tracking back and helping to deal with Neymar.

SLIKA 2.jpg
As Isco and Modrić leave their position in the line, space opens for 4v1 situation in the middle of the central area

However, initially this provided a lot of space for Barcelona. If we look the same image from hosts’ perspective, we see quite a different picture. Due to low pressing intensity Barcelona could come into the middle third with relative ease. Since Cristiano Ronaldo’s defensive work rate isn’t the best, that meant Blau Grana could get a numerical advantage in the centre of the pitch simply by rising one centre back. To deal with it, Isco and Modrić needed to step up which lead to an overload in the central area. Kovačić was left alone to deal with four Barcelona players and lot of space due to Real Madrid relatively deep defensive line.

SLIKA 3.jpg
Before Real got their act together, Barcelona was able to reach the dangerous part of the pitch relatively easy breaking the central defensive line

We see another variant of play Barcelona employed to find space in front of the defence. As opposed to the first image, two central midfielders do not engage in press on ball carrier. Therefore, Busquets has enough time and space to find Neymar as he cuts inside.

However, Real adapted quickly by rising the defensive line which eliminated the space in front of the defence and creating a lot of it behind.

This was a calculated risk by Zinedine Zidane as he eliminated dangerous space in central areas hoping his defence will be able to deal with Neymar and Suarez. While this isn’t usually the case, Zidane was proven right in this instance. Partly due to quality of his defence, but largely due to great work of midfield that sealed off the passing lanes through the middle. Even Messi, who was playing quite deep and central to help the ball circulation in middle third, couldn’t do much about it and Barcelona was left relying on rather desperate long balls into the path of two strikers.

bar lpass.jpg
Barcelona long passes comparison show the effect of Iniesta in the squad during the second half

 

Above we see long ball comparison for Barcelona during the first and the second half. It is obvious how the hosts were frustrated by good defending from Real Madrid. One lucky goal later and with Iniesta on the pitch, Barcelona looked much like the team we all know.

To an extent this was due to their decision to abandon long balls and try to play around the defence. However, Zidane reacted to goal by making his team more attacking and that meant more space for Barcelona.

As Casemiro replaced Isco, the Brazilian midfielder took over all the defensive duties allowing Luka Modrić to go more offensive which made huge holes in Real defence especially during transition from attack to defensive shape. In that period Barcelona should have probably increased the lead but they needed more confidence to finish off their chances.

As the game was nearing the end Zidane introduced Asensio and Mariano reverting to sort of 4-2-4 in hope to get an equalizer which they eventually managed to do.

To conclude, Barcelona will be far less happy with El Classico than their rivals. They were unable to deal with great defensive work of their opposition and couldn’t find their rhythm until Real opened up. They failed to capitalize on their chances and didn’t manage to shut the shop either. A pattern that repeats all over the last month and doesn’t spur confidence in the rest of the season. Real, on the other hand, didn’t really need the victory but has shown great character to get back into the match they controlled most of the time. Well, at least if we consider they came to defend and look to score on the counter. They defended formidably indeed and while they didn’t score on the counter they didn’t compromise strong position they had before the match. If anything, their confidence can only grow with the goal in the last minute of an away game against the biggest rivals.

Advertisements

TACTICS: An insight into the modern pivot role

After looking into the inside forward, at our next stop in exploring emerging roles in modern football, we will take a look at defensive midfielder position. It is yet another position that was heavily influenced by “juego de posicion” so succesfully implemented by Pep Guardiola at Barcelona. Looking to emulate this success, coaches around Europe adopted their own vision and interpretation of defensive midfielder position. Nowadays we often hear about pivot, half back, deep lying playmaker and so on.

They all describe the same position but different interpretations of it in various systems and phylosophies. Root of this change happened in Mexico with Argentinian coach Ricardo La Volpe at turn of century. As more teams pressed defensive line with two attackers, La Volpe employed a defensive midfielder who would drop between two center backs to build a numerical advantage in order to achieve controlled transition from defensive into the middle third of the pitch. A move known as “salida lavolpiana” or La Volpe’s transition.

Above you can see Mexico under Ricardo La Volpe and “salida lavolpiana” working in practice as defensive midfielder Rafa Marquez drops deep between center backs. They spread out while full backs go higher up the pitch occupying their markers thus creating more space for ball carrier in central position.

However, football trends changed with times and salida lavolpiana needed adjustments. Primarely as a response to formations with three attackers and gegenpressing. With rise of Barcelona, under Pep Guardiola, we have witnessed the development of positional play. To reach the middle third in an organized manner, and avoid opposition that plays high pressing game with three forwards, Guardiola introduced ball playing goalkeepers and his own type of defensive midfielder.

PIVOT,
Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Fernandinho, Julian Weigl…

ESSENTIAL ATTRIBUTES
Decisions, off the ball movement, ball control, passing, balance, vision, tackling, positioning, communication, work rate

Managers who want to ransition the ball from defensive zone into the middle third in organized manner might have particular requests, however, the basic idea is always the same. The aim is to find a free man between the opposition lines. Transition from defensive into the middle third of the pitch is particularly delicate as ball lost so close to the goal often means immediate chance for opposition. “There is no playmaker in world who can create so many good chnaces so consistently that close to goal as good pressing” are the words from Jurgen Klopp and Guardiola tries to evade that very pressing by passing around it.

slika-1
DM in buildup phase of “juego de posicion”

Above you see Guardiola’s Manchester City in their defensive zone looking to break the pressing and reach the middle third in controlled manner. It is immediately obvious that players are positioning themselves quite far away from each other. This forces the opposition to cover more ground or employ more players in closing them down. When everything works well, both counter meassures make it easier for Guardiola’s team to reach the middle third.

However, it is futile to look only at the role of defensive midfielder in isolation. Whole team needs to occupy right spaces if the team wants to be successful at keeping the ball and reaching the middle third in organized way against good pressing. The whole goal is to find a free man in between the lines. To be succesfull, all players need high standard of composure on the ball, ability to pass quickly and precisely while moving and changing positions. If executed well, combination of quick passing and movement creates a free man which allows the team to progress further up the pitch into next zone where defending team needs to reorganize and the process repeats.

Screenshot above provides valuable insight into how important decision making of individual player is for this strategy to work. Fernandinho plays a pivot role in this game and exchanges place with Fernando who cleverly recognises this and occupies deeper position. However, Fenandinho is let down by his first touch, then he fails to find free man quickly enough and is cought in possesion. Few seconds later City concedes due to an own goal from Kolarov.

This tells us that even if team is perfectly positioned on the pitch and at least one player is free to receive the pass, the strategy is very much dependant on individual players. However, mistakes happen and that doesn’t mean the strategy is invalid. Just not foolproof.

According to positional play, same strategy that is used in defensive zone is valid in attacking third as well. The idea is always to reach the advantage, be it numerical “2v1, 3v2…) or individual (i.e. Messi against weak full back). Defensive midfielder’s role is thus essentialy still the same.
Depending on manager’s needs a defensive midfielder might have different duties further up the pitch. They might be more conservative as Busquets is sometimes at Barcelona. At times dropping between the center backs to allow full backs go further forward. At times, he might have more active role, similar to that of Weigel at Borussia Dortmund.

SLIKA 2.jpg
Example of DM in buildup phase of a team that doesn’t adhere to “juego de posicion”

Above we can see a still image of Borussia Dortmund in possession against Real Madrid. German team is very narrow even in possession due to their counter pressing strategy. However, Julian Weigl who is the player designated to connect defence and attack, is high up the pitch with the responsability to keep the ball circulation. Being narrow helps Borussia to exchange quick short passes and allows them to catch oppostion in counter pressing if they lose the ball.

Independently of individual manager’s requests, in positional game the goal always remains the same. Players need to occupy their positions, move the ball and progress down the pitch in order to create advantage. It requires lots of skills and is primarely the reason why any Barcelona player under Guardiola, could basically play any position.

Change that turned the game, Sevilla v Barcelona match analysis

Rarely you see such a different two halves of football match as it was in La Liga match between Sevilla and Barcelona on Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán Stadium. The way Sevilla was playing the first half was indeed impressive as Barcelona struggled to get on the ball and establish authority they are used to. A small but significant change made in half time turned the game around. Before we get to that we should respect Jorge Sampaoli’s side and see how they managed to minimize the Barcelona’s threat and go ahead.

Lot of teams try but rarely one can succeed pressing highly skill full defensive line of Catalan club. Sevilla employed very high pressing, and although Barcelona managed to escape it at times, they couldn’t do it consistently enough to get into their rhyth

DENYING BARCELONA POSSESSION

sevilla-disrupt-goalkick-v-barcelona
Asa result of great pressing Barcelona saw only 47 per cent of ball during the first half

In the first half Barcelona had only 47 per cent of the ball. Above you can see why. While Sevilla was largely defending in 4-4-2 shape, with Vazquez stepping up from midfield to join Vietto, the whole team was very high preventing the goal keeper distribution. Sevilla made sure to close down the centre of the pitch as you can see above where Vietto, Vazquez, N’Zonzi, Nasri and Sarabia guarded the three central players. Additionally, Vietto was keeping an eye on central defender while Sarabia took care of his full back.

As central trio Busquets, Rakitić and Denis Suarez were locked out, Barcelona was forced to play down the flanks. As hosts kept defensive line very high, Barcelona found it difficult to transition to middle and offensive third in an organized manner.

Where Sevilla really excelled wasn’t the defensive phase of the match but once they were in possession. Sampaoli took a deliberate gamble attacking with his left back who was most of the time very high up the pitch.

 

sevilla-creating-overload-v-barcelona
Escudero was very high up the pitch which tied down two wide Barcelona players and created overloads in the central areas

This allowed Vitolo to occupy rather central position during most of the match and play in line with attacking midfielder Vazquez and more advanced Vietto. Alongside Sarabia, those three were most dangerous players during the first half. The key for their space and time on the ball was, however, Escudero. He occupied Sergio Roberto and Rakitić leaving Vitolo, Vietto, Nasri and Vazquez to deal only with Busquets, Daniel Suarez and center backs. This often created overloads in small spaces and deeper in the Barcelona half it was even more dangerous due to lack of defensive work from Messi and Suarez. Sampaoli took a gamble there as advanced positioning of his left full back meant opposition right winger was allowed more space in case of quick counter attack.

While Sevilla looked really good in first half and managed to get into the box almost at will, all of that changed during the period and essentially made it possible for Barcelona to win the game.

Catalans came into the match with an idea to exploit left side and overloaded the central area together with left half space.

barcelona-overload-left-side-v-sevilla
During the first half Messi was pushed into the central area to create an overload on the left wing and left half spaces. However, this didn’t really work as Barcelona couldn’t find possession and threat they are used to

Above you can see typical Barcelona during the first half. Luis Enrique decides to keep Lionel Messi in an attacking midfielder slot while in possession which overloads the left side of the offensive third. He was probably counting on exploiting Mariano’s attacking mentality but we have seen before that it was actually Escudero who was higher up the pitch mostly. Additionally, when pushed back deeper into their half, Sevilla would transform into 4-1-4-1 shape and there were always N’Zonzi or Nasri available to close down Messi who was in central area. Whatever the reasons behind Enrique’s thinking, overloading the left side wasn’t really producing the performance he was hoping for. It was even unfortunate choice as it meant that Escudero could venture forward even more without a threat of leaving Messi in the space behind him.

THE CHANGE IN SECOND HALF

messi-positioning-first-and-second-half
Most important change Luis Enrique made was moving Messi closer to the right touchline. He could find more space and time to dictate the game from there

Above you see the comparison of Messi’s positioning during the first (left) and second (right) half. Enrique abandoned his approach from first half and brought Messi back to right flank for the rest of the match and this made all the difference in the end. Although he scored in first half, Messi and Barcelona played much better after the half time.

barcelona positioning sevilla.jpg
Comparison between first and second half reveals that Barcelona had abandoned left side after the break and attacked evenly down both flanks once Messi went from center to the right wing

To complete the picture, you can see another diagram above representing Barcelona attacking lanes during the game. It is obvious Barcelona spent the same amount of time in the central area during both halves. However, their wing play changed significantly. In first half they almost abandoned the right wing leaving it exclusively to Suarez and Sergio Roberto. Displacing Messi wide in second half meant more time on that part of the pitch and even more time on the ball for Messi. While he had only 25 touches in the first part of the match, the shift to right wing meant also he touched the ball 42 times, almost doubling his time on the ball.

In conclusion, Sevilla played great half and a lot of credit goes to them. However, by placing Messi centrally Enrique played into their hands allowing Escudero to create more space for Vitolo. At the same time, having a strong defensive midfielder in N’Zonzi made it difficult for Argentinian to find space in well placed Sevilla defence. Credit goes to Luis Enrique for realizing the problem and solving it as well.

Why Aguero didn’t play, Barcelona v Man City analysis

Beefsteak is part of the cow while football is made of mistakes… That’s how Guardiola comforted himself after Barcelona served him with four goals. How many mistakes Guardiola made himself is difficult to judge. However, it is certain he will not abandon his philosophy. Ball playing goalkeeper is fundamental part of how he wants his teams to play and that won’t change. Goalkeeper, however, eventually might.

 
Barcelona is in trouble in the back line and as game progressed, Pique and Alba both had to be substituted. Despite that, Guardiola kept De Bruyne in nr. 9 spot until 78th minute when he finally introduced Aguero. Too late, however. But decision to have De Bruyne instead of his best striker from the first minute was driven from the way Guardiola wanted to confront Luis Enrique. Aguero was consciously sacrificed as De Bruyne was fundamental part of Pep’s game plan.

While the ball was at the feet of Ter Stegen, City was very high up the pitch. However, they didn’t press. They made sure to keep passing lanes in central areas covered and prevent Busquets, Rakitić or Iniesta to come deep and pick the ball. This forced Barcelona players into predictable passing from goalkeeper to one of the center backs and then to full back. That was the trigger for aggressive closing down.

slika-1
De Bruyne was fundamental to the way Guardiola wanted to close the center of the pitch. His hard work and physical resistance meant Barcelona could be effectively closed down. A job Aguero could hardly do well

Above you see the moment Barcelona passes to Mascherano on the right side. Once the ball was near the byline City attacked in packs in the constrained space. De Bruyne was crucial here as he has mentality and physical ability to shift from left to right following fast tempo Barcelona is able to produce in the defensive line. Furthermore, he is able to press intensively and then track back. Characteristics Aguero lacks although he might be better finisher.

How hard it was for Barcelona to cope with this intensity from the attacking line we can read from possession. First quarter of hour teams were split equally on the ball. However, most indicative is that players who spent most time on the ball among hosts were Ter Stegen and Umtiti.

slika-2
Guardiola’s plan to cut off midfield trio was a success as you can see that City’s pressing forced Barcelona to play down the wings almost exclusively (cource: @11tegen11

Above you see very good passing diagram from @11tegen11 and how this approach from Man City influenced Barcelona. Busquets, normally one of the most influential players and one who’s job is to connect defence and midfield was almost completely cut off. Their game suffered as well since Iniesta and Rakitić struggled to get on ball. Guardiola’s intent to seal off the midfield was quite a success. Instead of Busquets it was Digne and Mascherano who had to connect the lines and that is in big part thanks to De Bruyne’s mobility and hard work.

Despite solid performance that denied Barcelona the space and time in most dangerous zones, hosts managed to get into the lead after bizarre string of luck and Messi’s composure and determination. First Fernandinho slipped far away from goal and left the ball to Messi and few seconds later already won ball rolled right around penalty mark.

slika-3
Barcelona scored after series of bizarre incidents that resulted with Messi alone in the box. Chance he wouln’t miss if he had only one leg

At that moment Messi was still surrounded by Otamendi and Silva, but both of them expected to go on counter as the ball was already won. Less than a second later, Messi was already celebrating his first goal.

From that moment Barcelona takes the initiative for following 15 minutes which was the time City needed to get back into the match. Although there were no significant tactical changes, the visitors upped their game and managed to finish the half creating few promising chances themselves.

When second half kicked off it was expected that City would continue to search for equalizer since Barcelona didn’t do anything significant. However, another bizarre moment came in 51st minute. Any other goalkeeper in any other team would leave defence to deal with lose ball 20 yards from his goal. However, Bravo is brought to be a ball playing goalkeeper so he went to do his job and – failed miserably. Poor pass into the feet of Suarez meant a prompt shot at goal that Bravo attempts to save and rightly gets sending off for hand ball outside the box. At that moment game was practically over.

Despite very ugly result in the end, City did well in terms of stifling Barcelona. While first goal was rather unlucky, red card is direct product of the way Guardiola wants to play and it determined the final result. Most certainly Guardiola will not change his philosophy as ball playing goalkeeper is fundamental to the build up play, but he might try to find another keeper.