Drogba vs Costa, and what to expect from Chelsea next year
Drogba’s status as the deadliest striker in Chelsea’s recent history was already in no doubt even before he sealed Chelsea’s first European Cup win two years ago with the last kick of the final. The striker was arguably Mourinho’s best signing for Chelsea, but since Jose returned for his second term, much has been made of the relative lack of striking options upfront. Diego Costa is rumoured to be the Drogba of Jose’s second term, but how does he stack up against the original version and what can Chelsea fans hope to expect from him?
Both Drogba and Costa are of the archetypal Mourinho forward – strong physical presence up front with aerial prowess. Both can lead the line on their own, both can strike dead balls with venom, and both do their share of defensive work. But their differences are more subtle.
Drogba was the complete center-forward for Chelsea. The Ivorian could win games all on his own, simply because it was hard to deal with the sheer muscularity of his play. Drogba was also the occasional free-kick taker for Chelsea. More importantly, the standout aspect of Drogba’s game was centered on his presence in the box. Under Mourinho, Chelsea were usually 4-3-3, with Drogba the focal point for attacks, with Lampard arriving late as a runner and wide forwards driving directly towards goal.
What Costa brings to the table is different altogether. Costa is probably the second best “channel” striker in the game today, after Luis Suarez. The Brazilian does hold the ball when receiving it with his back to goal, but what he does best is pulling center-backs out wide with his runs to the channels. This brings the rest of his teammates into play, and makes it hard for the defending team to identify who to mark, especially when the center forward is languishing out on the wings. This has also to do with evolving trends in football, where it is not enough for a striker to camp in the opposition penalty area, but it is clear that Costa is part of the new breed of forward. Costa is also able to carry the ball on his own during counter-attacks, something which Chelsea desperately lacked this season.
The beauty of Atleti’s play this season has been the willingness of their midfield runners to surge forward when counter-attacking, but Chelsea lack the refinement and muscle in midfield to make it happen. Oscar has not featured regularly as Mourinho eschewed forwards for more defensive-minded players, but he is ideal for the type of football Mourinho hopes to play with Costa in the side. Ramires is rumoured to have fallen out of favour, while Mikel, Matic and Lampard are not the men for the job. Unless Chelsea splurges on more surging runners in midfield, it’s hard to see them reaping the full benefits of what Costa brings to the side.
1. Barca look to swing odds their way by ceding control
One of the first things Pep Guardiola did upon taking over the reins from Frank Rijkaard was to re-instill positional discipline, otherwise known as control in football lingo. In the last days under Rijkaard, Barcelona were random and unpredictable in attack and in defence. Great spectacle for the neutrals, but heart-stopping for Guardiola. Cue the almost psychotic emphasis on control via possession.
Yesterday saw somewhat of a turnaround from what we were used to under Guardiola: Pep wants his football played in the opponents half of the pitch and thus, it is not uncommon to see Barca’s backline stationed nearly at the halfway line, with Busquets dropping in between the two centre-backs to form a back three. Yesterday however, saw a clear 4-3-3, with both Alves and Adriano always available for an outside pass, even though typically one full back was stationed higher than the other when play was down their wing. The midfield trio of Busi, Iniesta and Xavi were also not too far off, ensuring that every time Real won possession, there were enough men to move up the field to close them down in tight spaces. This neutralised Real’s counterattacking threat, which prompted Ancelotti to reshuffle his pack by telling Ronaldo and di Maria to swap wings.
Elsewhere, Messi spent significant amounts of time out on the right wing, again an artifact of the Rijkaard era (Pep was responsible for converting him into a false 9). With Neymar out wide and Cesc playing the false 9, Barca were unquestionably 4-3-3. But more importantly, what does this represent?
55% of possession against Real shows that the Rayo game was what it was: an outlier, but the stat itself is telling: under Guardiola they usually enjoy an average of at least 60%. However, while the emphasis on short passing is there, Barca are more willing than ever to bypass midfield via a long pass. Firstly, Messi was uncharacteristically on the end of a move rather than starting one when he ran onto a through pass only to finish wide off Diego Lopez’s post. Neymar also volleyed straight at the keeper when Iniesta’s pass from inside his own half found the forward racing through.
This means that the new Barca are more liberal with possession and thus, opponents may find themselves with more of the ball than they are prepared for. Having figured out the gameplan against Pep’s Barca, now they are more likely to be forced into unchartered territory when they are given the initiative to create out of possession they did not expect to receive.
In other words, the cycle has come full circle. Pep’s Barca started out with the intent for more control via more possession, which eventually led to less control as Barca were found out tactically. Thus, by ceding some emphasis on possession (and by extension, control), Martino may be looking to regain the odds on his side again.
Carlo Ancelotti is as flexible a coach as any, but even he fell victim to the big game pressure. It is bizarre to understand Ramos’ role in midfield (one which “robbed Madrid of one man in defence and one man in attack”, according to one tweet) after he declared that the counter-attacking trio of Bale, Ronaldo and di Maria would start, given that Xabi Alonso was unavailable for selection. Having sold Ozil and allowed Sahin to return to Dortmund, Real were disjointed in both defence and attack.
Of course, Real were a penalty decision from drawing the game, but this bodes ill for the balance of the team as a whole, where they are so bereft of any creativity. Real were lucky to defeat Juventus, and unlucky to lose here, but as of current standing they sit 6 points behind Barca in La Liga. Fortunate scrapped wins against Elche will be more of a rarity, unless they get their game together and quick.
It is rare to find a Barca game where Messi was not involved in either goal apart from the celebrations, but it is beginning to look more common now. For many periods, Messi was uninvolved out on the wing as play rotated between the midfield trio, Cesc, and Neymar. Why Barca were quite more willing to go down that wing is up for debate, but the fact remains that Messi is not as central to Barca’s play as he was under Tito and Pep. There are rumours that he is unhappy with his new role, but what it does is it makes Barca less predictable. Having suffered accusations of Messidependencia last year, perhaps this is a welcome change.
Teams still expect Messi to come into the center from wide positions (there were sporadic times when he charged in yesterday), and Ancelotti perhaps expected so with the selection of Ramos, but with the cessation of possession and the pace of Neymar and Messi on the wings, Barca now have more variation.
Last week’s 4-1 thumping confirmed what everyone knew: that Madrid, despite being a team who are hugely capable of playing high-intensity football, are by and large a counter-attacking side who can be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. While Ronaldo’s away goal will be the straw that they will inevitably clutch on, it is worth remembering that that advantage can easily be wiped out and more if Dortmund score. On to the second leg, then…
1 Real need to find the bridge between defense and attack
Madrid are famous as a counter-attacking side for a very good reason: the ball travels from defense to attack in split seconds, sometimes in three to five passes. Against opponents who do not leave them that space, however, they struggle because of the lack of mobility in midfield needed to escape compact pressing. Largely, they are unable to even play the ball out past the midfield and then often resort bypass midfield entirely by lumping balls for Ronaldo to win in the air. Madrid need to be fluid and mobile.
The key men for this job then would be Modric and Ozil. Despite Modric’s presence on the field last week, Alonso was left isolated because he lacked short passing options and was closed down quickly, forcing him to face his own goal more. This greatly reduced his influence and the attack was separated from midfield by sheer number of bodies. Modric gives Madrid the outlet to beat a man and work his way out of tight corners, and this will be invaluable against Dortmund’s intensity.
If Modric is the man who links defense to midfield, Ozil links midfield to the attack. With Alonso incapacitated to deliver his diagonals, the forwards were left without service and Ozil was stranded out on the wing. Mourinho must move Ozil into the middle and hope that the German asserts his influence to prompt movement.
2 Energy or technique?
Real have to decide between matching Dortmund for their intensity or to play around them. If Ozil starts, he does not have the stamina required to last the 90 minutes of intensity and most likely Khedira will be omitted in his place. Real will be left with one man short in their defending and will lack physical presence in midfield. If Ozil doesn’t start, Real may be able to compete in terms of energy (perhaps even play Pepe in midfield), but will be severely lacking creativity upfront. The former option seems more likely given that Real desperately needs goals. Ozil will start.
3 Be proactive with possession
Jurgen Klopp mentioned that the key to victory is to find the balance between defense and attack, and he was more than right for the case of Real. According to reports, Essien and Arbeloa is injured, and hence the natural replacement for right-back would be Ramos. This is a double blow for Madrid, as not only will they lack the defensive solidity of Arbeloa, but also Ramos’ ability to carry the ball out from defense and relieve Alonso of the sole responsibility of distribution. This is surely motivation for Dortmund to press Real harder than ever.
It is hard to see Real working out any clear cut chances if they fail to play the ball out from the back, which is essentially the story of the first leg.
4 Real left wing/Dortmund’s right
This is where the key battle will be fought. Marcelo’s ability to bring the ball out of tight corners will be missed, and so Coentrao will start in his place. The Portuguese is less reliably defensively, and hence Ronaldo will have to do his fair share of defensive work or risk being a passerby in the game, especially when Gotze, Blaszczykowski and Piszczek’s presence on the right will also overwhelm Alonso.
5 Press high or sit back?
Madrid certainly have the personnel required to perform a pressing job themselves, but this leaves space at the back for Dortmund’s pacey forwards to chase balls over the top. They also have to be wary of conceding while needing to score three. If, as stated above, Ozil starts, Madrid will not be able to press with intensity for prolonged periods and this will play into Dortmund’s hands by the second half. Should Madrid tire, you can be sure Klopp will capitalize.
If they sit back and invite Dortmund onto them, it may free up space at the back, but this is unlikely. Firstly, Madrid are 3 goals behind in the tie. Secondly, Dortmund also play their best football on the counter. Madrid will look to be proactive and play a high line, which suits Dortmund just nicely.
6 End the feud with Casillas
It might just give them that extra 5% probability of winning.
An amazing result on a tectonic scale. Although much touted as a passing of the baton, it was not so much Bayern becoming Barca v2.0 as Bayern imposing what they’ve been threatening to do since 2009-2010: a team who are able to attack with a variety of options: possession football, set-pieces, counter-attacking, wing-play, and most importantly: understand the value of pressing. They are the master of all trades, while Barcelona, for all their accolades, remain only the master of one (albeit a very very good one).
At the risk of covering old ground, only the key points of the match will be covered. But the running theme behind Bayern’s thumping victory is zonal domination, both offensively and defensively. Continue reading
They say you don’t miss the water until it’s gone. In the case of Barcelona, there is no water in the world capable of replacing Lionel Messi. The problem is, they have hardly had to answer that question, for one simple reason: he has rarely been out of action. Messi’s importance in the Barcelona team have only increased in recent years. His appearance stats from 2009 to 2012 read as follows: 51, 53, 55, 60 appearances. 38, 47, 53, 73 goals scored. As much as stats don’t tell the full story, appearance statistics can hardly lie; Messi continues to appear in more and more games for Barcelona as the years go by. Any game in which Messi does not appear for Barcelona is an outlier, a statistical, even a footballing anomaly; it is unimaginable. Unconventional. Out of the norm. When Barca plays, Messi must play.
One can be forgiven to think that the extent to which Messi seems synonymous with Barca would simultaneously mean Messi = Barcelona, and while this is unjust to the extreme to a team which makes up 3/4 of the European and World Champions, anyone with a passing familiarity with Barcelona knows one thing. It is a natural feeling, an expectation that flows effortlessly. You know it in your bones, even if you can’t put it into words.
That Barcelona without Messi is…not the same. It’s a cheeseburger with no cheese. Messi is the X-Factor, he is Chemical X. If Barcelona were the Avengers, Messi would be the Hulk. The one who puts the odds on your side. But how did a team such as Barcelona, the club side which produced the core of the most dominant international team in recent history, come to rely so much on one player? Continue reading
Barca vs PSG, Camp Nou
Firstly, PSG played extremely well for a team which were expected to take a tremendous beating. Much of the pre-match talk were, unsurprisingly, focused on PSG’s tactics to contain the Barca machine, and those who follow Ligue 1 regularly will note that the French league leaders’ exploits to date were born of individual flashes of brilliance rather than any collective build-up play. Of course, to expect a newly-assembled team to play with any sustained fluency is naive at best, but it is all the more imperative that against arguably the most collective of teams, PSG needed to perform as a unit.
For a team who’s not known for their defensive prowess and tactical maturity, many questioned the approach Ancelotti would take. Although their attack is an envy of many a club in Europe, Jeremy Menez, Javier Pastore, and Ezequiel Lavezzi are hardly household names to perform a shutout needed against Barcelona. Add in a 38-year-old David Beckham and you have a team ripe for a pounding.
Instead, Ancelotti turned the tables by playing to his team’s strengths, naming as bold as in-your-face team as he could. The picture below illustrates the effectiveness of how bold PSG were to face down Barca:
The back four was almost on par with the halfway line. When PSG won the ball, they worked it out of trouble with remarkable simplicity, suggesting two things: (i) Barca’s pressing are no longer of the intensity it used to be under Guardiola, and (ii) PSG looked to stretch the play quickly.
Firstly, it is remarkable how they always managed to find one spare man to leave with the ball. Barca, wary of the threat Ibrahimovic posed in the air, retreated quickly, and PSG further cemented this advantage by pushing bodies up. This left breathing space for Beckham, and he found the wide players with impressive consistency. The criticism of Beckham then was unfair; he was not there to press like Matuidi, although his role in the pressing was acceptable. He was there to prompt attacks, and in long delivery, no one does it better than Beckham.
Barca tend to press much better at Camp Nou, and it is hard to imagine Beckham being given the same space to take control of proceedings there. Also, 2 away goals give them the upper hand. But PSG possess an absolute beast of a wide player in Lavezzi, and with Ibrahimovic occupying the weak backline high up, PSG just could manage to compete for the space up top.
As always, the battle for space will dominate the match. The team which finds the best balance to achieve this, will go through. Having said that, given the position Barca is in (they will progress if the score stays at 0-0), it is hard to look beyond them progressing,since no other team are better at being defensive in keeping the ball away from the opponent. Tiki-taka has now come full circle as a defensive tactic as much as an offensive one.