Madrid v Dortmund: Preview

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…

I’m a genius you say?

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. 

Bayern 4-0 Barcelona: The takeaway

Arjen Robben celebrates

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

Messidependencia

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 v PSG, 2nd leg: Points to note

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:

There was not a single open pass for Victor Valdes to make.

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.