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.