Stuttgart 1-1 Barcelona – Stuttgart get things right, but don’t make it count when they were on top

February 23, 2010

It was an intriguing game tonight, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona’s usual 4-3-3 system taking on Christian Gross’ Stuttgart side playing a 4-4-2 counter-attacking system with split strikers. Although the 4-3-3 was basically intended to work best against a 4-4-2, Stuttgart were on top in the first half here, and probably should have been more than 1-0 up at the interval.

The main problem with the 4-3-3 against a 4-4-2 is that the opposition wide midfielders can cause you a problem, as there is no specific player on your side who is designated to mark them (with two 4-4-2s, a left midfielder would pick up a right midfielder, and vice-versa). If your full-back comes forward to pick the opposition wide player up, he can find himself 20 yards too high up the pitch, whilst if your winger is charged with the responsibility, you can find yourself playing a 4-5-1 system.

It was no coincidence that Stuttgart’s brightest moments came from getting the ball to the wide men. Alexander Hleb did his usual act of looking dangerous without ever really finding a good cross or shot, but the main danger came from the opposite side, where Gebhart constantly found himself in space. Indeed, it was his superb cross which broke the deadlock, with Cacau beating Puyol to the ball to head home at the far post.

Another problem with Barcelona’s shape was that with Iniesta stationed on the left, there were no driving runs on the ball from the centre of midfield. Xavi, Busquets and Toure are all more careful players, generally looking to play the ball to the wings rather than run with the ball. As a result, the Stuttgart midfield were happy to rush forward on the counter-attack without fear of being counter-countered. One more than one ocassion in the first half, Stuttgart’s six furthest forward players all found themselves in the penalty area after the ball had gone wide.

Barcelona also struggled for width, not a common criticism of them over the past 18 months. Part of the reason for this is the absence of Dani Alves bombing forward on the right-hand side – Carles Puyol does a fine job in filling in, but lacks Alves’ genuine attacking threat and technical ability on the ball. This, combined with the fact that fielding Messi and Iniesta in the wide roles means both wide men look to cut inside at the first opportunity, meant Barcelona were surprisingly narrow and predictable in the final third.

They looked better when Henry replaced Toure, with the Frenchman going wide left, and Iniesta returning to the centre. As that change coincided with the goal, scored by Ibrahimovic, it’s difficult to know whether the shift in the game was down to tactics or post-goal confidence, but it’s hard to make a case that Barcelona look on top form with the Toure-Busquets-Xavi trio in midfield.

The final 20 minutes seemed as if both sides were content with 1-1, and Barcelona will be confident of going through in the second leg. Stuttgart might feel, as a side primarily playing on the counter, that the away leg might suit them more - where they can sit back and hope to exploit the wide open spaces of the Nou Camp.

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