Barcelona 4-0 Stuttgart: Guardiola’s alternative shape proves successful for the second time in four days

March 17, 2010

Fascinating that Pep Guardiola continued to use Barcelona’s ‘alternative’ system – the 4-2-4ish formation they played in the second half against Valencia at the weekend – to great effect. Zlatan Ibramimovic (banned for the weekend game) was available again, but Guardiola opted for Thierry Henry instead.

And behind Henry it was an identical line-up to the one which destroyed Valencia, with the exception of the fact that Carles Puyol returned from injury to replace Gabriel Milito in the centre of defence. Andres Iniesta held a high, wide-left position, with Messi starting in a deep-lying right-ish forward role, interchanging with Pedro Rodriguez who started at outside-right. With Xavi out, Sergio Busquets and Yaya Toure were the two central midfielders – Busquets in the ‘classic’ Barcelona holding role, looking to drop into the centre of the defence, with Toure playing a more offensive role, where he set-up the second goal for Pedro.

Stuttgart kept their familiar shape, a classic 4-4-2 that featured a solid, disciplined square of two central defenders and two deep central midfielders, and largely relied on the wide players to make forward runs. As in the first leg, Stuttgart’s main threat came from their full-backs and wingers playing quick passes with the central midfielders to get into crossing positions, but whereas the approach worked in the first game (where Stuttgart went ahead through a great cross from the right), tonight something was lacking. The crossing wasn’t bad, but the runs from the front two never seemed to match the idea of the cross.

Perhaps it’s easy to criticize Stuttgart for being too positive and playing two upfront. That is their usual shape, and they came to the Nou Camp knowing that if they didn’t score, they would go out. They did seem slightly overrun in midfield though, and it’s difficult to see how Christian Gross can justify having two forward players who effectively did little defensively. The front two’s only defensive job was to close down Puyol and Pique when Valdes had a goal kick, but surely one of them should have been assigned the role of dropping into midfield to pick up Busquets? Cacau sometimes did this, but it seemed an afterthought, rather than something Gross had instructed him to do at every opportunity.

So instead the focus has to be on the home side. At both ends of the pitch, Barcelona’s shape adapts and evolves when in possession to expand the pitch and to create space for their flair players. In defence, Busquets drops in as a centre-half to allow Pique and Puyol to spread the width of the pitch, allowing Maxwell and Alves to venture forward. The main effect of this is that is suddenly transfers a huge defensive responsibility onto the two opposition wide midfielders, in this case Trasch and Hleb. The former is capable of playing at full-back, but it pushed Hleb into an area he wasn’t comfortable in. And when Stuttgart’s only attacking threat was coming from the wings, as mentioned earlier, it meant it was very difficult for the wide players to track the Barcelona full-backs and then have the energy to attack them at pace. Hleb looked exhausted by the end of the game.

Upfront, the main movement was the combination of Pedro and Messi on the right-hand side. Pedro started wide, meaning Stuttgart’s Molinaro assumed he was the player he should be picking up. But then Pedro drifted inside, Molinaro tracked him into the centre, and this opened up spare for Messi on the right-hand flank, a key feature of the game against Valencia. Give Messi any kind of time on the ball and he will punish you, and he showed this tonight with his sublime first goal. We are surely getting to the point where Messi is going to have to be given the old-fashioned, traditional man-marking treatment. Yes, he will possibly get the better of his marker and yes, Barcelona have many other talents who can punish the opposition. But tonight Messi occasionally entered the Suttgart box unmarked after the opposition had been dragged out of position, which is unforgiveable, and asking for a Messi-inspired thrashing.

But this wasn’t a game won primarily by tactics. Gross’ tactics probably played into Barcelona’s hands, but it’s hard to imagine what he could have done tonight to come away from the Nou Camp still in the competition.

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