Inter 3-1 Barcelona: Why did Pep Guardiola play Zlatan Ibrahimovic?

April 20, 2010

It’s not often during his two seasons as Barcelona manager that you can conclusively say that Pep Guardiola got his tactics wrong – but tonight that was the case, as Inter take an important two-goal lead to the Nou Camp.

Both sides essentially played their standard formations. Inter were 4-2-3-1 with Samuel Eto’o and Goran Pandev wide, and Javier Zanetti continuing at left-back. Barcelona played a similar team to the first leg at against Arsenal – Zlatan Ibrahimovic leading the line, Lionel Messi behind him, Pedro in a wide-right role and Seydou Keita playing from in to out on the left.

In playing their tried-and-tested shapes, it’s fair to say that neither team significantly adapted their side to try and counter the strengths of the opposition. The result was that we had a far more open game than we expected – midfielders got time on the ball, full-backs were able to attack, and there were plenty of chances.

Referring back to the preview published on this site yesterday, it’s fair to say that the starting XI from Guardiola didn’t work. Playing Ibrahimovic upfront as a focal point for the attack didn’t suit Barcelona in this game, and played into the hands of Lucio and Walter Samuel, who dealt with the balls into the Swede comfortably throughout. Playing Ibrahimovic means that Barcelona play a slightly different way - and as a whole, that is a positive thing for the squad. Sid Lowe at the Guardian has commented that Ibrahimovic was bought so Barcelona were able to score goals they weren’t able to without him – his goal away in Stuttgart for example – and although Barca may be a slightly less prolific side in the forward positions, they arguably are more varied in their attacking options.

Tonight, however, the focal point Ibrahimovic offers was not needed. Barcelona’s passing style was slightly longer than usual – Xavi tried to hit surprisingly long balls into him with his back to goal which he failed to control, and Barca tossed crosses into the box for him to challenge for in the air, but on more than one occassion he went with his feet, rather than his head.

Playing Ibrahimovic backfired for three reasons:

1) It meant Barcelona changed their passing style and played longer than usual, meaning they were less fluid and suited Inter defensively.

2) It meant that Messi had less space to work in – against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu he thrived by playing infront of the Real Madrid centre-backs and on three separate occasions he reached through balls played by Xavi. Tonight, with Ibrahimovic taking up his space, he couldn’t play this role.

3) It meant that Barcelona were less secure defensively on their left-hand side. They were completely caught out for Inter’s third because Keita was playing relatively centrally and failed to track Maicon’s run. Had Eric Abidal been playing left-back with Maxwell infront, it’s doubtful that would have happened.

Barcelona’s switch to the system in the preview (and in doing so, taking a off striker (Ibrahimovic) for a left-back (Abidal)) when 3-1 down was surely an admission from Guardiola that his initial shape was wrong.

Equally, Mourinho played the game beautifully. Setting out with Pandev and Eto’o wide was slightly more attacking than was expected, and although Pandev found it difficult defensive against Dani Alves, the move worked very well in moving Alves narrow when Pandev made inward runs. Inter’s first goal was a great example of this – from a right-wing cross, Alves followed Pandev’s run towards the penalty spot leaving a huge gap at the far post, where Wesley Sneijder ghosted in unmarked to score.

It’s difficult to blame any single player without knowing Guardola’s instructions, but it’s interesting to note that Rubin Kazan manager Kurban Berdyev (until tonight, the only tactician to get the better of Guardiola in the Champions League this season), said he helped beat Barcelona because ‘I noticed that Xavi and Andrés Iniesta – key players in the team – almost never drop back to their own penalty box.’ Busquets, the left central midfielder was always going to be drawn to the near side of the goal from a left-wing attack, so Sneijder was probably Xavi’s man. If Berdyev noticed Xavi’s positioning in this manner, then it’s fair to say that Mourinho probably would have done too, and therefore the Pandev-in-and-Sneijder-out routine may have been a specific plan.

The second goal saw Barcelona caught out on the break down their weaker left-hand side, as previously mentioned, whilst the third saw Sneijder again unmarked at the back post in a not dissimilar fashion to the opening goal. Inter essentially exploited Barcelona’s weaknesses very well indeed.

Diego Milito led the line well

Another feature of the game was how often Barcelona were caught out from balls over the top. One cannot simultaneously praise Barcelona’s integrated pressing throughout the team and also criticize their tendency to play a high line – the two are basically mutually inclusive and it’s clearly a risk that Barca feel is worth taking. Inter looked to exploit Barca’s high line but didn’t do anything out of the ordinary to try and catch Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol out, they simply tried the ball over the top time and time again: Inter players were caught offside five times in the opening 25 minutes.

The final period of the game saw both sides revert from their starting XIs to the teams shown in the preview – Dejan Stankovic came on for Goran Pandev – and there were no goals. Indeed, the final minutes were rather what we had expected from the outset, a tighter, tenser game with Barcelona playing the ball around the Inter penalty area hoping for a killer ball, with Inter threatening mainly on the break.

It should come as no surprise that Gerard Pique played for much of the final ten minutes as an auxiliary forward, despite it being the first leg, for three reasons. Firstly, Guardiola had already brought on a defender for a striker and therefore moving a defender upfront made the side no more defensively open than he had started the game. Secondly, because an away goal in the final ten minutes here would have counted for more than a home goal in eight days time. Thirdly, because Inter were tired and slightly ragged at the back, and in three weeks time they will quite possibly play the most Catenaccio-esque football we’ll see in Europe all year.

As for Messi – Inter didn’t do anything special to counter his threat. One player – generally Cambiasso – stuck to him tightly when the ball was in and around the penalty area, but there was no specific man-marking duty and he wasn’t much of  a danger throughout. Ibrahimovic taking up Messi’s space did a better job for Inter than a man-marking brief ever could.

A million things to discuss from this game, and the British media narrative will undoubtedly be “Mourinho gets his tactics right” – and he certainly did – but more crucial was the fact that Guardiola got his wrong.

This way for a ‘passes completed’ graph

Edit, 00:57:

Ibrahimovic: “I’d come back from a month on the sidelines and didn’t feel match fit.” link

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