Barcelona 1-0 Inter: Mourinho’s side progress – deservedly

April 28, 2010

The starting line-ups

There are times when the hype about Jose Mourinho is frustrating and cliched, there are times when it is fully deserved. Tonight was the latter in one of the great defensive performances  in recent footballing history.

Barcelona reverted to their ‘traditional’ 4-3-3 they had persisted with until recently, with a midfield trio of Busquets-Keita-Xavi, Yaya Toure in defence, and Gabriel Milito surprisingly pushed out to left-back. Pedro Rodriguez stayed wide-left, Lionel Messi cut in from the right, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the striker.

Inter’s line-up initially looked to be unchanged from the first leg, but a change after the warm-ups saw Cristian Chivu replacing Goran Pandev – a surprise given the nature of the switch, but one predicted in ZM’s preview. They played a lopsided 4-2-3-1, with Samuel Eto’o high up on the right-hand side, and Christian Chivu playing in front of Javier Zanetti, blocking the runs forward of Dani Alves.

An inevitable point given the nature of this site’s previews for the two legs and the report on the first game, but one must question Pep Guardiola’s inclusion of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He was surprisingly deployed last week at the San Siro, and it resoundingly failed – and rather than learn his lesson from the first leg, Guardiola again included Ibrahimovic to little effect. That’s not to say that the Swede was useless – he wasn’t, but Barcelona struggled to get the ball to him in a static central position, because of the presence of Lucio and Walter Samuel.

The key moment of the game was unquestionably the sending-off of Thiago Motta. Although Inter’s display for the rest of the game consisted of putting all their men behind the ball and defending deep, one must note the fact that Mourinho didn’t turn to the bench after the sending-off. Many managers would have removed one of the three attacking players in favour of another holding player (considering it was a central midfielder that was dismissed), but Mourinho instead shifted Chivu inside, switched Eto’o to the left, and moved Diego Milito to the right-hand side.

Immediately after Thiago Motta was dismissed

The result was a 4-5-0 where Wesley Sneijder was generally the furthest forward player, rather than the two strikers who often found themselves defending deep in their own full-back zones. In this respect, Inter were not controlling the ball, but they were still controlling the space. The two lines of four covered the width of the pitch on the edge of Inter’s area, but Sneijder’s presence ahead of those lines made it slightly more difficult for Barca to create in that deep-lying, central position. Xavi and Busquets still dominated the ball, of course, but they were forced to shift it wide to Alves (who had a poor game) or Gabriel Milito, who was not comfortable on the ball.

And when Barcelona got the ball wide, it was surprising how rarely they looked to create an overlap. With Messi drifting in from a right-sided position and Milito offering no attacking threat, Barcelona only had two players stationed in wide positions - Alves on the right, Pedro on the left. Alves was met by Zanetti with the rest of the side shifting across to cover the space. Pedro was met by Maicon, with the same effect. But the other eight outfield players all remained between the ball and the play when this happened – the lack of an overlap meant that none of the Inter players were never drawn outside by a decoy run. Barca always had ten players to get past, and their tendency to shoot from long-range demonstrated the fact that they were simply finding it impossible to play through Inter.

Of course, the sending-off meant that Inter found it very difficult to get bodies forward in attack, but this contributed to their defensive ability. Not only were their forward players forced to do less running up and down the pitch, their defensive players were able to hold their shape easier. They were able to sit deep – there was no space in behind for Barcelona’s pacey players to exploit, nor was there any space between the lines for Messi to work his magic in. It also meant that it was near-impossible for Barcelona to play their favourite ball – the one from central midfield between the opposition centre-back and full-back, for a wide players running onto the ball, because the angle was simply too acute.*

As is customary when a good ‘footballing’ side struggle against a good defensive side, Barcelona were accused of having no ‘Plan B’ by the (British) commentary team. Aside from the obvious sheer hypocrisy that stems from simultaneously criticizing Barcelona in this respect whilst marvelling at their patience that proved victorious against Chelsea last season, this somewhat misses the point. In the final half hour, playing exclusively through small, quick, tricky players (a front four of Jeffren, Pedro, Messi and Bojan) was Barcelona’s plan B. Their plan A had been playing through Ibrahimovic – they’d created a good chance in the first half by simply lofting towards him in the box, where his knock-down found Pedro.

We then come back to the idea that, as proposed in the preview, Guardiola surely should have played it the other way around – the small, tricky players to start the game and wear Inter down, then Ibrahimovic to come on and provide a more direct threat late on. Certainly, when you’re withdrawing your 6′ forward for a 5′7 winger – and then shoving your 6′ centre-back upfront to compensate, you’ve probably got muddled somewhere, ignoring the sheer brilliance of Pique’s goal.

In Inverting The Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson explains how Arrigo Sacchi once demonstrated in a training session how five organised players could hold out against ten disorganised ones – taking his Milan back five of Galli, Tassotti, Costacurta, Baresi and Maldini and pitching them against the club’s best ten attacking players. The 15-minute game finished scoreless, despite the attacking talents of the likes of Gullit, van Basten, Rijkaard, Ancelotti and Donadoni. This game was a match version of that. Barcelona completed 555 passes compared to Inter’s 67, and produced the most dominant display of possession in European competition this year, 86%. And yet, for all that – how many times did they actually get the ball into serious goalscoring positions?

This was a match that wasn’t won by individual performances (although the likes of Lucio and Esteban Cambiasso were superb), or by player v player battles on the pitch, it was won by the understanding between the nine outfield Inter players. Mourinho will probably be asked tonight about his late pre-game switch, his post-match celebration and his thoughts on the Barcelona fans, but hopefully he will also be asked to expand on quite how he managed to set his team out to withstand that amount of pressure. It outfoxed a manager as talented as Guardiola and negated the ability of Messi and Xavi to create – without ever seeking to deprive them of getting the ball. Mourinho’s approach was not to man-mark, and not to press high up the pitch, but instead to sit deep, use strict zonal marking and only pressure the Barcelona players within 25 yards of the Inter goal. Easier said than done, and to pull it off against such great players requires a brilliant tactical brain from the manager, combined with intelligent players and hours of work on the training ground.

It could have all been so different had Bojan’s last minute ‘goal’ not been disallowed for a contentious handball decision, and whilst the result of the tie would have changed, the tactical analysis would have not. Inter were defensively superb tonight and over the course of the tie, deserved to go through. It’s easy when looking at football games – especially for a website like this – to simply say that the winning manager got it right, and the losing one got it wrong – but it’s hard to argue in this case. Mourinho remains the master, and tactics remain the key to winning football games.

*diagram needed?

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