Espanyol 1-5 Barcelona: high line exploited
Barcelona scored five for the third time in their last four games.
Mauricio Pochettino played a variation of his usual 4-2-3-1 – Luis Garcia started out on the right and Jose Callejon switched to the left.
Pep Guardiola chose what seems to be his first choice XI, the same one that started the legendary 5-0 victory over Real Madrid.
The key feature of the game was two high defensive lines and lots of pressing. There were two inevitable outcomes from this – there were lots of bookings, and there were lots of opportunities to play balls over the top.
Why was Pochettino using this approach, then? We know from the way Barcelona thrashed Real that they love using the pace of their strikers in behind the defence, and we also know from the defeat to Hercules that they struggle when sides sit back behind the ball and park the bus.
The reason was because Espanyol have had success against their more illustrious neighbours in recent years by getting into Barcelona, closing down Xavi and Andres Iniesta, and not letting Guardiola’s men play. Their last three results against Barca had been a win, a draw and a defeat – and the defeat was a narrow 1-0 thanks to a Zlatan Ibrahimovic penalty.
Therefore, whilst it turned out to be counter productive, the offensive tactics from Pochettino made sense – his side had previously used them effectively, and given the atmosphere and the nature of the game, sitting back at home probably wouldn’t have been wise.
The trouble, however, was that Guardiola knew what to expect, and therefore knew how to set out his side. In basic terms it wasn’t wildly different from the usual 4-3-3, but there were subtle changes which made Barcelona unstoppable.
First, Dani Alves played extraordinarily high up the right flank. To describe him as a right midfielder or even a right-wing-back would be misleading, because he still had a responsibility to fill in at right-back when Barcelona didn’t have the ball. However, his starting position was level with the Barcelona central midfielders and he pressed high up the pitch, sometimes being the furthest forward player.
Sometimes it’s hard to work out whether Alves has been instructed to play like this, or if he’s simply incredibly attack-minded naturally. Here, though, like in the game against Sevilla, it appeared he had been given a specific role. By way of evidence, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique had switched positions – Puyol usually plays on the left of the centre-back pairing but today was playing on the right – he is more capable of covering full-back positions (he started his career there and played at full-back in last season’s Clasico) so Guardiola presumably used him there in the knowledge that Alves would be higher up the pitch than usual.
The result of Alves covering the right flank was that Pedro could play more centrally than he usually does, and more centrally than Villa, who remained wide and cut in from the left. From there, Barcelona cleverly used Messi’s false nine role to drag Espanyol’s defence out of shape, before pouncing in behind.
Pochettino’s instructions to press Barcelona resulted in Juan Forlin following Messi into deep positions, leaving Victor Ruiz on his own at centre-back with a huge hole alongside him. And, time and time again, Barcelona cut through Espanyol incredibly easily. Messi would move deep, Forlin would follow, the gap would become clear and Villa and Pedro would sprint into it to collect a through ball. The first, fourth and fifth goals all came from simple through balls to find either Pedro or Villa in behind.
It was as simple as that. Something similar happened at the other end, when Daniel Osvaldo outpaced the Barca defence to grab Espanyol’s only goal, but the home side were outclassed.
Pochettino stayed true to his side’s style – the style that brought a 100% home record before today. “Barcelona played almost perfectly, and what we did today was not enough”, he said. “Theirs is a great team both individually and collectively.”
Guardiola was equally complimentary on a night of good-natured rivalry in Barcelona. “We just had our most complicated game of the season so far. They are our city rivals, but more importantly we just beat a very good team.”
They did so by altering their tactics ever so slightly. Barcelona may be the most proficient passers around, one of the most attack-minded sides and also – put simply – the best side in Europe based upon this season’s form, but they’re not too proud to do things slightly differently to suit a particular game, and to exploit an opponent’s weaknesses.Espanyol 1-5 Barcelona: high line exploited