Villarreal 0-1 Barcelona: Barca eight points clear

April 3, 2011

The starting line-ups

Gerard Pique smashed in the only goal of the game after Lionel Messi came off the bench.

Juan Carlos Garrido set out in his usual 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2 system. Nilmar was only on the bench, so Marco Ruben started. Carlos Marchena continued in his new holding midfield role, pushing Borja Valero out to the right, and Jose Catala was at left-bac

Pep Guardiola was without Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Pedro Rodriguez, Eric Abidal and – from the start – Messi. This caused a big reshuffle across the side, with Pique and Dani Alves the only outfield regulars starting in their usual position. Thiago Alcantara started in midfield alongside Seydou Keita, Andres Iniesta moved into the front three, and Ibrahim Afellay was on the left.

With the absence of Xavi and Messi, Barcelona were clearly less creative and not particularly threatening when they had the ball. They still dominated possession, however, especially as Iniesta dropped into central positions to become an extra man in midfield, allowing Alves to scamper down the flank.

Rossi a threat

The main interest in the early stages came from Villarreal’s attackers up against Barcelona’s makeshift centre-back pairing. In particular, Pique and Sergio Busquets were very wary of Giuseppe Rossi, and he caused them problems in two separate ways – both with his creativity and trickery in deep-lying positions, and with his pace in behind.

It was notable that whilst Ruben was allowed time on the ball in deep positions, Rossi was always followed by one of the two centre-backs when he dropped off. This strategy had two parts – primarily, it meant that Rossi, the main threat, was closed down more quickly when he had the ball, but not following Ruben was because Barcelona were scared of their defence opening up for Rossi’s forward runs. He did manage to penetrate the backline early on, but Victor Valdes came to Barca’s rescue with an excellent save.

After around 20 minutes, Guardiola decided to switch Pique and Busquets – Busquets came to the right of the pairing and was directly up against Rossi (despite having previously been outpaced by him) though this meant that the quicker Pique was acting as the covering centre-back.

Barcelona not fluent

Barcelona’s problems upfront were twofold. First, they lacked creativity with Xavi and Messi out – that was obvious. Second, David Villa struggled for support throughout the game. Iniesta dropped off into midfield, whilst Afellay stayed very wide. Neither Keita nor Alcantara looked to break forward and connect with Villa, so he often looked isolated.

Villarreal were defending rather well – the full-backs stayed quite wide and stuck to their men (particularly Mario Perez up against Afellay), and although this increased the gap between centre-backs and full-backs (the area Barcelona love to play in), the lack of drive from midfield meant they didn’t take advantage in these areas.

Villarreal dragged out of shape

Alves caused Villarreal difficulties, though. He didn’t do a great deal on the ball, but his forward runs meant Santi Cazorla had to follow him into deep positions. This is the usual situation for left wingers up against Alves, but for Villarreal it was particularly problematic – because Villarreal’s wide players like to come inside into the centre of the pitch, Cazorla was forced a long way from the zone he wanted to create from, and Villarreal lacked a link player.

This meant Rossi dropped into that position, and started to pick up Javier Mascherano when Barcelona have the ball. Against a 4-4-2, Barcelona often look to drop their holding midfielder into the back and move to a 3-4-3, but this didn’t happen often – (a) because Mascherano is not as comfortable as Busquets at the back and (b) because Rossi moving onto Mascherano meant Barcelona had a spare man at the back anyway.

Second half

The line-ups after Messi's introduction

Especially with Real Madrid’s defeat earlier in the day, Guardiola seemed content with a draw – at no stage did Barcelona go all-out-attack. They did, however, have the luxury of bringing on the world’s best player, and Messi’s introduction, for Keita, changed the game.

It wasn’t necessarily all about Messi’s individual impact. The change prompted a reshuffle – Messi played as a false nine – arguably even deeper, as a classic No 10 – and Villa went to the right. In turn, Iniesta came inside into his best position, on the left of the midfield three. Suddenly, Barcelona had much more creativity – not just from Messi in playmaking positions, but with the silky Iniesta in the side in place of the more functional Keita. They stepped it up, and though they didn’t create many great chances, their pressure eventually resulted in the corner for Pique’s goal. Villarreal will be disappointed with their marking – Barca only had two real targets for corners, Busquets and Pique, and one of them flicked the ball on towards the other, who scored.

Villarreal had chances. Nilmar’s introduction for the static Ruben meant they had more movement and energy upfront, and Valdes was forced into another exceptional save – he was the game’s star man. Barcelona kept the ball for most of the final 20 minutes, though, and Villarreal didn’t have the energy to win it back.

Conclusion

This was nothing like the previous meeting between the sides, which was one of the best games of the season. It was slower, calmer and neither side pressed as intensely – and there were fewer natural attacking threats on the pitch.

The introduction of Messi pushed Barcelona forward and gave their side a more natural feel, but they needed a set-piece to win it.

Villarreal 0-1 Barcelona: Barca eight points clear

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