Mourinho tries to counter Messi’s false nine role by pushing Carvalho up the pitch

August 18, 2011

How Real tried to deal with Messi - Carvalho came out of the back, and his three fellow defenders had to narrow

One of the notable features from the second leg of the Spanish Supercopa was the positioning of Ricardo Carvalho, and his response to Lionel Messi’s movement into deep, slightly right-sided positions.

Messi tore Real apart in the 5-0 win last season, despite it being a rare occasion where he didn’t end up on the scoresheet. Real tried to play high up the pitch, but Messi played so deep that Jose Mourinho didn’t know how to deal with him – the two centre-backs stayed in position, but holding a high line. Therefore, Messi could receive the ball in space, turn, then send a ball through to one of the wide forwards coming inside. His two assists for David Villa’s goals were perfect, displaying exactly why Pep Guardiola wants to play Messi in that role.

As well as being a great goalscorer and a superb dribbler, Messi is fantastic at slipping the ball through the defence, particularly between full-back and centre-back, and stopping those balls becomes essential when he plays as a false nine.

The obvious answer is to push up a centre-back onto Messi – as Jonathan Wilson suggested before the Champions League final, to leave a bank of three at the back – two narrow full-backs tracking Villa and Pedro Rodriguez, a centre-back staying at home as a sweeper, and another playing high up the pitch on Messi.

Why has this become an issue now, when Real played Barcelona four times after the 5-0 last season? First, because in the four subsequent 2010/11 meetings, Real played very deep, leaving no space in behind and letting Barcelona come onto them. This made Messi’s role less dangerous (although not Messi himself less dangerous: he’s good enough to be a threat whatever the situation in the game) for various reasons.

First, because Real could focus on keeping it tight between the lines and deny him space that way. Second, because there was less space between Real’s defence and their goalline, for those balls in behind. Third, because playing deep seems to lend itself naturally to playing against a false nine – there’s simply less space for him to open up by dropping deep.

Mourinho’s decision to press from the front in this match meant Real had to stay compact and push up, to deny Barcelona space in midfield – and then the issue of tracking Messi arose. Carvalho spent much of the first half ahead of his other three defenders, closing Messi down before sprinting back into the defensive line.

The first goal showed that it didn’t quite work. Carvalho came out of defence and got beaten by Messi, who then played the ball through the gap between Pepe and Sergio Ramos (which had become artificially large, since Pepe had to cover two centre-back positions by himself) to Andres Iniesta.

Pepe, who became an aggressive midfield destroyer in the Clasicos last year, might have been the better man to play this role. Carvalho was beaten easily, and it may be that what he is good at – penalty box defending – isn’t useful in this situation. If this  becomes the norm against a false nine (an advanced centre-back, covered by a sweeper ready to pick up runners from midfield and the wings), both players will need to be quick. The former needs to be able to turn quickly and get back in the defensive line, whilst the latter can’t be slow if he’s the last line of cover and is playing high up the pitch.

It is potentially another way the centre-back will evolve. On a related note, it was interesting that when Messi was playing as a false nine and tearing apart Arsenal in the Champions League in 2009/10 (at a time when Messi was relatively new to that role – Barca had played the majority of the campaign with him on the right and Zlatan Ibrahimovic upfront), when Arsene Wenger had to take off one of his centre-backs, Mikael Silvestre, he brought on another full-back, Emmanuel Eboue, rather than back-up centre-back Sol Campbell. He then had a defence of Eboue, Bacary Sagna, Thomas Vermaelen and Gael Clichy.

Sagna isn’t a centre-back by any stretch of the imagination, but the logic was sound (even if Messi did grab another goal). Arsenal needed to play high up the pitch to get back in the game, and with Vermaelen stereotypically coming up the pitch towards Messi, an ageing Campbell would have been a nightmare as the covering defender. By having a quick full-back alongside Vermaelen, Arsenal were theoretically more able to deal with Messi, even if that meant overlooking a natural centre-back for a gap at centre-back.

That’s an extreme example – Campbell was, with respect, probably past the point where he should have been playing Champions League football. But it points to a situation where slow, rugged centre-backs may struggle – albeit in a very specific setting: (a) when needing to play high up the pitch, and (b) against a team playing a false nine.

Coming back to the specifics, it’s hard to justify Carvalho’s place in the side if Real were about to replay this game. With Sergio Ramos comfortable at centre-back, his pace would have been much more useful. Alvaro Arbeloa could be the replacement right-back.

It’s not until December 11th that the sides reconvene at the Bernabeu, but it will be interesting to see how Mourinho adapts.

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