Barcelona 4-0 Santos: Guardiola plays even more passers; Santos barely see the ball

December 18, 2011

The starting line-ups

European champions Barcelona thrashed South American champions Santos in the World Club Cup final in Yokohama.

Pep Guardiola was without David Villa – and probably will be for the rest of the season – and Alexis Sanchez wasn’t considered fit enough to start. Therefore, Guardiola played ‘traditional’ midfield three and pushed Cesc Fabregas and Thiago Alcantara forward.

Muricy Ramalho dropped Elano from the side that overcame Kashiwa Reysol in the semi-final, bringing in Leo instead.

Barcelona were dominant from the first whistle to the last, enjoying an even larger spell of possession than expected, and could have won by more.

Guardiola team selection

Without both Villa and Sanchez, Guardiola named an unusual side. Usually he likes at least one true forward in his front three to stretch the play and allow Lionel Messi to drop deep without making Barcelona too congested in the middle. In the one exception to that rule this season (the only time he’s started without one of Villa, Sanchez and Pedro Rodriguez) Barcelona were lucky to get back into the game with a late equaliser at Athletic – and in that game, Messi was played wideish, with Adriano on the left to provide width.

This was different – Thiago played on the left whilst Fabregas took it in turns with Alves to become the highest player on the right. Barcelona had more ball-players than ever before – this was the first time Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Fabregas and Alcantara had started in the same game. That’s essentially five passing-based central midfielders. Guardiola had said before the game that possession was important here, even more so than usual, and his team selection reflected that.

Ramalho team selection

Santos played a surprising formation, a rough 3-5-2 that they’ve used only sporadically in league games with a reserve side. Danilo moved forward to become a right-wing back, with Leo playing roughly the same on the other side. However, Leo was being pushed back by Alves which meant he played much deeper, whereas Alcantara played more centrally, allowing Danilo to move higher up the pitch. As such, the formation sometimes looked like more of a back four.

The move didn’t really work. With Barcelona packing the midfield even more than usual, Santos had three defenders at the back doing little – even Messi dropped deep which increased Barcelona’s advantage in midfield, and furthered Santos’ surplus at the back. The two central midfielders, Arouca and Henrique, had no idea who they were supposed to be picking up, and were often faced with four players in their zone.

Surplus at the back

Santos did often have three spare defenders, but they were often overawed with the Barcelona players breaking from deep – for the first goal, for example, Durval starts in a good position but somehow manages to let the ball slide past him and into the path of Messi, who had been outside the penalty box five seconds beforehand. Individual mistakes were a problem for Ramalho, but the positioning of the defenders didn’t help.

Nor did Ganso’s display. He remained high up the pitch and got goalside of Busquets, but didn’t really take any part in the defensive phase of play, and later on it seemed that Ramalho told him not to even bother defending, with Neymar doing more running than him. Ganso stayed too high up the pitch (which was also a problem in the Copa America, in a completely different system when his side were usually in possession of the ball) and therefore wasn’t in a position to start attacks.

Danilo also contributed little before he was removed after half an hour. He stayed too wide and didn’t help flood the zone Barcelona were looking to play in. With two upfront, Ganso too high up and Danilo too wide, Santos often looked like only six players were doing anything worthwhile without the ball. Elano replaced Danilo and was better in this respect. He played narrow, which meant Thiago moved wider to get space.


In fairness, Santos did break a couple of times but were let down by poor decision-making by their attackers. Barcelona were also allowed to commit a few fouls to break up counter-attacks quickly – Gerard Pique did this a couple of times, and was booked before the break for the sixth successive game.

Barcelona did their usual thing – plenty of rotation in midfield, lots of quick passes and one-twos inside the box. The game was essentially over by half time, at 3-0, though Messi added another goal late on.


What could have been a tremendous encounter turned out to be disappointingly one-sided. Barcelona were marvellous, but Santos gave them far too much time in the midfield. They were constantly slow to close down in the middle, then when they did they were outnumbered and Barcelona could play through them, before using one-twos to bypass the defence.

The game also marked another example of Guardiola’s desire to play as many midfielders as possible. “The midfield is a crucial part of any team,” he told this week. “Midfielders are intelligent players who have to think about the team as a whole. They’re selfless players who understand the game better than anyone and the more midfielders you have, the easier it is to slot them into other positions. That’s how they become versatile and that helps us to have smaller squads that are still able to offer more options.”

Tags: , ,