Chelsea 1-0 Barcelona: Chelsea score the type of goal they were trying to score, and the type Barcelona were trying to prevent

April 19, 2012

The starting line-ups – Meireles and Lampard briefly swapped positions

Didier Drogba’s goal in first half stoppage time gave Chelsea a surprise victory.

Roberto Di Matteo brought in Raul Meireles, with Salomon Kalou dropping to the bench and Juan Mata moving wide. David Luiz was injured, so Gary Cahill played at centre-back, and Branislav Ivanovic at right-back.

Pep Guardiola didn’t select Gerard Pique, electing to play Adriano at left-back, so Carles Puyol could play in the centre of defence alongside Javier Mascherano. Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas both started.

Chelsea rode their luck and Barcelona squandered chances – but overall this was a very disciplined display from Chelsea, and an extremely impressive defensive performance.

Approaches

This was a clash between two clearly contrasting styles. Barcelona, even by their standards, went for a ball-hoarding approach. Lionel Messi played much deeper than he usually does, coming into midfield to help retain the ball. Iniesta, rather than a natural winger, was on the left to give extra passing quality out wide. Alexis Sanchez was a wide player stretching the play, rather than in the centre-forward role he’s played in some other big games this season. Guardiola paid Chelsea a lot of respect with his approach, and though Barcelona had the majority of the ball, this was actually a conservative Barcelona display.

Di Matteo went very defensive from the start. A few sides – notably Real Madrid, but also Milan – have started off pressuring Barcelona heavily and breaking up their rhythm in the first ten minutes, with some success. There was no intent to do this from Chelsea tonight – they sat back with three holding midfielders (Frank Lampard barely got into the opposition third and remained in his position), which was a modification of the previous defensive shape Di Matteo has used. Ramires was understandably pushed out to the left to track Daniel Alves’ runs (those two were once in competition for the right-sided shuttling role Dunga wanted in his Brazil side). Mata was on the right, not his natural role, but he did OK by keeping things narrow.

Therefore, this wasn’t remotely a possession battle. Barcelona were the only side looking to keep the ball, and the passing totals of 158-754 were pretty much what you’d expect.

Chelsea deep and narrow

Chelsea’s first task was trying to prevent Barcelona playing through the centre, and force them out wide. Their approach here was interesting – Lampard and Meireles flanked Mikel. Lampard started on the right with Meireles to the left – then they switched, but Meireles kept fouling Fabregas, so they switched again – but they were basically doing the same job anyway.

Jon Obi Mikel’s role was particularly interesting. Usually, in a 4-3-3 / 4-5-1, you’d expect the central player to be the deepest of the three midfielders (like Sergio Busquets, for example), but Mikel was often the man to move up the pitch and close down Xavi Hernandez. Lampard and Meireles would stay quite central, quite tight. When the ball was then moved out wide, Mikel would drop back and form a line of three again, or sometimes slightly deeper than the other two. But he very rarely played on his own in front of the defence.

This worked well, and Messi hardly got the ball between the lines. The only time he got a large amount of space to run with the ball at the centre-backs was late in the first half, when he had dispossessed Mikel himself and created his own attack (he teed up Fabregas, who shot weakly and allowed Ashley Cole to clear off the line) – forward passes into that zone from Xavi or Busquets were difficult, because Chelsea were packing the zone around Messi.

In a sense, Mikel was playing something similar to the role Pepe fulfilled in the Clasicos last season – brought in as a central defensive midfielder with a physical presence, but then asked to move higher up and get into the face of Xavi – although he did it in a more disciplined manner than Pepe did.

Barcelona struggles

Chelsea were helped by the fact Messi kept coming too deep, and although it’s clearly a chicken-and-egg situation (as Messi becomes frustrated at the lack of service and drops further and further from goal to get the ball), Barcelona tend to look weaker when Messi comes in front of the opposition’s holding midfielders. He needs to have faith that the other players can provide a good forward pass into his feet, even if it wasn’t forthcoming in the first half.

Fabregas was given the job of floating around, trying to pick up the ball in small gaps, and burst through the defence into goalscoring positions. However, his touch and (more obviously) finishing were poor, and too often it was he and Messi trying to beat five Chelsea players (the two centre-backs and three holders) in central positions. Barcelona were significantly outnumbered in this zone, and by far their best move of the match, the chance they created for Sanchez to hit the bar, came when Iniesta drifted inside and played the pass from between the lines. The rest of the time he stayed very wide and often tried to dribble past Ivanovic – which he can do, but it’s not where he is best.

Overall Chelsea were extremely narrow, helped by the fact that Ramires was on the left and is excellent at shuttling from inside to out, and also by Mata’s tendency to drift central.

Chelsea breaks

With the ball, Chelsea only really had two strategies. The first was to hit Drogba – early on he nearly had a chance by collecting a long ball over the defence from Petr Cech, but he couldn’t quite control the ball properly. For much of the first half he was frustrating, constantly caught offside, but this was because Barcelona were trying to squeeze the play even more than usual. They were afraid of Drogba’s aerial power, so were pushing him away from goal.

The second approach was down the left, into the space behind Alves. He is, of course, the most attacking full-back around, and it should come as no surprise to see him high up into the Chelsea half. But, in a way, it was something of a surprise – Alves can play much more cautiously, and at this stage last season, when Real Madrid had spent the Clasico mini-series getting Xabi Alonso to hit long diagonals in behind the full-backs, Guardiola ordered the full-backs to stay as part of a back four. In a game where Guardiola was taking a cautious approach overall, it was a surprise to see Alves given so much positional freedom – it was a huge change from last year’s semi-finals:

Look how much Chelsea focused their passing down the left:

Ramires was always going to be key – he is both the most energetic and the most vertical player Chelsea have. It may be an odd comparison, but his role was similar to the one Victor Moses played in Wigan’s 2-1 win at Arsenal on Monday night – tracking the full-back up and down, but being quicker to sprint forward at transitions, and therefore being the main outlet on the counter-attack out on the left. Chelsea continually looked to the left, and though it only worked once, for Chelsea’s only shot on target in the entire game, it did the job. (Incidentally, Arsenal’s winner at home to Barcelona last season also came from the left-winger, Andrei Arshavin, getting free because Alves was caught in the opposition half – albeit from a different situation when the ball arrived from the opposite flank.)

But tiki-taka, as has been noted before, is partly a defensive tactic. By retaining the ball for so long and keeping so many players in conservative positions, Barcelona were actively trying to prevent Chelsea breaking. Fabregas described them as “a counter-attacking side” yesterday:

“They’ve gone back to the type of Chelsea that was more successful. Playing on the counter, trying to hit the target man, sitting back and using that number nine as a reference point…they are a very, very dangerous team. They are like motorbikes now. Faster, quicker to get the ball forward…when I was at Arsenal and now with Barcelona, even though we kept possession, it’s hard. We would dominate the ball, create chances and then a counter-attack from Didier Drogba and goal…they have a super-fast counter-attack.”

It shows what Barcelona thought the main threat was. For them to concede such a goal will have been particularly disappointing for Guardiola, and the positioning of Alves must be questioned.

1-0

Chelsea taking the lead in the first half was key to the rest of the game. It’s impossible to be sure, but it’s a decent bet that had they not gone ahead, they wouldn’t have kept a clean sheet. They needed a result to take to the Nou Camp, and at 0-0 they would have pushed the full-backs on more, probably given more freedom to Lampard, and maybe even have replaced a holder with an attacker. Barcelona would have enjoyed more space going forward. The comfort of the one-goal advantage gave them the license to sit behind the ball, with even Drogba coming back and helping pick up Sergio Busquets late in the second half.

Chelsea’s unwillingness to come forward was a real problem for Barcelona. Their best moves in the first half (the Sanchez shot off  the bar, the Fabregas shot off the line) came from direct play through the lines. Here, they couldn’t play vertical passes and had to keep moving sideways. This was a problem because they didn’t have natural wingers in the side (Iniesta is a central midfielder, Sanchez has spent much of the past two seasons playing centrally), which was why Guardiola brought on Pedro Rodriguez and Isaac Cuenca , but neither had a great impact.

Chelsea were able to keep their shape throughout –  Salomon Kalou came on for Mata to increase their chances on the break, while Jose Bosingwa replaced Ramires (tired, and on a yellow) very late. They relied on a couple of terrible Barcelona misses, but can be pleased with their performance without the ball.

Conclusion

“Is it better to face Messi and Barcelona with one permanent holding midfielder or two?” was the question earlier this week. Chelsea went with three, and were brave enough to give Xavi time on the ball, with sporadic pressure from Mikel, the central of the three holders. With further narrowness from the flanks, Chelsea simply packed the centre of the pitch, and Barcelona seemed surprisingly unable to get through this.

But the importance of the Chelsea goal to the clean sheet shouldn’t be underestimated. That gave them license to park the bus – both here, and in the Nou Camp next week.

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Chelsea 1-0 Barcelona: Chelsea score the type of goal they were trying to score, and the type Barcelona were trying to prevent

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