Beating Barcelona: The Not-So-Impossible Task
This is a bit later than usual, but pulling double duty and wanting to re-watch El Clasico tended to cost a bit of time.
Suffice it to say, the title of this edition should tell you all you need to know about what I think about this match. So let’s look at a few numbers.
Pep Guardiola has never beaten Chelsea, not at the Camp Nou, not at the Bridge, not anywhere. He speaks with glowing concern about our side being able to counteract what Barcelona, and there is some truth to that. In three meetings since the inception of Tiki-Taka in Catalonia, Barcelona have only managed to score one goal against us, and it was Andres Iniesta last minute equaliser in 2009. More to the point, Lionel Messi has never scored against us in 270 minutes of play under Guardiola, and even longer in his career.
I tend to ignore the stats against Barcelona in the Frank Rijkaard era, only because it was clear that his philosophy was different. Rijkaard’s sides were different in that they played a more physical brand of football.
Regardless, we will have to play a match similar to the one we played last Wednesday, but this time, with lots of screaming Catalans hissing and booing our every move.
Despite all that, between the two legs against Milan and the El Clasico meeting, the way to beat this year’s Barcelona team is clear. Executing it is a different story.
No matter what Pep says, Barcelona are entirely dependent on Messi’s goals.
Lionel Messi has scored 63 goals this season. Barcelona as a team have scored 150. Doing the math, Messi has accounted for 42% of his team’s goals. The nearest scorer to him is Fabregas with 15 goals. That stat says it all because outside of the injured David Villa, no one on the Barcelona side are natural finishers.
In my mind, this would account for the fluffing of chances that most expect Barcelona to put away. The problem is that Barcelona, this season, have created bulk chances, but have been rather wasteful in front of goal. This has been a problem for them all season, and it’s just starting to rear its head.
Barcelona’s lack of natural width means that in order for them to attack, they have to expose themselves to counter attacks.
Without David Villa and Eric Abidal, it causes problems on the left side for Barcelona. Barcelona have been forced through injury to rely on having to field Iniesta in the wide left position or playing youngsters Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello in that area.
As Guardiola showed in El Clasico, his method of attacking when he needs to win is to introduce 3 CBs and push Alves wide right and bring in Tello/Cuenca on the left. The problem becomes that it forces Barcelona into 3 at the back without Abidal’s versatility, meaning that either Adriano plays out of position or Gerard Pique comes in, weakening the pace of the side.
The evidence to this problem was against Real where Fabio Coentrao pinned Alves back and cut off his supply, and Tello was not experienced enough to defend and attack to get the better of Alvaro Arbeloa.
In my mind, I can see them having a similar problem playing that way against Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole.
In my opinion, Barcelona showed their hand of how they will play in this leg against Real Madrid.
Because Barcelona was forced to win against Real, the approach that they had to take is similar to the approach that they have to take Tuesday night. Barcelona have to win this game without conceding. The problem is that it makes them incredibly easy to counter attack from the wide areas because they have to play 3 at the back. They have no other method at the moment.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil were absolute terrors on Saturday, simply because the pace and directness were too much for Barcelona to handle.
Mourinho played everything perfect by having Karim Benzema and Ronaldo just deep enough to press the defenders, but as soon as the midfield won possession, Ozil received a direct ball behind Tello on the left and it was off to the races.
Given how easily Lampard, Ramires, and Drogba combined under similar circumstances in the first leg, and you have to be confident that we can get one goal to force them to score three.
The “magic triangle” lives on!
From watching our approach, along with Milan and Real, in all three situations, you could literally walk 25 yards centrally from the goal and draw a triangle from that point to the end line, and that will show you exactly where Barcelona can’t be allowed to play.
If you concentrate your efforts in denying them space between the lines from 25 yards in and push them to play wide, they have trouble because it causes two big problems since they have to attack in just two ways.
The first problem is that they don’t have a team of players that can win headers for goals from crosses out wide, unless they bring Pique forward. With the lack of height, it’s hard to imagine them winning headers against the likes of John Terry, Gary Cahill, and Ivanovic.
The second problem is exploiting the Messi factor. Because Messi plays in the center forward position but comes deep, defending the 25-yard area means that Messi can’t find space between our midfield and defence. That causes him to come deep to find the ball to have any influence, and without a true center forward, no one threatens the back line.
If you watch the first leg and El Clasico, you’ll be amazed at how many times both teams CBs had no one to mark and were left to just keep shape. If there is no center forward, both CBs can just be charged with marking space and clearing anything coming through them.
When you couple that with the fact that they aren’t equipped to win headers, it makes it incredibly difficult to see how Barcelona get through easily, as long as you stay disciplined.
Will Barcelona’s ennui come back to haunt them?
The fact of the matter is that ever since Barcelona have come back from the Club World Championship, there’s been a sense of fatigue from the entire side. They have a smallish squad in terms of the numbers, and many of the players have just gone through Euro’s, Confederations Cup, and World Cup over the past three summers. Combine that with 13 trophies from 16 competitions, and that’s a lot of wear and tear on that side.
It’s no coincidence that in the last two matches, there’s been a lack of sharpness and sluggishness to their play. How they recover having had three days from El Clasico will be key to how they perform.
The footballing world feels that a Chelsea win would be an insult to football. The feeling is that by some divine right, every team must try to beat Barcelona by playing their game so that we can marvel at their greatness. Frankly, that’s a load of poo.
Every team that’s faced them in their own style has paid dearly for it, so it’s become apparent that you have to try to play them in an opposite way. Football has always been a system of opposites. Total Football versus Catenaccio, Catenaccio versus the Magic Box; the sport is all about finding ways to combat the opposition.
Fortunately, I feel comfortable in saying that we can score one goal at the Camp Nou. If that’s the case, Barcelona will have to score three, and given form and style of play, I can’t see that happening, though we may have to go through heck to stop it.