At this stage of the Champions League, there are no easy draws. However, Barcelona may be the best team on the planet right now, having won 13 trophies out of the 16 competitions that they’ve entered under manager Pep Guardiola.
That won’t matter to Chelsea as it gives them a chance to correct what they believe is a great wrong. 12 members of the current squad were there on that night in 2009 when Andres Iniesta’s 93rd minute strike sent the Catalans to the Final, but that’s not the lasting image of the match. Watching Michael Ballack chasing Tom Henning Ovrebo the length of the pitch after turning down his 7th penalty appeal, and Didier Drogba’s screaming expletives into the television camera is how I remember that match.
This current squad feels that they should have won that night and that the powers that be denied them a chance to feature in their second consecutive final.
However, against Barcelona, they will need more than just that sense of indignation. While Barcelona may have improved since that night at Stamford Bridge, you could argue that the Blues are not quite as good as the team that faced the world’s best on that night.
I will endeavour to explain how to beat Barcelona, but I will add a disclaimer that there aren’t enough words in a column to do so, and I acknowledge that this is all just opinion. Only Barcelona truly knows how to stop Barcelona. That’s how unique this system and this team is.
First thing, Barcelona can start to thank the failed reign of Rinus Michels for their current situation.
Michels appeared at Barcelona in 1971 after leading Ajax to three European cups. The father of Total Football was recruited to stop the dominance of Real Madrid, but in his four years at the Nou Camp, even after recruiting Johan Cruyff, he managed only one league title before moving to the Dutch national side.
His legacy is shown through both Cruyff’s re-appearance as a manager in 1998 and the total revamping of the Barcelona system to play a style of Total Football with a Spanish twist through every level of the club.
Fast forward to 2012, and it’s Cruyff’s greatest disciple, Mr. Guardiola, the captain of the Dream Team and the brains of that midfield, that has taken the reigns and evolved Total Football into complete absolution of everything. Not only is there the ability for every player to play in every position, but there’s also the tiki-taka style that is prevalent and unique to Spain.
To start to analyse Barcelona is to accept that nothing is on paper what it seems. You have to watch for tendencies and watch movement. And with that, you only start to understand.
After the brief history lesson, let’s get to the point. Barcelona will not exploit our one weakness: flank players running at the fullbacks, because they are not trained to do so.
The one thing I can guarantee you is that you will not see Guardiola employ flying wingers after seeing the space that Bale and Lennon found but couldn’t exploit and the space that Karim Frei found six days prior.
As manager of the youth team, Guardiola was known for yelling at his players that they “weren’t Lionel Messi” when they dribbled too much, and instead asking them to pass the ball. In fact, Guardiola’s philosophy is basically “pass the ball, pass the ball, and when you can’t pass the ball any longer, pass the ball.” That’s why everything you see from Barcelona is on one and two touches, but it makes them more devastating that a winger.
What Barcelona will do instead is if they view our fullbacks as a weakness, they will isolate them in situations where they are 3 v 1 or 2 v 1, and they will cleverly pass around them. They will do that in every area of the pitch to any defender.
To defeat Barcelona, you have to acknowledge you can’t out “football” them, and you have to keep your positional discipline at all times.
It’s been said before that Barcelona are like a hypnotist. They lull you to sleep with the metronomic passing so they can hit you without you knowing.
I describe it to people in two ways. First, I call it “slow, slow, quick.” Their initial rhythm is to play in a controlled way that really doesn’t advance the ball up the pitch. The ball may move quickly, but the play stays back and doesn’t initially look to advance. They’re probing you to find out who to isolate to get a gap. Then when the gap appears, the rhythm speeds up, and they burst through the gap with a quicker tempo.
The second way to describe it is like a bottle of water. The water molecules are all contained in the bottle and slowly moving, but when you poke a hole in the bottle of water, all the molecules go rushing out.
That’s the best way to describe how positional discipline is important. You must acknowledge that they will have more of the ball than you, but you must keep them in “slow” mode. They won’t surge forward until that gap appears, so if you limit the gaps, you limit their effectiveness.
Milan came very, very close to showing how to beat the current Barcelona side in the last round.
Anyone that visits the forums knows that I do not care for 4-4-2 diamond. I think it’s a formation that in England is rendered obsolete by the existence of the Wayne Rooney forward and the lingering effects of the Makelele role.
However, Barcelona truly lack natural width. Without David Villa and with Pedro struggling for form, they are forced to play most things through the center. The evidence of that is Guardiola dispatching with the 4-3-3 and experimenting with 3-4-3 this season.
What Milan did so successfully was to pack the four midfielders into the space where Barcelona play their slow passes, congesting the area and making it difficult to establish the rhythm.
Then, when they managed to get possession, they used Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho as the two out balls and attacked them directly.
It almost worked, as you could argue that Milan had enough chances to put the tie to bed in the first leg, but didn’t do so.
The other way to attack them is the over the top, offside trap breaking pass.
It’s how Arsenal were so effective against them last season and were a Nicklas Bendtner chance away from knocking them out. Theo Walcott absolutely terrorized them by being able to outpace Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol to every ball over the top of the high line.
It’s also why Fernando Torres will probably start, as he earned the nickname “the Barcelona killer” in his time at Atletico Madrid. No center forward has given them as much trouble as Torres, mostly because of his pace and ability to latch onto the ball over the top.
Again, this highlights that the direct approach is the way to attack Barcelona.
Once again, I am not making any predictions. I think the goal of the first leg is to not be out of it by the start of the second leg. If Barcelona win by more that 2 goals tomorrow, I think we’re almost out. I can’t see us going to the Nou Camp and scoring more than once.
The one suggestion I will make to everyone who reads this column is to do whatever it takes to record the match, DVR, VCR, DVD recorder, anything. The reason is that we dislike Barcelona, however, this is a system that comes around once in a lifetime. After Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan side, I don’t think anyone ever thought we’d see a new idea dominate in that way. Well, Guardiola has made one.
I would suggest that anyone watch the match a second time without emotional attachment (if you can) and just simply watch the way that Barcelona play. It’s absolutely an exquisite symphony of passing and movement. You may never see it again.