The Key To Bayern’s Emphatic Triumph Over Barcelona

May 3, 2013

For many it’s the end of an era and a number of observers have witnessed a change of guard at the top of European football. There are also those who wish to be more patient and see how the vanquished respond.  Whether you belong to one of these categories or have an entirely different view, one thing is for certain, Bayern’s sheer dominance over Barcelona over two legs and the nature of their wins have given everyone some food for thought.

Few would have predicted the Germans will win both legs when the draw was made. I doubt even the proudest, most passionate of Bavarian fans would have expected their team to knock seven past Valdes without Neuer picking the ball out of his net even once. Something extraordinary has happened here.

I am sure by now you must have read a fair number of reports/analyses from different perspectives. Messi’s injury has obviously been a big factor. Vilanova’s long term absence due to his serious illness must surely have had an impact on the Barcelona squad given the fact that he was palpably, even if cautiously and slowly, trying to shift the team’s approach from the constant high intensity pressing we’d become accustomed to in the Guardiola reign. The lack of depth in the Catalan ranks, particularly in the centre of defence, is another valid reason. Key players might also be tired, mentally and physically, after years of consistency at the very top.

Of course, we must be careful not to dilute Bayern’s brilliance by listing Barcelona’s problems. The Germans were stronger, sharper, and smarter. They had clear ideas – for instance, the use of set-pieces and aerial strength in the box – and executed them excellently. Heynckes’ team have deservedly received praise for their pressing, organization, discipline, work ethic, counter-attacking, and other attributes.

I don’t want to go over these things again as many excellent writers have covered these in a manner beyond my current abilities. However, I do want to explore one particular angle that I found very interesting. It’s a very specific territorial battle that Bayern won in both games and thus denied Barcelona the chance to impose their trademark suffocating grip on the game.

Before I get into what Bayern did, allow me to note certain characteristics of Barcelona’s style that has made them one of the best club sides ever put together.

It is said that the defending side should try to make the pitch as small as possible while the attacking team should stretch the play. It’s widely accepted wisdom but sometimes we forget that the process of compressing the playing area and that of stretching it are physical acts where the players have to move around on the pitch and it takes time. And teams are often very vulnerable when they’re doing this because a quick transition can catch many players out of position.

Barcelona, in my opinion, have a very unique solution to this as they compress play and stretch it at the same time. By basing their game on a short passing style and by insisting that the man on the ball be always provided with multiple passing options, the Catalans ensure that they always have a number of bodies around the ball. At the same time, at least one wide player and/or their full-backs consistently offers width up the pitch.

The ability to understand and minimize the risk taken in possession has been a key to its successful execution and patience has been a vital attribute. As a result, when Barcelona did lose the ball they often had enough players who could immediately press as a unit and win the ball back within a matter of seconds (6 second rule?). Not only was the man on the ball put under pressure by two or three opponents, his passing options would be cut off by other Barcelona players who read the situations and swarmed in accordingly.

The team’s shape played a crucial part in bringing the excellent tactical ideas to fruition on the pitch. Once the team settled into its rhythm after the initial exchanges, we’d see the central defenders on the half-way line, Busquets a few yards in front of them moving into carefully judged spaces to keep the ball rolling, Xavi would be around him again creating and using space, Messi would drop deep or move across horizontally till he got a chance to run at the defence or play someone else in behind. The wider players played their part making intelligently timed diagonal/vertical runs or by holding their positions or by cutting inside.

The above is, without a doubt, a very simplified version of their tactics but it should rekindle memories of the patterns of play when Barcelona dominated games.

In order for these tactics to succeed there is a very specific area of the pitch that Barcelona have to control. Take a look at the following chart of their passes against Milan in the 4-0 win at the Camp Nou in the previous round.

Barcelona passes against Milan

It’s impossible to make sense of individual passes from that chart but we don’t need to. The density of passes is important. Most of it is just inside the Milan half. That’s the area where Barca set up their base camp before launching attacks. It’s the perfect territory for the likes of Xavi and Busquets to control possession and dictate the tempo.

This is so because they need to stay at an ideal (short) distance from the central defenders who have to be on the centre line. Opposition strikers can be on the halfway line without being offside so no team would want to push its key defenders further forward during open play unless absolutely necessary.

If the midfield pushed too far forward they’d be away from their defenders and into the opposition ranks in front of their penalty box. That’s not the right place for controlling possession because the risk of losing the ball would be very high, as would be the gap between their own lines which would make controlling transitions much harder.

If they stayed deeper and pushed the central defenders further back, the team would be farther from the opposition box/goal and closer to its own penalty area and goal. Again it wouldn’t be ideal. In fact, Bayern succeeded in pushing them back but I’ll come to that in a bit.

You could call that purple box, although an approximation, the control room for the suffocating Barcelona system. Attacks are built from there with carefully picked moments of penetration and all the players form layers around the ball. An attacking player might want to pass it back and Busquets or Xavi would be available to receive it. Behind them would be the layer of central defenders and even Valdes could receive a pass if the opponents got too close. Similarly, there would be midfielders available for sideways passes and beyond them, right on the flanks, either a full-back or a winger would be waiting. This layering also helped control transitions by quickly pressing the man on the ball and the first layer of options around him.

What Bayern did, through superior physicality, immaculate organization, and astute decision making, was to wrest control of this vital piece of territory.

The following chart compares passes made by Barcelona against the Germans in the two legs.

Barcelona passes against Bayern home and away

The density of passing remains a very good indicator of where all the action was. The control room is sparsely populated. Barcelona had more possession deeper in their own half.

In his insightful match report for his Zonal Marking website, Michael Cox made the following observation,

Barcelona’s most frequent passing combination was Marc Bartra to Gerard Pique – a move that happened 21 times.

He went on to add,

The ball spent too long at the back, and Barcelona never picked up the tempo and piled on the pressure on the Bayern defence.

Cox ascribes this problem (partly?) to Song’s inability to link the defence with the creative players in a manner that Busquets typically does,

…Song wasn’t disastrous in the holding role, but he lacks Busquets’ positional discipline and understanding of how to let the play flow naturally through him, and up towards the creative players.

But it’s worth noting that in the reverse fixture Barca had the same problem even with Busquets in the starting line up. Refer to the passing density above and the fact that their most common passing combination in that game was Alba to Iniesta with 22 passes on the flank followed closely by, you guessed it, Bartra to Pique at 21 passes.

Against Milan, who sat back, Busquets to Xavi and Xavi to Iniesta were the most common passing combinations, and many of those passes were in the control room area discussed above.

Busquets to Xavi and Xavi to Iniesta against Milan

Whereas most of the Bartra to Pique passes were almost all 10-20 yards inside the Barcelona half in both the games.

Bartra to Pique against Bayern home and away

Against Milan, Barcelona completed 626 of their 715 attempted passes. In Munich, they completed 603 out of 666. The number or accuracy of passes is not very different. In no way does it explain how Vilanova’s side won the former game by 4 goals to nil while losing the latter with the same margin. But the positioning of those passes is more telling.

A few things happened as a result of Bayern successfully pushing Barcelona’s chief possession zone back by 20-25 yards.

1) Barcelona were further away from the Bayern goal and it was harder for them to bring their attackers into play. They were stretched vertically. This reduced the total number of attacks that the Spanish side could mount as well as the quality of the ones they did put together. Remember, they don’t like to play a direct vertical game.

2) The Catalans were never able to get into the siege mode – a shape where they could collectively and effectively suffocate the Germans once they lost the ball – because their spacing was no longer as required for that kind of pressing. Consequently, they could not really press as a unit, particularly higher up the pitch. This was another observation that Cox made in his analysis,

…while Barcelona’s sheer stamina in their pressing was frequently praised under Guardiola, less attention was played to the actual positioning and cohesion in the pressing – the player in possession wasn’t just closed down, all his other passing options were pressured too. Here, Barcelona’s ‘pressing’ seemed simply more like frantic chasing with other opponents left free.

3) As a result of 1 and 2, Bayern were able to hold on to the ball when Barcelona lost it (for longer than 6 seconds!), remained relatively safe at the back, and were always a threat on counters. On the other hand, Vilanova’s side could no longer remain patient in possession in deeper areas, and their attempts to bring attackers into play were down to riskier passes that resulted in threatening transitions which could not be prevented by hard pressing as their shape was lost.

It’s difficult to say just what percentage of that territorial battle was won by Bayern and what was lost by Barcelona. Surely, a fully fit Messi would have had a bigger say in that battle. But I’ve seen Real Madrid trouble their Catalan rivals in recent games through similar tactics by contesting that zone with some success, so I’m inclined to believe this is one of Barcelona’s (the possession game’s) genuine weaknesses and the Germans did well to exploit that.

Heynckes’ team did that by constant and clever pressing. They never went overboard but consistently marked the key players. When they had to leave someone free it was usually the central defenders. Ergo the Bartra to Pique combination discussed above.

Their man-marking was flawless but, equally, the players also picked the right moments and positions to let their man go and hand him over to a teammate. Most teams struggle at this against Barcelona because their movement pulls opponents apart and creates gaps in the defensive fabric. Bayern rarely yielded a yard of space, and never for a period long enough to be expensive.

Mandzukic in this game, and Gomez in the previous one, often left the central defenders and dropped back onto the deepest midfielder. This gave them an extra body in midfield which was useful in dealing with Messi or Fabregas when they dropped deep. In turn, the Bayern central defenders were rarely pulled out of position.

Furthermore, the discipline and work rate of usually attack-minded players like Ribery and Robben was praiseworthy. They often played as auxiliary full-backs when Barca did get the chance to move forward. It allowed Lahm and Alaba the luxury of staying relatively compact alongside their central defenders. Bayern’s backline maintained excellent spacing for most of the 180 minutes.

An interesting side note

Although further observations and analysis is needed on this, I get a feeling people within German football have identified the aforementioned piece of real estate on the football pitch as the key to finding the right balance between attack and defence.

Observe the density of passes made by Arsenal in home games against Schalke and Bayern, both of which the Gunners lost despite dominating possession.

Arsenal vs Schalke and Bayern

Seems consistent with the discussion above, doesn’t it?

Dortmund topped their group of death but had less possession than their opponents in all six group games. Away to City and Ajax for instance, the Germans did an excellent job of defending that space just inside their own half.

Dortmund against City and Ajax

While Barcelona and other possession based sides like to control that central zone just inside the opposition half from an offensive point of view, the Germans have shown that proactively defending that zone can lead to superb balance between attack and defence.

Many teams concede that zone when facing technically dominant sides. Indeed, Chelsea and Inter have won the Champions League by parking the bus, so to speak. But it’s worth noting that they both ended up in the Europa League this season. Defending deep and hoping for chances on the counter-attack can work in the short term but it is rarely going to be a strategy that works over a long period of time, not to mention the sheer drudgery needed to survive in each game.

The German approach, on the other hand, provides greater tactical control over games and the team with lower possession can often create more meaningful chances and look like the better attacking unit!

Defending with the first line of players around the centre line or pressing the first ball out from defence is not a revolutionary tactic. But we must also remember that Guardiola didn’t invent short passing, pressing, through-balls, or a clever dink over the top. He found a way to put it all together meticulously in a system that suited the strengths of his players to a tee. The beauty was in the minor details and flawless execution time and time again.

Similarly, it’s not that Heynckes, or Klopp, or other managers in the German system have created a novel tactical approach. But they seem to have refined it to a level where it could indeed create the new world order in football. I am possessed by that thought, do you have a counter?

 


Song Moves From The Heart Of London To The Fringes Of Barcelona

August 20, 2012

The last couple of days have flown by in the build-up to Sunderland’s visit, the actual game, and the inevitable debates that take place in the aftermath of a game. During this period Arsenal also agreed a deal with Barcelona for the sale of Alex Song. It was a transfer that came out of the blue and was completed at express speed, at least by the recent standards of drawn out sagas that Gooners have experienced.

There are many different stories circulating in the media but few have provided any concrete sources. Some suggest that Song’s agent had been peddling the midfielder around Europe and wanted a bumper increase in his contract. Others have suggested that the player had attitude issues, was lazy, often arrived late for training, and tended to ignore instructions from the coaching staff. Presumably, the latter story has been leaked by the Gunners as it’s attributed to anonymous club sources.

I don’t normally believe unattributed quotes and unverifiable reports but there seems to be some truth in Song’s case. The most striking aspect of the whole deal has been the ease with which Wenger has sanctioned the transfer. The manager fought hard to keep Cesc, Nasri, and RvP. His comments before and after these players left showed he rated them very highly. I don’t think the same can be said about his reflections on the departure of Song.

In my opinion the key to this transfer was Wenger’s belief that the player can be replaced. Since he’s a very good man manager and cultivates excellent relationships, it can be assumed Arsene would have found a way to make things work with Song despite any attitude issues if he really felt it imperative to hold on to Song. Let’s not forget Arsenal had a strong position from the contract point of view.

At first glance this seems strange. Song was voted 2nd best player of the year by the fans in the annual poll. He picked up 11 assists in the League last season and formed a very effective partnership with Van Persie. Together the duo contributed 64 percent of Arsenal’s 74 Premiership goals. Why would Wenger sell his second best player without a fight when all efforts to hold on to the best failed?

There seem to be a number of factors involved. Firstly, there is the case of inconsistency on the part of Song. There is a myth in the Arsenalsphere that Song started neglecting his defensive duties and bombed forward too often. Many associate assists with a forward thinking approach but forget the fact that many of his key passes came from deep. The problem with Song was not that he became too attack oriented but that he simply wasn’t consistent enough when it came to defensive awareness and concentration. Over the last few years there have been numerous examples where Arsenal have conceded goals not because Song had gone forward but because he didn’t do what he was supposed to even when he’d stayed back.

In short, Song just did not read the game well defensively at a level of consistency needed if a side wishes to win the major titles.

That alone would not have been enough though. The second, and perhaps clinching, factor here is that Arsene knows there is a replacement available who is at least as good if not better. I’ll be very surprised if the Gunners don’t sign at least one more player in midfield.

Arsene could make a like-for-like change by getting someone like M’Vila in or he could bring a different player like Sahin into the squad and adapt to the loss of Song through tactical changes. In either case the key point is that Le Boss does not think it will be as tough to replace Song as it has been with the other big names who’ve moved on.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy. Song had a physical presence on the pitch. You could see him dig his heels around a ball and shrug off a challenge that would easily be deemed a foul in other Leagues. With that physical presence he helped Arsenal bring the ball out from the back which is vital to the way Arsene wants his teams to play. In his absence the Gunners have struggled on that front and it tends to expose the defence.

Song was also a tenacious player who kept chasing the ball even if the opponent beat him initially. That’s pestering quality is valuable to the way Arsenal defend as they tend to go after the ball instead of holding a strong defensive shape. There are few others (non-defenders) in the side who can do it as often and as well.

Finally, there was the case of Song’s creative contribution. Last season the Cameroonian attempted 90 through-balls and was successful with 24 of those. To put that in perspective, David Silva attempted 77 and was successful with only 18 while Liverpool (entire squad) completed 46 out of 105 and United 39 out of 102. Arsenal, as a team, attempted 294 with 87 finding a teammate. The corresponding numbers for City were 321 and 75.

What we see here is a variable that provides a good indication of the differences between the style of play of these teams and within that the relative qualities that Song possessed. He bettered Silva in attempts and success rate. That’s a clear sign of quality even if the actual accuracy is less than one in three as it’s one of the toughest passes to execute. There is absolutely no doubt Song was a big, big player for the Gunners last season and had a massive hand in the limited success of the quick wingers on the flank.

Against Sunderland, the Gunners didn’t really need the physical side or even defensive tenacity but they clearly missed his creativity from deeper areas.

Of course, Sahin can plug the creative hole whereas M’Vila can easily replicate the physical aspect of Song’s game. But Arsenal cannot play two in place of one so it’ll be interesting to see how Arsene goes about replacing Song. Even if Arsene is confident, I have a feeling the Gunners will struggle in the short term.

I’ll look at midfield options in detail after the transfer window closes so will pick up on this thread at a later time, for now I also want to explore the player’s perspective.

This is another aspect of the transfer that I found difficult to understand. Why would Alex Song want to move from a team where he has such a central role to one where he’d be a squad player? I never doubted the fact that Fabregas will be important to Barcelona but it’s difficult to see Song being a regular. It seems to me he’ll be a player who is introduced late in the games when the side wishes to defend a lead or is used in away games where opponents are likely to offer a strong physical challenge. Apart from that he’ll mostly be a back-up utility player.

That seems like such a waste of talent. And why would Song want to fritter away his career on the bench even if it’s the world’s best bench? Sure, he’s likely to have a better shot at medals and will quite possibly make more money but is that reason enough? Clichy, Nasri, and Cesc have played a significant part in title winning sides and RvP is likely to do the same even if the title winning aspect is up for debate. For Song that does not seem to be the case so it’s difficult to see ambition as a reason.

Maybe it is about the money, or the glory, or about being underappreciated, or something else. Time will tell.

For Barcelona it’s a good deal as they get a high quality utility player for good value. Wonder if Cesc had any part to play in this transfer?

Finally, I want to touch upon the manner of departure. Van Persie went from hero to villain after releasing one ill-advised statement. In contrast, Song had the following to say in a recent interview with Sky Sports,

I am not going to lie if I said there is no interest but I am at Arsenal and I am happy at Arsenal.

Really? If I add up the events – Arsene Wenger’s uncharacteristic curtness about the transfer, the speed at which the transfer has been agreed, and the rumours about attitude issues doing the rounds – I find it very difficult to believe Song was happy at Arsenal and that Arsenal were happy with him.

When Van Persie released his statement I was among the few who believed it was a fairly honest one. The player genuinely didn’t believe Arsenal were doing enough to win. With Song on the other hand, we have what appears to be a deceitful and empty comment aimed solely at maintaining PR.

I am not surprised but really disappointed with the way people have accepted this from Song while hating RvP. It’s like saying “We’re ok with whatever you do or think as long as you put out statements that say what we want to hear. Not the truth, not your honest opinion, just something that makes us feel better in that moment.”

I don’t blame the fans though. It’s a broader problem with the human race. We can’t always handle the truth, we need simplified narratives that suit our sensibilities. Politicians have mastered that art and that’s what we get from almost everyone else who is in the public eye. If individuals can’t do it they get PR firms to do it. Then again, writing such stuff on a blog in the public domain is akin to committing PR suicide so I’ll stop before I do irreparable damage!

Song has moved from the heart of London to the fringes of Barcelona. He must have his reasons but they’re not important at the moment. Arsene has to perform that heart transplant soon though. It could be a matter of life and death. It seems he’s found a donor, and the tissue’s a match, now he must perform the surgery and hope to avoid complications. Has it set your pulse racing yet!?

Stats from EPLIndex


Arsenal Should Sign Usmanov’s PR Team, Cesc Commitment Commendable

June 15, 2011

Apologies for being two days behind a story once again but having given a great deal of time during the season, I am trying to balance it during the summer. And while I do let a lot of rumours and events go by without comment, this PR stunt from Alisher Usmanov is hard to ignore.

I don’t want to repeat the comments as they’ve been all over the internet. Just in case you missed them the link above provides the full statement.

Telling people what they want to hear – it is usually an art mastered by successful politicians but any entity, be it an individual or an organization, that is connected with the masses has to, at some point or the other, rely on this skill to steady the ship or get the weight of popular support.

In the past I have mentioned that the Arsenal manager and players often give very honest and intelligent interviews that come back to bite them in the, well, arse. While the discerning readers/listeners appreciate their comments, they get twisted by the media and the mass opinion is often manipulated to the detriment of the club and the squad.

The point is not that people are stupid. But I strongly believe that collective or popular opinion is often ill-informed and illogical. It works on the principle that if a lie is repeated often enough it becomes the truth. Those who scan the internet with a perceptive eye will have noticed how many people voice an opinion just because they think everyone else is saying it. An individual’s power to rationally judge right or wrong is indirectly proportional to the number of times he or she reads a particular twist on a story.

Let’s consider the Usmanov statement. To me it appears to be a blatant PR exercise where his team have captured the pulse of the disgruntled fans and succinctly captured the sentiment expressed by many. Such a simple exercise has done a lot to increase the support for the Russian who was widely regarded as untouchable just a few months ago. Many fans now think it might have been better if the current board had sold out to Usmanov instead of Kroenke. Some are even demanding similar rhetoric from Silent Stan.

But does the Russian oligarch really have Arsenal’s best interests at heart? His actions don’t support his words which seem hollow, appeasing, and meant to lure in the gullible.

Lady Nina wanted to sell her shares but there was no taker for a long while. One might wonder, why didn’t Usmanov make her an offer she couldn’t refuse? What is the point of offering £14,000 per share now when such an offer earlier could have taken him in the 40-42 per cent share bracket? Subsequently, he could have released a statement like the one he has done now, and with promise of significant investment he might have been able to acquire a portion of the minority shares. Who’s to say he would not have crossed the halfway mark? Some of the directors opposed to him might also have been tempted by such a generous offer. After all, doesn’t the Russian claim that they were in it for the money?

The simple fact is that Usmanov didn’t act when he could have and was probably caught off-guard by the suddenness of the deal between Kroenke and the others. So it is safe to say he didn’t put his money where his mouth is.

Then there was the other publicity stunt where Usmanov offered to donate shares to the AST if Kroenke matched him. What prevented him from donating a few shares unilaterally and unconditionally? Surely, it would not have put a dent in his considerable fortune! That would have shown his intent and put the ball firmly in the American’s court. It’s just another instance where his words were not backed up by action.

Ultimately, this is a big money game and fans would be naive to assume anything else no matter the spin put on the story. I have my issues with the previous owners who were not perfect and could undeniably have done better. But that doesn’t mean Usmanov is different nor is he the saviour.

In another public statement of significance, Cesc Fabregas has reaffirmed his interest in joining Barcelona and his loyalty to Arsenal. Those who have seen through the unabashed lies and concocted tales surrounding this saga have always known the few hard facts that matter.

Fabregas wants to go to Barcelona. To be honest, I don’t grudge him that wish. It is natural to dream to be part of something great. Which football player worth his salt would not want to play with Messi? More so if one has grown up playing with the phenomenon.

Equally important is the fact that El Capitan has immense respect for the club, the manager, his team-mates, and the fans. He does not want to throw a tantrum to engineer a move he craves. Only a man with impeccable values can behave in the way that Fabregas has done. Those values must be cherished and respected, especially in the modern world. Fans have to give him space for his individual desires and hopes while admiring his principles and collective based actions and decision making.

I don’t think anyone will be surprised when this transfer eventually happens. It could still happen this summer but only if Arsenal are convinced such a move is in their best interests. That is the key. For that, Barcelona have to cough up a small fortune to sign the only player in the world who can significantly improve that superb squad. I am not sure the Catalans can afford that after the Ibrahimovic fiasco. And I am absolutely certain Wenger will not succumb to the incessant pressure tactics from Spain, or the baseless rumours in the media followed by meaningless but extremely annoying noise on the internet, none of which is likely to cease anytime soon.

Looking back at the events of the summer so far, it seems to be heading in the right direction.


Thoughts On The Champions League Final

May 30, 2011

That was a game worthy of a final. I was worried it might turn into a tight encounter with both teams adopting a very cautious approach, Barca with the ball and United without it, but thankfully that didn’t come to pass.

Ferguson’s tactics were, in my opinion, the reason this tie was such an open encounter and also for it to be a completely one-sided final. United had moments when they pressed Barca but that was really nothing more than some pesky disruptions to the otherwise predictable pattern of the game. The English side also got a goal but it seemed more down to basic mistakes in defending, especially by Busquets. United rarely threatened the Barcelona goal otherwise, those counting Arsenal’s shot on target might want to note that considering this wasn’t even at the Camp Nou.

I was really surprised to see Hernandez in the starting line-up. The Mexican has been an excellent goal-scorer for United in his opening season but he is also a very limited player who doesn’t often makes a meaningful contribution outside the box or in possession. Chicarito is a finisher, and a very good one, but in such a game did the United manager really expect him to get a chance? That too with Giggs, Carrick, and Rooney playing in midfield?

Frankly, I never expected Ferguson to go against the single biggest strength his team has – organization and hard work.  Not that they completely abandoned it, for large parts of this game United did put up a good defensive performance – I’ll talk about it later in the post – but the team selection and approach meant that there were always going to be moments when they struggled. The second half should have been one where the English side grew in strength but it proved to be one where they fell apart.

Normally, Manchester United defend in numbers and against Arsenal they’ve often played with three defensive midfielders and Park. In this game they had Rooney and Giggs in the middle. That meant more work for Park and Valencia on the flanks but it also meant that the cover in front of the back four was going to break on a regular basis.

The first goal was the result of exactly that. Xavi got in behind the midfielders and that meant the defenders had to worry about the man on the ball and the attacking players. If we notice the way Vidic moves – initially he gets sucked towards the centre because he has to provide cover for Ferdinand and then he tries to run back across to close Pedro down – we can see that even the best defenders struggle when they have to deal with two attacking players. This is a problem Arsenal defenders face on a regular basis. Manchester United normally have enough midfield players to help the defenders in that area just outside the penalty box.

For the second goal too Messi was able to get in between the lines and the midfielder, I think it was Park, stopped chasing him. Again, it’s a problem we see repeated quite often by the Arsenal midfield. Some might expect the central defenders to step up and close him down but if you watch the whole game closely, Vidic and Ferdinand rarely stepped up when a player was running at them with the ball. They maintained their shape and kept an eye for runs into the box. This allowed them to make a number of excellent tackles inside the box. At United the job of closing the runners is down to the midfield. This is an aspect that Arsenal have to incorporate in their game with better efficiency.

Another aspect that the Gunners can learn is that playing offside just outside your own box is a very risky proposition. The most recent example in my memory is the second goal Bent scored at the Emirates when Sagna tried to step up at the last moment. In this game we saw the United defenders tracking the runs and staying goal-side of the attacker. It wasn’t enough but it did prevent Van der Saar from being exposed in one-v-one situations.

Playing off-side is not a poor strategy as Stewart Robson would have us believe. Barcelona showed what an excellent weapon it can be for an attacking team.

This game showed us that a team can have defenders like Vidic and Ferdinand with a goalkeeper like Van der Saar behind them but, if the midfield doesn’t do its job as required, even top quality players can’t prevent the opposition from scoring. As usual, this isn’t a black and white issue. The fault doesn’t lie solely with the midfield or with the defenders. There are eleven players on the pitch and each has a role to play. A mistake by one can lead to a chain of events that ends up in a goal. On other occasions someone else covers for that mistake and it goes unnoticed. The odds of conceding a goal are directly proportional to the number of mistakes a team makes because the defenders will falter at some point if they’re overworked.

Ferguson’s side didn’t have a strong defensive midfield in this game and that meant the defenders had a lot more work. Eventually, they had to crack.

As I wrote this piece I realized it is not often that one can say Ferguson got his tactics wrong. This should not be interpreted as a claim that I know better but it does tell us how difficult the job is and how simple it can appear to be with the benefit of hindsight. I am pretty sure if someone scans through the United fan forums, there will be questions about the presence of Anderson, Gibson, et al in the squad. Some fans will be making statements like, “Buying a good defensive midfielder would have won us the game” and so on. I understand that’s how some fans are. There are also those who can take some distance and look at the bigger picture with all its complexities and nuances. That even makes us appreciate the mistakes because we can see why they were made and just how fine the line between the right decisions and the wrong ones can be.

On the whole, despite my feelings, I must congratulate both the teams. There were a lot of quality moments in the game, offensively and defensively. I will try to cover some of those using the snapshot analysis.


Why Can’t Both Teams Lose The Champions League Final

May 28, 2011

That’s the sad part of the biggest game of the season I guess. One of the two teams will go home as winners. I am finding it hard to pick a team to support and that will make watching the game that much more difficult.

When the same sides met each other three years ago it was easy to support Barcelona. Since then the antics and attitude of the various members of the club, from the players to the board, has been classless and shameful to put it politely. And I don’t have to remind gooners how intolerable United can get.

It will take me a long time to condition myself in order to focus on the game and not on the players/clubs. Those who will succeed in watching the game for the sake of football will find a lot to observe. Such a game might not be an enthralling end-to-end contest, but it will have immense educational value.

Many consider Barcelona to be favourites but I feel this game will be a very close battle with an odd moment of magic or individual mistake settling the tie in a 1-0 result. That’s another disappointing aspect of these big games; they tend to be cagey affairs with very few memorable moments.

Fergie will undoubtedly send his team out to stifle the opponents. It is their single biggest strength so we will get an excellent example of how to keep a defence organized even against the best of attacks. It might be interesting to watch this game and then revisit the Arsenal-Barca games soon after. The difference in styles between the two English sides will be stark even though both will be chasing the ball. I am pretty sure United’s performance will highlight some of the systemic issues that have been troubling the Gunners.

All the noise and nuisance created by the Dark Lord after his side were convincingly dispatched by the Catalans will help Fergie and his players. The referee in this game is likely to be extremely lenient and that will allow the English side to thrive. I also expect more focus on Barcelona so their theatrics might be punished even if they’re somewhat justified.

The point made by Wenger – Barcelona look tired – is valid and will have an impact. Don’t be surprised if Ferguson copies Arsene’s tactic of attacking these opponents late in the game. Guardiola’s team might start as favourites but if the game is deadlocked after an hour his side will struggle.

Both teams have relatively poor away records, certainly when compared to their respective home form. If I’m not mistaken, Messi hasn’t scored yet in England (unlucky to have the goal at the Emirates ruled out). Since the game is at Wembley United might have an edge.

For gooners, there are some aspects that we can learn from both teams. Barcelona will show how to play a patient possession game. This includes the art of defensive possession, preventing counter-attacks by unparalleled pressing and positioning, and picking the right moments to penetrate. There are times when Arsenal try too hard against opponents like United. It stretches the Gunners out of shape and opens the game up for the opponents. I’ll be surprised if Barcelona do it even once. The Manchester side will have to produce quality football to get a goal; they won’t get a gift (They might get one from a set-piece).

From a defensive point of view we will be able to see the importance of concentration as the English side chase the ball and close the opponents down. Their positioning, shape, and decision making (when to press and when to back off) will also be worth watching. I believe Arsenal struggle on this front. There are times when the players get their decisions wrong. On other occasions players are not in sync, some press while others back away. United will show what a well-drilled defensive machine they are. Exemplary if you can tolerate it.

Unless there is a freak early goal, this game is not likely to have too much goalmouth action. It will be boring from that point of view. But to those interested in the details it will be a fascinating duel. I’ve already started conditioning my mind in the effort to focus on the game. Hopefully, it will work out by tomorrow afternoon.


Interesting Contrasts Between Arsenal-Barca And Real-Barca

April 29, 2011

This is supposed to be the worst Arsenal squad in recent memory (some say Wenger’s era, some say last 20 years, and there are other such opinions floating around). Some Gooners claim Wenger has lost it and gone senile. He has no ambition, is tactically clueless, and the players show no spirit.

Real Madrid on the other hand have a squad assembled at a cost that would make the Galacticos look like a bunch of paupers. They’re also supposed to have the world’s best tactical manager.

Not many people gave Arsenal a chance against Barcelona. Despite a 5-0 trashing earlier in the season, Real were supposed to provide a tough challenge to the Catalans.

Arsenal won the first leg at home, albeit with some luck. One can argue Arsenal deserved the win. Real lost the first leg at home with some luck going against them. Can anyone honestly say Real deserved anything out of this game based on that performance?

In the second leg, Arsenal had a lot to play for. Mourinho has given up on the tie and says there is no hope in the second leg.

After the second leg when Wenger gave an honest opinion about the ref, many fans and pundits got on his back. Arsene was criticized, his tactics were ridiculed, and the Gunners were berated. When the Dark Lord released a calculated and probably rehearsed (he knew he will be needing something to divert the attention from his inept tactics) rant against the ref and Barca, all the attention was focussed on the Catalan side. Even the articles in the media that repeated Mourinho’s allegations didn’t have any mention of the number of times the Dark Lord has benefitted from the refereeing decisions. Not least of which was an off-side goal that saw his Inter side beat the same opponents!

The red card given to Van Persie was a joke by any interpretation of the law. The red card given to Pepe was a bit harsh but could still be given for the way he went into the tackle even if Alves had pulled his leg out.

The Gunners gave a lot mentally. In the end the exhaustion told and the disappointment from the ref’s decision turned into an overwhelming factor. Real didn’t even try to play and completely collapsed after the red card.

The Arsenal players were criticized for lacking spirit and for poor attitude even by some Gooners. Many have been conned by the Dark Lord’s diversionary tactics as no one is questioning the attitude and spirit of the ‘Proven Players’ at Real.

Hardly anyone, except some positive minded Gooners, talked about Barcelona players grabbing Van Persie, Nasri, and co by their throats. How many are talking about the playacting by Alves, Pedro, and Busquest?

I don’t have a problem with the media and others. They are who they are. But why is there so much bile and hatred in the Arsenalsphere? Where is the balance? Where is the perspective?


El Classico More Like La Abominacion

April 27, 2011

Many who don’t follow the beautiful game intensely would still have made time to catch a game of this magnitude with two teams as highly rated and with such cherished histories as Real Madrid and Barcelona. This game should have been a spectacle not only for the hard core fans of both sides but also for the lovers of football around the world and even for the casual observers. Instead we witnessed a spectacular disaster and innumerable examples of everything that is wrong with the game.

In fairness, Barcelona didn’t do much wrong except for the awful playacting by Pedro, Busquets, and Alves. I thought Guardiola learnt from his past mistakes and played a very safe game tactically. His teams have struggled in big away games when they have tried to attack. Pep kept 6-7 men in his own half and they just knocked the ball around inviting Real to come at them. A defensive but prudent approach that paid dividends at the end.

Mourinho, probably inspired by Wenger’s tactics of attacking Barca late in the game, kept his players back as the game meandered along. The first half was a pedestrian performance from both teams not only in terms of the speed of the game but also the quality of football. It’s hard to recall a single moment where the technique or skills of the players stood out. The highlights package during the breather most likely contained some dives, playacting, and rash fouls.

It can also be said that Guardiola outfoxed Mourinho by eliminating counter-attacking opportunities. One could also say the Real manager was extremely one dimensional and didn’t have a plan B when his team failed to get counter-attacks going!!

As far as two –legged ties go, I believe the onus is always on the home side to show some initiative. The Dark Lord of Anti-football failed miserably and his rough tactics backfired when his pit bull Pepe was sent off for an over the top, studs-up challenge. Alves’ antics were shameful but it’s hard to argue against the card. Real got away with a lot of rough play in the Copa Del Rey final and one would think it had to come back and haunt them at some time.

I wonder what the Winner Worshipers and Glory Hunting Apologists have to say about Mourinho now. Of course, the second leg is still to come but it will take more than the biggest upset in the history of the game if this Real manager is to win by two goals or more at the Camp Nou.

To my mind, the managers at the big clubs have a responsibility not only to their fans and club but also to the game in general. They cannot send such a talented bunch of players out with such abominable tactics. I criticized Mourinho when he won with Inter and I am going to criticize him now when he flops at Real. People like the Dark Lord set a horrible example for other managers and they tarnish the image of the game. Imagine if someone who doesn’t watch the football is introduced to the sport through such a game after all the hype and hoopla! Will that person ever watch football again!? Mourinho and his ilk might win some trophies and get short-term gratification for glory hunters or billionaires with new toys, but they hurt a lot of people who love the game.

It will be interesting to see whether the bosses at Real, renowned for their lack of patience with the managers, keep the Dark Lord in charge for the next season. Surely no one now fails to understand why they came to Wenger, a manager who hasn’t won a trophy for six years, before they went to Jose. Earlier this season I did an article saying Mourinho was jealous of Arsene and such games show why.

Thankfully, Messi produced a moment of magic that will stay in the memories of football lovers for a long, long time.

The events after the sending off also put into perspective Arsenal’s performance against Barcelona. Way too many fans lost the plot after that game as the bile and hatred directed towards the manager and some players reached new heights. Can someone tell me why Real didn’t have any leaders on the pitch? Where was the winning mentality? Why did they crumble after going down to ten men? Where was the commanding voice that can supposedly be bought by buying proven players? Barcelona didn’t really threaten the Madrid goal when it was 11-v-11 so why did the red card change the game so much?

Earlier I had mentioned that Arsenal were really unlucky to draw Barca in the Champions League, undoubtedly the best team in the world at the moment. If it had been Bayern, Schalke, or Real, the Gunners would have had a great chance of going through. If you pause and think about it, Arsenal are probably in the top four or five teams in the world right now. Not the best, certainly a lot to improve on, but really far from being a disgraceful shambles as many flippant fans like to believe.

To end on a lighter note, just imagine the Tiny Totts (disdainfully dismantled by Real) taking on Barca. Now that would be a spectacle.