A number of fixtures from the round of 16 stood out, but the most attractive one without doubt had to be the one between Manchester City and Barcelona. These 2 are probably the 2 best teams in their respective countries, and are both relatively free scoring sides. The presence of so many of the world’s best players only added to the glitter of the occasion.
Manchester City 0-2 Barcelona
Manchester City: Hart; Zabaleta; Kompany; Demichellis; Clichy; J. Navas; Y. Toure; Fernandinho; Kolarov; Silva; Negredo.
Barcelona: Valdes; D. Alves; Mascherano; Pique; J. Alba; Sergio B.; Xavi; Iniesta; Cesc; Messi; Alexis.
Goals: Messi (pen. 54′), Alves (90′)
Barcelona building up through the lines
Conventional wisdom will have you know that Barcelona are a side that stick to short passes, and are the very antithesis of direct football and long ball merchants. While this is largely true, it is part myth, especially in the new look Barcelona that Tata Martino fields. In the game against City tonight, the team wasn’t afraid of playing long passes when needed, and indeed consciously used a few in order to break down the stern City defence. The pattern of build up play was a familiar one. With space between the lines coming at a premium, it was up to Barcelona to use the width of the pitch to stretch the defence. Also, they couldn’t really achieve this playing aerial balls to their wide men due to the fact that these wide players are at quite a disadvantage, especially compared to someone like Kolarov. Therefore, the strategy was to get the ball through their lines quickly and with slick team-work to gain opportunities to play balls along the ground to the wide players.
The Barcelona team basically set up in 4 lines while in possession of the ball. The first line was formed by the 2 centre backs, and the midfielder that chose to drop deep in order to pick up the ball from them. Then came 2 in the middle to receive the first pass out. These 2 were supplemented by wide players who hung in the same horizontal line to provide options and width as cover against pressing. Once the ball was with the second line, the third line saw one of the forwards dropping off. Messi did this quite often, and Iniesta was seen doing it at times too. This third line looked to play the killer ball, either to wide men in case the runner(s) in front dragged markers inside, or to the runner(s) in front. The third line often received assistance from players in the second line who got forward a little.
The transitions between each line were affected by 2 passes, a vertical one from the previous line, followed by a horizontal one to the helping player in the current line. If a vertical pass wasn’t on, the passer from the preceding line simply retained possession by playing a horizontal ball. If the lay-off ball to effect the turn wasn’t possible, assistance from deeper lines arrived, or a simple vertical pass back was used.
Such an organisational structure to their build up allowed them to support each other, and retain the initiative for a large majority of the game. 68% possession at a 92% success rate is indicative of how dominant the Catalans were, and how fully they controlled the game.
Dominating the midfield
In order to play their passing game so effectively, it is very important for Barcelona to gain control of the middle of the park. Ever since the days of Cruyff, overloading this area of the pitch has been something that managers have tried to achieve, and still try to achieve. Barcelona were doing so with ease tonight, with the likes of Messi supporting the 2 bodies that were constantly patrolling this area. The average positions show that the 2 players who were assigned the job of controlling this part of the field were Xavi and Cesc, and the fact that these 2 had more touched that anyone else on the field (144 and 123) probably doesn’t come as a surprise.
Why was this so important? With City willing to have people deeper and in numbers, the key for Barcelona was to exploit the dimensions of the pitch. By placing possibly their 2 best passers right in the middle as an axis, they allowed themselves the chance to pass the ball around and pull City out of shape. This duo was another important part of the control the Catalans managed to exert on the game.
After forcing the Citizens deep with their passing and movement, Barcelona were faced with a line of defensive players, and a deep backline was posing problems. Again, the central axis and midfield dominance proved vital. This time, a reduction of numbers was effected to create a balance further up the pitch, where City had greater number of players. The Barcelona players began making runs from deeper areas of the pitch into the box to try and get on the end of passes. Xavi especially did this quite often.
Recoveries in the opposition half
A large part of City’s downfall was how poor they were while building up their counter attacks. Barcelona found it incredibly easy to win back the ball, with City themselves making unforced errors on several occasions. This led to the opening goal and numerous other chances for the away side. The counter-counter attack from Barcelona worked very well.
Once City won the ball back, they threw men forward in an attempt to attack Barcelona. But the Catalans held firm by crowding the midfield and winning the ball back early. Pressure was also applied to the man on the ball when he got into the zone outside the defensive third. This was a useful ploy, rather than the all out aggressive pressing from the off because City players got forward, and this created space at the back for Barcelona to exploit.
City’s attack isolated Negredo
Now it was clear from the start that City set up to first put and end to Barca’s attack before starting their own. Any Barca opposition is left exhausted by simply attempting to defend against Barca but the English side managed to keep the Catalans at bay for much of the game. Barca were finding it hard to get past the strong City set-up, until ofcourse the Demichelis tackle which chanegd the game.
But the effort put in by the City defense and midfield was left wasted as they failed to successfully connect the recovered position into a meaningful attack. For much of the game, Negredo was left isolated. The entire City attack behind him was deployed to defend first and attack second, it meant that the attacking players who were meant to combine with Negredo couldn’t conjure up enough meaningful chances; the attack lacked support.
The home side did improve their game as the match wore on and there were more numbers in attack but it was primarily restricted to attempted crosses, crosses which Negredo wasn’t able to make the most of. A decent attacking approach given Barca’s aerial frailty in defence, but rather one dimensional as any attack along the floor just didn’t click.
Defending from the front, but lack of pressing
The first few minutes of the game was a typical Barcelona performance, with City pegged back and the Spanish side fluidly passing the ball around completely dominating possession. It took a while for the City players to overcome this initial part of the game, before contributing to any form of attack.
Pellegrini’s men attempted to peg back the opposition by advancing forward and forcing the ball to remain for longer periods in Barca’s defensive half. While this did work in preventing Barca’s short-football play, forcing them into longer balls (as discussed above), it lacked that extra bit of effectiveness as the City players weren’t seen pressing enough. They advanced, but didn’t press.
Now this was possible any effort from Pellegrini to simply reduce the short-passing game, and that did work well, but it may have been more effective both possession-wise and in an attacking sense to press harder and force Barcelona’s players into errors in their own half rather than showing them that much respect.
Demichelis incident lost City the game (and the tie), but the attack was rejuvenated briefly
Many were fearful about the inclusion of Martin Demichelis in City’s side, tasked with nullifying the effect of fellow Argentine, one Lionel Messi. But the former Malaga man did a pretty fantastic job of holding his own as Messi wasn’t able to have the effect he would have liked in the first half.
City made their defense more compact and didn’t allow the short gaps that Barcelona look to play through, right in the heart of defence. Demichelis was instrumental in ensuring this defensive approach was maintained, along with his defensive partner, Vincent Kompany.
But that tackle early in the second half changed the game, and ultimately looks to have lost the tie for Man City. Debatable whether it was indeed inside the box, but the red card was in no doubt. Up until then City seemed to have had enough to get something from the game, going into the second leg.
What impressed viewers most was the way City pushed on, despite the sending off and despite going a goal down. They realised that even at 0-1, getting a goal back could prove to be important in the second leg. Nasri was brought on purely to complement Negredo in attack as Pellegrini identified the lack of connection between the striker and the players behind him (as explained above).
Nasri didn’t have defensive duties, he was present to run at the Barca defence, pick up any second balls and close down the opposition in their own half. Just having that extra man over in attack, alongwith the striker, proved to be vital. One can only presume that had City had more men in attack, they could have had the first goal in the first half during their periods of attack.
The attacking approach even helped in preventing Barca’s own attack as Martino’s men became more defensive, realising the strength of City’s attack and the fact that a 0-1 is a good result to take home. It naturally made them more cautious.
Where does this leave them?
Manchester City and their fans can be proud of their side’s efforts. The Champions League is a two-legged tie but the management has probably hinted to the players that their season goals lie in the other three competitions. They can be buoyed by their performance and use it to their advantage for the rest of the season. At the same time, they have nothing to lose at the Nou Camp, so don’t write off a comeback just yet.
For Barcelona, it was the perfect game. Coming up against a top side in another division, in their own home ground and coming away with a two-goal advantage, two away goals and a clean sheet to add is a near perfect scenario. They weren’t necessarily their dominating self, but they were disciplined and organised, vital for the Champions League. They can be confident for the tie, it’s in their own hands. A treble is still very much on the cards for Martino in his first season.
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