Hello there, Cules! We are merely 24 hours away from what is arguably the biggest test of the season for our boss Ernesto Valverde. What might have struck your mind now is “Oh really? What about Real Madrid then?”. Guys, more than the quality of the opposition that a team faces, what matters more is how much the team knows about its opposition. Having played Real Madrid for a minimum of 2 times a year, we know what to expect when we go to the Bernabeu. While it is not so with Chelsea as Barcelona as a team, have never handled an Eden Hazard or an N’Golo Kante ever before in a competitive fixture. In football, each individual player has unique qualities that only he can bring to a team and irrespective of how good it is in quality, it is a surprise element to someone who hasn’t faced it before.
If we being Barcelona need to be wary of Hazard, Kante and a few others, then it goes without saying what Chelsea need to be prepared for as they have a fresh bunch of players who have never faced the likes of Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta & Sergio Busquets before. Moving on to the tactical aspects, there are a few things which could make or break the team’s fate and it’s absolutely important for both the tacticians to get these calls right. Let’s have a brief look at what I think could be decisive:
- Chelsea 3-4-3 or 3-5-2?
Antonio Conte has been underfire in recent times and there’s no margin for error as far as this call is concerned. One may wonder as to how much difference could an extra midfielder or an extra man up-top make but it really does. We play a 4-4-2 diamond with the likes of Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta & Paulinho/ Gomes.
This means that going for a 3-4-3 might be risky as having just 2 central midfielders against 4 of ours will either allow us a lot of space centrally or pin their forwards Pedro & Hazard deep into their own half to make the shape more of a 5-4-1. It won’t really help Chelsea’s cause as counter-attacking would become a tougher challenge with Morata/ Giroud isolated up front.
On the other hand, the 3-5-2 is likely to give Chelsea more defensive solidity and compactness in the middle with 3 central midfielders in front of the centre-backs. It would prevent us from playing through the middle and force us go wider and attacking from wide could be a challenge against a team which has 3 centre-backs.
- Barcelona’s 4th choice midfielder:
It has been a while since we have settled down with our winning combination. The 4-2-2-2 was a difficult system for the players to comprehend in the initial stages of the season but now the roles, responsibilities and duties are clear as crystal. However in recent times, there seems to be a slight dip in form as far as the middle-muddle is concerned. Paulinho who was in top form until December, seems to struggle in the last couple of weeks. Another major reason for this could also be the fatigue caused by the continuous run of games in the month of January like Espanyol (twice), Real Betis, Real Sociedad & Valencia- all of these games being away from home.
So a little bit of freshness could be all that Paulinho needs to get back to top condition physically & mentally. This leaves Valverde with 2 other options in Andre Gomes & Aleix Vidal. Personally, I am not convinced with either of them and I would rather go for Dembele himself as Valverde has admitted that our 100-million Frenchman is as fit as the other players. If it would be a risk to his fitness, then I would go with Gomes as he offers physicality and workrate while Vidal wouldn’t offer much going forward nor tracking back. So my verdict is Dembele or Gomes (depending on fitness)
- Possession/ Control over the game:
Under Valverde, we have not been the possession based, ball-obsessed tiki-taka team anymore. Yes, possession still is the preferred option but when the situation demands us to sit back, we don’t shy away from sitting back and allowing the opponent to have the ball. In numerous games this season, we have had ball possession of less than 50% (especially away from home). Yet, it didn’t mean that we were losing the game badly but we were really effective in scoring against the run of play and sitting back. The games against Eibar, Real Sociedad, Real Betis are all classic examples for this but we need to remember that we may not succeed in turning the tables every game.
Moreover, against a quality opposition it is going to be all the more difficult for us to let them have the ball and not concede. As teams of this quality tend to up their game, confidence and comfort on the ball if given possession. In my opinion, we need to step up to the challenge and take control of the game by dominating the midfield and not letting Chelsea have much of the ball.
Assuming they will be playing a 3-5-2, this can be possible by outnumbering Chelsea in midfield as they would have 3 central midfielders against 4 of our central midfielders. This means that we already have an extra man in Busquets, who probably will be marked by one of Hazard or Morata/ Giroud. So if Messi can drop a bit deeper into midfield or the half spaces available, it would force Chelsea to deploy another man in midfield which needs to be either the striker or one of the centre-backs. If Chelsea drop further deeper by adding Morata/ Giroud into midfield then we have pinned them back deep into their own half and we can enjoy possession. If one of the centre-backs follow Messi along with his movement, then our full backs or Suarez can try making a run in behind to exploit the gap.
- Defending against Chelsea’s 3-5-2
It is also important that defensively we are sorted in terms of who takes care of who. In my opinion, we need to ensure Iniesta is not overworked defensively as with age, his physical abilities are limited and he might be worn out by the second half. Hence, when we are off the ball we need to consider Chelsea wingbacks Moses & Alonso as wingers. They need to be taken care of directly by our full backs Alba & Roberto respectively while Morata/ Giroud will handled by our centre-backs Pique & Umtiti. So that makes it 4v3 at the back for us, now lets look at midfield.
We can consider Hazard to be part of the midfield than as a forward as he doesn’t really have a fixed position. He mostly floats around the Chelsea attacking third and occupies those areas where he finds spaces. So man-marking him wouldn’t be a wise option as we might be pulled out of shape due to his movement. A better option could be to have a compact line of four midfielders (Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta & Gomes/ Paulinho/ Dembele).
The most important thing to remember here is that our 4 midfielders would form a straight line to contain Fabregas, Hazard & Drinkwater. This leaves Kante as a free midfielder and it wouldn’t be too smart on our part to give him space and time in the heart of midfield. So we would definitely require Messi/ Suarez to drop back and cut him off as an attacking option. Only problem here is that, it would leave the 3 centre-backs time and space on the ball but considering their ability on the ball, only Azpilicueta is a possible attacking threat. Hence, Messi-Suarez need to be positioned in such a way that they can minimise time & space for Azpilicueta & Kante. It shouldn’t be much of a problem even if Rudiger/ Cahill or Christensen is given time on the ball as we would be covering the spaces properly. It is not very often that we do this but on an occasion as big as this, it is an absolute necessity that we are tactically aware of what we need to do.
- Keeping in mind there are two legs:
We go into this game in good form, shape and confidence. Despite that, knockout ties are games in which that particular night is all that matters. Any team can beat any opponent irrespective of quality if luck favours the brave. So we need to be grounded and remember that this game’s result doesn’t decide the entire tie. A worst case scenario of a loss in today’s game should also not affect us mentally and lead us into trauma. We need to be calm, composed and remember that there’s a game in Camp Nou, a place which teams hate to visit.
So let’s say we concede the goal first and we are 1-0 down, we shouldn’t make the mistake of committing too many players forward and conceding the 2nd, 3rd and make it impossible for us to comeback in the 2nd leg. The approach needs to be such that we need to consider the full-time whistle of the 1st leg as the half-time whistle of the entire tie. Even if the result looks unfavourable to us around 80 minutes, we should stick to our basics and keep our cool to ensure we go into the 2nd leg in an easier situation to turn it around.