Hello there guys, I am sure there would be a lot of you who were shocked after watching the Chelsea game a few days back as the expectations were much higher than what we saw at the Stamford Bridge. Firstly, I would like to say we weren’t horrible given that we had to travel to Basque Country (Eibar) only 3 days before the Chelsea game. The game we had against Eibar wasn’t one as well and we had to work really hard to get the 3 points there and then travel to London within a short span of time.
Another factor we need to consider is that we fielded exactly the same XI as we did against Eibar, which means none of the players who started against Chelsea were well rested. So we ought to remember that fatigue, travel and facing a very competitive opponent in their own turf is not as easy as it sounds. Given all these factors, I would definitely be proud of the show put on by our boys at the Bridge and 1-1 may not look good enough only because of the expectations all of us had before the game. A majority of the Cules and even Chelsea fans expected Barca to thump Chelsea out of the tie in the 1st leg itself. Clearly, we were never close to doing that and there are several reasons why:
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte fielded a 3-4-3 and sprung a surprise to everyone including a majority of the Chelsea fans themselves. It was largely expected that one of Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud would start up front to help them bully us in the air on the counter-attack, set-pieces, etc. But Conte went for pace over strength in an attempt to stretch our back four by releasing his wingers into wide areas which might be left open by our full backs Serbi Roberto & Jordi Alba. This was the crux behind the idea to go with 2 out and out wingers and their talisman Eden Hazard through the centre.
While in our case, Ernesto Valverde had no changes from the XI that earned the 3 points in a hard fought win against Eibar. It was the traditional 4-4-2 with Paulinho in the right half-space and all others in their usual positions. I think this was a lineup fielded with an assumption that Chelsea were going to go for a 3-5-2 as it would have been advantageous for us with a 4v3 in midfield in our favour and one winger less could have also taken out pace from their counter attack. We’ll understand more of this when we see how the 3-4-3 created trouble for us.
There is absolutely no doubt that we dominated the proceedings for the first 20 minutes atleast and Chelsea were sceptical about stepping forward when the opportunity arose. We looked comfortable on the ball and it was more of trying to break down Chelsea’s defensive organisation or pull them out of shape to create gaps we can exploit. Again by using the word dominate, I don’t mean to say we were creating numerous 1v1 situations, ripping apart the Chelsea defence by any means. It is always difficult to break down a team that has all 10 outfield players behind the ball and we were trying our best to do it as we started looking more and more commanding.
As you can see in the picture above, Chelsea had a flat 5-4-1 defensive shape which was created by their wingers Willian & Pedro tracking back to mark our wide midfielders Iniesta & Paulinho respectively. So they made it 4v4 in midfield with Cesc, Kante, Pedro & Willian vs Rakitic, Busquets, Paulinho & Iniesta. This may have been a problem for Chelsea had they gone with 3-5-2 as they would had only 3 central midfielders and it would have forced one of the front two to come back and defend in the middle.
So it helped Chelsea be more compact and see off our penetration in the initial stages. We did well considering we were up against a well-drilled 5-4-1. Lionel Messi dropped deeper occasionally to overload the midfield and it partly worked in our favour as the Blues were unable to dispossess him and that led to a couple of good attacking stints. One of them were when Messi beautifully teed the ball up to Paulinho for a comfortable header but the Brazilian wasted it heading it wide. It was probably a bit of both panic and incorrect body posture that didn’t allow him to keep it on target.
Team shape without the ball:
As far as our performance without the ball is concerned, I felt we didn’t adapt to the opponent’s shape, numbers and movement. Valverde has always opted to go with the flat 4-4-2 shape without the ball with Rakitic, Busquets staying in the middle, Iniesta taking care of defending wide left and Paulinho wide right. The priority was to keep Chelsea off from playing through the middle and force them to go wide. This wasn’t just against Chelsea but this is what we have done all through the season and this game was no different.
We tried to block off Chelsea’s midfield two of Fabregas & Kante to build-up play and this forced the Blues to use long balls to play Willian/ Pedro or Hazard directly. This is indeed an effective tactic if we have the ability to defend well in the wide areas as we can force the opponents wide and win the ball back. However, we had a problem here in the form of Iniesta & Paulinho not being very comfortable defending out wide against the likes of Willian, Pedro, Moses & Alonso. There were one too many times both of their decision making put us under pressure and it became advantageous for Chelsea as they were anyway aiming to stretch us and attack us from wide areas.
Lets take a look at an example from the initial stages of the game:
The picture above was moments before the first corner we conceded to Chelsea. Rudiger realises that we have closed down Cesc & Kante in the middle, so he goes for the longer option which was Moses on the far side touchline. Here as you can see, Alba is marking Willian who was Chelsea’s right winger while Moses is hugging the touchline. Here Iniesta needs to help out Alba by marking one of Willian or Moses once the pass has been made as Iniesta is defending wide left in the midfield four for us. But here is what happens:
As you can see in the picture, Alba goes to Moses once the switch of play was made to this flank. But Iniesta doesn’t track Willian who received the ball from Moses a few seconds later. However, Umtiti stepped out and closed down Willian to see off the danger and it resulted in a corner. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to say Iniesta was the sole reason why our defending was chaotic but his age, declining physical abilities and willingness to defend need to be considered before demanding a higher work-rate from him.
Post trembles twice:
The counter-attacks from Chelsea started to look more threatening after the first 25 minutes with the likes of Willian, Hazard & Pedro running into the gaps to stretch our back four. There were 3 clear-cut situations that put us into danger between the 25th minute till the end of the first half. The first incident wasn’t as dangerous as the other two but it led to Rakitic getting booked as he had to stop Willian’s run. This in turn affected for the rest of the game as Rakitic could no longer stop counter-attacks high up the pitch with tactical fouls as it would mean a 2nd booking for him. So we had to pull Rakitic back in between the centre-backs and push Busquets higher up the pitch.
Let’s have a detailed look at the first time Willian hit the post and how it happened:
In my opinion, Paulinho should have handled the situation differently and he should gone further down the right to stretch the Blues. That would also mean that he’s going to an area where there are lesser Chelsea players and he probably would have been 1v1 with Alonso. He instead decides to go in-field and reduces the width of the counter attack.
Paulinho going towards Hazard makes it 3v1 which is not only an extra player wasted as he marks someone who is already double marked but the Brazilian also leaves a huge gap which Willian occupies after Hazard cuts it back.
Willian beats Busquets 1v1 and he realises there’s a huge gap through the centre. What surprised me here is the reaction of Iniesta (circled yellow) as he stands still without trying to close down the space available for a shot. Willian releases the shot to rattle the post and it could have been 1-0 in case he was an inch or two more precise.
The second shot at the post was owing to a horrible no-look clearance from Roberto to put the ball which was heading to the corner back into the centre without even being aware of who would gain control of possession.
Chelsea ended the first half on a high but the second half started on a different note. We made a small tweak to our midfield by pushing Rakitic and Busquets up front into the attacking half. However it was Busquets who was in charge of stopping the counter-attacks, pressing the Chelsea players before breaking through and winning the ball back. As mentioned earlier, it was to avoid Rakitic to be in situations where he needs to make tackles to stop the counter-attacks. What it did was to allow Busquets to not only stop counters higher up the pitch but also take a step forward and add verticality to our attack and here is a piece of stat that shows it:
Busquets passing in numbers:
|First half||Second half|
|Forward Passes %||53%||68%|
The control we had over the game didn’t last long enough as yet again we failed to contain a counter-attack. Had we done better to stop Chelsea from the counter-attack then we might not have conceded the corner from which Willian scored. Lets look at what exactly happened in the build-up to the corner:
As you can see in the picture above, we controlled Chelsea from creating a clear-cut chance on the counter. All of our players ensured they were with their assigned man:
Pique with Hazard, Roberto with Pedro (on the ball), Paulinho with Alonso, Busquets with Kante, Alba with Moses and Rakitic with Willian (not in the picture above).
We were pretty organised with our man marking except for one man and that was Iniesta. In the picture above, Pique closed down Hazard, Paulinho cutoff the pass to Alonso, Alba with Moses, Busquets was just next to Pedro (as Kante had gone back into midfield). Now Iniesta (circled red) is just at the edge of the box but he looked quite unsure of his defensive duty there.
The corner could have been defended well, there’s no doubt about that. But as you may have seen in this article, there were moments which demanded more willingness to defend from our wide midfielders Iniesta & Paulinho. In all honesty, I don’t think the two of them did enough as far as defending duties were concerned but the reasons for that could be aplenty.
While in the case of Paulinho, he has played 73 games since his last long break as Chinese Super League started in March 2017 and hence he played 4 months in China before he made his move to Barcelona. He also started the game against Eibar away from home just a few days before the Chelsea game and that was quite a hard-fought game. In the case of Iniesta, the maestro is ageing, physical abilities would obviously go down hill from now. Even Iniesta played the game against Eibar and hence, the mental & physical fatigue could also be reasons for the lapse in concentration and willingness to defend.
Yes it wasn’t a very typical Barcelona goal that we scored and it was simply utilising the mistake of the opposition that got u the away goal. But one thing many may have not noticed is that the error was forced by our pressing and covering all the Chelsea players nearby to cut off passing options for Christensen. Here due credit needs to go to substitute Aleix Vidal, who was actually the one who pressed Christensen into passing it across the face of his own goal. Vidal added a bit of energy to the right as Paulinho was only fading away over time and who knows if Paulinho would have even pressed Christensen the same way to force the error.
We have seen in detail as to what the issue was in the game against Chelsea. Now we have more than a couple of weeks time before we face them again at the Camp Nou and I do believe that’s enough time to find out a solid solution to this problem. I think there’s a way in which we can deal with the Chelsea front-three from breaking away like they did in the 1st leg especially given that they cannot sit back completely as they need to score to have a chance to go through. As far as the tactical solution is concerned, I’ll get back to you guys with the same very soon….
Visca el Barca ❤