The biggest game of our season thus far, is finally here! We are going to be having guests from London and this time it’s a bunch that we are quite familiar to. Its Barcelona vs Chelsea, one of the most controversial rivalries in the history of football and only one of us are going to make it to the next stage in the UEFA Champions League. We have made it to the quarter-finals for 10 consecutive years now and the chance to make it 11 is on the line now.
As you all would already be knowing, we have been in excellent form throughout the season suffering just 1 defeat in all competitions, even which was a second-string lineup against Espanyol away from home. Apart from that, we have had a couple of draws in the league against Getafe & Las Palmas. It was understandable that we suffered a slight blip in form given the run of tough fixtures we had in the month of January & February. Real Betis, Real Sociedad, Espanyol, Valencia, Las Palmas & Chelsea – we faced all of these teams away from home in all competitions. It is no joke to be able to visit such tough places and come back without being defeated even once, thus due credit to Valverde and his men for the achievement. We have almost put the La Liga title race to bed with the 1-0 win over Atletico and its only a matter of time before we are confirmed as champions (except a huge turnaround with us losing 3-4 games and Atletico winning all of theirs). So we are in pole position to go all guns blazing for the Champions League with the league tension cut reducing my multi-fold.
The Blues have had a tough topsy-turvy ride thus far since the new year 2018. Antonio Conte has found it difficult to motivate his men enough to be able to pull out the desired results, especially away from home. In 2018, Chelsea have won only one away game in all competitions (0-4 vs Brighton). Arsenal, Man Utd, Man City, Watford are the teams which defeated Chelsea when the Blues were the visiting side. Having said these, a knockout tie doesn’t depend on form, quality, favourites, underdogs and so many other cliched factors. It is more about picking the moment, good fortune, not breaking down under pressure owing to immense mental strength. It was because we didn’t break down under pressure, took our chances and gambled that we got our equaliser in the 1st leg at Stamford Bridge. So it is all about that one night that will decide the winners.
There are two scenarios in order to decide the 11 players who’d feature for us and we all know what the two are:
a) Iniesta starts
b) Iniesta does not start
Let’s look at the first scenario, Iniesta starts. If Don Andres does end up pulling a rabbit out of the hat and appears in the starting XI, I would go for the following 11 players:
I think its high time we start Ousmane Dembele in a real big test. He already had one against Juventus in the group stage where we won 3-0 at home. To be honest, it was his first ever start and the French prodigy didn’t turn the game around its head. He was in a stage where he was getting to know his teammates, getting warmed up with the system and taking his time. Even in such an early stage, he pulled off a decent start where he didn’t make any errors, kept the ball moving, preferred to keep things simple and did justice for the team.
In recent games, Dembele seems to be evolving and settling down well with his teammates. It looks like he has put the injury behind his head and the 100 million kid is oozing with confidence when he is on the ball, he is able to take players on 1v1 and be a constant threat down the right flank. What it would do is to keep the Chelsea back-line pinned into their own half and that’s exactly what would give us control in the early stages.
Chelsea also have Marcos Alonso, who would look to push higher up the pitch in order to support the attackers on the counter. Hence the addition of Dembele could create situations wherein Alonso could hesitate to go too high up the pitch owing to the Frenchman’s presence. Despite the big game pressure, Dembele’s output level would be way higher than Paulinho, who failed to cope up with the expectations in the 1st leg. As I had pointed out in my previous analysis, Paulinho created one too many problems for us that led to errors both on the attack & defence. (Link below). So I would definitely go for Dembele to start this one on the right with Iniesta slotting in the left half-space and no surprises among the remaining players.
Lets move on to the complicated one, the second scenario
b) If Iniesta does not start, this is going to be my suggestion, although it could raise a few eyebrows on seeing this:
Yes as surprising as it looks, if Iniesta doesn’t start I would go for a back-three with Pique, Umtiti & Vermaelen. There are logical reasons which seem convincing enough for me to say this and I’d list them down one by one:
1) When we try to control the game, dictate the pace of it using our midfield and focus on possession without Iniesta, it has always backfired. The reason behind this is simple, to be able to control the game from the middle of the pitch we need the right players. If you have a gun, you can shoot. If you have a dagger, you stab. There’s no point in trying to stab with a pistol or shoot with a dagger because you are using the weapon in the wrong way. This is exactly what happens if you have a Paulinho, Gomes, Vidal, Paco or anyone in Iniesta’s position and try to play possession football. So it’s better we alter the way we play on a basic level and try to become more vertical & direct while going forward
2) If we can accept that we need to alter our system a bit, then we need to replace Iniesta with someone who has enough quality to do so. If we don’t have the ability to match Don Andres’ quality in the centre, we need to able to do it elsewhere on the pitch. Basic logic is that we will rather give up on one area of the pitch and maintain the quality elsewhere rather than replacing Iniesta with someone of lower quality.
End of the day, its all about the output produced by the team and how efficient they are as a unit. If we try to stick to our principles, system & philosophy and try to force Paulinho to play like Iniesta, it isn’t going to reap any rewards. In case of a back-three, you would have one too many advantages which I’d point out below:
This is what Chelsea are likely to do in case we go for a back-four, utilise the gaps between the centre-back and the full-back with the likes of Willian & Eden Hazard. Similar situations came up in the first leg with Hazard’s movement from the centre to wider areas and trying to stretch Pique & Umtiti. So we can expect a similar tactic from the Blues today. Without Iniesta, the attacking workload will be over dependent on Messi, Rakitic & the full-backs, so it is more likely that they would be trying to do pretty much the same. We faced a lot of problems from Willian’s dribbling, which came from deep into their own half as he was able to beat Iniesta, Busquets, Rakitic at will owing to his pace. This can also be taken care of in case we have a solid back-three.
As you can see, it can provide more freedom to Busquets who could combine with Rakitic and offer more to us on the attack. It also helps to stretch our back line further more in order to cut off spaces for the Chelsea wingers to run onto. What happens now is it leaves Chelsea with an option to play the ball over the top of our defence than the wider areas. Playing an accurate ball over the top of defence with minimum time given by our pressing and a sweeper-keeper in Ter Stegen would be a much more challenging task than going wide against two centre-backs. It could prove to be a gamble but if it pays off then we would be in for a comfortable outing without having to worry of Paulinho/ Gomes’ antics.
However if Iniesta is fit, then we may as well stick to our traditional 4-4-2 which has worked wonders for us this season. This is an alternative only in the case we don’t have Don Andres available. Today is more about game management, smaller details, tactical tweaks than about quality, form, favourites to win and so on. Hopefully we are able to oust the Londoners and come out on top with the Camp Nou behind us as the 12th man.
Visca el Barca ❤