Friday, April 15, 2011

Let’s Play Four

If you are the slightest bit footie-curious, I implore you to check out one of the four Barcelona-Real Madrid matches that will be played over the next three weeks.  The two hated rivals will meet on Saturday in Madrid in the league, then on Wednesday in Valencia in the final of the Copa del Rey (the Spanish domestic cup), and then twice in the Champions League: April 27 in Madrid and then May 3 in Barcelona.  The first two games are on GolTV; the last two will be on Fox Soccer Channel, which will find itself in the comfortable position of having to acknowledge that the two best teams in the world play their football outside of the English Premier League. 

If you want previews, then you’ve come to the right place.  The best of the bunch is this piece by Guillem Balague, who breaks down the form of the teams coming into the four-game series.  He suggests that Jose Mourinho learned his lesson in November when Los Meregues took an epic hiding:

Mourinho learned his lesson at the Camp Nou in the 5-0 defeat when he tried to go toe to toe with Barcelona, attempting to impose their own game on the homes side as if they were visiting any team.

At that time, Madrid were top of the table and after a few short months building a side, felt that they could go out and play their own game against Barcelona. That won't happen again and if that means prioritising stopping Barcelona, focusing on breaking up their opponents game first, that Mourinho will do what needs to be done.

Mourinho has proven in the past that he has the blueprint for frustrating Barcelona and he will have a plan for every game. Barcelona will more or less approach all four games the same way. Will the same plan work for times in a row? Or will the side that mixes things up and springs the odd surprise come out on top?

If Mourinho follows suit, then we will have classic match-up between a pressing, offensive team and a defense, counter-attacking side.  The saying in boxing is that styles make fights; the same is true in soccer.  If you get two counter-attacking teams together, then nothing happens.  (See Manchester United at Marseille in the Champions League if you want a good example, or any one of the Mourinho versus Benitez Liverpool-Chelsea s*** on a stick ties.)  If you get a counter-attacking team against a team that tries to impose itself on the opponent, then you get a back-and-forth treat. 

Then again, one wonders whether Mourinho will show his full hand in the first game this weekend.  Objectively, the league match is the least important of the four.  Barca are eight points ahead of Real and will hold the tie-breaker – head-to-head scoring margin – unless they lose by five or more at the Bernabeu.  (Guardiola’s Barca have never lost a match by more than two goals.)  They can lose the match and still be in a comfortable position heading into the final six games, especially in light of the fact that Barca have played all of the other contenders in La Liga home and away, so their run-in is fairly easy.  Subjectively, the La Liga match is important for psychological reasons.  Sid Lowe ponders:

One of the fascinating thing about this series of games is that question of interdependence, the extent to which every game is conditioned by every other game. Emotionally, physically, tactically. How much does every game affect the next? Will there be trump cards that are held back, ready to be played at certain times, rather than wasted on one match? All the questions that are asked before any clásico are multiplied now. And, at the risk of reading too much into it, at going too far, there are many more. Psychologically, the intrigue, is extraordinary. The strategy is seductive. The mental battle could be mesmerizing, the pressure intense.

How different will each game be? And how different will each game become as a result of the one before -- will plans change as results and expectations do? The question begs to be asked: to what extent is the approach to each game is conditioned by the next? When rotations are employed, that question is always valid: now it becomes more pertinent than ever before. Does Guardiola trust the fact that, on the face of it, his starting XI is stronger? Does Mourinho take comfort in a bigger and better squad? Will he rotate within these games?

The first game looks the least relevant. Is it in fact, the most? The game that sets a tone for the whole series? One Barcelona player recently admitted that he thinks Madrid is under huge mental pressure because it has now lost five consecutive clásicos and was defeated 5-0 in November. How much greater that pressure must be with four in two weeks, and yet how much quicker it offers a chance for redemption. Meanwhile, if Madrid breaks that run in the first game, does it break it for all the rest? To use the Spanish phrase, would that mean the pressure catching the Puente aéreo, the flight that connects Spain's two biggest cities? How easy will the teams find it to assimilate defeats and draws as they prepare for the next match?

Part of what is so exciting about the four-game sequence is that it is a rare occasion in which soccer will be like the NBA Playoffs.  For an analytical standpoint, the best aspect of a NBA playoff series is the chess-match that goes on over a number of games.  Soccer has more of a tactical element than basketball (or maybe I just understand soccer tactics better than basketball tactics), so the back and forth between Guardiola and Mourinho will be fascinating.  With Michael Cox not yet having weighed in, here are my thoughts on the most interesting tactical issues:

1. What has Barca learned from the loss to Inter at the San Siro?  Let’s assume that Mourinho learned that he can’t go toe-to-toe with Barca and is going to play the same, counter-attacking style that he deployed with great success at Inter last year.  Mourinho kept a tight, defensive formation with two defensive midfielders protecting the back four and then he took advantage of Xavi and Iniesta not tracking back defensively.  If Mourinho takes the same approach this time around and asks Meszut Ozil to play the role of Wesley Sneijder, what is Barca’s response?  In the first clasico in November, Ozil was a spectator because Barca completely dominated the midfield battle.  So what happens if Jose concedes the midfield battle from the outset and simply looks to counter?  And when Pep responds, what is Mourinho’s counter to the counter.  I suppose you can see how this would excite me in the same way that Saban versus Meyer in the SEC Championship Game did.

2. Where does Mourinho deploy Cristiano Ronaldo?  Ronaldo can play on either wing.  Although he had been playing for Real on the left, Mourinho deployed Ronaldo on the right side of Real’s attack in the first match in November.  Jose was probably thinking that Ronaldo isn’t known for his defensive ability and he wanted his better-rounded winger – Angel Di Maria – on the left to track Dani Alves.  This move shows Mourinho’s reactive nature, but unlike most of his moves, it backfired because it neutered his best offensive threat.  Real have been playing well in 2011 and the strength of the team has been Ronaldo combining with left back Marcelo on the left.  This deployment is powerful offensively, but suspect defensively. 

Normally, that sort of left side would be suicide against Barca because Dani Alves will run rampant against it, but here’s the rub.  Barca normally get away with Dani Alves playing offensively because they have a mobile center back – either Carles Puyol or, this season, Eric Abidal – to cover.  Puyol in particular has a good history of putting Ronaldo in his back pocket and also getting under Cristiano’s skin.  Now, Puyol has been out since January with a mystery knee condition and Abidal is out recovering from a liver tumor.  (Not your every day item to list on an injury report:  Puyol, knee; Pedro, hamstring; Abidal, liver tumor.)  With Gabi Milito having lost all semblance of form and the youth team prospects – Bartra, Fontas, and Muniesa – not ready for prime time, Barca have been forced to deploy their defensive midfielders as center backs.  Sergio Busquets has revealed himself to be a tad slow for the position, while Javier Mascherano is short.  (Mascherano is also suspended for Saturday.)  Thus, if Mourinho goes with his offensive left side, he should be attacking a vulnerable Barca defense.  Alternatively (or perhaps additionally), he can pin Dani Alves back, a tactical gambit that worked against Ashley Cole in Inter-Chelsea last year and therefore denied Chelsea their source of width.  So, does Jose go for it or does he remain reactive?  And if he does go for it, does he wait for the second match?  Or the third?  Does he run the risk of waiting too long and then deploying his offensive side only after Puyol comes back

3. How much do the teams rotate?  As Lowe noted, Barca have the stronger starting XI and Real have the deeper squad.  Normally, this would favor Barca over a short haul and Real over a lengthy season, but that hasn’t played out.  (I’d argue that Barca’s offensive approach as compared to Real’s conservatism is more important, as Barca has avoided the 0-0s and 1-1s that have killed Real in La Liga.)  That said, four high-intensity matches in 18 days will test the depth of the two teams.  Barca are not going to rotate much.  The question is whether Real will rotate with the hope that by the third and fourth matches – the most important of the quartet – they are fresher and have an advantage.  Mourinho has three options at striker, he has Kaka as an extra option in offensive midfield, he has two defensive midfielders, two left backs, and multiple mix-and-match options at center back.  With the Abidal and Puyol injuries, Guardiola’s options are limited to two left backs and possibly playing Keita in midfield with Iniesta moving into the forward line in place of Pedro.  (One additional note: after looking at Real's and Barca's squad stats, it’s hard to tell a difference in terms of depth.  Both teams have six players who have started at least 35 matches.  In fact, Barca have 15 players who have started at least ten matches while Real have nine.  Do we have a possible myth?)

In the words of Ron Burgundy, let’s do this.  No comment on whether Cristiano Ronaldo would approve of the one ground rule of “no touching of the hair or face.”


Nate said...

If I'm Mourinho, the key might be playing the two players Barcelona didn't confront in their 5-0 thrashing: Adebayor and Kaka.

I start Adebayor up front to talk advantage of the absence of Puyol and Abidal. I've always wondered how such a short team defends themselves in the air on corners and set pieces (Dani Alves, Iniesta, Xavi), and though they had always done so quite well, now they are at a significant disadvantage. (Witness Busquets heading the ball into his own goal against Arsenal.)

I also wonder whether it might make more sense to start Kaka over Ozil as the linking player between Xavi Alonso and the front line. Though he hasn't played much this year, Kaka is a more experienced player and could potentially cope with the congestion in the middle better than Ozil.

Michael said...

I'm not sure about Kaka. I'd want to see more from him before I replace Ozil, who has been excellent for Real so far this year. Maybe the game this Saturday is an audition for Kaka?

I agree with you on Adebayor. He's a bigger striker, so they can play defensively and use him as a route one outlet. Also, he would deter Guardiola from using Mascherano as a center back (Busquets and Pique are tall; Mascherano is not), thus ensuring two slow center backs as targets for Ronaldo and Di Maria's runs.