The Super Copa is alway an in-between kind of tie. It’s a trophy – but it’s also pre-season. It matches the two winners – La Liga vs. Copa Del Rey – but neither side is playing in the form or fitness that saw it through to the original victory that placed in the the Super Copa to begin with. When you’re playing your arch rival then the tie becomes even more important and convoluted.
Given that the season is yet to start, it’s difficult to accurately project which players Barça and Madrid will utilize or how they will be deployed. As such, a full blown tactical preview would be limited due to speculation. However, here are a few questions to keep in mind:
How will fitness impact the way both teams defend?
Barça’s is often equated with ball possession. However, vigorous pressing to regain the ball high up the pitch as quickly as possible when lost is as critical to the system. Ball possession and pressing act in equilibrium and it’s difficult to have one without the other.
Perhaps the biggest question headed into this match is whether Barça will have the team fitness needed to engage in it’s pressing game for the full 90 minutes. My general sense is that this seems very unlikely. If Barça cannot press actively due to limited fitness their high back line will be at great threat for being exposed.
Look for Madrid to seek to increase the intensity of their own attack at the end of the first half and towards the latter portions of the second half to expose issues of fatigue amongst the blaugrana.
Conversely, Madrid has it’s own challenge in defending. If Barça retain the ball for 65-70% of the time Madrid will be forced to chase for long periods of time. This could put significant stress on their legs. Early in the season that could be a particularly difficult hurdle to overcome. Look for Barca to try to “work the legs” of Madrid. And look for Mourinho to prioritize maintaining shape in defense to promote efficiency and to utilize the depth on his bench.
Barça’s Forward Line – Will there be Enough Depth?
This question follows from the first. Barça’s defense starts with their most advanced attackers. The ball needs to be won back when lost as high up the pitch as possible. This puts tremendous pressure on Barça’s forward line to hunt the ball.
However, with Afellay’s injury, the team only has four available forwards. And of those four, Sanchez has not played a game with his new teammates and will not be integrated into how the team defends or attacks as a system. Messi hasn’t played in a pre-season game with Barça either (and playing for the Argentinian NT is not adequate game preparation for playing with Barca – as the Copa America demonstrated). At the same time Villa has had difficulties with fatigue. It will be a challenge for both of them to play effectively over ninety minutes – and Sanchez is the only natural forward available to substitute for both of them.
How will Madrid Defend Between the Lines?
Last season one of Mourinho’s major tactical adjustments after the manita was to implement three holding midfielders to suffocate space between the lines. Ramos appears healthy so he very well could play at CB with Pepe once again moving to the holding position. The problem that arose last season is that once Pepe moved to DM, Madrid’s distribution, ball circulation and ability to retain possession were hurt.
A trophy is at stake here but it’s also a preparation for the competitions that will count. If I were Mourinho, I would play Fabio Coentrao at DM today to see if his athleticism and experience defending coupled with his comfort on the ball can provide an alternative to a Trivote formation of Pepe, Alonso and Khedira. Coentrao seems to be headed for a role as a super-utility player. Against Barça his skill set would be interesting to deploy at DM.
Alternatively, it would be very interesting to see if Mourinho utilizes the pre-season nature of this tie to experiment with different formations in midfield besides the trivote (though Nuri Sahin’s absence may preclude that).
Can Barça Score Early?
While it’s pre-season for both teams, Madrid is further ahead in it’s preparations than Barça is for various reasons. Because of this and because of Barça’s dependence on pressing Madrid will likely be very dangerous on the counter in the latter parts of the game.
If Barça is to win they will greatly benefit from scoring first and doing so early. Given the issues of Barça’s forward line, their form may particularly suffer in latter parts of the match – and in the Barça system it’s really up to the forwards to carry the responsibility of scoring.
Playing with the lead is what’s really going to allow Barcelona to work the legs of the Madrid’s defense by forcing them to chase. If they are not behind, Madrid will be able to prioritize shape and conserve energy while waiting to break on the counter at speed.
How will Thiago Run the Show?
Xavi is fundamental to every match Barça plays. But against Madrid his importance heightens. Over and over under Guardiola, we’ve seen Xavi play extended minutes even in games where Barça is comfortably ahead. And the reason why that has been is that in many ways Xavi is Barça’s best “defender.” His ability to retain possession and dictate play simply do not provide the opposition with the chance to keep the ball. And it is axiomatic to Barça’s play that if the opposition does not have the ball they cannot score.
However, Xavi is now 31 and has had problems with his legs both last season and this preseason. Nothing serious – but injuries that are likely the result of him playing so many minutes back to the summer of 2008 when the las Euors were held.
It seems unlikely that Xavi will play all 90 minutes today. As such, the responsibility of controlling play – and defending with the ball – will likely fall to Thiago. Given the team’s lack of fitness and the associated limitations in their ability to press, retaining the ball will be even more critical than usual against Madrid.
Later on in the season, it will likely be Fabregas who will orchestrate play for Xavi, particularly in important matches. But today will provide Thiago with an opportunity to gain critical match experience against Barça’s biggest rivals. How he does will likely have a major impact on the results.
On the whole, I’m expecting to see a Barça team that will be highly motivated to win this match. But it will be one that is going to be significantly off form. The team started training a week later than other clubs. The CL victory extended their season last year significantly. Barça had many key players in the Copa America and Guardiola insisted that they take extended vacation time. Given the intricacy of the Barça system, playing for the national team is simply not adequate game preparation for starting the season with the club. In addition, they only added two new players through transfers and one is still not with the club.
The point I’m trying to make here – don’t expect to see Barça executing the way it usually does. It simply isn’t feasible for the players to do so. Madrid won’t be either – and they are also missing key players (Nuri Sahin in particular). But they are likely in better form than Barça is right now.
Ultimately what this Super Copa will likely come down to is how each’s sides current form and fitness interact with the system of play they utilize. Tactically speaking, the team that implements the system that is best adapted to their respective, current pre-season limitations will likely add silver to their trophy cabinets.
All that said – none of these reasons are sufficient causes for excuse. As Guardiola said this week – the team that wins is the better team. And Barça’s goal is always to be the best team out on the pitch.
The official line up is out now and there are some significant issues Barcelona is going to be faced with:
This line up first suggests that Pep is prioritizing rest for players that are not fully fit. And it introduces a problem of enormous magnitude for Barcelona in this game, one that may prove critical to the success of their upcoming season:
How Will Barcelona Control Deep Midfield?
In last year’s Champions League semi-final the the major tactical change Guardiola made in response to the way Madrid played in the Copa Del Rey finals was to shift the axis of Barcelona’s play to deep midfield. Because Madrid has clotted space between the lines, Guardiola had the full backs not go as forward as they usually do. They played along the midfield line and provided outlets for the ball. In essence, what Guardiola did was to create numerical superiority in the deep midfield in response to Madrid’s enhancement in numbers between the lines. This numerical superiority allowed Barcelona to retain possession much more easily – but deeper on the pitch.
However, in doing this, Guardiola essentially put the team in Busquet’s hands. It was Busquets who became the key orchestrator of play from his deeper position – even more than Xavi. Busquets completed more passes in the CL semis than Xavi did.
Now in this match today – Barcelona will not only not have Busquets to orchestrate play from deep midfield. They also will not have Mascherano – who is going to be playing at CB. This will potentially force Keita – who has limited experience and comfort at DM – to be the key player to retain possession. This is one of the real limitations to having Mascherano cover both CB and DM. He’s only one player. And if Busquets is hurt it places enormous pressure on Keita to not only have to adapt at a position he is not comfortable at and doesn’t particularly like – it requires him to excel at it. And in matches like today it may require Keita to excel at retaining possession and orchestrating play.
If Madrid overplay the space between the lines today – then the loss of Busquests may be an even bigger issue than the loss of Xavi. With Xavi out – there’s Thiago, a natural central attacking midfielder, to back him up. With Busquets out and Mascherano at CB – Barcelona do not have a natural DM to step in. This is a significant challenge for Keita today.
Without a natural orchestrator of play in deep midfield – the Barcelona attack will be even more dependent on creative play from the front line. Guardiola may have just wanted Sanchez to gain experience and started him as such (don’t believe Pedro has a knock). However, in this formation close control of the ball and the ability to beat defenders becomes an even more important skill set along Barcelona’s front line.