Super Copa Review: Barcelona 5 – 4 Madrid Aggregate: The Heart is a Funny Object [Updated]

There’s a belief we often share that what’s beautiful is fragile.  That wonder is always on the verge of breaking apart.  That what’s beautiful cannot put up enough resistance to last in a world that can be so difficult and harsh.  This belief isn’t universally subscribed to – but it’s quite common across cultures.

In fact it seems that we often cherish something for its aesthetic qualities precisely because we know it’s ephemeral, that it doesn’t have adequate defenses to resist, that it’s lovely because it isn’t resilient enough to stay for very long.  Japanese cherry blossoms.  An aria sung.  Landscapes painted on scrolls bleached by the sun.  The colors of Holi washing away in the rain.

Football itself shares this bias.  In the unresolvable debate in its soul between romanticism and pragmatism, there’s a notion that the beautiful game simply isn’t robust enough to survive outside of a few flickering moments of brilliance.  The Netherlands 1974.  Brazil 1982.  These are fundamental touchstones for belief in the game.  Ephemeral beauty that ultimately couldn’t survive the pragmatic world it was faced with.

Guardiola’s Barcelona continues to prove all of this wrong. It continues its alchemy of mixing romanticism and pragmatism to produce a kind of aesthetic that is equal parts beauty and strength.

A new kind of wonder all over again.  That’s what we’re watching.

I try my best to be objective about the game.  To be dispassionate as I can.  It’s part of what I have to do for my writing here.  And I do that by using an analytical framework to watch and to try to understand the game.  Those are my tools, my point of view.  It’s in my nature.

And honestly, before this tie, objectively, I did not think this team was going to win.

I watched them play in person against Manchester United on the summer tour — they weren’t even remotely close to match form or fitness.

Then they had those other mediocre-to-disastrous pre-season games topped off by the 1-4 drubbing at the hand of Chivas.  The squad was not even close to match ready.  Sure those Barça squads were filled with youth players — but that also meant that the first team wasn’t available, wasn’t working within the system, that they weren’t even engaged in the process of getting ready through the experience of match play together.

In the first leg of the SuperCopa all of those issues came to the fore.  Barça were overwhelmed by a much more prepared, more match fit Madrid team.  A team which had clearly prioritized winning the SuperCopa as a way to start its season, and draw a stark contrast to the 5-0 victory Barça secured to start the Clasicos last year.  But in the end this Barça team was robust enough to survive and secure the result they needed at the Bernabeau.  But it literally took everything the group had, all of the resources that could be drawn upon from its experiences as champions.

Even after that first leg — objectively speaking — I didn’t know if they could win this second match. There would be accumulated fatigue.  The team was short due to injuries.  Objectively it just would not be possible to secure needed fitness or form in three days time.

But in the end the heart is such a funny object.  Strange and wondrous.  Who can understand it?  And make no mistake about it, this was a performance that came straight from the heart.   Yet another victory from Guardiola’s Barcelona that demonstrated that what’s beautiful in football doesn’t have to be fragile or mercurial — that in fact being tenacious and robust makes the whole of the project even more wondrous and joyful.

It’s football that makes you believe again.  In a whole new way.

The Two Best Seats at Camp Nou From Which to Watch the Genius At Work


Match Analysis

In order to fully appreciate the dynamics of this match and how play changed from the first leg it’s important to the relatively unorthodox manner in which Madrid implement their pressure defense.  As discussed in detail here at Barcelona Football Blog last season, Madrid press in a very interesting fashion.  One of the central tenets of strong defending is staying compact.  This is especially true to pressing.  In order to press effectively you need to make the field as small as possible.  To make the field as small as possible it’s important to stay compact.

Arrigo Sacchi famously made it a point to demand that his team leave no more than 25 meters between their forward and back lines.  The goal was to squeeze the opposition to one-quarter of the entire pitch.  With the liberalization of the off side trap however it’s likely impossible for any team to stay as compact as Sacchi wanted.

Nonetheless staying compact remains critical to the best pressing sides in the world.

When Madrid press they don’t stay nearly as compact as other sides that successfully press.  Staying compact means that you must play a high line.  Playing a high line involves significant risk for being beat over the top or through transition play.  Mourinho is attempting to have his side press, but to also decrease the risk associated with playing his back line high.

In the first leg of the Super Copa, based on average position, Madrid had approximately 50 M between their front line and back line.  For comparison, Barcelona had approximately 40M between its front line and back line.

How is Madrid simultaneously doing both of these things — pressuring the ball effectively without keeping its back line very high?  They are utilizing pace.  This is the most interesting tactical defensive innovation Mourinho has implemented while at Madrid.  Their team has tremendous athleticism distributed across the pitch.  Rather than depending on “hunting in packs” by staying compact Madrid initiates its pressure by having a select number of defenders run at the ball at pace.  When the ball is passed, they utilize pace to close down the receiver.  Because they have so much athleticism across the pitch they attempt to launch defensive attacks from numerous positions.

This is not to say Madrid’s defensive formation is loose.  For example, they become very compact on the press when the ball is played to the touchline.   It’s just that their formation is not as compact as one would anticipate given how effective their pressing is.  They are using velocity to make the pitch small.

Madrid Pressing Through Pace and Man Marking 1 vs. 1 But Not Staying Compact

The still shot above from leg 2 typifies how Madrid presses.  Notice how Madrid has numerical equivalence with Barcelona in the Barcelona defensive half (this is a major tactical adjustment Mourinho has made in response to the changes Guardiola made between the Copa Del Rey and Champions League Semi — fully explaining this adjustment will require a separate post however).

There is one marker on every Barcelona player at the back.  Once Barcelona attempt to advance the ball the Madrid defenders runs to close down the ball at speed.  Each marker follows the players without the ball to make ready pressure if a pass is made.  When the new Barça player receives the ball a new defensive attack is launched.

This defensive system takes advantage of two Barcelona characteristics:  1) Barça players tend to play passes to feet when they are building play out of the back; 2)  Barcelona players tend not attempt to beat defenders 1 vs. 1 off the dribble (more on this later in the explanation of goal one but a full explanation is out of the scope of this review)

However, all tactical systems have their trade offs.  And if you press the way Madrid does that means there has to be space in the interior of the defense.  What Madrid is gambling is that they can repossess the ball faster than you can find that interior space.

The way to beat this system is very clear.  Circulate the ball faster than they can run.  This requires quick decision making, rapid passing, and strong off the ball movement.  Barça’s problem in the first leg of the Super Copa was that all three of those facets of their game were off form.  The major problems were:  1)  they lacked the fitness required to move off the ball to probe interior space; 2) because neither Xavi nor Busquets and Pique didn’t start they lost the central axis of play.  The decision making was slower and the touch and passing not as deft or controlled.


The Class

Barcelona’s Adjustments

Addressing the Madrid Press

In this match, Barcelona made critical adjustments to counteract the way Madrid pressed.  Their ball circulation was much more rapid, with Xavi and Busquets back their central passing axis was much improved and their ability to build from the back markedly better.  This was supported by Pique’s presence in the back.  In addition, their off the ball movement was somewhat better, especially in the first half (but due to lack of fitness the off the ball movement still wasn’t good and it decayed severely in the second half which is why the team struggled so much later on).  Barça also attempted to play longer balls over the top more often (as opposed to leg one where the long balls were more like desperation heaves).

Finally, once it’s understood how Madrid’s system of pressure defense operates, it becomes very clear that one of the best ways to cause the Madrid system of man marking pressure based on team pace is to drop players who have the ability to beat players off the dribble deeper on the pitch.  If the Barça player can beat the man marking him 1 vs. 1, then the Madrid defense can become very vulnerable as interior space will open up quickly.  This is especially true if you can do this in midfield because Madrid was not keeping its back line very compact.  Space could be found between those lines.  And this is exactly how Barcelona scored its lightning first goal.

The play starts simply enough.  Pique plays the ball to Xavi who plays a simple ball to Messi.  The key issue here was Messi’s positioning.  He stations himself out on the flank in midfield.  Because C. Ronaldo is marking Alves on the press there is space behind him.  Carvalho, who was marking Messi for much of the match, steps out and  picks up Messi and marks him out along the toucline.  Coentrao drops deep and central into the space Carvalho has vacated, functionally playing the CB position now.  However, Messi beats Carvalho off the dribble and this creates a cascade of problems for Madrid.

Messi Beats Carvalho off the Dribble

In the still shot above notice what’s happened once Messi beats Carvalho off the dribble.  He has created a 2 vs. 1 situation for Khedira.  Pedro has intelligently dropped into that same space.  Messi was Carvalho’s responsibility.  As Khedira attempts to slide over to cover, he is caught wrong-footed and Messi easily blows by him.

The other key issue in the still shot above is that Xabi Alonso was responsible for man marking Iniesta.  When Messi breaks containment off Carvalho, Alonso starts drifting to the middle anticipating a Messi run through that region.

Messi's Run Breaks Madrid's Defensive System and Iniesta is Left Free

In the still shot above Messi has beat Khedira.  The key issue to note here is the positioning of the Madrid center backs.  Notice how much space Messi is about to move into.  This is because Pepe and Coentrao are staying deep rather than stepping up or staying as compact as they could.  They are too far away from where Messi has received the ball to step out on him. Rather than “hunting in a pack” to pressure Messi it’s only the defender assigned to mark him applying pressure 1 vs. 1.  The other defenders move away from Messi to deeper positions rather than towards him to press.

Once Messi beats Carvalho the deep Madrid backs start to move deeper rather than moving forward to close down and pressure alongside Khedira  (or to facilitate the off side trap).  Instead Khedira is left to pressure 1 vs. 1.  This open space forces Alonso to disregard Iniesta and commit to this area.  Iniesta reading the play makes a tremendous run.

The entire Madrid defensive system has collapsed because Messi beat Coentrao in a 1 vs. 1 situation.  They have a 6 vs. 3 numerical advantage around the ball and get carved open.

Rather than making the run that Alonso and the center defenders are waiting for however, Messi unleashes a brilliant through ball between the center backs for Iniesta to run onto (notice how it was not a ball to feet pass that caused the Madrid defense so much trouble).

Madrid Not Compact - Messi Opens Space in the Middle and Threads Through Ball In

In the still shot above, Iniesta has lost all of the defenders and timed his run brilliantly. Iniesta then goes on to show terrific composure and coolly beats Casillas with a lovely chip after dinking him.  Madrid has a 6 vs. 3 numerical advantage around the ball, and still get carved open in moments.  This is the risk they run by pressing in this fashion and not staying compact.  Defending the interior space can rapidly become a problem.

Overall, Barcelona’s off the ball movement simply wasn’t rapid and crisp enough to allow them to take advantage of the Madrid defensive system.  They simply did not have the fitness to do so.  In turn they struggled to maintain coherent possession a problem which would become a mounting problem as the game progressed.

All this said — the Madrid pressure defending was outstanding all evening.  Credit to them for their work rate and coordinated, system-based defending.

However, in the end Barcelona controlled 60% of possession in this second leg.  Not their usual domination of the ball but an improvement.  While the statistics varied in the first leg, Barcelona only had roughly 53% of the possession at the Bernabeu.


The Return of One Touch Play:  Barcelona’s Second Goal

In the first leg of the SuperCopa, Barça’s touch and weighting of passes were off all evening long.  In leg two, both were improved, though still far from where they will be once they regain match form. However, Barcelona’s second goal was just remarkable for the quality of its one touch play.

The goal, of course, was an utter work of genius between two players who are so skilled on the ball it is hard to get over.  The goal was scored off a corner that was created when Pedro beat Ramos off the flank.  Messi is positioned at the 18 yard line.  Xavi directs the corner and it deflects off Benzema toward Messi.  In theory this is not supposed to be a dangerous area to receive a corner.  It should be straight forward to close the man down, given how tight space is.

However, this is Messi and what he did was just genius.  Too much attention is being placed on this goal to how it ended.  What not being paid enough attention to is how it started.  Messi is being marked by Carvalho on this corner.  That’s how worried Madrid was about Messi.  They placed one of their CB out to the 18 yard line to defend him.  Xavi’s corner bounced once and starts rising as it approaches Messi.  That is a very difficult ball to even control off a corner when you are closely marked.

Not only does Messi control it but he beats Carvalho in an instant.  Messi intentionally one touch passes the ball off the bounce to Pique.  Just think about that.  He doesn’t even settle the ball with his chest.  He passes it perfectly to Pique.  And like that Carvalho is beat.  He turns to locate the ball and Messi instantly starts his run to goal.

Pique then makes a play that perhaps no other CB in the world can make.  First, once he sees the ball directed to Messi at the 18 yard line he comes backwards towards Messi.  He knows Madrid is going to run the off side trap from the corner and he beats them into an area of space in the crowded box.

Pique Steps into Space as Messi One Touch Passes Him the Ball WIth Chest

In the still shot above just look at how much space Pique has found inside the box on a corner.  That is a remarkable reading of space on the play.  He’s actively making himself a point of reference for Messi to play the ball off of.  Though I’m not sure I would guess this is a play Pep designed for this situation.  And it worked perfectly.

Pique receives the ball and then one touches the ball on a back heel pass to Messi, who is in stride on his run.  Just phenomenal skill from Pique there.  C. Ronaldo and Khedira attempt to catch Messi but his acceleration is just too much and he coolly beat Casillas yet again.

Overall, one of the key factors that won this trophy for Barcelona was their skill and tremendous execution on goal.  Here is a comparison of all shots on goal over the tie between the two teams.

Comparison of Shots on Goal: Barcelona's Clinical Finishing (via Opta Sports)

Barcelona Concede off Set Pieces

I’m not going to spend too much time analyzing these goals.  To be honest, both were the result of awful set piece defending.  On the first goal Barça did not close down Benzema as he collected a deflected corner.  Benzema made an outstanding cross to C. Ronaldo.  The goal may have been offside (it appeared Ramos got a touch putting Ronaldo into an off side position).  However, that is irrelevant.  The fact is Barça did not execute its off side trap properly off the corner.

The second goal was even worse.  Kaka put in an awful corner directly to Adriano, who proceeded to shank the clearance.  The Barça defenders then engaged in a comedy of clearance errors until the ball rolled to Benzema, who finished well.

Both of those conceded goals were filled with errors.  With more practice and drilling they are unlikely to occur later on in the season.

Nonetheless — credit to Madrid for taking advantage of the opportunities when presented.  Both C. Ronaldo and Benzema finished nicely.  And ultimately Madrid won the corners through their consistently high tempo direct play.

Barcelona’s Pressing is Improved but The Team Tires: The Back Line Saves the Match — The Story of the Second Half

One of the major problems for Barça in Leg 1 was their inability to press effectively due to limited fitness and stress from not retaining possession.  In this match, the pressing was better but still far from where it is when Barça are in full fitness and sharp.  But with the improved coordination and work rate their pressing was better.

A major key to all of this was the return to Sergio Busquets.  Busquets was still off form — but his presence defensively was enormous (as was his calm ball circulation).  Perhaps the biggest impact his return had was to help neutralize Mesut Oezil.  Oezil had a wonderful game in leg 1 — by far his best match against Barça.  Oezil is a very interesting player.  He has phenomenal vision and is a wonderful passer (especially off crosses from the flanks).

However, while he has good touch – he does not have great touch.  And while he has good close control of the ball it is not great either.  He’s not a player that is going to beat players off the dribble in tight space.  In fact much of his game is predicated on roaming laterally from touch line to touch line to find space.

As such, Oezil has often struggled with facing a team that presses vigorously (the Germany vs. Spain match in the 2010 WC exemplified this).

In this second leg Busquets supported by the overall Barça pressing did a marvelous job once again marking Oezil out of the game.

However, as the match proceeded Barça’s ability to press and engage in off the ball movement fell off significantly due to limited fitness.  As the second half went on there was a marked change in Barça’s play. In turn they got caught in a vicious cycle of losing the ball and then not being able to repossess it through pressing.  Madrid — who were also tiring — took the initiative and put Barça on the back foot again in the second half.

The team just couldn’t press with the vigor they usually do.  They don’t have the fitness.  In this regard while the actual way Madrid scored was due to an comical mistake, they were dictating play towards the middle to end of the second half and it looked like it was only a matter of time before they scored.

That Madrid did not take control of this game and put it way in the second half with the Barça press tiring is a testament to how brilliantly the back line played.  After a very poor game in leg one the defensive back four were outstanding in open play.

Defending Deep with a Disciplined Line: Mascherano Anchoring the Back

The Barça back line did what it rarely every has to do or is designed to do — absorb relentless pressure while defending deep.  That the back line could execute what was required to keep the team ahead or level was a testament to their determination, intelligence and hard work.

Cules will have differing opinions on who played the best — but Dani Alves and Javier Mascherano were both utterly brilliant this game.  Alves is often thought of as a poor defender.  But what his critics often confound is his position on the pitch with his defensive skill set.  In the Barça system his function is to get as forward as he can.  Pep is willing to risk players getting behind Alves — when they do that it is not a defensive lapse on Dani’s part.  It’s just a component of tactical risk.

In both legs of the SuperCopa, Alves was brilliant.  Guardiola likely adjusted how he wanted Dani to play and had him prioritize defending C. Ronaldo.  And in both games Alves had the Madrid attacker in his pocket. Over and over he made key tackles and interventions to neutralize Madrid’s chief goal scoring threat.

C. Ronaldo is known for his pace.  But in these two games we saw what a great athlete Alves is.  Over and over C. Ronaldo attempted to beat Alves on the flank through pace and couldn’t do it.  This was a major reason why Madrid had difficulty scoring from open play in these games.  Their biggest scoring threat was caged in by the Barça RB.

What can you say about Javier Mascherano?  He is a wonderful example of how it’s so easy in football to confuse a player’s role and his skill set.  In Liverpool he was confined to an extremely narrow, tactical role. He was a specialist player operating in Benitez’s highly autocratic system.  It seemed very odd that Guardiola was so interested in bringing to Barça a player who seemed limited to a “destroyer.”

But Pep knew better.  He saw that Mascherano’s skill set was far richer than his role allowed at Liverpool.  And since coming to Barcelona he’s been something of a revelation.

Over these past two games he has been an absolute rock.  He has played at a world class CB level.  And with Mascherano it all starts with his intelligence and defensive reading of the game.  The only other player on Barcelona who has similar talents is Puyol.  With every passing game at CB, Mascherano is looking more and more like the heir apparent to Puyol’s position on the team.

In the SuperCopa, Masch made one critical intervention after another after another.  For a player who was supposed to be a yellow and red card magnet outside of the rough EPL it’s particularly amazing to watch his dexterity and intelligence on challenges.  His ability to read a game is remarkable, and he used that ability to it’s fullest to anchor a back line that had to be perfect to see this team through.

Abidal had an absolutely terrible match in leg one. He was off form and repeatedly made clumsy mistakes.  Tonight he was back to looking like himself.  Calm and collected on the ball and very solid at the back.  He still is coming into form — he should have stepped up much more quickly on the off side trap on the first goal.  He and Pique both should have cleared the ball on the second.  But overall a terrific performance.

Similarly Pique was very good.  He’s still recovering from a knock and has missed significant training time but he played well at the back.  And his assist to Messi was an outrageous piece of skill from a center back.  Piquenbauer indeed.

Keita came on as a late sub for Busquets.  While he wasn’t involved very much, he also didn’t make any mistakes in a position he’s still adjusting to.

Finally, Victor Valdes was again just superb.  Time and time again he was pressured and challenged.  And Madrid just could not beat him from open play.  He was magnificent.  Once again he proved how unique he is.  Not only was his contribution saving shots fundamental but he was critical to building play from the back with his ball skills and distribution.


Guardiola Changes the Dynamics of the Match:  The Composed Play and Positional Intelligence of Cesc Fabregas and the Brilliance of Messi

Pep has done just a phenomenal job preparing his club for what turned out to be a vicious war when they were not close to being in the form Madrid were in.  One thing he probably should have done however was to bring in fresh legs sooner as the team was fading in the second half.  Now his hands were absolutely tied in many ways due to injury.  Sanchez would have been perfect to bring in for this match – but he picked up a knock.  Same for Afellay.

Villa and Pedro faded significantly during the second half due to fatigue.  Bringing on Adriano as a winger for Villa was a creative move.

But the area where Barcelona was really suffering was in the center of the pitch.  They lost control of the middle as the second half went on.  This was in part due to fatigue from Xavi, Iniesta and Messi (notice how infrequently Messi dropped deep to pick up the ball).

At the same time this was far too heated a game to bring in a youngster like Thiago.  He would have been overwhelmed.  It’s the kind of experience that can ruin a young player’s confidence and development.  It’s just beyond the scope of what they can do.

So once Madrid leveled the score Guardiola brought on the weapon he’s wanted so badly since he took over as manager.  And we saw tonight in very clear, stark terms why Pep wanted Cesc Fabregas so badly.

In a dying game where Madrid had all of the momentum and Barça were fading badly due to fatigue, Fabregas changed the dynamics of the match.  After conceding the equalizer, the entire team took on new determination.  But determination only gets you so far in the face of exhaustion.

Fabregas came in for Pedro and Pep moved Iniesta nominally to the wing (Iniesta of course pinched in to midfield a great deal).  And once he came on to the pitch he added significant composure and energy back into midfield play.  He was composed on the ball and did a wonderful job directing play.  He looked extremely comfortable right away.  In addition he played very well defensively making several strong interventions.

Fabregas and Xavi played as a very fluid two man central midfield with Xavi moving to the center right and slightly deeper and Fabregas largely towards the middle and moving into an advanced position.  Here’s an example of how Barça lined up:

Fabregas' Positioning Relative to Xavi

Fabregas played as a trequarista more than even as a central midfielder at Arsenal.  Even in the youth ranks at La Masia he was a player who looked to get forward and score.  Those traits were enhanced when he went to Arsenal and yesterday Fabregas made several intelligent runs forward — it seemed clear that he knew that he would have to provide a threat as the man with fresh legs.

Fabregas Makes Forward Run Opening Space for Messi Between the Lines

In the still shot above Alves has played the ball off to Adriano on the right wing.  Xavi is trailing the play towards the right.  Iniesta is behind in midfield.

Fabregas is making a direct run to goal and he is the most advanced Barcelona attacker.  This is something we rarely see from a Barça midfielder, and it’s a good example for how Fabregas will diversify play tactically for Barça.

The key to understanding the immense value of Fabregas making runs like this lies in Messi’s positioning in the above still shot.  With attacks engineered off the flanks Messi frequently slows down.  Often he does not make aggressive, direct runs to goal.  Instead he chooses to find space between the line for the pull back or delayed ball.  This is what he’s doing in the still shot above.

However, look at how space is being created for Messi.  It’s Fabregas’ run that is driving two defenders towards their own goal and away from Messi leaving him unmarked in space.  This is the potential interplay we are going to see from Cesc and Messi.  It is brilliant positional football.

Fabregas would go on to be integral to Barça’s final goal — the one that sealed the victory.  Much is being made of the fact that Fabregas made one of the passes before Messi’s otherworldly strike.  This is is missing the larger point.  What was so impressive about Fabregas’ play on that goal wasn’t his pass — it was his positional intelligence.

The goal scoring play started harmlessly enough.  Xavi plays a corner short, gets the ball back and plays it to Adriano, who then plays it to Alves, who plays it back out to Mascherano (stationed just inside of the midfield line in the center circle).  In other words, in the 87th minute of a 2-2 match Barça turn a corner kick into a ball played back to their CB standing at midfield.  They are playing the ball backward, and still transform the situation into a goal.

Xavi Plays Corner Backwards as Fabregas is Initially Double Marked in Middle


The screen shot above marks the start of the play as Xavi pulls the ball back towards Adriano.  The key thing here to notice is Fabregas’ initial positioning.  He’s toward the middle of the pitch and is double marked.

Fabregas Drifts Wide to Find Space as the Ball Continues Backwards

Above, as the ball is played backward, notice how Fabregas changes his position.  He is moving away from the center where he was double marked and is drifting out to the wing into the space vacated by Adriano who has pulled in to the middle to receive the ball from Xavi.  As Fabregas drifts outwards Xavi drifts into the middle between the lines.  Messi is walking back from an offside position stationing himself in the channel between CB and FB.

Two sources of movement: The ball played backwards vertically and Barça’s attacking central midfielder drifting horizontally into space.

What starts out as harmless, typical Barcelona “negative” and “boring passing backwards” rapidly turns into catastrophe for Madrid.

When Mascherano receives the ball at the midfield circle he plays speeds up the tempo of play by playing a brilliant long ball over the top to the player completely open in space — Fabregas.

Fabregas Now Free in Space Receives Long Ball Over the Top from Mascherano

In the still shot above, look at how much space Fabregas has found.  The perfectly weighted long ball over the top from Mascherano (he is an outstanding long ball passer over the top — perhaps the best on the entire team) cuts out all of the clustered Madrid defense in the middle.  But it’s Fabergas’ open positioning that allows Mascherano the target to circumvent the defenders.

Fabregas' Movement and Positional Intelligence Create a 2 vs. 1 Advantage for Barca

Fabregas controls the ball with fantastic first touch to start the final attacking maneuver, and here’s what’s so remarkable about this entire sequence tactically:  Fabregas started this play being double marked by the Madrid defense.  Through his positional intelligence he has now turned that initial double marking into a 2 vs. 1 situation for Barça out on the flank against Marcelo.  Not only that — he has created a 2 vs. 1 where the defender is isolated alone in space.  That is brilliant football.  The epitome of what the fluid interplay of tika taka is supposed to create.

Marcelo is forced to defend four things.  Fabregas, Adriano, the space behind him toward goal and the space lateral to him.   He cannot hope to defend even two of the four never mind all four.  Fabregas has multiple choices in how to exploit the situation.

And here’s where Fabregas’ training from La Masia comes into play.  Normally at this stage in the game it would make sense to use a 2 vs. 1 situation to attack the goal directly.  And Fabregas starts to do this.

Fabregas Forces Marcelo to Commit Leaving Adriano Open in Space

Fabregas doesn’t quickly one touch the ball away.  He shows Marcelo the ball.  He uses it to draw out the defender. He makes two slight feints toward goal, and in the end he achieves his goal.  In the still shot above notice how he’s forced Marcelo to commit to him.  This leaves Adriano alone in space.  But rather than playing the ball to the nearest open man, Fabregas further exploits the positional advantage by threading the ball unexpectedly to Messi who has found space between the lines (Adriano does a fantastic job letting the pass go right by him — that’s a great example of the small things players have to learn in the Barça system.  A year ago he think the pass is for him and traps the ball.)

Suddenly the tempo of play accelerates.  Messi rapidly one touches the ball to Adriano who has started a delayed run.  Marcelo is completely out of position because Fabregas forced him to commit.  Messi’s one touch pass perfectly plays Adriano back into open space.

Adriano Free in Space Delivers Cross into Box Messi Timing His Run

Adriano then delivers a perfect cross into Messi who executes a volley of staggering quality.

What’s amazing about this entire sequence is that Madrid really haven’t made any defensive mistakes at all.  In the still shot above notice how Coentrao has done an excellent job of tracking Messi’s run to goal.  Messi is marked in the box.  And he still scores.

At this point, I feel compelled to say something about Messi.  But what is there possible to say.  His genius is unfathomable at times.  His vision, intelligence, positioning, strength, balance, touch and ability to finish are beyond belief.  You can watch. It no longer surprises.  But it’s still difficult to believe it’s real.


The End:

To start off the season Guardiola wins his 11th trophy equaling Cruyff’s club record.  It is an almost outlandish level of achievement.  But what truly mattered here wasn’t this trophy — the SuperCopa is after all only a pre-season tie (one that is nice to win but not indicative of play in the real season).  What mattered was how this team won.

Barcelona proved robust in the face of tremendous difficulty.  This was a squad that prevailed yet again despite the fact that they were not even close to full form and fitness.  While Madrid was also in pre-season shape it is now clear how much they focused and prepared to win this trophy.  They were far ahead of Barça in terms of readiness to play.  And despite all that Barcelona produced a devastating result through a combinations of systems based discipline, tactical intelligence, skill and heart.  What Pep did to get this team through these two brutal matches was astonishing.

There is of course another story to this match — an ugly, unfortunate one.  But there will be plenty of time for that later.

Right now is a time to appreciate how fortunate we are to be able to witness this spectacle.  We will probably never see this again.  So we should always feel fortunate to have had the chance.  It will be up to us to explain to others years from now the wonder.  The determined heart.  The light and heat of this beautiful blaugrana fire.

How long can it last?

Man of the match?  I’d pick Guardiola.  But he wouldn’t want me to.  So instead I’ll select who I think he’d tell me to.

The team.


  1. Just finished watching the match.
    I really am sick and fed up of playing against Madrid!

    Pique is right;
    Mourinho started all this!
    Spanish FA really need to do something with him and Pepe and Marcelo.

    I am supposed to wake up 1.5hours later and then again 3 hours after that but my blood is boiling right now. Can’t sleep!
    We won but I’m just so mad at the situation.
    This Mourinho character is sick!!!

    1. Yes he is right. When it’s one or two players thugging their way through a game, it might be just them. But when you have 4,5, 6 players doing it, it has to be a team instruction.

  2. Ronaldo: God gave me this talent and told me to go entertain the people with it.

    Messi: I told him no such thing!

    Simply incredible. We are very spoilt and lucky to watch this guy play

  3. This match review is brilliant. I sit there, blather on about writerly crap, then throw out scores that make everybody bicker about what a jackass I am. Euler just owns everything before him.

    Ok. Now I feel a tiny bit better 🙂
    Kxevin never fails to tickle my funny bone.

  4. Yay! A CB!! Oh? #okface

    Club sources confirm they are finalizing the loan of Genoa B centre back Diego Polenta (19) for Barcelona B. [via @barcastuff via]

  5. Fabregas has Arsene Wenger Syndrome, says he “did not zee it”:

    As for the man in the middle of the brawl, he was among the few people remaining calm. “It was a bad tackle – I was lucky [not to get hurt],” Fábregas said. “But I didn’t see anything after that.”

    From another Sid Lowe on the Guardian. The gist is, since Mourinho’s assault on Tito wasn’t mentioned in the referee’s report, no action will be taken by the RFEF unless Barcelona chooses to file a complaint, in which case an investigation would be opened. The club does not intend to do so, so the matter will be dropped.

    1. Yup..

      Even the “central lechera” does not want to milk this for Madrid’s gain –

      [i]Even the unashamedly partisan Madrid media was unimpressed by Mourinho’s behaviour. Alfredo Relaño, the editor of the Sports daily AS, said: “It is time for Florentino [Pérez, the Madrid president]to reflect seriously on this because it is starting to become serious.” [/i]

  6. I love your analysis of the third goal. Seriously ZonalMarking has nothing on you. I am such a fangirl! We are so lucky to have someone like you who can just breakdown tactics in simple english. THANK YOU!

  7. the gentleman at ZM has made a living writing tactical analyses of football matches. he is excellent, but I’ve never felt as in the thrall of a master reading one of his analyses than I did this match summary by Euler. the psychological dimension. you are an incredible analyst and writer, and I hope you keep it up!

  8. AWEsome review Euler!!

    “Man of the match? I’d pick Guardiola. But he wouldn’t want me to. So instead I’ll select who I think he’d tell me to.

    The team.”

    This is Barça.

  9. havent read the post yet.

    my observations.

    smasch was a beast in this match and dani our 2nd diver in chief,he had CR in his pocket.

    piques backheel genius.abi was very composed.busi and xavi was ok.

    fab was impressive

    we conceded 3 goals from it cause of lack of fitness or sharpness or there is something wrong in our defending of corners?.in both the legs i noticed benzema received the ball all alone in the far post during corners a few times.can u xplain it euler?

    and messi oh my oh my.

    the once royal madrid has now become the slum madrid due to the por que man.

    heat of the moment,over aggressivness,out of frustration all i can understand but a coach of a big club behaving like that,that i cant understand.he is bringing down madrid with his antics.

    and finally this team proved they r not all silk and style they r also el puto jefe in the mental strength department also.

    1. As far as I can tell, we did not have such vast problems to defend the corners last season. Actually, all seasons.

      We’ve had the best defence of la Liga thrice, if we would have defended like that, even against the usual la Liga opponents, we certainly could not have won the Zamora Trophy.

      As Euler said, I’m also sure that these errors – and probably all three of the corner goals from RM – will not happen in the later stages of the season.

  10. Mourinho was really pleasuring himself when he was poking Tito’s eyes. Sick guy! He looked as if he is putting a finger in a cake with a naughty face.

    1. I’ve heard rumours they’d pay 45m for Falcao. Even if it’s just 35m, still overpriced. We got Cesc for that. And Alexis for 9m less 🙂

      Anyway, the way Atleti plays, I don’t see them as top4 contenders.
      I expect Malaga to do very well this season, with Pellegrini and all their new players. My tip:
      Valencia and Malaga battle it out for 3rd and 4th spot, Sevilla, Atleti, Bilbao and Villarreal for the EL.

  11. I want to thank everyone for the thoughtful comments. They are very kind.

    I know these pieces are very long and not easy to read so I really do appreciate people taking the time out to read them.

    Given how wonderful the match was and how much heart the team showed I didn’t want the vile ending and cynicism to be what we remembered or what we talked about today. Or at least I was hoping to minimize that to whatever degree possible through what I was capable of writing.

    I wanted to try to put people into the match as much as possible. Back into the substance rather than the nonsense if only for a little while. That was the reason for specificity and length.

    And believe me when I say this – if it weren’t for the wonderful community we have here there’s no way I would have put in that much effort in this piece or any other.

    And I know that feeling is shared by the BFB team.

    Thank you again.

    1. With the term ‘pressure defending’ or ‘pressure defense’, you refer to using pressure as a form of defense itself, right? (according to ‘attack is the best means of defense’)

      At the first moment I thought it could refer to put pressure on the opposing defense, but I think you mean the general concept.

      I’d also like to know, how long does it take to become a master of football analysis, i.e. since when do you follow the beautiful game and the tactics behind it so closely?

    2. Awww. We wub you, too, Euler.

      Your portion on Fabregas was spot on. I noticed Fab’s moving out to the touchline and knew right away Masch would pick him out seeing the mismatch his teammate had created. Such a beautiful play. You did it justice.

      And despite Masche probably getting significant playing time as a center back, I do not see Fabby playing as a defensive midfielder. It’d be such a waste.

    3. And I forgot to mention that, with his awesome long balls and great anticipation in defense, Masche is the new Marquez. The good Marquez. Old early 08-09 Marquez. Before he busted up his knee.

    1. Oh wow! Hard to tell on the Mou play but the Pepe thing was definitely intentional based on the speed of kick and pull back. Surely a coach behaving like this warrants 5-10 games out, no?

    2. At this point, I am beyond getting angry at whatever particular actions players and staff committed in the brawl. We can look back at each incident and judge players’ character for the way they behaved at the heat of the moment, but personally, I don’t see too much worth in it.

      What needs to happen, if the Spanish football authorities have any sense, is a careful video review of the incident and strict punishment for anyone who engaged in personal violence. Villa, Oezil, Mou, Tito, and so on… a thorough review and a sober doling out of match bans and fines. I don’t care if it means we have five players ruled out of the Malaga and Valencia matches. It needs to happen. These full squad brawls cannot keep happening, or it’s just going to get worse. And such post-hoc reviews need to start being done in Spain, as it is done in England. Every time. It’s not the severity of the punishment (“BAN MOU FOR THREE MONTHS”), but the certainty of it that acts as a true deterrent.

  12. Great job Euler, really. 4 6 0 formation for the win is reminiscent of octopus intelligence. There is no central intelligence just pieces all capable of morphing into any weapon required at the moment. Cesc signing is going to make the Masch signing seem just OK.

  13. Roma lost the first leg of the EL qualifier in Bratislava.
    Let’s keep our fingers crossed Luis Enrique can turn this around. Would be a horrific start if AS Roma fails 🙁

    1. Cool. I hope Atleti signing Ruben Micael, too, doesn’t shut the door on the Diego transfer (ex. Santos/Werder Bremen/Juventus/Wolfsburg.) That would be an awesome partnership.

  14. There is one thong I love to do after EE gets swatted down. Go to an EE forum and sample the M####dista Logic. Some gems include watching an action from a different angle and claiming it happened twice. Some are downright hilarious. You can never expect what a EEista believes..


    1. I posted that link yesterday, and while the design is nice, it’s really missing the nuance required to make it bite. Most of the “Madridista logic” is too out there for it to be even half-serious. Maybe they should start more serious, and at the end have that twist. Something like, “Real Madrid reacted to the Busquet’s incident because the institution takes the use of racial slurs very seriously. Except when it’s their own fans chanting it in their own stadium.”

      Right now, the anger is getting in the way of the funny, in my opinion.

  15. This review is illuminating, btw, Euler. I saw it this morning and saved it for when I wasn’t as groggy, and it was well worth it. I keep telling my friends who don’t follow La Liga that the Clasicos are fascinating if only for how Pep and Mou are fighting a tactical war that is now 7 battles in. I point to your analyses to explain better than I can 🙂

  16. I flove Dani Alves. He is the king of the presser soundbite:

    “if you have a negative model, you do negative things. If you have a positive model, like Guardiola, who says positive things, who says you have to onto the pitch to compete and play football, it’s much better”.

    Alves also said that teams at this level have to know how to win and lose. “The best example is the final of the Champions League, against a team of gentlemen like Manchester United. Millions of people are watching and you have to stay calm.”

  17. One of the thoughts that came into my mind several times over these past two games –

    Thank goodness RM did not sign Kun.

    Seriously – thank goodness.

    I would not want to see him on that front line. His addition would have made things so difficult for Barca.

    Same thing for Falcao though to a lesser extent.

    While I don’t really understand why Falcao would want to go to Athletico (money I guess?) or why Athletico would want to spend that much on one guy vs. spreading it around – I give them a lot of credit for what they’ve done this summer.

    They really tried to improve the club in the wake of Kun leaving. Turn and Falcao could be a terrific front line.

    But then again it is Athletico…

  18. Michael Cox of Zonal Marking wrote two terrific pieces on the Super Copa – one at this own website and one for ESPN soccernet. I’m sure many people have already seen them – but if not I highly recommend them.

    Zonal Marking also talks about Madrid’s pressing. He’s taking a different point of view on it that I was.

    I hope this was clear enough in my post – but there’s really no hard and fast definition of what compact is or how far up the pitch the back line has to be before it’s considered a “high” back line. It’s relative. Sacchi defined for himself 25M between lines. That level is probably impossible to achieve but relative to those AC Milan teams the current Barca team could be considered not playing compact.

    The point I was trying to make is that given how aggressively and successfully Madrid press it’s interesting that they aren’t playing their back line even higher than they are. Their using the pace of their attacking players to give their back line more cushion.

    But not tactical system is perfect. Each has their own trade offs. So Madrid is decreasing space behind them by opening up more space in front of them in the interior. They varied that by often sending a CB to close out attackers higher up but that varied.

    Zonal Marking I believe is making the point that Madrid are playing against Barca very differently than they did last year when they used that trivote formation. They are generally playing a much higher back line. And that’s definitely true – compared to when the were “parking the bus” their current back line is much higher. Similarly compared to how Mourinho set up Inter – they are much higher.

    But again, the key thing is the point of reference for the comparison.

    Interestingly, while Madrid didn’t commit to this pressing game against Barca outside of a some portions of the CDR finals and second match of the CL tie, Madrid did press other sides in La Liga as the season went along in this way. Fast close outs from the advanced players using their pace to harass the ball. They just didn’t do this consistently against Barca.

    Seems like Mourinho was probably setting his team up to play the way we’ve seen last season against non-Barca competition.

    It’ll be interesting to see how they play out the season.

    1. As part of the training regime, Pep has the team practising movements – defending and attacking – using only half the pitch.

      I guess that there’ll be a lot more training done in this way, this season!

  19. I just rewatched the first half, and it seems I forgot a couple of awards:

    Don Quixote Award: Pedro with full “tilting at windmills” arm action!

    Zees Is Fashun Award: Apparently this is the year of the popped collar. Not just CRonaldo, either. Our very own Alexis Sanchez and several of his Chilean teammates played that way in the recent friendly against France. Our kits may be ugly, but at least they don’t have collars!

    This Is Not What We Pay You For Award: Xavi getting himself a yellow card for a clumsy tackle on Coentrao. Who do you think you are, Paul Scholes? Stick to what you know!

    1. The Xavi tackle on Coentrao was retribution for an earlier Coentrao marginal tackle on a Barca player – can’t remember who, offhand.

      Xavi was just explaining to Coentrao how the law of the land works.

      Right or wrong? – depends on your viewpoint!

  20. Anyone watched ESPN Press Pass? 2 of the 3 experts picked EE to win La Liga this year with Barca second – based on the Supercopa performances. They all saw that EE was playing better than last year but none of them mentioned that Barca has not played up to their usual standards and still have won.
    Not saying barca players are ‘angels’ but I am amazed that sensible/rational people do not wonder why a brawl only breaks out when EE loses.

    1. Was Sid Lowe there as well? I find Lowe very intriguing. While he is the best writer on Spanish football, in the way he covers every aspect worth reading about it and therefore also about Barca and EE; he has always got his predictions wrong about Barca. He said we would lose before the manita, we would lose in the Champs league semis and we would lose before the Champs League Final and always got it wrong. Its as much a testament to the quality of Barca as much as the lack of ability to analyse enough on Sid Lowe’s part, to take a charitable view.

    2. yeah Sid Lowe was there. He and Tommy Smyth predicted EE will win, Shaka Hislop picked Barca. Tommy’s a known EE fan though.

  21. Amidst all the Supercopa Drama Llama, we seem to forgotten that our beloved Thierry Henry turned 34 yesterday.

    Congrats, Titi! As a cule and an Arsenal fan, you will always be a legend to me! 😀

    1. What is va-va-voom?: *

      Nike: *

      That interview with Cesc: *

  22. What is wrong with that man? No, really, what is wrong in his head? And it’s not even the culture of thuggery and deflection he’s created that most disturbs me. No, it’s the calm approach to Tito from behind, the casual stroll over to Cesc on the ground and the little swing of the foot that is telling in its provocation even if there was no contact. It’s sociopathic.

    Please tell me that there are RM fans that won’t stand for this. I can’t bring myself to venture beyond this little safe haven on the internets right now, but there are madridistas I like, and I want to believe we would draw the same lines. I agree with Kxevin about fans — fandom, as love, is blind — but this… He is a cancer.

    Euler: your writing made me cry, for the beauty of our team. Thank you.

  23. Euler: this review is exceptional and I do not believe my comment will detract from it in the slightest but on the first goal, it was not Coentrao that Messi turns on to start the move, but rather Carvalho. Coentrao has dropped deeper and more toward the middle. He is the Madrid player wrongly waving for offside.

    1. Thanks so much for the astute eyes! You’re absolutely right – it was Carvalho. I was trying to get this review done and posted by the next morning so I rewatched it on the computer while making notes and taking still shots. That section of my recording was blurry and I mixed up the two players. Just rewatched another video it and it’s clearly Carvalho. Appreciate you pointing that out. I want this to be as accurate as possible.

      I’m most likely going to refer back to this post later on this season when I write about RM again. And I don’t want anyway who reads it later to get inaccurate information so I’m going to update that section of the post.

      It’ actually makes more sense for that to have been Carvalho. He was marking Messi for much of the game. It actually supports the general argument I was making. As Carvalho steps out to mark Messi, Coentrao falls alongside Pepe to make sure RM have more cover at the back deeper on the pitch.

    2. I just found this site last night while looking for more content regarding the Super Cup and I was amazed at your attention to detail. I thought you would like to know about the Carvalho/Coentrao mix up. I made the same mistake. Credit for the sharp eyes actually goes to Michael Cox at ESPN.

      A thought that I had before reading your reviews of the two games and that you did not mention unless I missed it: Particularly in the first leg, Madrid’s pressing was rabid and, as you noted, the weakness was in the interior space left in front of the back line, which you point out was a risk Madrid was willing to take due to their stellar athleticism. I would say kudos to Madrid for playing such a high risk strategy if athleticism were all they relied on to cover this space. Madrid took an absurdly high number of hard, professional fouls in the first game. Any time that a Barcelona player threatened to break containment and get the ball into gaping spaces between the Madrid lines, a Madrid player would hack him down from behind with no potential play on the ball. Khedira received his yellow card for dragging down Thiago in this manner. Xabi was actually the worst culprit with at least 6 fouls that I would consider ‘professional’. I suggest that Jose knew where he was vulnerable playing this way and that he wasn’t going to rely only his club’s athleticism to cover the but instead tactically employed systemic fouls to stop any breaks at his vulnerable back four.

      While watching the second game, I felt like praising Xabi because he employed the professional foul far less often, but after reading your reviews I understood that he wasn’t just on better behavior, but that he was under orders to drop a little deeper in second leg because Barcelona now had the technical ability on the field to break the press with far more regularity.

      Old schoolers would claim that this was just hard nosed, smart football employed by Jose. I am new school and I call it cheating. Every team takes a professional foul occasionally if the situation warrants it, but when they do they deserve to be carded or sent off. To systemically insert this option into your game plan is reprehensible. Perhaps it is these kind of tactics, and not his off the field antics, that have Xavi and Pique claiming he is ruining Spanish football.

    3. Madrid took an absurdly high number of hard, professional fouls in the first game. Any time that a Barcelona player threatened to break containment and get the ball into gaping spaces between the Madrid lines, a Madrid player would hack him down from behind with no potential play on the ball.

      Well first off – welcome! Glad to have you on the blog. It’s a very good community here. Please return and post again on a regular basis.

      You bring up a very good point that I didn’t want to get into to much because it starts overlapping into areas where Madrid played in a very vile fashion.

      But your specific point is very correct. It’s very clear that in this set up Mourinho is using tactical fouling as a defensive technique.

      Basically the Madrid players are left 1 vs. 1 across many parts of the pitch. If one gets beat the rest of the team behind them is at numerical disadvantage.

      So what they are doing is this: tackle the ball and if you don’t get it – wipe out the attacker. Make sure that the attacker cannot progress. If you have to take the foul (or even the card) so be it.

      From this perspective on the play we’ve been discussing – the key play Messi made wasn’t only to beat Carvalho – but it was to also beat Carvalho attempt to tactically foul him. If you look at the play you can see Carvalho lunge in. He’s more than willing to foul Messi just to stop him. His failure was that he didn’t get the ball or the man. That’s why the Madrid defense completely broke down afterwards.

      The point Michael Cox has brought up on Carvalho not fitting into this role is a very good one.

      As I touched on – Madrid is using their pace to defend. They have good to outstanding pace all over the pitch now except in two spots – Carvalho and Xabi Alonso.

      The reason why Xabi Keeps making all of these awful tackles is that he is a poor athlete. He cannot close down the ball to defend. In turn he constantly has to wipe out the player to stop the play. He is constantly tactical fouling because he doesn’t have the foot speed to defend.

      In the second match he was playing deeper so he didn’t need to constantly foul in that same way.

      Alonso simply doesn’t fit the Madrid system. When Sahin comes back they should play him and send Alonso to the bench but I don’t know if they can afford to do that because Alonso is such a star there as one of their few Spanish players. They’ll probably bench Khedira – but that’s going to weaken their defense.

      Tactical fouling is always a high risk strategy as you are always at risk for picking up cards. When mixed with reckless anger it’s a recipe for disaster. The tackles stop being tactical at some point and just become violent.

      But Mou mou knows this – which is why he has been constantly complaining about referees since he came into La Liga.

      He knows he needs to pressure the refs to play this style of football – otherwise he’ll constantly have players sent off.

    4. Thanks for the warm welcome. Terrific content and I will certainly be reading.

      Given your comprehensive analysis, I assumed that you had taken the high road by not mentioning the tactical fouling, which is commendable. It seems that the decision to comment on this issue is a slippery slope in either direction. To say that Jose’s tactics are vile seems accurate, but it quickly leads to finger pointing on both sides.

      However, not to accurately report on this aspect of these games results in an incomplete picture of the events and, consequently, mistaken impressions about the relative quality of the two teams.

      Furthermore, although I don’t think that one isolated article, brilliant though it may be, is of much consequence on the global football scene, it feels symptomatic of the general handling of Mourinho’s tactics in the world press. We read story after story concerning the rise of Real Madrid and the narrowing of the gap between the two teams, but very little mention of the dark design that kept these two games this close. To keep this short, what I fear is that by continually taking the moral high road and not mentioning the questionable nature of his tactics, the football press is letting Jose win, and to some degree, it shows on the field. He has waged war in the press to get exactly the kind of leniency on the field that Real Madrid received over these two legs. It is mind boggling that it took an act of sheer brutality to finally get a Madrid player thrown out of these games.

      I won’t belabor this point any more than I already have. I think you did an admirable job of riding this line in your analysis and I am in no way questioning your journalistic integrity. I am torn myself on what is an appropriate way to handle the issue and I respect your choice to deal with it in the way you did.

      Keep up the fantastic work.

    5. Very interesting discussion between the two of you, I’ll keep those ‘dark strategies’ in mind.

      And hopefully the media will unveil the dark side of EE soon. But I doubt it. They will keep hailing Madrid, at least as long as Mou is there.

  24. Well Euler,well…ehm…THANK YOU

    “It will be up to us to explain to others years from now the wonder. The determined heart. The light and heat of this beautiful blaugrana fire.”

    “Man of the match? I’d pick Guardiola. But he wouldn’t want me to. So instead I’ll select who I think he’d tell me to.

    The team.”


    1. Great audio on this impressive visual demonstration of Barcelona’s positional IQ.

  25. *WARNING serious rantage below and something I seriously need to get off my chest. Feel free to totally ignore, as I don’t plan on saying anything on the topic again*

    Something I find interesting is the use of diving and cheating when talking about Barcelona.

    Diving, in my view, is getting a foul when there is no contact made. Embellishing is making a meal of contact. And yet, the two are blurred together and simply referred to diving; in England, very often with outrage on TV and forums/blogs/message boards, as CHEATING — with capital letters to emphasize the point. Joey Barton on Twitter being the latest to use the term when talking about the Gervinho incident.

    Now here’s where it gets interesting.

    Barcelona, as a whole, is accused of being divers, and by extension, cheaters. This is as if the whole team, on a regular basis, gets fouls in their favor when there is no contact made. What I will say, as a cule who has no problem admitting (if that is the right word choice) it, that Alves and Busquets, and sometimes Iniesta and Mascherano, are embellishers. They make meals out of contact made. Every single game? Definitely not. After every Clasico? Still no. Why? The biggest example is the 5-0 manita at home. Notice how little embellishing there was in that game – and both Alves and Busi played in the game, as did Pepe, Khedira, Ramos. In the CL final, there was also little to no embellishing. There are reasons for that. But do they do it? Yes. Yes, they do.

    Which brings me to the next thing I want to rant about: the use of this embellishing as a method to look more balanced than one actually is. Somehow, this embellishing is equal to and, in the view of others, much worse than anything everyone else does, including potential career-ending tackles. “Bad tackles happen and it’s a man’s game anyway,” they say, “but diving/embellishing is CHEATING.”

    Let me get a couple of things out of the way. Firstly, diving and embellishing suck. It is cheating as it unfairly gains an advantage that is not deserved. However in my world view, terrible tackles are so much worse. At worse, diving and embellishing can get someone send off and you can lose the game. Tackling, on the other hand, can end careers – end a person’s livelihood; how a person makes money to support themselves and others around them; with many not having a back-up career. (The obscene amount of money they make in the first place is a different topic for another discussion).

    Secondly, we don’t use embellishing as part of our tactical system. That is to say, Pep does not deliberately ask players to make meals of contact. If they do, they are acting alone in their behaviour.

    The only time I can think of where embellishing was used as part of a deliberate, tactical approach, was the first leg of the CL semi-final after the Copa del Rey final. It was used as a direct response to the on-pitch mugging that occurred in the aforementioned final – to bring attention to the types of fouls that were no called due to the psychological pressure put on referees by a certain coach.

    Now, in England, with their hatred of CHEATING and envy of Barcelona, inevitably chose to focus on this part. Because the media, which has a large reach in the football world, is annoyed their top teams keep losing to us and fans of those teams we’ve beaten feel the need to try and take the ‘gloss’ of the shine of the club in envy. There is no other possible point of contention on the pitch with regards to Barcelona, so one part is taken and then blown out of proportion. After all, doesn’t every team have at least one embellisher?

    Has any manager or team complained about these so-called ‘theatrics’ other than one? There is a reason for that. For every action, there is a reaction; in football terms, for every tactical implement, there is an opposing one.

    For example, Athletic Bilbao play physical football. They stay compact and are no-nonsense in their tackling. When they exceed the boundaries, they are given cards and accept them without much fuss or outrage and continue on. Likewise we take the tackles, or dish them and get cards, with little fuss or complaint. Why is this? Because the games are hard fought, tackling no-nonsense but not cynical.

    Now here the thing I really want to get off my chest.

    If a team uses an aggressive approach as a part of a tactical system, which often exceeds the boundaries set by the rules of the game, are they not also CHEATING? After all, they are acting dishonestly/unfairly in order to gain an advantage. They are deliberately breaking the rules set by the game and are ‘conning’ the ref into believing there was little to no contact, that the player was diving, and/or it was their ‘first’ foul, and therefore go unpunished.

    If the team who uses an aggressive approach as part of a tactical system which often exceeds the boundaries set, also contains players who, often and serially, go to ground easily with little to no contact, does that not make them CHEATING hypocrites? After all, they are claiming to have moral beliefs that they do not conform to while acting dishonestly/unfairly by deliberately exceeding the rules of the game in order to gain an advantage.

    If the team’s coach who has implemented this aggressive approach as part of their tactical system, goes in front of the media and complains of players being dismissed are unwarranted, therefore saying said-players never exceed the boundaries of the game, and whose players claim it is due to the play-acting of the opposition team, make the coach’s team sanctimonious CHEATING hypocrites? After all they are making a show of being moral superior than others while being morally self-contradicting and are acting dishonestly/unfairly by deliberately exceeding the rules of the game in order to gain an advantage.

    At this point, one would say ‘Barcelona say/do this on the field and in post-match comments’ to make the comment seem more balanced, but I’m not going to because I’m not trying to be balanced.

    Apologies everyone, but I really, really, really needed to get that off my chest.

    /end rant.

    1. Hopefully you read this because I don’t want to post a reply in the newer comments 😛

      But I totally agree with you. Embellishing is wrong and I hate that our players do it. But not only do dangerous tackles (like Marcelo’s) carry much heavier consequences (a practice that RM has started to engage in as a matter of strategy), there is a “bona fide pattern” of Real Madrid players fouling our players and then turning around and accusing them of having dived. Graham Hunter, for one, commented on it in his report of the first leg, and it is as despicable and dishonest as diving and embellishing–it’s simply that in the machismo dominated atmosphere of football, such intentional deception of the ref is less salient.

      I will also take this opportunity to get this off my chest. Reading madridista blogs has taught me a lot about how they see the situation. They have some legitimate complaints, and many more illegitimate ones. But by far the practice that has to stop in such arguments is the continual building up of straw men.

      This practice, typically the bread and butter of mediocre minds, is far too rampant. Seriously, everyone would be better served by learning what a straw man logical fallacy is. It’s when you take an argument against you, hoist up a similar but far more superficial and flimsy argument (a straw man), and then refute that.

      So when you turn “Barcelona believes that the dangerously aggressive style that Madrid has resorted to is creating a toxic environment in the Clasicos” becomes “Barcelona believes that nobody should play anything other than beautiful football and to do so would be an act of immorality” you’ve just changed your opponent’s argument into something that it isn’t, so that is easy to refute. Many cules believe the former, a limited few believe the latter. The players have commented on the former, none have stated the latter.

      Same goes for when “Barcelona’s current recruitment policy places an emphasis on promoting canteranos far more than Real Madrid’s policy which has favored purchasing most of its talent in recent history” somehow becomes “Barca’s recruitment policy has always been about promoting from La Masia while Real Madrid’s is only about Galacticos.” Many cules believe the former, few cules will actually argue the latter.

      And this shit goes on and on. People need to ground themselves and argue against what is actually being said by the managers and players, not the absurd extreme to which their brain habitually takes their words to.

      Bah, this will go unread anyway, but that’s my piece.

    2. And it’s worth saying that for all the arguments we have with each other as mere fans, we are not alone in stating that Madrid has fallen to embarrassing levels on and off the field with its behavior the last few months.

      Off the top of my head, DiStefano, Morrientes, and Valdano, so called “old madridistas” have criticized continually the direction and attitude that Mourinho’s Madrid has taken. Not to mention much of the Madrid-based press itself which has signaled embarrassment over their squad’s behavior.

      In other words, this deterioration in Madrid’s behavior is not just something that us cules have imagined out of our bums; it is an actual issue that concerns plenty of age-old madridistas.

    3. I totally agree with this, Jose.

      I don’t know why I torture myself dropping by Madrid blog sites sometimes to find a proliferation of these “straw men” you just talked about. It doesn’t make sense anymore to respond or make a comment because they have totally gone off the path of the real issue. They have totally made up some new argument to discuss, these straw men, that it’s worthless to delve and join it as it’s something they came up with that can be argued their way and obviously, was never the point in the first place.

      It’s really frustrating. So I try hard to just let all these stupidities pass and put it down to human nature – people always have to blame something or someone else. They will never admit to their team being lesser or weaker.

      I can at least take comfort in the fact that we have the trophy/ies. Not them. So they can blather all they want…and make up stories in their minds, convincing themselves even of these made up events and arguments – but the trophies are ours. The accolades. The universal praise.

    4. Awesome rant. Captures the frustration we all feel watching some of the most glorious football ever played hacked down by the tactics of a borderline psychotic.

      When embellishment of a foul is meant to produce an unwarranted card or an unwarranted penalty it is certainly cheating, which explains Joey Barton’s rather hypocritical rage at Gervinho last week.

      However, when embellishment is used to draw attention to the truth, it is not reprehensible. When Marcelo stuck his studs in Messi’s side, it is probable that Messi could have played through it. He is one tough hombre. Yet he went to ground. The goal of his embellishment was to call attention to a malicious and real offense. He was not trying to have a player unfairly penalized.

      In the face of tactical abuse, should a team wait until someone really is maimed to call attention to the problem?

  26. Agree.

    I prefer a thousand times (and this a personal opinion) a player who embellishes to protect himself (if the player who fouls takes a yellow card he will think twice before making another agressive entry) than a player who sistematically makes fouls, and some times to injure a player, I’ve just seen a video from Figo, who fouled a football player in 2005 and five, and ended his career. I’m just beginning to realize, that Madrid has a mediatic cover for their wrongs in the fields, years ago. (In that game Figo wasnt even send out)

  27. Some thoughts on the Keita substition.

    I was shocked by Pep’s decision to substitute Keita for Sergio, but on further reflection, a couple of things come to mind:

    Guardiola knew that the game would become more wide open. Immediately after the restart, Alves was moving up more assertively on the right flank. As both sides searched for the winning goal to avoid extra time, RM’s press would be less effective against a Barca side utilizing its full creative attacking capabilities than previously. Although Busquets has the skill set to attack goal, it does not seem to be in his nature to attack aggressively, whereas Keita is a natural attacker with a mind for goal. He has a knack for knowing where to be to finish a attack.

    Secondly: Busquets did not have his finest game and perhaps Pep knew he was flagging and would be a detriment in a situation where Barcelona needed to push forward with energy.

    Thirdly: With the introduction of Cesc into the game, Pep knew that he had the technical and positional ability to control play out of the back should Madrid continue to be effective with their high pressing (the combined ability of Xavi, Iniesta, and Cesc ensured this).

    Although Keita would not be instrumental in the final minutes of the game, his introduction makes complete sense in this perspective and the work rate of Fabregas completely masked any positional deficiencies Keita might have brought to the game.

    1. Notice who would have had the next chance on the ball if Messi hadn’t arrived in time to finish on the winning goal. An argument could be made that Adriano’s pass was intended for Keita who was in perfect position to finish if Messi hadn’t gotten to the ball first. Busquets almost certainly would not have been where Keita was.

    2. Yes, the 3 subs that Pep made for this match were faultless and tactically right on the button.

      Adriano for Villa
      Keita for Busquets
      Fabregas for Pedro

      You’re right when you say that Busquets wouldn’t have been in the same position as Keita was when Messi scored. As well as the scoring potential that his position had, Keita was also protection for Messi on his left. It meant that a Madrid defender couldn’t come too close to Messi from that direction, and gave him the space to take the ball and score.

  28. Pondering over the lineup Barcelona had on the field, and where they were playing on the pitch, during the 5+ minutes between Benzema’s goal and Messi’s winner, I stumbled across a new thought: With Cesc coming in (for Pedro, which necessitated Adriano’s move to the right wing to keep width there) and playing, ostensibly, in central midfield and shading to the left, and with Alves immediately pushing forward, Barcelona was relentlessly attacking the back triangle of Carvalho, Marcelo, and Coentrao on the right side, producing 4 dangerous situations on that side alone in 5 minutes of play, the last one resulting in the goal. With Villa out of the game and Cesc being everywhere on the pitch, it occurred to me to wonder what was going on over on the left side with only Iniesta and Abidal covering. Ronaldo had already switched to his right wing before the Benzema goal, and presumably, Barcelona would be susceptible to a well coordinated attack spearheaded by an aggressive run from Ramos, whose defensive responsibilities were considerably lightened.

    On reviewing the video of those five minutes, it was clear that Iniesta’s responsibility was to keep width on the left side. Euler does a great job of pointing out that the final goal was the really the result of a corner kick, which is key (and something I had forgotten when I thought about Keita‘s presence in the box). Barcelona played a short corner between Xavi and Messi and then worked the ball back to Mascherano. Again, as Euler points out, this could be interpreted as typical passive Barcelona play (although anybody who thinks that Barcelona plays passively is delusional): instead of attacking on a corner kick, they play a series of backward passes to a central defender (who just happens to be deadly accurate with his long balls). The rub to this is the fact that the defensive midfielder, Keita, and a central defender, Pique, have held their attack positions on the back side of the corner kick. Their decision not to track back to their normal positions clearly indicates that the attack on the corner kick not only wasn’t over, it hadn’t yet really begun.

    The series of passes back to Mascherano led to the Madrid team pushing out to regain its shape. Higuain moves out to press Masch while Kaka plays the passing lane to Alves, who was covered by Benzema in any case. Xavi is tracking back into the middle of the field while Coentrao and Ronaldo are pushing out after him. Cesc’s sneaky little run over to the wide right, as Euler points out, does indeed create numerical disparity of 2 v 1 (Adriano and Cesc versus Marcelo, but it is not the only relevant numerical advantage: Coentrao and Ronaldo have left Messi behind leaving Barcelona with a 3 v 2 advantage over the entire right front line. Carvalho cannot come out to cover Adriano because it would leave Messi in the clear. One could forgive Coentrao and Ronaldo for their positioning because they wouldn’t have assumed that two defensive players would be so advanced on a ball being played from midfield by a central defender.

    But because Pique and Keita have stayed so far forward, it creates yet another numerical advantage for Barcelona of 5 v 4 over the entire front line. Euler states that Madrid made no defensive errors on this goal, but I humbly suggest that Coentrao and Ronaldo failed to recognize the numerical advantage and did not scramble back to cover Messi as the ball is being played over the top to Cesc. Iniesta is dragging Xabi completely out of the play on the left and Pepe cannot abandon his position because it would leave Ramos in a 2 v 1 situation on the backside of the goal, which could easily lead to a tap in by Pique. Cesc’s recognition of the advantage and the speed with which Messi and Adriano complete the play is breathtaking. Cesc’s brilliant ball to Messi freezes Carvalho and Coentrao’s failure to get back on Messi as the ball is played over the top is exposed. Even when Cesc has the ball at his feet, Coentrao (who looked exhausted by the end of the first half and was so tired by the second half that he was egregiously late on almost every tackle) is still jogging nonchalantly back toward Messi. Only as Cesc plays his non-intuitive ball to Messi does Coentrao really start to run back. As the ball goes into the back of the net, he is holding up his hands as if to say to Pepe, ‘Why didn’t you cover Messi’s run?’. Although Pepe did drift off of Keita, he had to try to cover both Keita and Messi’s position. If he had moved only to cover Messi, Pepe would have left the middle of the goal wide open for Keita to tap the ball in.

    With Alves pushing up over these final minutes and Abidal basically responsible for containing any Ronaldo run on the right, Pep was playing hyper aggressive tactics. It is impossible to believe that positional play by the entire Barcelona team on the final goal was extemporaneous. Clearly this was the work of a master mind.

    1. Wow. Thank you for this very detailed analysis, adopted cule! I can actually picture in my mind everything that’s happening and the positioning of the players even without having to watch the replay.

      And I’m amazed even more to know everything that happened in those dying minutes of the game was planned and rehearsed and that everyone was ready to execute such a tactic.

      Just when people were wondering why Keita should be coming in, this analysis, makes it all clear and wow – Pep. Have no words for his brilliance. And the quality of our team to execute perfectly. Wow.

      This of course is what makes Mourinho lose his mind. He is MILES away from Pep.

      Despite our poor defensive positioning during RM’s corners, having conceded two equalizing away goals – Pep and the team knew what to do if something like that happened. We were prepared to play a clasico and win even when we weren’t fully fit and had new players without much practice with us. We were prepared to beat our deficiencies with the perfect masterplan by Pep. Wow.

      Just wow. Keep these sort of analysis coming, adopted cule. Thanks again. VISCA BARCA!!!!

  29. Real Madrid was the better team in the first leg of the Spain SuperCopa but in the second leg everything changed. We saw that bringing Pique, Xavi, Busquests and Pedro really made the difference. We saw the midfield stronger and there more effective passes than the first leg. We also saw the defense stronger bringing back Pique into the starting 11. Eric Abidal really wasn’t playing well as centre back than he does at left back as we could tell from the two legs.
    I was quite confused how Pep played Adriano has a Wing Forward but in the end, him, Messi and Fabregas really were connecting together and made the last goal and inspiration to watch. Fabregas really will be a key in the midfielder not just now but in the future when Xavi goes.

Comments are closed.