Ladies and gentlemen of BFB welcome to one of those oh so rare Isaiah-less previews. Our dear valiant leader has left us for his annual sabbatical. A trek to a certain altar of insanity called March Madness where he err…watches a lot of basketball. Sixty four teams enter the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament, only one leaves happy. In totally arbitrary and false statistical terms that would make Isaiah cry, this means that he has a 1 in 64 chance to come out exuberant and a 63 in 64 chance of ending up in a fetal position wailing in despair, a fate with which, being a University of Michigan alum, I am all too familiar with; having been subjected to it by Isaiah’s Buckeyes for the last six years no less. So, let’s hope our guy comes out happy. Thinking of you, the people, Isaiah wrote one of his literary master pieces i.e. previews with the intention of submitting it today. However, due to a horrible mishap, it got left behind and lost forever [not really] which means you fools now have to suffer the even worse fate of a preview written by me. So, enough basketball, let’s talk about our version of March Madness. The UEFA Champions League is back!
What can I say about Stuttgart? Isaiah already covered the historical background while entertaining us with his erudition and masterful prose and Kevin then laid down the law on what was possibly one of the worse Barcelona performances in the Guardiola era. So, what else is there to say? How about a rather pessimistic and over-analytical breakdown of what went wrong in the first leg with video followed by a rather less pessimistic but still overly analytical and long winded explanation of what we may see in the second leg (albeit sans video) and finalized with team news, line-ups, and a prediction? I’m sorry guys, but this is what you get when you get a former banker turned pseudo-engineer writing a preview instead of a world class journalist or writer. Mea culpa, in advance.
What can we take away from the away leg of this tie? First of all, we were lucky as hell. The first leg was a perfect storm of Barcelona ineptitude and Stuttgart effectiveness at times. We could have easily conceded two or three more goals had it not been for a brilliant Valdes. Even 20 minutes playing like we did in the first half of that leg will result in annihilation at the hands of a team with more resources than Stuttgart. It cannot happen again. Exactly what cannot happen again? After re-watching the first leg a few times, I have to ask: how about a lot?
I am not going to try to re-do Kevin’s review of the away leg. It’s a hell of a fair, balanced, and accurate account. However, I do want to point out certain additional tactical and strategic point of relevance using the youtubes. I agree with him on our lack of width and our seeming inability to keep the ball, without which, as we all know, we are shit. However, I want to try to convince you to appreciate a couple of different problems that we had other than those Kevin covered and look at how it will be different this time around. For the video examples, let’s us the following youtube clip of the first half of the away leg.
Hustle, Concentration, and Intensity
There is a cliché in American football that says “in the end, it’s not so much about the X’s and the O’s but rather it’s about the Jimmies and the Joes”. It gets annoying after a while but that does not take away from it being very true and also applying to soccer. We could have Michels himself as the coach and it would not mean a damn thing if the players don’t run hard, work hard, pass well, position themselves well, and execute the strategy. However, our Jimmies and Joes for the most part underperformed while Stuttgart executed their plan, at least in the first half, admirably. They did not do any super special tactical change up nor do they have more extraordinary individuals than teams we face week in and week out. Instead, they just simply outplayed us. They were more disciplined, structured, composed, and, most worryingly, worked harder.
We like to pound our chests and say that when we are on, nobody plays like we do and nobody can beat us. That’s true. However, we sometimes forget that this supposition is based on all of our world class talent giving their all both before and during each game. If a single cog starts slacking, then our machine slows down and another team with less talent but at maximum effort can beat us. Why am I ranting about effort, Jimmies, and Joes? Before going into more technical analysis of the first game, it’s important to understand that the game is played on the field. If Xavi doesn’t hit his passes, Iniesta puts himself constantly out of position, Yaya jogs all over the pitch without regard for positional sense, and Marquez is lazy enough to get pushed off a ball by Hleb then no gameplan can save us and no gameplan is necessary to eliminate us. The way we play the game is unique because it is hard as hell to execute and we are privileged to have great players capable of executing it. They are so great that sometimes they make the very hard appear easy and we forget how truly hard it is until they don’t play great.
Make no mistake, a lot of what happened in the first leg is not rocket science; some of our guys just did not play well and sleepwalked for stretches. All the skill and talent in the world does us no good if the guy’s don’t leave it all on the pitch. This sounds cliché-ish, right? Maybe it is but let’s look at a few sequences:
- 1:34-1:40(pause)- Messi slips and misses and open cut back to a crashing Xavi. Stuttgart recovers with their whole back 7 inside the box. Xavi and Busi are in or around the box so that means we have four defenders and Yaya against three Stuttgart players. It should be no problem. However, let’s look at effort. You see that white blur in the middle of the screen at 1:40. That’s Sammi Khedira. A few second ago, he was inside his own box but now is on a long bursting run going the other way. Shouldn’t somebody pick him up? Granted, maybe Yaya and Marquez thought that Puyol had fouled Cacau and that the play was stopped. However, you have to play to the whistle and Khedira was on that run even before the supposed foul. That is no excuse.
- 1:40-1:50– Molinaro thinks quick and lobs a pass to the wide open Khedira and suddenly we are in a world of trouble. Pique is marking Povregnyak (their #9) while Maxwell is marking Gebhart (#13, their left winger), both of them doing their jobs when suddenly Khedira busts free. Where are Marquez and Yaya? Jogging back. Damnit! The first rule if a counterattack runs by you is to burst your lungs out and get help to your defenders before the attackers’ help arrives. Yaya and Marquez are effing jogging! Maxwell has to leave Gebhart (#13) to pick up Khedira, praying that he can hinder him enough until help arrives (not knowing the help is jogging back) thus leaving a wide open Gebhart on the right. Maxwell hinders Khedira enough that Povregnyak, who has the right idea and is making a diagonal wrong to drag Pique out of position, does not have time to do this and Pique reacts in time to block Gebhart’s shot. This might be considered a slightly fluke play due to the “play on” but Khedira’s hard run and our midfield’s inability to equal his effort is what I want to highlight. Even if the foul had been called, one of our guys should have matched Khedira’s run. This is an example of what I mean when I say that they out worked us.
What will be different: On the bright side, this is very fixable. Sometimes “be smarter”, “work harder”, and “play better” is all a coach has to batter into players’ heads to improve a team. A disturbing trend in this season’s team is coming out asleep for the first half, get into somewhat of a hole, and then turn it back on for the second half. We cannot afford to keep tempting fate like this. During last season’s CL run, we turned grey performances away only to jump on teams with astonishing ferocity from the opening whistle when we got to the Camp Nou. Hopefully we come out wide awake and fully motivated tomorrow. I know it sounds stupid considering my penchant for fancy diagrams and tactical phrases but sometimes it’s that simple.
Diagonal Cover and Positioning
However, it was not only in the hustle department that we were lacking. Our high pressure scheme implies and overload towards the ball. An inherent weakness is that we open ourselves up for effective cross field passes. However, we compensate for this by pressuring the player on the ball close enough to prevent him from either seeing the pass or getting it off. Additionally, we always have a player assigned to provide diagonal cover and delay or turn opposing vertical runs towards the touchline until help can arrive. The most dangerous problem we had in the first leg, impotent possession and lack of width not withstanding was our positioning. Stuttgart got quite a few good looks in counterattacks and that was a huge problem which we were lucky not to lament. Sometimes by focusing on how we score we forget that breaking up counterattacks is an equally important part of our game. With Abidal, Keita and Alves (our three most athletic midfield and defensive players) out, we had to be more diligent than ever in our positioning but we were not. Clips:
- 2:07-2:12- What’s one of the best ways to break our overload high pressure? Crossfield passes. What happens when we let the opposing player turn and our forwards don’t pressure hard enough? The ball gets played to their right fullback who instantly has a highway of open space ahead of him. Part of this is the nature of our high pressure scheme but part of it is faulty positioning and effort. If a player gets off an accurate crossfield pass when we are applying high pressure, the receiving player will have space to turn and run.
- 2:12-2:22- Molinaro is somehow afforded a free run right into the edge of the box where he puts in a dangerous pass to Cacau. How did this happen? As far as I could tell: lax pressure which allowed the crossfield pass, great movement upfront by Stuttgart, Puyol sticking to Hleb instead of passing him off, and Yaya being out of position thus being unable to provide lateral cover, and once again jogging back.
What will be different:For starters, judging on present form, Busquets will likely start at Defensive Mid over the Yaya. We will need our man mountain this year but lately he has simply been off form and a UCL game is not the time to get it back. Secondly, Alves is back which will give us extra pace to track back counterattacks and relieve the pressure on Maxwell to bomb forward to provide width thus allowing him to be more careful. Furthermore, it takes away the need for Xavi to hug the right wing as much thus giving him more freedom to set a solid base along Busquets and provide cover when needed. Thirdly, although Milito is no roadrunner, he has much more pace than Marquez so as to keep up with Cacau when the situation calls for it. This is a perfect game for Keita but alas, although he is on the squad list, he has not been given the medical clearance as of yet.
Fullbacks: Their guys were good, ours were not
Coming into the away leg, we were in something approaching an injury crisis. On defense, we had Puyol and Maxwell at fullback and Marquez and Pique at centerback. In the midfield, we had just lost Keita to injury and were coming out with Busi, Yaya, and a just returned from injury before anticipated Xavi. Up front, with a slumping Henry, we had Iniesta, Ibra, and Messi. Hmm… Where are our obvious personnel weaknesses in this line-up? Fullbacks. What did Gross (Stuttgart’s coach) do? He came out with a defensive structure that is most exploitable by attacking fullbacks, daring our FB’s to bomb up and our other players to use them. In the following sequence we can see this in action as well as a common theme that Kevin rightly points out is frequently affecting us this season: bad decisions.
- 1:22(pause)- Stuttgart here copies a page from Chelsea. It’s a 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree in the phase when we are starting our possession. Something we had trouble solving last season but by no means a grand innovation. However, it’s a wise choice because it exploited one of our personnel weaknesses for this match: our fullbacks. This look flat out outnumbers our central midfield thus making it harder to supply our forwards and make it to the edge of their box. Look at how bracketed Xavi, Yaya, and Busi are. The way to bypass this pressure is through the wings. As their front three pivot to pressure the ball, one of the fullbacks will always be wide open. Look at Puyol (also note the huge space behind him). Wide open. This was a theme during the game. The weakness of their scheme could be exploited by our fullbacks both of which were second choice players somewhat lacking in pace and recovery speed.
- 1:22-1:34- Maxwell does not like what he sees, gives the ball back to Pique, who then reads the situation and changes the point of attack. This was well done. However, Puyol was the open one, not Messi. Right read, wrong decision…which turned out well because Molinaro, the Stuttgart left FB, muffed the clearance which led to Messi getting loose behind their defense. This was a bit of a lucky bounce since Messi will usually not come down with an aerial long ball against a much bigger opponent but ideally, Alves would have gotten the ball and advanced it into the danger area, Messi would go to meet him and if Molinaro followed, it would have opened up a space for Ibra or Xavi to run into and all sorts of fun chaos would have ensued. Also note around 1:23 how hard their midfield three ran to the other side with when we switched the POA
That sequence is just an example. A disturbing trend in Alves’ absence was the effectiveness of opposing attacking fullbacks. Against Atletico Madrid, the same story unfolded. The lack of Alves’ forward forays and Messi being played as a 10 meant that the opposing right FB felt comfortable enough to bomb forward, often to great effect. On the other side, Henry’s slump has resulted in Iniesta or Bojan playing too far back and, again, letting the FB feel comfortable enough to make forward forays. 0
Throughout the game, Puyol got dominated by Molinaro and Hleb. Part of it was due to his teammates ignoring him and part of it was a lack of chemistry with Xavi and Messi. However, he also got run by like he was a traffic cone quite a few times. Often times, the battles on the wings between winger/fullback tandems are simply about imposing their will. Poor Puyol got caught out in no man’s land often, ignored in possession and attack but also caught up field at the same time. It was not a good time. Maxwell, although generally more sound than his counterpart (as he should be given his age and natural position) was also guilty of the occasional screw up.
However, just like Messi and Xavi share the blame for letting Puyol be abused, Iniesta and Busquets also get their share of the blame for some defensive blunders. Why them? Because in defensive phase, the fullback usually picks up a striker or a winger, a marauding fullback is the defending winger or midfielder’s job. Maxwell and Puyol were guilty of getting caught up field and not imposing their will. However, the likes of Busi and Iniesta often fell asleep when dealing with opposing fullbacks on overlaps. Example:
- 2:34-2:54-This is the Stuttgart goal. Notice Celozzi (#27) the right FB and Gebhart (#13) the right winger. They are the throw in team. At the throw in, we have Busi on Celozzi and Maxwell on Gebhart. Once the ball goes inside, Busi shifts in as he should (being a midfielder during this game, after all). Notice Iniesta. He gets caught ball watching and jogs after the ball, leaving Celozzi all alone and two on one with Gebhart against Maxwell. On the wing, in overlap situations it’s the same concept: the winger helps his fullback. Maxwell does the “right thing” and marks the deeper man (Gebhart) thus leaving Celozzi a free cross which Iniesta somewhat half-heartedly contests and Cacau converts into a goal. The cross was perfect and I can’t fault Puyol in the sense that he was in the right position but simply got outjumped and beaten by a perfect ball. The point of this sequence is to illustrate how we repeatedly forgot about their fullbacks and also how we seemed a bit “asleep” intensity-wise. Fluke? I think they deserved it.
As if that’s not enough, this sequence highlights the full range of our ineffectiveness in the first half of the away leg:
- 4:16-4:40- Try not to cry. Where do we begin?
- Pause at 4:17-Iniesta makes the wrong pass (to a covered Messi instead of an open Busi). However, look at Maxwell. WTF?!?! What is he doing there!? Busi is in good position to cover but Maxwell is so far back that Iniesta has to back Busi up in case of a break. Messi then promptly gets dispossessed and the counter is on. In fairness to Busi, he is in proper position to provide cover but is embarrassingly dribbled. However, he does his job, recovers, and finally stops the ball carrying midfielder against the touchline. However, Celozzi (#27) the right FB takes off and overlaps Busi’s man. At this point Maxwell is only now catching up but can only hope to pickk up Khedira who receives Busi’s man’s pass and promptly passes to the wide open Celozzi.
- Pause at 4:29- This is good positioning by Yaya and Pique. However, Pique slips and Povregnyak is wide open past Cacau because the entire backline had to shift to their left to pick out the threat. Meanwhile, Stuttgart has an extra man because a fullback is occupying half of our defense. Meanwhile, the guy who was supposed to track back with him (Iniesta) is jogging back.
- 4:29-4:40-Pique slips and Celozzi goes by him but Busi pops the ball away but it falls to Khedira who pops it to Cacau who promptly proceeds to pathetically overpower Marquez. Argh…
The point of this sequence is that Maxwell got caught out WAY out of position while Iniesta did not have the energy or inclination to track back and cover for him. It’s not meant to single them two out but to illustrate how important it is for wingers to be on the same page as their fullbacks and understand their roles.
What will be different: Again, that man’s name comes up: Alves. We often take him for granted or get fed up by his acting or tendency to freelance. However, he is among the best in the world at what he does. The reason he plays like a thug, play acts, and talks trash is the same one for which he runs his guts out, and goes all out: imposing his will on the right wing. His presence alone with his feel for the position, chemistry with Xavi and Messi, and pace will be a big difference from an exhausted Puyol. Furthermore, expect Henry to keep Celozzi honest with not only his sIashing runs but also his work rate on defense. Finally, expect Xavi and Iniesta to do a better job of covering Dani or Maxwell on their forward forays. Assuming that Gross repeats a similar tactic, the game will be won or lost on the wings. Our winger/fullback/midfielder tandems better be ready. If there is a chance to exploit Stuttgart, I have a feeling it will be there. If Molinaro and/or Celozzi feel the need to get cheeky again, we need to exploit the vacant spaces that they leave open behind them. Henry and Messi have to take better advantage of that space. Either way, in my opinion, Henry and Alves will make the difference.
Recap and Prediction
So, in summary, we screwed up and were lucky to turn it around in the second half and come out with our hides still intact. Tomorrow, it’s going to be a different story, personnel wise. Xavi is back to full health, Ibra is rested, Milito has progressed immensely in his recovery, and Alves is back. This will go a long way to correcting some of our failings in the away leg. Alves will be especially useful.
After re-watching the first leg, I was very impressed by the movement of Stuttgart’s forward line. Povregnyak is much faster than he appears despite his size and Cacau is the real deal, a smart dangerous forward who uses movement to maximum effect. Our centerbacks have to be alert, communicate well on hand offs, and must have diagonal cover against Cacau and Kehdani’s bursts from midfield. We need to see a disciplined midfield and keep a solid base. Once we adjusted late in the second half of the away leg, we began to look like we could comfortably take care of business. Thus, I don’t think we need any serious tactical shifts. Our biggest tactical problem besides width was the wings and that can be solved with Henry pushing one of their fullbacks deep and Alves providing an extra man in midfield. We need to be alert, be smart, and keep the damn ball. We will have to see if Gross comes out with a similar strategy but, with their players and our giving an equal amount of effort and being equally alert, we should win and comfortably too. If that’s not enough, the Camp Nou is also wider, with properly maintained grass, and it does not have a crane inside.
Finally, and most importantly, we should expect for the team to be fully motivated and awake from the start of the first half. We cannot keep sleep walking into first half’s. My Jimmies and Joes rant still applies. We have to play well and leave it all out on the field. We do that and get a little bit of luck and we should be through. I do not expect a walk in the park. Then again, I didn’t against Bayern and Lyon during last season either 😀 .
Squad (*note: two of these guys will be left out):Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Piqué, Márquez, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Ibrahimovic, Messi, Bojan, Henry, Sergio Busquets, Pedro, Milito, Jeffren, Maxwell, Touré, Keita and Fontàs.
Projected Line-Up:Valdés, Maxwell, Milito, Pique Alves, Iniesta, Busquets, Xavi, Yaya, Henry, Ibrahimovic, and Messi
[UPDATE!!!] I wake up todayonly to read that Xavi injured himself in the very last training session yesterday. He’s out for 10-15 days. After writing this whole damn thing, this changes everything. Keita has practiced but he has not received an official medical release. Somehow, I don’t think a UCL start is the best way to debut after a long lay-off (unless you are Xavi of course) so Yaya should get the start. In the meantime, the Yaya-Busi combo was not so good last time around and Iniesta has been below his standards lately. However, the Busi-Yaya tandem has a lot of potential if both guys play up to their level. The absence of Xavi will put a huge burden on Iniesta’s shoulders to manage the game and control the tempo on his own. The last time that happend, we won but he failed, in my opinion. It will be more important than ever to not concede because our possession will not be the same. All we can do is believe in Iniesta and hope that Yaya is motivated and puts in his best performance in quite some time. Like I said, positioning and diagonal cover is absolutely vital, we need our man mountain to dominate NOW. So yeah, I sure as hell am revising my predicted line-up and game prediction.
Prediction: 3-0 FC Barcelona (4-1 aggregate) I think we finally learn our lesson and come out with a point to prove. The Camp Nou is a different beast on European nights, Pep will have the boys fired up, and the return of Alves will be one of the key tipping points. 2-1 FC Barcelona (3-2 aggregate) Xavi’s absence, given the late form of Iniesta and Yaya, changes everything. I now expect a tight cagey game. Hopefully Iniesta and Yaya surprise the hell out of me and come out like gangbusters but my pessimistic cynical self is somewhat more worried now. This affects two very important parts of our game: possession and diagonal cover. Hold on to your hats, folks. It may be a tight one. If Yaya and Iniesta regain their form then we should take care of business but that’s a big if at this point.
The press conferences have so far been nothing outside of the usual bland chatter. Pep, understandably, has called for “maximum concentration” and “maximum tension” while Gross remarked how “we must stay together and not be afraid”; nothing juicy or controversial.
Regarding our team news, Keita has been called up to the squad even though he has not been given official medical clearance to play. On the other hand, Puyol is now a serious doubt for this game with continuing back pain. However, given Milito’s recent form, this loss should be manageable but we should all hope that the Captain’s back pain is not one of those lingering niggling injuries that haunt a player throughout the season. We need Captain Caveman for the rest of the season.
Time: 3:45pm EST (New York) Check your local time here.
Oh, and just for the heck of it. Congrats, Samu!