UEFA Champions League: Chelsea FC vs FC Barcelona: Tactical Analysis

Be very very quiet...I'm hunting wabbits :D

Respect. It’s a key concept in football, and one that draws a lot of attention. In fact, FIFA have a whole campaign based around that very word, and for it means more to some than it does for others. For example, just yesterday a minority of the Chelsea support at Wembley made a commotion during the minute silence for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster and for Piermario Morosini. They felt aggrieved about the timing of their match with Tottenham Hotspur, which was heavily influenced by Liverpool’s refusal to play on the anniversary of such an awful event in their history, and they displayed a lack of respect by failing to honour such a simple request.

Jose Mourinho is perhaps the quintessential example of everything FIFA’s Respect campaign is striving to eliminate; he criticises referees on a regular basis and was heavily involved in the whole Anders Frisk incident a few years back. His open criticism of Frisk and the allegations he made led to some Chelsea fans sending death threats to the Frisk family. As a result of Mourinho’s lack of respect, he had to retire from officiating.

However, I am not going to talk about controversial incidents involving Chelsea (if you didn’t guess from the title!), instead how does respect translate onto the football field, and more specifically, how does respect translate to tactics?

In my eyes, respect is one of football’s most important concepts. It influences almost everything, from individual performances to the performances of entire teams, and leagues in fact. Respect, or lack thereof, can lead to complacency; if it’s clear that you don’t respect your opponent’s ability, it is also clear that you have not prepared well enough. A lack of respect can also lead to violence on the football field; do you think Pepe respected Javier Casquero for example?

On the other hand, respect can also lead to violence or foul play; why do you think Barcelona draw so many fouls from opposing teams? They respect our ability, and conclude that the best way to stop Messi and co is to give them a good kicking. However, is there a right way to show respect to your opponent?

Look at the majority of matches Barcelona play; Barca knock it about in their usual style, while the opposition commits nine or ten men behind the ball. Is that not a sign of respect? Most teams know that if they attempt to fight fire with fire, they will get burnt, so as a mark of respect towards our ability, they sit back. Inevitably, they lose, and the reason? Well, depending on your viewpoint, they are either too respectful, or not respectful enough.

Perhaps you view them as too respectful; after all, maybe Barcelona aren’t as good as people think and that this approach plays into their hands. Maybe you feel that if teams took more risks they would win?

However, I view that ultra-defensive tactic as the ultimate sign of disrespect. Teams give off the impression that they respect Barcelona’s ability by attempting to contain them, but if they truly respected this team and their ability, why aren’t they trying to stop this team rather than simply keep the score down? After all, a team that truly respected Barcelona would not assume that a packed defense alone can stop the Blaugrana.

Look at Real Madrid: in recent matches they have pressed high up the field, attacked quickly on the counter – Real Madrid haven’t tried to keep the score down, they have played to stop Barcelona playing. Sure, their results are not too great, but even the most die-hard Culé would admit that those matches have been the most difficult in some time.

Now, moving onto Pep Guardiola, why else would he watch hours and hours of footage aside from that he respects the opposition? From these videos he constructs plans that don’t attempt to keep the opposition out. He respects the opposition‘s ability so much that he constructs plans that stop them from even getting into their preferred positions, thus eliminating even the threat that they will defeat his side.

But what does this have to do with the Chelsea match on Wednesday? Well, instead of merely accounting for the threat Chelsea possess, Barcelona need to stop that threat entirely. I admit, it sounds a little confusing, but after an example, it should make a little more sense. The following are three examples of threats that Chelsea possess, and what I think should be done to eliminate that threat.

Threat Number One: Ashley Cole at left-back

His best years may be behind him, but I can’t help but worry about Ashley Cole. This is an experienced defender with an axe to grind having lost out to Barcelona in 2009 and in the 2006 final with Arsenal. Considering the way Alves likes to maraud down the line, there will be space for Chelsea to exloit, and Cole is perfect for the job.

Defensively, he is excellent, but much like Alves, his true forte is his attacking ability. Cole is perhaps a little more restrained than Alves, but he can be a key part of a typical Chelsea attack. Over-lapping on the left, he can cross the ball with the best of them (at left-back anyway), while his shooting isn’t too shabby either. He can play one or two touch football, he can dribble, he can head the ball; basically, Cole can do it all. Barcelona will have to respect him on Wednesday if they wish to escape with a favourable result. The question is: how do they do it?

Most teams would show their "respect" by positioning a defense-minded winger on the right (Chelsea’s left) and telling the full-back to "stay at home" a little more often than usual. However, following on from my ideas earlier, if a team truly respected Cole’s ability, they would stop him from surging forward altogether.

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Sure, the temptation to play Pedro on the right must be pretty high, but why try and limit Cole’s impact offensively when you should be trying to eliminate it entirely? Here we have Alexis Sanchez on right-wing, and to stop Cole from getting forward at all, Alexis can do one of two things. Either he stays out wide, hugging the touchline behind Ashley Cole (in a role that might be better suited for one Isaac Cuenca). Ideally, Cole will stop moving forward knowing that Alexis will not track back, and therefore knowing that he is leaving space ripe for exploitation. In that scenario, both Cole gets forward and Chelsea leave space at the back, or he stays back all along and Chelsea’s attack is weaker.

Second option is for Alexis to remain behind Cole, but for the Chilean to take up a position more like an old-fashioned inside-right rather than a right-winger. As with the other scenario, Cole will notice that Alexis is not prepared to track back and therefore he takes the decision to not only stay back, but also to move a little more centrally to account for Alexis’ positioning. This would open up more space for Dani Alves and perhaps even Lionel Messi if the Argentine felt like moving out wide for a period of time.

If not, then Cole will go forward, not only leaving space at the back, but also leaving John Terry (or whoever plays left centre-back) with two players to mark. If Barcelona can manage to pin Cole back for the majority of the game, then Chelsea’s offensive threat will diminish, making our job just that little bit easier.

Strength Number Two: Didier Drogba in attack

Coming off the back of a goal against London rivals Tottenham, Didier Drogba could be in line for a start against Barcelona and considering his actions the last time these two clubs met, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Ivorian will be on the lookout for revenge. Aside from the fact his comments in 2009 showed a distinct lack of respect to Barcelona and to the referee (I mean Chelsea almost deserved to be knocked out for not attacking when Barca had 10 men, but that’s another story); there can be no denying that Drogba is a worrying prospect for any defense.

Just look at the man: over six foot tall, probably about three foot wide, yet he remains as quick, if not quicker than his more slender teammate Fernando Torres. Obviously, Roberto Di Matteo would want Drogba to make a nuisance of himself, hold the ball up where possible and generally frustrate the Barcelona defense with his physicality. What Barcelona could do is dedicate the two central defenders to Drogba once he has the ball, but what’s the point in only looking to defend Drogba once he has the ball when you can defend him before he even makes his first touch?

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This diagram is a bit busy, but each dashed arrow dictates the pressure each Barcelona player should exert on the Chelsea XI. Each player has at least two assignments, although Javier Mascherano is a notable exception, as I have him as the covering defender. If a player manages to escape the pressure, I would want Mascherano to be ready to cover. If a colleague moves out of position I expect Mascherano to cover, purely because he is not only the quicker centre-back, but a lot like Carles Puyol, he thrives in chaos. If there’s chaos in the game, who will react better: the technically adept products of La Masia or the physically imposing Chelsea side?

Barcelona can stop the ball even reaching Drobga by exerting immense pressure on each and every Chelsea player, whether it’s Ivanovic or Terry or Juan Mata, Barcelona have to push the tempo. The faster the game, the less likely Chelsea will keep possession in the rare spells they win the ball off Barca, and the more likely they will resort to the long ball. In their minds, the long ball will ease the pressure and bring Drogba into the game, but that’s why in my diagram there are three players responsible for Drobga. If the ball is launched forward to the Ivorian forward, Barcelona will likely defend it in the same manner they defend Fernando Llorente: with a double – or even triple – team composed of Pique and either Busquets or Puyol.

In an outfield formation likely to compose of seven home-grown players, these guys know the importance of pressure at the right moments, and as they proved against Athletic Bilbao, a fast tempo also plays directly into their hands.

A Barcelona Rondo in action

Threat Number Three: Late runs from midfield

As much as I would have liked to be able to construct a plan to counter-act the set pieces Chelsea will undoubtedly be working on, it’s pretty hard to defend a set piece in any other way than usual. My only thought was to leave three or four players near the half-way and see how that influences the Chelsea backline, but ultimately, that is pretty unlikely. What Barcelona can defend though is the cut-back, with Frank Lampard the obvious danger in that situation.

The former West Ham midfielder has racked up 150 Premier League goals over the course of his glittering career, with a large portion of those goals the result of his late runs and a cut-back from the wing. Raul Meireles also likes to arrive late into the area, but most people have him settling for a place on the bench, so perhaps Ramires and/or Mata will cause a few problems in his expected absence?

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In this final diagram, Kalou is in possession on the left-wing and as one might expect, he is looking to cross the ball, but with only Drogba in the box, he chooses not to release the ball towards the penalty spot. Instead, he surveys the pitch and sees that Lampard and Mata are surging towards the box. Assuming this attack is the result of a well-executed counter; Barcelona may not have got their midfielders back (aside from Busquets) and could be in a spot of bother. Casting my mind back to the Valencia matches, Barcelona were carved apart by those cutbacks/low crosses from Jeremy Mathieu and Chelsea must consider that similar crosses would be their best shot at a goal from open play.

To combat this, Barcelona need to implement that pressure I talked about earlier, bit if Chelsea do get to the byline, they need to capitalise on Chelsea’s lack of numbers in attack, leaving Drogba to Puyol and Pique. If those two can follow his movements and contest for the headers, then it leaves Mascherano free to watch Kalou’s eyes and feet to second guess where he is sending that cross. Masch can step forward to intercept any cutbacks or he can continue running back towards goal and send any low crosses out for a corner kick. Well, ideally anyway.

Whichever way this tie goes, Barcelona are supposed to have the advantage. The Blaugrana are in better form, have better players; even the order of the matches supposedly plays into our favour. However, they can’t and I know they will not get carried away with the thought that the media and some of the fans have been portraying. They will show Chelsea the utmost respect, and by the end of 90 minutes, there will be no cries of UEFAlona or of corruption, only a show of respect towards the better team, whoever that may be.

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