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Barcelona 5-0 Córdoba: Tactical Review

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Barça got their title challenge back on track by steamrollering a dismal Córdoba side on Saturday. The only negative was the non-existent connection between Leo Messi and Luis Suárez.

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Barcelona’s 5-0 win over Córdoba was perhaps the easiest victory we will see at Camp Nou all season. The visitors offered absolutely nothing and were outclassed from beginning to end, while Barça never got out of second gear. Luis Enrique will be pleased that the opponents’ lethargy and disinterest never made his players ease off, but despite their professionalism and ruthlessness it wasn’t a complete performance. There are still a few tactical issues Lucho needs to solve.

The only eye-catching aspect of Barça’s starting line-up was the new combination on the right flank. Martín Montoya was at right-back, Ivan Rakitić on that side of midfield and Lionel Messi nominally played as the right-sided forward. It didn’t really work. Messi’s regular drifts inside strengthened Barça in the centre but left them somewhat disjointed on the right, and Montoya isn't the Dani Alves circa 2010 powerhouse needed to make up for that. In the first half especially, Barça were too narrow and Messi’s play in the attacking third was predictable and easily nullified.

By contrast, Barça’s attacks down the left were consistently potent and productive. Pedro started instead of Neymar for the second league game in a row and while he was the villain against Getafe last week, missing by far Barça’s best chance, this time around his movement was extremely effective and his finishing decisive.

As well as netting the opening goal, Pedro showed the tactical intelligence his supporters rave about, coming inside at the correct times and thereby vacating space that Jordi Alba exploited to great effect. The majority of Barça’s chances were created from the zone in which Pedro and Alba did most of their work and the strength of their understanding contrasted starkly with that of the personnel on the other flank.

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Córdoba came into the game expecting a thumping and did nothing to prevent one. Their setup was uninspired and their performance abject. Manager Miroslav Đukić started with the same 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 his side have used for most of this season and his team played as most visiting sides do at the Camp Nou, surrendering the ball and looking to counter down the flanks. From the kick-off, though, they were simply too awful at the basics to trouble Barça.

The pace and directness of Nabil Ghilas was Córdoba’s best hope of breaking out of their own half and creating something, but their passing out from the back wasn’t anywhere near accurate enough to get Ghilas into the game or put Barça under sustained pressure. They had a couple of snapshots from wide areas a long way out, but they never genuinely threatened Bravo’s goal.

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If there was a lesson to be learned from the Getafe game – and from every other match this season in which Barça’s attack has been stifled – it is that high levels of aggression, commitment and discipline are needed in midfield. Córdoba were nowhere near aggressive, committed or  disciplined enough to make life difficult. Standing and watching while Piqué, Mascherano and Busquets start an endless number of attacks is a recipe for disaster.

It wasn't just Barça's deepest players that had a free pass to play. In the very first attack of the game, Montoya and Rakitić both found time and space to hit killer passes into the box. While Montoya's was cleared, Rakitić’s led to Pedro’s goal. If your aim is to compete with Barça, you just can’t stand off them and wait. That said, Rakitić’s pass and Pedro’s run and finish both deserve great credit.

With Barça a goal to the good, the first half followed a clear and very familiar pattern. Barça had almost all of the possession, with Piqué and Mascherano starting moves in plenty of space and tending to pass to the wing-backs, who were almost always available. This happened any number of times and Córdoba were happy to stand off and let Barça come forward.

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The closer Barça got to the area, however, the narrower they tended to get. The vast majority of these central attacks failed to produce anything because Córdoba had such a huge numerical advantage in that area. The more promising openings were created by combinations in wide areas which allowed Alba and Montoya to get into the box and pick a pass or have a shot themselves.

Part of the reason that Barça struggled to put together that many dangerous attacks was that Messi came inside to play almost as a number ten. Messidependencia is a known issue but with Luis Suárez playing as a centre-forward the disconnect between midfield and attack seems to get even worse. The relationship between Messi and Suárez is seemingly non-existent: Barça played 796 passes during the match, but Messi and Suárez only combined for 10 of them.

The problem wasn’t that the two were far apart and consequently couldn't link up. On the contrary, Messi played all over the pitch and usually took the ball in perfect areas from which to supply Suárez.

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The problem is more fundamental: the two forwards play on entirely different wavelengths. Messi is calm and methodical and has no problem playing against deep defensive blocks, while Suárez is at his best as an instinctive and high-intensity counter-attacker, bursting into space and using his incredible ability to improvise to get to the goal. The two styles don’t seem to overlap at all and the uneasy balance between two of Barça’s star attackers gives Luis Enrique a big problem to solve.

Nonetheless, Barça remained in total control here, patiently moving the ball forward, in no real hurry due to their lead and level of comfort. For their part, Córdoba simply hoped to keep the score down. Pleasingly, the influence of Andrés Iniesta began to grow in the second half, and it was thanks to his appreciation for space that Barça doubled their lead in the 53rd minute.

The move started with Iniesta giving the ball to Messi in the centre circle. Córdoba midfielder Patrick Ekeng stayed high up the pitch, leaving a pocket of space in the middle of his midfield. Iniesta dropped into the space, received the pass from Messi and slipped Pedro in on the left. Pedro kept his cool and squared for Suárez, who took his time and stabbed under Juan Carlos for 2-0.

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Even when two goals behind, Córdoba showed very little ambition. Đukić changed to an even more defensive 4-1-4-1 to close the space off that Iniesta exploited to create the second goal and waited for the final whistle to go. He knew his side was David fighting Goliath, but at no point did he show the invention and desire needed to overcome the odds. At times, you would have thought Barça were the side that needed to bridge a two-goal gap.

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To his credit, Luis Enrique made sensible substitutions. With the match won so early and the opposition singularly failing to compete, it made little sense to keep key midfielders on, so Rakitić was replaced by Xavi, who gave Barça’s central attacks a better structure and tempo, and Rafinha came on for Iniesta, who carried on where Iniesta left off.

The last quarter of an hour saw Córdoba collapse and Barça amend the scoreline to more accurately reflect their superiority. First, Piqué headed in a Xavi free-kick from the left, which had been won after another dangerous attack on that flank. Then, Messi smashed home a loose ball in the box after Fausto Rossi’s attempted clearance of a corner fell straight at his feet. Finally and most spectacularly, Messi plucked an Alba cross out of the sky with a supernaturally good touch and smashed past Juan Carlos on the turn.

This was not a game in which we learned a great deal about Barça, but after last week’s result and the ensuing meltdown on social networks, it was nice to see a comfortable home win in which a few of the players who were disparaged did well and reminded their critics how valuable they can be. On the flip side, the Messi/Suárez conundrum really needs to be solved as soon as possible.