Barcelona's first away match of the European season is a trip to Germany for the second match in the UEFA Champions League group stage, on Wednesday at Borussia-Park against Borussia Mönchengladbach.
The Blaugrana had an amazing start to the European Cup thanks to a fantastic 7-0 victory over Scottish champions Celtic, with the Catalan giants putting on a 90-minute masterpiece, dominating the opposition and scoring lots and lots of goals. It was a true spectacle from the best team in the world, but it won't be as easy against Gladbach.
First of all, Borussia is a better side with more high-quality players, and that alone brings more danger to a Barça defense which was barely troubled by the Hoops' attackers two weeks ago. Gladbach are one of the most exciting teams in the Bundesliga, and they have young, talented footballers all over the pitch.
More importantly, Gladbach have a better manager. All due respect to Brendan Rodgers, but Andre Schubert is a bright tactician with very good ideas and an ability to convince his players that his style of play can work against any side. They didn't have a very good night against Manchester City in their group stage opener, but Gladbach are a monster when playing at home, and their intensity is nearly impossible to match at the Borussia-Park.
But if Barça want to win again to reach six points and stay at the top of Group C before two consecutive meetings with Pep Guardiola, they have to be as intense as Gladbach, and play great tactical/technical football to earn a key victory at a tough environment. Borussia is a great side, but there are things to exploit in the tactical side, and we're going to take a look at them.
Gladbach play with a base 3-4-3 formation, with wingbacks that offer width and plenty of movement in the middle of the park. Defensive balance is a big thing for German coaches, and Schubert does that with four players sitting back while the rest of the team takes over on offense.
This is against Manchester City on the road, but they don't change it too much regardless of the opponent or if they play at home. The three center-backs stay home and Cristoph Kramer sits in front of them, and those four players rarely join the attack. The wingbacks (Fabian Johnson and Oscard Wendt) slot themselves very high and wide on the pitch, which gives Gladbach the width option. One of the two strikers up front (normally Andre Hahn or Thorgan Hazard) positions himself between the opposing center-backs, and then Raffael, Mahmoud Dahoud and Lars Stindl take care of chance creation in the middle.
That trio is the most important piece of the Gladbach attack, and their movement without the ball aims to take opposing defenders out of position and create gaps. Raffael (or Hazard/Hahn) always moves out wide and tries to take his center-back with him, which opens space inside the box for Dahoud, Stindl and one of the wingbacks to penetrate. Barça play a zone defense, meaning that defenders don't mark a specific player or chase him around the pitch, which is an easy solution for Gladbach's constant movement.
Borussia's wingbacks rarely cross into the box since there's no aerial threat on the side, which means Barça's defense has to pay attention to low, pull-back crosses for the arriving players in the box, especially the midfielders (Stindl/Dahoud). Gladbach is a quick team that doesn't take players on, and they prefer to pass their way to goal instead of dribbling it. Piqué and Mascherano need to be ready to anticipate plays rather than wait for players to take them on, and their awareness will be key for Barça to keep a clean sheet.
Now onto the defense, and that's where Gladbach are really interesting-slash-crazy. Schubert plays a mixed zone, meaning players have to keep a base position but will individually mark players if need be. Despite playing with a 3-4-3 formation, they don't defend with five at the back (which is the most natural variation), but with a four-man "cover" backline. For instance: if the ball is on the right side, the left center-back becomes a left-back, the central defender goes left, the right CB goes to the center, and the right wing-back covers the fourth slot. There's another four-man line in front of them, and the team then defends in a basic 4-4-2.
If the ball moves to the left side, the "cover" process is reversed, and the center-backs move to the right side until the wingback becomes a left-back, always keeping a 4-man backline:
But as you can see in both images from the Manchester City game, Gladbach struggle to stay compact, and there are gaps in between the lines, especially on the wings. That's where Barça's full-backs could be huge, with constant overlapping runs that will eventually catch one of the Gladbach wing defenders off guard. Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba are very good runners as we know, and they could be the key players to break Borussia's deadlock.
But if there's one area of Gladbach's scheme that Barça can definitely take advantage is transition. Borussia had a very tough time whenever City escaped on the break, and even though they had four players to keep defensive balance, they always ended up in numerical disadvantage on the counter.
Barça have mastered the counter attack under Luis Enrique, and with the quickness of Arda Turan, Neymar and Luis Suárez, the Blaugrana might have some very good fast break opportunities throughout the game. The two plays highlighted above happened with City breaking from corners, since Gladbach struggled to quickly come back from the box. If Barça find a similar transition problem from the hosts, then they might kill the game on the counter without trying too much in possession.
Barça will probably play in a 4-4-2, with Neymar and Suárez having the freedom to move around the final third and always be close to the box. Arda Turan will probably stay on the left side, with Rakitic having double-duty on offense, helping Busquets and Iniesta on the buildup while providing width and support for Sergi Roberto on the wing.
Schubert will use his usual 3-4-3, and count on Dahoud, Stindl and Raffael to create problems with the ball. Dahoud is a joy to watch, a young box-to-box beast that is very good on offense and defense. Gladbach are good, young and hungry, but not talented enough to truly hurt Barça if the Blaugrana are having a good night. Barça should win this, but not comfortably. One thing is for sure: it'll be fun.