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UEFA Champions League - Barcelona vs. Chelsea - Tactical Review

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Barcelona simply had better finishing

FC Barcelona v Chelsea FC - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Barcelona won the second leg of their encounter with Chelsea by a very imposing margin, 3-0, but the game was much closer than the scoreline suggests. It’s reductionist to say one team had Lionel Messi and the other didn’t, but it’s not too far off from the truth. This was a game where finishing did play a huge role in how it went down, but you know... that’s football. The team that finishes better is much more likely to win, obviously. So when judging a performance we have to judge that as part of it.

Still, Chelsea took 7 shots in Barcelona’s box. Meanwhile Barcelona took 6 in Chelsea’s penalty area. The biggest difference though, is that all 6 of Barcelona’s shots were on target (and 3 were goals). Of Chelsea’s 7, 2 were blocked, 4 were off target, and only 1 was on target. That’s a huge difference and it goes a long way towards explaining the result.

Ernesto Valverde bravely - and probably correctly - put his faith in Ousmane Dembélé to start, and he repaid the manager with a goal and a good performance. The winger took up an advanced position, giving Messi someone to link up with in the attacking phase. Still, the fact that he was high up the pitch meant Chelsea could counter, and Sergi Roberto struggled to contain the threat. On the other flank, Andrés Iniesta was more conservative, which allowed Jordi Alba to go forward a bit more. Still, Dembélé gave the team more width than Paulinho did, and it was especially noticeable as the Camp Nou is a bigger pitch as well.

Chelsea, knowing they needed a goal, dropped Pedro to the bench in favor of Olivier Giroud as a true #9 upfront. Chelsea were probably better in attack here than at Stamford Bridge, despite the fact that they scored one there and zero at Camp Nou. That’s because they looked more threatening, whereas at Stamford Bridge their one card was Willian trying to score worldies.

Marcos Alonso made many dribbles down that Dembélé-Roberto flank but he almost never was able to find a forward option or a cross for someone to get onto. In fact, Valverde’s team seemingly adopted a “bend but don’t break” philosophy, defending very deep. This is not something normal to see from Barcelona, but in a way it’s reassuring. Past versions would have been in a panic seeing the opposition marching forward so often, but this team is much more confident in repelling attacks.

Paulinho was brought on for Iniesta, who was lacking fitness, in what was probably a pre-planned substitution. Though 5 minutes later Valverde had to bring in André Gomes for Sergio Busquets due to an unforeseen injury. Paulinho actually went into the middle, into Busquets’s position, with Gomes taking Iniesta’s. Paulinho actually did a good job covering in this deeper position, and Gomes also gave the team a bit more steel than Iniesta.

And 3-0 up, Valverde brought on Aleix Vidal for Dembélé to fully shut up shop and particularly to close down that flank that Chelsea was getting some amount of joy on. With Vidal and Gomes, the team had a more symmetrical look, as opposed to Ousmane more advanced as a pure winger and Iniesta more of a midfielder. Vidal was clearly instructed to hang back more than Dembélé had, and he’s also a more natural defender.

The match was closer than the 3-0 would suggest, and clearly there was a difference in how good each team was at finishing. Despite Chelsea having chances to shoot at goal, Marc-André ter Stegen was not usually troubled. And please remember even 0-0 would have been enough for the Catalans. Oddly enough, Chelsea’s lone goal in two legs was a long shot, not the various close-up shots they had. They did hit the post 4 times, but 3 come from outside the box. I’m not convinced that’s unlucky, exactly. The argument usually goes that if you’re hitting the post, you were close to scoring, and normally you would have actually gotten the ball into the net at least 1 of those 3 times. But when they’re shots taken from difficult situations, the chances are not actually that high that you’d score. Thus I don’t think that’s unlucky, really.

I think Barcelona over two legs were slightly better ignoring finishing, and obviously much better if you take finishing into account. Of course the result is what it is, and when finishing is so markedly different, you can’t ignore that. On the other hand, I think it’s fair to say the 4-1 aggregate flatters Barcelona. Chelsea were probably better than that implies. But I would avoid going too far and saying the Blaugrana were lucky to progress, or were outplayed over two legs. Not really. Chelsea are a strong team and they put up a fight, but in the end they were still second-best in too many aspects.