POSSESSION V SPACE MANIPULATION: 3 potential tactical quandaries
It is the tactical duel as much as the array of talent on view, which provides us with such an intriguing and glamorous tie tonight.
Both teams place great emphasis on quick accurate passing with a smooth transition from back to front. There is however a crucial difference between the two sides: Barcelona place a greater emphasis on possession of the ball in the opponents half whilst Real Madrid – under the tutelage of the usually possession-centric Mourinho – have mastered the art of manipulating the space and working hard positionally off the ball.
Prior to tonight, the chosen formation of both coaches is usually 4-2-3-1 of sorts but expect a lot of variation on this tonight with perhaps a more defensive 4-2-1-3 ultimately the preference of both teams (see below diagrams). Tagged as the “Messi and Ronaldo show”, for me the game will be decided in the middle third, as four or five of the best central midfielders in the world come together to do battle.
1. Strategy – Football is a game of psychology and gaining the psychological edge is key. Much of Mourinho’s success to date has had its foundation based on this premise whether that was creating a siege mentality at the relatively small Porto; Verbal jousting with SAF and Wenger as he conquered the EPL; or enthusing his Inter side with rancour and spirit as they became ECL champions. Going into this game it is my feeling that he has that edge over Guardiola, with the latter perhaps more likely to adapt to Jose’s game plan than vice-versa.
With Mourinho saying midweek that his starting 11 will remain unchanged, Guardiola may well be tempted to start both Mascherano and Busquets (dropping Pedro) in order to combat the attacking threat of Madrid’s front three. Higuain’s absence has however meant that Jose does have a tactical dilemma: whether to replace like for like with Benzema or bolster midfield options in using Lassana Diarra. Benzema would be the more risky option but at the same time would impact less on the functionality of the system. Diarra too he may have noted, has struggled in the past in containing Messi.
2. As stated at the outset, I think this game will be won in midfield. For Alonso, Khedira and Oezil read Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta. Oezil’s movement across the line (from a central left position) and smooth interchange with Di Maria and Ronaldo has been a key tenet in Madrid’s success this term. Likewise Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta’s control of the central zone has meant that sustained attacking pressure often overwhelms opposing sides, with a superb high pressing game elicited halting the opposition creativity at its initiation.
With so much of the play likely to be in the middle third then, how both teams will exploit the wide areas will be key. Marcelo and Ramos have both been fantastic going forward this season, as have Alves, Maxwell and to some extent Abidal. We could see a fascinating game of “cat and mouse” as each fullback will seek to manipulate the space ahead of them when in possession of the ball – the speed of the counter-attack then pivotal to this aspect. Watch too for Busquets and/or Abidal filling in at centre half if the play is directed to the likely duo of Alves and Messi.
Mourinho was said to have instructed his team to “give away possession” in the Champions League Final in order to remain focused – to stifle, to press and to dismantle carefully planned attacks. A fascinating feature of the game will be how he will combat the high pressing game of the Catalans and getting the ball wide and to the feet of the dynamic front three quickly as possible.
3. Having discussed the middle of the field, we turn our attention to the final third. For Barcelona, the likely deep back line of Real is a worry; as with Inter, Mourinho will instruct his team to counter with efficiency and intelligence. It is for this reason I have selected Mascherano ahead of the excellent Pedro. Mascherano has experience of playing against Ronaldo, but he also knows the qualities of his fellow country-man Di Maria who has dazzled the Bernabeu of late with his direct running and clever movement. If he starts, Benzema could be asked to interchange positions with Ronaldo who may start in the traditional “9” position. Oezil’s link-play with the duo from the left will thus be key – though Busquets already has the psychological advantage over the youngster; Having cleverly marked out of the WC quarter-final in South Africa as Spain eased passed an out-thought Germany, the question is: Can Oezil respond?
Alonso will be asked to work in tandem with Khedira to press the space in which Messi had so much success in the World Cup prior to the Germany game. Don’t be surprised to see Messi interchanging with Villa and Iniesta at will on the left-hand side, with each more than comfortable coming centrally from a wide position. If Madrid have a weakness it is the defensive capabilities and positional maturity of their fullbacks Ramos and Marcelo.
Territorial advantage then is key for the Madrilenos, pushing Alvez and Abidal back as much as possible, and alternating the attacking angle in the final third. Guardiola on the other hand has revolutionised the footballing landscape in the last 18 months or so with an exquisite blend of attacking possession play the entertaining result of hours and hours of training ground dedication. Both teams will go for the win but will not want to lose this key game. Score prediction: 1-1.
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