How to stop Barcelona

16 September 2009 – Inter Milan holds Barcelona, including Lionel Messi, to a 0-0 draw at the San SIro in Matchday 1 of the group stages in this year’s Champions League. The score line suggests the game was even, but Barcelona, as it so often does, had two-thirds of the possession and created the better chances.

24 November 2009 – Barcelona defeats Inter Milan at the Camp Nou 2-0 to guarantee the holders its passage to the knockout stages, leaving the Italian side unsure of its future in the competition. As it turned out, Jose Mourinho’s side progressed as runners-up. The result was achieved for the Catalan club with Lionel Messi as an unused substitute. Instead, it was his Spanish team-mate Xavi Hernandez who claimed the plaudits with another virtuoso performance in midfield, playing a key role in the goals for Gerard Pique and Pedro Rodriguez.

The question is how does Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan prevent history from repeating itself?

The Portuguese tactician himself has come out and said that he would be pleased with another goalless draw in the first-leg at the San Siro. Inter somewhat rode its luck during the previous 0-0, but the idea is sound; do not concede at home and each goal in the second-leg means one extra that Barcelona will have to score to progress. Yes, the idea appears perfect except for two small issues; firstly, how do you shut out this Barcelona side? Secondly, how do you prevent it from outscoring you in its own back yard? The solutions are obvious to identify but hard to implement – a team would have to pressure Barcelona high up the pitch, prevent the ball being played primarily into Xavi, and to an extent the roaming Dani Alves, and give Messi as little room for manoeuvre. I will attempt to depict how Mourinho, with the squad at his disposable, could go about securing a place in the Champions League final.

Much is written about Messi and how incredible he is – and rightly so. His opener against Real Madrid at the weekend was his 40th goal of this terrific season for him and his club. He played the game through the middle, rendering Manuel Pellegrini’s preparation pretty much useless as he had Alvaro Arbeloa switch to left-back to try and ‘do a job’ on Messi as he did successfully for Liverpool a few seasons ago. Instead, Arbeloa was exposed by Pedro’s pace for the second-goal and Real crumbled to its first home league defeat this season as Messi wreaked havoc with his clever movement off the centre-backs into pockets of space that neither they nor the holding midfield duo of Fernando Gago and Xabi Alonso wanted to venture to in order to deal with the Argentine star.

The game typified Barcelona brilliantly – Messi is the heart of the team, but Xavi, influential throughout the game, ghosting into space and laying on both goals, is certainly the brain and lungs of it. Statistics corroborate this theory. Throughout the Champions League campaign this year, Xavi has made the most successful passes of any player in the competition. Perhaps this is not a surprise. However, what might come as a shock is that he has consistently been the man who has covered the most amount of distance for Barcelona in its matches. One would probably expect Barcelona’s top player in this respect to be relentless right-back Dani Alves who flies up and down the right-hand side with the aplomb of a Duracell bunny. I promised statistics and here we go: In the first and second legs of the quarter final ties against Arsenal, Xavi covered 12.36km and 12.56km respectively. The next best from his own side was Alves with 11.69km and 11.76km, and Arsenal’s best was Cesc Fabregas in the first match (12.25km) and Denilson in the second-leg (12.26km). Xavi probably does not strike most as a midfielder who moves that freely around a pitch, but it is this unsuspecting tirelessness that allows Xavi to keep his side ticking when in possession and he leads the high pressing game of Barcelona to regain it when it rarely loses the ball. In terms of passing, well, Xavi made 112 passes in the first-leg with 85% success rate, compared to Arsenal’s best, Fabregas, who made 39 passes with 79% accuracy. Xavi has made over 400 passes more than any player in Spain and in the Champions League; he is 400 passes ahead of everyone. Even his team-mates are 300 behind. These statistics are just the tip of the iceberg; Xavi has been the conductor of this magnificent, unbelievable symphony.

Atlético Madrid, Sevilla and Rubin Kazan. One thing these sides have in common is that they have proven that Barcelona is not infallible and crucially, each manager has offered useful insight on how he plotted the Catalans downfall. Kurban Berdyev had to contend with the carousel-operating tandem of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, but his Rubin Kazan side triumphed at the Camp Nou after he identified that neither playmaker drops particularly deep, hence affording his team space between Barcelona’s midfield and defence. His instructions to his attacking players was to shoot on sight and for his forward, Alejandro Dominguez, now of Sevilla, to drop back and confront Yaya Toure in the holding role. Atletico manager Quique Sanchez Flores required his side to prevent space between the lines and therefore set his team up to be narrow and compact. In terms of offence, Atletico was rather direct and relied on the diligent running of Jose Antonio Reyes to trouble the Barcelona backline. Former Sevilla coach Manolo Jimenez used Barcelona’s high-pressing game on the great side itself, preventing it from moving the ball to Xavi, playing with great intensity and utilising the team’s natural strength out wide to trouble Barcelona.

‘The Special One’ is almost blessed with a squad befitting his self-afforded moniker. Julio Cesar is one of the most reliable goalkeepers in world football and the defence in front of the Brazilian custodian is formidable in terms of its depth of strength. Lucio and Walter Samuel are the two defenders Mourinho relies on in the centre of defence. Maicon is one of the most sought after right-backs in football, currently keeping his compatriot and semi-final counterpart Dani Alves out of the Brazilian national team. Cristian Chivu’s return to fitness means that Mourinho can leverage the experience of club captain Javier Zanetti in a position that suits the elder statesman of the Nerazzurri better than left-back. Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso, Thiago Motta, Sulley Muntari and McDonald Mariga provide Mourinho a wealth of combative, defensive midfield options while Dejan Stankovic gives the squad a different option from deep. Wesley Sneijder is the key man for Inter – he is the ‘trequartista’ who links midfield with attack, where Inter can call on the services vaunted forwards Diego Milito, Samuel Eto’o, Goran Pandev and Mario Balotelli to cause trouble in the final third.

It is here where I will prompt readers to check out the excellent zonalmarking.net for graphical depictions of how both sides have lined up and thus to follow the ideas that I layout below.

With Andres Iniesta out injured and being the away team, it is safe to assume that Guardiola’s options are somewhat limited. I cannot be sure of the fitness of Abidal and Ibrahimovic, with both schedule to possibly be available – whether Guardiola risks them is another matter altogether. I predict he will line up one of two ways:

Formation 1: Valdes; Alves, Puyol/Milito, Pique, Abidal/Puyol; Busquets, Xavi, Keita; Pedro, Messi, Maxwell/Bojan (i.e Puyol plays in either variant and Maxwell/Bojan starts down the left with the choice being between Milito and Abidal, effectively, as Puyol will always start)

Or Formation 2: Valdes; Alves, Puyol, Pique, Maxwell/Abidal; Busquets, Xavi, Keita; Messi, Ibrahimovic/Bojan, Pedro.

The difference between the two line-ups is minimal. Formation 1 offers Guardiola a bit more defensive cover and is basically what was witnessed in the second-half of El Clasico. I believe that Guardiola has learnt from the first-half, where Cristiano Ronaldo enjoyed great success of exploiting the space between right-back Puyol and centre-back Pique, that it is best for everyone that Dani Alves plays at right-back and that if he is to push a full-back into the front three, it must be Maxwell. Formation 1 also sees Messi play predominantly through the middle and might give rise to a fascinating battle between the Milito brothers. Formation 2 is more offensive and is what we witnessed at the Emirates, with Messi free to roam from the right as the central position is taken by an out and out striker. One crucial constant is that Xavi is free in both formations to dictate the play with the security of Busquets and Keita behind him.

Mourinho, as I alluded to earlier, has options and plenty of them. He has a squad that is flexible – a great example of this occurred in this week’s Coppa Italia second-leg semi-final at Fiorentina, with his side leading 1-0 from the first encounter. Having just played Cesare Prandelli’s side on Sunday and drawn 2-2, damaging the champions title aspirations, Mourinho rested Wesley Sneijder in favour of a more defensive midfield, looking to play on the counter attack with the pace of Eto’o and Balotelli. Once Eto’o notched the crucial away goal that meant the Viola required three goals to progress, he hauled off his rapid strikers, put on a target man in Milito and another holding player in Cambiasso and proceeded to shut out the game with a 5-4-1 formation and secure progress to the final.

The popular theory on how Mourinho can stop Inter is to pack the midfield and go 4-5-1. There is also an idea being touted that he assigns a player to go and follow Messi around the pitch, making the match 10 v 10. Shadow marking, as it is known, is a risky strategy that requires exemplary concentration and discipline. I would argue that Cambiasso would be a great candidate for this role should the coach deem it necessary, but I think that it would ruin any aspirations Inter would have of nicking a win in this match, as it would still require defensive minded players elsewhere to stop the full-backs and Xavi. Man marking Xavi is also a possible solution, though I think Mourinho places great faith in his men to be able to carry out the role of shutting down Xavi without assigning a single man to this role.

What will Mourinho do? Irrespective of formation and personnel, I strongly believe he will urge his team to press Barcelona high up the pitch to prevent it finding its passing range and rhythm. Disrupting Puyol and Pique’s monopoly of possession at the back is the start of this. Mourinho has a massive call to make which will determine his desire to win the first leg – does he actually start with his most clinical finisher Milito? Along with his prowess in front of goal, Milito adds the ability to hold the ball up. However, he is not as quick as the other options available; hence his effectiveness at being the harrying defences is relatively lower compared to the rapid Eto’o. If both Pique and Abidal are not fit, then it could be argued that Inter could use Barcelona’s diminutive defence as a possible strength for its attacking purpose. However, given the line-ups I have suggested that are available to Guardiola and the success Theo Walcott had against Maxwell in the first-leg, the better attacking option would be to harness the pace of the squad, in particular Eto’o and Balotelli, against the opposition defence.

My Inter team would be:

Julio Cesar; Maicon, Lucio, Samuel, Chivu; Zanetti, Motta, Cambiasso; Sneijder; Eto’o, Balotelli.

The mere presence of Maicon will worry Barcelona to the same degree that Alves’ will perturb Inter. Chivu is a solid left-back who has the defensive acumen to shackle either Messi or Pedro. If it is the FIFA World Player of the Year up against the Romanian, look for Cambiasso to assist against his compatriot and for Zanetti to cover the buccaneering forays forward of Maicon, leaving Motta and Sneijder to deal with Xavi and Alves. Motta has been better than Muntari this season, with the Ghanaian being poor as of late. If Messi is utilised centrally, then Lucio would be the best choice to follow him, with Samuel mopping up behind.

Xavi’s brilliance means that it would be dangerous to allow Inter a 4-3-3 shape which would trap Barcelona’s full-backs; the Spanish midfielder is the bigger threat of the two. The 4-3-3 shape, a tactical masterstroke against Chelsea, is one that I would not rule out being used by Mourinho, where he’d effectively replace Motta with either Milito or Pandev. In fact, it is the defensive burden that requires the selection of Balotelli over Milito, as the fiery youngster has shown an aptitude for tracking back at speed, which could help the team switch shape to a 4-1-4-1. Furthermore, he and Eto’o can fire troublesome long-range efforts at Valdes and have the pace to latch on to the through passes of Inter’s own creative genius Sneijder, who himself is dangerous from long-range. The Dutchman, who did not really show his true worth at Real Madrid, has been back to his imperious best this season and possesses a skill-set not too dissimilar to highly-vaunted Xavi. In fact, I truly believe that the tie will be won mainly on which one of these two pass masters comes out on top.

In conclusion, what I have proposed probably is not breaking new ground – I could have suggested a myriad of options, but I have plumped for a realistic option that might work. I stress the ‘might’ aspect of my last sentence, as Jose Mourinho and his team will need a great deal of fortune to go their way to earn anything from the first-leg. If Inter can come away with a slender advantage, a dream result of 1-0, then I would back Mourinho, a real student of the game, to convert it into another trip to Spain for his second Champions League final at the home of Barcelona’s great rivals and possibly Mourinho’s future employers.

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