Steve Holland: Champions League tactics, Chelsea 1 Barcelona 0 – Masterclass

Steve Holland: Champions League tactics, Chelsea 1 Barcelona 0 – Masterclass


The Champions League semi-final first leg, 2012: Chelsea and Barcelona at Stamford Bridge. Barcelona: Adriano, [Javier] Mascherano, [Carles] Puyol and [Dani] Alves; [Sergio] Busquets, Xavi, [Andres] Iniesta; [Alexis] Sanchez wide and making penetrating runs from one side; [Lionel] Messi dropping low. Normally into inside-right more than inside-left so that he can come inside on his left foot, but reference as a striker, but always dropping into this position, and then [Cesc] Fabregas who also came inside to make a four. So lots of bodies centrally – very fluid, but fundamentally 4-3-3. Chelsea were [Branislav] Ivanovic, [Gary] Cahill, [John] Terry and Ashley Cole. In midfield we were Mikel [John Obi], [Raul] Meireles and [Frank] Lampard. We were [Juan] Mata on the right, [Didier] Drogba as the striker and then Ramires on the left. We’d been playing 4-2-3-1, but for this game, because of the three midfield players and the quality of the three midfield players of Barcelona, and Messi dropping low into midfield, and Fabregas coming in from the right into midfield, we felt we needed a minimum three players in that area to help to get some control. We made a couple of tactical changes – Ramires normally would play on the right or inside, but for this game, Alves was always overlapping on the right hand side, with Fabregas playing inside, so a very offensive right-back, and we felt that on this side of the pitch with Ramires, not only would it help to control Alves but if we recovered balls Ramires had the speed to counter-attack behind Alves and into that space. So a different role for Ramires than normal. In midfield, [it was] very positional, so Meireles and Mikel hardly ever attacked [and were] always in good positions in counter-attack. Lampard [had] a little bit more freedom given the individual qualities that he has – a little bit more freedom to go. But more positional, Meireles and Mikel. On this side of the pitch we felt that Adriano, who could go [forward] but was less offensive – Mata who was a very good, talented footballer but not a fantastic defender in these positions, more of an offensive player – this was [therefore] a better balance of Ramires and Mata. The key, apart from the players producing a fantastic performance, was not opening up too much when we attacked so that in counter-attacks there was space. The one time we did lose the ball in our own build-up, the ball ended up being cleared off the line at our end, [by] Ashley Cole. So [there was] a big focus on in possession, [and] retaining good positions and good balance so we weren’t vulnerable [to] counter-attacks. Then without the ball it was a low, compact block, trying to control the spaces, and then looking to counter-attack behind Alves with Ramires. Arguably the best midfield trio that’s ever played the game. Busquets [was] fantastic at receiving the ball with pressure in [the] first phase from the goalkeeper – [he’s] one of the best midfield players I’ve ever had the privilege to see live. Receiving the ball under pressure; really clear pictures of where his support was, and capable with just making little dummies and feints, of making time for himself to turn and to play the ball forwards. Here with Xavi and Iniesta – again, two players who are completely comfortable receiving the ball under pressure. The scenario of Busquets, Iniesta, Xavi, [and] Messi coming low and dropping in, Fabregas – another wonderful footballer receiving the ball, capable of receiving the ball in the tight. You’ve got five players who are basically looking to try and create five against three in this middle area of the pitch. Not only [potential] tactical superiority, but also great individual technical ability that, even if you had five against five, they could still play their tight, quick football through you. But what they did have was a threat in behind, and that was Sanchez’s job: to stretch; to play high; and to look always for those runs into depth. So the possession is one thing, but that was always balanced by the threat in behind as well. Often in our game, this would happen where Fabregas would come low, and then either Xavi or Iniesta would make those runs into depth. [They were] completely fluid – as good a technicians in terms of receiving the ball under pressure as you can have on the football field – and [had] numerical superiority. So a team that’s almost impossible to press high. The only solution is to close the area – [it was] very important that the wide players on both sides come in very narrow. That suited Ramires on this side of the pitch; Mata less so. But [that was] a very narrow, compact five, and again the distance between the midfield five and the back four – once that becomes too great, they’d have the ability to combine quickly, and find the likes of Messi in between the lines, and then you were going to be in trouble. So, [it was] important these distances were always compact. They could have the ball in front, but the four and the five, and the distance between the lines, were fundamental to try to keep this super-talented group of players away from the goal. Messi in his role – this is Messi as the striker – but [he] doesn’t play high as a striker. [He] plays low and in midfield. We did some analysis before the game of what areas he occupies the most, and significantly a higher proportion, percentage-wise, [was] into this inside-right channel, so that he could dodge and bob and weave and come inside to play off his left foot – crosses, shots, through balls. Two thirds more on this side of the pitch than on this side of the pitch, where it’s more about speed, going on the outside. As a result of that, we’d made Meireles very positional, and Mikel always positional, with particular attention on this side of the pitch, with Ramires also closing to close this space. We almost created a five here. Left-back, left-wing; Ramires, Meireles, Mikel and the left-sided centre-back John Terry. Whenever he dropped into this position, we always had not only one player who was going to be within reasonable distance to stop a turn or to confront one against one, but cover, so inevitably Messi would beat one player, but then to surround [him] with two, with three players to give ourselves a better chance of getting some control. The players produced fantastic performances and defended with great resilience, and then produced some really good moments in the few counter-attacks that we had. The winning goal was scored when Lampard, here, recovered a ball actually off Messi in midfield. Alves was advanced as we’d anticipated, and a quick ball out to Ramires, who got behind Alves, in [a] counter-attack to then cross the ball for Drogba to score just before half-time. That, in the end, was the decisive goal, and I think we felt to go to the Nou Camp with any chance, we really needed to have a lead. One-nil – a clean sheet, really set up the second leg so that we went with some hope.