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Juventus 3-0 Barcelona

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Similar to Barcelona’s trip to PSG last month, Juventus’s emphatic first leg triumph further highlighted the Spanish champions’ issues under Luis Enrique.

There were no real surprises to Juventus XI. Gonzalo Higuain started ahead of Mario Mandzukic, Paulo Dybala and Juan Cuadrado. Meanwhile, Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira protected Max Allegri’s experience back-line.

Enrique was without the suspended Sergio Busquets, which forced the Barcelona manager to field Javier Mascherano in midfield, whereas Jeremy Mathieu was a surprise member in the away side’s back-line.

Juve’s wonderful start to the match was a combination of exploiting the away side’s weaknesses along with their imbalanced shape, which ultimately defined the overall tempo of the match.

Juve squeeze early

One of the key elements to Juve’s success was their quick start. In the opening minutes, Higuain had already spurned a free header from six-yards out via Pjanic’s free-kick.

But from open play, Juve’s high-pressing ensured Barcelona couldn’t settle into their preferred tempo. Higuain and Dybala monitored the Barcelona centre-backs and Cuadrado occasionally stepped towards Mathieu to make it 3v3 at the back.

An attempt to overturn Juve’s press witnessed Mascherano slot into a deeper zone, which therefore offset Khedira to push forward to limit the Argentine’s influence from midfield. Barca were marked across the pitch due to Juve’s cohesive pressing: the full-backs were tight on the Barca wide players – Dani Alves succumbed to an early booking due to concessive fouls on Neymar – Suarez was isolated upfront, while Pjanic tracked Iniesta’s movement in midfield.

Enrique was infuriated by goalkeeper Marc Andre ter Stegen’s reluctance to play passes over the top for Suarez to chase into the channels and viciously showcased is disappointment within the opening five minutes. Obviously, Juve were unable to sustain this press throughout the match – nor was it likely their intention to do so – but it still represented a significant feat to the Italian champions’ positive start.

Barca’s flawed system

The other key factor associated with Barca’s issues was the initial set-up. What appeared to be a 3-4-3 ahead of kickoff was a back three in possession, but supposed to be a back four when Juve broke forward. However, Enrique’s men were uncertain of their duties from front to back.

Sergi Roberto left his right-back zone to help overload central areas, whilst making vertical darts into the channels to provide penetration going forward. Mathieu, on the other hand, rarely ventured forward in the opening stages despite the hosts allowing the Frenchman space to step into their half to play passes out the back. Perhaps Allegri wanted Mathieu in advanced positions so Juve could break into the right channel in transition, along with the fact that the Barcelona centre-back isn’t the strongest defender on the ball.

Iniesta was unable to control the game – though it’s not one of the traits the Spaniard is renowned for – whereas the other issue stemmed from the left flank. Iniesta started the match as the widest midfielder, but his narrow positioning along with Neymar operating as a wide forward meant there was no cover on the flanks, which therefore forced Mathieu to step to the left to cover space against Cuadrado.

Essentially, there was ample space in the channels for Juve’s wide players to manipulate, and it’s unsurprising that the buildup to both of Dybala’s goals stemmed down the flanks.

Dybala goals

Slack defending contributed to the simplicity of Juve’s opening goals, but the fact that the buildup was nearly identical justifies Allegri’s approach. Higuain switched the ball to the right flank to place Cuadrado in a 1v1 situation with Mathieu, which ultimately resulted in Dybala ghosting into the box and quickly firing the opener past ter Stegen.

Subsequently, Juve sprung on the counter-attack down the left flank for Mandzukic to run at the recovering Sergi Roberto before pulling the ball back for Dybala, who curled another super effort past the Barcelona goal-keeper. Towards the end of the half Alex Sandro broke past Rakitic down the left to provide a pull-back opportunity for Higuain that ter Stegen nearly pushed away into danger.

Barcelona encountered difficulties protecting pull-backs from half spaces, but more worryingly was their reluctance to track Dybala, Higuain and Khedira’s late runs towards the box. Juve’s crucial first half chances followed the aforementioned template that highlighted Barca’s issues in wide areas – against the wide players and tracking Dybala’s movement to the flanks – along with Busquets’ absence ahead of the back four.

Messi Magic

The other aspect of Juve’s quick start meant the hosts could drop deeper, remain compact, and swarm the away side when they attempted to penetrate in central zones.

Busquets’ absence was critical to Barca’s issue because Mascherano failed to dictate the tempo of the match with his passing and lacked the range and confidence to play penetrating passes from deep. Meanwhile, out of possession, the Argentine was culpable for being caught on the ball via pressure and failing to track late runs towards the box.

Therefore, Barca were devoid of creativity in midfield: with Rakitic and Roberto unsure of their roles, and Iniesta marked out of the match, only a dangerous cross from the often open Mathieu nearly troubled Juve, but Giorgio Chiellini blocked Suarez’s diving header. Ultimately, it took brilliance from Messi – forced to beat at the minimum two players whenever he found space on the field – to create the game’s best chances.

The first opportunity involved a breathtaking reverse ball that bisected the Juve defence to play in Iniesta, but his poor finish witnessed Gianluigi Buffon push away the Spaniard’s attempt seconds prior to Dybala’s second goal. Frankly, Messi was involved in two other major chances in the second half that should’ve resulted in away goals.

First, a failed combination with Neymar led to the Argentine sliding a low effort inches wide of the far post. Then, Messi received the ball in a pocket of space to bamboozle Chiellini before playing in Suarez who rolled Bonucci, but fired his shot wide. Majority of Barca’s attacking play was bland and lethargic, and it’s surprising they failed to record an away goal given the several chances created through Messi’s greatness.

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Second Half

Enrique removed Mathieu at half time for Andre Gomes, meaning Mascherano moved to centre-back, Samuel Umtiti operated as a left-back and the Portuguese midfielder sat at the base ahead of the back-line. The tactical alteration ensured Barca had cover at left-back, and although Sergi Roberto still charged forward into midfield, Rakitic often moved to the right touchline to maintain width.

While the tactical shift slightly improved Barca’s shape, Juve’s best period of the second half – the build up to Chiellini’s third goal – witnessed Mandzukic charge down the left create another pull-back for Khedira, and Cuadrado also charging into the aforementioned space that led to an identical move where Higuain’s tame effort was easily handled by ter Stegen. Minutes later, a quick free-kick over the Barca defence should’ve sealed the match but Higuain’s preference to shoot rather than play the ball across goal to an unmarked Mandzukic led to another important ter Stegen save.

Barca dominated possession for majority of the match following Chiellini’s goal, while Juve maintained a deeper line and slowly turned to defensive options off the bench to secure the result. Enrique’s men still found pathways to goal via Suarez getting the better of Bonucci on numerous occasions, but largely through Messi finding space in midfield to create.

Conclusion

Juve were deserving winners, here, despite producing a far from perfect performance. Allegri exploited the systematic flaws in Enrique’s unorthodox XI by breaking into space in the channels, combined with the intelligent positioning and individual brilliance of Dybala – who scored two great goals and forced the away side into fouling him across the pitch.

Juve’s initial energetic pressing flustered Barca, and they took a commanding lead, protected key zones around their box for large spells to neutralize Barca’s key attackers in the final third. However, Barca’s poor set-up and Busquets’ suspension was also pivotal at full-time, along with poor finishing around the box as Messi created the two best chances of the match.

Allegri has been the victim of a second leg collapse at the Camp Nou in the past, and though a supreme performance from the Barca front three isn’t farcical, the experience of the Juve defence combined with their tactical discipline and organization suggests Barca may not have enough to turn the tie. Enrique may need more than the individual brilliance of his three star attackers to overcome this well-drilled Juventus side.

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Posted by on April 14, 2017 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Barcelona’s identity crisis suggests “Messidependcia” lives

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Barcelona’s 1-1 El Clasico draw against Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid was perceived as a loss rather than one point gained. Though it may only be December – with more than half the season to play – Real’s six-point lead over their rivals is an assuring gap.

The Spanish champions’ recent rut includes four draws in five games, in which Enrique’s men have struggled to impose their authority on opponents and are simply devoid of attacking flair in the final third. In majority of these matches, the Catalan side’s attack was completely tame, and you could argue that in most scenarios, barring Lionel Messi’s brilliance, Barca were rather fortunate to avoid defeat.

The treble winning season witnessed Barca go on a tremendous run of form at the turn of the year that possibly coincided with Messi moving to the right so Luis Suarez could roam laterally into the channels to lead the line. Last year they broke away from the pack in the first half of the season, but suffered a losing streak in the spring – that included a Clasico defeat to Real and a Champions League exit by Atletico – and were ultimately rescued by Suarez’s glut of goals.

Perhaps the tactical periodization so heavily mentioned when many defended Barca’s poor form under Enrique is responsible for their slow start to the season, but stylistically, the issue seems more severe. Where you could once argue Barca possessed the best XI in world football, the fear of potential injuries encouraged the club to heavily bolster their depth over the summer.

The arrival of Denis Suarez, Lucas Digne, Andre Gomes, Samuel Umtiti, and Paco Alcacer provided depth in areas that Barca felt they risked vulnerability if injuries occurred. But where you can argue that the reigning Spanish champions have a better squad, Enrique’s men haven’t necessarily progressed.

Success is often the downfall for most football clubs because if you tinker with a winning side you risk tampering with the overall balance. Yet, when clubs opt to persist with the current squad or improve depth, they often experience regression as opponents identify ploys to negate their threat and equally evolve as well.

The issue many had highlighted during the early stages of Enrique’s tenure, but in terms of the club’s philosophy following the Guardiola era, the current Barcelona side still featuring Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets is drifting in a different direction. Enrique’s signings have been predominantly direct players opposed to legitimate ball treasurers, which was an integral trait in midfield during the Guardiola era.

In truth, it starts with their work-rate out of possession: the high intense pressing, and swarming counter-press in central areas is barely displayed. Dropping into two banks of four, Messi and Suarez have remained central – though they perform their fair share of closing opponents down from the front – but Barca retreat into their base shape, conceding ample space in central areas.

Elsewhere, as witnessed in the most recent draws at the Anoeta and Clasico, when Barca encounter heavy pressing, they no longer possess the personnel capable of retaining possession until the opposition tired. Simply marking Busquets out of the match deprives Barca of control in midfield, thus leaving the front trio isolated upfront and starved of service, whereas the option of Gomes, Arda Turan, Rafinha and to an extent Denis Suarez have been overrun and out-worked in central areas.

This was also witnessed in a comeback victory over Sevilla a few weeks prior, but Messi’s second half brilliance was pivotal to the eventual outcome. Messi was forced to drop deeper to spread possession, play penetrative passes in advanced positions, and ignite breaks with his dribbling, which resulted in a goal and game-winning assist from the Argentine.

Essentially it takes away from Pep Guardiola’s initial plan of keeping Messi within close proximity of the opposition’s goal, but the Argentine’s passing range prevents Barca from simply aiming to quickly play passes into the attacking trio’s feet. Talks of “Messidependcia” have decreased in recent years, but if Busquets’ influence is negated, Enrique’s Barca now seem heavily reliant on the 29-year-old.

Messi has scored 62 per-cent of Barcelona’s goals since defeating Manchester City at the Camp Nou in mid-October, and in many of those games he’s been the defining factor between wins and losses. Though Messi wasn’t at his best against Real, he was still involved in the club’s best moves and frankly should have won the game.

To be frank, that was the negative aspect of the Clasico result from a Barca perspective. Although they squandered two legitimate opportunities to secure maximum points, it took Iniesta’s return to slightly improve the entire dynamic of Barca’s play. The Spaniard is one of the few core players remaining from prior success, and though his game is heavily based on his swift dribbling, he still represents a calm presence in possession.

But Iniesta’s lack of consistency in terms of overall displays at the club level suggests that even his presence in the XI isn’t the definitive answer. Rakitic and Suarez’s poor form, the slight tweaks to Neymar’s role – that saw the Brazilian hug the touchline before cutting inwards – combined with the unrealistic demands on the new young summer signings to immediately adapt to the Barca style coincides with the current identity issue at Camp Nou.

Once renowned for their wonderful team play and built around a ball-retention philosophy, Enrique’s Barca transitioned into an individualistic side suffering in a broken system. Coincidentally, it’s rivals Real, that pride themselves in buying the best individuals under Florentino Perez, that now represents a pragmatic cohesive side under Zidane.

Real pressed the Barca midfield intelligently at the Camp Nou, and under the guidance of the magnificent Luka Modric they comfortably disrupted the hosts play and enjoyed positive moments on the counter. Even with several first-team players unavailable due to injury this season, and Cristiano Ronaldo possibly suffering from regression, Real have found ways to win games, whilst remaining compact and defensively resolute at the back.

Ironically, now, Real’s midfielders can control games though ball retention and pass their way to victories, along with still retaining the devastating frontline that can exploit the smallest errors on the counter-attack. In what’s clearly a hybrid of proactive and reactive football, the most important element to Zidane’s success involves keeping fringe players happy, and being able to count upon his entire roster to abide by the Frenchman’s pragmatism through tactical discipline.

Real Madrid haven’t been stellar this season, but unlike Barca, when playing poorly, they’ve found ways to win games. When key players were missing, and the youngsters filled their roles admirably, meanwhile at the Camp Nou it’s difficult to harp the same tune. Enrique’s tenure as Barca manager has been equally peculiar: despite claiming the treble in the first season and a league-cup double last year, the reigning champions have failed to perform well over the duration of a full season.

Losing integral players that understood what was once Barca’s default system – like Dani Alves, Xavi and Pedro – has essentially provided a stylistic dilemma, but equally placed additional workload on Messi, in particular. Where Enrique can’t be faulted for turning to youth, Messi’s brilliance won’t overshadow the issues at Camp Nou.

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The increasing concern on individualism amongst the front three and quick counters leaves Barca without a clear systematic approach. Perhaps Iniesta’s return and the eventual winter break can allow several Barca players to rediscover their optimum form to alleviate the pressure, but with Real representing possibly the most settled side in Europe – given the personnel – Enrique’s margin for error is slim.

Barca may have improved their depth this summer, but at the moment they simply aren’t performing as a cohesive unit under Enrique, and the reliance on Messi is reaching insurmountable levels.

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Spain – Italy

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Courtesy of Flickr/James FJ Rooney 

Spain and Italy may have met in the two previous European Championships, but this year’s round of 16 clash offers a rejuvenated tactical clash following poor World Cup campaigns.

The current holders and finalists feature in the tie of the round, with both sides making slight modifications since the former’s convincing 4-0 win in the 2012 final.

Spain have transitioned from the patient possession based football orchestrated by Xavi and Xabi Alonso, and now aim to transfer the ball into advanced zones at a quicker rate, while injuries to Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti, combined with the lack of a top-class forward will see Italy play destroyers, here.

In the 2012 final, Spain utilized Cesc Fabregas upfront, and while many assumed the Spaniard operated as a no.10, his runs in the final third were similar to a natural centre-forward. The two teams met earlier in the tournament, where Fabregas dropped deeper into midfield to create an overload, but they were outplayed by a proactive Italian side that afternoon.

One of the main differences in Vincent Del Bosque’s current side witnessed the emergence of Alvaro Morata at the international level. With that being said, Morata offers a different dimension to Spain’s attack. Capable of equally running the channels and coming short to link play, the striker’s willingness to make quick darts beyond the defence forces the opposition deeper, and creates more space for the Spanish midfielders.

The other notable change involves the inclusion of Nolito. David Silva roams into central areas and around the final third from the right flank, whereas Nolito hugs the touchline, constantly aiming to cut onto his stronger foot to trouble the goalkeeper. This essentially makes Spain more direct from an offensive perspective, and has seen Del Bosque’s men serve as the tournament’s standout performers thus far.

This could explain Del Bosque’s decision to field the same XI for all three group games, but following a loss to eventual group-winners Croatia, a hint of caution may be implemented for the knockout stages of the competition. Spain have yet to concede a knockout round goal during Del Bosque’s tenure, and with teams aiming to break into space in wide areas on the counter, he may seek further control in midfield as the holders increase their emphasis on control.

The current midfield of Andres Iniesta and Fabregas offer a combination of direct passing and dribbling, but Del Bosque could turn to Koke’s passing and combative presence in central areas against a reactive Italian side that will aim to fluster the Spanish midfield. It’s unlikely Del Bosque will field another dribbler in Thiago from the start of the match, but he could turn to Bruno alongside Busquets if really wants to neutralize the Italians on the counter – Italy adopting a deep block wouldn’t require Bruno, however.

It’s difficult to see Antonio Conte straying away from his 3-5-2, with the only concern involving Antonio Candreva’s absence. Candreva has played a crucial role in terms of creativity as Italy transition into a 3-3-4 going forward, and his injury could see Matia De Sciglio operate as a right wing-back.

In comparison to the Spain XI, this Italian side is slightly underwhelming, but they understand their roles and will be focused on executing Conte’s game plan. Daniele De Rossi is expected to roam around the back four for protection, while Emanuele Giaccherini and Marco Parolo disrupt play in midfield and wide areas.

Both managers encourage their full-backs/wing-backs to surge into advanced areas in possession, so the battle out wide will be interesting. Likewise, Alvaro Morata will likely be instructed to close down Juventus teammate, Leonardo Bonucci, when he carries the ball forward.

But where Morata will likely be outnumbered in Italy’s third, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos will be tasked with monitoring Eder and Graziano Pelle. The Italian duo have both scored key goals in Italy’s group-stage victories and attempt to combine upfront, and possibly encourage the midfielder’s to make runs into the box.

Nevertheless, while many hailed Italy’s defensive display against Belgium, Conte’s men have to be better against a side that will prefer to be patient in possession and penetration. More so, the Italians conceded several legitimate goal-scoring chances against the Belgians that night, often resorting to cynical fouls to halt potential counter-attacks.

Spain’s individual talent could be decisive, but they face possibly their biggest test of the tournament in breaking down an Italy back-line that offers experience and grit. Essentially, Conte requires need a valiant team effort throughout, but Spain’s overload in midfield and the new direct options available could prove an insurmountable task for the tenacious Italians.

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Barcelona 3-2 Sevilla

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Barcelona remains at the top of La Liga courtesy of Alexis Sanchez’s injury time winner against a resilient Sevilla side.

Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino made two changes to the side that defeated Valencia at the Mestalla, two weeks ago. Christian Tello started along side Lionel Messi and Neymar in the attacking three, while Xavi Hernandez joined Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets in midfield.

Unai Emery made four changes to the side that drew Malaga two weeks ago, adding Jairo Sampeiro and Vitolo to the attacking three behind Kevin Gameiro. Sebastian Cristoforo played with Stephane M’Bia in the double pivot of Emery’s 4-2-3-1, while Beto started in goal.

This match came to life in the final 15 minutes once Messi gave the Catalan side a two-goal lead – yet despite their victory, Barcelona’s issues at the back are now palpable.

Sevilla’s Shape

Emery’s men faced an onslaught of pressure in the opening 45 minutes but were only down a goal, due to their shape without the ball. Emery’s men dropped into two banks of four with Gameiro and Rakitic up top, aiming to close down Busquets and Xavi – when they dropped deeper. M’Bia was instructed to track Iniesta’s movement, while Cristoforo occasionally pressed Xavi.

However, what was most impressive was Sevilla’s ability to limit the gaps in midfield and defence. Barcelona constantly aimed to penetrate through the middle but was unable to find the final ball or gap in the final third, and that was down to their compact shape and organization. This affected Messi’s influence on the match, as he often dropped deep into midfield, attempting to drag defenders out of position and find his own gaps – but the Argentine forward had little success.

Barcelona down the left

Martino’s men did enjoy success in the first half, mainly down the left hand side. It was a constant source of attack, as Tello and Dani Alves were peripheral figures for large portions of the opening 45. Neymar received the ball countless times and was encouraged to take on Coke Andujar. The Brazilian winger constantly got the better of the Sevilla fullback – due to his marvelous skills and Jordi Alba’s ability to get forward – but his decision-making and quality in the final third was subpar.

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Alba was forced to leave the match midway through the first half, thus allowing Adriano to make an appearance. This now presented Barcelona with a balance, yet neither fullback was eager to push forward – but when Alves did, he was moving centrally. Neymar continued to trouble Coke for the duration of the match, but Barcelona’s opener was orchestrated on the left flank. Adriano finally surged forward and provided a cross to the far post, which Alves nodded past Beto. It was one of the few time Alves broke forward due to Vitolo’s admirable will to track back and protect Alberto.

Martino’s men struggled to find openings in the Sevilla defence, but their narrow shape allowed Barcelona’s left-sided players freedom to penetrate.

Jairo-Vitolo

Barcelona continued to dominate possession in the second half, as they searched for a second goal. Vitolo drifted centrally early in the second half, looking to find gaps to exploit, but the Sevilla attacker realized the service was limited. Yet, two wide men enjoyed a terrific second half, due to Adriano and Alves’ will to surge forward, thus leaving space available behind them to penetrate. Jairo and Vitolo isolated the Barcelona fullbacks, and got into dangerous positions in the final third, which led to corner kicks.

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Sevilla’s first goal stemmed from majestic work from Vitolo. The Sevilla attacker won the ball on the break and attacked space after being played in by Marko Marin. Vitolo danced past Busquets and Gerard Pique, then laid the ball off for Ivan Rakitic to fire past Victor Valdes.

Besides an improvement in the minimal pressure applied by Sevilla, their were two elements of attack that led to their comeback – Jairo and Vitolo’s threat in wide areas on the break was the first positive aspect in Sevilla’s second half resurgence.

Set-pieces

Martino has been heavily criticized for the club’s decision to ignore their defensive issues. The Catalan club is in desperate need of a top-class centreback, but continue to have faith in a Javier Mascherano – Pique partnership. Also, over the past few years, Barcelona has lost players that possess an aerial threat, such as Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal, Yaya Toure and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

This season, Barcelona’s slow defenders have been exposed and their inability to successfully defend set pieces has also been highlighted. Helder Postiga made a near post run and freely nodded in a corner kick at the Mestalla, two weeks ago – and the same issues recurred against Emery’s men.

In the 63rd minute, Cala snuck between Alves and Busquets and nodded a corner kick at the near post, past Victor Valdes. The goal was wrongfully ruled off for a ‘ghost’ foul, which should’ve equalized the scoreline. Martino noticed his side’s disadvantage in height, so he took his players off the post to develop a numerical advantage in the box. Cala got the best of Busquets and Fabregas in the 82nd minute, but the Sevilla defender nodded his header wide of the net. But eight minutes later, Coke earned the equalizer, as the Sevilla fullback was left unmarked to hit the corner kick on the volley, past Valdes.

For all of Barcelona’s talent in attack, they still look frail in defence, and it’s an issue Martino needs to address, if the Catalan side aims on claiming trophies this season.

Fabregas

There’s no question about Cesc Fabregas being Barcelona’s most influential figure this season, and he continued to showcase that in the second half. Minutes upon his arrival, Fabregas made a simple run between the lines to free space for Messi to make a pass, and run into space to tap in Barcelona’s second goal of the night.

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Martino’s men began to find gaps of space between the lines and in the final third in the final 15 minutes of the match, and Fabregas played a key role in their success. His direct forward runs into pockets of space and behind the defence, along with his persistence to get into key areas in the final third, opened up space for Messi, Neymar and Sanchez to penetrate.

Fabregas’ movement and direct approach opened up space for Barcelona’s attackers to express themselves – prior to that they struggled to penetrate in central areas, thus highlighting the impact of his appearance.

Conclusion

Barcelona was dominant in possession for large portions of the match, but their lack of penetration and issues on the break and defending set pieces is alarming. Sevilla will feel they were robbed of points due to Cala’s goal being called off, and the timing of Sanchez’ winner, as their second half performance was promising – specifically Jairo and Vitolo’s

Martino’s men remain unbeaten in league play, as Fabregas’ arrival shifted the match offensively for the Catalan side. It seems evident that the Spaniard is now a key asset to Barcelona, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can sustain this good run of form throughout the season.

 
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Posted by on September 17, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Valencia 2-3 Barcelona

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Lionel Messi’s first half hat trick was enough to guide Barcelona past Valencia, and remain top of the La Liga table.

Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino made two changes to the side that drew Atletico Madrid midweek, in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup. Pedro Rodriguez joined Lionel Messi and Neymar to form the attack in Martino’s 4-3-3. Andres Iniesta also returned to the side replacing Xavi, to form a midfield three with Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Busquets.

Miroslav Dukic made three changes to his starting lineup, after last week’s defeat to Espanyol. Sergio Canales and Dorlan Pabon joined Ever Banega in Valencia’s attacking three, replacing Jonas and Sofiane Feghouli. Andres Guardado started at left back in place of Jeremy Mathieu in Valencia’s back four, while Helder Postiga started as the lone striker.

Despite Postiga’s late first half goals, Barcelona took advantage of the space between the lines and was the dominant side, creating several chances throughout the match.

Valencia’s shape

It’s normal for teams to drop off against Barcelona, based on their superiority in midfield, but what’s key is how you approach the match without the ball. Valencia took a naïve approach and chose to sit deep in a 4-5-1, as they chose to play a high-line.

Now there’s no issue with the way Dukic aligned his men – the main issue was the lack of pressure applied to the Catalan side when they had the ball, and the amount of space between defenders. Valencia allowed Barcelona to play the match with freedom, and they punished Dukic’s men with three first half goals.

Barcelona press

One area that Barcelona got criticized for last season was their goal to keep a solid shape, opposed to pressing higher up the pitch when they lost the ball. Not only did it force Barcelona to defend for longer periods, but they also strayed away from a formula that was successful in the past.

But the arrival of Martino has seen the Catalan side revert back to their defensive strategy, when the opposition has possession. They worked hard to close down Dukic’s men when they attempted to play from the back, forcing the home side to concede possession. It was successful in the first half, and it led to Messi’s second goal of the night. Valencia won possession and looked to play out of their half through Banega, but Busquets pressed the Argentine and won possession. Fabregas picked up the ball and played a lovely pass to Messi, who calmly slotted his shot into the back of the net.

Martino’s men worked hard to retain possession with their pressure, forcing Valencia to concede possession in their own half, presenting them with legitimate goal-scoring opportunities.

Barcelona between the lines

One clear aspect to Barcelona’s dominance was the amount of space available between the lines. Dukic’s men often changed their shape without the ball – they went from two banks of four, to a bank of five ahead of the back four, and despite being organized, they were not compact.

Messi’s opener stemmed from the amount of space and time Fabregas received on the ball. Minutes prior to Messi’s goal, Fabregas played a defence splitting pass to Neymar, but the Brazilian was unable to make the most of the opportunity. Messi was different – despite being fortunate, the Argentine made an identical run behind the defence, but he got the ball past the keeper and tapped it into the open net.

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But it wasn’t only Fabregas enjoying the abundance of space available, Messi also dropped deeper, and the Barcelona forward had a significant impact in the Catalan side’s dominance. Messi found pockets of space throughout the Valencia half and was combining with his teammates, spreading passes wide, and aiming to thread that decisive ball in the final third.

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It was no surprise that Messi and Fabregas connected for Messi’s third goal – based on their dominance in the opening 40 minutes, it was just a matter of time. Messi dropped into midfield to receive the ball and he found Fabregas unmarked between the lines, waiting to receive the ball. Messi played in Fabregas, who then found Neymar out on the left – Neymar found an oncoming Messi who slotted the ball into the net.

The third goal highlighted the amount of freedom Barcelona was given when in possession, and Martino’s men deserved their three-goal lead.

Helder Postiga

The often-maligned Portuguese striker was signed by Valencia to replace Roberto Soldado, who made a move to Tottenham over the summer. Surprisingly, for all the negative reviews the Portuguese international gathers, he’s still managed to find the back of the net. And in the span of five minutes, Postiga pegged his side back into the match with two quality finishes.

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Postiga provided an exquisite finish for his first goal, as Joao Pereira got into an advanced position on the right flank, and provided an outstanding cross for his countrymen. Minutes later, Postiga narrowed the lead to one, when the Portuguese striker made an intelligent near post run and flicked the ball into the far post.

Postiga’s goals provided moments of brilliance, which allowed Valencia back in the game, despite their shambolic performance in the first half.

Wide Areas

Valencia got into dangerous positions in the final third, when they took advantage of the space provided in wide areas.

In the first half, Joao Pereira was allowed to push forward at will, with Neymar not instructed to track the Portuguese fullback, when he surged forward. Iniesta drifted over occasionally to nullify Pereira’s threat, and Mascherano was forced to on a few occasions as well – this didn’t bode well for Martino’s men as Postiga was then able to drop off and link play with Mascherano out of position. Pereira’s freedom out wide led to Postiga’s opener, and it was an element to their attack that was successful in the opening 45 minutes.

Dukic’s men took their focus to the opposite flank in the second half, looking to overload Dani Alves. In fairness, if Barcelona continued their high pressing that was so successful in the first half, this may not be an issue, but the Catalan side chose to get back into shape without the ball. When Barcelona lost possession, Banega and Pabon attacked the space behind Alves, creating a few opportunities. Banega and Pabon overloaded the left flank when Barcelona got into their shape, delivering dangerous balls into the box, but Valencia failed to find an equalizer.

Conclusion

Barcelona was exceptional in the opening 40 minutes, and although they missed several chances to put the game out of reach, the rapid decline in their intensity, allowed Valencia back into the match.

Valencia drops their second match in a row, conceding six goals in total, which is not impressive. Dukic’s men were fortunate not to lose by higher tally, based on how open they were throughout the match. With the Europa League about to kick off, it’ll be interesting to see how Valencia copes, but there are a few warning signs that are clearly being shown. The one positive is that Postiga has yet to look a downgrade to Soldado, and they’ll need the Portuguese striker firing if they intend on claiming a European spot this season.

Barcelona keeps their perfect record intact, and they may not have an easier away outing this season. More importantly, the front three are beginning to click and Neymar is slowly finding his groove in La Liga. The one worry for Martino besides signing a centre-back, will be the approach he adopts, once his men are unable to press higher up the pitch, as Barcelona look quite vulnerable when sitting off and keeping their shape. Nevertheless, Messi continued to display why he’s the best player on the planet, while Fabregas has given Martino belief that he can afford to rest Xavi.

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Brazil prove to be the REAL winners at the Confederations Cup

Brazil claimed their fourth Confederations Cup title with a convincing victory of World champions Spain.

It was a result many would have never predicted and it left football fans around the world with hope that Spain can be knocked off their perch. More so, the much-maligned Confederations Cup that takes place every four years, one prior to the World Cup, went against the cliché of being a pointless tournament.

Over the past two weeks, we have witnessed high quality football matches – the three matches featuring football minnows Tahiti were blowouts, yet even the small nation with a population of approximately 267,000 people gave us something to cheer about. A tournament consisting of Brazil, Italy and Spain was never going to disappoint, and although it looked certain that these sides would finish in the top three, it was never guaranteed.

This tournament was always going to be a great chance for Brazil and Italy to establish themselves as contenders for next years World Cup, while Spain was looking to covet the one trophy that has eluded them during their phenomenal five-year run – but the key question that needs to be raised is did these teams achieve their goals? And who was the real winner over the past two weeks?

Italy

Cesare Prandelli has done a remarkable job in transforming the identity of the Azzuri since taking over the Italian side. Reaching the European final last year was a fantastic achievement, but the Italians have taken a few steps back over the past 12 months. Prandelli’s obsession with a possession-based system has been no secret, and the Italian has been keen on playing in a 4-3-2-1.

The importance of dominating the midfield has become essential, and a midfield containing Riccardo Montolivo, Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi is more than capable of achieving success. Surprisingly, besides the opening game against Mexico, the midfield trio failed to impress – they struggled against Japan, missed the Brazil match and were better against Spain, due to their lack of pressure.

Despite his mediocre displays for Roma, Daniele De Rossi has once again rose to the occasion under Prandelli – his ability to break up play, drop deeper to provide another passing outlet, spray positive forward and diagonal passes and getting forward to provide the final ball and score goals, displays why he’s one of the top midfielder’s in world football.

Along with De Rossi’s star performances, Mario Balotelli also demonstrated that he has the qualities to be a top striker at the international level. The AC Milan striker’s presence was missed in Italy’s final two games, as he played an integral role in the Azzuri’s attack. Balotelli’s ability to hold up the ball and turn on either side, along with his brute strength to shrug off defenders was key – it’s also key to highlight the two goals scored in three games played, one being a winner against Mexico.

Prandelli will also be pleased with Emanuele Giaccherini and Antonio Candreva – both men showcased their tactical discipline and awareness throughout the tournament. Giaccherini linked play with the Italian striker, got into dangerous areas throughout the final third, and his versatility to play in a wingback role against Spain was pivotal.

Candreva was the odd man out prior to the tournament, but injuries and suspensions earned the Lazio winger a place in the starting lineup, and he failed to disappoint. His performance against Spain was memorable – he sat back to protect Maggio, and on the attack he would drift centrally to receive the ball, along with relentlessly attacking Jordi Alba. Prandelli’s dilemma in finding suitable floater’s to play in his 4-3-2-1 may be solved with the emergence of Giaccherini and Candreva.

Surprisingly, Italy’s weakness throughout the tournament was their defence – the days of scoring a goal and defending deep as a unit may have past us. In five games, the Italians conceded 10 goals, keeping only one clean sheet against Spain. The Juventus trio in Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli looked comfortable playing in a back three, opposed to a back four, where they left large gaps available and made several errors.

Gianluigi Buffon patched up a few blemishes throughout the tournament with the three penalty saves he made in the third – place penalty shootout, but the errors made should never be overlooked. Like the Juventus centrebacks, Buffon looked a shadow of himself, and although it’s certain he’ll be in Brazil next year, questions must be posed on whether he should be Italy’s starting keeper for the future. With more games under his belt, Mattia De Sciglio has the potential to be a top-class left back in the near future, while Prandelli still faces issues on the right side. Ignazio Abate hasn’t been consistent enough, while Christian Maggio continues to thrive in a wingback role, but is a liability in a fullback position.

Some positives have come out of Italy’s Confederations Cup campaign, but Prandelli shouldn’t let their third place finish overshadow the issues that need to be addressed over the next 12 months. Prandelli has yet to find the perfect starting 11 for his 4-3-2-1 that he seems keen on playing in – but the Italians have displayed their tactical versatility to play in multiple systems, which is key at this level. If the Italians can address these issues heading into Brazil, there’s no reason why Italy shouldn’t be in contention to lift their fifth World Cup.

Spain

Out of the three contenders in this tournament, Spain looked to be the closest thing to complete. Del Bosque was disappointed to hear that Xabi Alonso would be unavailable for the entirety of the tournament – handing Javi Martinez, arguably the best player in that position this season, a chance to play in the double pivot with Sergio Busquets. Another surprise was the squad selection – many were expecting Del Bosque to select a younger squad, so the first-team could finally get a well-deserved rest, but to also implement a few fresh faces. Spain failed to lift the Confederations Cup, once again losing by a large margin – but unlike their 2-0 loss to the Americans in 2009, this time Del Bosque’s men were thoroughly out played.

Del Bosque stuck with a 4-3-3 throughout the tournament – Spain was now fluid in attack and creating more chances – but they were vulnerable to quick direct counter attacks. The reason why Del Bosque introduced the double-pivot upon his arrival was to prevent the likeliness of Spain being carved open on the counter – this made his decision to keep Javi Martinez on the bench peculiar. With Jordi Alba being one of Spain’s main attacking threats, this left del Bosque with three defenders and Sergio Busquets – Gerard Pique has declined over the past year, Alvaro Arbeloa a generally decent defender had a shocking tournament, leaving Sergio Ramos as their only competent defender.

This forced Spain to defend cautiously, along with the high temperatures and fatigue issues during the latter stages of the tournament. Nevertheless, Diego Forlan found space behind Busquets in the opener, Nigeria was allowed space in midfield to penetrate when Spain dropped into their shape, Italy nullified Jordi Alba’s threat by cleverly attacking the Spanish fullback and Brazil’s explosive direct counter attacks exposed del Bosque’s men. Del Bosque stuck with the 4-3-3, but it left Spain exposed, and the heat, along with the span between games hindered their chances of being successful in this tournament.

Another key factor was the injury of Cesc Fabregas – the Barcelona midfielder has finally secured a starting role, and was a key loss to la Roja. Fabregas provided Spain’s attack with an extra reliable passer/passing option, and his ability to find space between the lines was key. He was positioned narrow to allow Alba to surge forward, but he often linked play with Pedro Rodriguez, and got into advanced positions from midfield. His overall presence was integral to Spain’s fluidity going forward, which could have played a part in Spain failing to score in their final two games.

Spain has an abundance of world-class midfielders, but del Bosque has struggled to implement his top-class midfielders in Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata into the side. Both midfielders have struggled to adapt to Spain’s tiki-taka approach, often playing more direct balls, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s affected the balance and fluidity in the side – with the decline of David Villa and Fernando Torres, along with del Bosque not fancying Roberto Soldado, the balls provided from Cazorla and Mata haven’t been needed.

Is tiki-taka dead? Has Spain’s dominance come to an end? Both questions can’t be answered with full confidence, but it’s key to note that these same questions were posed after Spain’s defeat to the Americans four years ago – then they went on to win the World Cup and the Euro Cup two years later.

“I won’t make excuses – they were better than us and that is that. Sometimes it’s convenient to lose so you don’t think you’re unbeatable.” – Vicente del Bosque

Del Bosque’s decisions were stubborn, and he ignored the deficiencies that his side possessed – similar to Tito Vilanova’s situation against Bayern Munich this year, albeit Vilanova’s bench was much weaker. Based on the past, Spain should still enter Brazil in 2014 as favourites, but del Bosque will need to make some alterations to his system – preferably playing with a double pivot – if Spain intend on winning their second consecutive World Cup.

Brazil

Luiz Felipe Scolari had many critics to silence ahead of his second stint with the Brazilian national team. Scolari inherited a side that had failed to impress over the past 24 months, failing to make an impact in the Copa America, along with the loss to Mexico in the Olympics last year. In a nation where expectations are so high, Scolari had to not only convince his side that they were winners, but the fans as well.

One of Brazil’s main strength’s going into 2014 is their defence, which could explain why they only conceded three goals throughout the entire tournament. They relied on direct play from their fullbacks, David Luiz’ reliable passing out of the back and the leadership of Thiago Silva. Surprisingly, it was the offence that needed to be ironed out, as there were many questions about Brazil’s tactical discipline and awareness. Nevertheless, three of Brazil’s front four were superb – Oscar moved into pockets of space to receive and play incisive passes, Neymar showcased the talent he possesses scoring four remarkable goals and Fred’s ability to link play with the attacking three, along with leading the press was vital.

Scolari made one change to his starting lineup during the tournament, when Hernanes started ahead of an injured Paulinho. It was shocking to see Hulk start in all five matches based on his form and the fact that Lucas Moura was available – a player that offers more pace, danger in the final third, and has a higher tactical IQ than the Zenit St. Petersburg player. Brazil developed a perfect blend of defence and attack in their starting line up, and Scolari displayed his ability to make tactical alterations in matches – specifically against Uruguay.

Although, Brazil won all five matches, there are still some questions to pose. Brazil’s ability to take over games once their opponents settle has yet to be seen, and there was a heavy reliance on players such as Neymar and Oscar – Scolari can get away with a small bench here, but he’ll need to rotate throughout the World Cup and be able to cope if one of the aforementioned players is sidelined.

On the other hand, they scored 14 goals in five games, conceding four, and finished the tournament unbeaten. Scolari was able to find cohesion between midfield and attack, building a potential starting 11, which showcased his sides tactical flexibility. Brazil have been here before, but have failed to replicate their success the following year, and Scolari will need to do so if he wants to mark his reign as a successful one.

Conclusion

We now sit 12 months away from arguably the biggest tournament on the planet, and three potential contenders have showcased their progress thus far. Italy’s tactical versatility, Spain’s fluid attack and Brazil’s energetic starts were positive – but defensive errors, naivety in tactical changes, and failure to take over matches will be one of many flaws to fine-tune.

“Now I am able to dream that we have an idea, that we have a path ahead of us, and that we have a good team to play in the World Cup next year as equals with other strong contenders.” – Luiz Felipe Scolari

“But as far as the team is concerned, one thing that is important is that in the last 30 days we have beaten four former or current world champions: France, Uruguay, Italy and Spain,” Scolari said.

“We are a team still being formed, facing a lot of difficulties and I think this win upgrades the team, giving us more confidence. It’s something that will make us play in a different way,” he said.

Nevertheless, although no team has ever won the World Cup after a Confederations Cup triumph, Scolari’s men were the real winners over the past two weeks.

They found a distinct balance in skill, power and tactical awareness – luckily for the other 31 teams, a lot can change in 12 months.

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2013 in FIFA

 

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Brazil 3-0 Spain

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Brazil win their fourth Confederations Cup in convincing fashion, producing a dominant performance at the Maracana.

Luiz Felipe Scolari made no changes to his starting lineup – he’s only tinkered with his lineup when Paulinho was unfit to play against Italy in Brazil’s final group game. This meant Brazil played in a 4-2-3-1 with Fred leading the line ahead of Oscar, Neymar and Hulk, while Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo played in the double pivot.

Vicente Del Bosque made one change to the side that defeated Italy midweek, introducing Juan Mata into the attacking three alongside Fernando Torres and Pedro Rodriguez. Del Bosque stuck with his midfield three of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, while Cesc Fabregas, Javi Martinez, David Silva and Roberto Soldado sat on the bench.

Brazil’s constant pressure disrupted Spain’s passing rhythm and their direct play exposed the space behind the Spanish midfield, which led to their superiority throughout the match.

Fred

Strikers have been a talking point in Brazil over the past few years, because they have been heavily criticized for not possessing a world-class striker. Fred has been in and out of the Brazilian national team since 2006, but has finally delivered and possibly made a stake for a starting spot in next year’s World Cup, if he stays fit.

Fred may not be the flashiest striker, and is far from being a legitimate world-class player – he is a natural poacher, which blends in with Brazil’s versatile attack. Fred scored five goals in five games, four of which came against arguably the two best European sides in Italy and Spain. But besides goals, Fred offers more to Scolari’s side – his ability to lead the press, link play with the three attackers behind him, and his movement off the ball has seen him flourish under Scolari.

Fred’s ability to hold up the ball and play in advanced runners, and the several defensive headers on Spain set-pieces will be overlooked, because of the two goals he scored, but Fred has displayed why he has all the qualities to lead the line in the future.

Pressing

A common feat in Brazil’s performances throughout this tournament has been their energetic starts. High pressing, and wing play have been key in the opening minutes of their matches, but we’ve often seen both energy and pressing levels dip throughout the match. Surprisingly, Scolari’s men were able to sustain their energetic pressing, as they did against Italy, which disrupted Spain’s passing rhythm and prevented Del Bosque’s men from settling into the match.

Spain was unable to build attacks from the back, as the Brazilian attackers closed down Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos, while Oscar stayed close to Sergio Busquets. Brazil quickly hounded the ball when they were dispossessed and Spain was forced into several errors, often conceding possession.

It’s key to note that Brazil’s double pivot’s physicality proved to be vital. Gustavo tracked Iniesta, and although the Spanish midfielder produced moments of magic, he had little influence on the match. Xavi also struggled to dictate the tempo of the match against Paulinho, and this forced him to drop deeper into the midfield to receive the ball.

Brazil was brave with their pressing – they didn’t allow Spain to set the tempo of the match and play out of the back – they simply modified the approach Italy took in the semi-finals, the difference was they were ruthless in front of goal.

Double pivot?

Spain strayed away from their beloved 4-2-3-1 system and opted to play a 4-3-3 throughout the tournament. With Xabi Alonso unavailable due to injury, Busquets was given the duty to protect the back four alone, like he does for Barcelona. This was an odd move by Del Bosque to stick with this system throughout the tournament – especially when you have arguably the best player in that position in Javi Martinez that can provide physicality and key passes, on the bench.

The system change was positive going forward – Spain looked to be more fluid in their attack, as they created more legitimate goal scoring opportunities. While this was true, the reason why Del Bosque introduced the double pivot upon his arrival as Spanish manager was to not only protect the back four, but also prevent sides from exposing Spain on the counter attack.

Throughout the latter stages of this competition, Nigeria, Italy and Brazil began to penetrate spaces behind the advancing Alba and behind Busquets, and they were keen to play on the break because they found it relatively easy to drag Spain out of position.

This, along with fatigue, could be the main reason why Spain failed to press Italy and Brazil higher up the pitch. Del Bosque possibly noticed the space Nigeria received between the lines, and that Uruguay exposed once Forlan was introduced. Nevertheless, it played into Brazil’s hands, as Luiz Gustavo was able to receive the ball in deep positions because Xavi refused to press the Brazilian midfielder in those areas. Brazil was now able to play from the back – they often played direct balls into Fred, so he could play in the attacking three or to Hulk so that he could isolate Alba.

Del Bosque’s attempt to move away from the double pivot benefitted his side going forward, but against teams that constantly pressed Spain higher up the pitch, it became a defensive liability.

Substitutions

It was no surprise to see Del Bosque look to his bench in the second half, but the fact that his changes had little impact on the match was shocking.

Cesar Azpilicueta replaced Alvaro Arbeloa, and although he didn’t have a poor outing, one could argue that the Chelsea right back could be held responsible for Brazil’s third goal. Jesus Navas replaced the uninspiring Mata, as a direct threat – this pushed Pedro to the left flank and Spain improved going forward, and Navas’ impact resulted in a penalty shot that Ramos missed.

Del Bosque’s final change was to introduce David Villa for Torres. Torres didn’t receive much service, but when he did, the Spanish striker was often outmuscled by David Luiz and Thiago Silva. Torres dropped deep to receive the ball, but struggled to turn on his defender and play in Mata, Pedro or Navas. The best chance Spain received through Torres was when Pedro was played in by Mata, but he was denied a goal due to David Luiz’ heroic block. It was interesting to see Del Bosque keep a player like David Silva on the bench – Silva would have been an ideal replacement for the isolated Torres, to provide Spain with more passing options and he possesses the ability to open gaps in Brazil’s back four.

Del Bosque’s attempt to get Spain back into the match failed, and once Piqué was sent off, his side was forced to defend for the rest of the match.

Conclusion

Brazil outwitted an extremely tired Spanish side with high/energetic pressing, quick direct counter-attacks and ruthless finishing.

Scolari’s men end the tournament unbeaten, and more importantly they look to be heading in the right direction for next year’s World Cup on home soil. Prior to the tournament, many were worried about Brazil’s tactical discipline and the cohesion between the front four, and throughout this tournament Scolari has ironed out those issues. There are still questions as to whether Hulk will be in the starting eleven next year, with the rapid growth of Lucas Moura, but Scolari has completed a job – he found his potential starting 11, molded them into winners, and has turned the Brazilian crowd into believers.

Spain once again fail to win the Confederations Cup, and fatigue, along with Del Bosque’s selections have played a role in their failure. Four major tournaments in five years has taken a toll on this Spanish side, and it showed towards the end of the tournament with their lack of pressure and energy. Del Bosque experimented with a 4-3-3, and has failed to get the best out of a few players in this system. When Spain failed in 2009, Del Bosque was forced to make a few changes to find the right blend of players/system and he’ll need to do so again if he intends on leaving the Spanish post a champion.

 
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Posted by on July 1, 2013 in Match Recaps

 

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