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Juventus 3-0 Barcelona

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.

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

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.

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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Brazil 0-1 Colombia: Colombia stifle Brazil’s direct game with Carlos Sanchez getting the better of Neymar

Miguel Tovar/STF Neymar of Brazil fights for the ball with Carlos Sanchez of Colombia during the 2015 Copa America Chile Group C match between Brazil and Colombia at Monumental David Arellano Stadium on June 17, 2015 in Santiago, Chile.

Miguel Tovar/STF
Neymar of Brazil fights for the ball with Carlos Sanchez of Colombia during the 2015 Copa America Chile Group C match between Brazil and Colombia at Monumental David Arellano Stadium on June 17, 2015 in Santiago, Chile.

Colombia avenged their World Cup disappointment with a deserved 1-0 victory over Brazil.

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Dunga made two changes to the side that defeated Peru in Brazil’s opening game of the tournament. Thiago Silva started at centre-back alongside Joao Miranda, whereas Roberto Firmino’s inclusion pushed Diego Tardelli to the bench.

Jose Pekerman persisted with his default 4-4-2 formation, introducing Teo Gutierrez alongside Radamel Falcao upfront. James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado drifted infield from the flanks, while Carlos Sanchez and Edwin Valencia sat in midfield.

This was a cagey encounter that saw Colombia defend superbly in open play, stifling Neymar’s threat in transition, and clogging space in central areas, before breaking forward with numbers. Better finishing would solidify Colombia’s overall performance, as here, they were clearly the superior side.

Pressing

Considering the previous fixture between these two sides at the World Cup, the likelihood of a cagey, frenetic match was expected. The common theme throughout, though, was slightly contrasting: a slow-burning encounter filled with fouls and several transitional attacks.

The disparity in creativity in central areas was evident, but the manner in which both teams pressed served as the significant factor towards the outcome of the match. With both sides operating in a 4-4-2, the standard base shape out of possession was identical – a simple shift into two banks of four.

Where Brazil sat off and allowed Sanchez to play horizontal passes to the flanks, Filipe Luis stuck tight to his Chelsea teammate, Juan Cuadrado, preventing the Colombian winger from dribbling forward. Identical formations equally ensured that the individual battles were even, yet Sanchez’s freedom, along with Cuadrado and James moving centrally from the touch-line – enabling the full-backs to adopt advanced positions – led to Colombia enjoying the better half of possession.

Brazil’s issue

This was another unbalanced Brazil performance. There was a better sense of defensive solidity and organization out of possession, with Silva offering stability, and an improved performance in midfield from Elias and Fernandinho, but the issue the Brazilian’s encountered involved their route to goal.

Dunga’s men struggled to create chances in open play, and occasionally found it difficult to bypass Colombia’s pressing. Unlike the Brazilian’s, Pekerman instructed Valencia to press Elias, whereas Teo sat goal-side of Fernandinho, thwarting the midfielder’s influence from deeper positions .

Another issue involved overall creativity. Fred endured an abysmal opening half, and while Willian started the match well, his transition into a diligent, functional winger solely offered brief moments of balance, and minimal guile on the pitch. This match was a prime example as to why Brazil misses Oscar: a technically disciplined midfielder that would likely stifle Sanchez from deep, whilst moving into wide positions to balance the attack and create space in central areas.

Colombia's defender Jeison Murillo (C) celebrates next to teammate Teofilo Gutierrez, after scoring against Brazil during their Copa America football match, at the Estadio Monumental David Arellano in Santiago, Chile, on June 17, 2015. AFP PHOTO / NELSON ALMEIDA

Colombia’s defender Jeison Murillo (C) celebrates next to teammate Teofilo Gutierrez, after scoring against Brazil during their Copa America football match, at the Estadio Monumental David Arellano in Santiago, Chile, on June 17, 2015. AFP PHOTO / NELSON ALMEIDA

Here, Dunga’s men were too narrow, which was odd considering their consistent source of attack against Peru developed through Dani Alves’ crossing. Brazil’s best chance stemmed through Alves: the right back received a pass from Fernandinho between the lines, before turning Murillo, driving to the box and delivering a cross to an unmarked Neymar, but David Ospina’s heroics preserved Colombia’s lead.

Apart from Neymar’s dribbling, which in fairness was fairly mediocre – in terms of evading challenges to beat defenders – Brazil lacked natural combinations, guile and creativity in the final third.

Colombia chances

As stated prior, both sides encountered difficulties in open play, which led to several players resorting to ambitious shots from distance. Colombia, however, enjoyed the better chances in transition and through their intense pressing.

Alves was dispossessed twice in the opening half – by James and Valencia – with both plays resulting in crosses from the left flank into the box, but neither midfielder was able to connect with the strikers. The strikers were paired against two physical Brazilian centre-backs and were unable to dominate around the box, yet when chances were presented it was the finishing and confidence, mainly from Falcao, that kept Brazil alive.

Then there were the quick transitions that were often sparked by deep balls from James to the flanks or over the Brazilian defence. There was a quick pass from James that hit off Teo into the path of Falcao, but the striker fired his effort wide. Yet, subsequently both Cuadrado and Falcao both stormed forward from half on individual runs, but neither player could hit the net.

Colombia’s pressing was vastly superior to Brazil’s throughout, and the combination of dynamism and creativity from Cuadrado and James posed several problems when they recovered possession.

Sanchez

More so, when you compare both sides, the major difference lied in the manner that both guarded central areas. The key man throughout was Sanchez, who formed an efficient pairing with Valencia.

Initially, Cristian Zapata and Jeison Murillo tracked Neymar’s runs in central areas, and proactively stepped forward to steer the tricky Brazilian away from goal – Murillo recorded a match-high seven interceptions. Yet, when Neymar moved into the midfield zone, Sanchez, who impressively completed five tackles and interceptions, often overpowered the Brazilian talisman.

With Neymar frustrated with the physicality throughout, Brazil was deprived of the penetrative runs that served as one of the few plausible sources for a goal. Ultimately, Brazil lacked a player in Sanchez’s mold – the provided adequate protection ahead of the back four, negating the opposition’s threat in the final third with powerful tackles, combined with vital last ditch blocks and interceptions.

Substitutions/Second Half

Following a disappointing opening half, Dunga turned to Philippe Coutinho to replace the underwhelming Fred. Whereas Brazil’s shape remained, it was evident Dunga was seeking another passer in midfield. The issue was that Coutinho’s incisive passing in tight spaces is mediocre, and he didn’t offer Brazil the required assistance. Coutinho excels in a deeper role in midfield, playing penetrative passes behind the defence, but here, he helped Brazil retain possession at a slow tempo, whereas his distribution was fairly sloppy.

Ultimately this made things worse for Brazil: They still remained narrow, and with Alves equally in a central position, Colombia simply sat two banks of four into a congested midfield. Brazil moved to a 4-3-3 with the introduction of Douglas Costa, and then Tardelli, but it equally didn’t alter the pattern of the match, as all three strikers maintained narrow positions.

Essentially, Brazil’s best chances came via transition through Neymar, and from a Murillo error that Firmino oddly squandered. Pekerman eventually moved to a 4-2-3-1 with the arrival of Victor Ibarbo, but their task remained the same. Maintain a compact shape, and break with numbers in transition to kill the game.

Cuadrado and James both came close following impressive individual moves, yet despite the two system alterations, stylistically, the second half was drab. Brazil couldn’t break down a determined Colombian outfit, yet while Pekerman’s men attacked well in numbers, their finishing was disappointing.

Conclusion

Two games into this year’s Copa America, and the vast dissimilarity between both Brazil performances highlights the lack of balance throughout the squad. While Colombia defended well for lengthy spells of the match, the lack of cohesion and heavy reliance on Neymar’s dribbling for creativity was vivid.

This wasn’t a vintage Colombian performance, but here, Pekerman’s tactics were spot on. Four years ago, Sanchez negated Lionel Messi’s threat against Argentina, and his performance was equally impressive on Neymar. The Colombian midfielder continuously thwarted Neymar’s mazy dribbles, preventing Brazil from attacking their zones with pace.

When two teams nearly at the same skill level play identical systems, the outcome of the match is often determined by definitive margins. Colombia were rarely tested due to Sanchez’s impressive job on Neymar, and in a match with very few created chances, Pekerman’s men displayed an effective approach to defeat Brazil.

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Atletico Madrid 2-3 Barcelona: Barcelona’s front three expose plucky Atletico and begin to take shape under Luis Enrique

Neymar Messi at Atletico

Barcelona came from behind on two separate occasions in the first half to defeat Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon.

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Diego Simeone was without Koke and the suspended Diego Godin, forcing the Atletico manager to make a few alterations as Raul Garcia and Jose Gimenez slotted into the starting XI.

Luis Enrique made no changes to the side that defeated Atletico in the first leg encounter at the Camp Nou.

In search of a result, Atletico strayed away from the approach that was successful in the past against Barcelona – pressing higher up the pitch, and pushing their fullbacks forward, which proved successful, but equally costly.

Pattern Change

From the opening minute it was evident that Atletico were adopting a more proactive approach at the Vicente Calderon. Simeone’s side required two goals to secure progression in normal time, and it was unsurprising to see Atletico press higher up the pitch for large portions of the first half.

The two strikers pressed the centre-backs, while the wide players quickly closed down the attack-minded Barcelona fullbacks. But where Fernando Torres’ goal may have encouraged Simeone’s men to revert back to a low block, the home side continued to push forward in search of more goals.

While we’re accustomed to Atletico maintaining a low block in their half while Barcelona monopolizes possession, here, the hosts pushed forward at every opportunity, thus leading to an open first half.

Wide Areas

The main theme of the match, however, was the activity in wide areas. Atletico’s improved first leg performance – in comparison to the league encounter at the Camp Nou – witnessed a winger and either Koke or Mario Suarez drifting wide in aid of the fullback to create 1v3 situations against Messi and Neymar. The attempt to replicate this successful approach without the ball proved futile, as Messi constantly evaded Mario Suarez’s attempt to provide additional cover.

However, Atletico’s proactivity was key factors in both goals. Guilherme Siqueira moved ahead of Messi to intercept Javier Mascherano’s cross-field pass, which led to Torres’ opener. Then, Juanfran powered past Neymar and Jordi Alba before colliding with Javier Mascherano to earn a fortuitous penalty.

Ultimately, Atleti’s best chances were also created in wide areas, with Siqueira and Turan combining on two separate occasions, with the former finding Griezmann unmarked in the box – the Frenchman’s tame effort was saved, and he theatrically appealed for a suspected Jordi Alba hand ball.

Barca Breaks

The downfall to Atletico’s proactivity, though, was the lack of protection in transition. While the full backs surged into space behind Neymar and Messi, they equally left ample space vacant to arguably the best attacking trio in world football.

With Messi and Suarez upfront out of possession, and Neymar occasionally tracking back – Barcelona often dropped into two banks of four with Rakitic, and Iniesta at times moving into wide areas – Enrique’s approach to bypass Atletico’s pressing by quickly facilitating the ball to the attacking trio was effective.

Barca simply exposed the space behind Atletico’s fullbacks on several occasions through methodical direct moves. Neymar’s equalizer stemmed from a Gerard Pique headed clearance, and the Brazilian sprinting past Juanfran into vacant space. Subsequently, a simple punt from Marc-Andre ter Stegen nearly led to another Neymar goal, but the Brazilian was rightly ruled offside. The issue in that move was that Atletico’s Siqueira and Gabi were left in a 2v2 situation against Messi and Neymar.

It was evident that Atletico’s intent to go toe-to-toe was a gamble, and it was odd seeing the reigning La Liga champions continuously picked off by simple, direct attacks. Neymar’s winner also highlighted Atletico’s defensive naivety, with Messi storming into acres of space down the right, and Jordi Alba – who was accused of handling the ball – quickly sprinting to the home side’s box to direct the Argentine’s cross into Neymar’s path.

Enrique’s decision to encourage his men to quickly play passes to the attackers has tormented Simeone’s side this month, but here, Barca’s talented trio benefitted from the space Juanfran and Siqueira left available.

Rakitic

One key aspect throughout the first half was Rakitic’s movement in midfield. Not only does the Croatian offer Barcelona’s side a different element in central areas, but his verticality epitomizes the Catalan club’s philosophy under Enrique.

While Barcelona is likely to dominate possession in most matches, the emphasis on long spells of ball retention has been replaced with quick, vertical passes to the forwards, which could explain the attacking trios increased dribbling and fouls suffered. With Busquets at the base, and the combination of Iniesta and Rakitic shuttling, the midfield equally suits the system. Iniesta is a dribbler that isn’t renowned for dictating the tempo of matches, while Rakitic was free to make intelligent, powerful runs into space.

Likewise, Barcelona did enjoy a 3v2 overload in midfield, so with Gabi and Mario Suarez pressing Busquets and Iniesta, Rakitic often operated as the spare man in central areas. In the 18th minute, Rakitic’s forward run into the right channel nearly set the Croatian free, but Messi’s pass was over hit. Although the away side was likely to encounter difficulties maintaining control of the match, Rakitic’s forward runs posed issues. The Croatian earned a corner when he latched onto Neymar’s lay off, and a Dani Alves pass that found Rakitic unmarked at the edge of the box led to the corner that resulted in Miranda’s own goal.

Under Enrique, Barcelona have identified a rejuvenated sense of direct play: from Rakitic’s untracked vertical runs into space, to the initial ball that ignited the break to Neymar’s winner, there’s no surprise that a stable XI and shift in play has increased the Croatian’s significance in the squad.

Second Half

Sadly, the match reached its peak in the first half. Gabi’s dismissal at half time forced Simeone to replace Griezmann with Saul. Atletico dropped into a 4-4-1 without the ball, and retreated deeper into their half, offering minimal threats on the break.

The home side’s best chance came with 20 minutes remaining, when Torres flew past Busquets thus leading to Cani firing a devastating shot on goal, but ter Stegen punched the substitute’s effort over the net. Messi dropped deeper into midfield to ensure Barca retained possession to kill the game, and despite Atletico ending the match with nine men, the away side was unable to build on their lead.

Barca effectively got the job done in the first half.

Conclusion

In the span of 17 days, Enrique has rectified his disappointing results against tougher opposition by defeating Simeone’s Atletico on three separate occasions.

Despite two early scares, Enrique’s reluctance to alter his approach proved decisive: Barcelona’s front three were devastating in transition when they broke into space behind the fullbacks, quickly placing their attacking trident in positions to isolate defenders with their dribbling.

Nonetheless, while Simeone’s reactive low block has tormented Real and Barca in recent years, it appears the latter has found an ideal solution to their shortcomings, while the reigning champions were exposed in their attempt to outplay Enrique’s side.

Perhaps Enrique’s Barcelona possess a few flaws throughout the squad, but the focus on quick vertical passes to the strikers is a shift from the days of patient, meticulous ball retention – more importantly, it’s working.

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Brazil 1-7 Germany

Courtesy of Wikicommons/Steindy

Courtesy of Wikicommons/Steindy

Germany avenged their 2002 World Cup final loss by convincingly battering Brazil at Estadio Mineirao.

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Luiz Felipe Scolari made three changes to his XI welcoming back Luiz Gustavo alongside Fernandinho in midfield, while Dante formed a centre-back duo with David Luiz, and Bernard replaced the injured Neymar.

Joachim Low named an unchanged XI.

Germany played to their strengths and scored four goals in a six-minute span in what proved to be relatively straightforward tactical battle.

Germany’s shape

One of the key aspects to Germany’s success in the first half was their shape out of possession. Low’s side dropped into a 4-1-4-1 without the ball with Sami Khedira pressing Luiz Gustavo, Toni Kroos tracking Paulinho, and Bastian Schweinsteiger monitoring Oscar’s movement.

With the German’s keeping close to the Brazilian midfield, the vacant centre-backs had no passing options available, and were forced to play direct. For the most part, Low’s side negated the host’s threat in midfield, and without midfield runners, and Fred upfront –– he’s not renowned for his pace –– the German back-line was free to play higher up the pitch.

Brazil encountered identical issues throughout the tournament, but relied on quick transitions to score goals, and with Neymar unavailable, it always felt that a moment of brilliance or execution from set pieces would be their solitary goal outlet.

Direct Brazil

Similar to previous matches in the tournament, David Luiz’s long diagonal balls were pivotal towards Brazil bypassing Germany’s pressing. Luiz was Brazil’s creative outlet in the first half playing diagonal balls into the front four and surging through midfield to feed Hulk; the winger’s distribution in the final third, however, was putrid. Defensively, Luiz struggled due to the lack of protection in midfield, but he was undoubtedly Brazil’s most creative player on the field.

Luiz Germany

Likewise, Germany’s pressing in midfield prevented Brazil’s chief creator from receiving the ball in advanced positions in the final third. Prior to the goal fest, Oscar was most influential when he dropped deeper into midfield to receive the ball and link play. Brazil’s best move was created in this manner, as Oscar combined with Fernandinho and Fred, thus leading to the ball being played into Marcelo in the box, but Philipp Lahm made a key tackle to halt their attack.

Germany’s pressing nullified Brazil’s attempt to play through midfield, and impeded Oscar’s role as the no.10, while Luiz’s deliveries and surging runs from defence served as the successful method in bypassing Low’s side.

Germany dominate right flank

In last year’s Confederations Cup, fullbacks Marcelo and Dani Alves played key roles in Brazil’s attack. The attack-minded fullbacks would surge into the final third, and their crosses from wide areas created several goals en route to the final. 12 months later, the former endured possibly the worst match of his career, while the latter was dropped for Maicon.

Germany’s dominance stemmed from Marcelo’s advanced positioning as Thomas Muller, Khedira and Lahm exploited this space in transition. This approach was evident from the opening minutes, and equally played a decisive role in the buildup to Germany’s opening goals.

Lahm Muller BrazilFirst, Khedira stormed past Oscar and Fernandinho before playing the ball wide to Muller, and his cross to the far post saw Mesut Ozil return the favour to Khedira who fired his shot off Kroos. Then Marcelo conceded possession cheaply, and Khedira shrugged off Gustavo, thus playing in Muller who earned a corner following Marcelo’s recovery run. Muller side footed Germany into the lead from the ensuing corner kick.

On an interesting note, a similar incident occurred on the right flank with Schweinsteiger looping a ball into space in the left channel for Ozil, who ran past Luiz, but the Brazilian centre-back out-muscled the diminutive playmaker to retain possession. Still, the massacre on the right continued as Muller surged into space behind Marcelo who was caught out of possession once again, but Dante cleared his corner to award the Germans a throw-in; seconds later, Klose slid the ball past Julio Cesar to double Germany’s lead, following great passes from Muller and Kroos.

Finally, the build up to Germany’s third goal was also created down this flank, as Lahm surged forward to receive an exquisite pass from Ozil, and the right-back’s low-cross fell into the path of Kroos, who fired a powerful effort past Cesar. A year ago, this appeared to be the logical approach to adopt from a Brazilian standpoint, but the quality from the fullbacks in the final third was putrid, whereas Bernard and Hulk failed to track the runs of Lahm and Benedikt Howedes.

This was a logical plan executed brilliantly by Low’s side, and it was surprising that Scolari didn’t instruct the fullbacks to sit deeper, or his wingers to trackback.

Brief Brazilian fight back

Scolari made two changes at the interval, introducing Ramires and Paulinho, and transitioning into a 4-3-3. This was the system the Brazilian manager should have utilized from the opening whistle, and there was an immediate response at the start of the second half.

Germany retreated into their half, whereas Ramires played as the highest midfielder to help Fred lead the press, and surge forward into attack. Ramires and Paulinho’s powerful running posed a few issues for Low’s side, and forced Neuer into making key saves to deny the latter and Oscar.

Low reacted brilliantly, introducing Andre Schurrle for Klose and moving Muller in the centre-forward position. Now Germany possessed pace upfront, and they were favoured to create chances on the break as Brazil pushed numbers forward in the second half. Likewise, Schurrle scored two wonderful goals in the second half, halting any chance of a miraculous comeback.

Conclusion 

In what should have been a tight-affair between two prestigious international sides, Germany annihilated Brazil on home soil in a match that will be remembered for years to come.

This was a one-sided affair that saw Germany play to their strengths, and dominate nearly every aspect of the match. There were three factors to Germany’s success: they exploited space behind Marcelo, their pressing in midfield –– an approach various sides have utilized in this tournament against the hosts –– prevented Brazil from playing through midfield, and Scolari’s reluctance to play a 4-3-3, saw Germany’s wide players drift centrally to overload central areas.

Shots Brazil Germany

Germany combined approaches that were unsuccessful against Scolari’s side in previous rounds, but their ruthlessness and execution in the final third proved decisive. Neymar and Thiago Silva were missed, but Scolari got his tactics wrong, and failed to react to Germany’s dominance in the opening half hour.

Under Scolari, Brazil’s biggest strength was their ability to win games, and how they react to this emphatic defeat will define whether this group of players is capable of making the next step in future competitions.

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2014 in Published Work, World Cup 2014

 

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Brazil 3-1 Croatia

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Courtesy of Flickr/Jose Martinez

Neymar scored twice as Brazil came from behind to defeat Croatia in the opening match at the World Cup.

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Luiz Felipe Scolari fielded his expected starting XI with Fred leading the line ahead of Neymar, Oscar and Hulk. Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho started in the double-pivot.

Without the suspended Mario Mandzukic, Niko Kovac was forced to start Nikica Jelavic upfront ahead of Ivica Olic, Mateo Kovacic and Ivan Perisic. Talented midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic formed a midfield duo in Kovac’s 4-2-3-1.

Croatia enjoyed a positive opening 15 minutes before Oscar stamped his authority on the match. However, a poor decision by the referee tilted the momentum in Brazil’s favour, and the hosts dealt with Croatia’s late onslaught.

Croatia’s defensive approach

The key to Croatia’s shape in the opening minutes was partially based around their shape. Kovac’s decision to field three ball-playing midfielders led many to believe that Croatia would attempt to control the match. Croatia, however, maintained a medium defensive block, as they dropped into two banks of four without the ball.

Kovacic and Jelavic sat off the Brazilian centre backs and positioned themselves ahead of Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho to cut off passing lanes into midfield. The Brazilian duo was forced to play conservative passes into wide areas, and Kovac’s pragmatism ensured that Croatia negated one of Brazil’s main strengths.

Perisic and Olic – two wide forwards – tirelessly pressed Marcelo and Dani Alves and prevented the full-backs from pushing forward. Considering Marcelo and Dani Alves’ offensive impact in the Confederations Cup, Kovac’s decision to instruct his wingers to limit their threat was pivotal.

Croatia’s approach without the ball was logical, and equally effective in the opening period.

Croatia attacks

Croatia surprisingly took the lead in the opening 10 minutes courtesy of a Marcelo own goal, but the goal and a previous opportunity followed the same pattern.

Modric ignited the break from midfield before playing a pass to Perisic on the right flank, and the Croatian winger’s cross towards the back post saw Olic out jump Alves and steer his header inches wide of the post. Subsequently, Rakitic’s ball to Olic on the left flank led to Jelavic guiding the Croatian winger’s cross off Marcelo and into the net.

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There was always space behind Alves and Marcelo as they continuously aimed to maraud forward, thus leading to the duo conceding possession and being caught out of position. Equally, Croatia aimed to use their wide players’ physical presence to outmuscle Brazil’s diminutive full-backs. Along with Olic’s early chance, Perisic received a cross from Jelavic, and out jumped Marcelo, but he guided his header directly at Julio Cesar.

Croatia’s intelligent midfielders quickly transitioned into attack when they won possession, and exploited the physical and positional deficiencies of the Brazilian full-backs.

Oscar

Scolari’s men were poor in the opening 15 minutes, and their shape was often disjointed when they were in possession. Brazil required a link between midfield and attack, as Neymar was forced to drop too deep to receive the ball, while the midfielders couldn’t facilitate passes towards the wide players and Fred.

Oscar’s start to the match was quite shaky, but he did play two good crosses into the box that shouldn’t be overlooked. The Brazilian continued to take advantage of Vrsaljko – who isn’t a natural left-back – by pushing the ball towards the byline to earn a corner and delivering a cross into the six-yard box that evaded both Neymar and Fred.

Most of Oscar’s play continued down the right; his curling effort following Neymar’s magic was pushed aside by Pletikosa, and he played a great ball into Paulinho between the lines, but the midfielder’s shot was saved by Pletikosa. Oscar usually moves to the right to create space for his teammates, but here he served as the link that Brazil required. Oscar was equally impressive on the defensive end as he protected his full-backs out of possession, and completed key tackles in midfield to halt Croatia’s breaks on the counterattack.

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Likewise, the Chelsea man was involved in all three Brazilian goals. His persistence in a challenge against Rakitic and Modric enabled the Chelsea midfielder to break free and flick the ball to Neymar who opened the scoring. Oscar impressively ran past Vrsaljko and Marcelo Brozovic and played a great pass into Fred, which resulted in the referee harshly awarding a penalty to Brazil for Dejan Lovren’s non-foul on Fred. Lastly, Oscar received a loose ball and capped off his tremendous performance with a low shot past Pletikosa to double Brazil’s lead.

Oscar nearly created another goal from the right flank as his cross into the box to an unmarked David Luiz was steered wide of the net. Oscar was undoubtedly the best player on the field, and oddly it was from the right flank – a position he isn’t naturally accustomed to playing – as he was the catalyst in Brazil’s comeback with his deliveries from wide areas, clever passes, and tireless work rate.

The 22-year old displayed why many classify him as Brazil’s most important player.

Second half

Prior to Neymar’s controversial second goal, Brazil continued to struggle as a unit. Their passing tempo was vividly slow, and Croatia did a better job in attempting to nullify Oscar’s threat. Croatia dropped a bit deeper in the second half, but continued to exploit space behind Alves and Marcelo.

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On a few occasions Olic and Perisic broke into space behind the full-backs, but their poor final ball was often cleared, and Thiago Silva and David Luiz made several timely last-ditch clearances and tackles. Perisic, in particular, enjoyed a good game with his admirable defending, reliable passing, along with his pace and power to drive forward down the flanks. Rakitic and Modric saw more of the ball in the second half as players tired. Oscar and Gustavo harried the latter in deep areas, and without Neymar closing down Rakitic, the Sevilla midfielder began to string positive passes forward.

The match lacked many clear-cut chances apart from the goals and the managers’ attempt to alter the match via substitutions were futile. Scolari’s decision to introduce Hernanes was logical – he’s a good passer of the ball and could quickly increase the passing tempo – but the Inter Milan midfielder was ineffective. Bernard’s direct threat injected energy but he didn’t offer much going forward, while Ramires’ short cameo led to Oscar’s third goal.

Marcelo Brozovic’s presence did offer another threat upfront, as he remained higher up the pitch, and although Ante Rebic offered mobility, he failed to influence the match.

The match opened up in the final 15 minutes with Neymar receiving plenty of space between the lines to drive forward, but Brazil didn’t test Pletikosa. Scolari’s men preferred to drop into their shape to preserve the lead, but Croatia’s persistence led to Modric and Perisic’s efforts from distance – that Cesar poorly dealt with — and Cesar’s controversial collision with Olic.

 Conclusion

Croatia will feel robbed of a potential point following an effective display prior to Neymar’s second goal. However, Oscar’s well-rounded performance along with Pletikosa’s poor goalkeeping also contributed to Brazil’s success on the night.

Kovac’s men did a great job without the ball in negating Brazil’s full-backs and equally exploiting space behind the attack-minded defenders, but they didn’t create enough chances and their final ball was poor.

This wasn’t a great Brazilian performance, but to some degree this is what to expect from Scolari’s men. Brazil is a highly functional side that may not play the most attractive football in the tournament, but they possess a quality that majority of the teams in the tournament lack.

They know how to win games.

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2014 in Published Work, World Cup 2014

 

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2 Guys and a MIKE – World Cup Draw Vodcast December 8th

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Courtesy of: Christophe Badoux

On the debut of the 2 Guys and a Mike vodcast, Tyrrell Meertins and Mike the Mod breakdown the World Cup Draw that took place Friday afternoon.

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2013 in Podcasts

 

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