Monday, 28 May 2012

Barcelona's use of spare man to expose Athletic's marking

Pep Guardiola's final game as coach of Barcelona ended in a good 3-0 win against Marcelo Bielsa's Athletic Bilbao and his fourteenth trophy in four years in charge. The intensity, the speed of passing and the quality of pressing and finishing that summed up Guardiola's time were evident for much of the first half and the way they raced into a 3-0 lead after just 25 minutes made it extremely difficult for Athletic to come back.
Something specific that was interesting about the display, apart from their speed and intensity, was their use of the centre backs to expose Athletic's man marking. One of the problems teams have faced against Athletic this season has been the intensity of their man marking and their high pressing game, most evident against Man United over two legs in the Europa League. It is a very demanding system and has been hard for Bielsa's team to consistently perform to such a high level but when at it's best, has been difficult for opposition teams to defeat. One of the first times this was evident was in the 2-2 against Barcelona in November where, for much of the game, Athletic made it very difficult for Barcelona.

However in this game, Guardiola's side intelligently used both the centre backs to expose it. One of the things about Athletic's pressing system is that they often use only one player (Llorente) to press against the two centre backs. This doesn't happen all the time and they do use their wide men to press inside on occasions but from a general perspective it is often left 2v1 in this area. This means that one of the centre backs is left free when the other invites pressure.

What Barcelona did, (and also did in the second league game in March where they won 2-0) was to allow the free centre back to move into midfield on the ball and create a situation to allow the midfielders space to get away from the man marking of Athletic.

This is an image seven minutes in.

Gerard Pique, the right-sided centre back moves forward with the ball. Meanwhile Athletic man mark these areas to stop the easy pass and to make sure the midfielders can't turn if they receive the ball.

However Pique, under late pressure, keeps going forward with the ball. In this situation the midfielder marking Xavi's movement is being run at and has a decision to make as to whether he keeps marking Xavi or goes to close down on Pique, leaving Xavi free.

In this situation, he ends up having to go and pressure Pique, leaving Xavi free as a spare man in the middle.

Though the three goals did not come from movement like this, dangerous situations were created as a result of using this to allow the midfielders to get free from the marking.

This was well highlighted by Rafa Benitez on the Sky Sports coverage, in this situation 22 minutes in:

You can again see the midfield marking from Athletic. This time it is Pique again who is moving forward with the ball into the central midfield zone.

Again, the midfielder (De Marcos) marking Xavi is left with the quandary of sticking with the marking or going to pressure Pique, which he does again, leaving Xavi free and very importantly facing the play, allowing Barcelona to dominate on the ball and to try to find the penetrating pass.

Next we see the other centre back Mascherano moving forward in possession just a few seconds after the previous situation.

 Mascherano picks up the ball and begins moving forward into the midfield area.

This time he runs at the opponent marking Iniesta. The Spaniard himself moves deeper and to the side as Mascherano gets closer, giving himself the space to be able to turn on the ball and face play ahead of him

As he receives the ball, the opponent who was marking Xavi in the original shot then goes to close him down, leaving a big amount of space between the lines.

As Iniesta beats him, Athletic now have three players (Iniesta, Xavi and Messi) free in front of the defence, not a good situation for any team. This highlights the difficulty of pressing Barcelona - you either press high and try and stop their midfielders turning to face the play, or you allow their midfielders time to face play but make space compact in the final third, making it difficult to penetrate through. The first idea is what Athletic tried to do but with the use of centre back moving forward on the ball and running at players, it allowed the midfield to get free of their marking and to get space to turn.

Here in another situation in the 31st minute of the game, Barcelona's midfield again highlight their clever use of movement to get space.

Mascherano has the ball at his feet. Busquets, the closest midfielder to the Argentine, then moves forward dragging his marker Ander Herrera away, and leaves Xavi the room to move into, marked by De Marcos.

As the ball is switched to Pique, Xavi is tracked by De Marcos tightly. Again though, Pique moves forward and commits the midfielder, allowing Xavi the space to receive the ball and then dictate possession.

In many ways this isn't necessarily the fault of a man marking system in midfield; even with zonal systems, tracking and man marking plays a part in several areas. But here Barcelona demonstrated, with use of the spare centre back, that it is very hard to stop talented midfielders turning to face the play and also that centre backs who are comfortable in possession are very important assets of a proactive passing side.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Brief analysis of Atletico Madrid 3-0 Athletic Bilbao

Falcao and Diego took their chances brilliantly to win the Atletico Madrid's second Europa League in three years.

Atletico Madrid started with a 4-2-3-1 that dropped deep into a 4-5-1/4-1-4-1 shape defensively. Falcao led the line, Turan started on the left, Adrian on the right and Mario Suarez and Gabi played in midfield with Diego dropping in deep to help them.

Athletic started in their usual 4-3-3. Munain started on the left, Susaeta on the right and Llorente up front with De Marcos and Herrera supporting from midfield.

It was always going to be an entertaining game to watch with plenty of attacking talent on display from both teams, although with two different strategies. At. Madrid pressed high and compact initially but then moved back to the edge of the box with Diego dropping into the left central midfield position to make it difficult for Athletic to create space. The early goal from Falcao, after he moved into the channels and exploited the lack of mobility of Amorebieta before a great curling strike, allowed At.Madrid to be able to drop off and protect their lead and then use the space left on the counter attack.

Athletic on the other hand started slowly and were unable to penetrate through the middle because their opponents kept a reasonably small distance between each other and between the lines. Munain wasn't getting much space there and they found it difficult to play passes into Llorente. In the wide areas, the full backs marked tightly when vertical passes were played into that area and Athletic were unable to turn and get to the byline. Llorente had a couple of opportunities in the area and Munain threatened with a long range strike but they couldn't find an equaliser

Meanwhile, Falcao was threatening on the counter attack and was clearly targeting Amorebieta. 34 minutes in, the centre back was too slow on the ball just outside his area and At.Madrid won it and got quickly to the byline before pulling it back for Falcao who was composed and again showed a great change of direction against the Athletic centre backs before making it 2-0.

Bielsa's men were struggling to penetrate and Munain started to drop deep to try and receive the ball and influence the play. However they couldn't create any good chances and it ended 2-0 at half time.

Athletic made two changes at the break, bringing on Inigo Perez and Ibai Gomez for Iturraspe and Aurtenetxe. This meant Munain moved into a central position while Ibai Gomez moved to the left. Indeed they started the second half on the attack, playing with a good tempo with Munain getting behind the defenders between the centre and full back.

At.Madrid however had kept the same strategy as the first half dropping deep to make it compact, working hard to close the gaps down the centre and making it difficult for Athletic to penetrate. The threat on the counter attack with Falcao, Diego and the two wide players was always there, with Athletic pushing players forward, they were vulnerable to quick transitions.

They were also playing the ball too quickly down the middle which made it easier for Simeone's players and they weren't getting to the byline out wide either.

As the game went on, tiredness started to play a part for At.Madrid and more space started to open up between the lines and between defenders for Athletic to create chances, first for Ibai Gomez, then Susaeta but they failed to take them with Courtois looking very strong in goal.

Falcao up front was still giving the centre backs a torrid time and had a chance to get his hat trick, cutting inside onto his right foot and just hitting the post. However a few minutes later, Diego found space to run at the Athletic defence and, after he tricked Amorebieta with a stepover, he placed a lovely finish into the bottom right hand corner to seal the trophy for Atletico Madrid.