A look at Barcelona defeating Qatari-side Al-Sadd in the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup, and how David Villa was employed before breaking the tibia in his left leg.
I watched Barcelona's recent matches against Mallorca and Getafe and I don't see much difference in standard between Al Sadd and those two teams. -- Al-Sadd Manager Jorge Fossati
It is neither complimentary nor abrasive to say Fossati was right: Al-Sadd, the AFC Champions League winners, played Barcelona much how most of the opponents of the defending European champions have done so this campaign. By parking a nine-man bus in front of goal -- one bank of five, one of four -- Al-Sadd hoped to remain structurally sure defensively and, upon weathering the storms of Barca's attack, counter quickly in the pursuit of 1 on 1, 2 on 2 and 3 on 2 match-ups. It cannot be said Al-Sadd was not successful at the latter: both Abdoul Kader Keita and Mamadou Niang worked on separate occasions to find themselves a stride clear of the Barca line, and only a hustling defense catching a slowing Keita and a Carles Puyol challenge and foul on Niang prevented Victor Valdes from being asked a great deal.
Al-Sadd, a normal purveyor of a 4-3-3 system, played their holding midfielder, Mohammed Kasola, in their back-line, rotating with centre-backs Lee Jung Soo and Abdulla Koni. And with their wingers, Keita and Khalfan al Khalfan, forming another bank of four with their centre-midfielders, Al-Sadd's shape was, for all intents and purposes, a 5-4-1, with Niang, their nominal striker, playing recessed into their own half out of possession. To counter they played directly: down the flank where the ball was won, either to a pushing forward winger or a floating over Niang. If a break didn't result, they often lost possession within three passes. It wasn't pretty, but as Getafe showed against Barca earlier, there are worse ideas an overmatched side could imagine.
While Barca's shape was similar to that after Guardiola's tactics change in El Clásico, their method of play was quite dissimilar. With the opponent parking the bus, Eric Abidal advanced much farther than he had against Real Madrid, free down the left touchline to provide width -- width that his substitution, Maxwell, made use of to score the last goal. That, coupled with Adriano playing the Dani Alves role, meant Puyol and Javier Mascherano were by themselves at the back, and given how deep Al-Sadd sat, the centre-back duo maintained such a high-line they were essentially double pivots throughout.
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Of most interesting note, however, was Guardiola's use of Lionel Messi and David Villa. Instead of having Messi -- or one of Cesc Fàbregas and Alexis Sánchez -- as the "false-nine" centre-forward to head their attacking trident, Guardiola used David Villa as a true number-nine, much how Spain uses him when not enjoying his talents on the left wing. With Villa's prolonged struggle during the final months of the last campaign and a, for him, dearth of goals this season, the idea wasn't poor, especially taking into account his steady Spain play. Although Villa didn't score, he was certainly dangerous, and while it would be fair to say he's normally at his best drifting in from the left, he looked as good in a Barca uniform surely holding up play and dragging defenders out of position and getting onto the end of passes as he had in the entirety of the season to date.
Villa's play ahead meant Messi was able to move about the pitch however he damn well pleased. He drifted to both flanks. He made incisive runs. He dropped as deep as he did against Madrid. He rotated with Iniesta and Thiago and Adriano. He used Villa's positioning to make his signature dribbles from the right to the centre to the left of the box appear even easier, and looked to play 1-2s with Spain's most prolific goal scorer.
It was drastically different than the false-nine/false-ten partnership of Messi and Fàbregas -- something of a true-nine/false-nine partnership, or a true-nine/false-ten partnership -- but it brought a different wrinkle to the Barca attack. And, more importantly, a viable wrinkle. One that would surely have use in La Liga, one that would make breaking down a deep, packed-in-tight defense an easier task. One that would have made it easier to keep Villa in the forward rotation while providing the flexibility to include Messi as a midfielder more often, keeping Xavi and Iniesta and Fàbregas all the more fresher for Champions League fixtures.
And then Villa snapped the tibia in his left leg trying to get on the end of a long ball.
For a team already missing a forward in Ibrahim Afellay, this leaves Barca awfully thin upfront, with only Messi, Pedro, Sánchez and B-team promotion Isaac Cuenca as the nominal options for a three-competition campaign awaiting Barca after the Club World Cup final on Sunday. There are ways around this, however, and Barca doesn't necessarily have to buy a forward. At least, not yet.
With Martín Montoya having just renewed his contract with a guarantee of a first-team position come next season, and with how Guardiola appears wont to use Alves and Adriano as wingers, a Montoya promotion, coupled with Alves and Adriano becoming more permanent of fixtures up ahead on the right touchline, might be the simplest solution. While Alves and Adriano are not creators, they don't have to be if Messi and Fàbregas or Messi and Sánchez are in the middle. The two can play a meaningful role out wide if what is asked of them is reasonable, as both have shown in the last week. Doing this would, perhaps, make their shape used against Real Madrid their standard.
There's also the Iniesta option to play a wide role upfront. With the emerging Thiago, the steady play of Seydou Keita and an in-marvelous-form Javier Mascherano perhaps needing playing time elsewhere upon the return of a fit Puyol and Gerard Piqué, there are the bodies to provide suitable cover in midfield when Iniesta would be asked to play a more forward role on a wing than he did against Madrid. This isn't the cleanest option, however. While Iniesta can do this, it's taking one of the best midfielders alive and putting him in a position which doesn't make the most of his talents. Given Guardiola's recent comments about the skill sets of the players deciding the chosen tactics, this seems unlikely, but Guardiola's affinity for putting as many centre-midfielders on the pitch as possible makes the probability of this not insignificant.
Regardless of the ultimately decided on course of action -- a Montoya promotion, Iniesta out wide, changing from their 3-4-3 to their Madrid shape, asking Messi to play out wide, playing even more centre-midfielders across the pitch -- the season continues, with Neymar and his Santos cohorts awaiting Villa-less Barcelona on Sunday in the FIFA Club World Cup final. While the match-up is suddenly without one of the game's superstars, the intrigue has only gone up.