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Saturday, December 17

FIFA Club World Cup Final Preview

A tactical preview of the upcoming FIFA Club World Cup final between Santos and Barcelona.
It is the competition I am most excited about this year because we're able to play in it. Getting here has been very complicated, very hard. -- Pep Guardiola
With FIFA enjoying a match-up headlined by Neymar -- the world's best player, according to Pelé -- and Lionel Messi -- the world's best player, according to Diego Maradona -- Guardiola won't hardly be alone in his excitement for Sunday's Club World Cup final.  Pitted against that tantalizing to even imagine duel, the clash between Copa Libertadores winners Santos and European champions Barcelona is almost of secondary interest.

Santos starting XI
In Santos' semi-final victory over Kashiwa Reysol, Neymar dazzled, opening the game's scoring with an immaculate curler no keeper could dream of stopping after freeing himself from a marker with a marvelous shot feint.  It was a flash of skill from the Brazilian nineteen-year-old that is fast becoming all the more common throughout competition for his club and country, further fueling his ascendancy among football's elite.  But beyond being as class and clinical of a finish one could imagine, Neymar's brace also illuminated tactical features of the Santos attack.

Santos' shape of choice is a 4-3-X, with the X either a 3 or 1-2 depending upon who is asked.  Not without similarities to Barca's 4-3-3, it's a shape featuring a holding midfielder in Arouca often dropping to his centre-defenders when in possession, allowing the fullbacks freedom to provide width when the forwards cut inside.  Where Barca has a false-nine playing as the creative entity in their frontline, Santos instead fields a classic number-ten in Ganso, a promising Brazil international in his own right.  Where Messi can dictate the game with slaloming runs and other feats of apparent wizardry when attacking with the ball, Ganso prefers the taking of deeper positions, relying upon his able passing to stage the Santos attack.  This gives Santos both another body in the centre of midfield when required and allows Elano and Henrique their own accord to advance forward.
Movement from Santos with ball down right flank
 (NOTE: flip with ball down the left)

Santos brings much in the way of difference to the Barca attack with the ball out wide, however.  When in possession down the right flank, Neymar, the nominal left winger, looks to make runs over the top or pushes to the centre, providing support all the while seeking out space to dazzle upon receiving a pass.  To anchor possession, Danilo will often come from the back along the touchline, looking to play the ball to a pushing ahead Elano or a free-to-maneuver-ahead Borges, to say nothing of the bombing forward entrenched in a Brazilian fullback's DNA.  Short of those options, Ganso, Henrique and Arouca all can come in support in addition to Neymar pushing even farther across the pitch.  This approach from Santos is a deliberate sacrificing of front-line width, littering bodies on the right half, daring the defense to either stay in their own shape or give the Santos playmakers time on the ball.

With the latter not being a proposition worth any meaningful pursuit, an enormous amount of space opens down the other flank for Bruno Rodrigo to either seek out a safe position when Santos needs to switch across or run onto to provide width upon Santos moving the ball back into the centre.  Look at Neymar's goal in the below embedded video: Ganso, in a deep position, finds Neymar to the right of centre, with Bruno Rodrigo running down the left flank with nary a Kashiwa defender within twenty yards of him.  Had Neymar not provided an individual display of class, Kashiwa was still in real danger of being dragged apart.

Santos defending with attack down right flank
(NOTE: flip for attack down the left)
Santos also isn't afraid to flood one side of the pitch with bodies when defending.  After a dropping into defense which often sees their wingers recessed in deeper positions than Ganso and their holding player in their back line, Santos will shift their defense well over to the flank being utilized in an attack.  Shown to the right are the Santos players' movements when out of possession with an attack coming down their right flank.  With Bruno Rodrigo joining his centre-backs, with Henrique shifting right-of-centre with Elano and Arouca -- who may also drop into the back line -- and with Neymar filling space in the centre behind midfield, Santos does well to both limit open areas on the attacking side and the angles of attack for their opposition.

This is akin to a basketball team having the help defense on the opposite side of the ball "sag" into the paint to congest traffic.  And with Ganso ahead patrolling the pivots to be used to switch the ball across to the other flank, the Santos opponents often must switch the ball across the entirety of the pitch with one pass, much like a skip pass in basketball.  From there, Santos mirrors their defense, with the supporting players from before now the ones called upon to provide pressure, with the pressuring players from before now congesting traffic.

When winning the ball in their own half, Santos isn't always smart with the ball, however, often playing passes long for Neymar or Borges.  And they aren't even usually balls over the top but rather requests for one of their wingers to win an aerial battle.  While Borges is better suited to this than Neymar, neither are a Peter Crouch figure, and asking the slight Neymar to do such a thing is, as Zlatan Ibrahimović might say, asking a Ferrari to do the job of a Fiat.  Santos' manner of defense, against a patient side, can leave them without possession for stretches of time, and while a certain eagerness to hurry the ball ahead is forgivable, their often cavalier approach -- playing long to the slight Neymar, favouring the risky or quicker pass over safe buildup -- to playing out of the back can leave them having to defend more than necessary.
"Neymar is a great player, but we shouldn't focus only on him.  If we have the ball, Neymar or Santos can't do anything."  -- Cesc Fàbregas
Against a side like Barca, where Santos is already assured to lose the possession battle, it's little decisions like that on the margins that will perhaps lead to their undoing, reducing what limited time with the ball they'll have even further, making their defense have to work that much more, making each touch with the ball that much more important.

Potential Barca Starting XI
As for Barca, it would not surprise to see them come out with a 3-man back line again.  Santos' shape is very similar to that of Milan's who Barca played a 3-4-3 against, and if Barca will play a back-3 against Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid, it stands to reason they'll play one against Neymar and Santos, a much more natural fit for such a scheme.  To not play one against Santos would be the ultimate sign of respect for Neymar, an apparent disavowing of the bravery which won them the Madrid game, an indication that Neymar could perhaps justify an even higher transfer figure than the €45 million Santos originally asked for him over the summer.

With David Villa out for the foreseeable future and with Alexis Sánchez questionable due to a slight hamstring knock, it would appear a near-certainty that Pedro Rodríguez starts up front.  This also means a probable deviation from their tactics against Madrid and against Al-Sadd, where both featured a central-forward ahead of Lionel Messi.  While Pedro could potentially play that role, it does not seem likely Guardiola would experiment in the final of the Club World Cup.  Look for Pedro's workrate on the left with Dani Alves being Dani Alves on the right to keep Santos' fullbacks in check.

Considering how inviting Santos is for their opponent to switch the ball back and forth, it would not be unwise to start Adriano in Abidal's place, a player surer with the ball in possession who is also coming off his own two goal performance in the semi-final.  For the rest of the back line, Javier Mascherano's pace isn't a poor idea in the least for centre-back, given how often Neymar and Borges come into that area, but even if he's fully fit after taking the blow to the head he did against Al-Sadd, does Guardiola take the certainty of Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué's partnership off the table to reward Mascherano's campaign to date?  In midfield, when not giving Ganso the premium Mesut Özil treatment, look for Sergio Busquets to also drop into the back line as he did against Madrid and Milan.

One final note must be made about Isaac Cuenca: his ability to stretch a defense down a flank is not insignificant in this match-up, given how Santos enjoys sagging their defense away from the flank out of possession.  He may not get a surprise start without a more exotic scheme from Guardiola, but Cuenca certainly fits the bill for what a substitute would have to do to be a factor.

While Barcelona is certainly the favourite, Santos is no minnow, and with a premier player in Neymar who can create chances from seeming nothingness, the prospect of an open, engaging final is great.   for live tactical notes during the FIFA Club World Cup final, and come back afterwards for a tactical review.

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