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Sunday, January 29

Villarreal 0 - 0 Barcelona: Guardiola Gets it Wrong

A look at what very well could have been The Yellow Submarine sinking Barcelona's La Liga hopes

Expecting a repeat of their 5-0 drubbing of Villarreal to open the 2011-12 La Liga campaign would have been ambitious, but Barcelona only drawing with The Yellow Submarine nil-nil in their second meeting may ultimately prove calamitous to the treble aspirations of the Catalans, now seven-points adrift of Real Madrid.

Injuries to Andrés Iniesta and Alexis Sánchez in midweek followed by Pedro Rodríguez picking up a knock in training meant Pep Guardiola had only fourteen first-team players to choose from for his starting eleven, with David Villa and Ibrahim Afellay already out for extended periods and Seydou Keita at the Africa Cup of Nations.  Filling out the match-day squad were three Barça-B call-ups in Cristian Tello, Sergi Roberto and Jonathan Dos Santos, joining the newly-promoted and freshly-extended Isaac Cuenca.

After Barça's Switch

Villarreal, long without first-choice strikers Giuseppi Rossi and Nilmar, fielded the same starting eleven from their last outing, a victory over Sporting Gijon, their first win across any competition in over two months.  What did change, however, were the tactics of manager José Francisco Molina: now out of the relegation zone and facing a superior opponent to themselves and Sporting, Villarreal looked to keep Barça from scoring at all costs, employing an extra man in midfield and defending as their first, second and third priority.

The Yellow Submarine in Defense
With Joselu deputized to midfield, Molina played him, Cani and Borja Valero at the head of his midfield line, with Marcos Senna and Bruno, the normal centre-midfielders, more recessed, picking up players making runs, congesting the passing lanes and free to disrupt Barça's rhythm.  And when Barça got into the final third, one of Marcos Senna and Bruno would drop into defense to form a five-man back-line with Joselu then replacing the now-defender to form a bank of four with the remaining midfielders.

A side earnestly defending with nine is never easy to break down, and Guardiola wasn't with the deepest of cupboards he's ever had during his tenure as Barça manager, but the Mad Man still had more than enough talent at his disposal to ensure a full result against Villarreal.

Assuming players were in their proper roles, however.

And, in the faux 4-3-3 Guardiola switched to, they weren't.

Adriano is a more than capable squad player, flexible enough to play a variety of roles and able enough to supply extended moments of inspired play.  As a full-back, his attacking skills are in the upper echelon relative to his contemporaries.  As a winger, though, they're perhaps just one standard deviation above the mean.

Eric Abidal is a brilliant defender with an instinctual edge when looking to intercept passes and an underrated pace to utilize when chasing down the opposition or errant balls.  The pace he has lends itself well to him striding down the left flank with Barça in possession, running onto the miles of space left open by a cutting-inside winger ahead of him.  Even with this long-striding ability, however, Abidal is, at the very best, average as an attacking player, and while goals aren't everything in judging a player's offensive prowess, the Frenchman hasn't scored even one in league play for Barça.

Which is all to say Barça had troubles down the left flank.

Barça's Movements

The tireless and tactically-flexible Dani Alves is so tireless and so viable in a variety of ways that Guardiola has often employed him not in a position but as an area: instead of full-back or midfielder or winger, he's played "the right flank".  Coming into the weekend, Alves had created the third-most chances in La Liga play and, as he showed against Madrid midweek, the Brazilian has a cannon for his right foot.  His offensive ability is second-to-none at right-back, but even as a winger he's well above the field.

Barça captain Carles Puyol is an exceptional centre-back.  While he's lost a step after not being all that fast to begin with, any physical drop-off is more than made up for by his sixth-sense of sorts for defusing trouble before it begins and his still elite marking ability.  He is as solid of a rock in defense as they come and there isn't a side in the world that wouldn't start him if he's fit to play.  As a full-back asked to get forward, though?  A very, very square peg in a round hole.

Which is all to say Barça also had problems down their right flank.

And with ineffective flanks, Villarreal's centre-of-defense had the numbers advantage over Barça's central players.

Guardiola's tactics were grounded the moment Molina's side began defending with nine men, necessitating the offensively-inept Puyol's involvement in attack as well as Abidal's own interpretation of marauding forward.  Endeavors which, quite simply, are not an effective or efficient use of Barça's offensive resources.  With Puyol's health not being a certainty recently, why ask him to play up and down a flank amidst a brutal run of games and Valencia looming in the upcoming midweek?  Why start in a 4-3-3 against a side missing its two best strikers that Barça had already thrashed 5-0 in a 3-4-3 shape?  Why make Puyol, Abidal and Adriano not supporters of attack but key components?

Alternate Shape with Same XI

Like when José Mourinho went to the predicted 4-2-2-2 shape and Guardiola waited to bring on another centre-back in the second leg of the Clásico quarter-final of the Copa del Rey, why did Guardiola wait until an hour had passed to drop a centre-back for another attacker?  And, in dire need of a blade with some edge to slice Villarreal open down the flanks, why did it take another fifteen minutes for Cristian Tello to come on from Adriano?  Tello's pace was immediately of use for Barça and it isn't an exaggeration in the slightest to suggest the twenty-year-old had the most impact of any player on the pitch upon his coming on.

Without contribution from its wide players, Barcelona gets rather predictable rather fast.  And with Pep Guardiola's chosen shape and tactics, Villarreal was free to focus on disconcerting Lionel Messi, Cesc Fàbregas and Xavi Hernández.  Even with sixty-six percent of possession, Barça only managed eight shots for the game, and for all of Guardiola's tactical brilliance so far this campaign, the current seven-point deficit for the Blaugranas is one of his own making.

Liked this? Then  for blog updates and the meaning of life.  Also, check back tomorrow for a look at Mirandés run to the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey.

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