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Thursday, February 16

Bayer Leverkusen 1 - 3 Barcelona: The Rumble in the Rhineland

A look at Bayer Leverkusen attempting to rope-a-dope Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 tie.

When George Foreman fought The Rumble in the Jungle against Muhammad Ali, he entered not just as the heavyweight champion but as the decided favourite: at only twenty-five years old, Foreman was seven years Ali's junior and had already compiled a professional won-loss record of 40-0 which featured a staggering thirty-seven knockouts, to say nothing of his previous eight fights failing to get out of the second round.  Ali, finally getting another chance after The Fight of the Century to reclaim the title he never lost, was almost entirely written off, having earlier lost to Ken Norton who Foreman then had swiftly dispatched.  Ali's ability as an in-ring tactician was dependent upon his thought-to-be-aging speed and technique, and little was thought of his chances against the fighter believed by the great Joe Louis to possess fists capable of unparalleled punching power.

So, ever the savvy and against an opponent even now considered by many to be the most destructive pugilist of any era, Ali decided the best way to defeat Foreman was to, of course, allow the champion to beat the living hell out of him.

And it worked.  After a first round which saw Ali fight not in a fashion dissimilar to his norm and Foreman entirely prepared for such a scheme, The Great One quickly turned to his back-up plan, a plan eventually dubbed the rope-a-dope. The strategy was, if nothing else, assured: seeking to tire Foreman, Ali would lean back against the ropes, inviting shots to the body, using both the elasticity of the ropes to absorb the sting of the punches from the eventual grill-maker and his still-viable speed to ensure only glancing blows to his head.  Foreman answered Ali's call for pain, but his unleashing of shot after shot had the intended knock-on effect of overexertion, and Ali knocked the champ out in the eighth round.

After winning the Champions League two of the last three years and being widely hailed as the best contemporary side and perhaps the best side ever -- all while having Lionel Messi, the three-years-running World Player of the Year -- Barcelona has built itself a résumé quite analogous to Foreman's entering The Rumble in the Jungle.  But, after a brutal stretch of twelve games in thirty-nine days bringing even more injuries to an already-thinned squad and a falling behind of Real Madrid in La Liga by ten points, Barça's armor was missing some of its luster heading into the Rhineland for the opener of its Champions League Round of 16 tie with Bayer Leverkusen.

As it was, Barça manager Pep Guardiola again forwent employing his 3-4-3 or other exotic variants of a three-man back-line for the tried-and-true 4-3-3.  Notably, both Xavi Hernández and Gerard Piqué missed the squad: Xavi because of a knock to his calf agitated again in training, Piqué because of the injury concerns of Guardiola, who offered, "Mascherano is suspended for the game against Valencia on Sunday, so I couldn't afford to lose Gerard. I also wanted to bring in Bartra, who we'll need in the near future."  In a mild surprise, the deputized Adriano started over two classical wingers in Isaac Cuenca and Pedro Rodríguez, the former enjoying a recent, deserved promotion and the latter being recently declared match-fit.

The Starting XIs

Robin Dutt's Leverkusen also entered at less than full strength, quit of former German National Team captain Michael Ballack, leading goalscorer Eren Derdiyok and the dangerous winger Sidney Sam, among other absentees.  Even still, their coming out in a 4-5-1 resembling a parked bus was curious: Barça lost over the weekend, away at Osasuna, under very similar playing conditions, and why play for a draw at home against a side still regularly throttling its opponents at home?  The answer was clear not long after the second-half began: Leverkusen was trying to rope-a-dope Barcelona.

So committed to keeping bodies behind the ball were Leverkusen at the outset that they didn't even touch the ball in the first ninety seconds, electing not to press even a yard beyond midfield.  There was a wrinkle, though, in how they defended compared to the normal parked bus Barça at times encounters: Leverkusen employed a peculiarly high line where their back bank of four was positioned well outside of the penalty area, leaving their second bank of five not often more than ten yards ahead.  This granted an obscene amount space for Barça's forwards to run onto behind the Leverkusen defense, but the compression of the pitch considerably narrowed Barça's passing angles, and lofted through-balls for this Catalan side against the height in Leverkusen's defense was never going to challenge the host side.

In their attempts to get through on goal, Barça seemingly split the pitch in half, opting not to play narrowly through the centre but to break down one side of the Leverkusen defense and, if need be, switch the ball across, hoping to drag the Bundesliga side out of shape.  So recessed and hesitant to press were Leverkusen that Barça centre-backs Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano were, for all intents and purposes, a double pivot.

Attempting to Break The Bus down the right

With the ball in the right half of play, right-winger Alexis Sánchez played not to provide width but to get on the end of through-balls and occupy a centre-back, hopefully dragging left-back Michal Kadlec inside to free space down the touchline for one of Dani Alves' surging runs.  Andrés Iniesta would drift over the top of false-9 centre-forward Lionel Messi, who, in turn, went forward in turns with Cesc Fàbregas.  The idea was not a bad one, wanting to break down a nine-man defense by creating 3-on-3 or 4-on-3 opportunities to exploit, but as forty-minutes rolled by, Barça was enjoying almost eighty-percent of possession with nothing to show for it.

A minute later, however, Leverkusen's disciplined defense was undone by their chief first-half struggle: a total inability to keep possession.  Stringing together four passes had been a real Herculean feat for Dutt's side, and after again losing possession in their attacking half, the ball found it's way to Messi in the hole.  Messi, then, calmly and easily slipped a ball beyond Leverkusen's high line, with both Sánchez and Fàbregas running onto it after simultaneously reading the play's potential ahead of Messi's pass, with the Chilean ultimately controlling.

Where Ali made certain Foreman would never have the opening to punish his skull by defending high first and only looking to throw one punch at a time before tiring the then-champion out, Leverkusen went with an impatient, cavalier approach to the little possession they had (or wanted, for that matter), earnestly pushing forward and playing low-percentage passes ahead, an ambition much more resembling that belonging to Icarus than rationality.  Foreman never put Ali on the mat, but Sánchez had Leverkusen on their backs all because they let their guard down just once.

Late in The Rumble, after Foreman unleashed what he thought to be a devilish haymaker to Ali's body, Ali, according to Foreman, leaned into the champ's ear and asked, "Is that all you got, George?"  At that point, Foreman thought to himself, "Yep, that's about it," and knew he was done, having punched himself out of the fight.  Ali's cunning gave himself a chance, but it was his discipline to stick with it which provided himself the opportunity to go on the attack against a gassed opponent.

Leverkusen's moment of weakness, though, meant they hadn't afforded themselves the same opportunity.  And instead of even being able to attack Barça with the score still level, Leverkusen had to open their attack at the start of the second half down a goal.  Even still, however, their intensity provided immediate gains and a leveling of the score.

Leverkusen's Second Half | Down the Left (Flip for Right)

Leverkusen opened the second half in an aggressive 4-1-4-1-ish shape which, in possession, was almost a 4-1-3-2, with Lars Bender and Stefan Reinartz taking it in turns to join the promisng André Schürrle atop the Leverkusen shape.  And, with the fullbacks providing most of the width, the outermost of Leverkusen's midfielders, Gonzalo Castro and Renato Augsto, were free to come inside with the ball opposite their flank in an attempt to flood areas with more bodies than Barça had local defenders.

Their goal wasn't due to poor defending or sublime play but, rather, the planned meeting of one's own advantages against an opponent's likewise disadvantage.  In this case: height.  Kadlec, the left-back, was tracked-back quite well by Sánchez, so well so in fact that Sánchez had the perfect positioning to deny Kadlec from finishing Vedran Corluka's cross, Kadlec's full-back counterpart.  But even with that perfect positioning, Sánchez only could've denied Kadlec's rising above and clinical finishing by simply being taller.  And with growing more not an ability that can be trained, Kadlec pulled Leverkusen level.

Emboldened by the goal, Leverkusen kept their bus not parked in defense but in the garage, opting to keep pressing Barça high up the pitch, showing an actual desire to own the game's tempo.  But with the bodies they were pushing forward, Messi and Iniesta and Fàbregas found themselves receiving the ball in midfield with plenty of space and plenty of space to advance on.  Such is the risk/reward relationship against this Barça side.

The build-up leading to Barça retaking the lead was not unlike their approach from the first half in principle, and in practice it was only different due to occurring on a half-break without nine-men behind the ball.  Fàbregas, after receiving a switch pass from the left, pushed forward just right of the centre circle.  With Leverkusen's defense still shaded over from the ball being on the other side, Sánchez had space down the right flank to run onto but, by design, ran straight inside of Kadlec, Leverkusen's left-back and goal scorer.  Sánchez's run allowed Alves to scream down the right touchline, and the slightest of feints by Fàbregas towards Alves gave the former Arsenal captain just enough of a clearing to slide a pass ahead to Sánchez, who did well to not go down before rounding the keeper and finishing.

Even with two poor free kicks taken -- one of which left Barça captain Carles Puyol absolutely incredulous -- Alves had a monster game for Barça, essentially playing right-back and right-winger, given how Sánchez, the nominal right-winger, was used mostly as a right-of-centre-forward.  And, fittingly, it was Alves who was free in behind Leverkusen's defense before delivering the cross that left Guardiola marveling, the cross that Messi finished to give Barça their 3-1 away victory.

Leverkusen's immediate ambition in the second half put Barcelona onto their back foot, a sign their rope-a-dope wasn't wholly ineffective, but where Muhammad Ali had the discipline to wait until George Foreman was ready to be knocked out in their meeting at The Rumble in the Jungle, Leverkusen all but gifted Barça a one-goal advantage, and Barça's technical quality and tactical acumen all but killed their Champions League Round of 16 tie off.

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