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Monday, February 27

The Extra Time (Feb. 26)

A look at Liverpool's open channels in the Carling Cup Final and a definitive Total Barça goal from Atlético Madrid 1 - 2 Barcelona.

Carling Cup Final

A game which saw drama worthy of Stratford-upon-Avon, more strikes against the woodwork than corners had for Cardiff City and Liverpool's six-year trophy drought ended.

The Reds throughout maintained spells of superiority after conceding early, scoring on both sides of full-time, but their amassing of a staggering thirty-nine shots mattered little in the end as the brave and more-than-game Championship side pulled things level in the 118th minute after a rare corner and poor clearance from Liverpool's go-ahead scorer, Dirk Kuyt.

Rather than park a bus in defense and look to put nine men behind the ball against the Premier League side,  Malky Mackay had his Bluebirds defend with two banks of four:

Defending with Two Banks of Four: Narrow channels to work through

Against a side that looks to play through the centre, it's an alignment that makes a great deal of sense: with principled defending and proper communication between defenders limiting the width of the passing channels, the angles of attack through the middle become much more acute with much less in the way of margin of error.

Against a side that likes to all but spam crosses into the box, however, there are problems.  Problems like dealing with the width provided by overlapping full-backs.  Overlapping full-backs whom Liverpool just so happen to have two of in José Enrique and Glen Johnson.  Enrique and Johnson advancing down their respective touchlines -- and the threat of advancing down their touchlines -- kept Cardiff's wide players favouring to each's outside, widening their interior channel.  And with the centre-midfielders taking it in turns to step up and pressure in midfield or into Liverpool's half, what was two banks of four often became a back-line of four, a second, stretched line of three and a presser on top, exacerbating the problems caused by Liverpool's width.
 
 Space for Interior Runs with Outside-Favouring Wide Players

Kuyt's goal, while not without the luck of getting the ball back how he did, stemmed from the systemic problem of Cardiff's defensive shape -- especially as they tired into the second half and through extra-time -- but a recipe of (mostly) sure-defending at the back, the heroics of goalkeeper Tom Heaton, some wild Liverpool misfires and perhaps their own smidge of luck prevented Liverpool from running away with the final, and had Cardiff finished a hair better themselves, the match doesn't reach penalties, let alone extra-time.

Atlético Madrid 1 - 2 Barcelona

Largely absent the first half of the campaign, Pep Guardiola has again turned to his 4-3-3 for Barcelona's shape-of-choice.  Since the second leg of Barça's quarter-final Copa del Rey tie with Real Madrid, a back-four with adventuring full-backs has replaced a back-three with a chief priority of defending, eliminating the offensive flexibility provided by Lionel Messi starting behind a centre-forward.

This, of course, is nothing new: Barça has won two of the last three Champions League finals playing that shape.  And even though the 4-3-3's continued deployment this campaign could very well be an overreaction by Guardiola to Madrid's final half-hour at Camp Nou, the safety blanket the 4-3-3 promises over Barça's 3-4-3 or its exotic variants cannot be discounted.

And, of course, it still allows for this Barça side's interpretation of Total Football, and their opener was as definitive an example of the Total Barça approach their 4-3-3 offers.

Positions and Movements upon Alves Passing to Messi

With right-back-cum-midfielder-cum-winger Dani Alves advancing the ball forward as he's done so often for Barça, Andrés Iniesta, deputized as a left-winger, cut inside, both dragging his mark -- Atlético left-back Juanfran -- inside and occupying an Atlético centre-back.

And with the Cesc Fàbregas already exemplifying the fluidity of Barça's system by spending portions of the first half rotating out wide, Iniesta's run also granted the former Arsenal captain every yard of real estate left-of-centre.  And Messi, instead of holding up play against a centre-back as a 9, sought space from the Atlético back-line, dropping even with their recessed midfielders, playing his prized false-9 role. 

Movements Upon Messi Keying a Typical Messi Run

Messi, upon receiving the ball, pulled off one of his patented, mazy, slaloming runs, feinting his shoulders and twisting his hips, pushing across the Atlético defense from right-to-left.  And with Atlético's attention all on Messi and the threat of Iniesta dipping back onsides only to then receive a through-ball, Dani Alves kept pushing forward, getting in behind the rotating defense while having lost his mesmerized ball-watching mark.  And, since Iniesta's run had dragged Juanfran into the path of Messi's and Messi's skill made Juanfran's commitment to him needed, the three-years-running FIFA World Player of the Year was free to drop off a pass to the surging Fàbregas.

Fàbregas finding a free-and-clear Alves

Fàbregas, a nominal centre-midfielder, coming from a wide position out left, sent his first touch across the six-yard box not to a forward but to Alves, a right-back continuing his run, who then finished into an open net.

A Messi run from right-to-left...

...passing off to a player in a position allowed by Barça's fluidity...

...a cross not to a forward but to the defies-positional-nomenclature Alves.

As Total Barça as Guardiola's 4-3-3 gets. 

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