Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How to Get a 0-0 If You're Chelsea And You're Playing Barca in the Champions League in 2009

Before this afternoon's Champions League semi-final between Barcelona and Chelsea (in Barcelona), I was eager to see the tactical and physical consequences of two of the best teams in the world--both in form, comprised of contrasting squads in terms of size and skill, used to playing in two very very different leagues--smashing against each other for 90 minutes.

Considering a CL system that awards double aggregate points for away goals, I was honestly surprised by how Chelsea's coach Gus Hiddink lined up his boys. They came out in an unabashedly defensive line-up, with recent favorite right side attacker Nicholas Anelka replaced by a defensive holding midfielder in Obi Mikel.

It was obvious from the outset (as well as the fact that their first few possessions were marked by passing it all the way back to goalkeeper Petr Cech) that Chelsea was in Barcelona with one mission in mind, double points for away goals be damned: Get a nil-nil, 0-0 result. Get back to London next week on even terms and pull ahead then.

Barcelona came out with their standard line-up except that experienced Mexican internationl Rafael Marquez replaced Barca horse Carlos Puyol in center defense.

So here's the main thing you have to do, as Chelsea, to get a scoreless draw (or a win, of course) at Barcelona:

Protect your center backs. Barca's danger this year ostensibly comes from their three-pronged attack--Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto'o, and Lionel Messi from left to right--but in reality derives from the midfield play of Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Those two are incredibly adept at finding the holes in between the defensive midfielders and the central defenders. If they receive the ball there, and turn, they find themselves facing the the backpedaling central defenders at pace. From that position, they can go for it themselves by beating the defender or shooting, OR, they can pass it to each other, Henry, Eto'o, Messi, or anyone else who's joined the attack.

Here's what it looks like when your two center backs are exposed and some combination of the world's best attacking team is coming at you (in this case, Iniesta finishes):

And that's exactly what Chelsea had to avoid.

How? By putting midfielders Obi, Michael Essien, Michael Ballack, and Frank Lampard in conservative, defensive positions in front of the two center backs, John Terry and Alex.

Now, keep in mind that this set-up leaves just Florent Malouda and Didier Drogba as feasible attacking options, plus Malouda was tracking Barca right back Dani Alves back most of the game, and you see just how committed Gus's boys were to keeping Barca out.

(And don't get me wrong, it's not that Terry/Alex is a bad centerback pairing--it's one of the best in the world. Protecting your center backs keeps them from having to make dramatic, lunging, goal saving tackles.)

In the end, Chelsea succeeded with their shape. They sacrificed width (Anelka would have provided that) with defensive mettle, and as a result it was much harder for Iniesta and Xavi to operate in the middle of the attacking third. The evidence is clear: Iniesta and Xavi settled for an unusually high number of long distance shots and never found their customary decisive ball into Henry, Eto'o, Messi, or anyone else in a dangerous position around the Chelsea box.

Just once were they caught out, where Barca were able to play a ball through the middle into Eto'o he received the ball for the first time with enough space to turn and face a center back one-on-one. He promptly burned Terry, then Alex, only to be saved brilliantly by Cech, which brings us to the next point.

Petr Cech used to be one of the top top top goalies in the world, hands down. Since his head injury, though, he's had a few less than totally stellar seasons. It was absolutely critical for Chelsea's game plan that Cech was flawless.

Well, he wasn't flawless. He looked shaky in his first touches and had to punch a few balls out that a more comfortable keeper would have caught, but he made the saves when Chelsea needed him to. He handled Henry, Xavi, and Iniesta's longer shots and was strong against Eto'o and Alexander Hleb's breakaways. So check that.

It's interesting: Chelsea's line-up looked a lot like the Jose Mourinho days, when they'd kick it up to Drogba up top, and he'd play it into some quick wingers running in the outside channels.

The main difference today was that no one was running off Drogba. Actually, the Barca centerbacks did a good job winning the long balls to Drogba, making it difficult for Chelsea to keep position in any kind of forward position. But that's the thing. Chelsea never even tried to push up. They were remarkably disciplined, never getting caught up in a forward position and leaving a counter attack open.

THAT's what's so interesting about the next match! Chelsea has to come out. And as soon as they start moving forward, will Barcelona be able to find the space that was denied them all game?

We shall see...

Monday, April 13, 2009

Dempsey FTW!

Clint Dempsey had two crucial goals for Fulham in a win at Manchester City yesterday. Fulham are now in 8th place in the prem. Good for them.

Dig it:

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Poke Her Face

Here's something that continues a couple mainline JJ themes. A ridiculously good remix that I would argue is better than the original (see this and this) plus a version of Lady Gaga's Poker Face.

It's called "Poke Her Face" (ha.) and was put together by Kanye and some friends, namely Kid Cudi, Common, 'Ye, and A-Trak. Enjoy.

Bsto's Thesis

Hey JJers, this might be entirely masturbatory, but I thought I'd put up a quick link to my thesis, just in case people want to read it.

So here: Title page. Real deal Holyfield.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Friday Video Premiere: Jozy Da Savior Edition

*Every* Friday, we're highlighting a specific video (or two, or three) for your end of week enjoyment.

My apologies for making you listen to John Harkes, even for less than two minutes--but it's worth it to see Jozy Altidore's hat trick this past Wednesday in the USMNT's World Cup qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago.

Not sure if he is the savior of American soccer, but he's 19, and probably our most talented player right now. The best news? He's playing in Europe right now. Eat your heart out, LD. Originally signed by Villareal (where he was training with Robert Pires, Nihat, and Joan Capdevilla), he was sent to Second Division team Xerex to get more playing time and ease his aclimation to Spanish culture.

Here's his only goal in La Liga, from back in November:

He's got some time to grow before the World Cup, so here's to a successful run in La Liga next season and more highlights!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

FSC Gets the Champions League

...and all I get is this free t-shirt?

In all seriousness, though, Fox Soccer Channel has picked up the rights to next season's Champions League. Big news? Certainly, because it speaks ill of ESPN's commitment to the beautiful game.

ESPN owns the rights to the next two World Cups and did a great job televising last summer's Euro Cup. They also supposedly bid a large sum to televise English Premier League games, though from what has been gathered, that was just for the British rights--not the rights to show games in the US.

Why does it matter? Because ESPN is basic cable, and ESPN has more than one station to program these games on. As it is, it's impossible to watch Arsenal Champions League games on television because of ESPN's love of Manchester/Liverpool/Chelsea, but at least the chance is there. I don't even want to think about what could happen if the games are on one station (I'd do the probability of seeing an Arsenal game, but this isn't the "fair dice" that they talk about in statistics class, so I'll pass).

The ratings for Champions League games are solid, especially considering that the games are shown in the middle of the day. 255,000 households on average per game? Over one million for the final during the middle of the day? UEFA is making a huge mistake in letting it go to FSC. I know it probably came down to the money, but if they care about the teams becoming brands in the United States, it would be in their best interests to have the game on the station in 98 million households as opposed to 34 million households.

Of course, the argument is that if you care about the Champions League, you've already got FSC anyway. Fine. That keeps the numbers static and does not foster growth.

Shame on you, UEFA. And shame on ESPN for deciding, for the very first time, that it was not worth the investment. It can't be that FSC could have outbid ESPN by that much...

...then again, FSC is owned by Fox, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also happens to own SkySports, the company that bought the rights to most of the British air rights of the EPL games.

It's a similar situation across the pond--SkySports is premium cable while other sports networks are not. At least, though, they've got access to the stadiums to go out to the games if they wish.