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...