Barring disaster, Manchester United will be playing the winner of the Real Madrid versus Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League final at Wembley. Because of this, I thought it might be relevant and informative to do a tactical review of their tie. After Pepe was sent for Real Madrid, his side was reduced to ten men in the 2nd half; the result was two late goals by Lionel Messi to give Barcelona a 0-2 victory in the first leg of their tie.
OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS:
Real Madrid (RM) played in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid shape. Iker Casillas was in goal. Sergio Ramos moved in from right-back to center-back and he was partnered by Raul Albiol. Alvaro Arbeola played right-back and Marcel was the left-back. Xabi Alonso, Pepe, and Lassana Diarra played as the central midfielders. Mesut Ozil started as the wide right player, Angel Di Maria as the wide left player, and Cristiano Ronaldo led the attacking line as it's fulcrum.
Barcelona played in their usual 4-3-3 shape. Victor Valdes was between the posts and the center-back tandem was Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique. Carlos Puyol moved over to left-back and Daniel Alves was the right-back. Sergio Busquets played as a holding midfielder and he was joined in the central midfield by Xavi Hernandez and Seydou Keita. Messi led the attacking line and he was flanked by David Villa on the right and by Pedro on the left.
* Barcelona seemed more than content just to knock the all around, however, much of this was occurring in their own half. Unlike the Copa del Rey final of last week, RM didn't press Barcelona; only Diarra and Pepe were flying around looking to win the ball, but even they were reserved by their standards. The home side were focused on keeping their shape, absorbing pressure, and looking to hit on the occasional counter attack through Ronaldo. According to Opta, 22% of Barca's passing occurred in their own defensive third in this 1st half; compare this to only 14% in their previous matchup with RM. This resulted in a match with an extremely slow tempo.
* As most are likely aware, this is the 3rd match-up between the two sides in an 18 day span. RM has been reasonably effective in containing Barca's midfield prior to this evening. In the first two matchups, Pepe has arguably been the standout player. He, along with Diarra, were using pure work-rate and physicality in an attempt to disrupt Barca's passing rhythm; while Barca were controlling possession and comfortably knocking the ball around in their own half, they were having a difficult time penetrating RM once they crossed the midfield line. Pepe and Diarra were a big reason for that.
* Xavi was sensational in keeping possession and in redirecting the point of attack. He completed an amazing 56 passes in the half... out of an attempted 56! That's a 100% by my brilliant math. The only thing he didn't provide was the killer final ball, which he so often does for his side. This chalkboard of his 1st half passing is courtesy of Total Football's iPhone app:
* Because of this, Messi kept coming deeper and deeper in search of the ball. His other tendency was to drift to the right. This is all because his supply line was being cutoff. RM were more than happy with Messi's movement; the farther the prolific goal-scorer was away from testing Casillas, the less of a threat that he was. When Messi did receive the ball, the nearest defender and Alonso were quick to double up on him.
* With Messi coming so deep for the ball, Barca's shape was almost a 4-3-1-2 for much of the 1st half; this resulted in a narrow shape. This made it easier for RM to keep their shape and not have attacking channels exposed. Barca were especially narrow on their left side; Pedro continually drifted inward and Puyol, who has mostly played center-back and right-back throughout his career, was not getting forward at all in attack down the left flank. Down the right-side, Messi and Villa combined at times for a few threatening moments.
* A big part of Barcelona's attack is Dani Alves' bombing runs down the right flank. The Brazilian often gets so far forward into the attack, that his average positioning is higher than each of the midfielders. Xavi and Andres Iniesta love to hit Alves with diagonal through balls when the right-back makes his audacious runs down the touchline. In the first half, Alves was extremely reserved by his standards; Di Maria was doing well to pin him back. Here is a chalkboard of Alves' passes received in the 1st half; notice how most of these were in his own half:
* Because of the conservative tactics of Jose Mourinho, RM's manager, the brilliant Ronaldo didn't get many chances to attack. He appeared to be visibly frustrated throughout the match. Ozil, who is typically RM's playmaker, was playing in an unusual role as a wide player. Although he often drifts to the wide areas in search of space from his usual central playmaking position, it is typically done in search of space. By starting out wide, his movement was restricted. He failed to influence the match in the first half and he was pulled at half-time. He only attempted 10 passes:
* In the first half, Barca controlled possession: 74%-26%; 398 completed passes to 124. Despite this, Barca didn't really create many more goal-scoring chances: 5 shots (3 on target) compared to 5 shots (2 on target). It could be argued that a 0-0 scoreline was the most deserved one.
* Emmanuel Adebayor came on for Ozil to start the 2nd half. This moved Ronaldo to the right flank. Barcelona made no substitutions at half, but Pedro and Villa did switch sides. Mourinho revealed his tactical thinking during the post-match press conference:
"We had the intention to keep the game at 0-0, then bring on a striker, then a third phrase with a No. 10 behind the three forwards."
Translation: Keep the score 0-0 for the early parts of the 2nd half while Adebayor comes on, and then bring on Kaka later for either Pepe or Diarra, likely the latter.
* While Villa looked more comfortable on the left where he was able to diagonally dribble at defenders so that he could cut onto his right-foot, Pedro continued to ineffective on his side where he couldn't get past Marcelo. The switch did provide slightly more width though and Messi was given a little more space to operate in, thus, the increase of his involvement. However, RM was still quick to double up on the Argentinean every time he touched the ball.
* The first 15 minutes of the half remained roughly the same as the entire 1st half; that is until Pepe's controversial red card. This completely changed the match; and likely the the entire semi-final tie. Prior to Pepe's sending off, the match had a scoreless draw feel to it. With only ten men, RM were forced to defend with two narrow bands of four and hope that Adebayor's strength and hold-up ability could relieve pressure (4-4-1 shape). However, RM had now had one less central midfielder and Barca's patient and intelligent passing was beginning to open up channels to expose. As just mentioned, Barca had a bit more width in this half and RM were also getting stretched a bit. Furthermore, Dani Alves began to bomb down the right flank. It was only a matter of time now before Barca scored after Pepe's sending off.
* Ibrahim Afellay came on for the ineffective Pedro in the 71st minute and he immediately was an upgrade. Afellay hugged the touchline much more than the man he replaced and he provided width against a narrowly shaped Real Madrid. Just five minutes after coming on, he got half a step on Marcelo from the wide right area and sent in a delicious cross for Messi; who himself had made an intelligent run in front of the goal and was able to finish.
* On this first goal, RM playing with 10 men played a factor. All match long, Alonso had been picking up Messi when the playmaker drifted deep. Alonso was able to do this because he had both Pepe and Diarra in support of him to mark Xavi and Keita. However, Alonso hesitated to track Messi's run to the goal and Messi was just free enough from the center-backs to easily finish Afellay's cross. Alonso likely was wary of tracking Messi's run because being a man down meant that he may have been stranding Diarra to deal with Barca's midfield runners. Messi's 2nd goal was just the result of ridiculous and out-of-this world skill. I can't even do that in FIFA '11.
* There wasn't much Mourinho could do with ten men; the hope was to hold on for a 0-0 draw or a narrow 0-1 defeat. Tactically, the Special One had the right striker on for the situation in Adebayor. It would now be foolish to bring on Kaka; the only reasonable substitution would have been to make a 'like-for-like' change for a fatigued player. Mourinho tried to switch Ronaldo to the left flank, likely in attempt to catch Alves too high up the pitch and in hope of an opportunistic, counterattacking goal. It never materialized.
* Unless a miracle happens for either RM or Schalke, it appears that Manchester United and Barcelona will clash at Wembley for the European Cup again on 28 May. It's unfortunate that a controversial referee's decision may have influenced an entire two-legged tie, especially when the stakes are this big.