How to stop Barca
Daniel Storey pinpoints five key tactical decisions Manchester City need to get spot on ahead of their clash with Barcelona at the City of Manchester Stadium on Tuesday evening. Manuel Pellegrini has vowed to attack but more than a positive approach is needed to get the right result...
By Daniel Storey - @danielstorey85
Last Updated: 18/02/14 10:45am
Stevan Jovetic over Edin Dzeko - or move away from the 4-4-2?
Manuel Pellegrini has a difficult decision to make on Tuesday regarding his strikeforce. Alvaro Negredo's substitute appearance in the FA Cup victory over Chelsea indicates that he will be fit to start the match, but who will be his partner in the absence of Sergio Aguero?
The obvious answer until recently would have been Edin Dzeko, with six goals in four matches prior to the FA Cup victory over Watford on January 25th. However, since then his performances have dropped considerably. The Bosnian has one goal in five games against Watford, Tottenham, Chelsea (twice) and Norwich, matches in which City have scored 12 goals.
More worrying for Pellegrini has been Dzeko's shot accuracy. In his last four matches the striker has taken 22 shots, but hit the target with just three of these, an accuracy of just 13.6%. When you consider that Negredo has found the target with 51.1% of his shots in the league (with Aguero recording 60.3%) it is evident that the City boss may be concerned as to Dzeko's reliability - against Barcelona, City will need to take their chances.
The obvious alternative is Stevan Jovetic, who scored the opening goal against Chelsea on Saturday. That said, Jovetic is yet to fully settle into City's side after injury (he has started just two Premier League games) and has not yet played a minute of City's Champions League campaign. His selection would therefore still constitute something of a risk.
A more pertinent question may be whether, given the lack of an ideal option, Pellegrini may be tempted to move away from his tried and tested 4-4-2 system, with Negredo utilised as a lone forward. This would enable two of Jesus Navas, David Silva and fit again Samir Nasri to be selected in wider areas, but also afford Yaya Toure the luxury of roaming forward, secure in the knowledge that two players were covering for the counter.
In the probable absence of Fernandinho (he will surely be only fit enough for the bench), this would leave Martin Demichelis or Jack Rodwell to provide support for Javi Garcia at the base of midfield (James Milner is suspended). If the Brazilian is fit, he would obviously come in alongside one of those two. Alternatively, Toure could play alongside Garcia/Fernandinho, with Nasri playing centrally and Silva and Navas either side of the Frenchman.
It would be something of a gamble for the Chilean, but with the personnel available and the danger of Barcelona as a counter attacking team, could this not be Pellegrini's best option? If he needed any encouragement, the fact that Bayern Munich used the same shape to such effectiveness in their routing of Barcelona in last season's semi-final provides it.
High Pressing - Busquets is the man to stop
Three years ago, Sergio Busquets may have been dismissed slightly as the 'water carrier' within Barcelona's side, the protection for a defence that was so relatively rarely attacked that his role became almost unapparent.
Now, that could not be further from the truth, with the Spaniard entrusted with taking on the mantle of Barcelona's deep-lying playmaker, acting in a role akin to Andrea Pirlo for Juventus and Italy, responsible for starting Barcelona's attacking moves. This is perhaps the role that it was presumed Cesc Fabregas would take at the Camp Nou, but Busquets has been so effective that Fabregas is now instead used as a driving force in the final third.
One goal and one assist out of Barcelona's 114 last season, and yet the vital piece in the jigsaw. If Busquets' influence has often been underestimated by many, those close to the midfielder were not guilty of such misjudgment. In 2012 Pep Guardiola labeled him as the "best defensive central midfielder in the world," whilst Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque claims that "if I were a player, I would like to be Busquets." The last word goes to Barcelona team mate Xavi: "Without Busquets, Barcelona and Spain could never had achieved what we have achieved."
What has become clear is that to stop Barcelona, you must extinguish the source of the danger, and the most obvious way of doing so would be to man-mark the Spaniard. Bayern Munich did that to great effect last season, with Mario Gomez never more than a few feet away from Busquets whenever he had the ball. The intention was to make him pass backwards or sideways, and it worked perfectly.
For City to do so, it would again lend credence to the theory of a lone striker, with the central attacking midfielder snapping away and pressurising Busquets. As previously mentioned, the likelihood is that this honour would fall to Nasri or Toure. If the Frenchman is asked to carry out that task, it would be a huge test of his discipline and effort, not to mention fitness after a spell on the sidelines.
Kolarov must remain disciplined
Whilst I am yet to be convinced that Aleksandar Kolarov is a full back of sufficient quality for a team chasing their second Premier League title in three seasons, there is little doubt that he has been effective in attacking areas this season. In the Premier League the Serbian has created 25 chances, only one fewer than Yaya Toure, and has as many assists.
However, Kolarov's effectiveness comes almost solely in an attacking sense. The diagram below indicates his position in the recent Premier League defeat to Chelsea (no.13 on diagram). With David Silva tucking in, Kolarov has the whole left flank in which to attack, and is actually found more in the opposition's half than his own, higher up the pitch than Yaya Toure (no.42) and as far up as David Silva (no.21)
Against Barcelona, the left-back must surely be reined in by Pellegrini. In Dani Alves, their opponents have a right-back more than prepared to attack down his flank, but even ahead of him sits Alexis Sanchez. English fans were reminded of the winger's prowess when his brace succumbed England to defeat at Wembley in November, and his La Liga form this season (especially given the injuries to Lionel Messi and Neymar) has earned rave reviews in Spain.
City fans would be forgiven in having nightmares about Kolarov being caught on the ball high up the field, and Barcelona then counter-attacking with Alves, Sanchez, Iniesta, Neymar and Messi. If that does occur, it is difficult to see how the home side will avoid being picked apart - Barcelona have scored three times as many counter-attacking goals as City this season.
The other option is evidently to pick Gael Clichy, whose pace would at least match that of Sanchez or Alves, but here again there are doubts. Clichy has been picked for just two Champions League matches this season, whilst Kolarov has started against Bayern Munich (twice), Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool.
Whatever Pellegrini's plan, the success in combating Barcelona's right-sided threat may be key to success on Tuesday evening.
Who cleans up the Messi?
It is the impossible job - how to mark Lionel Messi? The Argentinean has suffered with a hamstring injury over the last three months, but returned midway through January and has now scored five goals in his last three matches. Back to form at the wrong time for City.
The first conclusion to make is that no plan will be foolproof. This is the World Footballer of the Year in four of the last five years, and has 41 goals in his last 39 Champions League matches. However, City do have a couple of options to counteract Messi's threat.
The first is for Vincent Kompany to step up in a bid to effectively man-mark the Argentinean. Barcelona are rarely prone to crossing the ball into the box (attempting fewer than 15 other clubs in the group phase despite continuously dominating possession), meaning that Kompany's aerial presence is effectively not required. Instead, if he can press onto Messi in an attempt to stop him turning and running at goal, City are far more likely to be successful. Given Barca's blanket refusal to not cross the ball into the box at height, guiding Messi out into wide areas would be deemed as a efficacious strategy.
The other option is allowing one of the defensive midfielders to take on this role, but with the evident threat of Andres Iniesta and Xavi in midfield, one suspects that their hands may well be full with alternative assignments. Furthermore, if Fernandinho is not fit to start the match then is there any City defensive midfielder that Pellegrini would truly trust with such responsibility?
Until now, the principal focus has been on how to stop Barcelona, but if City are to harbour hopes of qualification to the quarter-finals, they will want to take a lead to the Camp Nou.
Over 20% of City's Premier League goals have come from set pieces this season, and against Barcelona this could prove decisive. Gerard Pique and Busquets are the only two outfield players likely to start the match that measure over six foot, whilst City can boast Kompany, Negredo, Kolarov, Matija Nastasic, Dzeko, Toure, Joleon Lescott and Rodwell with such height.
Moreover, recent evidence confirms such suspicions of weakness. Almost a third of the goals Barcelona have conceded in La Liga this season have been headers, whilst during last season's Champions League campaign, Barcelona' opponents scored six set piece goals in 12 matches.
"They are good in the air," was Tata Martino's summation of Celtic earlier this season. "They have a great physical presence because they are taller than our players." It doesn't sound like the strongest defence of a weakness.
It has been noted. "Even the best teams have their weaknesses and Barcelona struggle in set pieces," was the view of Jesus Navas yesterday. "Rivals study the way you play and find a tactic to counteract your strengths."
Accurate delivery from Silva, Navas and Toure will obviously be vital, but Pellegrini will be urging captain Kompany forward at every possible opportunity on Tuesday. His aerial presence could be crucial.