There were plenty of subplots going into this game, most obviously the backdrop of the highly controversial previous encounter between the two same sides in 2009. Chelsea had 5 players in the starting line-up who also played in that intensely dramatic match 3 years ago; Barcelona had 6.
Pep Guardiola was still Barcelona’s manager, while Chelsea had undergone much managerial surgery: Guus Hiddink’s place was now taken by interim manager Roberto Di Matteo. Still, the game panned out in an oddly parallel fashion as it did when Hiddink was in charge, the only difference being that Barcelona couldn’t break any hearts at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea won the match.
As expected, Branislav Ivanovic returned to right-back and Gary Cahill replaced the injured David Luiz at centre-back. Di Matteo also selected Raul Meireles ahead of Salomon Kalou as Chelsea lined up in a conservative 4-5-1 formation.
Guardiola gave Cesc Fabregas a start on the midfielder’s first time returning to London since he left Arsenal, while Javier Mascherano’s outstanding performances in the previous Champions League rounds earned him a spot at centre-back alongside Carles Puyol – which meant Gerard Pique was on the bench. Adriano started the game too, at left-back. Barcelona’s tactical line-up has always been incredibly versatile – lining up in a 3-3-4 formation in their second-leg tie against Milan – but here Guardiola chose a more conventional rough 4-3-3 shape.
In truth however, Barcelona’s formation didn’t matter because Chelsea set off to sit back and defend deep right from the referee’s first whistle, and Barcelona’s players had to push forward to try to score a goal.
While many of Barcelona’s opponents – like Milan and Real Madrid in past encounters – often look to press the Catalan team during the first 15-20 minutes of the first-half, Chelsea did none of such. Instead Chelsea’s strategy was to simply invite Barcelona to attack them, before breaking forward quickly. Even when Chelsea counterattacked, they didn’t do it in swarms, but relied on just the 3 front players: Juan Mata, Ramires and Didier Drogba. Mata’s guile, Ramires’ speed and stamina plus Drogba’s ferocious strength.
Mata was very quiet and didn’t affect the match much – he had only 16 touches on the ball, the lowest out of all 22 starting players – but Ramires and Drogba were easily Chelsea’s finest players of the night. Not only did they contribute directly to the only goal of the game, they were superb in their all-round display as well.
Ramires was shifted to play on the left side of midfield from his natural right side, with the sole purpose of providing extra defensive cover against Barcelona’s attacking right-back Dani Alves. Ramires did more than that: he helped pin back his fellow Brazilian so effectively that Alves had a rare, uninfluential game to forget. Furthermore, Ramires also managed to attack the space behind Alves that so many previous teams had failed to find, laying on the pass for Drogba to score.
Ramires was Chelsea’s outlet to relieve pressure and bring the ball away from goal, his vertical energetic running and stamina was the most crucial component of his team’s counterattacking strategy. Personally, I feel that Ramires has all the ingredients to be one of the Premier League’s best midfielder; he perhaps needs to score more goals and improve his finishing before he can lay claim to that title though.
Drogba, a slightly surprising inclusion in attack ahead of Fernando Torres, fully repaid his manager’s faith in him after yet another barnstorming performance following his equally remarkable display against Spurs in the FA Cup semi-final just 3 days before. He may have gone to ground very easily and stayed down for suspiciously longer-than-expected periods of time regularly, but when he did get the ball, he was simply immense.
In an phenomenal targetman display, the Ivorian striker was strong and determined and gave Mascherano and Puyol a torrid time. He helped hold up the ball by being the most fouled player on the pitch – earning 4 free-kicks for his team – and also scored the decisive winner with Chelsea’s only shot on target.
Chelsea couldn’t counterattack whenever they had the ball because there were times when Barcelona had returned to their defensive shape upon losing the ball. Chelsea’s other strategy, not counting Ivanovic’s long throws in Barcelona’s half, came into play in these circumstances: simply hit long balls into Barcelona’s half. Goalkeeper Petr Cech was the main player of these long balls, punting the ball forward from his penalty box 17 times, 10 of which were accurate in finding a Chelsea player.
Unsurprisingly, Drogba was the target of all his team’s long balls, and though he didn’t win any aerial duels, he did cause a lot of panic between Mascherano and Puyol. When no one won the first ball, Ramires was often on hand to race forward and pick up the second ball – another illustration of the significance of both Ramires and Drogba to Chelsea’s gameplan.
When Chelsea didn’t have the ball however – and that situation occurred nearly all the time considering that the London team only recorded an astonishingly low 21% possession – they were supremely organised. Di Matteo didn’t employ his usual defensive shape, and with his 4-5-1 formation, Chelsea erected a defensive wall consisting of a deep midfield 5 followed very closely by a bank of 4 defenders.
This was identical to how Wigan very effectively defended against Arsenal over the past weekend. Even Drogba often dropped back into midfield (and made an impressive 4 tackles) to add a further layer to his team’s impregnable defensive fortress, much like what Wigan’s sole striker Di Santo also did.
Chelsea’s midfield trio of John Obi Mikel, Frank Lampard and Meireles were extremely disciplined in sticking to their deep positions, despite the latter two being naturally inclined to advance forward. Lampard did help create Chelsea’s goal though, as he robbed Lionel Messi (of all players) near the halfway line and launched a beautiful sweeping ball for Ramires to run onto. Chelsea’s fullbacks Ashley Cole and Ivanovic didn’t venture beyond the halfway line much either, although Cole did support Ramires on the left flank occasionally.
With Chelsea content to sit back in such huge numbers – they frequently had all 11 players in their own half – Barcelona was handed the difficult task of breaking down Chelsea’s defence.
Guardiola hadn’t set his side up with much width unlike in the Champions League second leg against Milan, as Andres Iniesta was deployed on the left-wing and constantly looked to cut infield. This played right into the hands of his opposing defender Ivanovic, who’s more comfortable in the centre of defence, and thus the Serb played close to Gary Cahill to combat Iniesta’s central tendencies.
Barcelona did have Alexis Sanchez on the right flank to provide some width: instead of playing in a central striking role as he as done in this competition, he played in a much wider position. However, Cole kept him quiet and Sanchez couldn’t get into the game, making just 21 passes before being substituted off in the 66th minute – the lowest number of passes out of all the Barcelona starting outfield players.
Down the same right side behind Sanchez, Alves couldn’t provide the kind of width that he has consistently done so throughout his career in Spain. This was all due to Ramires effectively pinning him back by tracking his runs and bursting past him whenever Chelsea counterattacked as mentioned above. That Ramires continually exploited the space behind him, led to Alves playing much deeper and more conservatively, especially after Chelsea had taken the lead via this approach. Alves was reduced to poor crosses from deep – only 1 out of his 8 crosses were successful – and wild shots from distance.
Since Barcelona didn’t have the necessary players to trouble Chelsea down the flanks, they had to try and create goalscoring chances by playing through the middle. It suited Chelsea’s narrow defensive shape to perfection, because Barcelona were severely outnumbered in central midfield. Chelsea had 3 players deep in that zone (Lampard Mikel Meireles), while Barcelona only really had Xavi there – a player who isn’t particularly comfortable playing as the furthest midfielder forward.
Chelsea were brave to allow Xavi to pass the ball around with relatively little pressure (and it paid off), while Sergio Busquets held the midfield behind him. Iniesta did come infield a lot but Ivanovic tracked him well, and Fabregas was given permission to drift around as he wished, usually playing up front beside Messi.
There were two reasons why Barcelona couldn’t break past Chelsea’s defensive dam. Firstly, Di Matteo’s men seldom advanced – as Statszone revealed, only 17 Chelsea passes were completed in Barcelona’s half. Secondly, Chelsea’s two lines of midfield and defence stuck so closely to each other. So close they were to each other that there wasn’t any space in between the lines for Iniesta, Fabregas and Messi to exploit.
In fact, most of Barcelona’s best chances came from their players winning the ball off one of Chelsea’s midfielders and counterattacking, instantly bypassing the first defensive bank of 5 and attacking Chelsea’s last line of defenders.
Sanchez’s chance which hit the crossbar was one example of this, as it came about through a Barcelona counterattack. Fabregas had won the ball off Drogba in Barcelona’s half and passed it on to Iniesta, who had drifted between the lines catching Chelsea’s advanced midfield off guard. Another example came in the 42nd minute when Messi dispossessed Mikel in Barcelona’s half, again catching Chelsea’s midfield out of position, eventually leading to Fabregas’ slightly scuffed flick over Cech being cleared off the line by Cole.
Barcelona’s other chances were produced from wide areas, such as when Fabregas flapped horribly at a gaping goal: Messi and Iniesta had combined down the left flank to create that opening. Fabregas did have a shot on target after Iniesta had played him down the left side, driving the ball straight at Cech, another instance of a chance created from the flanks. Messi’s header on target came from a Sanchez cross on the right wing as well.
At half-time, Guardiola seemed to recognise that a little more width was needed, as left-back Adriano was noticeably more adventurous in the second-half. He tried to attack the wide space created by Iniesta’s infield movements, but his only real impact on the game was a curling right-footed shot from outside the box which Cech palmed away quite comfortably.
Barcelona continued to try and pry open Chelsea’s barricade through the middle, and they only successfully achieved that just once in the whole game (though one might argue the chance actually came from the right side channel) when Sanchez and Fabregas exchanged passes: Fabregas’ chip found Sanchez who had zipped in between Cole and John Terry, only to shoot tamely wide from just outside the 6 yard box.
Apart from that opportunity, Barcelona were clearly unable to create any openings through the middle. Probably in frustration at the lack of service, Messi dropped deeper into midfield in the latter stages of the second-half. The positive feature of Messi’s new positioning was that he earned 3 free-kicks in dangerous areas (that Barcelona couldn’t take full advantage of). The negative aspect was that it resulted in Barcelona having too few players in more advanced positions, only Fabregas was up front leading the line in an unfamiliar role.
One free-kick floated into Chelsea’s penalty box by Messi in the 86th minute however, was headed goalwards by captain Puyol with the slightest of flicks, only for Cech to push the goal-bound header away after substitute Thiago failed to touch the ball into the net.
Guardiola’s side kept searching for a valuable away goal, and arguably their best chance of the night arrived in the 92nd minute. Busquets found some space in the penalty box after creeping forward for the first time in the game, and tried to return the ball to Messi with a clever backheel but Terry slid in to intercept. The loose ball fell to substitute Pedro whose bending shot from a left angle bounced off Cech’s far post, and Busquets blasted the rebound over when he really should’ve scored.
There aren’t many ways to stop Barcelona, yet alone beat Barcelona, but Chelsea’s strategy was one of them. Di Matteo once again strengthened his hopes of landing the Chelsea job in a permanent capacity, and he and his players deserve an incredible amount of credit because while many sides know how to defeat Barcelona in theory, few have actually been successful and effective in implementing their tactics.
Drogba and Ramires were exceptional, and the collective effort cannot be overlooked: Chelsea blocked 11 of Barcelona’s shot in total, and made 25 tackles as a team – they average only 19 tackles per league game this season.
As an added bonus, Chelsea didn’t concede any away goals. With the first leg in their favour, Di Matteo looks set to replicate the same tactics he used in this match for the return leg at the Camp Nou – although it will be difficult to park the bus with ultimate success again.
From Barcelona’s point of view, this match was like their first leg encounter with Milan when the Catalan team’s lack of width and almost stubborn insistence on playing through the middle didn’t help their goal scoring chances. It’s likely that in the second leg against Chelsea, Guardiola will logically try to apply the same solution that he used to victorious effect in the second leg against Milan: handing starting positions to proper wingers and wide players such as Pedro, Isaac Cuenca or Cristian Tello.
Guardiola did attempt to address the issue of width by bringing both Pedro and Cuenca into the game as substitutes, but it was too little too late for Barcelona.
In addition, Mascherano and Puyol looked very panicky and shaky when dealing with long high balls from Chelsea’s throw-ins and open play, and Pique could be drafted back into the side to help deal with that problem in the second leg.
This match could’ve turned out to be so very similar to the memorable match in 2009 between the two same sides at the same venue, had Pedro or Busquets converted their chances in the 92nd minute – the same minute Iniesta’s famous equaliser sent Barcelona to the Champions League final. The difference now is that Barcelona didn’t take their chances, and have thus lost at Stamford Bridge. The other difference is that they have a second opportunity to set things right, at home in the Camp Nou.