Xabi Alonso not mobile enough
The Basque playmaker may have developed into one of the best holding midfielders in the world, nevertheless it isn’t the first time his lack of agility has caused him problems. He was never the quickest of players anyway, but the broken ankle he sustained at the hands of Frank Lampard in his debut season at Liverpool robbed him of what little ability to cover ground he had. Rafa Benitez managed to cover this up by partnering him the more energetic Momo Sissoko and later Javier Mascherano, who was a more complete player than the Malian, but two poor seasons made Benitez willing to swap Alonso for Gareth Barry. The Englishman may not come close to having the passing range of Alonso, but he is much more mobile – Barry would be able to carry it forward and join attacks, stabbing the ball around in neat passing moves rather than just spreading it around from deep.
Of course, Alonso then went on to have his best season in a red shirt and attracted the interest of Real Madrid. In the Spanish capital, Alonso has progressed even further, yet he has consistently struggled to perform in any of the Clasicos. The quick interplay and dribbling of Barcelona has always been too fast for him, making him a pretty certain bet for a booking. Sunday’s game was a prime example of this, Alonso lucky not to be sent off for a series of minor yet obvious trips and responsible for giving away the free-kick that put Barcelona ahead.
He doesn’t just struggle to defend against them however – he also struggles to set the tempo to the level he does against most other teams, squeezed out by Barcelona’s pressing. A similar effect could be seen against Manchester City in Real Madrid’s opening Champions League group game: with Sami Khedira and Michael Essien doing the running ahead of him, Alonso was able to find the space needed to pull Madrid’s strings. However, when Mesut Ozil replaced Essien, Khedira had to drop deeper, bringing Man City’s midfield closer to Alonso and denying him the time and space he needs to make Madrid tick. Against Barcelona, Alonso sat next to Khedira again and was forced into meeting Xavi quite high up the pitch early on – far from his ideal role.
Not using proper defenders might cause a defensive problem
A seemingly obvious factor that has got lost in the fetishisation of Barcelona’s passing play is that teams play with natural defenders in defence for a reason: they are generally better at it. Admittedly, this was largely out of Tito Vilanova’s control as Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Eric Abidal are all unfit, although it isn’t exactly a new problem with their small selection of defenders proving a major issue several times during Pep Guardiola’s reign. Seeing as this has caused problems before, there is little reason why it wouldn’t pose more – bets against Barcelona may rarely work out but one win from a decent counter-attacking team could earn you a decent sum.
Nevertheless, Barcelona haven’t exactly been helping themselves. The main change Guardiola made as manager was an expectancy for every player to press the opposition, regardless of their sizeable talent or egos. They still do that, but not to the same intensity as was commonly seen under Guardiola. This may consume less energy but one of the benefits of pressing so high was that they would win the ball back much higher up the pitch, so now they aren’t trying quite as hard high up the pitch, the defence is under more pressure. Dani Alves was the main one to struggle with this in the Clasico, leaving Karim Benzema unmarked for a horribly mishit shot then again positioning himself too centrally so he couldn’t get across to block Cristiano Ronaldo’s opening goal. Hamstring trouble saw him replaced by the more defensive Martin Montoya, who did a better job, yet leaving out one of the world’s best attacking full-backs for a solid La Masia graduate isn’t a viable long-term solution.
Barcelona lack a real attacking focal point
The false nine tactic met its first real wave of disapproval in the summer when Spain passed their way to Euro 2012 medals, but there were similar problems facing Barcelona last year. The use of no traditional central striker leading the line is intended to cause confusion among the centre-backs, yet the absence of any player looking to finish chances rather than simply create them has sometimes resulted in the defence just being left with nothing to do instead. The best use of the system has mainly came from when a striker has been positioned elsewhere in the frontline, making their runs more difficult to track as the centre-backs push up to deal with the false nine, such as Mirko Vucinic at Roma or David Villa for Barcelona.
Since Villa’s injury however, Barcelona have often lacked a player who is going to dart in and finish those many passing moves. There were long periods last night where Lionel Messi was indistinguishable from the centre midfielders, dropping deep into midfield to create for others. In some ways this was a positive, with Barca dominating possession, but with Andres Iniesta moving central from the left wing, the direct threat to the defence came from Pedro Rodriguez, who prefers to stay wide and stretch play. At some points, he picked up the ball and looked to play it inside, yet no one was there – everyone having dropped into the midfield.
Cesc Fabregas succeeded in this role initially, having joined from the more direct Premier League, but his goalscoring form tailed off as the season went on, while Alexis Sanchez was willing to play as the most forward player, making runs inside from the right, but wasn’t as good as it as a natural striker would be.
Barcelona favourites for La Liga
It may be early days still, but eight points is a massive gap considering the two teams dropped just 37 points between them last season (bear in mind at least one of them has to drop points in the Clasicos too). So far it is Real’s Falcao-led neighbours Atletico that look a greater challenge to the Catalans, with Jose Mourinho’s men unimpressive against Valencia, Getafe and Sevilla. They may have won the battle last year, but maybe they aren’t capable of winning the war against the behemoth Vilanova inherited from Guardiola.
This post first appeared on Betting Expert.