Containing Jordi Alba, getting physical, parking the bus or going for broke: what can Antonio Conte’s men do to give themselves a sporting chance against the La Liga leaders?
“As an opponent I suffered the Alba-Messi society often; let someone else suffer it now,” Ernesto Valverde said. And yet it has never been as productive as this season, their first under the former Athletic Bilbao manager. Alba has benefited more than anyone else from the departure of Neymar: handed almost the entire left wing, the results have been spectacular – especially when he combines with Messi, which he does often. No one has more assists in Spain than Messi; only five players have more than Alba. And it is each other they are looking for: Alba has provided seven assists for Messi. When Alba progresses up the left, reaching the byline, his typical ball is pulled back towards Messi, dashing into the area, behind the defensive line, which is drawn towards its own goalkeeper by Luis Suárez. When Messi has the ball in a deep, just-right-of-centre position, the run he looks to often is Alba, sprinting in behind the full-back. “Only Leo sees those passes,” Alba says. And even if opponents see it coming, that doesn’t mean they can stop it. “We’d seen it, we’d analysed it, we’d worked on it, everyone does,” said Valencia’s assistant coach Rubén Uría when the classic Messi-Alba undid them at Mestalla. “But with that touch Messi has; he puts it in just the place for Jordi to score a great goal.”
Make the game physically demanding
Barcelona have played 13 times since 4 January, including twice against Celta Vigo, a side that press, one on one, all over the pitch; twice against third-placed Valencia; and three times against city rivals Espanyol in what were tough, occasionally bruising encounters. The Copa del Rey is compressed into a month and a half and that can cost teams who, like Barcelona, reach the semi-finals. Barcelona have lacked a little freshness over the last few weeks. “When you have a month full of cup games, you have physical fatigue,” Sergio Busquets admitted this weekend after they played Eibar, another side that impose intensity upon the game. Busquets also admitted that Barcelona would have liked to play on Friday instead of Saturday, as Chelsea did. That may be an advantage for Antonio Conte’s side.
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Park the bus – but not on the goal-line
The only team to beat Barcelona this season were their neighbours Espanyol in the Copa del Rey. Like Getafe, who got a 0-0 draw at the Camp Nou, they effectively gave up the wide positions, playing with the defence and midfield narrow and close together. But that didn’t mean playing extremely deep, lined up inside their own area, inviting pressure: instead, they tried to occupy an intermediate position. They trusted that Barcelona would rarely go outside and do not pose an especially great threat in the air, and concentrated instead on outnumbering them inside, a multi-man ambush awaiting Messi in particular. Truth be told, Espanyol were also very aggressive at times. Although Alavés, who also played compact and tight against Barcelona, were eventually defeated, they probably created more chances than anyone else, springing into the space behind a Barcelona side that pressed very high, even for them. As Thomas Vermaelen puts it, defending at Barcelona can be difficult as they often have 50m of empty space behind them. Although this season they have modified that, not offering opponents quite so much pitch to run into, it does remain an option to exploit.
Don’t park the bus. Press high and close down Busquets instead
One of the other things Espanyol did was to target Busquets, denying Barcelona the chance to build moves from the back. Forced to play longer, they could then be challenged for the ball as equals. Other teams have taken this a step further, pressing him and those behind him as well, denying Marc-André ter Stegen and the back four an easy way out, literally lining up around the penalty area. Eibar did that this weekend with a style that Busquets himself described as “very particular”, and for much of the game it seemed to work as it obliged Barcelona to go long. The problem is that while it makes Barcelona uncomfortable, and while mistakes can be forced, Valverde’s side have the talent to play through the press and the willingness to play beyond it at times too. It is also very difficult to maintain for 90 minutes. The only side to generate more first-half shots against Barcelona than Eibar were Real Madrid, who also pressed very high and had Mateo Kovacic playing a kind of dual man-marking role, pressuring Busquets and then dropping in to pick up Messi. But it only really worked for 45 minutes and when that press was broken once, the opening goal followed and the game escaped them.