Chelsea produced a remarkable defensive display and with 10 men and still managed to create goal scoring opportunities. Chelsea defended superbly to stifle the best team in the world and although Barcelona were on top, in terms of possession and territory for virtually the entire match, the pressure applied seemed comfortable. Barca seemed to run out of ideas late on and the lack of a plan B was clear for all to see.
Although Pep Guardiola’s side has evolved over the last few year it has always moved to better facilitate their tiki-taka style of play. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic Barca had an alternative. Guardiola, however, decided the team were better off without him. His scoring record was impressive but, in the eyes of Guardiola, this was out weighed by his negative impact on the squad. When that experiment ended Barca went even further down the tiki-taka route.
All empires eventually fall and opponents eventually catch up and find ways to counteract superior opposition over time. To stay ahead, Barca must either undergo a rethink and tweak their style slightly or formulate a plan B, to counter opponents that have found the key to stopping them. Having said that, it is far too early to say that this is the end of Barca’s dominance and this may just be a blip. Chelsea and Real Madrid have now broken the air of invincibility around Barca and teams will go into future ties with them no longer thinking that a win is impossible.
Barca started out in a 3-3-1-3 formation. Lionel Messi played in the number 10 role behind Alexis Sanchez as the striker. In the recent La Liga title decider with Real Guardiola played Messi as a false 9 but when he dropped deep there was nobody breaking forward or from the flanks to expose the space he was creating. When Sanchez came on in that game he made an immediate impact by scoring. Playing an out and out striker would, in theory, keep the centre-backs more occupied. Sanchez mobility was clearly giving Chelsea’s central defenders (who aren’t particularly quick) a hard time. So much so that John Terry felt the need to rough him up a bit and tried to give him a dead leg but was rightly send off in the process.
A big problem for Barca was their lack of width. Without full-backs overlapping, the wide midfielders found it difficult to beat the opposition full-backs so often ended up playing the ball back infield and in front of the defence. This meant that Barca played very narrow and although Chelsea, with their height advantage, would be favourites to win any cross playing the odd one would have added variety to their play. The lack of ideas and ability to vary their attacks became increasingly evident as the game moved on.
Their failure to get in behind the opposition defence meant that, although they applied pressure, it always seemed relatively comfortable for Chelsea to deal with.
The plan for Chelsea was to defend what they had from the first leg. The 4-5-1 formation was set up in a way to pack the area just outside of the box. Barca’s lack of natural width allowed Chelsea to play really narrow thus overcrowding the central areas even more. With the ball, the plan was to play long balls for Didier Drogba to hold up and wait for support.
The central midfield three guarded the space in front of Chelsea’s defence expertly. They prevented through balls into the feet of the forwards and closed down Xavi well enough to force him of play the ball out to the flanks. They also did well by avoiding giving away potentially costly free-kicks just outside the penalty area. Chelsea made 17 tackles, 24 interceptions, and 59 clearances but only conceeded 10 fouls.
In spite of their ultra-defensive outlook, Chelsea still managed to create large number of chances relative to their amount of possession. 7 shots from just 18% possession is unusually high and is a sign of how vulnerable Barca were due to their desperate need for a goal.
After Terry’s sending off Chelsea looked disorganised and it looked as if Barca would run away with it. Jose Bosingwa (on for the injured Gary Cahill) was moved to centre back with Ramires filling in at right-back. With Chelsea now 4-4-1 there was enough space for Barca to exploit in midfield. In spite of going two goals down, Ramires grabbed the crucial away goal on the stroke of half-time when his untracked run was finished with a sublime lob.
The goal took the wind out of Barca’s sails and, instead of going into half-time on top, the tension around the team grew. It also gave Di Matteo some room to manoeuvre and something to defend. He was able to reorganise his team into a 4-5-0 shape. Drogba filled in at left midfield (the position Ramires had vacated to play right-back). This meant that Chelsea’s midfield could be as compact as it was with 11 men but there was no out ball up front. There was now no respite from Barca’s attacks but at least they could maintain their defensive shape.
What makes Chelsea’s performance even more special is the number of players playing out of position.
Guardiola shuffled his front line for the second half. Dani Alves, who had come on in defence for the injured Gerard Pique, was placed high on the right flank, Isaac Cuenca switched to the left, and Andres Iniesta now played more centrally. This was designed to try to give Barca more width (a classic ploy against 10 men). Alves didn’t beat the full-back once all game and instead just played the ball back infield as mentioned previously. This nullified Barca’s extra width and played into Chelsea’s hands by allowing them to play narrower and pack the midfield more.
Chelsea’s defence, knowing Barca were reluctant to cross the ball, never allowed themselves to get sucked over to one side. If necessary, either wide midfielder would close down the ball allowing the defenders to remain central. At times Chelsea operated with a 5 or 6 man defence.
Although Barca had chances, just like in the first leg, Chelsea road their luck as no matter how well you defend against Barca they will still create opportunities. But Barca’s build-up play was slow and largely predictable and there wasn’t enough movement in the final third to draw Chelsea’s defenders out of position.
No plan B for Barca, Chelsea hold out, and Torres seals the win
Barca faced the same situation as they had two years ago against Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan. Their opponents, down to 10 men, produced a backs against the wall defensive display to frustrate Barca and hit them on the break to win.
With no aerial threat or player to hold the ball up up front Barca had little chance from long balls or crosses into the box. Had Pique not gone of injured earlier in the match he might have been used late on as a make shift centre forward. As it was, Barca had no chance to mix things up. When the ball went wide they had little option but to play back infield as their was no target for a successful cross.
For Spain, Fernando Llorente is used when a more direct approach is needed. Barca have no such alternative. In Zlatan Ibrahimovic they had the option of using his height and ability to hold up the ball to play long or cross the ball but, as mentioned earlier, Guardiola deemed him surplus to requirements.
In spite of all Barca’s possession, Chelsea still had chances. Drogba won a corner from which Branislav Ivanovic could have scored and Saloman Kalou, on for Juan Mata, wasted a one-on-one chance before Fernando Torres sealed the tie.
Torres had been ineffective after coming on for Drogba late on. He gave the ball away and failed to track his man but when Barca had thrown everyone forward in one last push for a goal he was left free to run onto a clearance, round the keeper, and tap the ball home. The much maligned striker had written his name into Chelsea history on one of their greatest nights.
Chelsea have shown how to stifle Barca. Sure they relied on a little bit of poor finishing but they took their chances well and created a few more as well. In the end they made Barca look predictable and slow. Perhaps playing so many matches and dominating these last few seasons has caught up with them.
Either way on the back of this result and the recent Real match teams can now face Barca knowing they can be stopped. Deep, compact, and disciplined defending with a touch of good fortune and when your chance to break comes you must be efficient. Its far from the end of an era for Barca but to counter their opponents innovations they must themselves adapt in some way too. A plan B or a slight tweaking of their tiki-taka style is in order.
Chelsea, for their part, were superb and deservedly head to the final in Munich.