Barca welcomed captain Andres Iniesta back into the fold; the Spaniard tucking into his familiar shuttling role on the left half-space while Ivan Rakitic was on the other side, both playing ahead of Sergio Busquets, who sat deepest of the three midfielders
Barcelona had the better of Belarusian outfit BATE Borisov to edge closer to qualification into the knockout stages of the Champions League. The dynamic attacking duo of Neymar and Luis Suarez provided all the fireworks, as the holders rarely played in their usual full-throttle mode.
BATE were refreshingly more open to attack after what was a timid submission in the return fixture last month, and the fact they kept the Blaugrana in check for most parts of the game and gave away all three goals from situations clearly arising out of their own mistakes and attacking thrust spoke volumes of manager Aleksandr Yermakovich’s approach.
Barca welcomed captain Andres Iniesta back into the fold; the Spaniard tucking into his familiar shuttling role on the left half-space while Ivan Rakitic was on the other side, both playing ahead of Sergio Busquets, who sat deepest of the three midfielders. Thomas Vermaelen made his first Champions League start of the season, partnering Javier Mascherano at the back with Dani Alves and Adriano flanking them. Cup goalkeeper, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, returned to the line-up.
Neymar played through the left-hand side, mostly staying wide and cutting inside upon receiving a pass although he sporadically made short movements and also on occasions drifted across the breadth of the pitch. On his other side was Sergi Roberto, who dropped short and played more centrally compared to Neymar while also getting involved in passing triangles in central areas.
Roberto reverted from his wide right shift to a midfield role in the 4–3–3 soon after Rakitic went off injured on 20 minutes, as the Croatian’s replacement, Munir, played as the right winger with Luis Suarez as the centre forward. Suarez strayed from his central starting position, making wide movements to accommodate his team-mates into forward areas in attacking phases.
BATE lined up in a 4–4–2/4–2–4 hybrid set-up with Dmitri Mozolevski and Mikhail Gordeychuk keeping minimum distance between themselves up front. Their two pivots, Evgeni Yablonski and Aleksandr Volodko, sat deep while the wide midfielders, Ihar Stasevich and Maksim Volodko kept tight to the Barca full-backs.
BATE’s back four of Denis Polyakov, Vitali Gayduchik, Nemanja Milunovic and Filip Mladenovic kept a tight line and rarely broke ranks, and were also very compact horizontally to not afford any space around the box for penetrative Barca movements. Sergei Chernik, who has kept a total of 17 clean sheets domestically this season, was in goal.
Following are some of the tactical observations from the game:
1. BATE’s Initial Approach And Pressing Schemes
BATE played with greater freedom last night than they had in Minsk a fortnight ago, and they tried to break Barca’s build-up in midfield. Their two forwards, Mozolevski and Gordeychuk, rarely pressed Mascherano and Vermaelen but closed down their second passing options, which were mostly Busquets and Rakitic or Roberto.
With support from their two sitting midfielders from the back, BATE were somewhat successful in preventing Barca from controlling the game from central areas, which saw Iniesta and Neymar receive quite a lot of passes in the left flank. In fact, Iniesta received almost half (25) of his 55 received passes during the opening quarter of the match.
BATE’s two wide midfielders, Stasevich and Maksim Volodko, kept close watch of the Barca full-backs on their side. But their pressing scheme was lopsided as Maksim Volodko on the left stayed a bit deeper than Stasevich because of the greater attacking threat Alves poses over Adriano. Stasevich, on BATE’s left, was his side’s most potent attacking tool though.
Stasevich was full of running down Barca’s left-hand side, and his eagerness to run the channels and run behind Adriano saw his team-mates attempt regularly to seek him in attacking transitions. However, BATE lacked quality in their passes and were far too immediate in control, leading to lots of cheap possession giveaways in and around the middle third of the pitch.
A diagram of Barca’s ball recoveries shows how cheaply BATE returned possession back to their opponents, and most of them were in the middle third. The Belarusians weren’t confident on the ball and no player risked holding on to the ball for too long in the fear of losing possession near their defensive third. BATE also won most of the balls in their own defensive third, which perfectly describes the mindset of the players regaining the ball from Barca.
BATE were calculated in attacking play, although the fact they rarely saw the ball meant they undertook few risks while attacking. Although their back line kept its shape throughout the game, the orientations of the two holding midfielders in certain attacking phases left empty space behind for Barca to attack. The two open play goals last night came from similar situations.
2. The Return Of Iniesta
Iniesta’s return into the starting eleven felt like a breath of fresh air; his return instantly gave Barca better control moving forward from midfield, while some of his manoeouvres on the ball left the Camp Nou crowd gasping in awe. Iniesta stayed around for a little more than an hour, but made a significant impact in Barca’s overall patterns of play.
While Iniesta’s inclusion led to patchy pressing play from Luis Enrique’s side, he provided some ingenuity in attacking phases. In Lionel Messi’s absence, Barca have missed the Argentine’s diagonal switches of play which were so evident last season and in parts of this season, and Iniesta did well to catch BATE off-guard by frequently changing the focal points of attack.
But they only resulted in a few meaningful opportunities as BATE held their defensive line well and kept good horizontal compactness. Also the form of goalkeeper Chernik was a key aspect.
3. Barca Capitalise On BATE’s Mistakes At The Right Moments
Barca were on cruise control after Neymar netted the first goal, a penalty, and rarely moved up a gear or two throughout the game. BATE, however, were sensing an upset as a one-goal lead is always scalable. But the Belarusians were undone by some poor decision-making from Yablonski as they pushed forward near the hour mark. BATE’s intentions were clear as they were also preparing to bring on Aliaksandr Hleb at that point in time.
Yablonski’s underlapping run on Adriano’s side helped initiate a BATE attack, but it left them hopelessly exposed in midfield. This allowed plenty space for Busquets to pick out Neymar, who in typical fashion, dragged defenders onto himself before squaring a ball to Suarez. In a way, BATE’s desire to push on for the equalizer led to them conceding the game, at a time when they sensed their opportunity.
The game gradually petered out over the next 30 minutes, and another BATE mistake in midfield sent Barca away to score from another counter-attacking move. The result probably was never in doubt from the first whistle, but the fact Barca were in their comfort zone for almost the entire game was also helped by some naivety from their opponents.