The idea of Santos manager Muricy Ramalho to drop the midfielder Elano for another defender in Leo, while not being the most positive of moves, had merit. If Barcelona is going to control the centre of midfield — a condition exceedingly likely, no matter their opponent — the extra defender can help release the added pressure on the back line sure to follow.
But with a holding midfielder in Arouca already playing deep, Santos didn’t have any consistent method of advancing the ball upon gaining possession, and with Barcelona’s pressuring, Santos was reduced to a dog chasing a car: even if they won the ball back, they had no idea what to do with it.
Man-mark Messi is difficult because you never know what he’ll do. And there are many players to keep an eye on. – Muricy Ramalho
The FIFA Club World Cup Final marked the third consecutive game Pep Guardiola employed Lionel Messi as a midfielder, and one must think this trend will continue after another sensational performance. With Barca opponents throughout this campaign following José Mourinho’s lead of pushing a centre-back up the pitch onto Messi, it only makes sense to drop Messi deeper and deeper, forcing the defense to either be horribly dragged out of shape or leave his marking duties to inferior midfield personnel. As was the case against Real Madrid in last weekend’s Clásico, Messi received the ball in deep positions with time on the ball, free to initiate an attack however he deemed fit. And since the Santos defenders were positioned quite deep themselves to begin with, Messi often slalomed past them in in their outward pursuit of him, freeing passing angles, creating space for his Catalan teammates where defenders once were.
For all the success enjoyed from Messi and Cesc Fàbregas’ false-nine/false-ten partnership, the Club World Cup Final marked the first time in their partnership their roles were reversed. Guardiola’s apparent pursuit of playing a game with all midfielders as his outfield players will only be intensified after Fàbregas’ performance as the Barca centre-forward, a performance that Spain coach Vincente del Bosque must be happy with given David Villa’s broken leg and Fernando Torres’ broken form. Fàbregas didn’t miss a beat playing ahead of Messi, making smart runs, dragging defenders out of shape, looking to play smart and quick one-twos, even scoring a poacher’s goal. It is almost ironic to note Fàbregas is possibly even better in support of Messi playing ahead of him.
As noted in the preview, Santos likes to flood the side of the pitch the ball is on with defenders, congesting traffic. One possible suggestion to exploit the weak-side space was the inclusion of Adriano to provide a switch point on the left flank. Instead, Barca youngster Thiago, another midfielder by trade, reprised his role as the left winger — a position he’s played sparingly before — and, when not rotating inside, kept himself wide, allowing himself both a staggering amount of space and time on the ball. Barcelona shredded the back line of Santos with balls out to Thiago and Dani Alves — the nominal wingers — who were then free to send in crosses, cut the ball back in or attack the goal directly.
This structural weakness of the Santos defense is best illustrated by Barca’s third goal. As is generally the case with Barca, their shape allowed fluidity, and Messi and Thiago had switched positions as Alves advanced the ball down the right flank. With the defense sagging to the centre, Lionel Messi, quite simply, ran in behind Bruno Rodrigo. Alves picked him out, and while Messi didn’t score, Santos was unable to defuse the threat, resulting in Fàbregas’ calm slotting home of the rebound from Thiago’s saved header. With so much attention on the ball-side of the pitch, Guardiola chose to consistently attack the space left out wide and behind rather than remain content with switching the ball and beginning anew, and his methods rewarded Barca with a dominant three-goal lead at the half.
|Santos’ “sagging” defense, and one way Barca looked to exploit it.|| |
Barca’s possession tally finished over seventy percent, as well it should have: Barca’s numerical advantage in midfield was overwhelming. And with Messi, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta slinging balls out wide, Sergio Busquets and the back-three were free to establish a high line and were quick to pounce on any outlet balls once Santos regained possession. It was a frustrating night for Ganso: between needing to drop well into his own half to receive passes and Busquets and company hounding him upon receiving any service, Ganso joined the ranks of Mesut Özil and others as central attacking midfielders negated by Barca’s possession and pressure.
So too the night must have been for Neymar. Denied by Victor Valdes on his clearest of chances, Neymar found himself harassed by Carles Puyol any time he found himself on the Catalan’s captain’s side, and Barca did well to supply help whenever Neymar looked to push to the end-line or cut back inside, usually sending Gerard Piqué or his replacement, Javier Mascherano. This isn’t to say he played awful: Barca treated the nineteen-year-old much the same as they did Cristiano Ronaldo, and it can even be argued Neymar made better of the opportunities he had than Ronaldo did with the superior opportunities he had against Barca last weekend. Little doubt can remain who is superior between Messi and Neymar after the final, but Neymar did nothing to embarrass himself, and whenever Neymar decides to come across the Atlantic, he will certainly be an immediate star.
As it went, Ramalho probably shouldn’t have sat Elano at the outset, and his bringing on of the midfielder for Danilo after only a half-hour is an indictment of the initial eleven selected. While Santos never saw a majority of the ball, they were better with Elano on, another piece in the midfield to help keep possession whenever Barca was quit of the ball. If Ramalho truly wanted the extra defender, he’d have been wise to learn the lesson that Mourinho forgot and sit the ineffective Ganso to play a 5-3-2, or sit the largely-a-bystander Borges to play a 4-4-1-1/5-3-1-1, with Ganso playing behind Neymar. This wouldn’t have solved the danger their defensive philosophy welcomed or their cavalier approach to building from the back, but Santos was not void of chances after Elano came on, and an improved side from the outset is hardly a bad thing.
After a game which saw Lionel Messi become the first player in history to score and assist in six different club competitions in one year, Neymar provided the simplest summation of Barcelona defeating Santos to win the FIFA Club World Cup:
Barça was totally superior, they have fantastic players. The best team in the world today showed us how to play football. – Neymar