FC Barcelona – Tottenham Hotspur: Defensive Diamond Neutralizes Barcelona as Spurs Reach Champions League knockout phase (1-1)
With qualification to the knockout rounds hanging by a thread, Tottenham Hotspur’s performance at Camp Nou was exceptional – albeit against a somewhat weakened FC Barcelona starting eleven. Mauricio Pochettino’s diamond system expertly exploited the holes in Barça’s pressing, whilst also causing some problems for the home side in their buildup phase, too.
Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.
As Ernesto Valverde’s team already had won the group, the coach made the sensible decision to rest several key figures. Only four of the players that started in the Catalan derby against Espanyol last weekend also started against Tottenham. Those being Ousmane Dembélé, Ivan Rakitić, Clément Lenglet and Nélson Semedo. The rest of the team was a mix of squad players, including a European debut for millennial Juan Miranda, at left back.
There was a lot more at stake for Spurs, but it did not stop Pochettino from making four changes. The fullback pairing of Ben Davies and Serge Aurier were replaced by Danny Rose and Kyle Walker-Peters respectively. Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen were the other two, returning to the side having been given a bit more of a rest ahead of this match.
Spurs’ defensive diamond
Spurs clearly wanted to be the more aggressive team and sought to press the opponent when they were out of possession. In their attempts to do so, they set out almost exclusively in a 4-4-2 diamond formation.
When Barça attempted to build out from within their own box, Pochettino wanted his players to cut off the far side completely. So, instead of the far-sided striker sitting further off, worrying about a distanced option, he would press the goalkeeper. Against Jasper Cillessen – who, in this match, clearly lacked the same composure Marc-André ter Stegen possesses – Spurs got a lot of joy forcing Barcelona’s goalkeeper into inaccurate long balls and won the ball back often. Valverde’s side lacked a real target man up front, especially down their right, where Spurs were funneling the play towards, which was not beneficial for keeping possession.
Spurs’ diamond press against Barcelona’s traditional 4-3-3 formation.
For the most part, Barça had no answers to this press. They were intensely marked all across the ball-side and had no time to react with the ball. No player even had the space to turn and trick their marker because it was all narrowed down to the very edges of the flanks.
Even the potential, major exposure to switches of play – which sometimes occurred through just a minor disorganization in Spurs’ press – was not fully exploited.
Deeper afield, Spurs’ defensive shape mostly remained the same. Sometimes Heung-Min Son dropped in alongside Dele Alli to create a 4-3-2-1 shape but it was often still a diamond. They appeared incredibly well-drilled, knowing when to press, who to press and when to sit off.
Barcelona score the first goal
Despite the overwhelming positives of their approach, Tottenham still seemed slightly unnerved in the opening period of the match. They were failing to properly capitalize on the high turnovers they forced. Before long, Barça punished them for it.
Off the back of a Spurs free-kick, Ousmane Dembélé nicked the ball off Tottenham fullback Kyle Walker-Peters. The young French winger produced some of his trademark dribbles and fake shots to take out Tottenham’s defense and then coolly slided it under Lloris to put Barça ahead after seven minutes.
That goal, however, was the overarching issue for Barça in this game. They were too reliant on individual moments of quality. There were hardly any glimmers of good, well-structured, attacking team play at any point. Philippe Coutinho did go on to strike the outside of the post twice, but these were from positions of relatively little danger. On the night, Barcelona only completed seven passes inside Spurs’ box.
Barça’s defensive woes and Spurs’ positional play
The problems for Valverde’s side did not stop there. In fact, Barcelona were far worse on the defensive side of things. The main issue was how susceptible the midfield three were, as Barça usually pressed in a 4-1-4-1 shape. The general patterns of their press highlighted how opposition-reliant their midfield shape was.
The midfield all picked up whomever was closest to them and it played into Spurs’ hands perfectly. In their diamond setup still, they had a crucial midfield overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. and they certainly knew just how to use it.
Time after time, Tottenham drew open the space in between Barcelona’s midfield and defense. For example, there was the exchanging of short passes between Eriksen, usually, and either of the center-backs to draw out Rakitić. The Croatian was like a moth to a light. He had no regard for his surroundings when moving out to press, leaving a gaping hole in midfield that was occupied by Spurs’ number ten Dele Alli.
Strikers Son and Kane held off Lenglet and Thomas Vermaelen, meaning the attacking midfielder had so much room to operate in. Alli was found with short passes countless times, especially by Eriksen.
FC Barcelona’s midfield pressing, which left a lot of space for Dele Alli to play in. Barcelona’s player names are left blank because of substitutions, even though their defensive setup remained the same for ninety minutes.
The two strikers had synchronized movements – be it in this specific case or when a teammate had time with the ball. Typically, Son would be the main threat in behind, always looking to isolate himself against Vermaelen, easily being the winner in a footrace. In contrast, Kane would often drop towards the ball, thus manipulating the center of Barça’s defense and creating more space for attackers to run into.
Besides looking for Alli with vertical passes, another common attacking method by Tottenham was to go long into Kane. This was especially effective when the pitch was stretched. With Alli, Eriksen and Son closing in on the space around Kane, they had a great setup to win second balls and progress from there.
Just after half an hour in, Spurs drew in the press and Lloris, this time, targeted Rose out wide. His header into the space was followed by a lay-off from Kane back to Eriksen, which allowed the Danish playmaker to send a ball quickly down the channel for Son. His run in behind had dragged Vermaelen right across the vacant backline as he whizzed by the Belgian center-back to go one-versus-one with Cillessen, however, he failed to equalize.
Barça eventually give way to Spurs’ second half onslaught
In the second half, Spurs had no trouble picking up where they left. Now with a firm grip on proceedings, they were bossing the home team. It was a bit of a mystery why nothing was changed to prevent such easy access into Alli. Valverde did not attempt to change his team’s defending formation to stop it, as the same issues re-occurred again and again.
With so much time on the ball, the away side had an easy time getting in behind Barça. The relentless runs off the ball from the strikers and the runners from deep were perilous.
Among many others, one chance based on this that stood out most was in the 56th minute when Son held the ball on the corner of Barça’s own box. With his back to goal, he waited for an option and Rose obliged. All three or four of the surrounding defenders were simply ball-watching. Nobody clocked onto the run made by Rose, so he picked up the ball from Son, charged into the box and found himself in a glorious position to cut it back. Both Kane and Eriksen were waiting but the final ball left much to be desired, as it had been for a lot of the match.
It was chance after chance after chance for Spurs in the last stage of the match. Finally, in the 85th minute, Lucas Moura, the substitute, gave his side the all-important equalizer. The confidence in the visitor’s buildup play was oozing at this stage, they were so confident, exploiting the flanks with such ease. Barça had no rebuttal. This time Kane was played in behind a wonky defensive line and – once again – drew out a center-back before cutting it across for an easy Lucas tap-in, and the match finished in a draw.
A performance that deserved more than just a point got rewarded in the end, as Internazionale’s slip-up against PSV Eindhoven yielded Champions League knockout qualification for Tottenham. Most of all, Pochettino will be chuffed with the performances of his players across the board in one of Europe’s most iconic stadiums. Ernesto Valverde slightly less so, but it seemed clear that Barcelona’s manager was not going to lose much sleep over any result, anyway.
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