Imagine a scenario – Most of your frontline defenders are injured, all you have is a handful of kids from your reserves. What would you do? Well, ‘play them’ would be the most obvious answer, as Arsene Wenger so disastrously did against Liverpool and Manchester United. But Pep Guardiola is a different man. For the match against Villarreal, Eric Abidal was the only defender fit. Guardiola also had young Andreu Fontas, but resisted throwing him at the deep end.
Villarreal usually play a 4-2-2-2 system with two holding midfielders and Barca usually employ a 4-3-3. Villarreal’s system gave Barca a load of trouble last season with the Catalans struggling to win their previous encounter, but eventually doing so 1-0. Instead of playing the usual 4-3-3 and risking exposing the young defender, Guardiola opted to play a loose 3-4-3 formation with Busquets and Mascherano joining Abidal in the defense.
As you could see from the above line-ups, Villarreal used the exact same formation as their previous meeting, but Barca altered plans. Another beauty of this line-up is the forwards – Pedro and Alexis Sanchez, played wider than normal so as to pull the Villarreal full-backs away. Fabregas started at the top of the midfield diamond and kept exchanging places with Thiago and Iniesta and later with Xavi. Villareal’s game plan involved Borja cutting in and closing down Keita, Bruno and Marchena taking care of Fabregas and Iniesta, leaving Cani to spread out wide and attack. Simple? wrong. The plan was good but there was one man left un-marked – Thiago.
The young Spaniard had the freedom of the pitch and that proved to be the undoing of Villarreal. Just take a look at how the first goal was scored. Pedro’s pass to Thiago is unchallenged and he sets of on a run towards the goal with absolutely no one marking him. It’s only when he reaches the 18 yard box that the defenders crowd him, trying to cut his pass to either Messi or Pedro. But Thiago takes them by surprise and goes for the goal instead and scores. This shows poor planning on Villarreal’s part as their defense just stood off Thiago and hoped to cut out his passes.
When Barcelona were trying to sign Fabregas, I for one found the move irritating as Barca have a wealth of midfield talents and still they were running behind Cesc. Well, yesterday’s game proved why. Fabregas is perfect for their system in which he can ghost into the box from midfield, which worked brilliantly yesterday as Messi’s pass found the former Arsenal man making the run to collect it, round the keeper and slot it in. Villarreal were reeling by then and their attempts to press Barcelona to get back into the game backfired spectacularly as Barca fed on Villarreal’s now very high defensive line to play passes over or through them for Messi and Sanchez to score. Barcelona had their typical very high possession of 73% and because of this, Villareal’s ploy of leaving Cani as a free midfielder backfired as he was often so out of the game.