Roberto Di Matteo may go down in history as one of the great tactical innovators. What he accomplished, with Chelsea, in eliminating Barcelona from the last UEFA Champions League tournament, was even more shocking and befuddling than what Mourinho and AC Milan had done to them two years earlier.
His defense baffled another great tactical innovator of our time, Barca Coach Pep Guardiola, causing him to lament after the game, "I looked at what we have done wrong to tell the players, and cannot find anything."
As analysts have discovered with time, Di Matteo's tactic was simple, in theory. Keep most of the team behind the ball. Defend space in a zone, in and around the box, and shield out the offense. Let them pass it around the perimeter of the box, but keep so many guys behind the ball in a zonal defense that there isn't enough space between them for Barca to penetrate the ball through into the box without getting it cleared out.
Guardiola, who is taking a year off from football, is probably hunkered away somewhere, no doubt seeking a lot of non-football time to recharge his batteries, but ultimately failing to completely tear his mind away. I imagine he pulls out the game tape time and time again and watches, trying to solve the puzzle . . . how do we get through a stationary pyramid of 9-10 players crowding the entrance to the box? There's got to be a way!
He's a brilliant mind, and I think he'll find a brilliant solution. I look forward to seeing it, wherever it may play out.
One thing is for sure, though. Barca's new coach, Tito Vilanova, certainly hasn't gotten very far, assuming he's on his own quest to find a similar solution.
I caught the last 15 minutes of the Barca-Celtic match during my lunch break today. Like Guardiola before him, Vilanova had Barcelona pass and pass and pass around the perimeter of the box, but they were mostly unable to penetrate consistently against Celtic.
Barca actually won this game in exciting fashion, 30 seconds before time, as Adriano found Jordi Alba with a last ditch serve towards the back post. But the fact that they were 30 seconds from being tied by Celtic, AT CAMP NOU, is not something they are happy with, I guarantee you.
Today we learned that the answer to the question of whether or not Barca has an antidote to the Di Matteo disease, is a resounding NO thus far.
What is scary for Barca, is that Vilanova waited even longer than Guardiola did to revert to the old "serve it up" plan. We never saw the central defenders start entering the box as forwards. And yet, ultimately, the way they got the winner, was STILL, on a defender winning the ball on a service.
Certainly, most teams who try to park the bus against Barca are going to lose. But with the odds already against them, they give themselves a chance by parking the bus. With some exceptionally disciplined defending, and a little luck, they keep most penetration out of the box, and watch Barca blow the limited close-range chances they DO get.
While this may not be a problem in a marathon season where the team with the most points at the end of the year wins, it DOES pose a threat in an elimination tournament like the UEFA Champions League. Barca will face this scenario over and over again, given the tactic's success for Chelsea last year, and odds are, eventually, Barca is going to stumble somewhere along the line. Last year it was in the semi-finals. This year, it nearly happened in the first round, and we'll see what Celtic can do in the second match-up IN SCOTLAND. And, of course, for us MLS fans, our most important league championship IS an elimination tournament . . . the MLS Cup.
What is the solution?
While great professional minds Vilanova and Guardiola burn the midnight oil trying to figure out how to one-up the defensive geniuses, this amateur tactician is going to have his own stab at it, just for fun.
I personally think Barcelona is right to aim to attack the game and dictate the pace. They are right to see possession as an asset. They are right to keep it mostly on the ground with shorter, higher percentage passes. They are right to play an attractive game that displays their players skillsets and entertains the fans. All of these aspects bolster their ability to be a recognizable brand, gain a vast following, and maximize the ability of their players to continue to develop, even at the professional level.
Where they are wrong, is in their overly-religious rigidity in their final combinations before a strike.
THAT is where they have to diversify a little more.
Barca prefers not to get it done in the air. Sure, they serve in the occasional ball, but not often. They want to penetrate through the middle on the ground, with accurate passing and teamwork. They're not afraid to counterattack either, but this is rarely even possible against an opposition that is keeping 9-10 guys behind the ball at all times.
What they are missing is the aerial game around the box. THAT is what they must start using that more often, to balance out their arsenal of offensive weapons.
Of course, to do this effectively, they need to return to a Zlatan Ibrahimovich type player. A big, strong, yet highly skilled forward who can play up and down the field in a wider position, but can also move into the middle and battle in the box when the opposition's tactics call for it.
If we've learned anything from the hated San Jose Earthquakes this year, it's this. Having a ruthless big man in the middle who can fight for headers (Lenhart/Gordon) can get you a lot of goals, even against a bunkered defense. It can also free up extra space for your smaller, more technical players (Wondo) to do what they do best.
I'd argue that even an elite squad like Barcelona can learn a valuable tweak from San Jose--YES, a team from the lowly MLS--without having to completely replicate their style (thank God!).
Get an Ibrahimovic-type forward who is both highly skilled AND ruthless. Stick with the 4-3-3 for the most part, but allow it to flex into a 4-2-4 as the occasion calls, with the big guy moving from outside forward to the middle and Messi as a recessed forward behind him.
The wingers then serve from the wing more often to diversify and balance out their mix of final passes. They aim for the big forward who patrols the center wins headers to put on frame.
But what does that mean for Messi and his widely-lauded false 9 role?
Messi keeps his role, for the most part, but tweaks it in these specific games. He penetrates to the right or left of the big man, pushing one of the outside forwards wider, which, in turn, pushes an outside defender (Alves or Alba) back towards midfield and guard against the counter.
This does TWO things. It takes some weight off Messi, allowing him more room to work his magic as the big guy draws extra defensive attention, and relieving him of the burden to be the scoring savior in every single game.
But how is Barca going to get the ball forward with only two mids? Easy. They have no trouble getting it forward on the ground with 3 mids against a pressure defense. There's no reason a 2-man midfield, with help from Messi and the wing-backs, can't get it forward against a team that's not pressuring as much, but rather sitting back and waiting for them to bring it.
What about attractive football? Wouldn't this make the game uglier? No. Sure, there will be more errant final passes at first, but also more goals. As the goals start to add up, there will be more space for quality ground passing. As simple and direct as aerial service to a target big man can be, it's NOT more boring to watch than a team incessantly passing around the perimeter, but almost never penetrating.
Most importantly, this 4-2-4 with aerial service to a big man in the middle becomes a rare necessity for the times when teams are effectively parking the bus, and even rarer as it renders the Di Matteo style defense a foilable tactic, and teams start to abandon it altogether.
I think we can all agree, the sooner we can make the Di Matteo defense go away, the better. In the mean time, Di Matteo certainly deserves credit as yet another Italian with some defensive genius up his sleeve, ugly as it may be. It's a particularly astounding feat for a coach that is actually all about offense most of the time.
So, how does this apply to the Timbers, and our quest to play a more dominant, fluid brand of football?
It means a guy like Bright Dike should have a role next year, in my opinion, and I'm hopeful that Caleb Porter's new system won't be so ideological that it doesn't include that. Heck, now that I think about it, maybe Kris Boyd could still have a role too. From what I've seen of his system, there may already be room for such a tweak, so I'm optimistic.
Bottom line. If Barcelona could benefit from a tactic used by a team like San Jose, WE certainly can too.
But as I reread this, I can't help but think there may be a few holes in this amateur tactician's logic.
So throw rocks . . . I'm interested to hear what others think about this.