Last week, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea FC visited the Camp Nou to take on FC Barcelona, led by Ernesto Valverde, in their Champions League Round of 16 second leg. The first leg in London finished 1-1, with Chelsea achieving most of the good chances at goal but ceding a lot of possession to Barça. The second leg was, in general, a more well-balanced match-up in terms of tactics. Chelsea controlled more possession than they did last month and pressed high at times, using Olivier Giroud and Marcos Alonso as outlets to attack through. Barcelona shifted in the opposite direction, playing slightly more direct on the ball and sitting back on defence. In the end, the scoreline was lopsided in favour of Lionel Messi’s team, but there’s an argument to be made that Chelsea actually played better overall. With the facts presented over the course of this analysis, you’ll hopefully be able to make up your own mind.
The first half of the match went just about as you’d expect. Antonio Conte had his men sit deep against Barcelona’s measured tempo play but occasionally picked up a high press after conceding the first goal. The double-pivot of Cesc Fàbregas and N’Golo Kanté was blocked from receiving passes during build-up play, so Chelsea used a combination of centre-backs dribbling into space and long balls to Olivier Giroud to progress the ball. Barcelona, as mentioned, tried to keep possession for long spans of time. They adopted a similarly cautious defensive approach, not pressing high in most instances, but were certainly making life difficult for the away side when using their mid-press. It wasn’t until later in the half that the likes of Andrés Iniesta and Ousmane Dembélé tried a more direct approach to earning their third goal of the night.
Let’s break down the strategies and executions of both Chelsea and Barcelona on the defensive and offensive sides of the game.
Barcelona Buildup against Chelsea Block
In the initial phases of FC Barcelona’s attack, we immediately see the change that Ousmane Dembélé imparts on Ernesto Valverde’s tactics. The winger, pictured on the near touchline, is pushed up higher than his left-wing partner, Andrés Iniesta. As expected, Iniesta tucks in further as a third midfield presence while Dembélé forms somewhat of a 4-3-3 with Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez up top. It makes sense that Jordi Alba (far touchline) is seen with loads of space to run into due to Iniesta’s central positioning. This is something that Barcelona have exploited throughout the season; their defenders’ long passing ability makes Alba’s runs extremely threatening. This is doubly true against a horizontally compact side like Chelsea.
Despite Antonio Conte’s front line change of Olivier Giroud for Pedro, Chelsea’s defensive shape was largely the same as the first leg. Cesc Fàbregas and N’Golo Kanté formed a double-pivot in front of Chelsea’s five-man back line. This denied Lionel Messi access to line-breaking passes in threatening central areas; instead, most of Messi’s brilliant moments occurred in wide areas. In this example, Eden Hazard is the ball-near winger and has a few duties to complete. He contains the ball carrier (Sergi Roberto) while having access to both the wide player (Dembélé) and ball-near midfielder (Ivan Rakitić). Chelsea clearly tried to deny easy passing lanes to the two most central midfielders, which is represented by Giroud and Kanté closing in on Rakitić even before a pass is delivered. This was an effective strategy for the most part, with Barcelona forced to work the ball around before prodding for occasional openings.
Early on, Barcelona found some success in their attempt to create space between Chelsea’s lines on the left side of the pitch. Alba’s overloading caused trouble for Chelsea, especially with their double-pivot. You can see below that Fàbregas wants to stick as close to Kanté as possible no matter where the ball is, thus allowing little space for Barça to exploit in the middle. While this certainly benefits Chelsea in some ways, it is a detriment in other ways, such as the clear fact that Barcelona can form triangle passing patterns. We all know that Iniesta is one of the most technically proficient midfielders of our generation. Allowing him to combine with teammates in space is usually not a good idea. Nevertheless, Conte was happy with conceding possession to the Catalans in the first leg and figured that it’d work again at the Camp Nou.
Perhaps it’s ironic, then, that Barcelona’s first goal came on the right side of the pitch. The goal came out of nothing really — Messi was dribbling around the first line of defence and a pass asked Marcos Alonso to clear the danger. Unfortunately for Chelsea’s well-drilled defence, the to-be Spanish international’s errant touch gifted Suárez an open opportunity to pass through to the Argentine. Nobody scores from that wide angle except the greatest player on Earth. There are not many things to say tactically about the goal due to the fact that it was produced by two technical mistakes, Alonso’s touch and Thibaut Courtois’ poor goalkeeping. As Duke Professor Laurent Dubois so elegantly posed in The Wall Street Journal, “such plays are part of the mesmerising ebb and flow of the game, but they very rarely produce a goal“.
Chelsea Buildup and Barcelona Mid-Press
Despite the obvious gulf in technical quality between the two sides, Chelsea put forth a solid effort to use measured possession play to their advantage. The centre-backs, specifically Antonio Rüdiger and Andreas Christensen, often found themselves with yards of grass to dribble into. We see how much space the three defenders were given in the first half; Barcelona usually only began pressing when Messi stepped up to the ball carrier. Barça’s pressing wasn’t very intense nor high in most circumstances bar Messi’s solo efforts (more on that later). This lack of a high press meant that Chelsea had time on the ball. Atop the picture, Victor Moses has positioned himself high up the pitch and offers himself as a long passing option. Whereas Jordi Alba provided an extra passing option when the ball was rotated, Moses and Alonso offered long passing options to progress play up the pitch.
With Giroud offering a strong forward presence, the burden of advanced creativity was placed upon the shoulders of Hazard and Willian. The former was the more threatening in buildup play as expected; his dropping deep was reminiscent of Leo Messi at times. This was crucial for two reasons: Chelsea’s double-pivot were either occupied covering the defence (Kanté) or under-performing in general (Fàbregas) and Barcelona’s man marking is tough to bypass. With Willian and Hazard dropping deep, Busquets encountered a problem. Either he stuck with his man-marking assignment by dropping with Fàbragas or dropped back to cover the forwards. Above, Hazard is in loads of space between Barça’s midfield and defence.
Hazard’s link-up play before the final third was a beauty to behold for roughly ten minutes after Messi’s first goal. Pictured above, Hazard uses his speed and skill to beat Busquets to get into “Zone 14” above the box. Not only does he open up space for him to run into or pass to an inward-moving Willian, but there’s also the chance to feed Alonso a through ball. Barcelona’s defensive setup could’ve been exploited many times during these situations. For one, Busquets’ failure to stem a Hazard dribble coupled with Iniesta and Rakitić’s wide positioning leaves a massive gap in front of Barça’s defence. Also, we see that right midfielder Ousmane Dembélé is forced to drop all the way back to cover as a temporary right-back. While this allows Roberto to tuck in and defend Hazard, it places a large responsibility on the young Frenchman. Luckily for Valverde, the €105 million man was successful when a tackle in the box was required.
Even when building out of the back, Chelsea were only able to create space when in transition. Pictured below is a relatively chaotic sequence in which both teams are yet to fully set-up their tactics. Barcelona’s 4-4-2 press is dysfunctional and leaves space to be attacked in the middle. Perhaps Conte wants to take these chances when in transition as his side can create more space through fluidity. Willian moved out wide left while Hazard has space to invade in the middle. Alonso (circled on the Barça’s back line) is also vacating the middle of the park. This allows a Chelsea defender, Rüdiger in this instance, to dribble into yards of space. When this happens, Barcelona’s midfielders must decide to stick with their man or confront the dribbling threat.
Chelsea created a great sequence of chances with a similar setup to the one pictured above. The space created for Rüdiger in the left half space gives him time to measure a pass to Alonso on the left. An under-lapping Willian dribbles past Roberto before squaring for a re-under lapping Alonso in the box. His shot was saved, but it created a phenomenal opportunity for Kanté to score after Chelsea win the ball back.
Pressure Increases with High Presses
After the early goal, both teams began showing examples of a high press. For both Barcelona and Chelsea, it was reserved for specific circumstances. The most common of these was when the goalkeeper received the ball. While these high presses forced both sides to play balls long as a precautionary measure, they both had some flaws.
In the instance below, Barcelona opted to press with both Suárez and Messi high up. What I specifically noticed was how narrow the 6-man press was, which is easy to see with the player connections in the picture. While the passing option to the middle was available, the ball receiver would’ve been hounded by two or three blue shirts before gaining full possession. Much like Chelsea’s low block, this press forced Courtois to look wide or long. Azpilicueta offers himself as a wide option near the byline, Alonso and Moses are in wide spaces unmarked, and there is a massive pocket of no-mans-land behind the midfield. This is exactly what Olivier Giroud was brought into the side to be: a target man presence. A Courtois long pass to Giroud led to Chelsea’s best chance of the first half when Hazard latched onto the Frenchman’s header.
After conceding the first goal, Chelsea showed signs of wanting to take the game to their opponents. Being 2-1 down on aggregate, Antonio Conte’s side began to press high on occasion. While they usually held back their defensive efforts until Barcelona reached midfield, there were some circumstances in which a trigger (often Marc-Andre Ter Stegen possessing the ball) set off Chelsea’s intense pressing efforts. Below, Giroud leads a man-oriented press that sees all five Chelsea midfielders and attackers marking a blue shirt. Giroud curls his run towards the goalie while simultaneously cover-shadowing Gerard Piqué. Willian and Hazard mark the wide defenders, Umtiti and Roberto, as Alba has vacated the area. Finally, Fàbregas and Kanté mark Barcelona’s pivot players. This pressure worked well as Ter Stegen was forced to lob the ball long.
From a Barcelona perspective, the press was relatively harmless in that it forced no dangerous turnovers. Using quite a common tactic in the modern game called Salida Livolpiana, Barcelona are able to create space by moving the centre-backs out wide with Sergio Busquets invading the vacant space. It’s easy to see that this simple movement disrupts Chelsea’s midfield press and opens up space behind their lines; Busquets received a couple short passes from Ter Stegen to kick start Barcelona’s buildup play over the course of the match. Like Barcelona’s press, Chelsea were often left vulnerable behind their 5-man efforts. Above, we can see that Alba and Iniesta have lots of space to control a Ter Stegen long pass.
All of this pressure built up throughout the first twenty minutes of the first half. Chelsea were growing into the game and offered multiple attacking chances, while Barcelona were satisfied with maintaining possession in a calm manner. Lionel Messi was able to break free in the twentieth minute after winning the ball back in an unexpected manner. Chelsea had pushed forward to attack with both wing-backs and Kanté forward, but Hazard’s shot was blocked and cleared out of the zone. Christensen decided to head the clearance down to Fàbregas, which seemed like an all-to-normal play. However, Leo Messi was partaking in a one-man pressing effort and he managed to nick the ball off of the Spaniard. With three players to beat, Messi did what Messi does, taking the ball past Azpilicueta twice before crossing to Dembélé for goal number two.
As the first half of football drew to a close, the styles of play for both teams shifted. Barcelona began playing a pretty direct form of football for the final five or six minutes, looking for killer passes instead of possession. Chelsea did the opposite; Hazard and Willian began dropping deep to receive passes, much like Messi had been, which helped maintain a stability to the away side’s control over the match. Giroud was extremely good during this phase of play. The striker acted as the middleman in a one-two passing sequence on multiple occasions, the most notable being with Willian just outside of Barcelona’s box. The Brazilian won a free-kick, and if Marcos Alonso’s shot were a foot to the left then the lead would’ve been cut in half just before halftime.
Chelsea continued their successful build-up strategy in the second half, using Giroud as an outlet for line-breaking passes. However, Barcelona were able to prevent the clear-cut chances from becoming goals before Messi tallied his second goal of the night to close out the game.
Chelsea Set the Tempo
Olivier Giroud’s involvement continued into the second half. Chelsea were denied a penalty when Marcos Alonso went down in the area, but it was a one-two lay off between Giroud and Willian that created space behind Barcelona’s back line. Barcelona were sitting deep, with Busquets joining the defending line, which allowed Willian the time and space to pick out a strong Giroud before running into space inside Zone 14.
Barcelona began to press up more, apparently in an attempt to proactively prevent any more threatening Chelsea build-up. However, the Blues found openings with more direct passing. A few minutes later, Fàbregas’ long ball to Hazard nearly saw the away side have another shot on goal. Barcelona clearly felt the pressure at this point and Ernesto Valverde was forced into making a change. This occurred in the 55th minute as Paulinho replaced Iniesta in the midfield. The Brazilian offers a much more physical presence than the technical Spaniard which changed the dynamic of Barcelona’s defending. This change was made even more radical five minutes later; an injured Sergio Busquets made way for André Gomes, a player who’s come under heavy criticism this season.
With the two changes, Barcelona’s defensive shape became much more vulnerable. In the example below, Dembélé is pushed back as a temporary defender with the back line of 4 compressing horizontally. In addition, Ivan Rakitić is out of position to cover Azpilicueta on the right side. All of this combined with Paulinho (middle) becoming distracted by the positioning of Kanté — in part because of Suárez’s poor positioning — left the passing lane open between Christensen and Fàbregas. Barcelona’s lack of compactness and poor overall positioning left themselves exposed again. It was only a Piqué block that stopped a possible Chelsea goal.
It was also partially Chelsea’s positioning that allowed Christensen to exploit Barcelona’s bad defending. With the ball in the innermost part of the right half-space, Christensen had an angle at multiple line-breaking passes, as well as two sideways passes. Azpilicueta’s positioning on the close touchline distracted Rakitić to create an opening, while Kanté’s positioning between Messi and Suárez forced Paulinho to cover that side as well. In the end, Chelsea found crucial space between Barça’s second and third lines of defence to complete four passes in a dangerous area.
Unfortunately for Chelsea, their efforts became undone in the 63rd minute when the attacking setup became exploited by Barcelona’s press. Gomes proved extremely useful by aggressively pressing Azpilicueta on the ball, forcing him into a poor pass which was intercepted by Jordi Alba. Barcelona immediately had an advantage since Chelsea had only three defenders back. Messi overlapped Suárez from the right side of the pitch, dribbling into the box before scoring his second of the night. Gomes’ efforts to make a run behind the line distracted Victor Moses, allowing Messi to gain a step over the Nigerian wing-back.
Barcelona Close out the Tie
With the two-legged tie all but finished after Barcelona’s third goal of the night, the Blaugrana didn’t need to force anything on the attacking end of the spectrum. When under pressure, defenders cleared the ball out of danger. When in possession in wide areas or near Chelsea’s half, Barça were comfortable moving the ball around and keeping the tempo of the game under control. Chelsea kept with the strategy of creating overloads in wide areas, mostly through centre-back passes, but it was a futile effort. Down 4-1 on aggregate, there wasn’t enough time to make a comeback for Conte’s men.
Barcelona also sat further and further back on defense, both as a cautionary measure to allow fewer chances and to (presumably) save energy. Valverde’s men had succeeded in their efforts over the span of 65 minutes, which was a perfect scenario.
Chelsea can be relatively happy with their efforts in Catalonia, but they were simply outgunned when the full-time whistle blew. Yes, Lionel Messi did have a phenomenal performance, but there were many factors that gave the Argentine the platform to succeed. Chelsea’s failure to control the ball during transitional phases led to two fateful errors, while an unfortunate deflection was the major reason Messi got on the board in the second minute.
Marcos Alonso cemented himself as a major player for the London side when he’s on his game, which he was on the night. The Spaniard lacked enough defensive presence, but his influence when building up in wide areas and in the final third was second-to-nobody. Chelsea are relying on the wing-back’s contribution to most phases of play. If Alonso keeps up this form, there’s no stopping him from holding down his position for years to come. Willian and Hazard proved too indecisive in the end, but their deep-dropping movements were certainly a great way to break up play and maintain possession. Finally, Giroud’s target man presence was something the Blues were desperate for following the first leg, in which they completely failed to maintain any semblance of control over the ball.
For Barcelona, everything went to plan for the most part. At times, especially in the second half, their defensive block structure needed some major improvements. I also don’t believe Barcelona were particularly great at pressing, despite two goals coming from high pressure movements. Chelsea aren’t a world-class side at building from the back and the Blaugrana‘s high presses were often passed, leading to dangerous transitional phase play.
If Barcelona are to win the Champions League, the brilliance of Messi and know-how of Iniesta and Busquets aren’t enough by themselves. It is possible that Ousmane Dembélé will provided that dynamic presence; he certainly took his chances well against Chelsea. Simply stated, I don’t think Barcelona showed enough willingness to take the game to the opposition, especially against a team built to allow that domination to occur. Some may say it was a Valverde masterclass in that he played down to the level of the opposition and beat them at their own game. Others may say the reverse, that it was only the brilliance of the world’s best player that saved the home side from embarrassment.
Barcelona are through, but it took some special moments of skill to beat a hard-done Chelsea squad.