The whistle blew and it seemed like FC Barcelona had picked right up where they left off in their midweek CL fixture against Manchester City. Only this time, it was not a good thing. At the Sanchez Pizjuan, Barca might have felt a sinking sensation of Déjà vu, except their opponents were playing in white instead of sky blue.
Sevilla started the game brightly, pressing Barcelona off the pitch with two shots within the very first minute of the game. Then Messi got the ball, set the team on a counter with the ball falling to Luis Suarez who should have done better; a recurring theme in his past four or five games. After that, Sevilla reaffirmed their control in the game with Nasri and N’Zonzi in particular distributing the ball in such a confident manner that it made the Barcelona midfield seem non-existent. In some manner…it was.
The above image is sadly a fairly common sight in recent games. In terms of organization, the midfield is stretched, spacing between the midfielders is too wide which allows for teams who press as well as City and Sevilla did to isolate MSN. With the midfield so spread out, it limits passing options leading to more pressure on the defence and any mistake from our midfielders when they do have the ball, leads to clear chances.
For reasons that are unclear, Barca deviated from the usual 4-4-2 without the ball wherein Neymar drops to midfield to defend. In the first half, Neymar who was sloppy with the ball never dropped back to help the defense retrieve it which resulted in swift and effective counters from Sevilla as the defence would recede and the midfield (and forwards) were caught out. Whenever Sevilla received the ball, they’d counter into space on Barca’s right flank for two reasons:
1. Mascherano + Roberto, neither of which are natural defenders which was seen as a point of weakness.
2. Messi (and Suarez) often stays up the field in hopes of receiving an outlet pass and thus hopefully counter.This tactic saw Roberto being overloaded on the right flank and of course, the excellent Vitolo took full advantage of that.
Sevilla played Barca off the park for 40 minutes until one of those counters finally saw fruition. Leo Messi had been growing into the game, dropping deep to assist the midfield in spreading play and he soon got his reward. A clear parallel to the Gundogan goal shortly before the half time whistle just a few days ago. Barcelona headed into the break at 1-1, albeit undeservedly so.
The second half whistle blew and the fun began. As has often been the case, Lucho’s Barca often has average (by their standards) first halves and stellar second halves. The most recent deviation being the Manchester City game where the roles were flipped.
In this case, Lucho used half time to correct his spacing issues and in a rare admission of tactics, in his post match interview stated that he used Sergi Roberto (and Umtiti at times) as an additional man in midfield to keep the team more compact. With Roberto playing as a CM when attacking (a tactic used in previous seasons with Dani Alves), more passing options became apparent. The team was finally stringing more than 3 passes together and the difference was evident.Messi’s goal before the break had re-energized the team. Suddenly, Sevilla looked the tired and jaded side and had to chase the ball more than they did in the first half. Barcelona had finally come to play and at that point, the second goal seemed a matter of time.
With the midfield more tightly spaced, Barca was able to build attacks and absorb any Sevilla pressure better. Busquets seemed more secure than he has been in what felt like forever and Mascherano continued his impressive form in Pique’s absence, inspiring and maintaining the backline’s energy and focus. Denis Suarez in particular had a great performance, looking like the Mini-Iniesta that was promised. With his dribbles and movement, he created better outlet options for Busquets while alleviating pressure from Sevilla’s attacks.
And of course, Messi was Messi. When he is fully switched on, like yesterday, Messi can fill any attacking hole needed. He embraced his inner Xavi, dropping deep when necessary to dictate the tempo of the game, sped it up when a chance beckoned and slowed it down when the team tried to safeguard the lead. He mesmerized Sevilla with constant dribbles and his heat-seeking passes. The best player in the world picked up the reins of this game and never looked back.
The 2-1 came, with Suarez Senior redeeming himself (finally) and the team could, and should have scored more goals. Sevilla had taken their foot off the gas, expecting the same team from the first half to greet them when they came out of the tunnel and it cost them. Exactly what Manchester City had done to Barca just a few days ago. A classic tale of 2 halves.