Fire And Ice: A Contrast on Creative Midfield Play
During the Semi-Final of this year's Champion's League tournament, we witnessed the two best midfields in the world go at it, and no, I am not referring to Arsenal and Manchester United.
It was a study in contrasts: The beauty of Barcelona's carousel passing vs. the tight and technical defense of Chelsea. However, both sides performed brilliantly at what they were trying to do.
Barcelona came into this game with its standard 4-3-3 with the best strike force in recent memory controlled by two artists and backed up with a strong defense that had one of the best defensive midfielders in the world in Yaya Toure. This entire team was designed to out pass and outsmart every other team on the planet and for most of the season they had; with a few hiccups due to injury.
On the other side was a rejuvenated Chelsea side under their new tactician Guus Hiddink, the man that had masterminded a strong Russian performance that saw it keep England out of the European Championship and stop the previously unstoppable Dutch in that tournament. Their midfield and frontline did not have the artistry or pace of Barcelona's, but they had a far more physical nature and just as much grit.
The two legs combined for a 1-1 with Chelsea a mere three minutes away from going to the final once again if not for away goals rules. This was virtually unheard of all season for Barcelona, and when they did go to the finals they once again showed their prowess on the pitch by embarrassing Manchester United.
So if Manchester United was supposedly the best team in all of the EPL, why was it Chelsea that came closest to defeating Barcelona?
The answer invariably lies in the midfield as most of us already know, but it is here that I take a diversion from what has been written about so much in the past few weeks.
In my analysis, I'm going to look at it through a lens of creative and tactical considerations on both sides of the ball and expand through player profiles within this context. Since so much has been written about Barcelona I will spend the bulk of my time on Chelsea. Besides, what can a layman such as myself have to say about the absolute artistry of Lionel Messi with a ball at his foot and two yards of green pitch?
First, the general premise for my thoughts on creativity can be found in my previous article so I will be using it as my framework, it can be found here:
Next, I'm going to go out on a limb and try to apply some methodology to the game that probably does not always work:
If Team A is so creative as to outscore their opponents in every game they play and Team B holds them to two draws, does not mean that the defensive creativity must have been in same league as Team A's creative offense?
Barcelona's plan is predicated on constant movement and precise, surprising passing allowing them to constantly keep opponent's off guard and on the back pedal. This strategy was so effective as to have their frontline score almost 100 goals by this time in the season and shatter even the stiffest defensive efforts by opposition.
Most modern defenses use a mix of heavy zonal and moderate man marking in order to maximize defensive efforts. These teams prefer to score on the counter attack and usually have big defenders and little width in attacking.
Chelsea modified this scheme by using not only heavy man marking, but my maximizing what little possession they did have by playing wide passes, something that is rather surprising for a team that wants to clear the ball and stay alive.
This innovative defensive scheme worked mathematically in favor of Chelsea as they led for more of the game that Barcelona did, but it is a by product of their midfield.
If Barcelona is the engine of a Bentley with their grace and speed, then Chelsea's midfield is the engine of a tank. Rarely pretty, but always effective. In Ballack, Lampard, Essien, and Mikel they get players that are all big, fast (not necessarily quick), and very strong. All four can play box-to-box, and are proficient at passing.
This combination of attributes allowed Chelsea to not only shackle Barcelona, but to nearly squeeze the life out of them. If Barcelona left an opening Chelsea not only had the dangerous Drogba up front, but in midfielders that were as deadly from range as anyone of them.
In addition, while the fullbacks were used to contain the dangerous attackers from the Catalan club, Bosingwa, Ivanovic and Cole also provided the necessary width and timing that helped to take some steam out of Barcelona's engine. Xavi and Ineista found themselves hammered by Ballack, Mikel, and Essien. Toure often found himself on one of the most prolific midfielders ever in the EPL in Frank Lampard.
In Chelsea, Barcelona had found a kindred spirit in tenacity and creativity, albeit on the opposite side. Whereas Barcelona had technical passing, Chelsea had technical defending. Whereas Barcelona had an offensive mastermind in Pep, Chelsea had an equal defensive mastermind in Guus.
The battle between the two was like one between ice and fire, and unfortunately the rules (away goals, not the calls, I will not go into that as I think things were more or less fair in the end) allowed fire to melt the ice.
As always, I would love to get your feedback. Depending on transfer rumors this week I might do an article on Chelsea and creativity if they do get a young striker or if they manage to sign a young playmaker.
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