Are Spain trying to keep Diego Costa from Brazil?

The Spanish national team has been known since 2008 for producing one of the finest generation of midfielders in the history of the game. Indeed, they have even been known to field the six-man midfield in the absence of a striker. The absence of a target man has been so conspicuous that many forget that the Spaniards also boast the most depth in that position. The competition for the Spanish number 9 jersey is so fierce that four of the five top choices made big summer moves to get more exposure during this World Cup year.

That’s why it’s so shocking to see Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque courting La Liga’s early season revelation: Atletico Madrid’s Brazilian star Diego Costa. Long gone are the days when Spain lacked the depth of talent to resort to calling up the likes of Juan Antonio Pizzi and Marcos Sena. Conversely, Brazil may be underrated, but no one would call this a Golden Generation where second tier strikers would take their chances abroad.

Is the Spanish manager serious? Is it possible Spain are trying to keep Diego Costa from Brazil?

Spain’s next number 9? Image: Carlos Delgado

 

The Decline of the top two choices

Spain’s record scorer David Villa and his strike partner/replacement Fernando Torres have not been at their best in the four years since the last World Cup. Part of this is due to age, Villa is 32 in December, and injuries have hampered both he and Torres. Both have suffered for form due to a lack of continuity in recent seasons, and while each is still capable of genius in the course of a full season, few would start them regularly in a seven game tournament.

The ones who left the League

Fernando Llorente, Alvaro Negredo, and Roberto Soldado each left La Liga with the latter two making public statements that it was impossible to win the league without joining one of the big two. So far Llorente has mostly been a bust at Juventus, but the season is long and while Negredo seems to have a place sealed, a lot can happen over the course of the year to change that.

Spain have taken three target men to each of their last three successful tournaments: Euro 2008, WC 2010, and Euro 2012. One could argue that it’s time for the two historic starters to step aside, but Del Bosque will probably only sacrifice one, leaving two open spots for three players. This is where Costa comes in.

Diego Costa, Spain’s gain or Brazil’s loss?

Diego Costa has been a revelation in La Liga this season. He is in the form of his life, and while most in their right mind would not rate him anywhere near the level of talent and experience his Spanish counterparts, he has something none of his competitors can offer. Costa is a master of controlling the temperature of a match, the conductor of an orchestra of chaos on the pitch that can get under the skin of impressionable opponents and can be used to manipulate the referee.

When he is at his best, Diego Costa is the perfect foil to the otherwise typical narrative most Spain games take; with one-sided domination of the ball rubbing up against a 10 man wall of defenders outside of their 18-yard box. But more importantly, he is the perfect weapon against a team with more energy than Spain. The Confederations Cup final saw Brazil simply outwork Spain physically.

In Costa, Del Bosque has the kind of player that can neutralize the work of both teams and turn the game into a personal contest between himself, his markers, and the ref. So for a side that has one old guard, one upstart, and one empty spot, Del Bosque may choose the unconventional pick, the specialist, for a role that arguably needs less depth than we may have originally thought.

Either that or Del Bosque terrified of facing a Brazil featuring Diego Costa. If Costa is not called up for the final 23, we can assume the move was to keep him from Scolari’s squad. But if he is called up, he probably won’t start, but will be a specialist on the bench for emergency situations, or the eventual matchup with Brazil.

On the past and present rivalry between Martino and Simeone

Earlier this week a colorful anecdote came to light about one particular time Diego Simeone and Gerardo Martino met on the pitch. To be specific, Simeone admitted a quarter century later to getting Martino sent off.

I have an anecdote with [Tata] from my second or third professional match where there’s an encounter in the midfield, Calabria is the ref, where he reacts and I simulate a bit and Martino ends up getting red carded….Newell’s had a great team…ten minutes later I get a red card when Calabria compensates.

This anecdote of the men as players would prove instructive to their first meeting on the bench. Both are clearly extraordinary leaders of men, both on and off the pitch. But who won a match that was arguably more Argentine than Spanish? A match of two halves that ended in a draw and highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of each?

Tacticians versus Motivators

Starting in the mid 1970s, specifically after the insufficient tactical preparation of Argentina’s squad in 1974, Argentina’s coaches were typecast into two opposing camps. On the one side you had the classic motivators who looked to get the best out of their players, and on the opposite end you had the tacticians who took a more philosophical approach to teamwork as opposed to individual talent. A classic example of a tactical coach is Cesar Luis Menotti, who famously left Diego Maradona out of his squad in 1978. The modern example is clearly Marcelo Bielsa. A classic example of a motivator was Alfio Basile, who left no star behind in his stints as Argentina coach. The modern example is the great man manager Jose Pekerman.

It can roughly be said that Simeone falls closer to the motivators and Martino closer to the tacticians. But in reality Simeone has great tactical nous after having thrived when he played for the great tacticians Passarella, Bielsa, and Sven Goran Eriksson. Similarly, Martino is a great man manager after adapting to the highly physical and less tactical and technical Paraguayan national team. Yet one can’t help but think this was at play in their first match.

First half – Simeone

Simeone as a player for Velez Image: wikipedia

This was a great test for Barcelona, because Simeone in particular knows how to play against them. This was more of an Argentine than a Spanish league match, where the team with a disadvantage plays on the mental weakness of the team with the advantage and on the fallibility of the ref who -going back to Simeone’s quote- is often thought to compensate for calls favoring one team or the other. If Mourinho was the master of doing this off the pitch, Simeone is the master at doing it on the pitch. Whereas Mou had difficulty controlling himself and his enforcers during matches that included bodily assaults, fingers in eyes, plenty of red cards and incessant complaints about the ref, Simeone’s talisman/rabble-rouser Diego Costa brought on a shower of yellow cards around him but managed to escape getting booked himself.

Many who don’t understand Simeone’s genius as a player may look down on this, but you have to respect an otherwise affable man who plays and coaches with a knife between his teeth. This is why he is possibly the most challenging coach Martino will have to face this season. Tactically, Atletico allowed Barça to win the ball back several times, only to press quickly again to regain it for the counter which scored early and threatened often. Simeone won the first half 1-0, but also won the mental battle on the pitch through a mixture of excellent motivation and correct tactics.

Second half – Martino

Martino as a player for Newell’s  Image: wikipedia

Going into the second half, Martino had a host of problems. Alba had been taken out of the game mentally, Messi had been taken out physically, and Atletico Madrid looked closer to going up 2-0 than Barça had looked to drawing the match. I had tweeted before the match that Neymar should be left on the bench, because Simeone would seek to provoke the Brazilian the same way his proxy Diego Costa had a similarly easy target in Alba. Indeed, in 30 minutes, Neymar got a petulant yellow. Credit must be given to Martino for recognizing that Barça’s 3-man midfield was being outworked by Atletico’s 5-man midfield and that an in-form Cesc was necessary to regain control of the match before introducing Neymar for the struggling Pedro.

Had Neymar been introduced at the wrong point of this game, it would have given Simeone’s men the upper hand. Instead, Martino waited until his side gained control and composure and played the 21 year-old at the perfect time for him to make the difference Barcelona needed to get back into the game. Each of Martino’s substitutions was well-timed for what he needed, while each of Simeone’s was ineffectual and unable to wrest back the control he’d enjoyed in the first half. Martino won the second half 0-1, but also got an invaluable away goal through a mixture of tactical know-how and the kind of restraint that characterizes him as an excellent man-manager.

90 minutes to go

The best thing about this tie is that it was only the first of two matches. Both coaches walked a very fine line here, with the edge going to Martino for being able to turn this game around. Whether or not they realized it, fans who tuned into this match got a classic lesson in Argentine football, where the push and pull of the game is as dynamic and variable as the players, coaches, and strategies on display. Next week we get round 2. I feel sorry for the refs and the faint of heart, but could it come any sooner?

Be sure to follow @3manDefense on Twitter for discussion, stats, stream of consciousness, and general information. I am working on ideas for a new bimonthly column in September to promote discussion and #footballdebate of issues in this #WorldCupYear. Thanks for reading!

What exactly is failing in Barcelona’s defense?

After the 0-4 drubbing at the hands of Bayern Munich, many asserted that this is the end of an era for Barcelona. This was not unlike similar assertions after the 0-2 in Milan (which was sandwiched by losses to Real Madrid). The side’s back line has looked terribly exposed on several occasions this season leading to questions about the form and health of the respective back liners and fueling talks of eras and endless transfer speculations. But one needs to ask a different question when considering the future of Barcelona’s defense: Are the problems due to personnel or tactics? Is it about who defends or how they do so?

The Personnel

The failure to meet the expectation of signing a new high-profile center back is arguably one of the main factors in the back line being looked at with a microscope this season. Here are simplified echoes of common criticisms currently thrown at Barcelona’s defensive players.

Alves – going through a rough patch, poor form.

Pique – poor form.

Puyol – too old.

Mascherano and Song – not defenders.

Bartra and Montoya – inexperience.

The idea is that a summer signing of a big name central defender will stop the line from leaking goals. While I agree that it is a good idea to bolster the options for the position, I don’t think it can be looked at without a rigorous tactical analysis.

The tactics

Barcelona's high-line defense

Barcelona’s high-line defense

What Pep achieved in his final season as Barcelona’s coach was the purest form of his attacking and defending philosophy. By playing a defensive midfielder in the back line, Barcelona admitted that they want to defend in that part of the pitch. As in Total Football everyone attacks and everyone defends, but most of the defending is done high up the pitch, smothering the opponents midfield creativity and chances to play dangerously close to your goal. The result was, for the third straight season, Barcelona had the best defensive record in La Liga.

This season, Tito Vilanova’s first, has seen them fall to third best defensively with largely the same personnel. Barcelona have already given up more goals than they did last season, but despite still giving up only a goal per game in the league (and being on the verge of winning it), it has been the manner of their defending and the concession of embarrassing goals that has led to the soul-searching we currently see.

The main problem has been the relaxation of the relentless high pressure defense we saw under Pep. The first main consequence of this is that the defensive line has a whole pitch, as opposed to a half pitch, to cover. This essentially means that the side are more frequently counterattacked, leading to the kind of last-gasp defending that leaves them looking exposed. Busquets, who debuted and came to prominence under Pep, is a genius at reading plays and intercepting passes in the compressed spaces of the opponents half, but lacks the pace to cover the added ground he has to make up when his defense retreats and the ball is often simply played around him. The same can be said of Pique and increasingly Puyol’s lack of pace.

Barcelona deep-sitting defense

Barcelona deep-sitting defense

The second consequence of not defending high up the pitch, is that it quite simply leads to their having to defend in their half more often. This exposes Barcelona’s weakness in the air, their difficulty defending set-pieces, and the limitations of using defensive midfielders in the back line. Mascherano’s skills at reading, tracking, and intercepting attacking plays are all but lost here and the Argentine often looks nervous as the last line of defense in front of Victor Valdes.

The Solution?

Tito Vilanova basically needs to make up his mind tactically.  He is playing a side built to defend high that is failing to do so. The brilliant performance in the second leg against Milan, where he played a nominally three-man defensive line, worked because the players defended high up the pitch with a tenacity we have not seen enough of this season. The intangible statistic of who is “controlling the game” when Barcelona plays comes from who is defending better. When Barcelona are out-defended by their opponents, their possession is rendered all but useless and their opponents control the game without the ball. When they out-defend their opponents, they keep the ball and their opponents on the back foot and control the game with the ball.

Tito must get Barcelona to once again defend high up the pitch, to defend at the first-gasp rather than the last one. Or he should build a defense more suited to transitional and deep-lying defensive play. A tall center back, and arguably a tall attacker that can come off the bench and defend corners and set pieces, may help the side deal with being pressured in their box. Moving Mascherano back into the midfield to play a double pivot with Busquets, the latter winning the ball high, and the former covering transitions is another option. As is going for a three-man defense, to force his players to win the ball back quickly.

If I could suggest the winning formula, I wouldn’t be here, but I will say that Vilanova has the players to succeed right now. And while new personnel may help, how Vilanova uses them is the most important factor in deciding who Barcelona should buy. This hardly seems the end of an era, but whether this defensive nightmare is a half-season hiccup, or a long-term liability is in the balance next season, starting with the summer transfer window.

How to ironically avoid an all-Spanish final in the Champions League

Photo by cuttlefish via Flickr

Photo by cuttlefish via Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we begin the highly anticipated semifinal round of the Champions League, we see one of the great ironies afforded to us by the beautiful game. The best strategy to beat both Real Madrid and Barcelona is exactly the same. How can it be that the two sides, despite playing such contrasting styles, are essentially interchangeable for their German opponents?

Let’s go over how to beat each team, starting with Real Madrid. Under Mourinho, Real Madrid play a counterattacking game. They absorb pressure very well and transition from defense to attack as quickly as any side in the history of the game. But, for all their strength going forward, their weakness is that they are uncomfortable on the ball and can be effectively countered with their own strategy. In their meetings in the first round late last year, Dortmund, a side otherwise known for keeping possession and applying sustained pressure in their opponents half, outmaneuvered Mourinho by giving his side the ball. The results of being handily out-possessed over two matches was that they won 2-1 in Dortmund, and due to a last-minute game-tying goal were unlucky not to win in Madrid.

In the knockout stages of the Champions League, Manchester United were nearly successful while playing this way, while Galatasaray gave Madrid too much space in the first leg and squandered what could have been a great home win in Istanbul. The strategy of giving Madrid the ball has been applied domestically by several teams in La Liga in this campaign, and has led to Madrid only winning about two-thirds of their games, losing pace very early in the season to their bitter rivals Barcelona.

Barcelona are the tactical opposites of Mourinho’s Madrid. They are almost too comfortable on the ball, and will seek to attack and dominate possession even when they are winning and whether or not they are playing well. One of the fascinating tactical battles of the season was seen in the second leg of the quarterfinals between Barcelona and PSG. Ancelotti’s men needed a goal from the first minute of the match, so they sat back and let Barcelona attack, hoping to open up space on the counter. It worked as they were by far the more dangerous side and eventually went up 1-0. Amazingly, after Barcelona scored the 1-1 that would put them through, PSG once again sat back and Barcelona still attacked despite not needing a goal and risking the tie if they conceded. In the end they went through very uncomfortably against a tough team that gave them the ball.

The difference with Madrid is that virtually every side plays Barcelona this way, so they rely on their prodigious offensive talents to win games. Bayern are actually a team that can counter Barcelona’s midfield possession game, but if Heynckes has been observing the last few rounds he’ll go for the counterattacking strategy despite playing the first leg at home after seeing PSG go home on away goals.

So there it is. Two sides that could not play more different football, but need to be played with exactly the same strategy. With each of the first legs being played on German soil, the home teams have the chance to impose their strategy, but neither will want to go into Spain needing a win after having conceded away goals. The odds point to an all-Spanish final, but whether it happens, and in particular how easy it is for it to happen will depend on how the German sides approach the matches.

The German Spanish rivalry that many missed in Euro 2012 has a chance of being played out here as well, albeit with interesting caveats like the Germans who are key players for Madrid, and the Spanish tinge Bayern will likely get next season through Pep Guardiola. How would Bayern play if Pep were already at the helm?