Dealing with Busquets will be key if Manchester City hope to dictate tempo

For most of his first season in charge at Manchester City, Manuel Pellegrini has played a 4-4-2 formation, typically employing two of Edin Dzeko, Alvaro Negredo and Segio Aguero up front. More often than not the system has worked to devastating effect. City have scored a remarkable 68 league goals including 6 against Spurs at the Etihad, 5 against Spurs away, 4 against Manchester United and 6 against Arsenal.

However, at times the shape has left City too stretched in the middle of midfield. The most obvious example of Pellegrini's side being made to pay for playing 4-4-2 was in their home Champions League clash in early October against Bayern Munich. Bayern are of course managed by Pep Guardiola- the man who more or less introduced the world to tiki taka possession based football. Guardiola played his standard 4-3-3 that evening meaning Bayern had a 3 v. 2 advantage in the midfield. In order to nullify that advantage, City needed a forward to drop in defensively and pick up Bayern's deepest lying midfielder Philip Lahm. It didn't happen. Aguero partnered Dzeko up front and both stayed high up the pitch when Bayern were in possession. Lahm was always left as the spare man to offer an easy passing option. With the spare midfielder Bayern were able to control possession and dictate the tempo of the game. The score ended 3-1 to Bayern after City made a late flourish in the final quarter of an hour but for 75 minutes it was as one sided a game as you're likely to see between two such expensively assembled sides. Bayern finished the game with 66% possession.

 When Barcelona visit the Etihad this evening, City will be up against a side whose footballing philosophy and personnel are largely attributable to Guardiola. Although current manager Tato Martino is less dogmatic about controlling possession than Guardiola, Barcelona still play a 4-3-3 system centered around ball retention. It's a system that is remarkably similar to the one City faced against Bayern. Therefore it will be vital that Pellegrini learned from that heavy defeat.

Sergio Busquets will play the an almost identical role to Lahm for Barcelona, sitting just in front of his two center backs when Barca are in possession and providing a passing option at all times. He's a remarkably intelligent player and skilled passer- if City allow him to get on the ball without applying any pressure, he'll allow Barca to control possession and dictate tempo.

Pellegrini has a few tactical options in dealing with Busquets. With Sergio Aguero set to miss out due to injury he could opt to partner Stefan Jovetic alongside Negredo in a 4-4-2. Jovetic is an energetic and hardworking player unafraid to put in a defensive shift. He has the work rate and athleticism to drop in and mark Busquets when Barca are in possession, then run past him to join in the attack.

Alternatively, City could play a 4-2-3-1. The obvious lineup with this formation would be David Silva in the #10 role with Fernandinho and Yaya Toure playing a double pivot. While Silva's link up play is excellent in the center attacking midfield role, I don't think that lineup solves the problem of dealing with Busquets when Barca are in possession. Silva is not the type of player that can use his strength and energy to press an opposition deep lying midfielder out of the game- vital if City are to prevent Barca from getting into an attacking rhythm. For me, the better option would be to employ Javi Garcia beside Fernandinho as a double pivot and play Toure high up the pitch in the #10 role. This would mean Toure would be directly matched up against Busquets in midfield. Physically the Ivorian is a nightmare matchup for Busquets- he's faster, more powerful and more athletic. His powerful dribbling high up the pitch could cause all sorts of problems for Barca. Defensively, a midfield trio of Toure, Fernandinho and Javi Garcia is quite a powerful and athletic one. If they stayed compact Barcelona would struggle to find the pockets of space in midfield to play their characteristic quick penetrative passes.

Unlike his predecessor Roberto Mancini, Pellegrini hasn't used Toure in the #10 role so it's unlikely we'll see him there today. However, from a tactical standpoint it might be the right move.

Regardless of how City lineup it'll be vital they don't allow Barca's three man central midfield to boss the game the way Bayern were able to do. The amount of space and time on the ball Busquets is afforded will likely dictate how much possession Barca has and whether they're able to control the tempo of the match. It'll be important for City to unsettle Barca and not allow them to play the type of game they want.

Barca outpossess opponents in 300 consecutive games

Barcelona have outpossessed their opponents in 300 consecutive games, the Catalan club has posted on its official website. That record could potentially come under threat over two Champions League semi final legs with Bayern Munich, the first of which will be played this evening in Munich. Bayern have the second highest average possession total in Europe's five major leagues- 63.6% to Barca's 69.6%. Coverage begins at 2:30 this afternoon on FOX Soccer Channel.

3 Keys to Barca comeback

Barca become the first team to overcome a 2-0 first leg away defeat in the Champions League knockout stages, advancing through to the quarterfinals with a 4-0 win over Milan at the Nou Camp.

A pair of first half goals from Lionel Messi evened the tie at 2-2 on aggregate before David Villa tucked home the winner in the 55th minute. Jordi Alba put the tie beyond doubt with a fourth in stoppage time. Here are three key factors that contributed to Barca's historic comeback.

1. David Villa replaces Fabregas in starting XI
Barcelona struggled to create meaningful scoring chances in the first leg defeat largely because they lacked a threat behind Milan's center back pairing of Philippe Mexes and Cristian Zapata. In that game, Messi was used in his normal roaming center forward position but mainly stayed just to the right of the center of the pitch in Mexes' zone. Fabregas was given a free role in the middle and mainly looked to find space in between the lines towards the left. Andres Iniesta was therefore used on the left wing.

There were two problems with this lineup. Iniesta likes to cut inside when he plays on the left. With Fabregas occupying a narrow left-sided position, the two often seemed to get in the way of one another when Iniesta cut in. The second problem also stemmed from the inclusion of Fabregas. He maintained a fairly deep position, never looking to make runs in behind the Milan center backs. As he always does when playing center forward, Messi continually looked to drop in the space between Milan's center backs and midfield to collect the ball between the lines. However, because Barca didn't have a player more advanced than Messi looking to make runs in behind, Mexes was able to stay tight on the back of Messi when he looked to drop between the lines to collect the ball, knowing Zapata was the spare man behind him and could provide cover for any runs that came from midfield. Messi was quiet and Barca only had one shot on target.

The decision to drop Fabregas and replace him with Villa last night meant a bit of lineup reshuffling and a change in tactics for Jordi Roura. Villa was employed at center forward. Messi played a very narrow right sided position, Iniesta switched from wide on the left to a central attacking midfield spot and Pedro switched from a wide right to a wide left position. Althought Villa was relatively quiet before providing the goal that would see Barca through, his inclusion as the most advanced attacker was vital in opening space for Messi to receive the ball between the lines. Villa offered a threat behind the Milan center backs and stayed on the shoulder of Mexes. Mexes could therefore no longer step forward between the lines to close down Messi. To do so would have meant leaving Villa free in the area or relying on Zapata to slide over to pick him up- which would have opened up acres of space on the right side of Milan's box. Messi sat just behind Montolivo on the left side of Milan's three man center midfield and in front of Mexes and had the space to collect the ball and run at defenders. His finishers were out of this world but Villa's inclusion had a lot to do with why he was so much more dangerous than at the San Siro.

2. Adriano replaces Pedro in the 84th
When David Villa tucked home Barca's third, Milan right back Ignazio Abate became much braver with his positioning as the Italian side were forced to chase a goal that would put them through. Between Villa's goal and the introduction of Adriano, Abate was time and again given the space to overlap down the right wing unmarked as Jordi Alba was occupied defending Kevin Prince Boateng in narrower areas. He sent in some decent low hit balls across the face of goal and one was nearly converted (by Boateng if I remember correctly). Barca were on the back foot, defending deeper and it looked for a time that Milan would get a number of chances in front of goal in the final minutes off of balls whipped in from Abate. However, Roura brought in Adriano to offer protection in front of Alba and track the forward runs of Abate. The Milan right back was unable to get in space on the wing after the change and didn't get a ball in the box for the remainder of the game.

3. Niang's miss
Who knows how the game would have played out had Niang put away the 1 v. 1 chance against Victor Valdes that struck the post but the psychological impact on both teams would have been massive had he leveled the score there. As it turned out Messi would even the tie at two just a minute later. Barca could smell blood and from there it seemed inevitable they'd finish the job.

The modern football sweeper

"The fishing fleet lies dark against the sun-washed sea. Along the Tyrrhenian waterfront, a stressed football manager, unable to sleep, takes an early-morning walk. Oblivious to the shrieking of the gulls and the haggling of the dockside mongers, he strides on, asking himself again and again how he can get the best out of his side, ponders how he can strengthen a defence that, for all his best efforts, remains damagingly porous. As he paces the harbour, churning the problem over and over in his head, a boat catches his eye. The fishermen haul in one net, swollen with fish, and then behind it, another: the reserve net. This is his eureka moment. Some fish inevitably slip the first net, but they are caught by the second; he realises that what his side needs is a reserve defender operating behind the main defense to catch those forwards who slip through. That manager was Gipo Viani, his team was Salernitana, and his invention was catenaccio."
-Excerpt from Jonathan Wilson's Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics on the development of catenaccio, the system made famous by Helenio Herrera at Inter Milan in the 1960s. The system employed a libero, or sweeper, who sat in behind a line of man marking defenders to provide cover and focused on counter attacking with long balls out of the back. In Herrera's version, the libero played behind four man marking defenders (in other versions the libero sat behind three defenders), creating a five man defense in a 5-3-2 formation. Inter would win three Italian league titles, two European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups under Herrera.

Herrera's version of catenaccio ultimately fell out of favor after Inter were beaten 2-0 by Ajax in the final of the 1972 European Cup. Inter's rigid four man markers were drug all over the field by the fluid movement of Ajax's total football and, subsequently, zonal defending became the norm in professional football.

While man marking is a thing of the past and no top level teams use a traditional libero, certain teams have employed systems that, if not directly influenced by catenaccio, have stemmed from the need to address the same concerns catenaccio was attempting to address: particularly the need to have a free man at the back to provide cover. Juventus's current 3-5-2 system is quite similar to Hererra's 1-4-3-2 catennacio. Both used three central defenders. Although Juventus's three central defenders are more fluid and there is no designated libero to sit deep, the idea is to allow two to pick up attackers moving into their zone while one can drop slightly deeper and provide cover, the same philosophy behind Herrera's system (although Herrera's two center backs marked men rather than zones). Three central defenders allow Juventus's full backs to push higher up the field into attacking positions when in possession, operating as what we call wing backs. Again, this is something Hererra was doing in the 1960s. With ample cover in the center of defense, he would allow left back Giacinto Facchetti license to push on and join in the attack.

Michael Cox has written in his Zonal Marking blog of teams using a more modern version of a sweeper whose positioning is different to that of the traditional deep lying sweeper. He suggests the modern version of a sweeper is a defensive center midfielder that plays in front of a four man defense with attacking outside backs. When his team is in possession, this holding midfielder drops into the center of defense while the two center backs move wide on either side of him, forming a back three. This gives the two outside backs the freedom to push into the attacking third without leaving only two center backs to defend any counters that may spring. Barcelona have used this system to great effect with Sergio Busquets dropping between center backs Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, allowing Dani Alves and Erica Abidal (now Jordi Alba) to get into very attacking positions. I highly recommend this article from Cox if you want a more detailed explanation on the use of this more modern sweeper system. Jonathan Wilson also wrote a fascinating piece on this subject for the Guardian back in 2010 that you can see here. 

Although both Barcelona and Juventus's systems represent modern day versions of sweeper systems, they're quite different in style and philosophy. The defense in Juventus's 3-5-2 sits deeps, invites the opposition to get forward, then looks to spring quick counters. Barcelona's defense makes the field compact by holding a very high line while the 6 attacking players press the ball. Their attack is focused on ball retention and dominating possession. Both employ three at the back with fullbacks providing width high up the field when in possession, but they differ in where on the field they like to do their defending and the importance placed on keeping the ball. These two teams offer a stark example of how systems fairly similar in defensive shape can be quite different in practice.