UEFA Champions League, Group B – October 24 2018
Barcelona made it three wins from three in the Champions League with victory at the Camp Nou over Inter Milan – their closest rivals in Group B. Ernesto Valverde’s team set up without the injured Lionel Messi, who fractured his arm in the win over Sevilla, but they proved they can cope without their superstar player. Rafinha broke the deadlock in the 32nd minute, meeting a Luis Suarez cross on the volley, and Jordi Alba confirmed the three points with a second late on. Inter rarely threatened goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, but they remain in a clear second place after Tottenham and PSV Eindhoven drew their encounter at the Philips Stadion.
21 / 11
SHOTS / ON TARGET
9 / 3
Passes / Accurate
11 / 1 / 0
Fouls / Yellow / Red
21 / 3 / 0
Barcelona’s traditional 4-3-3 shape wasn’t altered in the absence of the injured Lionel Messi. In possession, both full-backs Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba stepped forward into the next line, joining single pivot Sergio Busquets, while attacking midfielders Philippe Coutinho and Rafinha stepped inside, creating further space for the full-backs to continue their runs forward.
Rafinha’s movements inside were focused towards the ball, as the Brazilian often combined with central midfielders Ivan Rakitic and Arthur in front of Inter Milan’s defensive midfield unit. Coutinho, conversely, would move behind the visitors’ double pivot, looking to create early one-two combinations with centre forward Luis Suarez.
These movements from Rafinha and Coutinho will also have been influenced by the counter-attacking threat of their opponents’ wide midfielders. Ivan Perisic on the Inter left was a far more dangerous attacking threat than Antonio Candreva on the right – so Rafinha’s deeper inside movements were effective in offering defensive cover for Roberto at right-back. Should Rafinha drift further infield, Rakitic would move across to cover the potential spaces available for a swift break. The latter’s deeper position also helped Busquets to switch play, as Borja Valero’s pressing became an issue in the Spaniard’s attempts to control the tempo and rhythm from the central lane.
Coutinho, Suarez and Rafinha found it difficult to combine against Inter’s compact 4-4-1-1 mid-block. With Rakitic also dropping out from between the lines, the hosts only had two or three players available to receive behind a compact midfield unit, reducing the effectiveness of their forward play. It was quickly evident that patience would be crucial in breaking down a stubborn defence, but their intense midfield counter-pressing allowed them to dominate the ball in all areas of the pitch.
The hosts took the lead midway through the first half, with play initially stemming from a poor ball forward from their back line. Fortunately, their opponents failed to secure the second ball, resulting in Rafinha driving forward and finding Suarez, whose intelligent movement had confused the retreating back line. The centre forward then chipped an excellent cross over the defence for Rafinha to calmly slot home.
Inter put extra pressure on Barca’s build-up as the second half progressed, but the calmness of Rakitic and Arthur in possession soon regained order. Nelson Semedo was introduced midway through, as the more conservative Roberto moved to the right wing in place of the withdrawn Rafinha. Further ahead, the tireless running of Suarez from the central lane out to a wider position created the perfect space for Coutinho and Arthur to connect and link the attack around a compact block.
Barca eventually grabbed the crucial second goal despite Inter’s increasingly compact low block. Having regained possession in midfield, a split pass from Jordi Alba into central midfield took two midfielders out of the game. Substitute Arturo Vidal and Rakitic then combined before the latter played a perfectly weighted ball in behind the defence for Alba, who had made a forward run inside, to finish a glorious passing move.
The intense counter-pressing of the Barca midfield was successful in forcing the ball inside into a congested lane throughout. Coutinho and Rafinha would also step inside to help the press, so Inter naturally targeted the space in the wide areas. But as Suarez had also dropped to add a sixth central pressing player, the hosts often swiftly regained possession. When the visitors tried to build short from Samir Handanovic, Coutinho pushed higher to support Suarez’s press, thereby blocking off short passes from the goalkeeper.
Inter reacted by trying to play through single pivot Marcelo Brozovic, who looked to capitalise on the higher starting positions of Coutinho and Suarez. The only time Barca’s midfield was penetrated, though, was during their opponents’ change in central midfield from a 2-1 defensive set-up to a more attacking 1-2 set-up. Matias Vecino’s blindside movements away from Busquets provided the ideal passing angle forward from the back line. Mauro Icardi was guilty of wasting a glorious chance after being played in at the end of a move that started in this way.
Barca would form a 4-2-3-1 structure in the rare moments Inter created a sustained spell of possession. Arthur would move into the number 10 role, while Rakitic and Busquets formed a double pivot behind to nullify the threat of any central midfield rotations. Valverde’s substitutions created a more defensively stable side as the game progressed, with right-back Semedo and combative midfielder Vidal stabilising their second-half structure.
Inter Milan’s main source of attack came in winning clearances and long balls forward from their opponents’ back line. With Mauro Icardi leading a high press on the goalkeeper and Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s kicking less than perfect, Barcelona frequently returned possession to the visitors.
As the hosts’ counter-pressing midfield unit forced the ball inside into their central overload, Inter looked to use the full-backs – when the first contact was won, they would work play towards the full-back before penetrating the final third. The direct running of Icardi in behind created a simple yet consistent passing option ahead of the ball.
They were brave in their set-up when goalkeeper Samir Handanovic restarted play, too. Both central defenders dropped along the side of the penalty area while the full-backs stepped very high. Marcelo Brozovic would remain deep as Matias Vecino moved forward with Borja Valero, creating a 1-2 central midfield system. Brozovic’s splitting forward passing under intense pressure helped with the build into midfield, but the energy Barca displayed in regaining possession proved decisive.
Forcing Ter Stegen into long passes forward remained a problem for Barca, though. Icardi continued to harry the goalkeeper into rushed clearances, and the Argentina striker almost got on the scoresheet when Perisic delivered a low ball across the penalty area. The rotations performed in central midfield – with Vecino stepping higher and behind Sergio Busquets – also presented Icardi with another glorious chance. But instead of shooting first time, the 25-year-old took too many touches before losing his balance and wasting the best opening his team had created in the first half.
Matteo Politano was introduced for Antonio Candreva on the right at the start of the second half, which assisted Inter’s continued high press. A period of higher regains created opportunities to cross, but order was eventually restored by Barca – despite the best pressing efforts of Icardi, Valero, Perisic and Politano, the hosts’ midfield were superb with the ball under pressure, making use of the additional space now available in central areas.
Luciano Spalletti’s second change to replace Valero with the quicker, more agile Lautaro Martinez temporarily added freshness to their press. But Martinez rarely touched the ball in the final third, with Arthur still controlling the match from central midfield. The final change saw Keita Balde replace Perisic, as Spalletti ordered his side to focus on the more conservative right side of their opponents. Despite this being a strong plan on paper, they simply couldn’t establish a period of possession long enough to get at this side of the pitch in the closing stages.
Inter set up in a 4-4-1-1 out of possession, and alternatively switched from a mid-block to a high-pressing unit during the first half. Valero supported in behind Icardi, with the latter leading the defensive strategy. Any passes back to Ter Stegen were a priority to press, and they had success when pressing high; although they didn’t regain the ball in the attacking third, they did disrupt their opponents’ usually polished play out from the back. This eventually resulted in regains in the midfield third of the pitch, as they immediately tried to hit the wide areas to attack Barca’s expansive structure.
When needing to physically recover, they could drop into a compact 4-4-1-1 mid-block to further frustrate the hosts’ attacks. With both Perisic and Candreva dropping back to form a midfield unit of four, the gaps between their lines were impressively tight, allowing for little central access between the lines. This forced Barca to focus on combining in the wide areas, while an aerially dominant back line looked solid against crosses.
Inter’s aggressive pressing continued into the second half, as Valero and Icardi moved higher on to the centre-backs. Perisic and Politano were responsible for the full-backs, while the double pivot of Vecino and Brozovic attempted to nullify Barca’s central midfield. But as Rafinha intelligently provided additional support from the right during moments of intense pressure, the hosts soon found a way through.
In truth, the biggest contribution to the visitors’ downfall was an inability to regain possession from Ivan Rakitic or Arthur, who consistently displayed their brilliance on the ball under pressure. No matter how hard Inter worked, Barcelona – even without Lionel Messi – had enough ability across the pitch to keep control of the ball and thus the contest.
Author: Tony Hodson