River Plate faced Barcelona in the FIFA Club World Cup Final in Yokohama, with the big question being whether Barca’s excellent front three would start, and in the event that they did, how the South American champions would react to it.
In the semi-finals against Guangzhou Evergrande, only Suarez played; Messi was unavailable due to renal colic while Neymar could only make the bench as he was recovering from a groin injury. As it happened, both joined Suarez in attack for Barcelona in the final.
For River, the only change from the side that narrowly defeated Sanfrecce Hiroshima was Tabare Viudez replacing Leonardo Pisculichi.
Barca started with what was their strongest eleven in their usual 4-3-3 while River moved away from their usual 4-3-1-2 to a 4-4-2.
River Plate press high
One of the questions Gallardo had to face with the prospect of his team playing Barcelona was whether to press high and put pressure on the Catalans from the get go, or sit back and absorb pressure. A number of teams have tried to put pressure on Barca in recent times, abandoning conventional wisdom and trying to stop the Blaugrana by playing out from the back. Two examples that stick out in my mind were in fact from last season, with Valencia at the Camp Nou in La LIga and Juventus in the UEFA Champions League Final. Although both were ultimately unsuccessful, they certainly caused Barcelona some problems. At the same time, Gallardo must have been wary of the negative outcomes if his team did not press in an organised manner. Real Madrid too opted for a similar approach in the most recent Clasico, but their pressing was not cohesive and was largely the reason for their demise.
As it were, Las Gallinas pressed high during Barca’s first phase of buildup but interestingly left Busquets free in the early stages, with both strikers looking to put pressure on the ball-carrying centre backs Pique and Mascherano. The two strikers were to put pressure on the centre backs while blocking the passing lane into Busquets or Rakitic and Iniesta. In theory this seems like a good idea, but the centre backs fanning out often dragged the River strikers to them, which consequently left Busquets free; as such, Barca were able to play out of that first line of pressure.
As a result, after initially leaving Busquets free, Kranevitter or Ponzio would try to put pressure on him from the back, but this became untenable due to the inward movements of Neymar and particularly Messi, who likes to drive through the centre more than the Brazilian. Often, as one of the two River central midfielders put pressure on Busquets, the elegant Barca number 5 would casually stroke the ball to either of the fullbacks, who would then combine with either Rakitic or Iniesta or play a forward pass to Messi or Neymar. Messi and Neymar’s movement is crucial here because it gives Barca a numerical superiority in the middle and caused the River central midfielders to be constantly chasing shadows, and Kranevitter in particular was forced into a couple of early fouls and was booked in the tenth minute.
When the Spanish champions had played out of River’s initial pressure, the Argentinians would fall back into their compact 4-4-2 shape in a mid-high block while waiting for pressing triggers. However, Barcelona were immune to these advances for the most part.
Barca dominate by limiting opponents time on the ball
Luis Enrique was full of praise for every member of his squad in his post match press conference, while also noting that the personnel may change but the philosophy stays the same and underpins everything they do. This philosophy is of course using the ball intelligently but also winning the ball immediately after they have lost it. This is precisely what the Catalans did to their Argentine counterparts; dominating proceedings not just through their excellent use of the ball but also what they did when they lost it.
The counterpressing of Barca was just too much for River, who were forced into rushed clearances, which were invariably won by Barca’s centre backs and Busquets. Even on the odd occasion River did retain possession from a clearance, there were enough Barca players around to win the second ball or crowd out the River player with the ball. Poor passes were forced out of the River Plate players thanks to Barca’s counterpressing, allowing for easy interceptions. This permitted Barca to assert themselves on the match and tire out their opponents.
Indeed, it was Barca’s counterpressing that lead to the first goal of the match. Neymar had lost the ball on the wing, but backed by Alba, managed to force Mercado into a mistake and win the ball back immediately. What Barca did next was typical of their style of play; within two passes, the ball was on the other flank for Alves to cross in and Neymar to head down for Messi’s finish. Here, Barcelona won the ball back immediately and then moved the ball very quickly from one side to the other, and before the River players could re-organise themselves, the ball was already in the net.
Gallardo makes second half changes
The second half started in much the same way, with River pressing high. They made a couple of changes by bringing on Gonzalo Martinez and Lucho Gonzalez. Martinez replaced Mora while Lucho took the place of Leonardo Ponzio, who was looking likely to get booked a second time after some bad challenges in the first half. River changed their shape somewhat after the break; they now pressed in a lopsided 4-3-3 with substitute Martinez joining Alario and Viudez as the front three, Vangioni pushing into midfield alongside Kranevitter, Lucho Gonzalez and Sanchez, and Alvarez Balanta, Maidana and Mercado occupying the defence. In this lopsided 4-3-3, the wide midfielder with the ball near would press high, while the on the far side the wideman would tuck in with the double pivot of Lucho and Kranevitter.
The image above is from a Barcelona goal kick in which Bravo played it short to Pique, but River’s pressing was effective enough that the ball went out for a throw in just inside Barca’s half.
This change meant River had more players higher up the pitch, giving them access to their opponents and making it easier to press them; however it did leave them vulnerable at the back as they now faced a 3v3 if Barca managed to play around their pressure. River managed to gain a foothold, if only for a short while, like this.
In possession, River still maintained their 4-4-2 shape. The full backs would again push up high to try and gain a numerical advantage because Barcelona’s front three rarely track back. This risky move by the Argentines facilitated Barcelona’s second of the night as we shall see.
Carlos Sanchez’s pass sold Lucho Gonzalez short and allowed Busquets to put in a challenge. The ball broke to Iniesta, who then played Busquets beyond Lucho’s attempts to try and win the ball back. The number 5 then played Luis Suarez in on goal, and the Uruguayan finished with ease to put Barca two goals up. And just like that, River’s second half revival was killed within four minutes of the restart.
The goal itself highlighted Barca’s ability to turn their weakness into an advantage. Barcelona’s front three rarely track back; this is not to say that they don’t do their share of defensive work, which they do albeit higher up the pitch. However, this does mean that Barca at times have just the three midfielders in midfield and they all have to do a lot of work shuttling across from one side to the other in the event of their opponents shifting flanks during build-up. Ironically enough, River did precisely this, but here is where we see the many talents of Sergio Busquets, whose reading of the game is so good that he manages to intercept the pass of Sanchez to Lucho, which sets in motion Barca’s second of the night. From then on Barca were 3v2 with the River defence and those situations are always favourable to the attacking team, even more so when you have a front three as talented as Messi, Suarez and Neymar.
Gallardo then made his third and final available substitution, taking off Viudez for the youngster Sebastian Driussi, all within the hour mark. It was a largely like for like substitution, with River maintaining their lopsided 4-3-3. Gallardo’s side still persisted with pressing Busquets with one of the two central midfielders – again, usually Kranevitter – but more often than not Barca would work around this. Messi, in particular, benefited from this with a few cutbacks from Neymar finding the Argentine free on the edge of the area, but he uncharacteristically failed to score either of those chances. On both occasions, Kranevitter was horribly out of position because of his duties in pressuring Busquets – and as mentioned earlier, Leo Messi’s movement into the centre – which resulted in those huge spaces in that 6 space for Messi, Neymar and Suarez to exploit.
The third Barca goal was another celebration of the talents that Messi, Suarez and Neymar possess, as well as Barcelona and their philosophy as a whole, which has won them many admirers. Barca once more won the ball high up the pitch after a clearance from Barovero went out for a throw. Suarez cushioned the throw and laid it off to Messi, who held off the attentions of the River defenders before giving it to Neymar. Neymar paused, saw the late run of Suarez into the box and played it expertly onto his head for 3 nil. Although the work done after the ball had been won was all the work of the front three, it should not be forgotten for a second that Barca only won the ball because of how well their whole team pressed in unison to cut out Barovero’s options and give the ball away.
It was a brave performance from River Plate, however they were ultimately undone by the intelligence and sheer class of Barcelona’s players. Gallardo’s approach was not really to blame as they really couldn’t have done much more. Barcelona were just that much better than their opponents on the day. It is also worth remembering that this River side have been going through a bit of a slump since lifting the Copa Libertadores in August.
For Barca, they continue to sweep all before them, and it will be interesting to see if they can be the first team to retain the UEFA Champions League. They combine genial tactics with the players capable of executing those plans, and if they appear to be in trouble, then their awesome front three appear to be able to dig them out of any difficult situation.