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Messi proves the difference yet again – Barcelona 3-1 Real Zaragoza: Tactical Analysis

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Barcelona secure their 11th league win from 12 league games played this season with a relatively comfortable victory over a resilient Real Zaragoza side. Setting aside their poor opening to the campaign, Zaragoza had been in a rich vein of form – winning  four of their last five games in all competitions, and  proved awkward opponents for a below-par Barcelona.

The Zaragoza Approach

Real Zaragoza adopted a fairly standard approach for teams visiting the Camp Nou with a reactive 4-4-2 formation selected. Considering the number of players missing from the side, the starting eleven selected by coach Jimenez produced a very effective game with defensive solidity and attacking intent when the opportunity presented itself.

The defence and midfield for Zaragoza were compact and relatively high in two banks of four. Ahead of this Zaragoza aimed to always have two strikers available. Jimenez made one big surprise in his selection with the inclusion of Aranda ahead of the club’s top goalscorer, Helder Postiga. Although some would query such a choice, the inclusion of Aranda with a more powerful, robust approach allowed Zaragoza to use him as a reference point when launching attacks.

This was not a simple “park the bus” approach either. The heat map below of the entire Zaragoza team shows how they tried top push forward and attack Barcelona . Only late as the game did they begin to lose shape as the midfield tired from supporting the attack then recovering to offer defensive support:-

As is so often the case with such games, focus will shift to how effectively Barcelona played but this should not be allowed to detract from a highly organised and competent display from Los Blanquillos. The defence were well marshalled with Barcelona caught offside three times in the opening 20minutes of the game, all occurring on the left of the pitch.

The Goals

An acceleration in play helped create the first goal. Messi drove forward from midfield whilst Villa moved from a left sided starting position towards the centre. As he did so, Messi played a one two with the overlapping Alba, breaking into the penalty area and slotting home.

This was a key feature of the first half. Villa would initially begin on the left before cutting diagonally inward to allow Alba to overlap outside him.

The equalising goal from Zaragoza highlighted Barcelona ’s poor defensive work from set pieces and principally corner kicks. Zaragoza took their second corner in succession with the ball being flicked on at the near post. Montoya cleared the ball but Montanes collected at the edge of the area and dispatched his shot beyond Valdes aided by a deflection. The problem was not losing the first header, the problem here was that Montanes was free at the edge of the area. Nobody was close by.

The lead was regained just a few minutes later when Zaragoza failed to react to a short corner kick and were always chasing back after that. Similar to the equaliser, the ball was cut back to Song who was unmarked at the edge of the area and his controlled low shot was successful.

38 seconds. That’s how long it took from Valdes dispatching the ball following a Zaragoza attack to Messi collecting Montoya’s cut back and curling home from 20yards out. The key to the goal was the inability of Zaragoza to regain their positions and the quick transition from Barcelona aided by Montoya’s well timed overlapping run on the right.

Martin Montoya

Is Montoya the natural long term successor to Dani Alves? Whilst it may seem premature to suggest this, there are good reasons for doing so. Alves, by his own admission, has been out of sorts this season as he searches for his best form. Combine this with the PSG rumours which persist and the need for a right back solution becomes greater.

A look at Montoya’s passes below shows his relative conservatism in comparison to the most attacking Alba from the left. It’s worth noting that Montoya did not attempt one cross on Saturday evening.


Montoya provided one key pass for Messi for the third goal but whilst his passing was generally to the side, this fails to take into consideration is movement and availability on the right flank throughout the game.

The full-back was not as adventurous as Dani Alves but he offers greater defensive cover. Further, with Alba bombing forward on the left, can Barcelona afford to play two attack minded full backs in the same game? With one full backs adopting a more cautious approach, better defensive balance is maintained.

But the performances of Montoya also strength Barcelona in other respects. It weakens Alves bargaining position if his agent attempts to negotiate for a new contract as Barcelona already have a replacement. None of this should detract from what a fully fit and focused Alves on top of his game can bring to Barcelona but so far this season we have not seen Dani Alves on top of his game.

Another win for Vilanova’s Barcelona as they close in on the best ever start to a season in the Spanish top flight even though commentators in the media continually state that the side is not playing at it’s peak. Whilst this is true, what does it say for when Barcelona do hit their peak?

Just over six months ago, Real Zaragoza seemed destined for the drop to La Segunda. Jimenez lambasted his players following another poor performance and gradually the team clawed it’s way to survival. With a host of changes introduced in the playing staff over the summer months, fears mounted again that Zaragoza would be involved in another battle. That now seems unlikely with a performance of discipline and intelligence. Jimenez noted after the game that Messi was the difference between the sides. Perhaps that’s being generous to his side but Zaragoza should be safely ensconced in mid table as the season reaches a conclusion.


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