Full of Surprises, Conte’s Chelsea hold Barça

With a nearly-undefeated FC Barcelona visiting Stamford Bridge for a Round of 16 match-up, Antonio Conte knew it would take more than luck for Chelsea to gain a positive result. The Italian manager stated that, in order to achieve a win, Chelsea would need to muster a “perfect” performance against Lionel Messi’s side (ESPN FC). They managed to do just that, and more.

Ernesto Valverde — helping Barcelona atop La Liga at the moment — opted for his usual 4-4-2 formation, with full-backs Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba operating as de-facto wide midfielders in possession. Brazilian midfielder Paulinho took up a higher position on the right flank as Lionel Messi drifted inside, with Luis Suarez looking to latch onto forward balls at Chelsea’s backline.

Conte opted for a defensive formation with no out-and-out striker. Eden Hazard moved centrally as a false-9, while man-of-the-match Willian moved fluidly throughout the frontline. Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses played more like full-backs than their usual wing-back duties suggest, meaning the home side were compact with five defenders at most times. N’Golo Kanté man-marked Messi for much of the match while Cesc Fabregas and Pedro filled in as attacking-midfielders.

Cleary, Chelsea’s setup lent itself to maximum space restriction in their defensive half. Barcelona, bolstered by the creative impotence of Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta, easily succeeded in maintaining possession (73%, per FotMob) but failed in causing much danger around Thibaut Courtois’ penalty box.

Brazilian wide-man Willian was the only real threat for Chelsea when they did get opportunities to attack. He managed to strike the right and left posts in the first half before slotting one past Marc-André Ter Stegen after the half. The veteran winger was a threat on both Barcelona’s goal and on their backline, as his dribbling forced a late challenge by Ivan Rakitic early on in the match. On a night where an Eden Hazard masterclass was expected by many, it was the ever-doubted Willian to step up and, frankly, dominate one of the best teams in European football.

Willian vs. Barcelona via @BTLComps

If you want to find two contrasting ideas of football, you needn’t look further than this exciting match-up. Last year’s Europa League Final between Ajax and Manchester United — Peter Bosz and José Mourinho — was a representation of the “fluid football” mindset versus the “pragmatic” approach. However, it was United who completely dominated the match anyway. At Stamford Bridge on Tuesday, it was the fluidity of Valverde’s Barcelona that set the tone for the match.

That tone setting meant little more than a pretty possession stat for much of the match. That was, until Messi scored the equalizer. In truth, it wasn’t even Barcelona’s patient passing that created the opportunity. Instead, young defender Andreas Christensen found himself under pressure and forced a pass across his own box, leading to an Iniesta interception. You know what’s next; dribble into space, cut back to the best player in the world, goal.

Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona (Messi) via @FootballVids4K

The argument over who performed better in attack, Willian or Messi, is a futile one. There’s little doubt that, despite his best efforts, the Argentine was bested by his right-wing counterpart on the day. The real challenge is determining which side’s key midfielder was the most influential, a task taken up by EifSoccer in the form of compilations.

N’Golo Kanté vs. Barcelona via @EiF_Highlights

It’s nearly impossible to measure the French midfielder’s impact on a game of football without actually watching and closely analyzing the intricacies of midfield play. Statistics, unfortunately, do not do Kanté much justice, especially when compared to his Spanish opponent. No team in England boasts a midfielder as defensively intelligent as Chelsea do, and if Conte’s tactics didn’t nullify Barcelona’s build-up on the night then it was surely Kanté who did it himself.

Sergio Busquets vs. Chelsea via @EiF_Highlights

On the other end of the spectrum, Busquet’s role was as you’d expect — quite liable when defending, but the crucial cog in Barcelona’s possession play. As mentioned before, the Spaniard was liable for many of the chances Willian had at the top of the box. Perhaps it was Sergio’s fault for not being quick enough to keep up with the Brazilian, or perhaps Valverde’s for not adjusting the block setup to aid Busi in his defensive endeavors. Either way, he made up for it with his play in possession. Maybe it’s the Cruijff fan in me speaking, but there’s simply nothing like watching Sergio Busquets: his touch, his awareness, his general calmness in the face of extreme pressure. Busquets will be immense in the return leg at the Camp Nou.

At 1-0, Chelsea had the result they worked so hard to achieve, and they’d earnt it. At 1-1, Barcelona go from having a disadvantage to possessing a major advantage entering leg number two. Not only are Barcelona expecting to score at home, but Chelsea’s approach will allow for only a handful of opportunities to score throughout the 90 minutes. Neither manager should change their overall game plan; Chelsea resisted Messi and company’s attack for 75 minutes and Barcelona controlled the match. However, Ernesto Valverde should confront the issue of Willian and (probably next time) Hazard being allotted too much space in Zone 14. Conte should consider starting either Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud, if only to provide better hold-up play when trying to maintain what possession Chelsea can.

Featured Image taken from weaintgotnohistory.sbnation.com

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