The Club World Cup has come to represent a watermark for Barcelona teams in different phases of their sporting shelf-lives.
In 2006, Ronaldinho was anonymous, as he had been since the team’s Champions’ League-and-Liga winning heights a few months previously, when Barcelona crashed to S.C. Internacional in Japan. That game seemed merely a portend of the decline that was to set in.
The Joan Laporta era is associated with such a spirit of renaissance and success; who now remembers that Barcelona under Frank Rijkaard enjoyed, at most, three good-to-excellent seasons and two mediocre-to-woeful ones? That surely must have weighed on Pep Guardiola’s mind as he watched his team cap an outstanding era by winning the 2011 edition of the Intercontinental gong against Santos.
Unlike 2006, Barça’s 2011 win represented a zenith for that footballing project and yet just a few months later the crunch games in La Liga and the Champions’ League saw Barça tamed, frustrated or even outclassed. Guardiola had seen the writing on the wall, but if his end-of-season resignation seems less surprising on reflection, many will be kicking themselves for not having recongised the on-pitch manifestations of the coach’s diagnosis whereby he tried to assuage his team’s deterioration.
The second half of the 2011-12 season saw Barcelona adopt some pretty leftfield or lobsided formations that many people put down to eccentric tinkering, or perhaps a desire on Guardiola’s part to shake things up and reinvigorate his team. But a closer look reveals a series of attempts by the coaching staff to address specific problems in the team’s play, problems they believed would cost them their hegemony, as would eventually prove to be the case. After all, few would deny that these past two years we’ve been witnessing the unravelling of the original Guardiola project.
The successive reigns of Tito Vilanova and Tata Martino have only reinforced this perception and might best be interpreted as an exercise in managing imperial decline as the club hierarchy grapples with the riddle of which direction to take in a post-Xavi world. Assuming they wish to perpetuate the tried-and-trusted Barça model of play, the answer ought to be simple: promote from within the ranks, or go out and sign, a younger version of Xavi. Alas, such heirs are thin on the ground. And although this writer believes that Barcelona missed a trick by not snapping up João Moutinho before Jorge Mendes landed him in Monaco (the 2010-2013 Porto side played within a Barça-esque structure), there simply isn’t available the specific profile of a possession-consuming, all-pitch covering interior midfielder suited to inciding upon the play in a triangle-based team that Barça is predicated upon.
When Barça move the ball quickly and efficiently, with Xavi at the heart of it, its players adopt better positions in the attack which ultimately aids them to defend better: passing angles are clearer and less likely to be interrupted; the entire team meshes closer together when exchanging passes and is therefore better placed to obstruct an opponent’s path to progressing when possession is handed over.
Throughout early 2012, Barcelona were haemorraging rival attacks as their pressing slackened off and opponents found time and space behind Xavi and Iniesta, and not even necessarily during counter-attacks. Never suited to desperately seeking recomposure whilst running back towards their own goal, one device that Guardiola used to stem the bleeding was something that he had experimented during that World Club Cup final: soak up the ball by flooding the midfield and perpetuate possession. To many, this shape and its underlying attitude (fig.1) appeared to be Barcelona engaging in self-parody. A version thereof (fig.2) was used in away league games and in the Champions League, and to neutrals perhaps it whiffed of excessive caution, not that Guardiola would deny a streak of pragmatism as being necessary for competitivity.
Above (Fig 1): Guardiola finds a way to maximise possession; a dry-run for what was to come …
And below (Fig 2): with only Alexis Sánchez to push back the opposing defence, the overriding maxim versus big rivals was safety through possession and numbers in midfield.
The other solution that Guardiola provided was Jekyll to the previous one’s Hyde: instead of ball-hogging, more like a spot of pinball. Forget inverted wingers and overlapping full-backs, now the maxim was for two quick, vertical forwards (from Pedro, Alexis, Cuenca and Tello) to taunt the laws of physics by pushing the opposing backline deeper (with their pace) as well as stretching it to breaking point. The desired effect: to thwart the centre-backs from stepping out to harry Messi and the Barça playmakers (lest they risk thinning an already stretched line and allow runners to dart throught the gaps). More central space opens up for Messi and Fàbregas to exchange passes and glide past opposing defensive midfielders on a vertical route towards goal.
Below (Fig 3): the crab formation with three defenders, a midfield pentagona and two aggressive forwards stationed out wide. Space for Messi and Fàbregas as Barça lurched from a possession game to pinball towards the end of 2011-12
The net effect: with both Messi and Fàbregas inhabiting and interchanging in a limbo between false-nine and No.10, Barcelona’s jinetes (named for the type of light, quick-raiding cavalry that characterised medieval Iberian warfare) who were stationed out wide were now the furthest players forward. A return diagonal pass from the wings meant that Messi received the ball whilst already facing goal – no need to turn and therefore a precious fraction of a second to weigh-up his options made him all the more lethal.
Tito Vilanova’s reign as head coach saw the same double-edged strategy: up until Christmas 2012, Barcelona racked up points utilising the maximum verticality approach: it was a considerably less precise game than that which they had practised from 2008-2011 during the height of Xavi’s effectiveness. Although Tito deployed the ‘double 10 + jinetes’ attack, he preferred to field a back four than to reprise the back three of Guardiola’s ’crab formation’ (fig 4).
Above (Fig 4): under Tito as well as Tata, Barcelona spent the first halves of the past two seasons with the more direct style and the team assuming risks while spread out over greater distances, confident they’d rarely be outgunned.
Higher velocity passing over greater distances meant slightly diminished accuracy, but that was less frequently punished in the bread-and-butter encounters versus most league opponents. Sure, Barça might concede a handful of counters but they could always outscore the opponent through sheer volume of firepower. Vilanova, however, was hardly naïve; he knew the business end of the season was approaching and that this rushed-attack and its tendency to concede more turnovers would surely be punished by more formidable foes.
And so the return to the ball-hogging, possession maximising shape as the crunch encounters of early 2013 ensued. One of the jinetes was sacrificed so that Iniesta and Fabregàs could coincide along the left; one less attacker, one extra midfielder and thus with Messi dropping back and Iniesta drifting, Barcelona congested the centre with ball-players (fig.5). If this was a premeditated attempt to premanently take the sting out of the game, surely Barcelona would lack incision against deeper defences? Again, Messidependency came into play. When the collective quality of the offense waned, Messi’s individual brilliance would redeem all.
Above (Fig 5): both Vilanova and Martino have adapted this more possession approach at the business end of their respective seasons
But this didn’t make Barça any less vulnerable to quality teams. Real Madrid and Bayern Munich took almost sadistic delight in mixing clever ball-circulation and intimidatory athleticism to discomfort the blaugrana as the Vilanova season drew to a forlorn close. Barça pushed up as a team, tried to keep all sectors weaved together, but were simply conceding too much space behind them. Half-confused, they’d signal the retreat back towards their own goal which is an alien language to a team couched in early ball-recovery, but this only served to open up gaps between the lines. The opponents’ ball-circulation disected them and found space behind Xavi and Iniesta who offered scant protection for the full-backs.
Tata Martino has found much the same state of affairs during his first season at the helm. Starved (obtusely, some might say) of meaningful, paradigm-shifting signings, inheriting the much the same human material only a year older, and having to walk on eggshells around the delicate issue of the decline of symbolic players, Martino has not been in a position to offer us a view of what his Barcelona would truly be like. How he would love to have at his disposal a younger Xavi or a new imitation. Instead he has accepted the hand he was dealt and just come up with the only plausible solutions he can make work.
Interestingly, this has meant a continuation of the Jekyll-and-Hyde approach. Yes, there have been some innovations, such as the occassional fielding of a more physical interior (Alex Song or Sergi Roberto) to aid Busquets in the destructive arts – a sign that Martino recongises that Busquets can no longer be expected to cover for both Xavi and Iniesta’s permeability -or the instruction to both full-backs to stay narrow and behind the line of the ball – the forwards instead providing the width – but again, whenever the gameplan is to be varied either the jinetes are there or the extra ball-hogger is inserted.
In the weeks building up to the clash with Manchester City, Tata has been inclining ever more towards the cautious encarnation of this Barça. But if fate dictates another humilitation for the team, as suffered at the hands at Bayern, this measure will have been proven to be just another band-aid on a gunshot wound.
Three different coaches, same diagonoses and similar treatments, and all identified a deteri oration in the human material, which later became manifest in changes to undertaking and formation. The sun setting on Xavi’s imperium has meant that Barça no longer have that perfect balance from 2011 between serenity and aggression in attack which allowed them to spend 90 minutes camped on the edge of the opponent’s box. And so, thrown off course, they resort to two wildly different approaches: maximum verticality or maximum ball-retention. Neither can replace the heights of 2011, nor do their first-aid-like solutions appear a credible medium-term fix to a chronic problem.
But until the day a new Xavi is unearthed, both stop-gap measures are connected by one silken thread to which they can nearly always cling.
Give the ball to Messi.