Southgate breaking new ground with 3-3-2-2 formation?

5-3-2 or 3-5-2? 3-4-2-1 or 5-2-2-1? 3-4-1-2 or 5-2-1-2? Some years I wrote on Ricardo LaVolpe’s liking for the second in the sequenced pairs of numerical code in what may well resemble a telephone directory. For La Volpe, the synchronicity of the  centre-backs and wing-backs – not the offensive or cautious disposition of the latter – held primacy in determining the system should be named a back five. Notwithstanding my own concordance with La Volpe’s view, I’ll go with the zeitgeist and write of the more popular back-three designation for the purposes of this text.

New or old? If we survey the last three decades or so since the emergence of Carlos Bilardo’s Argentina and Franz Beckenbauer’s West Germany sides, there has been ample demonstration of systems based on three centre-backs plus wing-backs. It is in the configurations further ahead where variety manifests itself. The most common strains are 3-5-2, with the understanding that the central three of the middle band of five are more orthodox representations of midfielders (one playing deeper than the remaining two), and the 3-4-1-2, with a fantasy player filtering the team’s progressions towards its forward line.

A slight departure on the above norms has been the 3-4-2-1. One of its first practitioners was Alberto Zaccheroni in the mid-90s at Udinese before taking it with him into stints at Milan and Lazio. Zaccheroni had graduated from Coverciano writing his coaching dissertation on this very system, so it’s little wonder he was considered its primary exponent until the likes of Jorge Sampaoli at Universidade de Chile and Antonio Conte at Chelsea (although it should be pointed out that Sampaoli’s vintage employed a false 9 and operated more of a man-marking approach).

Move forward to Russia 2018, and England boss Gareth Southgate has gone from utilising this 3-4-2-1 to rolling out similar formations – only with enganches or second-strikers in place of interiors or box-to-boxers. Though tasked with being central midfielders or interiors, Lingard and Delle Alli by disposition of their nature exhibited much of their more familiar trequartista stylings from their respective club roles. Then again, England assistant boss Steve Holland did say before the opening game versus Tunisia that the idea with the advanced midfield two was to open up passing lines behind the adversary’s central midfielders, so perhaps the England pair were on a contradictory assignment. Ruben Loftus Cheek might be more suited as an interior to help build a cohort that is more recognisably a midfield.

In 1998, Marcelo Bielsa took over Argentina wishing to introduce a 3-3-1-3, but cognizant of local sensiblities regarding the revered figure of the enganche, he started with a 3-3-2-2. This, in pratice, meant he was able to keep his platform of three backs and a holding midfielder flanked by wing-backs whilst fielding the creative likes of Ariel Ortega and Marcelo Gallardo. These were No.10’s who excelled in diamond midfields or in 3-4-1-2 set-ups. Whether by design or osmosis, the proclivity of these enganches to take up positions behind the opposing midfielders’ backs meant that under the 3-3-2-2 system, Argentina almost resembled a “broken team” with barely the holding midfielder sufficing as an articulation between the back five and the front four. After a brief period of experimentation, Bielsa arrived at his preferred 3-3-1-3 with wingers or wide-forwards replacing one of the enganches.

Depending on selections, England could field a chain-of-five plus four attackers and barely one central midfielder to keep the structure in place. To what extent the personnel changes moderate this, remains to be seen as the tournament progresses. But it is difficult to see a genuine 3-3-2-2 taking root at top-level football beyond it.

 

 

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Griezmann to Barcelona makes sense.

On the face of it, adding a young yet established and consecrated attacker to strangely concocted squad elicits  two responses from Barcelona watchers.

First, that the outlay matching or improving on Antoine Griezmann’s buy0ut clause directs resources away from areas of the team, namely midfield, that need addresssing in the form of restoration, an unavoidably ideology-laden preoccupation at a club like FC Barcelona.

Second, concerns abound regarding the suitability of the player himself and the viability of his role within the team. Relatedly, there is an ancillary question as to whether Griezmann will find fulfilment in adapting to a very peculiar club, and that maybe his talents would be better utilised elsewhere, but this is a ponderable more likely entertained by neutrals than by culés, who wish to see a balance between reviving their team’s renowned way of play and an expedient need for success. All this while acknowledging a limited squad that somehow must find a way to extract maximum benefit from and give support to the autumn of Lionel Messi’s career.

This confluence of priorities – possibly conflicting – has presented itself before. Witness the devices of Luis Enrique from his 2014 appointment onward. The coach was probably on solid ground in recognising that Xavi and Iniesta had to be used sparingly, and that accomodating a lucrative Messi-Suárez-Neymar frontline would pay immediate dividends. A treble-winning first season seemed vindication enough, though ultimately the formula was found wanting as time wore on and stiffer opponents wised up. Such a judgement appears dismissive, but only if one believes that Barcelona can always be serial winners without the felicities of sound-planning, successful acquisitions and the accompanying mystique that enshrouds teams destined to bestride an era. Attaining success on the level of Bayern Munich over recent seasons might be the new normal that Barcelona must reckon with, but nor should the club settle for that. Obviously.

Luis Enrique deemed that maximising the intimidation factor of his front-trio made sense for a team not quite able to revert to its possession-passing game with the required degree of consistency and excellence, especially when facing more challenging opponents. Force of firepower “pegada”, a concept more traditionally exploited by Real Madrid, was enough to overcome most. At times, indeed, it served as a get-out-of-jail card as Barcelona could play poorly. At its nadir, the scheme relied on Messi dressing up as an enganche who fed Neymar and Suárez, and a troubling observation materialised: Messi’s feeling obliged to play increasingly protracted periods in midfield was proportional to the inability of his teammates to keep him sufficiently serviced up front. Messi playing deep was usually a symptom of an uninspiring midfield.

Ernesto Valverde recognised as much upon taking over in the summer of 2017: “The idea is to have Leo as close to goal as possible, where he does most damage, but with the freedom to drop into midfield when he deems it suitable”. And so this first incarnation, a lopsided 4-3-3 with Messi as false 9 proved effective. As the season progressed and the shape became varyingly 4-4-2 or a 4-1-3-2, Messi remained close to goal but with Luis Suárez more centralised ahead of him. Very rarely did Barça play with the panache of yore, but Valverde was able to disguise this by having the team lead by the  likes of Paulinho forcing turnovers higher up the pitch and hence closer to Messi, who therefore remained well-supplied in front of goal.

Having Messi drop deep or staying closer to goal is a question that vexes his coaches at club and country level these days. Provided he is getting involved in the midfield passing game sparingly and fruitfully, and not born out of necessity, there is no reason why at his 31 years of age he still cannot be a lurking threat in the opposition’s final third. Griezmann pushing ahead of Messi, with or without Suárez (who is losing much of his pace that so well served this function), fortifies this threat. Pushing back defenders to prevent them from squeezing closer to their midfield will create space for Messi to receive behind the holding midfielders and full-backs. It also will leave defenders doubtful as whether to engage the Argentine and therefore allow gaps for him to put Griezmann through on goal, or to facilitate his trademark diagonal right-to-left run across the face of goal and risk conceding a shot.

Not only does Griezmann’s presence distract defenders from Messi, his threat to getting in behind the backline offers an upgrade on a staple Barça play of recent seasons: a curved pass from Messi into a space behind between the right-back and right-central defender for Jordi Alba to run on to. It paid dividends for a while but proved increasingly stale in recent games at the most demanding level. Griezmann rejuvenates this threat and makes it all the more lethal given his more natural incidence with goalscoaring than Alba could be expected to provide. And that’s before mentioning that Griezmann can breach the backline from multiple vantage points.

The addition of Antoine Griezmann could never sate the longing of azulgranas for a return to first principles in the midfield. Theoretically it could even prove an opportunity cost insofar as diluting recruitment for that vital area. But in and of itself, the insertion of the Frenchman into the attack would justify itself tactically and does possess a certain sporting logic.

 

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Tabula Rasa for Irish Football

Danish Dynamite: distinctive amid a sea of sameness, though without fostering delusion.

Danish Dynamite: distinctive amid a sea of sameness, though without fostering delusion.

An unusual dally into the world of Irish football, of which I write with scant credential. Having borne no sentimental attachment to the national game, though like many people I cannot have been unaware of its presence growing up in Ireland, I do not now deign to cultivate any interest (selfless or otherwise) in its prosperity.  So to the following musing pay what little consideration you deem fit. Hopefully, its brevity will dissuade you from outright dismissal.

The FAI, under the stewardship of Declan Conroy, released its SSE Airtricity League Consultation Process Report this September with a view to stoking a conversation on possible steps to improve football played in Ireland and the branding of same.

The report acknowledges several factors that the public has offered for their uncurried and uncourted interest/their unpatriotic, superpub-inhabiting , EPL-induced oikophobia (delete where appropriate). Poor facilities and, perhaps most substantially, poor quality  of football on display were just two of the reasons cited for a lack of enthusiasm regarding the local game. First off, let me state that any deliberation I would make before entering such a conversation would  be coloured by a particular view of not so much the quality, as the nature of football played in Ireland.

Forgive me cultural nationalists, but: we play British football. Irish football is a subset of British football.

Let’s accept where we’re at before embarking anywhere.

How we play football, how we think about football, even how we talk about football signifies that we gravitate within an Anglocentric sphere. Our best players never contemplate a successful career that does not pass through years service in English (or Scottish) leagues of all levels where the remuneration is fantastically high and cost of cultural adaptation relatively low. Or do you swear you went to school with a bunch of lads who headed off for trials to PAOK Thessaloniki, Rapid Vienna and FC Nantes?

Now, that’s not something that makes us uniquely gelded among nations, for sure.  The same can be said for football in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is true that there was once such a thing as ‘the Scottish game’ wherein north of Hadrian’s wall the game’s practitioners offered a style of play comparably different from that of England as Uruguay’s was/still is from Brazil’s. Scots grew up not just with expectations of beating England on the field, but also a pride in the manner of their doing so.

By the interwar period, however, that stylistic difference had largely diminished, and in the post-war period, even accounting for Scotland’s highs of European Cup (Celtic in ’67) and Cup-winners’ Cup (Rangers in ’72) attainment plus its not infrequent World Cup participation (’54, ’58, ’74, ’78, ’82, ’86, ’90 and ’98), who can refute that a process of centralisation and homogenisation of football in this part of Europe has been apace, such that uniformity was the end result? Ireland too was not immune to that process.

Scandanavia, notably, has long been influenced by English footballing culture, and yet Denmark’s rise in the 1980s was perceived as all that more scintillating precisely because the experimental Danes, with their intricate passing play, their Rorschach formations and their liberos, contravened the stodgy British-inspired strictures of their Norwegian and Swedish cousins. A small country managed to buck the trend and produce a lesser – if no less gratifying – version of football as played in more alluring leagues beyond their parish confines. That alone would be worth turning up at the local stadium for.

I wonder if partly what dissuades people from binding themselves, however fairweatheringly, to the fortunes of Finn Harps, Sligo Rovers or St. Pat’s is not that the inferiority of the product to the readily-available behemoth leagues across the Irish Sea; it’s that the product is too similar to the fare on offer in the  lower divisions of England (or Scotland, or Wales, for that matter).  In such a crowded marketplace for appetites, were you to transplant into Ireland a footballing culture from, say, the Portuguese third tier or the lower Dutch echelons, the quality might conceivably be as low-grade as that purveyed by the status quo, yet that same low-grade football on display would at least have as its USP a football that looked and felt different. You couldn’t delude yourself that somewhere a cheap flight or a satellite-TV channel away there wasn’t the existence of superior football for your consumption, but you just might be that extra bit arsed to bring the kids out for the day.

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Protecting Pirlo

Pirlo scutum

 

The great regista is a revered figure and would be warmly applauded were he to culminate his stellar career with a third European crown.

But does his inclusion make his team more vulnerable?

 

It appears a sleight, such a glib thing; to suggest that this great player needs protecting.

After all, in an era where possession-football was still in its infancy, nobody protected the ball as did Andrea Pirlo. In this sense, he represented for his teams a defensive asset.

In his pomp, we would speak in terms of a player who required a retinue for protection, but by that we meant something different. What was referred to then was a dispensation for the Brescian maestro from those defensive actions for which he was simply not equipped. Dashing across to shore up a flank vacated by his full-back? Sorry, you must be thinking of Javier Mascherano. Or Genaro Gattuso, more appropriately. To break up an opposition counter-attack by going to ground? For such endeavours there was Massimo Ambrosini. Scramble to win back possession you’d squandered within seconds of the turnover? Clarence Seedorf sure was no slouch. Rush out to press a ‘blind’ opponent who had his back turned to the play? Even Ricky Kaká could oblige you there. No, in situations where the opponent had the ball the best Pirlo could acquit himself – and something which in itself is a valuable defensive artifice – was by eliminating rivals’ passing options through his astute positioning.

But all that is irrelevant now. For it’s 2015 and Andrea Pirlo – with the ball – no longer instills defensive placidity throughout his ranks, at least not at the elite end of competition.

Absent certain conditions, Pirlo can appear vulnerable when in possession such that any team of which he is the fulcrum must make provisions for the distinct possibility of conceding dangerous transitions in the centre of the pitch. And that is when facing opponents who do not bother assigning a ruffian to selectively hound him throughout the game. You do not need a Park Ji Sung to lessen Pirlo’s presence.

Luckily for the bianconeri, Barcelona are unlikely to take to the field with so discriminatory an assignment briefing. Nevertheless, it’s likely at some stage that Luis Suárez will drop back and harry Pirlo when he is on the ball or even when he is expecting a pass. Real Madrid throughout 2015 have been notably lacking in disruptive power in their midfield and yet they didn’t need such resources to make Pirlo uncomfortable in the semi-finals. Any flurry of activity that sees Messi, Suárez, Neymar and Iniesta, Daniel Alves and Ivan Rakitic congregating in and around Pirlo when Juve are in static defence could be damaging.

So, is there any remedy in sight? A measure that Allegri might take to dampen the abovementioned risks?

Well, the one season where Max and Andrea coincided at Milan did see the Livornese coach experiment by pushing the latter slightly forward to an interior-left position of his midfield diamond. But here Pirlo would be placed immediately in the vicinity of the self-sacrificial Ivan Rakitic. Besides, Lionel Messi is wont to drop back into an inside-right channel, often deep in midfield where Daniel Alves tends to loiter nowadays.

Then there is the option of inserting Pirlo in a trequartista role: the logic here being that any loss of possession on his part is less damaging to Juve’s defence seeing as how he is further distanced from Gigi Buffon’s goal. But such a measure risks submerging Pirlo completely. True, we might view this formula as trading off his commanding-role in midfield (something you can’t bank on nowadays anyway) for a series of more punctuated albeit decisive interventions. On the other hand, this prospect goes to waste if Juventus cannot furnish him with the ball in this situation.

And neither can we discount the utility of Pirlo in dead-ball situations – though to overstate this is to advocate for Pirlo’s inclusion in the guise of an American football kicker – a device to which Allegri simply cannot resort.

Set-pieces aside, to my mind it seems that Juve’s best hope of threatening Barcelona is twofold: Vidal-Pogba-Marchisio breaking down play either in central midfield or in wide areas and then feeding Tevez and Morata to run at Barça’s back-two. The other instance would be whereby Pirlo has enough time on the ball to pick out a penetrating pass to his strike duo. Both are fraught with complications.

The first route might run ashore on the grounds that the Busquets-Iniesta-Rakitic-Messi hive of activity could simply triangulate the living daylights out of Juve’s undoubtedly dynamic midfielders – especially were the latter too proactive and hence positionally diffuse in their ball-winning approach. Furthermore, for all their propensity to scoot out wide, such a disposition by likes of Pogba, Vidal and Marchisio might only  serve to thin out Juve’s center in the hope of congesting the wide areas where Barça under Luis Enrique have shown themselves much more adept at building up play than in their previous incarnations. As to the second attacking option: it assumes that Pirlo will not be harried when on or near the ball, a supposition that Allegri will not make.

All of the above rests on the premise that Juve, as per custom, align themselves in something approaching a ‘4 – plus Pirlo – plus 3 – plus 2’ layout, and the comforts offered by this are apparent. The midfielders ahead of Pirlo can labour and create in herculean mode, whilst the regista faces no direct midfield opponent (owing to Barça’s foregoing of any fixed trequartista). A duo of Tévez and Morata carry enough mobility and muscle to work across Barça’s backline so as to warrant caution amongst  Piqué, Mascherano and even their full-backs lest they think about stepping out to augment their midfield.

Yet it was the same arrangement as faced Real Madrid and Pirlo didn’t look the anymore effective for it. I wonder whether there is another arrangement that might protect Juve from being ostraicised in midfield whilst providing Pirlo with enough tranquility to play consistently.

Juventus’s positional defence is something of a surety when it assumes the form of three centre-backs; that time-tested, national-team serving arrangement. Allegri has preferred a back-four but the groundwork laid by Antonio Conte’s chain-of-five has been ingrained in the juventino muscle-memory whereby Stephan Lichtsteiner and Patrice Evra can switch seamlessly from full-back to wing-back duties . If Juventus’s back five can behave as an integral unit, this opens an array of outlets for their build-up play.

Freeing Pirlo from the attention of Barça’s midfielders. Tévez is required to occupy Busquets.

 

Under Conte, the bianconero wing-back system boasted a poly-faceted face: rather than being condemned to defend as a five, the wing-backs co-ordinated their respective movements whereby one could defend as a wide-midfielder whilst the other dropped into the backline as an orthodox full-back.

During Conte's tenure, Juventus's back-5 mechanism would alter to defend in two banks of four where required.

During Conte’s tenure, Juventus’s back-5 mechanism would alter to defend in two banks of four when required.

 

Such flexibility could afford Allegri’s men the option of projecting one or both full-backs whilst keeping the centre-backs plus their sweeper behind Pirlo. A similar deployment was made by Cesare Prandelli at Euro 2012 where his Italy side had Emmanuele Giaccherini and Christian Maggio push upfield at every opportunity, thereby leaving Pirlo to crown a defensive diamond also comprising Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and, crucially, Daniele De Rossi. If Arturo Vidal were to replicate De Rossi’s Euro 2012 role, a Juve defender in search of a passing option need not resort to Bonucci’s (admittedly precise) long-range passing in the event of Pirlo being closed down. Vidal has assuredness on the ball coupled with a nimbleness and mobility to skip past challenges and liberate Pirlo, who then may take up a position in space where he can assess the passing options further upfield of him.

Another possiblity would be if Allegri were to task Evra and  Lichtsteiner with alternating their advances (one staying, the other going forward) as if in a chain movement, which in turn would allow a sweeper to step out and assist Pirlo safe in the knowledge that a back three was guarding to the rear. Here, Pirlo and Vidal would be effectively operating as twin deep-lying pivots.

In either scenario, it is crucial that Carlos Tévez  act as a fourth, most-advanced midfielder, dropping in on Sergio Busquets so that the Barcelona man might be hindered in aiding Rakitic and Iniesta in the manoeuvering of the ball in behind Juve’s interiors and into the fleshy centre where Pirlo lies exposed. If this were to happen, Vidal would be expected to rush out and stagger a defence just behind Pirlo, recalling César Luis Menotti’s dictum that “two footballers in a line is a sin”.

The understandable objection to any notion of stationing Vidal in the defence is that any midfield deliberately shorn of the Chilean is a denuded outfit in all phases of play. But such an evil might be worth entertaining, given that the task ahead of Juve is not to match Barça’s midfielders man-to-man, nor to commit to a 90-minute herculean enterprise of ball-robbing, much less is it to contest ball possession with the blaugranas. Rather, it is to capture space and time for Pirlo, this lesser, time-ravaged and nonetheless totemic Pirlo, so that at he at best may the originator of Juve’s attacking forays, and that at worst he may not go unnoticed.

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How do you solve a problem like Rakitic?

Rakitic 1

Summer came, then went and Luis Enrique hit the ground running. To the strains all throughout of excited titter among Barça-watchers as to what new idea would be birthed.

One or two pre-season training sessions were enough to give the the giddy Catalan press licence to tout the most fantastical of prescriptions for this new Barça: a 3-2-3-2 featuring Cuadrado-Messi-Iniesta behind Neymar and Suarez perhaps? Novelty and audacity whet the public’s appetite – and boost paper sales. But Cuadrado never came and Luis Enrique made clear his committment to a back-four in some shape or form. The likes of these pharaonic schemes at least raised the possibility of Barça forming a double-pivot, which in and of itself would have been groundbreaking.

Thus far, Luis Enrique has shown little inclination to field Mascherano and Busquets together in a double-pivot. In fact, he seems unconvinced of the merits of a double-pivot of any composition.

And into this unknown steps Ivan Rakitic.
A dozen-odd matches into the season and Rakitic has been labouring unconvincingly as an interior in Barça’s ecosystem and against most rivals. In the past, as a mediapunta in the 4-4-1-1 of Unai Emery’s deeply reactive Sevilla side he was free to find pockets of space and, from those, launch counter-attacks. Such spaces aren’t easily gifted by opponents facing Barça, however.

Even when stationed slightly further back in the old Xavi-Iniesta stomping ground, such ‘interior’ positions are typically the first in Barça’s midfield to be targeted or crowded out by the schemes of opposing coaches. Water off a duck’s back for Xavi and Iniesta in their pomp, but Rakitic is nowhere near similar to that illustrious duo – not even in their declining form of late is he hewn from the same material.

When playing at the heart of midfield, the Croat needs to have a vast expanse of pitch in front of him and have the opposing pressure-lines with rival players arrayed clearly before him (out of the melée rather than in the thick of it). This second version of Rakitic also prospered at Sevilla, where, as Sid Lowe noted, Emery as good as admitted the entire set-up shifted according to where Rakitic was deployed on any given matchday.

Emery often would have Rakitic in the double pivot of two deep banks of four – hardly a realistic proposition for Luis Enrique, but so too did Niko Kovac when Croatia played the World Cup in Brazil. Admittedly, Croatia’s shape and intent were markedly different from those of Sevilla; a proactive approach featuring Rakitic and Modric in the double pivot – a portent perhaps of Carlo Ancelotti’s subsequent allying of the latter with Toni Kroos in a fluid Real Madrid side.
A double-pivot at Barcelona seems unlikely, given the almost genetic disposition toward triangular formations that runs through the club. But dare we think the unthinkable: Rakitic as the sole holding-midfelder?

 

Luis Enrique’s model of play requires a lot more running than before under Pep, and thus the role of the sole holding midfielder changes. This might be better suited to an exponent like Javier Mascherano, whereas Busquets finds himself overburdened patrolling a horizontal and vertical axis. Under the old system, Busquets could anticipate the need for intervention ahead and glide towards the sector threatened.

Nowadays, the team’s more frenetic playing style begets diminished accuracy which leads to more turnovers and with the players more distanced from one another across the pitch – thwarting the Sacchi-like ability to press in unison as a herd. Add to this the new coach’s penchant for having his full-backs stationed high to compensate the narrowness of the centre, and there is simply a vast tract of space for Busquets to cover in a heightened amount of actions and in a reduced window of time.

Placing Rakitic alone in this post would presuppose the same problems holding true; in fact, they might possibly be exacerbated. Luis Enrique would have to compensate by beefing up his other midfield posts – much like how Carlo Ancelotti would field warhorses Genaro Gattuso and/or Massimo Ambrosini in the vicinity of the artistic Andrea Pirlo. So the interior positions would likely be distributed according to some permutation of Busquets, Mascherano as well as the more creative types (Xavi, Iniesta, Rafinha etc).

The ostensible gain for the collective would be to have the Croat relatively  unmolested in a deep position whence he  could spray passes short, medium and long. Luis Enrique already used an assortment of players, all differing in nature, as his holding midfielder at Celta Vigo. In his more adventurous phases, Lucho even deployed the Dane Michael Krohn-Dehli – a tricky  winger by trade – as the fulcrum.

 

Rakitic is not as defensively astute as Busquets. Nor is he as laconic as Pirlo.The question remains as to whether making Ivan comfortable is worth all that upheaval.

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Reflections on Spain’s Elimination

 

 

In the end, everybody with a million-and-one darts to aim at Spain, at Vicente Del Bosque and at a particular footballing-philosophy could feel smug. But it is too easy to damn someone ‘a toro pasado’, as the Spanish say to convey that sense of hindsight bringing cheap vindication, and we come off sounding like prophets of the past. But Spain’s ill-fated Brazilian campaign, representing the indigestible nadir of a two-year decline, is more a lesson in the human dimension of football than an obituary for a model of play.

Sifting through the debris of Salvador and Rio, it was Del Bosque’s squad call-up and his insistence in sticking with the pantheon of hardened, if not severely-aged band of winners laden with every club and international award imaginable – that seemed the most accessible remnant over which to grieve and to agonise. Even coming into the tournament, people otherwise optimistic about Spain’s prospects expressed reservations about: the absence of young, less-predictable talent (Isco); the odd contextual player who might offer Spain a Plan B or at least an added dimension (notably the Navas-Llorente two-in-one package, and Navas in-and-of himself as a defensive relief measure by providing the out ball); and also, somewhat concentrically with the previous two factors, there was the lack of penetration in a squad that was long on ball-retention but short on rupture (save Pedro and, maybe at a stretch, Juanfran).

On reflection, the call-up seems to be where all of Spain’s undoings can be viewed in crystalised form as all the sticks which might rain down upon Del Bosque are to be found there: seniority versus youth, meritocracy against establishment, ball-retainers versus space-exploiters and a long et cetera. But even assuming he brought along our preferred alternatives, who’s to say Del Bosque would’ve started them in either of the two games to date? Surely he would’ve started with more or less the same side.

It’s fair to assume that Del Bosque’s posture was born of technical appraisal and not sentiment. He patently believed that this group, as long as it continued to be built around a certain core, was best-served by being offered a familiar template within which to play, and living in its own skin. And that was tantamount to Casillas + Pique + Ramos + the Alonso-Busquets tandem + Xavi and the ball-accumulating Silva & Iniesta. By extension, that meant that the notion of heading into a tournament with one of those key pieces being swapped for a Koke, a Navas, a Javi Martínez or even a deeper, more central-to-everything Fàbregas, would have been to upset the ecosystem, that wonderful biosphere which, Del Bosque felt, had been cultivated by these great players and to some degree had enveloped them to the point where the one was inextricable from the other.

To many an outsider such a mentality may well appear intransigent but this Spain side – and particularly its spine, which was never going to change despite whatever peripheral squad alternatives might have presented themselves – operated on the basis of status-recognition, which was the fuel for its ambition. After all, when other nations’ squads are younger, fitter, stronger and hungrier than yours … what else have you got to fall back on? Title-winning experience may be no guarantee of continued success, but it is not the flimsiest of suppositions to bank your approach on. Why not emphasise your pedigree? What if, in the process of trying to address those other more delicate factors, you end up undermining the confidence that the “stars-above-the badge” mystique imbues in its bearers?

As time goes on, we may become more privy to what exactly was the emotional and psychological condition of the team as they headed to Brazil, to what extent they felt sufficiently prepared  to compete in defense of their title. It is prudent, however, to reason that Vicente Del Bosque had his finger on the pulse of his charges. To a lay, ignorant person such as myself, this notion of betting the house on the old guard as a reward for past achievements struck me as a rather risk-laden approach to disputing a new tournament. But I wasn’t the one who needed convincing of its merits by Del Bosque! Perhaps those players felt that, ceteris paribus, they could keep on winning by remaining true to themselves.

Once we accept the validity of Del Bosque’s approach (i.e. that he had sound footballing reasons as a justification for it; whether or not it was likely to prosper is besides the point), we then try to view the unfolding of the tournament through such a lens. Was Xavi really the worst offender in the somewhat commendable first half played against Holland in Salvador? When the silver-lining of those 45 minutes was that Spain at least managed to tame the initial ferocity of the Dutch pressing and retain the ball (sterile possession, yes, but for Spain this is simply synonymous with losing the ball in areas where they feel least vulnerable, and for this read “defending well”)? This is not to suggest that Xavi was still able to impose himself on the game. Merely that Spain still knew what they could pull off, and Xavi knew better than most. Curiously it was the two more robust midfielders Alonso and Busquets, whom one would normally expect to counteract the physicality of the opponent in a match like this, who looked less secure. The addition of Koke in place of Iniesta or Silva might have added further steel, but Del Bosque was always going to consider this tantamount to handing over his trusted arsenal for weapons of his enemy’s choosing.

Within this logic, then, it becomes especially hard to understand the coach’s selection for the fatal tie with Chile, specifically with regard to his benching of Piqué and Xavi.

Many will say that it too little. I want to venture the opposite view: that perhaps it was too much change. If the rationale was to offer a symbolic change that would ripple throughout the team, it appeared to have that very effect – though not with healthy consequences. It would be one thing were Del Bosque to have rung in these changes in between tournaments, in friendlies or even during qualification games with a view to engineering a degree of transformation in Spain’s play. It may also have had the ancillary effect of assuaging the concerns of those critics who were calling for more meritocracy so as to thwart complacency among the elders and foment hunger among those players knocking on the door.

But to usher in such changes mid-tournament? In a crunch game where your team’s confidence is already reeling from the humiliation suffered in Salvador? One can imagine Del Bosque, prior to the tournament: “Look, guys, some of you may be getting on a bit, others among you may have recently gone through tough times in your clubs, and doubtless there are opponents awaiting you who think you’re finished, you’re arrogant and they can’t wait to knock you off your perch, but whenever they start to bite and put you under the cosh, just remember: be true to yourselves and to the style that made you what you are: champions. Champions who have and will overcome any adversity. Just keep doing what you know best”

So, even allowing for my fiction, did the benching of Xavi and Piqué end up undermining the above mantra when Spain took to the field at the Maracanã? Granted, from early on Casillas transmitted insecurity (and how could he have not, following his hour of ignominy against Holland), which seemed to infect the whole Spanish backline. So for Del Bosque to further perform what seemed surgery in the defence must have sent a message, however unintended to his players: something is wrong, we’re vulnerable and we need to address it. But hang on, didn’t the mantra hold that when up against it, the players should seek comfort in familiarity? If so, maybe stripping this team of its familiarity, its self-identification, only served to make it more nervous still. Having placed so much faith in the tried and trusted, what font of inspiration were Spain now supposed to draw upon ?

Again, forgive me for what is very much toro pasado, but fate in the unwanted form of Spain’s elimination has conspired to afford Del Bosque (or a successor) the chance, nay the mandate, to effect large-scale personnel changes in La Furia. And although this all bookends rather neatly, what with the talk of nature running its course and cycles ending and such, there will always be for me the lingering sensation that this elimination didn’t have to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. That it needn’t have been an seismic event pitting the embattled forces of a distinct (and much-caricatured) ideology against its foes in some Stalingrad.

And really, is the future for Spain so bleak? Casting an eye to four years from now and Russia 2018, the continuing progress of talents who are playing at clubs in or around Champions’ League level such as David De Gea, Dani Carvajal and Íñigo Martínez, Iturraspe,  Thiago, Koke, Ilarramendi and Isco, Gerard Deulofeu and Jesé, allied to the still relative youth of the seasoned Sergio Busquets, Javi Martínez and Cesc Fàbregas suggest reasons to trust in a swathe of footballers blessed enough to have been marinated in the ore of recent Spanish success.

Granted, among these footballers some will have been inculcated more intensely than others (particularly the Barça players) in the catechesis of the all-conquering style. Variations to even the most unyielding of footballing styles tend to occur anyway, if only by the osmosis that seeps through owing to the practitioners themselves and their unique characteristics. As much as they are often repositories, or products, of a footballing philosophy, the inverse can also true: that players end up diluting, modifying and, in the case of Xavi Hernández, even defining a style. Still, the notion that Spain, bereft of carbon-copy inheritors to its trademark players, could return to the international wilderness years of yesteryear seems implausible.

Rory Smith of The Times put it better than most when he ventured that “What we’ve seen over the last two years isn’t the end of a style, it’s the end of a group of players’ ability to play it well.”

I wouldn’t bet against seeing a group of Spanish players, with quite a few familiar names, playing what they know best, playing it well, and competing for all prizes in the coming years.

 

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Barcelona oscillate between verticality and ball-retention in a post-Xavi world

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.

Figure i)
Figure i) Barça’s lopsided and midfield-centric shape vs Santos, World Club Final, December 2011

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.

Figure ii): Barça's line-up versus Chelsea, Champions League semi-final home leg, April 2012.

Figure ii) Barça’s line-up versus Chelsea, Champions League semi-final home leg, April 2012.

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

Barça's crab-like formation for when Guardiola wanted to maximise verticality

Figure iii) Barça’s crab-like formation for when Guardiola wanted to maximise verticality

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).

Aggression trumping possession, this time with a back four.

Figure iv) urgency trumping possession, this time with a back four.

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.

By removing one direct forward and populating the midfield, and reducing distances between sectors, Barça hoped to minimise opponents' interceptions

Figure v) by removing one direct forward and populating the midfield, and reducing distances between sectors, Barça hoped to minimise opponents’ interceptions

   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.

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