Ramzi of Footballmood takes an elaborate look at the road that led to the FC Barcelona 2011 version. You may follow Ramzi on twitter at @footballmood
Nothing is easier than being Barcelona’s manager.
Nothing is more difficult than being Barcelona’s manager.
You have the most technically gifted squad in the world with the most telepathic understanding between its players. You have The Messi and a well refined and defined method of play.
Yet, that method of play is too refined to easily welcome any revolutionary upgrade, and too defined to avoid getting predictable at some point.
Between betting on the quality of the proven approach, and trying to add more diversity; Pep Guardiola is always on a quest to find the sound balance and the right answer. He witnessed the rise and fall of Cruyff’s era and he is aware that strategies are just like jokes, it work once, it work twice, but you can’t keep on repeating it forever without tuning it enough to keep it alive.
Understanding such background explains lots of unanswered questions about Pep’s decisions in the past two seasons. Such awareness will also lead to understand the approach intended for the new season: FC Barcelona Version 2011.
Scene one: Struggling to reach perfection
The moment Pep walked into his office as a first team manager, he had clear ideas about what he wants and what he doesn’t want. He watched Barcelona’s matches during Rijkaard’s era so many times that he was able to write any match’s timeline from memory. He saw the games where the team excelled and the matches where the team struggled. Eventually, he had to make some radical risks seeking groundbreaking outcome. One of the most shocking names was Adebayor to replace Eto’o. Luckily, that move didn’t happen and Eto’o stayed and walked over all the records and titles during the following season. Yet, the team kept on struggling where it used to in previous years and the question was: Is there a way to upgrade the system by any mean? It was about fixing it before it breaks.
The answer this time was Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a player who can add the physical element that Barcelona’s offense lacks. If Pep can develop Ibra’s aerial threat and develop his defensive contribution (as he did with Henry before), the offense will be perfected. Pep needed a Van Basten to play in front of Messi. While finding a new Van Basten was a hopeless case, Ibra –as Capello will tell you – was the closest candidate to get there. Experience failed. Regardless of the 101 reasons leading to Ibra’s departure, there were two main lessons to learn from that adventure:
- No matter what qualities a player has, if he can’t totally dissolve in Barcelona’s group that is extremely settled to how it works and behaves, he will be like a new kidney planted in the wrong body. The body will spit it out with rejection.
- Adding a new plug to an already established system requires compromises from all parties. That requires time, which has never been a luxury at Barcelona. It also requires absolute dedication, which is not one of the virtues known about Ibra.
The departure of Ibra at the last moment before transfer’s period sunset, preceded by all the club election’s chaos, gave no time for the technical department to practice the lessons learned. We had to wait one more season and witness the new teambuilding criteria while preparing FC Barcelona 2011 for the current season.
Scene two: Seeking excellence
Perfecting a system means adding all the requirements that help that system providing different alternatives while tackling different obstacles.
Seeking excellence meant to develop the way the system initially works and strengthen its qualities, making it too good for its imbedded flaws to distract its ability to defeat any challenge thrown at it – Thus Alexis Sanchez.
Almost half as tall as Ibra, and twice more energetic than him, Alexis is the extreme opposite of what Ibra is for better or worse.
Villa and Pedro proved last season being very comfortable working as Messi’s copilots in the offense line. Yet, none of them is skillful enough to continuously beat defenders on one-on-one situations when spaces get tightened. This fact makes Messi’s job more complicated. Having a skillful player like Sanchez forces the opponent to create more cover for the player who checks him. As usual, the more the opponent plan special tricks to stop specific players (rather than defending spaces), the more the defense suffers positional and structural chaos. Ultimately, that creates more holes to expose, while Xavi and Iniesta continuously changing play from one flank to another – with all the physically and mentally fatigue this can cause for the opponent. Adding Sanchez work rate and explosive energy to the vase may bring back the Eto’o-istic aggression and threat to FC Barcelona’s offense, especially if he improves his scoring instinct with time.
Cesc in the other hand was added to the mix more as a person than as a player – without underestimating or overhyping his obvious qualities. After a very stressful season of five clasicos and many titles, adding an old friend to the dressing room came like a fresh breeze dusting away the monotony and bringing back old memories while creating new ones. This factor usually gets underestimated in team building though it usually leads to groups collapse and decline. When a group of players spend too many years together they run out of all the human-sense moments, jokes, discussions and even pranks that keep the group environment positive, fresh and undefeated by the routine and the stressful demands of the competitions. Beside, with all his influential players creating a lobby with Cesc seeking his return, there was no way Pep could’ve ignored that and brought another player instead – Another unwelcomed Kidney as you may recall.
This season, Pep brought the kind of players he can work perfectly with. Modest talented players who look up at him as a coach and –as Alves put it- are willing to throw themselves from the balcony if he asks them to do so, believing that he has good reasons to demand that. The easy-to-mold versatile, talented players are just the kind of players Pep like to – and can- work with.
Scene three: Will it work? Even as a 3-4-3?
It’s up for Pep Guardiola to prove his squad can reach- with the system applied- a level of excellence that can defeat its imbedded flaws before defeating the opponents. It’s still too early to make permanent judgments, though a match at home against AC Milan for example should raise some questions in that direction as it represented a lite demonstration about the kind of matches Barcelona struggles in – regardless of possession domination. The kind of matches where the opponent is too disciplined and experienced to apply that Move-pass-move till you create a space between the defense and the keeper then slice the ball there for a kill.
The 3-4-3 doesn’t feel like the way to go, though. And when I address this method (3-4-3), I don’t mean the tactical structure terminology, as I can’t care less about that. Traditional tactical structures are like job descriptions in a traditional family business. The big man gives a position for each family member just to address him while using him everywhere. Such positions are more about the functions that should be done than the players who are theoretically attached to them. Tactical structures notations are overrated in football, and irrelevant at FC Barcelona.
As a demonstration, I won’t mind this 3-4-3 if it means using Abidal, Puyol, and Pique as defenders while playing Alves as a wide right midfielder, Well, Because this is exactly how the 4-3-3 operates for Barcelona.
What I don’t like is a so-called 3-4-3 that uses Alves as a right center back for example. He is not as bad defensively as some may assume, but is it his defense that encouraged Barcelona to spend over 30 million to buy him in the first place? Can he provide enough defensive quality that compromises the loss of not using him for a more attacking role as in the 4-3-3?
I do agree that tactical diversity prevents getting predictable and add more alternatives, which is necessary in a long season. Yet, does this 3-4-3 really operate differently compared to the 4-3-3? Does it provide better defense, better offense, or better dominance? While this 3-4-3 can – theoretically- win all the matches 4-3-3 can, I’m still struggling to figure how it serves where the 4-3-3 struggles to meet the needs.
Is it smart to switch the flanked forwards of 4-3-3 to traditional wings in a 3-4-3 to create width when you have players like Pedro and –especially- Villa whose best quality is to make diagonal runs to the box seeking scoring opportunities?
If Pep is willing to play a rhombus in midfield them why isn’t he considering a 4-4-2 diamond? By doing so, he keeps Alves as an attacking right back. He gives Cesc the desired role as a starter. And he uses two out of the four key forwards Barcelona has, enhancing the squad depth in that department instead of using three out of four forwards available (Afellay is yet to convince for a starting role – and now he is injured).
If tactical diversity is needed, then I may suggest something like this (regardless of the selection itself):
At least you know this can come in handy for knockout competitions when you play first leg outside Camp Nou.
For many reasons, I believe the 3-4-3 was more a temporary tactic for Barcelona than a long term strategy. It buried all the arguments about how will Barcelona fit all the midfielders they have in a selection. Done. Checked. Forgotten. As it terminated any rivalry that may occur between Cesc and Thiago: “Worry not, you will not step on each other’s toes”.
There was also the injury crisis that hit the defense line at the beginning of the season. The solution was simple: If you miss many defenders, use the selection demanding the least defenders possible.
On the long run, I still believe the 3-4-3 will keep serving more as a casual tactic for matches where the excess of individuals’ quality can carry Barcelona to bring victories regardless of any tactical platform.
I still believe FC Barcelona is the main candidate to win La Liga, regardless of the fact that Real Madrid improved a lot this season. For the Champions league, it is always difficult to keep that title in one city for two years, especially now that the level of competition raised the bad exceptionally. I think it will be a big challenge for Barcelona. The likes of Real Madrid and Chelsea – to name some- have the right squads to cause troubles, unless if the Excellence level of FC Barcelona 2011 reached the level that beats perfection.