Barcelona started their 2011-12 campaign in an almost unbelievable fashion. The last three years of Pep Guardiola’s reign has set the standard extremely high. It was doubted whether Barca would be able to sustain the tempo. The doubts still remain, but Pep’s team seems to move in a different dimension in terms of their game on the field.
Their first competitive game brought them the Spanish Super Cup. This was followed by the European Super Cup. Both were relatively low profile trophies, compared to the ones they will be fighting for, later in the season. But the indications are promising. The defense of their league title started impressively against Villarreal, which showed a different face of this team and an indication of what is in store for this season.
And there is a common misconception regarding this squad that seems to give very less credit the others, who are as vital as Messi, Xavi or Iniesta. There are few elements that almost go unnoticed and are looked down upon when evaluating this team.
With Messi leading the line, Xavi pulling the strings and Iniesta ghosting past defenders, the eyes of the spectators seem to be fixed on their creative and sparkling display. But the most vital thing that often gets over-looked is their defensive work off the ball. There has been a constant criticism of their defensive work, often simply rated less in defense. All this has to do with the traditional view of defense.
The word ‘defense’ seems to inspire visuals of strong men jumping high to head the ball away; standing like a rock when challenged; hooking the ball out of defense while under pressure in their own box and putting in tough sliding tackles to avert dangers. Most of these characteristics are not evident from Barca’s defense. This is not to say that they lack such quality. But ‘defense’ for Barca is based on not letting them to be attacked rather than defending such attacks.
‘Don’t let them have the ball’ – is Barca’s game plan and all they do in the field is to try and accomplish that, which is perhaps the most difficult thing there is to achieve. Having the ball is both an offensive and defensive tactics.
Usually Barca’s off the ball work attracts less mention than their attacking and flashy moves. Even though Xavi is known for his moves involving passes that creates chances, his work rate is largely ignored. He is someone who runs the most in the match, more than any other players on the pitch. That shows how much work that goes behind in putting up this show.
Understanding Barca’s Core Tactics On The Field
As Cool As A Cucumber
One of Barca’s biggest strength is their calmness under pressure. Teams either defend deep of try to push up and pressure them up front. The latter strategy forces errors from the man with the ball. With such strategy to defend high up the pitch and pressure Barca’s back-line, it is very difficult for them to initiate attacks.
Thankfully this Barca team is gifted with players like Mascherano, Busquets, Abidal, Pique and Keita, who provide a calm passing outlet at the back. Even when under pressure, these players rarely hook the ball forward aimlessly. And they are very patient on the ball. Keeping it until a safe passage is found. This is in stark contrast to teams who look for an immediate way forward once possession is obtained. Such play requires a different approach and understanding of the game, which as of now only Barca seems to possess.
Didier Deschamps (coach Marseille): “Right now there are two types of football, two types of teams: FC Barcelona and the rest.“
Guardiola – A Genius
If there is one man who is responsible for the Catalans being at the top of the world, it is Pep Guardiola. Purists simply seem to write off his genius by saying any coach can manage this team. But experts and those who really understand this game and especially Barcelona’s game, can see his genius at work. He has said on numerous occasions that if it is not for such players, he would be coaching in the third divisions. In fact, Guardiola prefers it this way. To work silently behind the scene and let the players be the stars.
Against Villarreal, he fielded a team with one recognized defender. Though on paper the shape was interpreted as 3-4-3, the movement and interchange of position were so fluid that you can write down a whole lot of shapes on different phases of the game. After the game, Martín Mazur of El Gráfico wrote “Today Pep Guardiola sits at the same table as Steve Jobs”
Guardiola’s philosophy – The biggest risk you can take is not to take risks
Often commentators analyze Barca’s game and point out the high line as a week area, which the opponents can exploit. It is true and it is where Pep’s strategy is based on. He takes the risk of playing high line to shrink the pitch and push the fullbacks high up so that his plan A is effective. For most experts and coaches, such approach is a risk that is doomed to fail. But for Guardiola, this is his first and perhaps only approach. Ever since he has taken over, Barca has always entered the field looking for a win. And the results have been excellent. Of course without such quality players, this wouldn’t have been possible, but playing down Pep’s influence would be foolish.
More Than Messi, Xavi & Iniesta
“We only had one defender, Abi – besides Andreu – so we decided to play this way, with a lot of ball circulation,” was Guardiola’s explanation for playing only Abidal as the recognized defender at the back against Villarreal. For a team that plays on possession, it is vital for everyone including the defence to be calm and patient under pressure and don’t rush the play. Abidal, Mascherano and Busquets precisely provide such an option for the team. Busquets is perhaps the modern incarnation of Pep Guardiola himself. He is the best modern defensive midfielder, who fits into this style of football seamlessly.
According to experts and fans this current squad lacks a central defender. But there was relatively very less interest to get one by the management. But Guardiola knows better. Both Mascherano and Cesc’s signing was labelled as expensive bench warmers. But Mascherano played an important role in last season’s success. He may not have the same effect as Busquets in the midfield role, but he has been excellent as a defender. He might ultimately replace Puyol at the back. Not many defenders can adapt to Barca’s way of playing. It is a high risk strategy in a traditional sense.
The more detailed analysis of this team reveals the vital roles players like Keita, Abidal, Busquets and Mascherano play in the balance of this team. For the viewers, it is all about the flashy skills and tricks that is so evident high up the pitch from the likes of Messi and co. But the importance of players who are not so important for viewers is more evident to Guardiola – “Don’t touch Mascherano and Keita, they’re my little boys. They’re two sunshines.”