With the third successful season completed, Pep Guardiola is now enjoying a well-earned break with his family. But his task for the upcoming season will be an even more difficult one. The team will soon begin their pre-season followed by another round of El-Clasicos and an intense first round of La Liga games awaits the Spanish and European Champions. He has always managed to make his midfield dominate the game.
But can his midfield do the same again?
Ever since Guardiola took over this team, his policy has been very clear – impose their football style over any opponents no matter who and force them to react. His main weapon is his midfield. A combination of patient football trying to control the game and create as much chance as possible. No team has managed to force them onto the backfoot yet. The one team that has managed to stand up to them in terms of possession is Valencia. The last time Barcelona managed to record a possession of less than 50%, it was way back in 2008 against Valencia. Since then, they have never recorded a lower possession stat till date. Since then, Barcelona have managed to control the ball and the game and have managed to dominate opponents.
Patience is the Key
This obsession for possession has always been there ever since Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff introduced the total football concept at Barcelona; but Pep has managed to push the limits.
The strategy of controlling the game may look simple on paper, but it is one of the hardest things to implement on the field. The proof is everywhere. There are very few teams who successfully employ this strategy and even fewer who are succeeding with it. The key, however, is patience.
For a footballing side, scoring goals is always an objective. Moving the ball quickly towards the direction of goal seems to be the primary objective for all. A sideways pass is looked upon like an inferior pass. ‘Anyone can play a sideways pass’ seems to be the argument. This is where Pep’s team has managed to hold its own identity. Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta can pass between themselves for the whole 90 minutes if 100% possession is the objective of this game. Such is their belief in possession.
The team moves forward looking for an opening and if none is available, they are more than willing to go back, start again and try finding another route. The opponents are forced to be always on their toes as they are well aware that the ball is with Barca and a slip in concentration will see the likes of Messi, Villa and Pedro running at the goal. The sideways pass is what keeps the possession going. It is not just for the sake of passing. They constantly move the ball so that the opponent is dragged all over the pitch. They tire them out mentally and physically. They are so patient that the opponent finds it confusing, sometimes. A usual football team comes right back with so much force when they find themselves behind. But not Barca, they trust so much in taking out the opponent’s defensive shield one by one rather than trying to blast it open in a go. Such patient approach is so hard to install unless the whole team is aware and convinced with this idea.
In short, Pep’s team is a cruel machine trained to kill the opponents slowly. “Passed to death” and “death by thousand passes” are some of the new phrases describing this team.
Barca are not unbeatable
After the Champions league final, everyone seems to be asking the same question; how to stop this Barcelona team?
Every match begins with an analysis that: “They can be beaten”, “XYZ has beaten them once, so they can be beaten”, “Their weakness is their defense”, “If you deny them space, you can stop them”, “They are not unbeatable”, etc. There are more than enough opinions on how they are not unbeatable.
But Pep and his team knows that they are as vulnerable as any team on the pitch. Experts talk of Barca’s high line as a risky factor and they are vulnerable to counter-attack, but sometimes fail to acknowledge that a team defending without the ball is taking a more riskier task.
There is not a single team in this world that is unbeatable. Everyone will lose at some point in time. Guardiola’s tactics seems to very much acknowledge this point. He is as pragmatic a coach, as one can get. He is scared of losing as much as any other coach. But the path he has chosen to not getting beat is to go for the win. A team can very well set out to not get beat; but it takes courage to go out trying to win. Pep believes that if you control the game and the ball, the result is in your hands. You decide what to do and if you lose, it’s because either you were not good enough on that day or the opponents were better. This is what has given this team a belief in this system.
The control centre
A midfield consisting of Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta is currently the best that is available. The football world is blessed with so much talent. And there are a number of top-class midfielders who are as good or even better than the trio individually. But when it comes to controlling a midfield, nobody has managed to stake a claim as these three have done consistently over three seasons.
Pep’s current midfield option consist of Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Thiago, Keita, Mascherano. There is no shortage of creativity or game control. But Xavi is the real key when it comes to game control. There are currently no players like him. Supporters of Fabregas would probably claim that Fabgregas is better than Xavi quoting his high assist stats and goal-scoring ability. However, Xavi’s role with Barca is very different than most perceive. There is no doubt that Fabregas is superior in some aspects of the game when compared to Xavi, but when it comes to the ‘Xavi’ role, Cesc is not yet there yet.
The coming season would bring in an even tougher test for this midfield. During Pep’s first season, his team managed to out-pass everyone and record an average possession of about 64% which later increased to 68% in his second season and the past season it was further increased to an incredible 74%. This shows how much control Pep is looking for in a football match.
Kick starting the engine again
Pep Guardiola is currently holidaying in Italy and will soon be back to restart the machine that has been given a break after a non-stop run last season. An even tougher season awaits, with additional competitions jammed in-between the already-packed season. Can the midfield that has made everyone run for cover do it again? Only time will tell. But one thing is for sure, Pep Guardiola will restart the machine with the an additional instruction – i.e. to increase the possession stat further and exert even more control over a game. Although they will find it harder to do the same this time around, we all know Barcelona will do one thing.
Push the game to its absolute limits.