Flashback to 24 April 2012. It’s an hour before kick off in the second round of the Champions League semi final against Chelsea, who come to Camp Nou with a 1-0 advantage from West London. The Barcelona players and staff are going through last minute details when a small voice pops up in a corner. An excerpt:
Pep: Right boys, you know what you have to do. Pass, pass, pass. Patience, patience, patience. Triangles, triangles, triangles. And then play the final killer pass. I’m looking at you Xavi and Iniesta.
Iniesta: Si si
Alexis Sanchez (from a corner of the room): What about Plan B boss?
Gasps heard all round. Puyol looks scandalized. Sergio feels faint and has to be led out of the room.
Pep: BASTA! Cesc!
Fabregas nods and hurriedly takes Alexis aside.
Cesc: You want to be murdered man? Why would you ask such a thing?
Alexis (spluttering): But..but…
Cesc: Listen we are Barcelona. We have the skill, the flair, the women, the Sagrada Familia, La Rambla and fried white sausages. What we don’t have is Plan B. And don’t you forget that.
Cesc winks, ruffles Alexis’s hair like an uncle teaching his favorite nephew about life and moves on, leaving a bemused Alexis with his mouth open.
We all know what happened next. Chelsea stuck to their task, got a draw and went through to the Champions League final with a little help from a certain Didier. Even Fernando Torres scored (really). It’s all very well to give a hiding to every other team in La Liga over the course of a year. Or embarrass an European powerhouse that also relies more on skill and passing like the Arsenals and the Manchester Uniteds. But what about Plan B? What do mighty Barca do when they are out-muscled and out-jumped by a Drogba inspired Chelsea? Or tactically outsmarted by a Mourinho-coached Inter of 2009-10? They collapse. And they collapse without trying other ways to win. Why? There is no definite answer.
The purists would argue that this is the Barcelona way and they would rather see Barca go out of the Champions League than watch them stoop to the levels of their mortal opponents, that the way to play is the Barca way. Anything other than that is blasphemy. But is this stance justified at the cost of a Champions League winner’s trophy? Why this strategic myopia? Why can’t Barcelona accept that they have some weaknesses and cover them?
Pep Guardiola has parted company with the club and this now leaves Tito Vilanova and his very gouge able eyes in charge. It is a tough job. He has inherited a team bursting with talent and skill. So, winning week in week out will not be met with any special reverence. The Camp Nou faithful are used to it. Something Vilanova needs to work on is to come up with a Plan B to counter the threat offered by the likes of Chelsea, Madrid and Inter. If Barcelona were to play Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium, they would at times need a Plan B.
What does this mean? Without question Barca posses the skill, vision, flair, passing and ability to make the Potters wish they had started a cricket club instead. However, what Barca lack is a plan to outsmart a stubborn physical defence. Two out of ten times Barca would be unable to break Stoke down. And this is something that shouldn’t be happening, even once. It has happened in the past when they have been outplayed by Chelsea twice (Iniesta’s goal got them through in 2009 but Chelsea should’ve had two clear penalties) and comfortably seen off by Inter. Messi becomes anonymous, Xavi starts to try long shots, Sergio Busquets becomes more and more reliant on dives. Clearly it doesn’t work. The Barca game is such that it requires long periods of possession to unlock the defense. One shoulder push and the rhythm is broken and a counter attack is on. This is where Barcelona needs to fortify.
Their over-reliance on the tika-taka gameplay given the incredible success it has delivered is understandable. The hallmark of their game is passing through the middle. However, the problems were evident in that second leg semi-final against Chelsea. Xavi played more passes than the entire Chelsea team put together but wasn’t able to find that defence splitting pass that was needed. Chelsea packed their midfield and stifled Barca’s attacking threat through the center – which was their one and only plan of attack. What Barca needed that night was support from the wing-backs. If there is one thing lacking in Barca’s attack, it is classical wing play. They need a winger who can get behind the opposing full-back and deliver a telling cross for teammates making a run from the deep to stick the ball into the net. There is talk of Barca’s newest recruits from La Masia possessing terrific pace and technique. The likes of Cuenca have been earmarked as the wingers who will give Barcelona the width needed for games where opposing teams pack their midfield in the middle. The wing-backs too need to be more inclined to get past their opponent counterparts. Too often does Dani Alves pass the ball back to the central incumbents. Barcelona needs to strengthen by adding more players who can get past opposing wing backs and cross the ball in. Gareth Bale would be a very good player who fits that bill. One can only hope Jordi Alba adds that dimension to Barcelona’s attack.
Another option they should look at is having a big centre-forward who can use his strength to hold the ball up and spray it about. In Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Barcelona had the perfect player for that role. And he scored a good number of goals that season at the Nou Camp. Maybe Guardiola saw the tika-taka game with a false number 9 a better option than stick with Zlatan week in week out. However, having a player like that as backup is a viable option. Athletic Bilbao use it very effectively with Fernando Llorente. With Zlatan gone, Barcelona should invest in a target man who is good enough to hold the ball up against world class opponents and at the same time is willing to play second fiddle to David Villa/Messi or Alexis Sanchez in the centre-forward position. Stephen Kiesling comes to mind. Even an unsettled Edin Dzeko could be lured. Barcelona needs to make transfers with Plan B in mind.
And they have started. One worry for Barca is their defensive frailties to the counter attack. Jordi Alba is already a Blaugrana. Another signing with the intent of having more defensive minded options is Alex Song. With Seydou Keita no longer in the team, Song is the defensive midfielder who will give serious competition to Sergio Busquets. At 24, he also gives long term security to Barcelona in that position. He is the deep lying midfielder who will provide cover to the defense and also contribute through his defense splitting passes. And boy can he pass. Just ask Robin van Persie and the Arsenal team. Or have a look here:
Busquets himself is a capable passer. However, Song provides the added defensive strength and steel to his passing ability. Song can complement Xavi, Iniesta and Messi’s short passing genius with the long balls to the wingers making runs behind the defenders, thus making Plan B complete. Song’s quick long passing will add a solid counter attacking angle to Barca’s usual build up play. Song also provides defensive cover in the Barca team which has relied on Javier Mascherano to fulfill their defensive needs last season. Although Mascherano did a fine job, Song will add aerial presence and threat from set pieces giving that new dimension to the Barca game.
These are probably the players Barcelona should look at to strengthen. The likes of Cuenca can be groomed further with such a setup and this will allow Barcelona more depth in their game. Cue Tito Vilanova.
Written by Guest Author Dushyant Sinha
Follow the author on Twitter: @KingEric86