Versatility in a Pinch: 2011-12 Squad Preview

I've created a monster

I’ve never made any qualms about my belief that Pep Guardiola knows a hell of a lot more about this game than I do, and specifically about this team. So when Mr. Guardiola (see, we’re classy like the NY Times) creates his squad I tend to defer to his judgment, possibly to a fault, but that’s just me. This offseason has been no different for me, but for others it has provided no shortage of acrimony, second-guessing, hand-wringing, and general malcontentedness. Calls for more defenders, or less spending, or taller players have largely fallen on deaf ears whilst Pep has promoted 2 and brought in another short winger and the long lost midfielder. Some of these complaints have merit (however little), others however, are your basic fan complaints that ring of a spoiled adult in need of a solid soap-in-a-pillowcase beating. By looking at the components the team has and the different lineups that may be used, I intend to show that not only does the team have much greater depth this year, but is also far more skilled than last year’s Double-winning side.

A few points need to be made before we dig in. First, I am not possessed by the tactical expertise of say a Euler, so this will not be quite as in depth as one of his posts, and it may also contain some minor issues, and for those I apologize. Second, and more importantly, there is one man in charge of the squad for this team, and that is Pep Guardiola. The moves to focus on promoting new players (Thiago and Fontas), add wing depth up front (Sanchez), and bringing Fabregas back as a backup for Xavi, Iniesta, and even at DM, are his moves. Admittedly, we also have to assume that the Angel deal fell apart or never occurred because of Pep’s hand, not Rosell’s. This should also be of some great comfort to fans who fear that Pep is always going to leave next year. Either Pep is the great benevolent one, building his dream team as one of the most talented club football sides in history and leaving it for Luis Enrique in a few months, or he’s here to stay barring unforeseen circumstances. You may decide how the team-building bodes for his future with the club for yourselves.

Since the beginning of Mr. Guardiola’s reign he has reshaped the squad in his image of what it should be, one that is free flowing in attack, carries all the possession, and makes onslaughts look easy (incidentally, I see Villa-Boas making this exact same transition at Chelsea so long as he’s given enough time). And looking back the evolution is stunning.

Essentially, this is Pep’s survival of the fittest. Regardless of whether he knew all these pieces were necessary at the beginning or if it dawned on him at some point in between, he’s doing a good job of cobbling it and his tenure is rife with examples. I’m personally unsure if he ever really wanted a true 9 in the lineup, but it now appears to be done for the rest of his coaching career here. Even with Eto’o and Ibrahimovic, they were asked to also take up more outside positions over time, and the Eto’o/Ibrahimovic transfer sagas proved to be a worthless distraction for the club, but it may have finally pushed the 9 out in favor of the false 9 of Messi (and I hardly doubt anyone can complain with those results). The closest thing to a 9 on the team now is Villa and I am sure it will stay that way for the foreseeable future.

The signing of Alves is another example, though the player hasn’t changed, his role has, moving higher up every season, until 2010-11 when he was 3rd in La Liga in assists. Pep wanted that roving RB and he got the best one available, who is now the best one in the world. Additionally, he has used the DM position, specifically with Busquets, to turn into a third centerback or sweeper during matches, allowing both wing backs to move forward, turning the formation into an adjusted 3-4-3.

The youth movement has also become part of Guardiola’s MO managing the club. Pep of course managed Barça B before he came to the A side, and this has informed his promotion and transfer policies ever since. When a B player has become ready and an opening happens at the top, the team has opted for going within the organization instead of without. Gone were the older players in favor of Pedro, Busquets, Jeffren, and Pique, who were all deemed ready to contribute depth. Obviously, not every transfer has followed this trend (read: Alves, Keita, Villa, Ibrahimovic, and Adirano), but viable youth options did not exist for those positions either. Thiago’s and Fontas’s promotions this summer only serve to reinforce this idea. With possible big name targets available elsewhere, the club went with proven youth to provide depth and coverage in two areas where it was needed.

Even when a transfer has been necessary, the most recent ones have been for youngsters like Cesc Fabregas (who like Pique grew up in La Masia, left, and was brought back), Alexis Sanchez, Ibrahim Afellay, and even an ancient-seeming Mascherano who is somehow only 27 now. This does not include the obviously large number of youth players who have appeared in non-promoted backup roles such as Sergi Roberto, Bartra, Muniesa, dos Santos the younger, etc. Should Pep stick around, expect more promotions in the offing in lieu of purchases.

These examples all inform our idea of the current squad, and here we come to the formations and tactics we might see this year. The current first-team players first year players are: Valdes, Pinto, Pique, Puyol, Fontas, Alves, Abidal, Adriano, Maxwell, Busquets, Mascherano, Keita, Fabregas, Thiago, Xavi, Iniesta, Sanchez, Afellay, Messi, Villa, and Pedro. Outside of GK, only Alves, Maxwell, and maybe Messi play one static position, whereas the others are versatile, playing in multiple positions and areas. This is the key to the smaller squad that Pep carried last year (though this is up 1 players from the primary 20 he started with last August) and the reason the team has avoided adding another defender. Viewing the squad as a series of evolutionary steps to true versatility is the better way to look at it, instead of one-off moves meant to fill a hole or two for the interim.

Starting with what is typically thought of as the “strongest” formation for the squad, or what it would have been last year. I use the scare quotes because I feel this year’s strongest squad will be vastly different with the addition of Sanchez and the injury history of Puyol, but we’ll get there eventually.

"Traditional" 4-3-3

Now, the most routine complaint this offseason has been the lack of another defender after Milito left, but it’s one I feel that would be a luxury, not a necessity. Quite simply, the 5 “defensive” outfield positions are occupied by 10 or 11 players (depending on how you view Fabregas as a DM), almost all of whom play multiple positions well. Abidal has served admirably as both a roving LB and a CB, Masch as a CB and DM, Adriano as LB and RB, Fontas as a CB and LB for the B side, Puyol as a RB and either CB, Busquets as a DM or CB, and Pique at either CB position. The following formation represents one where Puyol, Pique, Abidal, and Xavi are all injured, and while it’s not perfect, it’s also not leaving super gaping holes either that some are claiming (seeing as something similar gave up 2 goals to one of the best offensive sides in the world a few days ago).

An injured defense

A similarly bad scenario was lived out on Sunday during the first leg of the Supercopa. The starting backline included Alves, Mascherano, Abidal, and Adriano, with Keita at the DM. Though Keita was abysmal in his position (and awfully out of play there), the others filled in admirably. And while I saw some complaints of “centerback-sized holes” being covered by last second stops (namely by Mascherano), I don’t see these same comments when Pique or Puyol are doing the last second stopping, which is nothing if not routine in Barça’s system. Other more nuanced considerations have to be made when looking at the CB as well, such as finding a cheap, experienced CB who would be willing to play very few games during a season as anything more than a last gasp option. I don’t see one and honestly believe that Bartra will be the next defender the team gets, by promoting him from the B side.

Then of course we have Fabregas. So much has been made about this transfer, both tactically, philosophically, monetarily, and the like, but in simple football terms it is about midfield versatility. Cesc has traditionally occupied the attacking/playmaking midfield roles at Arsenal, meaning he may fill in for either Xavi or Iniesta if need be, and I believe we would see little in the way of a drop in productivity. He has shown a proclivity to do this before, if you’ll remember back to his play during the 2010 World Cup final. He combined with Iniesta magnificently, eventually doing so for the winner (on the same side of this coin, Thiago provides the same versatility for the club, it’s hard to overstate the value these two provide in this regard). A few will wonder about the necessity here, what with Thiago coming on recently and all that, but Xavi’s continuing achilles issues scare me, as does his age, and not long ago we knew Iniesta as “Mr. Glass,” so… It also behooves us to look to the bridge Fabregas provides between Xavi, Iniesta, and Thiago, a sort of “midfield continuum” as Sid Lowe words it.

Those ideas however, are somewhat obvious. The more nuanced approach is that Cesc can play as a deep mid in defense. As Kevin recently noted, Fabregas started out as a DM in the youth system, and while he’s not the large (Busquets) or hulking (Mascherano) type we are accustomed too, he could still work well back there in my opinion. The midfield would be more compacted to be sure, and Abidal would have to be cutoff from coming forward so as to provide backline support, but I don’t see this as too far-fetched, or even that bad of an option against certain sides that are not great on counter attacks.

Cesc as DM, compact MF

Even a lineup without Messi, an almost unthinkable proposition, is still formidable. Villa would likely slot into the middle of the forward trident, and play a more forward-looking role, instead of Messi who tracks back and takes the ball in midfield, he would play higher up and allow the wings and the attacking mid to provide the offensive link up. Villa played a similar role for the Spanish National Team during the 2010 World Cup when Torres wasn’t on the field. As I recall, he did so to some level of success. This formation would also see the wings push out a little wider and the midfield spread out slightly more. In all, missing Messi would hurt badly, but this lineup and alignment shows a lot of strength.

Messi out, Villa higher

These aren’t even the most interesting lineups that could be brought out. And the intrigue isn’t what matters the most, though I’m sure Mr. Guardiola will test that theory during some random Copa game. What matters is that the team has options in each third, a number of them. And even options at each separate position present themselves. Though they aren’t perfect and you wouldn’t want some of them as your first choice, they are versatile and they work in a pinch. During Pep’s tenure, the team has suffered injuries large and small and has found a plug in every instance, even when you might not have liked it very much. It has happened for 3 straight years, and I don’t doubt it will happen again during this season.

Image: Miguel Ruiz – FCB

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  1. August 28, 2011

    Should note: this was written on August 19 before any confirmations re: positions of some players.

  2. Gogah
    August 28, 2011

    2011-2012 : enter total football.
    pep wants to see out his obsession of
    fielding a 0-10-0!

  3. jordi™
    August 28, 2011

    Nice post.Its probably one of the most complete squads we’ve ever had.The only thing we really lack is another defender but one of the hoard of youth defenders should surely step in the next year or two.

    Malaga- Sevilla today 😀

  4. August 28, 2011

    Viewing the squad as a series of evolutionary steps to true versatility is the better way to look at it, instead of one-off moves meant to fill a hole or two for the interim.

    This is a terrific description of the strategic pattern that has emerged since Pep took over.

    Even now – it’s difficult to think of how brief his time in charge has been – it’s only 3 years. It feels like decades due to the level of success they’ve achieved and accomplishments.

    And so much has been written about Pep’s “track record” in the transfer market. But there really wasn’t that much data to consider or draw conclusions from. He only had a few transfer windows to even do anything.

    But with this more recent continuity of Adriano, Mascherano, Afellay, Sanchez and Fabregas along with the ascension of Busquets and the promotion of Thiago and Fontas a pattern is starting to emerge. There’s a consistency there that one can piece together and see the strategic vision come into play.

  5. Extreme barca fan
    August 28, 2011

    Just speculating here, but i think Pep would have liked to have one more solid CB, however, i guess he wanted Fabregas more, and knowing how tight the budget was, he didn’t want anything standing in the way of the Cesc deal, he didn’t want any excuses, if he bought a CB then there wouldn’t be any funds left to get Cesc.
    As i said, this is me just speculating, but i bet our next purchase will be a CB.

    • ciaran
      August 28, 2011

      I would absolutely love Thiago Silva as our big purchase next season, just saying

      • Extreme barca fan
        August 28, 2011

        Who wouldn’t, right now, he is arguably the best CB in the world.

        • ciaran
          August 28, 2011

          Either him or that Pepe fellow. He seems like a nice guy

          • Xingxian
            August 28, 2011

            Just yesterday I took a look at the wikipedia article on El Clasico. Oh, the history…

            Anyways… the precedent for Real Madrid’s level of wishing him well with his future adventures with his new club would be pretty low.

  6. BarcaGirl_Indo
    August 28, 2011

    first of all, I haven’t said thank you to Euler for his review.
    thank you, Euler. that was a brilliant piece.

    and this one from Kari is interesting.
    yes, we are so blessed to have not only talents and qualities on our squad, they are also versatile!
    on paper our team will be even better than last season.

    however, to win titles this season we need to have a season near to perfection.
    because our eternal rival is also getting stronger,
    it’s really really hard for me to see where EE will lose points other than against us.
    it’ll be a CRAZIE season.

  7. August 28, 2011

    Did anyone else watch that Sevilla/Maulaga match with the sound off? Someone should tell that chattering magpie that there is only one Ray Ray, and he ain’t it. Truly awful, and Negredo is starting things off with a bang. Looks like Maulaga have some more shopping to do.

    –People were questioning why Citeh would buy Nasri. He looks like the missing part of their puzzle. Strong match today, though it should be noted that Spurs spurned some excellent, excellent chances of their own today. That scoreline shouldn’t have been as lopsided as it was.

    –And that other Manchester team gave Arsenal a right smart hiding. I think that Arsenal will still be good enough for a top-5 finish, because the rest of the Prem will be beatable for them. But Citeh, United and Chelsea have improved rather dramatically this season.

    –If we pull of multiple trophies, or at least the Big Two (Liga, CL) it will be Guardiola’s best accomplishment yet. Major clubs have spent big money to compete with us (EE, Citeh, United, Chelsea) and have improved. The season will be verrrry interesting.

    –I actually feel bad for Arsenal. There is absolutely nothing you can say about the whipping they took today: not closing down on players, allowing too much space, a ridiculous back line positioning that allowed United space behind it, but without the aggressive play that comes with a high line, so Ashley Young could score two practice pitch goals. This is going to be a loooong season for them in the Premiership, unless they can learn to plump their record against the Evertons and QPRs of the world.

  8. Anonymous_69
    August 28, 2011

    Interesting. There are so many different possible ways we can play thanks to our players’ versatility.

    I think Sanchez should play at RB tomorrow. Between Sanchez and Pedro, I would choose Sanchez to play there. First of all, while they both pressure very well, they do it differently I think. Pedro will hunt down multiple defenders and force a long ball by the opposition. Sanchez seems “defender”-like in his pressuring though. He seems to be able to tackle very well (both sliding and standing), and he makes great interceptions. He drops his shoulder like Messi, except in a defensive way. Like, he will drop his shoulder to the left and make the player with the ball think “Ha! I tricked him, I now have space to pass the ball to the right!” and Sanchez will just shift his body back in time and take the ball. Also, Pedro seems physically weak. He can get pushed around a lot. Sanchez is pretty powerful and can hold his own.

    I don’t want JDS there. But Bartra can do well I think. He can be weak positionally, but he still has to be better than an attacker. Also, he is great on the 1v1s. He almost never gets beaten by a dribble, even when up against tricky wingers. And we know he is physically strong and fast enough to deal with Nilmar.

  9. can_we_go_Xalvies
    August 28, 2011

    I know Pep is going to just surprise us all tomorrow with his line-up, we’ll all start the game with our Keita-faces thats for sure.

    I’m banking on JDS to start at RB. with Alexis on the bench. While Alexis seems very good tracking back and defending, I don’t think he will fair that well playing at RB, the biggest problem for him is that he will be defending facing forward and most likely one on one. The other problem will be not getting caught way far up the pitch. All these problems occur from inexperience. Thus why I would prefer JDS to start because he has that slightly quicker anticipation of the opponent and he already knows a little bit about life at RB. Alexis will be on the bench for back-up purposes.

    Another option will be Montoya, Villarreal probably have the most quickest attacking players in la liga, its best to counter balance that with the Montoya who happens to be very fast on foot. But Pep may be wary about playing him because of the excessive amount of attention he has been accumulating recently.

    • Xingxian
      August 28, 2011

      “I know Pep is going to just surprise us all tomorrow with his line-up, we’ll all start the game with our Keita-faces thats for sure.”
      Messi at RB

  10. mei
    August 28, 2011

    Seriously people , you are suggesting that versatile attackers , who havent spent a second occupying RB position , should play that role against Villareal?

    • BarcaGirl_Indo
      August 28, 2011

      I’m not suggesting it, at all.
      but I won’t rule out the possibility of Pep doing it tomorrow. 😀

    • August 28, 2011

      The key question is what is the alternative? No one is making that suggestion in a vacuum.

      Someone has to play RB. Who?

      Puyol is getting better but reportedly cannot play until after the next international break.

      Maxwell – he also will not be available until after the break.

      So who plays?

      JDS? One could make a completely analogous statement to the one you did above about how ludicrous it is to play JDS against Villareal given his lack of experience at RB and lack of experience in first division football.

      But JDS practiced with the first team today. And it wasn’t because they were looking for further depth at central midfield.

      Bartra? Sure that’s possible. But one could also make an argument for why playing Bartra would be an awful idea. Barta has made three first team appearances – two of which were as a substitute. Two of those three matches were against awful La Liga sides. And on top of that RB is not even his most natural position.

      So this is pretty much making the best out of an awful situation.

      And it’s these kinds of potential situations which is why many of us wanted the team to add another first team defender this summer.

      But the situation is what it is so you have to find the best solutions given alternatives.

      Finally, it’s not like “right back” for barcelona is in any way a conventional right back position. Alves plays as a modified wing player as it is.

      So if you look at positioning and skill sets, Alves and Pedro for example have significant overlap to their game. Sanchez and Alves have substantial overlap in their skill sets.

      And what this Barcelona team well demonstrates is that skill sets are most often far more important than positional roles.

      This time last summer I was saying that Pep absolutely should start playing Mascherano at CB because if he didn’t it would be a problem later on in the year. That if Pep didn’t they would wing up needing to deputize Masch at CB later on in a crucial match.

      And the response to that suggestion (and I was not the only one advocating for it) often was – how many games has Masch played at CB for Liverpool? He’s got no experience there – can’t work.

      JDS and Bartra both have huge limitations as well against a team like villareal.

      It’s a problem. There’s no good solution. You just have to figure out what the best bandage is.

        • barca96
          August 29, 2011

          I think Bartra is a safer option than JDS. I don’t know. Bartra looks to be more natural at RB than at CB.

          Why is Dalmau leaving? I remember someone or maybe more than one from this family (BFB) were supporting Dalmau.

    • August 29, 2011

      Not surprisingly it was the Portuguese guy and a young chick
      I wouldn’t be surprised if she did that to earn a rendezvous with him later that night.


      I’ve read quite a bit of internet commentary today (pity me), and that still qualifies as the most crass thing I’ve read today. Come on, guy.

  11. ooga aga
    August 29, 2011

    Thought this was interesting, from an article on the official site posted today (my shoddy translation is below)

    Normativa abolida

    Desde esta temporada los jugadores que hayan jugado con el Barça B, aunque haya sido el mismo día que el primer equipo, podrán jugar con el Barça. Antes era necesario que hubieran pasado un mínimo de 48 horas para que un jugador pudiese jugar con el primer equipo.

    A partir de ahora, cualquier jugador que dos días antes, un día antes, o el mismo día haya jugado con el filial podrá jugar con el primer equipo si Josep Guardiola lo cree oportun

    “Beginning this season, players that have played with Barca B, even if it has been the same day as the first team, will be able to play with barca [first team]. Before, it was necessary that a minimum of 48 hours had passed for a player to be able to play with the first team.

    “From now on, whichever player that two days before, one day before, or the same day has played with the B team, will be able to play with the first team if Joey Guardiola finds it opportune”

    • ooga aga
      August 29, 2011

      the same article mentioned that Bartra, Dos Santos, Cuenca and Sergi Roberto trained sunday with the first team.

      • August 29, 2011

        I’m not sure if it was a rule or not, but the general concept of the whole thing is that the player doesn’t get injured. Putting in 2 full games with one day of rest can induce injury. So thats why usually its 48 hours, i believe.

  12. mei
    August 29, 2011

    @ euler , barcagirl_indo , clivee , barca96 :

    Well I have some major issues with using an attacker in the FB slot.

    It may sound right for a solution in a desperate situation, and given the time to install one at FB position he could even work after adapting , but the problems start to pile up on the same thoughts that make such solution seem viable at first:

    A forward that has a high workrate , is fast/quick/strong and excels in his defensive duties – why not use him at the RB?

    Well because those things dont really have the same definition when we are talking about the fullback position.

    When talking about defending forwards:

    Forwards in Barcelona are expected to apply pressure to force out mistakes.

    Its not really a problem if an opponent gets passed you since you have more people behind you to get the job done and he will be at an area that does not pose much danger.
    It also has to be noted that you are applying pressure vs mostly not the most tecnical / fast players out there (defenders and defensive midfielders).

    A fullback on the otherhand is expected to defend.

    He should either dispossess/challenge the attacker or force him make a backpass to restart play.
    This concept is applied against the fastest / most tecnical players of the opposition , the wide attackers like wingers and strikers.

    Like Rossi for example.

    Plus in that position , each time you miss an intervention there is significant risk for your team to enter a risky situation.
    Its the nature of the job: the opposition is so close to your goal line.

    Covering space/ creating space for your teammates also differs when talking about those two positions.

    In defense the FB must be very aware to always help forming an offside trap in what is definitely a quite high defense line.

    He must also be cautious enough to cover for his defense partners if one gets beaten.

    Fouls should be considered since there is the chance of sending off if the last defender , or providing the opposition with a shooting chance if close to the box.

    In attack you are a very important link to the start of our plays , and a core of the fast circulation this team has.

    You have to instantly and continuously move around to form triangles , open space for the midfielders and generally letting yourself available for when someone is in trouble and missing a teammate to pass.

    Finally passing.
    Its quite evident by stats that barcelona defenders hit great numbers when it comes to passing.

    They get involved a lot , and with great success.
    Its one of the reasons often forgot when we are praising our possession stats.
    Its not just xavi and co responsible there.

    Its also the defenders that dont give in clearing the ball when pressured , and always looking/moving to make sure it will reach the intended target with precision , and giving him the time to make the next one.

    A forward can mispace a few passes and he will have had a good match if he creates danger either by running against the opposition backline , or by attempting an assist or scoring.

    A defender is obliged to “assisting” his targets most of the time.
    And we are talking about lots of passes here.

    I think that Sanchez is a great passer.
    But that doesnt really matter when we are talking about RB.
    Its about how and when you will make that pass , and the guy hasnt spent time in that position to be aware of that.
    He hasnt even adapted to his forward position of the field , let alone providing him with another task already(allthough im sure that when he does we will be up for a great show).

    JDS might not be our best option for covering the RB position in the squad generally , but I think he’s the best one right now given the circumstances.
    His defending is good (as a RB!) if I recall correctly, his passing is good and his positional sense is ok.
    Im not expecting dani alves run , but nobody really does. Width will come from elsewhere, the attack line must cover for this.

    also about mascherano : he may not have played major minutes at CB , but except for the two positions being quite close – both on the field and on how mascherano takes care of his responsibilities as a DM- , the DM at barca is often found in the defense ,as the 3rd defender between the center backs. Bridging the gap between a DM and a CD is way easier than transforming a wide attacker into a RB in my view.

    • Ron Mexico
      August 29, 2011

      So perhaps JDS at RB and Sanchez hugging the touchline and providing defensive cover at RW?

      I like the idea of both Sanchez and Pedro starting this game on the wings. I know Villa has demonstrated he is a dedicated defender, but those two are still superior imo. And with the fullbacks we have available it might be important to give them help considering the threat Villareal poses from wide areas.

  13. barca4eva
    August 29, 2011

    A very good article even though it is a bit long. I do think from a pure offensive stand point, our strongest squad is one that includes Fabregas. Cesc presents a variety of threat for opponents either as an incisive passer, a good shooter and goal scorer. And his movement and understanding of situations is amazing.

  14. Blau-Grenade
    August 29, 2011

    As the biggest fan of Cesc, there are a couple formation that need mention. And it is where I have Cesc play the games as a substitue and score is the False 9 position, with Messi and Sanchez supporting on the flanks.

    This situation arises out of necessity. I noticed many games last season where Villa gets tired after 70 minutes and his game significantly deteriorates after that. The same applies to Pedro, and in his case, his energy is a crucial part of his game. In this case Cesc could substitute for either and take up the false 9 role. This would entail Messi to move to the wing. Which is what hapenned in the last match against Porto.

    RightBack CentreBack CentreBack LeftBack
    Mid Mid Mid
    Messi Cesc Sanchez

    I have seen Cesc drop back into the midfield to create a kind of 4-4-2 formation as well, this arose out of necessity in the second game of the SuperCup against Madrid. This hapenned mostly because Xavi and Iniesta did not have the legs to continue running the midfield.

    RightBack CentreBack CentreBack LeftBack
    Mid Mid Cesc Mid
    Messi Sanchez/Villa

    It is in these two formations that I see Cesc playing.

    As the season progresses, Pep will come up with many interesting formations, mostly based on opponents and tactics. I look forward to seeing the master tactician at work.

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