Match Review Barcelona 8 – 0 Osasuna: The End of an Era

The hard part about communicating is that you can’t do it alone.  It’s not talking, it’s not a monologue.  It’s different than dictation.  And no matter how much we try to tell ourselves otherwise, it’s not reducible to transmitting data or information.  Communication requires at least two people sharing and in our modern, networked, world it often requires many more intersecting to make something meaningful.

The hard part about communicating is that it requires someone else to not only hear, but to listen.  And ultimately to understand, so that we can grow together and hopefully develop some kind of knowledge we can share and turn into mutual understanding.  Knowledge that will be worth passing on.  At our best – that’s what we do.  Learn, communicate, share, understand and pass on what we’ve come to know.

Often, we like to think that what makes humans different and special is the complexity of our brains.  But that’s not entirely true.  For example, cephalopods – octopuses, squids, cuttle fish – have, in certain ways, even more sophisticated levels of neural elaboration than we do.  What they don’t do as well however is communicate.  Cephalopods are far older than humans as a species.  They’ve been around hundreds of millions of years.  But every cephalopod makes it’s way in the world on it’s own all over again.  They are social creatures – but there is no connection between generations – so they have no real society or culture.  They aren’t taught by parents.  Despite their wonderful brains, they don’t conserve what they know because they can’t communicate it to others in ways that will last.  They prowl away in the dark of the ocean, brilliant and alone in the time they’ve been given.

If there was one moment I’ll take away from Barcelona’s 8-0 victory over Osasuna it’s from the few seconds that transpired in the fourteenth minute.  The team had just scored it’s second goal two minutes before on a brilliant combination play from Messi and Fabregas. After it defended an Osasuna foray with Mascherano stepping up to intercept a pass and one touching it to start a dangerous transition in which Alves and Messi played a brilliant combinations of 1-2’s that almost saw Messi sprung free despite Osasuna having six defenders against the two Barcelona attackers.  Osasuna only stopped the break by clearing the ball wildly out of play.  The moment I’ll remember took place right after as Mascherano moves forward to take the throw in and Fabregas pinches into the touchline to receive the throw:

 

Guardiola Never Satisfied, Not Even Up 2-0

 

Up 2-0, this is Guardiola.  This is the intensity.  The team has just finished a breathtaking display of imagination and skill – and it’s not enough.  But Pep isn’t dictating.  It’s not a monologue. What you can’t see in these still shots is how Mascherano stands and listens to Pep – and after gesticulating and pointing with his hands to his chest to make his own point, Mascherano starts to nod in agreement with his manager.   Mascherano isn’t just hearing.  He’s listening.  He’s a world class player – and he’s still learning.  And Guardiola is listening back.  And because of that Pep isn’t simply speaking or dictating – he’s communicating.  He’s teaching.  He’s again demonstrating what true leadership is about.

And just outside that pair is Fabregas who is listening to what Guardiola and Mascherano are discussing and amplifying that message on his own, passing it on to the team by repositioning them.  And Guardiola isn’t just done with Mascherano – he ends up communicating with Cesc with the same intensity, never satisfied, despite the new Barcelona number 4 having just put a sublime finish on the ball to secure the second goal.  It’s not enough.

Nothing can ever be perfect – but that doesn’t stop perfection from being the goal.

What makes it all work is respect and trust.  The team doesn’t take Pep for granted and laugh off his perfectionist concerns or take them for granted.  They listen.  They learn from the experience, insight and intelligence he possesses.  And out on the pitch that makes them less alone.  They don’t have to prowl around on the pitch in the dark and relearn everything for themselves.  There’s a system, there’s principles, there’s ideas that have been sustained and shared with patience over time.  There’s a leader they believe in, who teaches, one that they respect in turn.

What this small moment – up two nothing but still working to towards the impossible goal of perfection – shows is the process through which mutual understanding is created in an organization, how it evolves out of knowledge, dedication, accountability and trust.  Technical skill, ball possession, high pressure defense.  All of these things are a means to an end.  What Barcelona’s greatest competitive advantage in fact is, is this mutual understanding built out of a culture of learning, sharing and communicating that Guardiola has shaped.

 

The Story – Or So It was Said

Complacency.  That was the storyline headed into this match.  A few seconds before the screen shots shown above were taken the Sky Sports commentator asked whether or not up 2-0 Barcelona would get complacent?

2-0 up.  Dominating the match.  Just scoring a brilliant goal.  Look at Guardiola in those images, his expression.  Look at his players listening, learning, communicating.

Complacency is part of a story that bears little relationship to the truth of this team.

But on the heels of two 2-2 draws complacency was the narrative at hand.  The narrative we heard in the media, amongst supporters of other clubs, and yes, even amongst cules.  The end of an era.  The cycle was closing.

Those two matches couldn’t be two instances of where the team was just off.  They couldn’t just be because the Barcelona system requires such intricate orchestration that it takes a few matches to fully grow into – even for players who have played the system for years.  They couldn’t have been instances demonstrating how the team is human after all and far from perfect or infallible.  They couldn’t be indications of how hard it is to maintain the level of brilliance this team has made to seem the norm rather than the exception or how thin the margin is between success and failure.

Memories of the slow starts this team gets off to almost every season disappeared in the clatter.  Why remember last seasons slow start when there’s no time any more in our culture of instant reaction and “analysis?”  Why consider the limitations of small samples of games? Why do any of that when there’s a prefabricated narrative already out there built waiting to be inhabited?

This is a very old story many are waiting (hoping?) to see this Barcelona club lapse into.  Olbos.  Hubris.  Phtonis.  Ate.  Nemesis.  The Greek tragic cycle.  It’s a story structure that’s part of our world, it’s one that the media and people are constantly searching for.  It’s become a backbone of the manufactured narratives that underpin so much of what “communication” passes for on the internet.  And the key stage in that cycle is Hubris – it’s that kind of arrogant pride that triggers Nemesis, the ultimate calamity, the fall, the end

Arrogance.  It’s a word that many are constantly trying to pin on this Barcelona squad.  Even when Guardiola and the players complement the opposition – it’s not humility. It’s false humility!  Which is just another form of arrogance, it’s hubris.  Just wait – Barça’s success is going to finish one day – and it could be soon just look at the arrogance.  Even cules frequently attribute the few moments of lesser performance the team has had to complacency and hubris.  It’s arrogance that proceeds the end, the fall, and cules are often still too insecure to believe in what we have right now.  So they are prone to see a quality which is more a function of their perspective than the reality the team lives with.

Complacency.  The beginning of the end.  That was the story for many coming into this match.

The book end moment from this game I’ll remember took place int the final moments of the match.  In the 88th minute Mascherano played a long ball out from the back in the air to Messi in the center circle.  Messi is marked with a player at his back and tries to one touch a volley pass to Alves on the right wing.  It’s a poor pass – far too much pace and in the air on a line – the ball is clearly headed out of play.  Up 8-0 in minute 88 what does Alves do?  Does he just let the ball go out of bounds?  No.  He attempts to bicycle kick it back over his head to keep it in play because if he can just keep it in play he can spring Messi for a break away opportunity.   He will not give up on the ball – because that’s what he’s learned, that’s the culture he’s part of and his effort is of course part of what has shaped that culture.

As Alves attempts this bicycle kick pass, Thiago is standing a few meters away watching Alves’s dedication.

Complacency.  The end of an era.

Thiago learning from the example of one of the hardest working players the game has seen over the past few decades.  The youngest player on the pitch watching and learning.  And in doing so not needing to figure quite so much out for himself or on his own because it’s being communicated to him through tangible examples of the players around him and the words of his manager – none of whom is ever satisfied.  You can always play better.  That’s the message, the real narrative.

Of course this project and this level of performance won’t last in perpetuity.  Nothing does.  But complacency and arrogance aren’t part of this team’s picture of performance.  It’ll end.  Because everything human does – not because they are fated to fall into a prefigured story others are tying to write them into.  There’s no evidence for that at all.  All we can observe is a manager and a squad that is committed to defining the story of their own kind of wonder.

 

Match Analysis

Barcelona came into this match significantly shorthanded with Iniesta, Pique and Sanchez all injured.  And even with those players missing they put on a display of footballing brilliance that few if any other teams in the world could produce. I’m not even referring to the scoreline.  I’m referring to how it happened and the quality of play.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect to the match was that in an 8-0 game, the highlight wasn’t even any of the goals.  The high point of the entire match took place between minute 22 and 24 when Barcelona executed a sublime 31 pass sequence where all ten outfield players passed the ball, moving it fluidly for nearly two full minutes without Osasuna being able to touch the ball.  Just think about that. Two minutes represents 2.2% of the entire match.  The sequence ended with Messi completing pass 31 – a wonderful through ball springing Fabregas for what should have been the third goal only to see the keeper just deflect Fabregas’s attempt.  This was one of those sequences where you really hoped the team would score because it would have gone down as an el rondo like highlight remembered for decades.

It’s easy to blame Osasuna and just dismiss their effort.  Clearly they were overmatched and in a game this lopsided a systems level issues are clearly in play that make a match so imbalanced.  8-0 and Barça had 82% ball possession.  And the score could have been much worse as Barça hit posts several times and had dangerous opportunities they could have been completed.

The primary systems level issue was that Osasuna attempted to play in a positive fashion and do so in a way they are relatively accustomed to playing.  That involved playing a relatively high backline.  But they played that high backline without being able to pressure the ball higher up the pitch.  That is a disastrous combination but one that we see not infrequently against Barcelona because simply put – the ball movement is of such technical quality that it can be very difficult to pressure the ball – especially as Barcelona wears down the legs of the opposition.

The less ball possession you have – the more you chase.  The more you chase the more you get tired.  The more you get tired the less you can pressure.  It’s a kind of vicious death cycle out on the pitch.  Once a team enters that spiral it’s impossible to get out.  That’s the tension Barcelona puts the opposition under.

That said – Barcelona played a sublime match and you simply cannot take anything away from what they did.  To Osasuna’s credit they didn’t give up the entire match.  It wasn’t as if Osasuna just stopped playing and it’s not as if they lose in this fashion to other teams.  So yes goals number 7 and 8 were poor defending and goal four was an Osasuna own goal.  Barcelona still scored 5 goals – goals that would have been scored against many teams due to the quality of execution.  Barcelona was just that good and when they execute at this level they are nearly impossible to play.

 

Match in Microcosm

The fifth goal was a great example of the quality of play Barcelona executed through.  That sequence tells the story of the entire match in microcosm so let’s take a look at it in detail.

Osasuna starts the play with possession.  Thiago makes a strong forward from his deep quasi-right back position (more on Thiago’s positioning later) to run and intercept a pass high up the pitch.  Thiago cannot fully control the ball though.  He loses possession to an Osasuna player.   However, Thiago continues to fight hard to regain the ball.  He will not stop.

Thiago has been on a remarkable stretch of play since the Under-21’s this summer.  But the area where he has most impressed so far this season has been defensively.  It was the area of his game he needed the most work on and he has become a much more committed defensive player.  You can see that he understands that in order to play on this team you must defend and you better make the effort to do so at all times – because you are playing with the best players in the world and they are all breaking their backs to defend when needed regardless of their superstar status.   The image below shows the key aspect of the play:

 

Thiago and Fabregas Working Hard to Press Up High While Barca is Leading 4-0

Barcelona is up 4-0 and in complete control of the match.  The half has less than five minutes to go.  None of that matters.  Thiago continues to chase down the ball and Fabregas drops back to join Thiago in hunting to repossess the ball.  Fabregas misses the tackle but it forces the player with the ball into a poor touch.  Thiago stays on the play and then Xavi steps up as the next wave of pressure.

Thiago Keeps Working to Defend as Xavi Joins as the Second Wave of Pressure

Again – the effort is remarkable.  Xavi is 31. He’s one of the world’s five best players.  And in a game that is no longer in doubt he’s defending aggressively.  This is one of the qualities this differentiates Xavi even from other great central midfielders in the game’s history.

Once again facing a 1 vs. 2 situation, the Osasuna attacking player finally loses the ball.  This is a pattern we see over and over.  The opposition player may survive the first wave of pressure but it’s the second wave that does him in.  The key is Thiago’s persistent work staying on the man.  The play started on the right flank and Thiago has tracked and defended all the way to the center.

Because they repossess the ball so high up the pitch Barcelona creates transition play in very dangerous areas with the opposition poorly positioned to defend.

Dispossessing the Ball Up HIgh Allows Xavi to Move into Space - Note Osasuna's Disorganized Shape Due to the Speed of Transition

Above, Xavi is able to find open space because Osasuna, caught in transition, cannot maintain any shape nor can they systematically mark.  We often talk about Barcelona defending through possession.  This is a great example of how Barcelona creates attacking opportunities through their defense.  It’s a system in which both phases of the game work off of each other.

One of the subtle keys to the goal is shown in the image above.  An important aspect to the space Xavi finds and ultimately the goal scored is the width Villa provides. Notice how the the right full back is unable to attack the ball or to come inside to a more narrow position.  He feels compelled to mark Villa and in turn this leaves a dangerous open channel in the defense.

Also, notice how the defense has clustered in the middle to form a compressed shape around Messi and Fabregas.  The priority of the defense is to make sure Messi and any player in the middle is located and defended.  And that makes sense and Osasuna did what a defense needs to.  But Barcelona has so many weapons there’s only so much a defense can do.  Thiago pressuring high up the pitch and working hard.  Multiple waves of pressure that turn the ball over in one’s own defensive third.  Villa stays wide needing to be marked.  Messi is central needing to be at least double marked.  Fabregas trails behind Messi needing to be marked to defend against a run from deep.  And the defense needs to do all of that in an instant in transition play.  Osasuna is in a very difficult position defensively because Barcelona’s defense worked so hard to win back the ball high up the pitch.

The fact that Barcelona is this good and can execute at this kind of level – and with this kind of dedication up 4-0 – makes remarks critical of the opposition’s effort and play very misguided.  It simply isn’t that easy to face this Barcelona squad when they are executing their game.  This is well shown in the next still shot:

Osasuna Regains Shape to Defend the Ball But Fabregas Exploits Space that Opens to Start Diagonal Run

Osasuna has regained shape, forming a wall of players in front of Xavi and two players marking Messi.  But this shape leaves a diagonal channel to Fabregas – a player who makes remarkable runs from deep to goal.  But leaving that open channel was a trade off Osasuna needed to make in order to create a barrier against Xavi.  And Fabregas does not let the opportunity pass – he reads the situational instantly and starts to make a diagonal run through that space in the prior image.

Osasuna then attempts to close down the player with the ball – again it’s what a defense needs to do.  But it’s not that easy when it is Xavi with the ball.  As the defense comes to close down Xavi, other space has to open.  And of course Xavi is not going to let that opportunity go to waste as he sees Fabregas’s run.

Xavi Threads Pass Throught the Channel that Is Open Because Villa Maintains Width

As brilliant as all of this set up play is and as good as Xavi’s pass is – for most teams this opportunity would go to waste.  In the still shot above note how Barcelona is badly outnumbered in the center around where the ball is played 3 vs. 8.  Osasuna has over twice as many players in extremely compressed space.  Osasuna correctly reads what’s happening and two players go to close down Fabregas.  And on top of that because space is so tight it is very difficult to control the pass Xavi has made.  In fact, Fabregas’s run arrives a hair faster than Xavi’s pass.  For most great teams the play would end here.  It would ultimately stop because the requirements for it to go on are too intricate, space too suffocated.  But this is what separates Barcelona from so many great teams.  They can play with a level of skill that is hard to believe possible.

Fabregas not only controls Xavi’s pass in tight space but executes an outrageous piece of skill to control the ball while pirouetting and in one motion passing the ball.  To get a better sense of how difficult it this was to do – how unlikely it was for a team to be able to finish this goal let’s take a look at what Fabregas did in close up:

Fabregas's Exquisite First Touch to Control the Ball Despite His Momentum

Fabregas has had to make a very high paced run because space is so compact. There’s only an instant for the play to come to life.  Everything must accelerate now to create an end product.  Because of that Cesc’s momentum is taking him forward when Xavi’s pass arrives and he’s in a an awkward position to control the ball.  For most players the ball is lost.  But this is only the start of the play for Fabregas.

Due to His Momentum Going Forward Fabregas Must Control the Ball By Playing it Behind His Back

Fabregas controls the ball with his right foot because his momentum is going towards the far touchline and he arrives at the spot a fraction of a second earlier than the pass.  In turn, the only way to control the ball is by playing it behind his back.  It seems absurd on face to think this is possible in such tight space but that’s exactly what he does.  He puts a remarkably soft first touch on the ball to cushion it behind his back.   As difficult as the overall defensive situation is – Fabregas is already envisioning a solution.

Fabregas Seamlessly Spins 180 Degrees to Control the Ball - Notice the Defenders Tight Positioning and Closing Down

Notice how closely Fabregas is marked.  The Osasuna defender is well positioned and is tightly marking the attacking player.  He isn’t doing anything wrong.  It’s just that Fabregas is that talented and has that much field vision and imagination.  In the same motion as the first touch he uses to control the ball Cesc starts a 180 degree turn.   Again – of the few players who could make that run and control that ball – most would have either lost it or would have tried to just shoot it just to get it on goal.  But Fabregas has imagined his way out of taking a shot from a constrained angle.

Fabregas Continues His Pirouette Now Being Closed Down Tightly by Two Defenders

Notice the defending.  A second player has come to close down the ball.  Despite the lack of space and two men on him Fabregas has managed to control and turn.  There is no hesitation.  He knows exactly what he wants to do as he plays a brilliant pass to Messi.

Fabregas Executes Pass to Messi - Notice How the Third Defender has Stepped Off Messi To Stop Fabregas from Shooting off the Turn in the Box

What’s perhaps most interesting about the still shot above is the positioning of the Raitala, the third defender now in the image.  It’s easy to criticize him for leaving Messi.  But look at how how his right leg is positioned.  The defender is clearly trying to stop Fabregas’s coming shot on goal.  As he sees Fabregas execute this brilliant turn his instinct as a defender is to stop the shot.  The attacker is turning successfully in front of goal.  Raitala’s responsibility as a defender is to get himself between the shot and the goal.  But the shot never comes off the turn.  Instead the ball is played to Messi who calmly finishes this scintillating sequence of play that started with Thiago’s effort and hard work and ended in Fabregas’s sumptuous piece of skill.

In the bright light of this kind of brilliance, complacency is a mirage for those desperately thirsting to believe in something that simply isn’t there.

Tactical Analysis

There were four tactical issues in this match of note that I’ll touch on briefly.

First, when the official line up came out it once again was uncertain how Guardiola would line up his squad and how they would function dynamically.  Barcelona was playing with four midfielders again as they did with against Villareal.  But in today’s game there was no Alexis Sanchez or Pedro on the wing.  It was only Villa and Messi up top.

Ostensibly this gave Guardiola a few potential choices.  Play Cesc as a false 9 with Messi wide. Or attempt to play Thiago or even Cesc in a wider position like Pep does with Iniesta.  The problem with either of these formations is that Barcelona would invariably lose width on the right.  Whether Messi, Cesc or Thiago – all would pull in centrally.  Width was a serious problem they had against Milan and it’s an issue Barcelona would likely encounter again with Pedro resting, Sanchez hurt and Pep electing not to start Afellay who is still early in his own recovery from injury.

Of course Guardiola did none of the above.  Instead, he utilized Dani Alves as a right winger rather than as a full back, something he hasn’t done in a very long time (perhaps not since the Madrid match in 09/10?).  Alves played well in advanced of Thiago the entire game. Below is the average positions on the pitch for Barcelona:

Average Positioning for Barcelona

Alves played in a much more advanced position than Thiago all match.  In fact Alves on average was stationed higher up the pitch than even Villa was on the left (which is a testament to how much work Villa did to defend to decrease the burden on Xavi and how well Thiago defended behind Alves).

And this wasn’t only an issue of Alves finding space and moving forward on the overlap from full back.  The still shot below captures who the team initially lined up to start play:

Barcelona's Initial Starting Set Up: Alves is Clearly Stationed as a Right Winger With Thiago Deeper

Note Alves’ positioning – he is at the midfield line and pulled very wide to start play.  He is positioned as a winger.  Thiago is behind him and pinched inwards as the right sided player of the midfield diamond.  This is yet another interesting way Guardiola has addressed the issues of depth and injury that the team has faced to start this match.

And Alves’ rewarded Pep’s trust greatly.  He played a brilliant match from the wing position.  He played in a highly controlled fashion and provided absolutely vital width on the right flank.  With Busquets back at the holding role and assuming the base position, Barcelona played a much more structured midfield diamond than they did against Villarreal, a match in which Thiago positioning was highly fluid as he often dropped deep to support Keita and also often pulled very wide.  The problem with midfield diamonds is that they can become very narrow very easily.

Over and over Alves made runs from wide and used the ball to force open an Osasuna defense that itself was attempting to stay very narrow.  In fact it looked as if Alves’s positioning was something that not only surprised Osasuna, but something they had a great deal of difficulty adjusting to.  Alves’s one touch assist off the flank was a great example of that.   Throughout there was confusion on the Osasuna left side about how to balance playing Thiago and Alves.

Second, using Alves as a winger with four midfielders meant that Pep opened game with three in the back in terms of formation.  This was interesting because while Villarreal used two strikers, Osasuna played roughly a 4-2-3-1.

Against a one man striker formation two serious tactical problems can develop.  First, in situations where you are 3 vs. 1 against the striker there is an extra defender at the back.  Second, the opposition can in theory push forward four attacking players against your three man back line and one holding player leaving you 3 vs. 4 or 4 vs. 4 which generally are weak defensive positions to deal with.

Given how much possession Barcelona was likely to have and the fact that  they defend so well as a team, that second problem was a secondary one. But the first problem could be an issue if Barcelona played a conventional three man back.  Which of course they didn’t.  The key to how team efficient Barcelona could be was Abidal’s function.

With Alves so high up the pitch and Thiago inexperienced in his role, and Puyol recovering from a long lay off, Abidal had to make sure he could support the other two defensive players.  At the same time he had to be able to push up to provide width as he was going to have time and space on the ball.  Abidal read the game very well.  On numerous occasions he made dangerous runs forward – and he did so largely when Villa would pinch in wide off the left.  This prevented Barça from losing width when Villa moved central, particualarly as  Xavi was also usually pinching in off the left portion of the midfield diamond.

Third, when Afellay came on for Xavi it was natural to think that Guardiola would change shape.  Afellay would play in a wing position as he almost always does with Fabregas dropping deep to take over for Xavi.  However, that did not happen.  Instead Guardiola prioritized retaining shape, playing Afellay in midfield in Xavi’s prior  role and retaining Fabregas as the advanced tip of the midfield diamond so that he could continue to play fluidly with Messi up top.

It’s often been said that Fabregas would one day come in to “replace” Xavi or take his role.  That did not happen in this match.  Instead, from the evidence we have at hand, we may be seeing Fabregas invent an entirely new role for himself within the Barcelona system.  Fabregas has a very different skill set than Xavi and playing him deeper in a central midfield role can diminish some of the strongest aspects to this play.  We saw that against Milan.  In that match he played to “replace” Iniesta rather than playing his own game in a more advanced position.  That didn’t work well because Fabregas has a very different skill set than Iniesta.  The way the team played after Xavi came off suggests a high level of commitment to this fluid shape on Guardiola’s part.

Fourth, Thiago Alcantara is assuming an absolutely fascinating tactical role on this team.  In this four man midfield, Thiago is assuming a very fluid, multifaceted role.  Against Villarreal his job was to play deeper and support Keita and Mascherano when they had the ball.  He often played level with Keita as almost a second holding player.

Against Osasuna he again played as the right side of the four man midfield – but this time his role was very different. He was charged with supporting Alves in front of him.  He also had to be more mindful of covering space behind him as it was Busquets rather than Keita behind him.  While Keita is not as strong a holding player as Busquets, Keita does cover much more ground.  This gave Thiago additional defensive responsibilities.  And in this midfield role Thiago almost had to function as a modified right back.

The way Guardiola is utilizing Thiago is brilliant and it will do wonders for his development.  Thiago is learning to expand his game by playing in a more confined, disciplined role.  In a free, advanced role Thiago would continue to build on what he was already good at while also being forced to carry a great deal of the burden.  Now he is playing a critical support role that is requiring him to do things that he didn’t have to do in the past such as consider his positioning on the pitch, develop width for the team, and defend vigorously.  He is learning and becoming part of the culture of the team.  It is extremely impressive to watch.

 

Evaluation:

Team:  What’s there to say.  Scintillating.  A game we should remember for a long time.  More impressive than last season’s 8-0 victory over Almeria.  Their level of play was higher and how they hurt the opposition more diversified.

Guardiola:  Phenomenal.  After a week of hearing his team criticized in a flurry of squawking, Pep stepped center stage to defend them and then had them ready to play, designing a perfect plan to make up for the many injuries they were facing.  One of the world’s greatest managers showed again how he could develop a template to get the most from his team.

Valdes:  Didn’t have much to do given Barcelona’s dominance on the ball.  But as usual when he did have something to do he did it well.  His ball distribution was again a major plus.

Puyol:  Wonderful to have the Captain back.  The most important aspect of this match for Puyol was how he moved.  He looked free and was running well.  He fit back in as if he never left.  He was very composed in the center of the back three.  Still needs to be tested more but this was a very good game to get him extended minutes.

Mascherano:  Another great match.  His skill set maps so well to the way Barcelona want to play at the back.  He can play across the line – to the right in a three man line and then at the center when Puyol subs off.  His skills on the ball out of the back are tremendous for a defender.  If Messi-Fabregas is a very promising central axis in attack moving into the future, Mascherano-Busquets is almost equally so deeper on the pitch.

Alves:  Provided critical width and played at a very high level.  In a game this brilliant I hesitate to even pick a man of the match.  But tactically speaking – Alves was perhaps the key player.  His crosses and attacks off the flank were both consistent and high quality.

Abidal:  A slow start where he miscontrolled the ball and had some loose passes but once the game got into a flow he was outstanding.  He read the game extremely well and balanced attacking and defending wonderfully.

Busquets:  Was the player who often had the most time and space on the ball and was both composed and dangerous. It was great to see him play that dangerous attacking ball to Alves to start the first goal sequence.  Often Busquets can play simple balls to Xavi because Xavi is directly in front of him.  Today that wasn’t the case – Xavi was towards the left often in the four man midfield.  And Busquets was often the most central midfielder.  He expanded the scope of his game nicely to fill that role.

Xavi:  He’s the best central midfield player in the world.  And at the age of 31, he’s being asked to play a new role so that the team can evolve.  Look around the world at older players asked to modify their role and how difficult, if not belligerent, they can be about it.  It makes one appreciate Xavi even more.  He played towards the left today and often had to move wider than he usually plays to maintain balance on the pitch. He played a near flawless match completing nearly all of his passes and running the team brilliantly.  And on top of that he scored as well.

Thiago:  In some ways the most surprising player on the entire squad.  Coming off a great summer where he was running the Spanish u21 team brilliantly and scoring goals regularly it was hard not to be excited about what Thiago could do, especially after his strong preseason where he continued his form.  So far this season he’s been even better than we could have expected – he’s expanding his game in vital ways.  His two way play in attack and defense has been fantastic.  And he’s playing in a more composed controlled way.

Fabregas:  His impact on games through his movement is remarkable to watch.  His game is entirely different than Iniesta’s but he produces a similar kind of effect.  Iniesta can destabilize entire teams through his close control of the ball and vision.  Fabregas doesn’t have Iniesta’s ball control, but he can completely bring the opposition to ruin by destabilizing them through his runs and vision.  His interplay with Messi has the chance to create an entirely new central axis of play for Barcelona.  The fluidity of their interplay, its innovation and their respective ages makes this partnership one that could be the kind of relationship we talk about as a part of the history of the game one day.

Villa:  Strong game.  Villa worked hard to get himself in good positions both offensively and defensively.  Had a tricky role today given the need to provide width, support play centrally as players moved dynamically and track back to defend, especially when Abidal was pinched in as part of a three man back line.  In some ways he played the defensive role on the left that Thiago played on the right but did so from a more advanced position.

Messi:  What’s left to say.  He’s just so messi.  The world’s greatest player played one of his finest matches.  He scored a hat trick and still played unselfishly assisting on two other goals and creating numerous chances with his passing.  On any other day, Man of the Match but given how amazing Xavi was and Alves were and the whole team was there’s no individual to select.

Afellay:  Still getting up to speed after a long lay off which saw him miss most of his first preseason with the club.  Had a slow start where he was very poor but picked it up some as he got time on the pitch (or at least he stopped misplacing every pass).  Not only is Afellay coming back after missing the entire preseason, but he now has to integrate himself into a team that is playing differently from the squad he joined last winter.  It’s a huge transition for a player, made more complicated by Pep using him in midfield rather than out on the wing.  Afellay has spent very little time in midfield for Barca and it showed.

Adriano:  Played well when called upon but didn’t need to do much moving forward.  Read the game right and prioritized defending.

Maxwell:  Good to see him back on the pitch.  Like Afellay was adjusting back to match speed.  Very nice to have his experience to call on to rest the starting players.

The End:

The end of an era.  That was the talk coming into this match.  And in some ways that’s exactly correct – though for entirely the wrong reasons.  Complacency?  This team was having none of that.  Instead they are feeling their way into how best to incorporate new talent and to expand the dimensions of what they can do on the pitch by evolving their system to implement their managers driving vision.

So in some ways this is an end of an era.  This Barcelona team will not sit still and just rest on it’s accomplishments.  It continues to strive and improve.  An end to an era?  Yes. In as much as this is a team which has a tangible chance to be even better than it was the past three seasons.

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131 Comments

  1. Dani_el
    September 22, 2011

    Ibrahim Afellay has injured/ripped ligaments in his left knee during training. He will most likely have surgery tomorrow #fcblive

    Damn, this is awful.

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