Early rounds of the Copa Del Rey can be strange affairs. The primary goal of course is to win. But in the opening to the Copa other priorities and opportunities also come into play. The chance to rest first team regulars or to feature youth team players present themselves. As such it is always a challenge to interpret both the results and how the team plays.
In the opening match of the this year’s Copa, Guardiola started two B team players, gave Fontas his first opportunity to play in nearly two months, and started Maxwell at left back. Otherwise, the Barcelona team that faced third division L’Hospitalet, was largely composed of the the top first team players available given that a number of players had already left for international duty.
As such, one would have expected Barça to come out and dominate the match, winning it easily. And in certain ways that’s what happened. Barcelona completely controlled the ball, dominating possession and the dynamics of the match. At the same time however, the match turned into a grind as Barça struggled to translate that dominance of possession into dangerous opportunities and goals.
Overall, the match had the feeling of one of those contests that invariably come about over the course of a long season. Barça played their game comfortably but simply lacked the energy and sharpness they play with when they are in form as a team. In turn they were unable to inflict significant damage. No squad can remain in perfect form all season long. And in a Copa Del Rey game moved forward a month due to the Club World Championship that is being played as the last fixture before the international break against a third division side, a muted performance was always possible. On the whole, it was just one of those sluggish matches in a long season that a team has to simply obtain a result and get through.
But given that Pep elected to use most of his available top line players and Barça’s recent concerning form away from home, this match continued to leave open certain questions that have arisen so far this season. Most of these questions are likely temporary or the function of the small sample of games that has been played to date. Nonetheless, those questions are currently present and will persist until the team starts playing regularly with the cutting edge they’ve achieved with such consistent brilliance under Guardiola.
Given that the South American based internationals and U-21 Spanish players were unavailable due to the upcoming country competitions, Guardiola didn’t have his full team to chose from. This was an odd Copa match. Originally scheduled to be played a month from now, it had to be moved to this earlier date due to the Club World Cup schedule.
Despite the missing players, Guardiola still had numerous options to select from and he decided to field a very strong line up, one that was almost as close to a full first team as he could given the missing players. Busquets and Abidal were the only regulars not to start and Busquets would later enter the game as a substitute.
Copa rules require that at least seven first team players start each match. Guardiola chose nine first team players. There’s likely multiple reasons for why Pep decided to field such a strong team – but one could have been the upcoming Copa schedule. The second leg of the L’Hospi tie is scheduled to be played at Camp Nou only a few days after Barça returns from the Club World Cup in Japan. Winning this game and doing so convincingly would allow Pep to rest players in that second leg when they will likely be exhausted as a team and reentering La Liga competition.
The Story of the Match: Barça’s Limited Direct Play
Barça controlled the ball and ultimately shaped the nature of the match. However, they were unable to decisively control the result primarily because their attack devolved into too much indirect play.
With its tiki-taka approach, Barça is always challenged with balancing one touch play underpinned by the philosophy of “receive pass, offer” with more direct forms of attack. In this match that balance was lost and too much of the attack was oriented through indirect play. Coupled with L’Hospi’s ability to maintain shape and discipline a narrow 1-0 score was the outcome of what on face value seemed a completely one sided contest.
It is always difficult to draw conclusions from any one match that are widely generalizable. However, part of what made yesterday’s match interesting was the absence of Messi. Given how many minutes he plays we rarely get to see the squad play without him. As such, though it’s only one game, it is worth considering the match in relation to certain issues that have arisen this season with regards to Messi’s role and function on the team.
Squads with historically great player will almost invariably go through periods when questions are raised as to whether or not they are too dependent on that foundational talent. Barça and Messi have been no exception. Messidendencia as we affectionately refer to it. While the notion has come up often in past seasons, this year it has come back to the forefront due to the proportion of the teams goals Messi has scored.
And it’s true. The team this season has been disproportionately dependent on Messi as goal scoring from the other forwards has collapsed. The key question to ask with regards to this overreliance on Messi is whether it is a problem or a symptom of other problems. Is it a cause or an effect?
For example, recently there’s been a great deal of conversation and rumor about Villa and Messi having “problems.” The general notion has been that Villa’s lack of scoring has been related to him trying to adjust to how Messi plays and his difficulty in playing a secondary role. From this point of view, Messi dominance of the team scoring is a primary issue, one that is complicates the performance of other players.
But that conclusion is difficult to validate due to confounding factors. The dependence on Messi may have emerged because other players are underperforming. Without Messi’s scoring the team would have a great deal of difficulty putting the ball in the back of the net as other players struggle. Indeed, for much of last season a dominant story for Barça was how Messi was creating goal scoring opportunities for players such as Villa and Pedro from his false 9 position. Both forwards had little difficulty scoring until last winter despite how often Messi himself was scoring.
Though it was only a single instance, the L’Hospi match shed some light on these questions. Without Messi in the line up, Barcelona wound up playing a much more constrained match featuring far fewer dimensions of play and complexity then they do when they are at their best.
Now this may seem like an obvious sentiment. But it is one that’s been questioned recently with regard to David Villa’s goal scoring difficulties. The notion that’s been raised is that Messi is somehow almost crowding out other players. In yesterday’s match we saw almost the exact opposite.
One of the striking aspects to the L’Hospi match was how Barça fell into playing a very indirect style. The game was filled with deft one touch ball play, patient circulation and control. But what was absent was more dynamic, direct play. And without that cutting edge – the edge Messi so often provides – much of the possession and ball play was frustrated and ultimately ineffective. The question of what kind of player Messi is without Xavi and Iniesta is often raised. Less often do we consider the opposite question. Yesterday we saw a glimpse of this.
Without that force of direct play to harness the indirect ball control and poise that are now routine parts of Barça’s game, the team struggled. Individual talents on the pitch were diminished to a certain degree without an outlet for direct play.
For example, Barcelona had one player out on the pitch who could beat defenders consistently off the dribble – Iniesta. And even then, Iniesta is a sort of torn player. He has the skill set to dominate games through individual, direct play. But the general ethos of his game moves in the opposite direction – towards the indirect. “Receive pass, offer” is the guiding principle to his game.
Often it is the game situation which forces Iniesta to change driection, to become “selfish” and change his game into a more direct style. This match was one of those instances. Likely sensing that change was needed, Iniesta veered back towards reliance on his skills in direct attack to produce a moment of sheer brilliance as he blistered the ball from outside of the box into the top corner of the goal. And it was that individual, direct brilliance which produced the team’s only score. What was of particular note about that goal was that there were four L’Hospi defenders in a box around Iniesta. But none of them closed him down aggressively. Instead – they played him to pass.
Other than that moment from Iniesta, the team was often left with trying to pass the ball through a maze of condensed defenders staying in shape. Keita was one of the few players who seemed to identify this overly indirect style and tried to address it by making a number of strong runs into the box and shots from distance. And though Keita is generally a defensively oriented player it was interesting to see how involved he was in many of Barcelona’s better scoring opportunities.
This indirect play allowed L’Hospit to defend very effectively out of an organized 4-4-1-1 block. L’Hospi did a particularly good job of staying compact and increasing the density of defenders in the central space Barcelona was trying to play through.
This was a match which again demonstrated one of the fundamental dimensions of football – how a side vastly inferior in talent and experience can create competition through organization and discipline. L’Hospi is not only a third division side, they are an extremely young team fielding a number of players who were 19-20 years old. Despite that they were able to thwart the reigning Liga and European champions by staying organized. This discipline allowed them to take advantage of Barcelona’s reflexive desire to play intricately through the middle. One touch passing the ball through a dense block of defenders,however, is not simple, regardless of the opponent.
The Need for Balance
Though it was only one game, and an early Copa contest at that, the match illustrated an important principle. For Barça to operate at their highest level, control of the flow of the match through indirect play needs to be translated into danger and menace through fast transitions into direct attack. It is this ability – through both goal scoring and passing – that is at the heart of Messi’s brilliance. He is able to transition this team between those two modes of play – the indirect to the direct – through his own skill and force of will and do so with blinding velocity.
It is this same quality which made the front line of Messi, Eto’o and Henry so special. There was a unit of three frontline players who could all create these dynamics transitions between the indirect to the direct. That was at the center of their magic when they were operating at their best. They were able to harness and translate the brilliant indirect play behind them and do so as a unit across the entire width of the pitch.
This Barcelona team has gotten better since that 2008/2009 team. But since that frontline vanished, the responsibility for translating indirect play to direct has more and more fallen onto Messi’s shoulders. Iniesta has a similar ability – it was what he did against L’Hospi in suddenly taking that shot from outside of the box after that beautiful misdirection and feint to score that goal. It just doesn’t come naturally to Iniesta to play that way. He almost has to be forced to do so.
In this regard – the challenge Barcelona faces this season isn’t directly related to Messi, his role, or its impact on Villa. It is a deeper question regarding the team’s need to further diversify how they engage in direct play and the means through which they do so. Last year for half a season and in the CL finals, Villa and Pedro were key forces in creating direct play and doing so in conjunction with Messi’s orchestration. This season those qualities have been absent and it’s part of why the team has been slightly off note.
And this is something that Guardiola fully understands. He realizes this fundamental tension in the system between the indirect and the direct. It’s why he was willing to take a risk with Ibrahimovic. It’s why he was so intent on adding Alexis Sanchez and Fabregas this past summer. But reachieving the equilibrium between indirect and direct is an ongoing process – one this current Barça unit is still experimenting with. Their success this season will be highly dependent on what solutions they develop to answer these challenges and how fast they can do so. It’s unlikely that Messi alone will be enough.
Team: A mixed performance. Clearly not one of their best but in a long season the kind of match that will happen. Best to move on. This result will likely require them to play more regulars than Pep may have liked to in the second leg of the tie after the Club World Cup.
Guardiola: Took the match very seriously as was evident from his line up. One gets the sense that Pep is looking for ways to get the team back to clicking the way it can and was using this match as a small step to move that process forward – particularly for Villa. But this is an ongoing process
Pinto: In many ways a typical Pinto match. High quality shot stopping. The save he made in the second half off the L’Hospi counter was simply outstanding and saved the victory. Tremendous athleticism. He also effectively played high to cut off opportunities on the break. However, his distribution was not strong. A poor pass to Maxwell early on started a mistake filled sequence that should have seen L’Hospi score.
Puyol: One of the real highlights of the match. Played imperiously at the back. Though Barça controlled possession L’Hospi produced several moments of danger on the counter. Again and again Puyol was there to extinguish the danger and clean up mistakes from other defenders. Puyol was so active that he significantly reduced what Fontas was required to do. Would have been my man of the match had Barça not controlled possession as drastically as they did. Just wasn’t that much defending to do. But make no mistake – the Captain was outstanding. And nearly scored off a set piece!
Fontas: His first match action in quite some time. One would expect him covered with rust. He looked very composed on the ball. Made a few mistakes defensively and was beaten for pace on the L’Hospi counter in the second half that could have seen them tie the match were it not for Pinto. Given his lack of minutes it’s no surprise though that he wasn’t quite at match speed.
Jonathan Dos Santos: Very good match out of a RB spot that isn’t his natural position. As expected, very composed in possession and made a number of nice passes out from a wide position. He was a real positive throughout in the build up and attack. Much of the Barça attack was oriented to the left (through Iniesta to Villa) however so his ball skills weren’t utilized as much as they could have been. Did well defensively outside of a few exceptions.
Maxwell: What to say? Had a very marginal match and that’s putting it kindly. Maxwell has played very little this season so perhaps he is simply out of form. But overall he didn’t play well. Nearly gifted L’Hospi a goal in the first half with a bizarre clearance backwards to goal. Pinto’s pass put him in a bad position – but Maxwell took a bad situation and made it much worse. Perhaps even more concerning, Maxwell had recurring difficulties defending Haro’s pace and guile out on the flank.
Keita: Man of the match. Was excellent both in attack and defensively. Made several key interventions deep to thwart L’Hospi opportunities in transition. His work rate and intelligence were perhaps the major reason why L’Hospi didn’t score on that misguided back pass from Maxwell. I watched that sequence several times trying to figure out how Keita saw that potential disaster unfold. Excellent intuition and reading of the game on his part. In addition, he generated several dangerous goal scoring chances. He made several nice runs into the boxes with strong aerial play that almost led to scores. His strong shot from outside the box also produced danger. Came close to scoring in the first half from outside of the box and was only thwarted by an outstanding save by Moragon in the upper corner. Beautiful link up play and pass to set up Cesc in the second half that should have resulted in a goal.
Xavi: As usual controlled the match. Unfortunately, the team around him didn’t effectively translate that control into opportunities. The lack of decisive, off the ball movement by the team hampered Xavi’s game.
Iniesta: A moment of sheer brilliance to score the goal and a few lovely passes but otherwise a subdued match.
Tello: Positive match from the youngster in his first team debut. He did an excellent job of staying disciplined and maintaining width on the right. Was always open and available as an outlet wide. As with JDS, Tello could have had more impact on the match if the team had played more balanced and incorporated the right flank more. Made several quality crosses. He has talent – one to watch.
Fabregas: Mixed game. At times too tentative around the box. Didn’t finish a few opportunities that one would expect him to put away. He’s still learning the false 9 position and as good as he is around the goal mouth there’s still growth he has to go through. Not the typical false 9 in anyway. His workrate and defense continue to be outstanding and very impressive.
Villa: Some real positives counteracted by a few negatives. It was good to see Villa being aggressive again and not hesitant. Put in two strong shots on goal that were saved and one free kick taken with venom. However, as the match went on and he didn’t score he grew frustrated and started to press. In this regard Villa continued to do what he’s been doing too much of this season. Thinking rather than simply playing and reacting to the flow of the game and allowing his talent to take over. In other matches he often seemed to be going through a calculation of pass vs. shoot; make a run or combine play. Against L’Hospi he seemed to fall into thinking about scoring so much that it ultimately took him out of his game.
Busquets: Played well at the DM position but replacing Iniesta removed the one direct threat with the ball Barça had.
Rafinha: I wanted him to play at least a half but the score didn’t allow it. Overall inconclusive as he didn’t play enough. Made a beautiful turn near the box that should have drawn a penalty in a dangerous position. Barça needs to make an organizational decision on what position Rafinha will play – and they should do so because he is a potentially foundational talent for the future. But right now he’s often used as a classic 10 on the B team and the first team doesn’t play with a classic trequarista type of 10. Has the skill set to be an excellent false 9 or wide attacking player. He has the ability to play direct football. Barça has to be careful not to drain that from him as he’s developed.
Not the match that was expected but that’s the story of a long season. This squad is better than last years team. But it is also a team in transition in some ways as Pep tries to push them to expand how they can play as a team. That process of transition is going to have abrasive moments to it – this match was one of them.