An Ode to El Vasco: Barça-Zaragoza

"Or maybe I'm just completely insane."

Liga Preview: FC Barcelona – Real Zaragoza, Saturday 2pm ET, GolTV(HD)

I have a confession to make. It’s something I’m alternately proud of and ashamed by. It’s something that no one from los Estados Unidos Mexicanos will ever respect, but it’s something the people from the horrifically named Uncle Sam’s Army can get behind. At least I think so. My confession is this: I love Javier Aguirre.

He is the single greatest thing the Mexican Football Federation ever did for me. His appointment to the el Tri’s bench made my life so much better. I got to watch Jonathan dos Santos relegated to watching the tournament from home and Bofo Bautista taking his place, but failing to score a goal. I watched Guille Franco—Guille Franco!—play for his national team despite not having a contract with a club while Chicharito, hot off his phenomenal start with Manchester United—not some Podunk team, I don’t think—was put on the bench until the 4th game.

Sure, he eliminated South Africa, which was terrible, but we can all hate on Luis Suarez for that if we choose. He absolutely ensured that a solid Mexican team was tactically moronic throughout the cup and was brutally eliminated by an Argentine team that was then shellacked by Germany 4-0 thanks to similar tactical insanity. Further, he was sent off in the 1986 quarterfinal between Mexico and West Germany and, according to my Mexican sources, was the cause of their loss in penalties. That’s debatable given that he was sent off in the 100th minute of a 0-0 game, but I accept it anyway and love him all the more for it.

At South Africa 2010, Aguirre was probably partly the victim of the Mexican footballing setup (the overwhelming power of club owners and television companies that double as owners, for example), but you need look no further than his Round of 16 lineup to understand what was wrong with his approach. His tactics have served him similarly (or perhaps even more) poorly at the Camp Nou. On October 4, 2008, in Guardiola’s 6th league game in charge of the team, Atlético Madrid rolled into town and were smashed 6-1, with Barça going up 3-0 inside 9 minutes and 5-1 after just 28 minutes. Even Gudjohnsen got on the scoresheet.

By the time Atleti hosted FCB in the spring, Aguirre was gone and Abel Resino got a 4-3 victory from Kun Aguero at the Vicente Calderon. But Aguirre returned in 2011 and lost 1-0 in a match with Keita as the only goalscorer. That seems a much tighter game, but Barça had 12 shots on goal to Zaragoza’s 1. And now Zaragoza sit in 16th, just 1 point above relegation and 2 points above last placed Real Sociedad. That doesn’t bode well for him, nor does the team’s lack of defense. They’ve allowed more goals (22) than all but Osasuna, who has been on the receiving end of 8-0 and 7-1 losses. They’re slightly better away, coming in just 12 goals allowed on the road, making them 5th from the bottom behind even Atleti.

They’ve got no wins on the road, having drawn at Villarreal and Rayo and lost to Atleti, Osasuna, and Betis. They lost to Real Madrid 0-6 on opening day in a match I didn’t watch and just 0-1 to Valencia in late October in what I remember as being a fairly crappy game. Reviewing the stats, it was certainly chippy (36 fouls and 7 yellow cards). And that’s somewhat out of character for Zaragoza, given that they’re T-10th in the Fair Play league; Valencia, on the other hand, is T-17th with 35 yellow cards and 3 reds in 11 matches. Espanyol and their 40 and 4 laugh at that while sitting 7th. Barça remains 2nd in that table too, this time behind Málaga, who have just 13 yellows. One of the reasons Barça has so few disciplinary points (demerits, I suppose) is that it’s one of just 2 teams with no reds. The other is, and you’d probably never guess this without having first checked, Atleti. Whoa.

I’ve always thought of Aguirre as one of the managers who instills a butcher’s attitude in his squads: if they get by you, hack them to pieces and sell their carcasses to the highest bidder. But I don’t suppose that’s really true, at least not this year. It’s just that he’s got a serious fight on his hands to keep his team out of the relegation quagmire and he’ll probably attempt to play as much like Sevilla did as possible.

Zaragoza is coming off a 2-2 come-from-behind draw against Sporting Gijon in which Helder Postiga saved their blushes with a 90th minute goal. Postiga is having a good couple of weeks, having bagged 2 against Bosnia for Portugal this past Tuesday, so he’s got to be considered Zaragoza’s danger man. He’s only got 4 goals this league season, but that does make him the team’s top scorer.

Given that I basically crapped on Aguirre’s time with Mexico at the beginning of this post, it might be strange for me to point out that he’s got both Pablo Barrera and Efrain Juarez on his squad. Has he learned how to use Barrera? He’s scored 1 goal, but I don’t really count him as a goal scorer so much as a quick and decisive winger. Then again, most of what I know about Barrera is that he played for UNAM and would sometimes score against me in FIFA when I played as Puebla because 1) Puebla is pretty awful despite their sweet ass franja (artfully pictured here with, uh, right, what?) and 2) I am pretty awful at FIFA. My Mexican friend loves him to death because of the UNAM thing and always starts him even if he’s not as good as the other players available.

But he is fast and his speed on the wing, coming off an international break, might a bit of a problem if there are any fatigue issues in the back line. Postiga’s time with Portugal could help Barça of course for the same reasons, but Messi and Mascherano’s travels to Argentina and Colombia must certainly have worn them down more. Factor in Sánchez’s trip to Uruguay and Chile and the various U-21 kids, Spain’s England and Costa Rica friendlies, and the shorter trips for the other internationals and we have ourselves quite the tired squad.

Guardiola asked the reporters in a press conference this morning if they’d rather not see Messi play. That tells you basically all you need to know about whether the little Argentine will play. Yeah, he can rest when there are no games. Which is approximately never. But he’s got 14 goals in 11 matches, so it’s hard to say he’s not playing well and it’s also hard to argue, given Spain’s false 9 problems, that he isn’t integral to FCB’s system, as you’d suspect from someone a lot of people have referred to as the best player on earth.

I like watching Messi play, of course, but I do understand the question of when he’ll be rested. He plays 90 minutes no matter what and he does it at max exertion. My conclusion about this is logical and completely true: he is not human. Lionel Messi is an alien being brought to us by the Tralfamadorians to see if they could mess with our most prized possession. Their “experiment” went off the rails a little while ago when we fell for the little tyke and made him our king. But I suppose the Tralfamadorians are dutifully recording what’s going on and logging it in their scientific notebooks.

Everyone is back for Barça, though I don’t expect Pedro to get many minutes so fresh off an injury. We’ve got enough attacking firepower on the bench that we shouldn’t need him. But it will extremely tough given the aforementioned travel and also the upcoming midweek Champions League mega fixture in Milan. Fortunately it’s on a Wednesday, so the team should have time to readjust to the whole “we better run or Guardiola is going to [censored for small children in the audience]” thing.

Lineup prediction: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc, Villa, Messi.

I think this one is going to tougher than one might expect from 2 vs 16 or Guardiola vs Aguirre o Barça vs Zaragoza. Official prediction: 2-1, goals by Messi and Villa. Whatever keeps me in love with Aguirre…

And yeah, before someone mentions it in the comments, I realize that both Piqué and Villa played for Zaragoza back in the day. And that Villa won a Copa del Rey with them. Yippee.

By Isaiah

Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.


  1. Everyone is back for Barça,

    Adriano is still out injured, isn’t he? And Flyboy of course, but we’re not counting him.

    1. I’ll assume Flyboy is Afellay. Yes, he’s out.

      And yes, Adriano is out. I should never trust the official site to tell me the whole truth in their first few sentences. “The whole squad trained today” doesn’t mean “the whole squad trained today” it means “everyone but Afellay and Adriano trained,” apparently.

      Good eyes.

  2. I had nothing but love for Aguirre up until that Argentina game. He had Mexico playing really well up to that point. Remember the friendly they lost to England? Whatever. I’ve forgiven him since then.

    Postiga’s definitely their “danger man.” You guys seen this Barrera to Juarez to Postiga goal from earlier in the season?

    Oh, yeah, and Queen Lafita’s okay on his day, too.

  3. How the team sets up for Zaragoza is going to depend on how Pep wants to play against Milan next week.

    Between injuries and fatigue Pep’s going to have to juggle players between these games. So many of the Barca players played huge minutes in the internationals and traveled long distances that the team is not going to be fresh.

    The key issue they will need to deal with in upcoming games is who to play at RB against Milan. Alves is out due to suspension. Adriano is injured.

    This means that Barca do not have a natural first team RB to utilize.

    The natural reaction to this would be for Barca to play three at the back against milan, particularly because Milan plays narrow itself.

    The problem there is that if Milan lines up as expected in a 4-3-3 that would leave the Barca back line 1 vs. 1 across the entire pitch. Pep has taken that risk before (see the CL finals last season against Man U when he defended the two man striker formation of Hernandez and Rooney 1 vs. 1 with two CB- the FB were up the pitch).

    The risk in defending 3 vs. 3 against Milan is that in general one would want to be able to defend Ibra with two defenders. That won’t be possible with a 3 man backline. they could drop the holding mid deep to help out on Ibra but that would essentially turn the 3 man backline into a 4 man backline and create unnecessary confusion. If you are going to do that – just start out with 4 at the back.

    The problem with playing 4 at the back is that Barca really don’t have a good attacking option there unless they want to take a chance and play an inexperienced Montoya in an away game in the CL – I don’t see them doing that, though he would be an ideal player to utilize.

    They could play Masch there – he would be solid defensively but offer little going forward. This will allow Milan to play narrow defensively.

    Thiago could play RB – I know he hasn’t done it before but when he’s played deep in the diamond he’s functioned almost as an axillary right back. But would Pep take that risk in the CL?

    JDS- issue of experience and playing out of position. Don’t think he solves any problems.

    Playing puyol there doesn’t really help either – Masch is a better choice due to his pace and fitness.

    To me the key thing with the Milan match is that the team can afford a draw without a problem because Milan lost their last group match. For that reason I’d go with 4 in the back and Masch at RB.

    But with Masch at RB Sanchez becomes really critical. He will have to act as almost the whole right flank with Masch behind him.

    If that’s the case, can you afford to play Sanchez, who is coming off an injury, against Zaragoza and then against Milan?

    Cuenca is going to play against Zaragoza. But ideally you’d like him to play on the left and rest Villa. But with Pedro and Adriano out there are limited options out on the wings then. Could see Iniesta on the wing against Zaragoza if they go with a 4-3-3.

    A number of difficult decisions for Pep to juggle. Small squad is hard pressed to deal with multiple injuries.

    1. I am by no means as tactically astute as you are. I might also be called crazy for asking about this. What about playing both Sanchez and Cuenca. Sanchez at RB, Cuenca as the wide right forward. Midfield as always. Sanchez has the pace (stamina? maybe not right now), he works like a bulldog, we have seen him track back very well. Of course he is not the most accomplished defender but if he is helped by Puyol or Pique behind him, that should allow a 4v3. He would offer a lot going forward. Could this not work?

    2. In theory Sanchez would do well defending on the flank as a FB.

      But there are a couple of issues. First-do you want Cuenca playing in a CL game away? His lack of experience and physique may be issues.

      Second, do you want to try Sanchez at FB in the CL during a match in which you only need to tie.

      A 0-0 outcome is a huge step forward for Barca. It wins them the group.

      And while Barca always play to win – the one exception has been away games in the CL where Pep has been strategic and has been ok accepting draws.

    3. First, yes I do want Cuenca to play in a CL game away. Even if 10/15 minutes.
      Secondly, no. No need to try Sanchez at FB in CL group match we only need to tie. But for future situations it would be a good experiment for Guardiola to try. No way will this be the best time to try it for the first time at Milan in midweek. But if Barca is doing well against Zaragoza, Pep should try it out for a little bit.

      But it is an interesting option that Barca has in times of desperate need. Might not be the deepest squad in terms of number of people but that lack of depth is made up for by versatility.

    4. I think Pep will play Masch @ RB. if we get a good score then mayb Montoya may get some minutes. this may be a big game for Alexis also..

    5. if worse comes to worse, Maxwell has also played RB before, but I remember him saying he doesn’t feel comfortable on the right.

    6. With the team short of a right back, how about Puyol to play there, he’s done it before and that was his natural position b4 converting to CB. So to have the backline of Puyol, Pique, Masch and Abidal. That would workoout, no?

  4. I think its pretty simple for the game against Milan Pep may just play Puyi at RB with the usual other suspects at CB: Pique and Masche and LB: Abi.

    For the Zaragoza match I feel another parked bus is in store for the team. Thay better have their shooting boots on.

  5. Puyol has played RB in the past. But this is unfortunately not the Puyol of the past.

    If you decide to play 4 at the back against Milan then that means you are going to be using Abidal, Pique, Puyol and Masch anyway.

    So the question is how do you best position those 4 players. The two candidates for RB are Masch and Puyol. In years past Puyol is an easy call to slide over there.

    But playing on the flank it is easier for an attack to isolate a defender. Puyol has lost pace. It’s probably better to play him centrally where other players can support him better – whether thats the other CB or even Abidal coming over from the left (as he did the other game to support Puyol).

    Playing on the flank at FB means playing higher up the pitch and needing to defend more space behind. I don’t think that a position to best put Puyol in now.

    Nor is Puyol going to get forward to provide anymore width than Masch would.

    Allegri will look to isolate a very pacy player on wing if Puyol is stationed at FB to get behind him.

    1. Not sure where you’re drawing the conclusion about a loss of pace on Puyol’s part from, Euler. I can’t remember him being skinned for pace on many occasions in the last year and don’t think he has really been tested properly since his injury. I remember us bemoaning Pique’s lack of pace last season until he was actually called upon to show some and he wasn’t bad.

      Even if Puyol’s pace were suspect he is imo a brilliant reader of a game and with four at the back he shouldn’t be left short of cover for the ball that’s hit over the top. My only concern about playing him there is that I feel he holds the back line together from the CB position and constantly keeps the rest right in terms of positioning.

    1. I don’t know. I find it ugly but I guess the rich dude has more than one Ferarri for him to ruin this one like that.

      We’re so lucky that those guys working at the vallet parking at the Mall of Emirates always upload videos of supercars.

    2. Yes – he has some interesting videos!

      We saw some amazing cars during our years spent in the UAE.

      Thing is, this guy is rich but he’s most likely to be a foreigner living in Dubai because of the car’s number plate.

      The royal family has single and double digit plates. 3 and 4 digit plates belong to other prominent Emiratis (or possibly prominent foreigners who have been in the UAE for a long, long time), and the normal plates (such as on this Ferrari) are for the general riffraff.

      We had a riffraff plate on our Honda Pilot! 😀

  6. OK, I can’t take it anymore. I have to do it. I have to come out of the closet and confess:

    I am cheering for Manchester City and I hope they win the EPL!

    There. I said it.

    I never thought I would, but they are playing such lovely football, I can’t help it. Between Silva, Kun, The Yaya, and even that twit Nasri, they are a pleasure to watch. They are playing the kind of flowing, possession-based football Arsenal thinks they do. Even their English players are good!

    Damn you, Mancini! You had me at “6-1”.

  7. I cant bring myself to want Man City to win EPL. I just hate the fact that they are buying everybody who can breathe. It just doesnt seem fair to me. They and Madrid can go around buying whichever player they want, no consequences, no backlash.

    I would feel more inclined to cheer for teams who put effort into not ONLY spending cause they have it but building a team over the years, trying to have some kind of structure apart from buying whoever they want at whatever postition for whatever price. I hate it. Please let the rich boys meet in the CL and duke it out (then and only then will I cheer for Man City lol)

    I do love El Kun and The Yaya and Silva and watching them play is nice but they’re not enough for me to love the team enough to want them to win ANYTHING.

    Sue me I’m a romantic..I don’t believe in buying trophies.

  8. Watching Bayern-Dortmund, Hummels is absolute class. Everything a center back should be and then some…
    Have Barca ever been linked with him?

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