As I sat down to write this review I started thinking about El Clasico – who will start? How will we line up? Ahh, there’s Messi jinking Ramos out of his jock strap… and that’s the trouble with this match. The Clasico is casting a Mt. Doom-esque shadow over this match; it looms menacingly in the back of all our minds. But it would be foolish to look past Levante, so let’s start there.
I. On Levante
For a team that was expected to excel at being a mediocre mid-table team they have been punching well above their weight all season. They beat Madrid in the third week of the season and even stood atop the table after beating Real Sociedad in the ninth week. If you aren’t swayed by underdog stories or their win against Madrid then you can’t deny their colors are quite attractive.
Levante’s starting XI is practically written in stone, and If you’re looking to make a little cash on the side your best bet* is on them starting with:
Munua, Venta, Ballasteros, Nano, Juanfran, Valdo, Vicente, Torres, Juanlu, Kone, Barkero
If you scratched your head and thought “one of those names seems familiar,” you know your ex-Barcelona players. Xavi Torres has been an essential part of the Levante puzzle for two seasons – no doubt enjoying playing in blaugrana on his extended loan from Malaga. I always kinda liked Xavi Torres, although I can’t say I ever had high hopes for his future in the first team. In a lot of ways his history reminds me of the situation of Jonathon dos Santos, who recently renewed his contract until 2015. They both strike me as hard working midfielders, players who are always willing to press and win the ball and circulate it to someone with more creativity. Then there’s that Torres moonlighted at right back for at least part of a match (where do Santos spent most of his time this preseason). However, when it comes down to it dos Santos reminds me of Torres because I think like Torres he will ultimately not have the quality to make the jump to the first team. I salute his service to the team over the years, but I just can’t seem to see how he will break through, even in the next 3 years.
And here I’ve spent most of my Levante section on a tangent about Barcelona…
II. On Barcelona
While Barcelona has been less than efficient away, they have been in imperious form at the Camp Nou. With 34 goals for and 0 goals against, we are only a draw with Sevilla away from perfection at home. While all of us sitting at home will be watching the match through the lens of the coming Clasico, I’m sure Guardiola has been dishing out those loving head slaps of his to any of the players thinking beyond this match. There has also been a lot of speculation that Pep will use this as a dress rehearsal for the Clasico. While this makes sense to me, I don’t think it can be taken for granted that Guardiola will play the same team and/or formation in this match and in the Clasico, he has never been shy about springing surprises against Madrid. I would advise everyone not to read too much into next weekend from this match.
With that said this Barcelona team is still searching for the right balance. In Guardiola years past the team has usually been fairly settled at this time of the season and the main concern is oiling the machine to squeeze every possible bit of efficiency out of it. Euler argued in his review of the Rayo match that the changing of formation in multiple phases of the match was the tactical future of the team – that Pep was purposefully molding the team into one that could dynamically change formation to exploit the weaknesses of the opponent; in essence to gain the tactical advantage by being able to shift formation and tactics and respond to whatever the opponent throws at the team.
While I’m sure Pep would love to be able to adapt to any situation, I keep thinking that the different formational phases of the Rayo game were symptomatic of a problem the team has been having all season – we haven’t found an appropriate balance yet. Guardiola has a track record of playing with the formation early in the season and then settling in and perfecting it later on in the season. A lot of early injuries have hampered Pep’s ability to find the right balance this season, and this match will provide him with one of his last opportunities to tweak things before the most important match of the first half of the season. Expect Pep to test a couple options in this game – not necessarily the solution he will try in the Clasico, but he will certainly want to ask some questions of the team so he can make the right decisions for next week.
III. An Aside on Alexis Sanchez
If I were making the team list for tomorrow Sanchez would be the first name on my list – he needs as much match experience as possible. Recently there has been a small resurgence of a thought that was prominent in the beginning of the season before he was injured, specifically that it is understandable if his positioning isn’t perfect or he loses the ball, but he should be able to beat defenders when he is one on one. The problem with this stance is that it doesn’t take into account that in those youtube videos where he is making defenders look stupid he was playing a much different role than he has so far been asked to play at Barcelona. Udinese was a primarily counter attacking team, and often when Alexis received the ball he was able to turn and run at a retreating back line at full speed. When he plays as a winger for us he usually receives the ball when he is standing still and the defense is already set, it is a much different task to beat a defender in those situations than it is on the counter.
More importantly, apart from his goals in the last match he was most impressive when he was asked to use his pace and power to patrol a much larger swathe of the left flank (a role more similar to the role he played at Udinese). With Pep using the three man defense so often this season the team has been crying out for width, and maximizing Sanchez’s skills is going to be vital to our success this season. How he is used in this match can tell us a lot about Pep’s plans for him, I hope to see him covering a lot of ground on the left – I think he can be more valuable than a copy of the original superman comic in that position.
IV. On Our Formation
There has been a lot of talk lately about using the 3-5-2 for the Clasico after it worked so well midweek against Rayo. I would be more surprised if we don’t see it tomorrow than if Mugabe suddenly decided to step down. While we certainly looked better with the 3-5-2, I’m not quite ready to declare the second coming of the Manita. Let’s not forget that the 3-4-3 looked phenomenal the first time we saw it this season, and its vulnerability on the flanks at the back wasn’t truly exposed until the game in Milan.
I do have concerns with our constant changing of formation. We can talk all we want about having intelligent, versatile players in the team who can adapt to a formation change mid-match, but the truth is it is an incredibly difficult transition to make. One of the reasons we have been so good in the past three years is that everyone on the team knew their role and their responsibilities on the pitch. I’m not talking about being able to tell you what their role is, I’m talking about the muscle memory and innate knowledge that comes from performing the same role time and time and time again.
After the success of the 3-5-2 last week, whether of not it is used in this match may tell us a lot about what we should expect for the rest of the season. Will it turn out to be a balanced formation that we can use the majority of the time, or will it be relegated to an option B or C?
V. On the Match
This is supposed to be a match preview so I guess I should stop rambling and actually talk about the match. Our team news is mostly good, Adriano is injured with a hamstring injury, Afellay is still in the early phase of recovering from his ACL injury, and Pique is banned after not-so-stealthily getting his fifth yellow. Cuenca, Rodri, and Rosell from the B team trained with the first team. This is a must win match against a difficult opponent, so I expect to see close to our strongest starting XI (especially since our midweek match is pointless):
Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Mascherano, Abidal, Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas, Villa, Messi Sanchez
Fabregas gets the start over Iniesta so he can get some game time after his short time out. The rest of the team is versatile enough to take on several different formations, and try different solutions in preparation for next week.
Prediction: 1-0 Good Guys with Villa scoring.
The match begins at 2:00 PM EST.
VI. An Aphorism
It’s not about the players adapting to the system, but rather the system adapting to the players