Barcelona’s match against L’Hospitalet proved to be a near perfect ending for the first half of this season. It wasn’t the historic 9-0 score that made the match noteworthy. Nor was it the fact that Barça fielded a team of ten outfield players and three substitutes all of whom played in La Masia.
What made this match the culmination of the first half of this season was the quality of play. Or more specifically-the way in which the quality of play in this leg of the L’Hospi tie book ended the poor quality of play Barça exhibited in the first leg. The team came full circle in this second leg. In this regard, the tie and this match demonstrated in microcosm the story of the first half of this season.
Much has been made of Barça’s uneven play since the season started. Dropping unexpected points. Struggling more than expected. The cycle was over. The team had lost its hunger. This was the narrative for much of the season to date.
And in some ways the nadir of Barça’s play in the first half of the season was the first leg of this tie. Against Getafe, the team lost and dropped costly points in La Liga. But against L’Hospi – a third division side – Barça played perhaps an even worse match in terms of quality. Wasted possession. Too much indirect play. Little cutting edge. They were only able to win based on a single moment of genius from Iniesta. It was a disappointing struggle, particularly given the disparity in talent.
But the season changed shortly after. The team engineered a rapid rise in quality of play starting with the brilliant match against Rayo Vallecano. That surging quality of play continued to crest through the Clasico at the Bernabeu and the Club World Cup. And in this second leg of a Copa Del Rey tie against a third division side they were leading 1-0 already, there was no let up by this Barcelona side. Coming off an exhausting trip to Japan, the kind of trip they’ve often struggled to re-acclimate after and missing nearly half the first team there was no respite for the opposition.
The quality of play continued to swell, drowning the opponent in a kind of wondrous glitter that was reminiscent of the ocean at sunset. Multi-hued, dancing with light at the surface but just beneath, dim and foreboding in its depth and scope and the various tentacled ways it can lead an opponent into losing itself inside a kind of dark wonder.
With time – clarity. Where once the questions centered on the end of a cycle, lack of hunger and being surpassed in quality by other sides there are new questions coming into focus. How much better can this team continue to get? What levels will they reach this coming year? How will Guardiola continue to drive them to expand how they can play?
Because with time it has now become more clear that Guardiola structured this team’s preparations so that it would start to peak later than it usually does. The goal since summer was likely to gain momentum and cutting edge for the Clasico at the Bernabeu and Club World Cup. To build and sustain quality for the second half of the season.
Against L’Hospi we saw this Barça squad in some ways at its purest. The drive and will to win – the sober, serious nature of its execution. There was a job to do. So they would do it.
And because they had started to gain momentum in the season – because they had come so far so quickly from the performance in the first leg of the tie – there was no reason to let up and acquiesce or go through the motions. This was a Barça team that continued to tell the world: the cycle is hardly over – in fact, it’s December the season is just truly starting now. This was a perfectionist side driven not only by the players standing in opposition to them – but driven by a competition against itself.
The year was ending. The first half of the season culminating. And Barça continued to lay the foundation for the true season to come.
Before getting into the specifics of the Barça victory, there were two negatives of note that I want to get out of the way. First, was Iniesta’s injury. Yet another hamstring injury. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to be a serious tear. Unfortunately, it may keep him out of the upcoming match against Espanyol. That will be a difficult match and the team cannot drop points in La Liga.
The second negative was Isaac Cuenca’s horribly embarrassing dive that led to the penalty kick for the first goal. There’s really not a great deal to say on this. It was just embarrassing and stained the first portion of the match. For a player as talented as Cuenca to flagrantly dive in that fashion in order to earn a PK against a third division club is awful. Truly awful. Let’s hope he gets a talking to and never does that again. That dive unfortunately diminished an otherwise brilliant game by Cuenca – which in a way made it even worse.
Line Up: Inconsistently Consistent
Coming off the long trip to Japan, Guardiola gave an extended vacation to all of the South American players so that they could travel home and rest. This heightened speculation that Barça would rest the veterans in this match and largely rely on the youth team players.
When the line up was announced however it was the exact opposite. Guardiola not only went with what was the strongest possible CDR lineup he could field – he went as far as playing both Puyol and Xavi in the starting line up, fielding Pinto/ Puyol/ Pique/ Fontas/ Busquets/ Xavi/ Iniesta/ Thiago/ Pedro/ Cuenca. Part of why this line up was selected was related to CDR requirements for first team players being utilized. But there were other options Pep could have utilized to rest some players.
On face, this decision may seem very inconsistent – giving the extra time off to certain veteran players while having others start the match. However, this line up was another example of Guardiola balancing pragmatism and principle to create the long term consistency needed to create a culture of winning in the organization.
Often supporters downplay the importance of competitions such as the Copa Del Rey or the Club World Cup. This is simply not how Guardiola operates. This project is not simply involved with play on the field. Central to the project is instilling across the organization a culture of winning.
Excellence isn’t an option – it’s simply what is expected. Guardiola expects it from himself. He expects it from his players. And he expects competitions to be respected. And that respect comes from the intention to always win. There’s little distinction made teasing out the relative importance or merit of any competition. Consistency in expectations and purpose are critical. That’s the heart of this culture of excellence.
And part of the purpose of taking the second leg of a tie against a third division side so seriously is to instill expectations in the players-especially the younger ones. Watching Puyol relentlessly hunt the ball in the second half of a 7-0 match creates a stark example. It teaches players like Cuenca and Fontas and Bartra and Muniesa how critical it is to defend relentlessly regardless of score. You put the effort in because it’s the right thing to do. That’s how a culture of winning is created.
In this regard, while Guardiola’s use of players may have been inconsistent in the short term (giving extended vacations to some veterans and starting others) he was being strategically consistent. This was a good example of how Barcelona is transmitting values and expectations to these younger players while still acknowledging circumstances such as the travel time for the South American players.
Preparing for Life Without David Villa: Thiago on the Left
The other interesting part of the opening was how the team was set up. When the starters were announced it seemed likely that Fabregas would play up front as a false 9 with Thiago at the tip of the midfield diamond. Those are positions both players have occupied prior this season. This didn’t happen. Instead, Pedro played as a false 9 with Fabregas at the tip of the diamond. This was noteworthy because it allowed Guardiola to play Thiago on the left wing.
This is now the second straight game Pep has used Thiago in the advanced left position. This may reflect part of his thinking on how to compensate the loss of David Villa through the resources he depth in – midfielders. Given Thiago’s diverse skill set, this seems like a promising route to make the best of a terrible injury.
Barça Wins Outside In
Ultimately, this match was won largely through the difference in quality of the players involved. Barça are the best team in the world and L’Hospi is a third division side. However, given the scale of victory (it had been nearly fifty years since Barça last won a match by nine goals) and the recent level of play L’Hospi demonstrated in the first leg, other issues came into play to create the size of the result.
On the whole, this match became so lopsided because Barça played in a way that it infrequently does. Barça’s play flowed down both flanks and attacks were generated from wide positions dynamically. Usually a middle dominant team, Barça inverted the attack, shifting its points of focus wide.
The reason why this created such a particularly large advantage in this match was due to the way L’Hospi structured its defense. L’Hospi attempted to reproduce what they did in the first leg – defend narrow in order to overplay the center.
This was the central dynamic of the match. L’Hospi looked to defend the middle of the pitch in numbers by staying narrow. Rather than playing through the middle, however, Barça distributed the ball wide to players who were extremely dynamic all match long and created danger over and over because they received the ball in open space consistently and were left in 1 vs. 1 situations against full backs. From that open space those wide attackers were able to utilize the ball to beat their defenders and cause L’Hospi’s defense to break the structure it was trying to keep.
Barça of course dominated midfield – this was expected. Barça dominated possession in midfield in the first leg at L’Hospi as well. But in this match that dominance in midfield was coupled with danger from the flanks, the areas on the the defense was allowing space to. And it was that utilization of open space to generate danger that helped lead to this dramatically different result.
From those wide positions Thiago and Cuenca and then Tello and Cuenca were outstanding. The central midfielders played them balls early. Open in space, the wide attackers used the ball very intelligently. Rather than simply passing the ball to circulate it, these wide players made dangerous runs at the defenders on the edge of the L’Hospi block to create destabilizing penetration. Play off the flanks mixed skilled one touch play with direct play to create danger towards goal rather than only maintaining possession. And in the process those three players put on a dazzling display.
What made these performances even more impressive was the age and experience of these three wide players. In a match where Barça utilized its most senior players, it was these three young players – Thiago, Cuenca and Tello – who broke the opposition defense and allowed Barça to control the match.
Again, in these instances one sees a glimpse of the entire Barça project in full and a sense of Guardiola’s vision. The systematic utilization of young players through their controlled incorporation alongside the veteran leaders of the team. Placing players into different roles based on their rigorously developed skill sets rather than “positions.” And at the same time, utilizing these new players to push the system by allowing themselves to express their games.
Think of Tello’s entry into the match. Shortly after entering one of his first matches with the senior side, he had the confidence to make a near full pitch run with the ball and score a goal. This wasn’t Tello being “selfish.” It was him doing what was required by the game – utilize space efficiently. He was never closed down on the flank on the counter as L’Hospi was clustered centrally and advanced. Tello simply drove the ball until someone forced him to stop – and no one really did.
On this second goal he again drove the defense back with a run. Tello had beaten the full back so often from the flank that the defender’s first reaction wasn’t to close down the ball – but to drop deeper and not get beat. Tello sees this, knows he’s beaten the defender repeatedly before, and dummies the drive, instead using the defender to screen the keeper and ankle in a beautifully curling shot that was disguised so well it seemed to come from nowhere. A brilliant combinations of physical skill, technique and intelligence.
Cuenca and Tello both scored braces. But part of what made this so noteworthy was how they scored. Both players scored with their right and left feet. Their ability to use both feet to score again attests to their training. But the direct nature of their play towards goal is their own sensibility.
We have an industrial model for La Masia at times. Factory. Conveyer belt. These are the metaphors we think of it through. But that really isn’t the case. This isn’t commodity production. It’s artisanship. Yes the value of each new player is related to the standardized principles they’ve been trained in. But that doesn’t limit the full universe of their possibilities. Their individual expressivity defines the night time sky that one can see distant stars glimmering through. The twinkle of the future.
And the more you see young players start to integrate into the first team under Guardiola the more apparent it becomes that the ones who will last, the ones who will stay are the ones who can enrich the “system” with their own individual qualities.
That was part of what made the L’Hospi match such a pleasure to watch. There was Cuenca, Tello, Thiago and Sergi Roberto adding a directness in play that Barça at times can lack, that limits how they can shape a match. But each of those players provides understands the game in that way. That’s who they are. That’s how they will add to the wonderful whole that is this project.
Coming off of a long international trip in which they took home silver, the squad could have coasted and taken the game lightly. Instead they did the opposite. They continued to maintain the phenomenal level of play they executed at over the past several weeks. They played with a stringent commitment to excellence and to themselves. This is a squad poised to continue to grow, develop and get better over the remainder of this season.
Knows this team so well and he understands the big picture they are trying to play for. After some uneven moments in the first half of the season, he has the team playing devastating football – some of the best we’ve seen it play under his leadership. The goal was to make sure this team would be ready for December and the second half of the season. Goal accomplished.
Professional match – as is his usual when called on to play in the Copa. Stopped the few moments of danger he faced and overall did a solid job of distributing the ball out of the back.
Simply made from a different substance. It’s easy to think of him as something sturdy and hard – like iron. But he’s really not elemental in that way. He’s more like an alloy – a complex mixture of qualities that produces characteristics not seen in other materials. Unfortunately, his will be a blend that will be difficult to reforge.
It’s so interesting to see him play this season again. It has offered a different kind of perspective on his greatness. After not seeing him play regularly due to injuries for so long – watching him now makes you appreciate him that much more. His drive is relentless. Their his team is up 7-0, 8-0, 9-0 and it simply doesn’t matter. He’s working tirelessly to close down the ball, to sacrifice his body, to never stop running regardless of the score. He never stops anticipating where danger may spring up from and was always positioning himself to suffocate fire before it could even turn into an ember. There is not let up. He only knows one thing. Being on the pitch is a privledge. You play the game the right way every moment you are out there. How you play is a constant responsibility.
The example he provides to the rest of the squad is invaluable. And for the younger players to be able to watch him play that way in one of the most one sided matches in team history will teach them things about what it means to wear the shirt that they will carry for the rest of their careers.
Operated as the central sweeper again in the back three. Played fine overall and didn’t face too many threats. How Pique will adapt to this position in the three man back line will be interesting to continue to watch. For much of his career at Barça he has had another center back behind him to cover – whether that was Mascherano or Puyol. But in the three man backline he is not well suited for the lateral center back positions. This means that he’ll now need to be the defender who covers for the other two.
Rarely challenged. In a match where Barça dominated possession so much, like Pique, his skill on the ball was particularly valuable. Pressed very high up the pitch on the left very often which was interesting to see given the limited defensive cover behind him.
The oil that lubricates the machine. To L’Hospi’s great credit they came out to try to play their game. And this involved frequently pressing high up the pitch, even when they fell behind. Busquet’s distribution out of the back however was so deft that he negated any pressure and created numerical advantage for Barça in the more advanced areas of the pitch. This was another key reason why the result was so lopsided.
Like Puyol, played to a standard of excellence and intensity that was first and foremost about the what’s expected within a culture of winning. Has scored goals in three straight matches! Good to see him get some rest.
There were two particularly frightening moments in this match. The first was when Iniesta initially went down. The second was when Ray Ray said on the broadcast, “Imagine how pale Iniesta is when he’s sitting in an ice bath.”
His injury is very unfortunate. But again it speaks to the commitment to excellence this team adheres to. Iniesta went in aggressively towards goal because the game still wasn’t won.
It’s extremely fortunate that the injury isn’t serious. But again – it’s a hamstring injury and those are injuries that tend to heal slowly and can recur. He’ll recuperate over the break so the timing isn’t as damaging as it could be. Unfortunately, he will likely miss the coming match against Espanyol.
Barça have had a number of players who exhibit great vision with the ball. Fabregas is such a different player because he demonstrates great vision even without the ball. The quality of his runs and use of space are extraordinary. The second goal was a perfect example of what Fabregas adds to the team. On that play, Xavi has the ball at the edge of the 18 yard box. Fabregas is deep between the lines. L’Hospi attempts to pull the back line forward to execute the offside trap. As they do this, all of the Barça attackers are forced to come higher up the pitch. Space starts to contract. It’s only then – as all of the player are moving up the pitch that Fabregas starts his run going in the opposite direction. In a sense, Fabregas is using coordination amongst the defenders as a weapon against them. Xavi reads Cesc’s run and delivers a perfect pass which Cesc squares to Iniesta for an open net goal. That was the first of several assists for Fabregas from his advanced position at the tip of the diamond. Also, it was generous of him to allow Pedro and Thiago to take the penalty kicks despite him having more experience doing so.
Started out the match very brightly in his false 9 role. Pedro continues to improve his form – and that’s very good to see as the team will need him in particular with Villa’s injury. Faded from the match some as the score line exploded and could have scored from open play on a few occasions. But overall, another step forward. As with Cesc, it was generous of him to allow Thiago to take that penalty kick.
Let’s get it out of the way – his dive was utterly embarrassing. I touched on that before and will let is stand there. Onto his play.
Even for Barcelona – a fiendishly skilled player. His combination of close control, technique, fast feet, and vision are simply outstanding. This range of skills allows him to both operate within the system seamlessly while also expanding its capacities. Completely destabilized the left flank of the defense by himself. Cuenca was able to beat his man at will with the ball 1 vs. 1 and then cross the ball not only with accuracy but with intelligence. He’s not just firing the ball into the box from a wide position – he’s directing it to where it can create danger.
This may sound strange – but in some ways Cuenca is the player managers are hoping to get when they play Iniesta on the wing. This isn’t in anyway to say that Cuenca is the player Iniesta is. Instead, if one considers skill sets and styles as ranges, there’s a linkage between the way Iniesta structures his game and Cuenca’s. Iniesta has the skill set to play in an advanced wide position – but his mental framework is that of a midfielder. Cuenca’s has the mental framework of a winger with the skill set of a midfielder. It’s an outstanding combination to have for this Barcelona team.
An area where Cuenca didn’t play as well was on defense. Too often Cuenca didn’t track back to defend. This left Puyol caught 1 vs. 2 on several occasions. Now this didn’t lead to any direct damage. But in a game in which players like Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta are playing on principle – Cuenca needs to also. It was as if he felt that he had Puyol behind him and the lead was enormous, so he could decrease his work rate.
Barça has won significant trophies this season already. Hopefully more silver will follow and another remarkable season will transpire. That said, when this season is complete, one of its lasting impressions will be the emergence of Thiago Alacantara.
Thiago is rapidly becoming a near complete footballer. The range of skills and roles he played in this match were tremendous. Starting on the left, Thiago created danger repeatedly off the flank with his dribbling and direct play. He then moved to central midfield when Xavi left the match and directed the team with a deft hand. His orchestration of the team was excellent – he continues to develop in this critical role.
The third goal, in some ways encompassed what Thiago’s game has grown into. Through his individual initiative he dispossessed a L’Hospi defender high up the pitch. The keeper was still in position to cut off the angle however. Thiago dummied a shot with quick leg action, went around the keeper and finished smoothly.
It’s defensively where Thiago has developed his game tremendously. And it’s this dimension of his play which is going to dramatically differentiate him from other world class attacking midfielders. For example, once JDS came in for Busquets, Thiago started dropping deeper to support Barça’s transition defense as JDS was acclimating himself to game speed as the new DM. In that role Thiago, made a several important interventions.
A complete game moving across different roles. Thiago impacted the match is a tremendous variety of ways while maintaining a high work rate. For these reasons – Thiago gets my man of the match.
Barça B has had an uneven season in some regards, struggling more than they did last season. It’s a younger squad with a new coach so that isn’t surprising. However, it’s been interesting to see how B team players have improved their play when called up to the first team. This was particularly acute in both the second Bate match and in this one. Part of this may be related to the level of competition – Bate in some ways simply gave up and L’Hospi plays in a lower level than the B team plays in. However, this isn’t the only reason. For example, Cuenca has played better with the first team than he has with the B team – even when facing La Liga competition.
Against, L’Hospi, Tello was the prime example of this phenomenon. This was the best game Tello has played this season. He took the pitch with tremendous confidence and probed the game. He quickly figured out that the L’Hospi full back simply could not defend him. Over and over Tello exploded past the defense creating havoc across that flank.
It’s great to see La Masia now developing talented advanced flank players like Cuenca and Tello.
Came in for Iniesta. A quiet game and he looked a bit nervous at times, missing two relatively easy goal scoring changes. But played well. Some nice touches. And his direct game and runs are reminiscent of Fabregas’s in some ways.
Jonathan Dos Santos:
Very poised in possession once he came in for Busquets. A deep position on the pitch fits him well as he initiates play well. Worked hard defensively and did a nice job in the holding role.
Another outstanding performance from a Barça side that is only now starting to round into optimal form. Yes the match was against a third division side and was the second leg of a Copa Del Rey tie. But after a long trip to Japan, this easily could have been a trick match, one defined by let up and sluggishness. Instead, we saw the exact opposite. We saw continued continuity in the quality of play the club demonstrated against Rayo, Madrid, and Santos.
The new year is nearly upon us. But the season only now appears to be truly starting.