The King Is Dead; Long Live the King (Dogma, Plan B and Barça’s Evolution)

Pep Guardiola was a firm believer in the permanent revolution. Not as Trotsky or Mao would understand it, but in the sense of never waiting around to be figured out. In a post now lost in the mists of time, I argued at the beginning of 2011/12 at the now defunct Spanish Football Info that Guardiola’s tactical tinkering was driven by the need to keep ahead of the competition. A theory of the game, like any other theory, is weakened by an insistence on permanence and dogma. It grows stronger through being questioned and tested, and evolving to meet the challenges posed to it.

The style and philosophy of Guardiola’s Barça was no less coherent for all the changes he implemented throughout his four year tenure: The false nine, an idea he tested in his very first pre-season and later put to use in the biggest games of that season; the holding midfielder as sweeper-centerback, which found its perfect vehicle in young Sergio Busquets; going from 4-3-3 to 4-2-4 to 3-4-3 to whatever that was against Santos that involved a team made up primarily of midfielders; and increasingly, towards the end, attempting to add more verticality to the side’s forward play.

Tito Vilanova’s work is a continuation of that philosophy. Much ink has been spilled so far this season on whether Vilanova was diverging from Guardiolismo by implementing a more direct style. Guillem Balague recently made this case:

Tito Vilanova realises that to win games he has to transform Barcelona and make them more conventional, and we are now seeing a side that plays more long balls, doesn’t keep the ball for as long, and defends more than other sides would do (less of the pressure in packs high up the pitch, more of the disciplined positioning and allowing teams to take a bit more of the initiative).

It is generally a more direct style, though this works against the strengths of Xavi and even Andres Iniesta, who need to pause and find themselves surrounded by team-mates to do harm.

Contrast with the following from a Sid Lowe column on Vilanova:

Barcelona still play a 4-3-3 based on possession and swift circulation of the ball. Statistics underline the similarities: under Vilanova Barcelona have so far completed an average of 696.8 passes per game, compared with 709 last season, with completion at 88.6% compared with 88.5%. They have scored 2.86 goals per game against 3.0 last season and taken 12.2 shots compared with 13.0. That control is about protection as well as penetration and they have faced 2.8 shots per game this season compared with 2.7 last year.

Vilanova has changed things; small details, nuances. Barcelona have appeared a little less elaborate and a little more direct, pushing a little higher up the pitch. Against Benfica on Wednesday they utilised the long diagonal to the left to open up the pitch and the only statistic that is markedly different between Vilanova’s Barcelona and Guardiola’s is the percentage of their passes played into the final third – 36.8% now, against 30.2% last season and 28.6% over the course of Guardiola’s time. But then against Benfica the second-half orders were the opposite: Vilanova preached patience.

What I find most interesting about the above two statements is this: although one seems to be condemning Vilanova for ideological impurity and one praising him for sticking to his guns, they don’t, in essence, contradict each other.

In the rest of this post, I’ll explain what I mean.


Everyone knows that Barça have a very obvious, top-down, self-imposed style. This doesn’t happen a lot in football. Part of the bickering over the cantera in Madrid this season turns on their current lack of a ‘house style’. Castilla doesn’t play like the first team, Mourinho grumbled, and it should.

While us cules had a quick chuckle at the soap opera for once not playing out in our own house, I wonder if any regular watchers of Barça B felt a tiny shred of sympathy for his complaint. After all, it sounded awfully similar to our own complaints about Barça B under Eusebio, who sticks out like a sore thumb because the rest of the system at Barça strives to replicate the ‘house style’.

Having a long-term plan, a clear way of working towards consistent goals, tends to be a good thing for most organisations. Barça decided years ago that it was going to pursue success through a particular style of play. Setting such a course reduced the chances of short term, drastic lurches, which is a valuable check against our natural tendency towards volatility.

As Graham Hunter put it, with typical eloquence, very recently:

Barça play like this because they have for a long time had a dream, they’ve taken a risk. They have risked the idea that a single philosophy — owning the ball, doing quick, instinctive, intelligent things with it, and winning it back as quickly as possible — will endure all the fads, all the trends, all the changes in physique and financing which modern football can throw at it.

Barça’s tendency to go its own way regardless of consequences used to be endearing, back when it led to equal parts glory and spectacular falls. But then Pep Guardiola came along as a passionate evangelist for Our Way and bought incredible success with it. Suddenly the preaching, the perception of smugness, started to grate. The mutterings about “anti-football” and “justice” based on the balance of play became a fashionable thing to rail against.

For better or for worse, the ideology behind Barça’s style was never more obvious and explicit than during Guardiola’s time as manager. At times, it led to decisions that baffled outside observers.

“The perfect image of this game was that after the goal Víctor Valdés continued playing the ball,” Guardiola said. “Real Madrid steam-roller you. Most goalkeepers would boot it. But Víctor kept playing the ball. I prefer us to lose the ball like that but give continuity to our play.” Valdés, he concluded, “had shown commitment to our approach”. “The key was not forgetting our philosophy,” said Xavi Hernández. “We don’t know how to play any other way – and Victor was brave.” [Source]

Remember the context: Victor Valdes had botched a short pass leading to a goal by Madrid in the first 30 seconds of last season’s first league Clasico. Others argue that playing out from the back isn’t as important a skill for keepers as, say, being commanding in the air.* What these pundits fail to understand is that playing out from the back is a crucial trait for a Barça keeper. Without it, the entire system fails.

Barça under Tito Vilanova has not retreated from its commitment to the system. Far from it. Tito might not be the evangelist that Pep was, but in practice he is every bit a son of the system.

When Victor Wanyama scored because tiny Jordi Alba was attempting to mark him at the near post for a corner, for example, it was seen as yet more proof that Barça had, to put not to fine a point it on, disappeared up their own arses.

Here’s what Tito had to say, when challenged about the size of his defense after the game:

“We could sign taller players but I like to have fun when I’m on the bench and this is the way that we play,” Vilanova added. “We have suffered from set-pieces after losing Eric Abidal and Seydou Keita but we can only try to attack more and not let them have any corners.” [Source]

Keep the second part of that answer in mind. It’s important. For now, though, we’re going to focus on the first. If that’s not commitment to Barça’s ideology, I don’t know what is. In comments to the press while he was still Guardiola’s assistant, Vilanova often came off as even more bullish, even more ideological:

“For us, winning alone is not enough,” he told El País’s Lu Martín in 2009, “we have an ideal of youth team players and attacking football, as Barcelona’s culture demands.”

“I have,” he continued, “seen Pep take decisions in which only we believed. It would have been easier to take political decisions, but we refused. We have our faults but being cowards will never be one of them.” [Source]

If Vilanova is every bit the ideologue that Guardiola was, then why are we seeing a more direct Barça this season?

seny and its importance

Catalans even have an expression for what makes them different to other Spaniards, el hecho diferencial – the differentiating fact. They prize sobriety, enterprise and hard work. They reckon that they have their own yin and yang; that they’re a mix between seny i rauxa, common sense and madness. Barça fans maintain that Guardiola is the quintessence of seny. – El Clasico, by Richard Fitzpatrick

In Guillem Balague’s new biography of Guardiola, he argues that far from being the style fundamentalist he was constantly portrayed as, Guardiola benefited from a pragmatic streak. I’ve consistently argued that this is the case. The ideology is very important. It may even be paramount. But it’s not the be all and end all – it has to be validated by success. When asked before the Rome final of 2009 whether, having come so far and played so well, Barça were just happy to take part in the final, his response was vehement. They weren’t there just to take part. They were there to win, because all the plaudits were useless without the titles to back them up.

“It’s not that now we are saying football is a science and playing this way you will always win,” Iniesta says. “The other thing is that we play the way we do because it suits us. We don’t have the players to pull it off playing a different way. People talk about ‘pragmatic’ football; well, for us, this is pragmatic. It’s the way we like to play and it’s the way we believe we have the best chance of winning.” [Source]

Moreover, the ideology wasn’t fixed in stone. Football is ever-changing. However brilliant a system was, there were going to be hundreds and thousands out there trying to find the magic formula that would unravel it. Guardiola knew that standing still was asking to be overrun by history. Some aspects of Barça’s style were non-negotiable. Others could – and must – evolve to match the demands of the competition.

That’s why Barça went through so many subtle little changes from 2008 to 2012, in tactics and in personnel. Towards the end, the possession stats crept up even further, the team sheets were increasingly dominated by midfielders, and it seemed as though Guardiola had become ever more fundamentalist in his commitment to a team with “the most Barça-ish identity of all Barças” (TM Jonathan Wilson). On the other hand, he also asked for the signings of Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas, two players who brought a more vertical, direct element to Barça’s play, and promoted cantera products like Cristian Tello and Isaac Cuenca who offered similar qualities.

In other words, the transition to a more direct Barça currently overseen by Tito Vilanova had its roots in the experiments of last season. Part of this is a matter of both short- and long-term necessity. Short-term, injuries and suspensions have meant that Barça could not reproduce the same degree of control that was so central to previous successes; long-term, Xavi Hernandez, the player who enables Barça to exert total control over games, is not going to last forever. The other part is the conscious effort to evolve constantly, to never be caught napping by an opponent’s innovations.

Vilanova deserves huge credit for the brilliant results Barça have managed this season, during a period of change and experimentation. The shifts have not been seamless, far from it, but there has been visible progress without compromising the core ideology.

the plan b fallacy

Which brings me back to the insistence on ideology. Of course, it’s easy to trumpet an idea when that idea seems to be working spectacularly well. The true test of its resilience is what happens when the difficult times arrive.

My least favourite pundit cliche when it comes to Barça is the bemoaning of ‘the lack of a Plan B’ whenever a major setback occurs. This is often accompanied by a suggestion that Barça could perhaps benefit from having a proper no. 9 to lump the ball at in games where the intricate short-passing wasn’t cutting it. I think Dani Alves gave a very good response to this in the aftermath of the Celtic loss:

“Do not say anything to me about that because we lost the game,” Alves said. “That is our philosophy, which has enchanted the whole world. Barça and football have been united, but when you do not win, of course, the debate about a Plan B returns…The other year we had a Plan B, a big guy with quality, and what happened? He is not here because he did not suit our style,” he said. “What suits us is to improve our Plan A, not to have a Plan B.” [Source]

As Alves pointed out, the ‘Plan B’ argument misses the forest for the trees. What makes this Barça team exceptional is that they make a very difficult style work, and work brilliantly. Conversely, a team assembled to play in Barça’s style is not going to be very good at playing, say, a counter-attacking game based on long balls to a static center-forward. That’s true of any team. Stoke wouldn’t be very good at tiki-taka, and no one suggests that they try it when a game isn’t going their way. It just isn’t part of their game.

To go back to a point I raised above, very few teams have an identity as clear as Barça’s. The demand for a ‘Plan B’ sees this coherence as a drawback, one which keeps Barça from switching to something else when Plan A isn’t working. This just isn’t true.

“We want to have the ball and always attack, but we don’t always play the same way,” said the manager [Vilanova], who added: “Within our Plan A, we have a plan B, C, and D … we know how to win.” [Source]

I argued above that Barça under Guardiola and Vilanova have been and continue to be pragmatic in their implementation of the house style. This has involved the trial of many variations to the basic 4-3-3 template, and matches in which the formation or configuration of players changed 4 to 5 times to best exploit the circumstances. It briefly became an easy game in late 2009 and during 2010-2011, but with the exception of that season, since 2008 cules could have made a game out of guessing Barça’s starting line-ups.

That’s what Vilanova was talking about when he says Barça do have a Plan B, and a Plan C, and a Plan D. When the result isn’t ideal, it’s because they failed to execute those properly, as in the Celtic game, through individual errors like defensive howlers or bad finishing. Not because they “only know one way of playing”.

aura and reality

I’ve argued before that we all simultaneously hold two images of our team in our heads: the glorious, invincible Dream Team of our hearts, and the collection of human beings who actually trot onto the pitch every three days. Most of the time, for most fans, these two images are contradictory. The Dream Team (no pun intended) only ever existed in our heads, when we look back on the past with sepia-tinged nostalgia.

The brilliance of Barça under Guardiola was that the contradictions were resolved. For a time, it seemed as though our team really were that amazing. Through ruthlessly-earned victories, they attained an aura of strength that was hardly dented by the occasional high-profile defeat. The surprise losses, in 2009 to Rubin Kazan, or 2010 to Hercules, didn’t seem to matter. Even a truly damaging defeat like going out to Inter in the Champions League in 2010 felt like an aberration.

At their best, this aura was itself a tool in Barça’s arsenal against opposition teams. As Guardiola said in describing Barça’s approach to the Champions League final in Rome:

“I don’t know if we will defeat them, but what I do know is that no team has beaten us either in possession of the ball or in courage. We will try to instil in them the fear of those who are permanently under attack.

Whether this very usefully intimidating aura can be maintained depends on how well Barça evolves its Plan A.

[*Valdes gets a lot of stick along these lines, which ignores the evidence that he’s actually an amazing one-on-one shot-stopper quite aside from being able to use his feet.]

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Written by:

20-something Chinese Kiwi Barrister. Enjoys short walks on the beach, Argentinian players and Pep Guardiola. @blackwhitengrey for hot takes on all three.


  1. Messiah10
    November 29, 2012

    Thanks so much for this! Amazing article and good food for thought. I love Dani’s quote after the Celtic game. Says it all really. We rarely lose nowadays and when we do it seems there’s a panic mode that set in with Cules, media, etc. Everyone loses. Why would we try a plan B that we most likely wouldn’t execute that well? Visca Barca!

    • November 30, 2012

      You’re very welcome!

      I was pleasantly surprised by Dani’s comment – good to see signings buying into the house philosophy.

      The reaction whenever we lose these days is ridiculous. Same goes with Madrid, actually, but of course it’s funnier when it’s happening to them.

  2. Ben
    November 29, 2012

    Fantastic article. That’s all I have to say.

    • November 30, 2012

      Short and sweet. Thank you!

    • November 30, 2012

      Sid Lowe is both a fantastic storyteller and a very good journalist (which aren’t the same thing, IMHO). Not easy to maintain objectivity when one reports on Barca and Madrid all the time. I think he does his best.

  3. November 30, 2012

    Guardiola’s last season for me was the best of all the four. It was in the last season he showed really his understanding of the game was different and a class above others.

    With the Ibra signing in his second season, he tried to counter our supposedly weakness. But that taught him a lesson – that’s there is no perfect system. How much you try a system will have it’s weakness. So from then on he focused to make the strength of the team better than try to reduce the weakness.

    Last season was a brilliant example of how he planned to do that. The only thing I have against him was that he didn’t plan those properly. he tried to experiment the system at tough away grounds. The safer way was to experiment at home and stay with a safe pattern away from home.

    Last season showed the Art of Management of a team. The other season, including this one was all about Science of Management. People hails the direct football played by Vilanova as more effective. But they tend to forget that, last season we were really close to UCL and had those unfortunate injuries creeped up also to La Liga title.

    • November 30, 2012

      I agree 100% with your analysis of Ibra’s season at Barca. An expensive lesson was learned. I can see why the experiment was worth trying, though.

      Given all the injuries and other issues of last season, that we were so close at all is quite remarkable.

    • November 30, 2012

      Mmmmm, no. It wasn’t injuries that made our finishing poor. The difference between no major silver and the treble was six goals. Six goals in a season that featured a blizzard of them. And none of those goals didn’t come because of injuries. They came because of poor concentration and complacency, the plague that fells every great team and the fundamental reason (I think) that Guardiola left.

      –Sevilla: Messi still didn’t seem to realize that it was going to take something more than the same ol’ penalty kick to try getting something past him.

      –Villarreal: A chip? Really? With the entire goal open?

      –Chelsea: The finishing in both legs was ridiculous.

      I could go on, but you get it. It was always “Another chance will come, and they finished like it. I re-watched the manita Classic last night, and the only players at the level they were during that match are Busquets and Iniesta.

      This season is about Fabregas’ form, and Vilanova, as blitzen spells out below. Guardiola felt too much, believed too much. Vilanova essentially sees the players as parts: “Nope, that isn’t working, let’s try this,” rather than “He isn’t getting it done now, but I have faith in him. Let’s wait another 10 minutes, then I will think about the sub.” But by then, it’s too late.

      –With Ibrahimovic, I don’t know if Guardiola tried to counter a weakness as he was seduced by the lure of the most talented striker in the world. And for a half season, everything that Guardiola envisioned came to pass. But everyone forgets that, and tends to focus on the last part of the season. Yes, Ibrahimovic was a pouting, detestable asshat, but there is a way to deal with that kind of a person. Guardiola’s view was “I don’t have time for that crap. Go sit over there,” assuming maturity on the part of the player. That ain’t always a safe assumption.

      For the first part of the season, Ibrahimovic was brilliant. Then Guardiola’s man-management deficiencies came to the fore, and a problem cropped up. But it wasn’t “big man up front” as the plan B. It was, “mega-sized version of Barca sprite.” Psychology derailed the Ibrahimovic experiment.

    • ooga aga
      November 30, 2012

      thats what *you* remember.

      first half of the season. even when ibra scored, we werent as fun to watch. i think many people would agree with me on that. he didnt move around as much as he needed to, he wasnt quick enough, didnt know where to be. he gummed everything up. he was offsides as much or more than villa, and while villa is invariably caught offsides due to a mistimed run — which happens to all strikers…ibra was caught offsides again and again because he was wandering around behind the defense and couldnt trouble himself to get back onsides. and again, we werent as fun to watch. sure, the goal against madrid was amazing. but for most of the time, even in the 1st half of the season, i was like, “where is my barca? who is that dude in the middle mucking things up?” thats what *i* remember.

      im sure pep could have handled it better, and im sure ibra could have been given more time to adapt. but ibra’s own attitude, as you correctly say, plays into all this.

    • November 30, 2012

      I think that memories are malleable, and individual. I went back to visit some of the reviews during the Ibrahimovic days, and the comments about his movement and seeming laziness (watch Villa standing around offside sometimes …. nobody calls him lazy) began when things started to go sour and he started pouting.

      He and Messi running around in opponent boxes, trading passes and banging in goals was, while it was working, a joy to watch. Here are some comments from a past review, names withheld:

      “And lastly…Ibra…I’m a huggeeeeeeee Eto’o fan, but what Ibra brings to this team is just ridiculous.”

      “I think that once Iniesta is 100% and playing next to Xavi, our Tiki-Taka footy will be better with Ibra, than last year.

      “Ibra is giving us an option B, but i don’t believe he is taking away our ability to practice option A.”

      “But having watched Ibra this year, the amount of money involved was ludicrous (but what big footie move isn’t these days?) but player for player Inter was fleeced. Ibra’s mix of skills are much much better than Eto’o’s for Barca. His ability to pass, hold up the ball, work in tight spaces and finish in the air make our attack so much more potent and flexible. His pass to Pedro is one that Eto’o never would have made, or that ridiculous back heel a few games back to Pique for a tap in.”

      “The man was absolutely unplayable. Did he ever lose the ball? All I saw was him dragging defenders, when he wasn’t breezing past them. The man had that “drone” quality with the ball that just makes it look like its tied to his feet.”

      But these were all before the Great Pout began, he was benched by Krkic, had scored in every Liga match, etc, etc.

      I’m sure there were dissenting comments, but the majority of them, in those early days, were very pleased/excited about the possibility of his talent meshing with the talent that we already had.

    • Peterj
      November 30, 2012

      Glad i am not the only that thinks IBRA never fitted in at all,even when he was scoring in his early days then.

  4. KEVINO17
    November 30, 2012

    Plan B must be to make Plan A work. Otherwise you just destroy plan A with incoherence and confusion and make it too easy for players to buy out of the project. Villa, I’m sure, wants to buy out of the project because he’s a striker in a striker less team. But if he won’t fit in he will have to be extruded.

    • November 30, 2012

      Didnt Villa fit in perfectly during a season in which we won the CL, the liga and the club world cup. How can we be sure Villa wants to but out. Did he make any comments to that effect. Will any of these journalists, who claim Villa is not happy and wants to move out, dare to speak out that they heard it directly from Villa or something to that effect.

      I really dont think Xavi or Puyol or Pique would have told Villa, before he joined Barca, that he would be the centre star of the team. They would have clearly mentioned to him , that is Messi. Even in the 2010 WC, for Spain, Villa was playing on the left forward, right? So now, when he is back after a serious injury, how can Villa turn so demanding. I really suspect it.

    • November 30, 2012

      I think Villa will be fine for at least the rest of this season. The important question is whether we can get him fit enough that he works with our system again.

    • November 30, 2012

      It’s not about Villa wanting to be the center of the team – not at all. He never was at Barcelona and that has never been a problem for him.

      It iss about Villa not being an automatic starter anymore. Is he ok with that? And if not, for how long? Tello will get a lot of game time and soon Alexis and Cuenca will be back from injury too.

      David has been ok with not being ‘the man’ but for one of Spain’s top strikers to ride so much pine? Mmmm…I haven’t heard any journalist say he is not happy. But to me, his face and body language suggest that he isn’t, at least not entirely. Hope I’m wrong though.

      Great article, Linda!! Although for me, the highlight of Pep’s career, tactically speaking, was when he ‘betrayed’ our philosophy in the first leg of the CL in the Bernabeu by NOT attacking. It caught Madrid completely unawares and drove them crazy as they were clueless as for how to play us that game.

    • November 30, 2012

      Not sure I agree about Villa – he works in the system fairly well when properly fit. Hopefully his fitness will improve to a level where that’s possible again.

    • November 30, 2012

      Villa will be perfectly fine, and the consummate professional until he is sold this summer. Then he will be perfectly fine, and the consummate professional somewhere else. Dude’s a pro, and always has been.

      His speculated level of happiness will not consciously affect how he does his job. As Linda infers, he isn’t at his past level because he is still on the comeback from being severely broken. The manita Villa was spectacular, playing almost as if electrified.

  5. November 30, 2012

    Forget the Lowe’s, Wilson’s, Cox’s, Hunters and all,, I would say this is the best article on Barcelona in a long time.

    It really ought to be ready by many of those guys in the Guardian blog.

    Thank you Linda. You could present it even in a football seminar.

    • November 30, 2012

      Aw, I’m blushing. Seriously, thank you very much.

  6. Gogah
    November 30, 2012

    Another lovely piece from the best writer on this blog for me. 😀
    I just want to dwell on the “aura and reality” aspect for a bit. There were countless games during the Pep era where the game was over before it even began. There was a very visible inevitability of the result even before the teams took to the pitch. As you say, the fundamentalist’s insistence on permanence and dogma actually helped that cause for a longer time than may have been possible, aided by the quality of the players. Enter evolution to Tito’s tactics; are we seeing barca go a full circle back to the 08-09 season where we won largely also due to the element of surprise? Teams just didn’t know what to expect. The aura began to grow with each year as teams began to understand how hopeless it was to compete for the ball. it gradually increased till it reached its peak during the 10-11 season. Parked buses became the norm as teams started showing more and more respect. This, barca and pep had to change. The more a team is perceived as invincible the easier it becomes in a way for them to plan a strategy. when we play only one way, opposing teams also react by only playing one way. This results sometime in a deadlock situation. pep in his last season sought to change things and i believe that 11-12 actually had barca play some of the best football. Tito has continued along the same vein pretty well and while that aura of invincibility may have decreased, i think it is by design and not by default. Teams are coming out to play us more, take us on and that also gives us room to play. Its been a pleasure following this team.

  7. mei
    November 30, 2012

    Well that’s just brilliant as usual, though I wish that usual was more often, linda.
    I think you skipped to include a quite straight and enlightening quote dani gave us with that interview
    ” in Barcelona we go with the idea that forwards arrive at the area instead of them being there constantly”.

  8. mic
    November 30, 2012

    Great article. For me, one difference between Pep’s and Tito’s results: Last year under Pep, there were more clear victories for us. We scored 4 or 5 goals more often. In many matches our game clicked and we were able to tear parked buses seemingly without effort. As if Pep’s plan for the game was right it worked big time. Under Tito, I don’t see us in this mode of play often. We don’t click and win effortlessly, often we fight or fear for our lives until the last minute. Anyone noticed the same? Any idea why is that?

  9. barca96
    November 30, 2012

    Sorry for being late to the party. So Villa didn’t celebrate or didn’t have a sparkly in his eyes?

    Iniesta was oddly very low key after he scored the Iniestazo last weekend vs Levate. Didn’t even see his teeth. To hell with him too? IF he really is unhappy?

    You hardly see Messi running over to a team mate to celebrate, especially if he wasn’t involved. I’ve noticed that for over a season now. Is he unhappy too?

    Usually it’s the media that is creating rumors but now it’s us, the fans. Can you imagine the media actually picking up this rumor from here. That would be awesome though. Like how the media picked up a dirty tackle report where Ronaldo was left behind by the Portugal NT team 😆

  10. November 30, 2012

    Well, this is just a brilliant piece of writing, Linda. Thanks very much, and I agree with pretty much everything you have said. One thing I have noticed with Tito in charge is that he seems more willing to make tactical subs when a game is not progressing to his liking, or at least more willing to make them earlier in the game. Where Pep would often wait until the last 10 minutes to sub in a player, Tito will often do it with a half hour to spare, or even earlier if necessary. Tito not only has his Plan, B, C, & D, but is prepared to implement them on the fly. In fact, even when Pep was in charge it was often Tito who suggested tactical changes during games (there was even a video clip illustrating that going around last year, anyone have it?).

    Stoke wouldn’t be very good at tiki-taka, and no one suggests that they try it when a game isn’t going their way. It just isn’t part of their game.

    Heh heh. EXACTLY!!!! 😀

    • nzm
      November 30, 2012

      Yes! I meant to address this in my comment below too – which I published and then saw your reply, blitz.

      I like that Tito will change/adapt his gameplan and isn’t stubbornly persisting in playing tactics that aren’t working. That must have driven him up the wall with Pep.

      Something that’s been in the back of mind this season – which is almost blasphemous, but I’ll say it anyway. 😀

      I’m liking that there is less drama off the pitch. I like that Tito is direct in his press conferences and calls a spade a spade. I like that there is less of the “political maneuvering” and philosophising going on. It’s just much calmer on the bench.

      That’s what I get most about Tito – it’s his calmness. He’s in control and everyone knows it.

      The thing that I don’t like is that Pep is no longer here to call out Rosell! 😆

  11. nzm
    November 30, 2012

    Great article, Linda.

    We certainly did notice the vertical play slipping into the team at the end of last season, and I did wonder at the time whether it was mostly Tito’s idea or Pep’s – but certainly something on which both of them worked.

    The first time that it was really on display was in the Rayo game just after Pep had resigned. (After losing the CL round to Chelsea and to Madrid in La Liga.)

    We then saw it again in the first 30 minutes of the CdR Final when Barca hit Bilbao hard and fast, stunning them into a lack of response and scoring 3 quick goals to which Bilbao couldn’t find a reply – it was too late.

    Bielsa with Bilbao certainly used the vertical attack against Man U very successfully and, in turn, Atletico Madrid’s Simeone used the swift attack-and-neutralise tactics against Bilbao in the Europa League Final.

    The Barca tactics in those first 30 minutes of the CdR Final were from lessons learned from watching those games, I think.

    It’s certainly been entertaining and interesting to watch the progression.

    Those passing stats quoted by Sid Lowe certainly surprised me. If I had been asked what I thought our passing stats were this season, I would have said that they were a lot lower than last season.

    The telling one is the shots on Barca goal though. The team is facing the same number of shots on goal however, this season, the opposing teams are scoring more goals with the same amount of shots. So for all the extra possession that Barca may be giving away, the shots against them remain the same, but the time given to take the shots has increased.

    Teams now know that the best tactic is to get the ball away from the Barca midfield area and pile the pressure onto the Barca back-line defence around the box. That’s why we see Xavi and Cesc (as well as Pedro, Alexis, Ini and Villa) play so deep sometimes – they’re being forced to retreat to recover the ball – otherwise they’d all be standing there doing nothing!

    • November 30, 2012

      The biggest problem this season is ball retention, and where the ball is lost. When you think of how many goals conceded this season have come from open play, rather than some Rube Goldberg contraption of luck/bounces …. it’s why I don’t think that we have as big of a defensive crisis as others believe. If your keeper spills the ball in his box, if your controlling midfielder deflects a ball that bounces directly to an attacker who is coming on the dead run, you just aren’t going to be able to stop those goals.

      But Vilanova is playing a higher risk system, and more of those kinds of plays are going to come. I never thought I would ever find myself saying this, but Fabregas is very important to the continued success of that system.

    • nzm
      November 30, 2012

      Yes – agreed. Teams know this now that their biggest chances come from forcing Barca to create errors closer to their goal area.

      Fabregas is going to become very important as an end-to-end player with the evolution that is occurring. He may not directly be a Xavi replacement as per doing what Xavi does, but he will be the successor as this style progresses because his strengths and skills are well-suited to this type of play.

      At the end of this season, it’s going to be interesting to look back on our predictions post that we made at the beginning to see what has (and hasn’t) come to fruition!

    • November 30, 2012

      I’m starting to feel pretty stupid about my predictions, actually. I just didn’t expect this ….

    • nzm
      November 30, 2012

      We don’t all have crystal balls – at least, ones that work as they are supposed to do. 🙂

    • November 30, 2012

      You aren’t the only one. The exact opposite of all my predictions has come true so far.

      Good thing I predicted we wouldn’t win anything

    • Ryan
      November 30, 2012

      I don’t think even the most ardent Atleti supporters expected this kind of league table after a dozen or so games!

    • ooga aga
      November 30, 2012


  12. November 30, 2012

    You know it’s an excellent article when I don’t even feel like splitting hairs over some minutiae. Very enjoyable.

  13. November 30, 2012

    I <3 Linda.

  14. November 30, 2012

    Linda, I love the tone of your writing. This post is daebak!!! 😀

  15. Ryan
    November 30, 2012

    Great article, Linda! Your argument to the Plan B criticism definitely rings true – we’re just not built for that kind of play. Indeed, in some frustrating games it does appear that we’ve tried the “Plan B” of lumping in pointless crosses, mostly by Dani (the Chelsea matches stand out) but I much prefer when the players keep their heads and just attempt to implement their passing game better.

  16. ooga aga
    November 30, 2012

    – cuenca continues to practice with the team

    – adriano is back practicing with the team after having the runs.

    – alexis, bartra, and abidal(!) worked out “on the margins” today — i.e. on the pitch but not with the group. they are at least trotting around.

    tito: “No es normal que ganamos todos los partidos. Debemos estar preparados para cuando perdamos” — “Its not normal that we are winning all the games. We must be prepared for when we lose.”

    “Abidal ha ido progresando pero su caso, como es excepcional, no permite decir una fecha exacta para su regreso” – Abidal is making progress but his case, exceptional as it is, does not allow one to set an exact date for his return.

    “juegan de la misma manera que la temporada pasada. Creo que no tendremos tiempo de pensar porque habrá un jugador que estará presionando” [atletic] they play in the same way as they did last year. i dont think we will have time to think because there will be a player pressuring us.

    • nzm
      November 30, 2012

      The other day, Abidal changed his Facebook Cover Image to a photo of him playing against Espanyol.

      I’m wondering if that’s the goal he’s set himself to be ready by Jan 6th – at least back in the team – for when they play Espanyol.

  17. November 30, 2012

    This is just a great piece Linda. So many good points and so well put.

    I think you make so many good points here. What I take as the one of the main themes is the continuity between Pep and Tito. And when I look at the system I see very much the same.

    This entire notion that Tito has somehow created this fundamentally different style like Ballague and even Marti Perarnau have been arguing is off the mark. Too many people have been staring too intently at a small sample of games and looking for differences. And because they want to see those differences they are seeing them. That’s a major component to what’s going on.

    The point Linda makes here is really critical. Pep was an experimentalist at heart. There was never some end stage or end system he “arrived” at. Instead there were outlines but constant variation within a set of parameters.

    What Tito is doing now is great – and it is different than what the team was doing in 2008-2009 but we saw roots for those changes last year in Pep’s thinking. What Tito’s doing now is a logical extension to certain things Pep started last year. Is it the “same” – no, of course not. Tito is a separate individual. But there is real continuity there, continuity that is significantly drive by the changes in the way the opposition defend Barca’s attack.

  18. Sangoku
    November 30, 2012

    I absolutely had to register in to tell Linda: Wonderful piece!

  19. Tank
    November 30, 2012

    I’m visiting this site for some time, but this article is just too good to not comment on it.

    Your analysis of the evolution of the tiki-taka,especially since Pep has left, is wonderful and thought-provoking. Still, I think one important aspect can be added: the evolution of the anti-Barca tactics. My thesis is, that the main reason why Barcelona became a little bit more direct in their playing approach is the high-pressing style that Barcelona’s opponents play more and more often. It’s not like in 10/11, when you could be absolutely sure that every opponent will play the parked bus. Now a lot of teams press Barca for about 70-80 minutes. That makes the slow tiki-taka build up play increasingly difficult.

    On the other hand, a team that decides to press Barca high up the pitch leaves spaces that Barca can exploit. And with that I mean: has to exploit! It would be foolish not to. Because of that Barca becomes more direct. Now they can play the ball forward more quickly and by doing so they avoid the pressing and catch the opponent’s defense unorganized.

    And that’s why the 12/13 Barca resembles the 08/09 Barca in some ways. They both face a lot of opponents that don’t play the parked bus. Therefore they can play more direct.

    Of course my thesis would face severe problems, if Barca would play more direct even against parked busses. But I don’t have the impression that they do.

    Thanks again for the great article. (…and thanks for the whole marvellous blog)

  20. simple_barcafan
    November 30, 2012

    Wonderful article Linda…
    Your immense knowledge matches your eloquence.. Bravo…

  21. davidgoldie
    November 30, 2012

    Very nice article on the progression of the team. Only with these kinds of lengthy articles can one appreciate the nuances that surround this team. This discussion of plan B is ridiculous. The quality of the players is such that the plan always stays the same. But the tools to implement are much more nuanced. The best example is the wide forward lineups. The options are: Villa, Alexis, Tello, Pedro, Cuenca (soon), and you have to throw Iniesta in the mix. The various combinations of those 6 players into two spots is our Plan B-Z. Each offers subtle differences in verticality, quality of first touch, finishing ability, etc…I think the Plan A (used in most important games) will actually be Iniesta Messi Pedro. This allows Cesc, Xavi, and Iniesta to work together playing to each of their strengths. But there will be moments where each of those 6 will be used – is it enough to keep ’em happy. We’ll find out next summer – for now enjoy Plan B-Z.

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