Our reader Rodrigo sent in a couple of questions* through firstname.lastname@example.org. Without feeling the need to get into long-winded introductions…
Is it plausible to think Pep’s Barcelona to play a counter-attack strategy in order to have more space to pass the ball? If not, is it an attacking strategy more suitable?
I will start by saying that although the core of our current team has remained the same, it is no longer Pep’s Barcelona. Now that that’s out of the way, the only time I remember FC Barcelona rolling out with a counter-attack strategy, under any manager, was the first leg of the 2011 CL semi-final in the Bernabeu. Tactically it was, in my mind, Guardiola’s most impressive victory. The beauty of it was that although we didn’t manage a single counter attack during the whole match, we frustrated the hell out of our opponent’s game plan by being content to pass the ball around in our own half for large stretches of the game. A M*drid team that had been structurally, tactically and mentally prepared with the sole purpose of taking on Barcelona found itself absolutely clueless in their own house. I am speculating here of course, but one suspects that after 75 minutes of not knowing what to do, or rather, playing under instructions that we’re rendered utterly useless by Pep’s design, our rivals were psychologically drained to the point that their concentration dropped significantly, after which Messi’s late brace provided a logical outcome.
Mind you, this does not necessarily mean that a counter attacking strategy is more suitable. First of all, you have to keep in mind that the large majority of teams we play are happy with a draw. The onus is on us to attack while they can defend their hearts out. We want to win, they want to survive. There is a big difference there, and they would be content to let us pass the ball around in the back. Second, we are Barça. One of the biggest reasons we have so many admirers (let’s ignore for now all the haters who can’t stand the sight of our bandwagon of success) is our dedication to beautiful and attacking football. There is no way we will betray the identity of what makes our club great, and nor should we.
We can certainly incorporate more counter attacks in our play. Just because we refuse to sit back and soak up the pressure does not mean we can’t be more direct and vertical when the opponent loses the ball. Of course, everybody following the club knows that this is exactly what Gerardo Martino has been trying to implement ever since he took over the reins. And in big games it certainly is not a bad idea to spring a surprise every now and then from the get go. Too many big teams are only too well prepared to let us have 70% of possession knowing that they can do us as much if not more damage with their 30%
How would you define temporization? Less intensity? More intensity? People tend to look at Barcelona to play a lower intensity style of play with short passing, but I think Barcelona players apply different ones according to where on the pitch they circulate the ball: different zones, different intensities.
A simple definition of temporization would be “to control the tempo of the game”, and you actually give a pretty good description of the word yourself. Of course when compared to say, the EPL, our short passing style is certainly less intensive, regardless of the fact that we up the ante at different moments of the match. But we are not exactly sleepwalking, either, because even tiki-taka requires constant movement in order for it to be effective. Another thing you shouldn’t overlook when talking about intensity is our team defense. For example, the most intense match last season was our 4-0 demolition of Milan and it all began with our defense. The team pressed like a demon possessed. Had the game taken place in Italy Dani Alves would have probably been arrested for sexually assaulting his markers.
Today we find ourselves in the curious and paradoxical situation that any rise in offensive intensity (through immediate vertical passes) directly affects our defensive intensity. Our players are not robots, and if they have to make more sprints to get to the ball while at the same time covering more space between the lines caused by longer passes, they cannot be expected to press as efficiently when they lose possession. This is not new to Martino’s Barça, by the way. It was already a hot topic of discussion when Vilanova was trying to make our team play more directly. In other words, it is a case of Tat for Tit.
This season we do press – sometimes – but the energy it takes, coupled with the energy consumed by our increased verticality, can make for a risky strategy. Against Valencia, one of the most intense thirty minutes we have seen under Martino, was followed by an hour best described as un-inspirational, both in attack and in defense. It was obviously going to happen, as there was no way they would keep up that killer tempo. Still, the team should not have lost control of the game the way they did. Which brings us to the following: have you ever noticed that people only talk about temporization when a team is winning? That is because it is used to control the match and not the other way round.
Also there’s a lot of speculation whether Barcelona plays narrow or wide, focusing passing through the middle or stretching the pitch
We are generally playing less wide than in seasons past, as Martino has given Pedro and Alexis more freedom to pinch towards the middle where they were previously told to make love to the touchline. Look at this picture, courtesy of AllasFCB via @allas4 on twitter:
Another example would be Dani Alves. Remember his goal in the league opener against Levante? (And notice how La Pulga created the opportunity by making the defensive play first)
The advantages are obvious. Playing with more freedom to move towards the opponents goal, Pedro and Alexis Sanchez have (re-)emerged as very real scoring threats. But there is a huge drawback: Lionel Messi now finds himself with less space to make plays. Then again, his injury, Neymar’s injury, and let’s not forget our disastrous pre-season have not made it easy for the team to figure these things out. We will very likely require more time to find a good balance between wide and narrow, fast and slow, vertical and horizontal. And not all our squad members are well-suited for the tactical changes that might be needed. Some serious future personnel changes could be on the horizon, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Would you say Barcelona plays a very fluid football where defenders attack, and attackers defend, all with great creative freedom? Or is it less fluid and more disciplined football?
Gerardo Martino allows his players more freedom than his predecessors, to the obvious benefit to players like Alexis and Fàbregas. However, when things go wrong the previous complaints of “Barça is becoming too predictable” turn into “Barça is looking out of synch”.
That is not to say that there aren’t some serious issues with our defenders attacking, but these are very much inherited problems. Enough has been said in this space (and elsewhere) about the Dani Alves – Jordi Alba suicide combo platter over the last 12 months, but when you analyze our defenders, each and every one, with the exception of Puyol, likes to go forward with the ball at their feet. Piqué, Bartra and Mascherano as well as our full backs are all ball-playing defenders leaving us without anyone in the back who is first and foremost a natural stopper.
As a side note, fluid attacking football is actually the most disciplined form of football because the players have to not only be aware of their own position but of those of their teammates as well, and thus act and move accordingly. It is awesome when defenders join the attack, but when all stop defending a simple clearance can quickly lead to an all too easy one-on-one at the wrong end of the pitch (errr…remind you of a certain team?). The Dutch “total football” of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruijff is still today widely lauded for its free-flowing attack where strikers and wing-backs seemingly change position at will but it required a lot of training and drilling to get to that level. Rinus Michels was not known as “The General” for nothing.
Player roles are also very speculative, starting from behind whether looking at Dani Alves both as an attacking full-back, a winger or even a complete winger. Xavi is mostly seen as deep-lying playmaker, but what Iniesta ? An Advanced Playmaker ? an attacking Central Midfielder ? A BtB midfielder ? Then the advanced players, wingers or inside forwards ? Messi as a False 9, a Trequartista, Deeplying Forward, Complete Forward ???
Sometimes we simply label positions and formations too much. Coaches might give players different instructions for different matches, and the matches themselves all create their own circumstances which influence players’ movements and actions. And of course, there are plenty of tactical adjustments that take place over ninety minutes as well.
If you have to label them, then Dani Alves is definitely a wing-back, although in the majority of games his average position is up higher than the opposition forward (and sometimes up higher than our own forwards). Nevertheless, he still has his defensive duties. Xavi is a deep-lying playmaker nowadays, although I used to love his forward runs which we are starting to see less and less of. And what, I beg you, would be the difference between an advanced playmaker and an attacking central midfielder? Doesn’t the playmaker attack from the center of the midfield, and is the attacking midfielder forbidden to make plays? I don’t think those roles are mutually exclusive. As for Messi I have seen him described as a deep lying forward, complete forward, false 9, false 10 and a false 6. There are games where he is all of the above. And sometimes he moves mainly from the right wing to the center (does that make him a 79?). Still, the smaller the box you want to put a player in, the less chance he’s gonna fit.
There is one thing I am sure of: when a (section of the) crowd boos a team that has more than 80% possession and 26 shots for against Real Sociedad’s grand total of 3 as reportedly happened last Wednesday, I think we can safely label them a false twelve.
*All answers are mine, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the rest of the BFB team.