The shape of things to come, aka “Barça 2.0?”

Of all the new coaches building projects in football right now, from Guardiola to Mourinho to Conte, the surprise addition to that list is — for many — Luis Enrique at FC Barcelona.

The weekend’s nail biter that wasn’t, a fascinating display by the best team in football, was interesting because everyone thought they had Barça figured out.

Last season, the team attacked by getting the ball to its most dangerous attackers, as quickly as it could, then letting them do the damage. As effective as this approach was, it didn’t leave much margin for error. If one of the front three was having an off match, if the finishing wasn’t up to snuff, there was no fallback, no real way to effectively control the match.

This left a great many culers nostalgic for the ball control days, when even if Barça wasn’t finishing, they had the ball all the time, so if they weren’t finishing, nobody was. Many felt the point was proved in that nasty, gritty away leg to Atleti in Champions League, when the South American danger men, fried from a recent international break, weren’t as dangerous as usual, and Barça went out on away goals.

There were hints that things were going to be different this season, beginning with the transfer activity and its focus on midfielders. The focus on mids continued as Sergi Roberto wrested the right back spot — to be honest, one that was almost certainly his all along — from Aleix Vidal. Then the club shipped out Claudio Bravo, and Dani Alves left on a free. Finally came the press conference, right before Athletic, with Luis Enrique said, simply enough, “We want to keep the ball.”

It was a comment that went unremarked, but that signaled a different kind of intent. L.E. Barça 2.0? Perhaps. Maybe. But a number of tactical changes set the stage for this new approach to things, most significantly at RB and GK. Alves left, which had a knock-on effect for Ivan Rakitic in that it liberated him. Much of his role last season was in helping with defensive duties on that right flank. Now, with the addition of Sergi Roberto, a player with a stunning football IQ, Rakitic’s role has changed.

Even more than the Sevilla midfield titan, Rakitic, with his MOTM performance against Athletic, showed off. He defended, pressed, passed, made key interventions and scored the winning goal off a bullet header. More importantly, he contributed to a Barça attack that at the end of the first half, boasted more than 65 percent possession.

The keeper, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, is new to the full-time No. 1 shirt. He had more touches today than any Barça player. Some of that was a consequence of the way Athletic was pressing, as Barça played out of its end and the keeper returned to the Cruijffian ideal of pivotal attack starter and fifth member of the back line. But some of it was also that there was a new keeper in town, one who, with the blessing and confidence of his coach, became the fulcrum of this Barça that we are beginning to get to know.

San Mames is a viper’s pit of an away trip, an arena where even though Barça has a strong record against Athletic Bilbao, its players never, ever make it easy. They fight, foul, claw and spit their way for the entirety of the 90 minutes and then some, making you wonder if they mark Barça players when they visit the loo.

“Can I have SOME privacy please? Damn!”

Barça demolished Sevilla in the SuperCopa, destroyed Betis in the first match of the Liga campaign but this, for me, was the most impressive to date. Last season, a 1-0 victory would have been fraught, because of the long passing approach to getting the ball to the front three. Buildup was bypassed. Those long passes also meant that opponents had more of the ball and could press the defense. This, of course, meant yips and screams as chances were created, and 1-0s often became 1-1s.

Even though today’s result was a 1-goal victory and a clean sheet, it wasn’t all that fraught. Athletic had two legit scoring chances: one from a Ter Stegen passing error, the other from a vicious free kick that went just wide. Other than that, the saves that Ter Stegen had to make were more just catching the ball sent toward goal, not even chances as much as “Well, gotta do something.”

Much of this control was related to ball control, not only playing out from the back but the midfield work of the kind that people said was absent. And it was, because the team didn’t have the personnel to play in this manner, but also because Messi hadn’t yet assumed his new role.

Now that the Barça No. 10 is functioning more like a traditional 10, this places the team’s best player in the midfield. Augmenting this new approach are faces like Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez as well as Arda Turan, players who can retain possession, press, make space and score goals themselves, created from passes made by Messi. Now that the team’s most dangerous attacker is in the midfield, the approach to the game has changed. The hurry to get the ball to the most dangerous folks has been replaced by a deliberation of approach that might, at any second, decide to get the ball up front straight away.

The addition of Samuel Umtiti, who debuted in the XI, and a more forward playing style means that the days when Pique and Puyol were pushed up near the center line have returned. This means that Busquets can play farther up as we saw today, becoming the eye of the hurricane as the other mids played off him.

Pique and Umtiti could play up because of the presence of a legit sweeper keeper, a proactive rather than reactive force who gobbles up balls that other keepers rely on their defenders to play. There was one remarkable play where Ter Stegen, far outside his box, took a pass and, as a pressing Athletic player ran at him, moved toward his box, turned to face forward and calmly played a pass to the wing. That’s what a sweeper keeper does, and apparently it’s going to take some getting used to. Ter Stegen is even more advanced than Victor Valdes was, playing his space more like Neuer. The way that he plays his space also means that the entire team can move up, because there is a playmaker in the box, passing it forward to advanced positions.

This football is weird to see, partly because it’s a safe bet that most culers remember this football from the Guardiola days, and assumed the team would never see its like again. It’s also weird to see because it’s different from the possession game of Guardiola’s days. Luis Enrique seems to be working toward a more dynamic, malleable approach that can create a 22-pass goal, or simply lash a pass through the middle to a streaking runner.

It’s a style of football that has also adapted to how opponents are going to play Barça, with the high press and a physical style. Ter Stegen’s contribution in breaking the Athletic press, allowing Barça to play out of the back with relative ease, was invaluable. Usually Athletic would get the ball back when a possession error happened. Even then, not much came of their possession or industry as Barça calmly stroked the ball around, Ter Stegen to Umtiti to Pique to Ter Stegen to Umtiti to a runner moving through the midfield as the entire team them moved forward to join that attacker and suddenly, Athletic had some defending to do.

If someone was to tell you that Barça would comfortably win a tight match on a night when Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez were its worst players, away against an always-difficult opponent, you’d probably wonder what sort of hallucinogen the person you were chatting with had been ingesting. But that’s what happened.

The biggest lineup surprise was the start for Umtiti, surprising because Mascherano was fully fit and available. Umtiti is strong in the air, winning every aerial duel. It’s worth noting that the Athletic free kick danger came from an aerial duel that Mascherano lost. Umtiti battled with and mostly controlled Aduriz, who is a handful in and around the box. He was, after some initial yips, calm and composed, showing an interplay with Ter Stegen that looked as though the two had been playing together for years. His forward runs were well timed and dangerous, his forward passes smart. Even the most paranoid culer had to work pretty hard to find fault with his performance.

But what he also did was enabled Busquets to push up the pitch, something that, given the erm … uncertain match that the Barça stalwart had, was something of a blessing. He and Pique displayed sideline to sideline range, coupled with the stability provided by Sergi Roberto, who was in for the MOTM discussion in the wake of yet another excellent outing at RB, a position that he plays differently than Alves.

His instincts for when to move forward and when to defend were uncanny, and having a midfielder as RB means that, when that mid has been schooled in the Barça way, you have smart possession on that side of the pitch, and passing fluency and variety not often seen from RBs, who generally bomb up the wing and throw in a cross. Sergi Roberto would make space by using his marker’s momentum against him, cutting inside or working a play with Rakitic that found one or the other of them in free space, running up the sideline as the Athletic press was broken yet again.

There is a patience to this Barça, a team that suddenly wants the ball, that understands the role of its best player, how that has changed and how it will change the way that the team plays. There was a method of play on display, that continued when personnel changed.

A lot of people saw a “Holy crap we could have lost or drawn” match today. But if you looked closely, you saw not only something potentially brilliant taking shape, but a match was wasn’t as close as the scoreline indicated, and not only because some profligate finishing on the part of Barça. It was a match that was mostly in control, something that we aren’t used to seeing from this Barça. Expect to see the “return of tika-taka” headlines, and those headlines will be wrong. This is Barça, playing Barça football, adapted. The team is still working it all out, and patience will be required on the part of supporters and the roiling cauldron of an entorno.

But the potential payoff is, should this project come together in the way signs indicate, sufficient to make even the crankiest culer giddy with anticipation.

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Written by:

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

26 Comments

  1. TITO
    August 29, 2016

    Before the match started and barring in mind the previous encounters there i really thought that we will have a hard time playing in San Mames, BUT i enjoyed it.
    We are playing some wonderfully organized football.
    IF we go into the season improving what we already have, i can’t see us finishing the season without a trophy, and i dare to say, all 3 of them.

    bthw. that Rakitic fella can play football when he is allowed to.

  2. raj
    August 29, 2016

    ‘Tiki-Taka’? Maybe in the defense. I thought our midfield failed to control and hold the ball under pressure. But thats just my view.

    Also, the reason our defense had to hold so much of the ball was because our mid-fielders weren’t making themselves available enough for passes from the back. Only Busquets was waiting near the center circle when Umtiti had the ball and Busquets was properly marked. Denis Saurez and Arda were not doing enough to get the ball from the back, if I remember correctly.

    Sorry for the grumbling, but I am really happy for the win. It would have been understandable to lose this one, let alone draw. This match will be remembered next April I am sure.

    • August 29, 2016

      Me too, thought midfield couldnt help in bringing the ball out in calm. But they did do well during the counters. Denis and Rakitic both didnt really help Busquets in those tough pressing times. Arda, being a forward, we could not really blame.
      Whatever, it was an excellent match. 3 very valuable points.
      On another day, we would have got 3 or 4 goals and Messi alone could have got 2 assists. But still, no worries at all. 3 great points from the toughest away game in the early half of season.

    • raj
      August 29, 2016

      3 great points indeed!

  3. TITO
    August 29, 2016

    It’s not easy to control the midfield when the opponent is pressing almost entire game, especially an opponent who plays hard on the ball.
    You don’t need to control the midfield in such degree when in 4-5 passes from the back you can reach into their box, which we did it several times, and it should have ended with a goal.
    If our forwards wold have scored from those chances, it would have made the life much easier for our midfield.
    That’s what you get when you play against the likes of AB, AM, Sevilla, Sociedad, Villareal, Valencia etc at their ground. High press and hard tackles, and you simply cannot control the midfield the way you like it or the way you play at home..
    So, all i all, IMO the guys did a great job. They should have score more.

  4. dl
    August 29, 2016

    Quite enjoyed that game, both the successes and the ‘fails’. I thought it was a bit of a trial by fire for Umtiti in that Athletic put him under constant pressure, and he did quite nicely. Very cool customer. I thought there were a few mistakes, but for a youngster in his first big start at barcelona, he did magnificently.
    Ter Stegen, too, had a couple of questionable passes, but to think that he had more touches than anyone else (if the stat is correct) and of those only one bad pass, which he was also fortunate enough to stick his face in the way of, is very very promising.
    Busquets looked a bit off, but found a way to recover from his lost balls as only he can.
    Finally, I really enjoyed Athletic. They have a really good team, and attractive play. They just don’t stop trying.

  5. August 29, 2016

    Looks like the “Summer of 22” will continue. On the official site, Barça let slip early a page offering supporters the chance to win a signed Alcacer shirt.

    Alcacer comes our way for 30+2, Munir goes their way on a one-year loan, with a 12m purchase option, assuming we don’t want to recall him from loan, 15m that next year if we decide to not pull the plug and he blossoms. So essentially, it’s paying Valencia 3m for developing one of our players.

  6. Chiu
    August 29, 2016

    Great review Kx! totally agree with your thoughts

    – We were more fluid in building up the attack from the back with TS as sweeper keeper. High pressing from opponent have become a common tactics and the very good sweeper keeper as our fifth defenders help a lot to maintain the possesion. This looked risky for non barca fans, but for us it’s just like another rondo training. The more they play together and enhance the understanding with TS as the seasons proceed, I am sure the margin of error from the short passing at the back would be really minimum.

    – The defenders have a lots of confident in TS ability so as not hesisate to pass to him whenever the situation needed. Over the long course of season, the opponent would think more to apply high pressing againts us because we could still build the attack with short passing from the back i/o hoofing the ball forward with the probability of losing the possesion, High pressing would leave some void space in the opponent midfield area because some of their midfielders push further up. If we could consistently break their high pressing and distribute the ball to less compact midfield, their defense would be more exposed. Again, this is risky play but to certain degree, Barca is the best team to handle this kind of things.

    – After the first goal we played more relaxed. 2nd half was better with more clear chances that Messi and Suarez would score easily in the other day. Not sure if the rain affecting our finishing. Am agree the Messi and Suarez were “our worst players” last night. But still some movement from them was so entertaining. It’s clear that Lucho want Messi to have freedom to move anywhere, esp helping the midfield. I remember one moment on 64 minute, from a throw in on the right wing, he first timed volley the ball to the “less crowded” right wing with just a shoulder blink . Looked simple, but so Xaviniesta imo.

    – Overall, the whole team looked great for the 2nd liga game of the season and playing againt Bilbao at San Mames on a night rainy day. I really surprised with Sergi Roberto and Umtiti performance. They played so good and adapted well with the other first teamers. SR made some really good runs on the wing. Umtiti interception for high balls and confident in bringing up the ball from the back is promising. Better than Masch and Mathieu at the moment.

    – We have good probabilty to win major silver by the end of season. Good luck! Visca Barca

    • dl
      August 30, 2016

      Chiu: I noticed that ‘pass’ also — it made me laugh out loud!!! Pretty much a blind 40 yard volley to the feet of Alba, I think, who nonchalantly received it as if he had been expecting it. I don’t know what I’m going to do when the little one retires.

  7. Messiah10
    August 29, 2016

    Really excited about Alcacer deal. I think in this market $30 mil is a steal for his talent. 5 year deal which puts him long term and in his prime. gives solid competition for Neymar so he can’t relax. Solid solid summer! As much as I’ve disliked this board I’ll have to say they stepped up this summer and added a base of young supremely talented players that will form the nucleus of our team when the current superstars are memories of a golden generation. We are witnessing the greatest club team ever! No club has put this run together for 8+ seasons. Man U in the Premier league but they only one 2 CL’s in 20 years! That puts it in perspective.

    • Messiah10
      August 29, 2016

      Won lol

  8. August 30, 2016

    Alcacer officially official. Announced today.

  9. TITO
    August 31, 2016

    Kxevin,

    I think our squad needs a special piece of writing. 🙂
    I can’t remember us having such a squad in ages, for as long as i watch football.

  10. August 31, 2016

    just clued back in to the world of football.
    wow, so many signings this summer.
    i always love it when barca sign people i havent heard much of.
    it means they have a special something that is suited solely to the club’s needs.

    speaking of,
    can someone here, tell me a little about andre gomes.
    it is the one transfer that has me scratching my head.
    40+ seems like quite a bit.
    what are his virtues. why did we sign him, given our already existing headcount in midfield?
    any thoughts would be appreciated.

    • August 31, 2016

      Gomes is an Iniesta/Busquets hybrid, an attacking midfielder who can play anywhere in midfield. It’s his height that makes him an intriguing possibility. He can see holes and spaces, being above the fray, as it were.

      Also an excellent associative player, as we saw from his part in one of the Turan goals. He’s a profile that the team lacked.

  11. Davour
    August 31, 2016

    Uncomfortable with Messi traveling to join up with NT despite the club advising against it. Hopefully he will not risk anything, physically, but wanted to follow-up his return by actually being there in person – playing or not. We’ll see, but he is taking quite a risk ignoring the club’s advise.

    I can’t help but feel Cillessen’s comments are a bit… interesting. Obviously, he is signed as a back-up, but is already talking about being a Dutch legend. Well, I guess LE wanted a competitive keeper to maintain focus in Ter Stegen.

  12. August 31, 2016

    Deadline Day shenanigans include Luis back to Chelsea for 40m. Makes Umtiti’s transfer even more impressive. Also Mangala on loan from City to Sevilla, and Camara from Barça B on loan.

    • georgjorge
      September 1, 2016

      Very interesting. Still too early to judge the performance of Umtiti, but it says something that a lot of the names thrown around as better options for a CB back when Mathieu came to Barca have underperformed quite a bit in the meantime (Mangala, Marquinhos, even Luiz). Those names would have come with a 30+ million price tag.

    • Davour
      September 5, 2016

      Thanks for the link. Very clear outline of our tactic, using ter Stegen. Brilliant.

      Can’t wait for the next game. It is never good to have Leo hurt, but part of me is intrigued as to how the team will line up and manage without him (probably Arda switching sides). Neymar has been away and has not been with the team for some time; still, he has been playing, so he should be good and ready.

    • Jim
      September 5, 2016

      Yeah, an interesting article. Have to say I wasn’t comfortable watching our goalkeeper have as many touches as that. Don’t like the ball spending so much time just around our goal. There were a few lobbed slow balls that more alert attackers could have got to quicker. Also, your “extra man” advantage disappears as soon as your opponents wise up and just don’t bother closing down your keeper. Not sure what they were thinking about. However, in general terms TS is a real asset in terms of using the ball and that’s never bad.

      I think we saw the big disadvantage of Messi having to play more than one role though. I love him as playmaker and as goal scorer but that’s a hell of a lot of ground he has to cover quickly and that showed at the end. He was knackered, despite not having his best game and that sort of injury doesn’t clear overnight. For me, he shouldn’t be near our next match. Great result though. I’ll take that any day and we should now get a chance to see the rest step up.

      Just been watching Spain and never has the tale of two halves been more appropriate. They looked like a Scottish first division side in the first half but turned it on in the second. Interestingly, Thiago was taken off and Nolito brought on. Second half he, and Sergio Roberto, added a lot of mobility to Spain’s attack. Good to see but I’m not sure if it was an indictment of Thiago or not. Could also have done without Pique, Alba and Busi playing the whole match but I suppose it was the coach’s first match so someone just needs a quiet word in his ear !

      What a difference watching my own country, Scotland, last night. We won 5-1 against Malta away, which is a great result by anyone’s standard but did it without actually displaying any technical ability whatsoever. Spoiled watching Barca I guess. It’s worth watching the video of Iniesta on the Barca site recuperating by working on his own . A great example of how it’s not just the controlling of a pass to you but the first touch being so good you have time to adjust your body at the same time so it appears you have more time. Could watch it all day.

      Still not over Samper getting sent away but consoled myself by looking at a YouTube video of him in his first game . You just can’t look at him and not think ” Busquets”. Mind you, he’s not gonna learn much of use if all the sides they play against give him as much time.

      Finally, have to say I’m almost looking forward to the Manchester derby at the weekend as much as our match. Gonna be a humdinger !!!

    • September 6, 2016

      Ter Stegen will have a lot of people rethinking their comfort factors. I thought he was brilliant. The future is so bright.

      There were people on my Twitter TL actually wanting him to hoof it from time to time. Glad he didn’t and doesn’t. It just cedes possession for a team that wants to keep the ball. Perfect keeper call for me.

    • Davour
      September 6, 2016

      If they choose not to close down the keeper, ter Stegen, given his talent on the ball, would have time to pick passes to overcome the first press (as he would not be pressured) and enable building anyway. If this, inviting pressure, has the result of easing pressure on our backline when other teams do not want to be trapped, well, then there’s another advantage. Either way, we should really have scored on each of the occasions displayed. Less sloppy finishing by Messi, Arda and Luis, and we’re 2-3 goals ahead.

      To me, Allas’ videos showed a coherent strategy that is an option when needed, but which surely could be varied when needed (sweeper when we pile the pressure on less pressing sides, etc.). The advantage of the 11th man remains if he is a good enough passer in other situations, too, is my guess.

    • Jim
      September 6, 2016

      It doesn’t really work that way. If they don’t cover the keeper nobody needs to leave their man so you lose time on the ball and a free target. Also, the amount of time a ball takes to travel into the midfield ensures that you will have company by the time it arrives even if you didn’t have before. I’d rather see a midfield more involved in showing for the ball and playing their way up the park but we’ll see as the season progresses.

      For me, the GK’s part in either of the occasions mentioned is no more than Pique or Masche’s passes into midfield – or indeed SR’s pass to Messi the other week. Too much still has to happen on the creative side before a chance occurs.

      I’d go along with the idea that it is another option we have and a good one but not one I’d depend on.

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