The danger zone and a changing midfield

There’s a name for a coach who doesn’t get the ball to his most dangerous players.

Fool.

This season, there has been much talk about style, betrayals of style and beauty of play, leading to discussions about whether Luis Enrique is the corect coach to lead Barça (he is) and since he isn’t, who would be better (nobody).

Luis Enrique has often said (correctly) that he plays Barça football. What’s interesting, as you watch Barça over the recent glory years starting with Rijkaard, is that the three Barça coaches — Rijkaard, Guardiola and Luis Enrique — are more alike than anyone would care to admit. They all share the fundamental trait of all coaches, which is wanting to get the ball to the most dangerous men, and making sure that they have the ball most of the time.

With Rijkaard, the player was Ronaldinho. With Guardiola, it was mostly Xavi and also Iniesta. With Luis Enrique, it’s Messi, Suarez and Neymar.

Each Barça coach also adapted his system to the personnel that he had. Positional play is lovely. It also helps to have an in-prime Xavi and Iniesta to implement it. Rijkaard’s mission was simple as well: devise a way to get No. 10 the ball, and let him do what he does. That hasn’t changed since Messi changed his number from 19 to 10, no matter who the Barça coach is. This is true even as Luis Enrique is the Barça coach who is best equipped to not have to get the ball to No. 10 as a way of life.

It’s weird to say that, because Messi is Messi. But a lot of why Guardiola won his treble is the same reason that Luis Enrique won his, that lack of complete dependence on No. 10. Supporters need Messi to be that rumbling, tumbling superhero who bursts from the phone booth to save the day, right after he creates the day, makes the sun rise then builds the phone booth. So many want Messi to be everything, when the best Barça is when Messi isn’t everything. It’s no coincidence that Guardiola and Luis Enrique had similar treble-winning squads. Barça could work a bust-out to Thierry Henry on the left wing in 08-09, Neymar in 14-15. An erratic, mercurial striker fond of missing easy chances prowled the opponent box in Samuel Eto’o. So did Luis Suarez. And then there was Messi, always Messi.

Guardiola wanted Xavi to have the ball because Xavi was his most dangerous player. Messi was the goalscorer, the dynamo but Xavi was the timekeeper, the maestro with the baton. Even Messi danced to his tune. When Luis Enrique set up the vaunted Trident, he did it with championships in mind. Part of that was unpredictability. To make the MSN machine go, they need the ball.

We hear, all the time, that “Barça doesn’t have a midfield.” It does. The difficulty with the people who say that is that it isn’t doing the things that meet their expectation of the Barça midfield, as defined by a starburst in time. The Barça midfield is different now. Iniesta isn’t a timekeeper like Xavi was, even as he dictates play when in form, but he’s more a reference point, a human la pausa. And it’s beautiful. In that idealized world, Busquets is as close in function as we are going to see to Xavi. Both their jobs are to get the ball as quickly as possible to the danger men so that they can do their thing. This means that times are different.

So much of the modern game has shifted to the wings, and Barça is no exception. Looking at where the danger comes from is always interesting. The defense will always be clustered where Messi is, because he’s Messi. But Barça keeps a statistic, shot assists. In La Liga this season, Neymar has 38. Messi has 22, Suarez 18. Neymar also leads the team with 13 assists in all competitions. One of the most significant differences between Henry and Neymar is that while Henry could pass, he isn’t a playmaker/associative player in the same way that Neymar is. Neymar has the ball so much because he isn’t just the second best player in the game — he’s an accelerant, that thing you toss onto a fire to cause or intensify combustion. He gets the ball a lot because like Messi, the attack needs him to have the ball. Luis Enrique’s Barça needs all three of its most dangerous players to have the ball.

As Henry waned, Barça had less success. Guardiola made a tactical adaptation, moving to the midfield-based positional play that so many crave today, that kind of play that, with Suarez and Neymar, would be like hitching a plow to the Ferrari. Sure, it’ll work, but …

Positional play worked because of Xavi and his omnipresent danger. Because he was so dangerous, Jeffren could score goals, Tello could score goals, Pedro could gain an exclamation point, such was the excitement he generated. It all flowed from Xavi, who was the same essential element who provided a lot of the same impetus for Luis Enrique in that treble season. In the here and now, Barça doesn’t have Xavi. It also doean’t have the same need that flowed from that legendary player. Neymar, Messi and Suarez can do for themselves in ways that the likes of David Villa and Zlatan Ibrahimovic couldn’t. The game moved toward mobile, creative attackers just as it moved toward the wings. At Bayern Munich, Robben, Costa and Ribery did their thing, moving outside in.

This isn’t about being right or wrong. It’s just about what is. The same reason Arda Turan is a troublemaker on the left wing is enabled by the reality of the modern game. Alba does an overlap, Turan moves to fill the space and take the return pass. Or Turan floats into the center for a shooting position, while the defense is focused on Suarez and Messi. Wing play works. Diversification of sources works even better. Suarez has renewed with Barça, and Messi is almost certainly as happy as the Uruguayan because Messi understands what many still don’t: he isn’t That Messi any longer. But because he wants to win, he dosn’t want to keep pretending, striving to be That Messi. He needs to work alongside a pair of assassins.

The role of the midfield has, of necessity, changed because the team’s most dangerous player isn’t there any longer. It isn’t that “Barça doesn’t have a midfield,” but rather that the role of it has changed. The midfield now is sorta like Purgatory for the ball, before it gets sent to Heaven (if you’re a culer) or Hell (if you’re a defender). There were signs of dysfunction when Busquets had to cover the world and Iniesta was recoverinng from his knee injury. But Luis Enrique understands the importance of the midfield at Barça. We need look no farther than his signings of Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez to understand that, two players who replicate roles that already exist at Barça.

But even as those players come into their own, it’s important to understand that the midfield of yore isn’t coming back. How people choose to deal with that will be up to them, but remember what kind of coach doesn’t strive to get the ball to his most dangerous attackers. And Luis Enrique is no fool.

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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.

21 Comments

  1. raj
    December 17, 2016

    Well, to point to the obvious, this Barca is dysfunctional without Iniesta. Once Iniesta is diminished in powers (which, sadly would mean the end of the world for me), we can’t rely on the MSN to win matches, because they will not get the ball, let alone in good positions. This has been made evident in recent weeks.

    To put it more candidly, depending on individuality of MSN is unsustainable. Unless of course you have a stabilizer behind, controlling the rest of the game.

    As you mentioned, that is the reason we hired Gomez, Denis, Arda and Rafinha maybe, but as things stand, none of them are a success. Maybe they will become what the team needs eventually and do away the need for Iniesta but I can’t see the signs as yet.

    If you ask me, the least risky thing to do now is to give a ring to that dude currently running the midfield of Bayern, and see if he wants back home.

    • kneowell
      December 19, 2016

      Only that dude is still no iniesta, he’s just a version 2.0 of brother Rafinha (a better passer with less pace). No player on earth can I think of right now that can boss the midfield the way iniesta does, there is simply no way his absence won’t be felt, not without xavi. He just squashed all those bullshit talk about how MSN won Lucho the trophies cos it became quite evident that without iniesta there is simply no party for MSN.

  2. georgjorge
    December 17, 2016

    Interesting way of looking at the current situation. Ronaldinho – Xavi – MSN? I can see the reasoning behind it.

    There are a couple of things the article didn’t (and shouldn’t) cover. One is what happens when the opponent is using a high press. In many of the latest games, what happened was that the ball never arrived at our most dangerous players but was passed among our defenders and, at times, conceded for easy goals. Having a midfield that doesn’t give possession such a high priority makes it more difficult to overcome the press in those situations. The second thing is what happens when the team doesn’t have the ball. Again, the possession-based approach will minimize these times, while the current approach has more time when none of our players have the ball, and thus can they can’t create any danger.

    It’s of course true that none of our current players are Xavi. And I agree that at least one of Gomes, Rafinha or Suarez Minor could have what it takes to shore up some of those weaknesses. But I wonder if at times during the last seasons Enrique didn’t go overboard on having the midfield give the ball as quick as possible to the forwards as well as and is now adjusting his tactics in a slightly different direction.

    • georgjorge
      December 17, 2016

      * disregard the “as well as” in the last sentence.

      • Mishti
        December 17, 2016

        Excellent point regarding the role of the midfield as a defensive weapon vs it’s role in initiating attacks. Very roughly speaking, in the previous system, the center of gravity in both the creative and the defensive aspects resided in the midfield, and Xavi was both the creative hub and the heart of the possesion as a defensive strategy. Kevin’s point is I think that given the current distribution of talent in the team, the creative onus need not be and should be so much on the midfield. But that creates somewhat of a trade-off then in the role of the midfield. Retaining possession by the (relatively) less dangerous players, versus turning over ASAP to the (relatively) more dangerous players, which entails the risk of losing possesion. I agree with your observation that LE still is in the trial-and-error part of trying to find the right balance.

        • kneowell
          December 19, 2016

          I won’t call it trial and error, I think LE has opted for a midfield that can quickly recover the ball and recycle it back to the forwards to weave their magic, this is evident in the skillset of the players he’s opted for in those positions – very physical workaholics that specialise in dirty jobs like halting opponents attacks and some of those lightening fast counters. While they may have succeeded in recovering the ball quickly, they however fall short in recycling it and this is where iniesta is most helpful in this current set up, recover the ball- pass it to iniesta- then let him decide. So the system right now is heavily dependent on iniesta (whom I highly regard as a visionary like Cryuff but who influences the game from within and not from outside of it) we may need another creative force just for when he won’t be available. But that’s the problem right there, who can do just one third of what iniesta currently does, thiago? Coutinho? Mahrez? who? Just one third, that’s all we need.

          • Mishti
            December 19, 2016

            I am totally with you on Iniesta being absolutely crucial in the current set up, I mean it is just right in front of our eyes to see. I will also add, that he is crucial even for the ball recovery/retention part, because he shows up as the first passing option everywhere when a ball is being recovered and God help those who tries to wrestle the ball back from his feet. I say ‘trial-and-error’ because I do think LE would have envisioned someone like Gomes as a circulator more than anything, at least that’s what he does for Portugal, but he seems to be better at the pivot then higher up.

            On your last question, there is not another Iniesta on this planet, goes without saying. So we will need to think about which part (or third as you say), can be played by which player and we will probably need an interlocking system of multiple players making up an ‘Iniesta’, i.e. phenomenal retention plus recylcing, on the whole.

          • Mishti
            December 19, 2016

            Coutinho has some of the tight space skills, in addition to good passing, but both at Liverpool and for Brazil he plays as part of a fluidly interchanging front three, albeit a bit more left/central for Liverpood and more towards the right for Brazil (as his natural position is taken up by Neymar). So he will need to adapt to a rather different role than he is used to at the moment. Mahrez is more of a ‘wide forward’ as well.

            Veratti might be useful in doing part of what Ini does.

  3. Mishti
    December 17, 2016

    The Bayern dude hadn’t been looking so good lately running the midfield, because, guess what, the front line hadn’t been clicking. Back to square one. Change to 4-2-3-1 by Ancelotti, forwards are happy (ier). Voila.

  4. Mishti
    December 17, 2016

    Question to Kevin: is a ‘shot assist’ the same thing as a ‘key pass’ which basically would have been an assist if the receiver didn’t miss? In other words, a pass that directly leads a shot on goal by the receiver? Thanks!

  5. Jim
    December 18, 2016

    Ok, it’ll come as no surprise to regulars here that I wouldn’t agree with much of this – and so it is.

    As the City game has just started I’m tempted to restrict my usual length (SPOILER :I don’t manage and it ends in another rant . But in a nutshell here’s Jim’s view of history.

    I was drawn to Barcelona by R10, on his own. Later I visited the city. And loved it but that came first. However, he basically carried the team – as Kevin says, the. Only question was when we were going to get the ball to him and at that point we all sat up. However, nobody can carry that burden for long.

    Skip on to Pep and he got rid of R10. On reflection, although I didn’t agree at the time, his partying might well have influenced Messi and Pep was looking for a fight to cement his authority. That’s fine. We then entered the Xavi era. And witnessed the best footballing side I’ve ever seen. Even folks like me who have always valued the passing rather than long ball game hadn’t seen anything like it. What isn’t remembered is that very often we walked a ball into their net past eight or so defenders. Even then we weren’t somehow scoring against an absent defence.

    And that side was great even after Henry. The difference was that Pep started tinkering. He started playing a back three ( awful) , he persevered with Masche at the back so we were never able to find a partner for Pique and he developed the false nine., resisting the need for a real CF. Great except that we also never had anyone in the box or occupying the two CBS. We also had teams first retreat against us, then realise that we never had the numbers up so the high press developed.

    At this point folk started to talk about pointless sideways passing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Xavi and Iniesta are two of the best forward passers I’ve ever seen , in terms of vision , accuracy and weight of pass. If Xavi didn’t play a ball for ward it was because he had been brought up not to lose possession cheaply. And so folk countered on and we came to the BM. Game and all of a sudden our midfield were meant to be slow and out of touch. For anyone with half a working mind I don’t need to list here the various shenanigans BM got up to, injuries or just plain things that went against us or even the fact that that. Bayern side had maybe two of the best wingers at their peak the game has ever seen but that was meant to be a watershed for some.

    We then wasted Villa out on the wing ( possibly because Messi wanted it that way) when we were obviously crying out for someone to play in the box with back to goal and the moans continued about Xavi It’s all very well praising him now but no point if we were calling for Rakitic. ( I know, unbelievable!) back then. How old was Pirlo when he retired ?

    At that point LE had a choice about the way his midfield was going to go . It was nothing to do with the game suddenly going to the wings. Did I imagine George Best, and Jimmy Johnstone, ? If the game goes to the wings it’s logically because that’s the place teams feel you can least damage them. Otherwise, they’d offer us the centre. How many goals have we lost in the last few seasons down to a great winger or FB beating our FB and putting in a great cross of some sort? Now, how many have we lost because our defence was up raiding at the time? How many have we lost because Masche felt the pressing need tackle some ball boy wandering aimlessly away from our goal licking an ice cream and left a gap ?

    So, to return to a long lost point, LE had a choice of the way forward. What did he do ? He let Xavi go, shackled Iniesta to covering a FB and has brought in five or six midfielders none of whom to me seem to have the proper technical ability allied to that of being able to carry the ball past their midline. He chose not to, and that’s his right as manager but it’s not as if this problem has just surfaced. Lots of folk were telling us that all we had to do was lump it forward to the front three and since then we’ve had Messi having to drop deep, to create what the midfield used to. How many times are we going to have to hear that Messi isn’t the Messi he once was ? And every time it is said it seems, he comes back the next week with a goal like he did last week. How many defenders did he take on again? The reason Messi is happy with Suarez’ renewal is that it is one less job he has to do in this team himself. ( which leaves more than enough ).

    To conclude as there has already been a goal at Man City ( through the middle of their CBS, again, ). See, that should never happen. The pundits who insist on drawing a line between the two CBS to point out errors are actually right. That’s what we haven’t had and what I hope Umtiti will bring. Anyway, I’m old enough to have seen some great teams and all of them have had a great midfield., from the Celtic side of 67, through the. Ajax / Dutch teams all the way through to Man Utd ‘s decline when they lost Scholes.

    It is my fervent hope that LE ( or his replacement ) will realise a great passing midfield and the best front three in the history of the game are not mutually exclusive.

    • Mishti
      December 18, 2016

      Amazing, Jim. Just wanted to say you have been one of the reasons for me being a longtime reader here, and eventually being tempted to register and show my face in the forum. You, Kevin and others here are my source of regular Barca fix, so thank you 🙂

      • Jim
        December 19, 2016

        Thanks, Mishti, and welcome. Good to hear your voice. This is a good place to contribute and I’m with you on Thiago plus the fact that great midfielders need movement ahead of them to function fully.

        • Mishti
          December 20, 2016

          You know the Bundesliga midfielder I have been impressed by lately? Naby Keita. Leipzig playing some fun football and he is at the center of it. His composure and passing vision quite something for a 21 year old.

    • kneowell
      December 19, 2016

      I can say you are right on many counts, except we haven’t lost iniesta yet, and when he’s on the pitch messi doesn’t drop that deep except when we defend as a team. Is Messi the same? I can only say the frequency at which he shows us “I am messi” has reduced, though he still shows those aggressive magic when he wants to. I liken Iniesta to avatar aang (the last airbender) he’s the only available midfielder of the golden era who can conjure so much magic so often they almost go unnoticed but sorely missed in his absence. If a xavi had these options (MSN) at the peak of his career I’m sure he would have completed 3 times more forward pass per game than his stats suggests, a million of those side ways pass he made were a direct result of the options he had, messi was always crowded so he would tinker a bit in the middle until messi is liberated with a pass in space and bang! The gap created by the absence of xavi (and/or iniesta) will be felt by any team or any manager in the world, irrespective of the system no player in the world can usurp any of those two as they are absolutely impossible to replace. While I might give thiago and coutinho a nod (two best bets I can think of) I worry about their defensive lapses. In my honest opinion, thinking of replicating pep’s midfield is a very tall order, that’s asking too much. In life I guess you can’t have it all, pep had the best midfield in the history of the game and he made the most of it, Lucho has the best frontline thus far too, and his only aim is to make the most of them

  6. georgjorge
    December 18, 2016

    Incredible first half so far, everything running smoothly and no scoring chance at all for Espanyol until now. Suarez Minor looking very promising and Suarez Major seeming to get out of his scoring drought for good.

  7. Jim
    December 18, 2016

    Good first half. Nice speed of ball movement and great goal. They are a bit supine, though. If they want anything out of this they’ll have to up it. Unbelievable Iniesta again .

  8. georgjorge
    December 18, 2016

    Wow.

    Seems like Messi gets angry when his team-mates are fouled time and time again. And when Messi gets angry, goals are scored.

  9. georgjorge
    December 18, 2016

    This just kept getting better and better. One of the best games this season.

    You might say it was “only Espanyol” but this was one of those games where it didn’t matter as much who the opponents were because they simply weren’t going to get the ball.

    Messi was of course absurd in the second half, but the whole team was playing very well. Defense on lockdown (I think the goal was actually their only clear chance at scoring), midfield both keeping possession and creating danger. Also good to see all midfielders – not only Busquets – go back and help the defenders get the ball out when the opponent is pressing high.

  10. Davour
    December 18, 2016

    For a while there I thought Messi’s form had gone with the blonde… he shut me up good. We really need to pause here and try to understand what he offers. Forget all awards and stats (I can live with Messi not winning best player, but not Iniesta failing to be in top 20) – if any other player had performed this, there would be headlines. What now? Suarez’ brace. I genuinely feel sorry for people who cannot see this. The 2-0 was to emblematic of Leo and Andrés – the latter never losing control (despite losing his footing), the former doing the impossible. It is just something else. Imagine, after all these years, you can still be baffled by these two. All the religion I need.

    And Luis scoring and assisting brilliantly – nice to have him back. Also, a real solid performance from Neymar. Less complications, more direct action and hard work. Looked to be on to something. And again, scoring is a stat; he brought something else to the game, like Iniesta.

    Denis makes some silly mistakes, but is still looking promising in how he moves. If he finds his balance, it could work out really well.

    Too bad there is a break, as the team is starting to wake. I guess Iniesta’s return was louder than any word could have been shouted. But even so. The immediate future looks bright!

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