Barça, evolution and a controller

Football isn’t static, even as the needs of many people who follow the game are. Barça sits in a peculiar situation as a team that has had, in effect, two Best Seasons Ever.

In both those seasons, under two very different coaches, the team won everything. As in “give us all the trophies.” Yet what is unique about the second Best Season Ever is that nobody wants to return to that one, because football isn’t just about results. It’s also about feeling. Between rumors of a blood feud between superstar and coach, suspended strikers, the notion of right result, wrong method and the idea that the wonderful season led to the continued reign of a board that many detest, all serve to taint a remakable endeavor.

Commonly heard in the second Best Season Ever was, “There is no midfield.” That made anything that happened in that archaic hothouse null and void, like the 4-0 defeat of Rayo under Tata Martino that was treated as a loss because the winning team lost the possession statistic. That mood permeates the current season, one in which the team is off to a sparkling start, blasting out of the gate in a way that few anticipated. The team looks good. Solid. Calm. Effective.

What is most commonly heard about this team, as it was with Luis Enrique’s, is it needs a controller. Xavi. Prime Xavi. A nonexistent analog. On Twitter, Total Barça raised an interesting question:

With the current team in mind, if you could have any former player in his prime, who would you choose?

It won’t surprise anyone that Xavi was dominant. Why Xavi? The controller. That need is rooted in what is, to my view, an archaic notion of how Barça is supposed to play. What is also fun is that both Best Seasons Ever had in common the presence of the ultimate controller, Xavi, even as he was used differently.

Football is a constantly changing organism that forces those who make a living from it to adjust. Under Guardiola, Barça evolved from a treble team that had more in common with Luis Enrique’s side than many would care to admit, to a footballing avatar in the team that destroyed Manchester United in the Champions League final. That team was a perfect distillation of theory, tactics and talent. That group not winning another treble was a vile injustice, even as it began to show signs of nearing the end of its shelf life.

The best coaches and players are always a step ahead of the game. Guardiola tinkered as he tried to anticipate how football was going to adapt. Messi as false 9 was one way. Tastes of a more vertical style was another. The Fabregas experiment, a moving, deep-lying mid who could pop up in the box to score was another adaptation (one with echoes in how Messi plays now). Guardiola understood that today’s genius tactic is tomorrow’s beatdown.

Low blocks, a flooded midfield with a five-man back line, the game constantly looked for ways to thwart Barça, and Guardiola tried to adapt. Eto’o for Ibrahimovic, Txigrinski and his long passes from the back. When Guardiola left, coaches tinkered as supporters dug in their heels about a way of play, that was in reality a tactic. Barça plays attacking, possession football. There is room for many tactical adaptations within that principle. Guardiola experimented. Tito Vilanova had his own wrinkle, one that life and tragedy denied us. Tata Martino came in with his own ideas and the team thrived until midseason, when a return to the past was desired, allowing us to see why Guardiola was always tinkering. The target moved.

In many ways, the ultimate indictment of the past was the Bayern beatdown. Barça had The Midfield of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta. It did everything in terms of possession and manner of play. And the aggregate was 7-0 to Bayern. What happened? Yes, the team had some physical things going on with a not-fully-fit Messi. But even with a fit Messi, many believe Bayern would still have advanced. Why? It was the pefect team to counter the Barça Way. Everyone was fast and physical, wing play predominated and Bayern could jump the passing lanes. When you note how many of the Bayern attacks came down the side of Jordi Alba, it won’t surprise anyone that my answer to that Total Barça question was Abidal.

“Why no controller?” In the context of this team, in which Messi and Busquets have evolved into a dynamic, controlling hybrid and Iniesta has become a modern adaptation of his former brilliant self, of what value is a controller? What does he control? If you put Xavi into this current Barça side in place of Rakitic, what happens to the play?

Messi moves forward and Iniesta’s role changes, as does that of Busquets, who slides back a bit on the pitch. Xavi controls the ball while Suarez stands around and glowers, waiting for Xavi, as Xavi waits for the movement that would dictate his pass. In a game that has moved to wings inward, Suarez’s best season came before opponents figured out how to control Neymar and remove his playmate.

Xavi’s role evolved under the different Barça coaches until in his last season he was a means of defensive match control. Keep the ball and let’s see this out. Most of this was because Luis Enrique wanted to get the ball to the best attack in football. That worked, even if it was a bit wild. Barça easily handled Bayern Munich that year, coached by Guardiola, and a lot of people didn’t know quite how to deal with that.

The next season opponents adapted to the tactical notion of getting the ball to the best attackers in the game, and the results diminished as Luis Enrique tinkered, never arriving at a suitable result. In his last season, Luis Enrique tried his Ibrahimovic experiment in acquiring Andre Gomes and Paco Alcacer, an experiment that didn’t work much better than the Ibrahimovic one.

As with Guardiola, results trailed off as opponents adapted. What made Guardiola’s time different is that the team won two Champions League titles, and had two periods of magnificence. Both of those teams had a controller, even as Xavi operated differently throughout Guardiola’s time at the helm, as well as for other coaches. Toward the end, under Vilanova/Roura and Martino, Xavi’s control was diminished by static attacks, thwarted by physical midfields and defenders who rode the passing lanes, denying him anything to do with the ball rather than denying him the ball. In other words, the Bayern theory, but without the talent to raise hell once you got the ball to attack Barça.

Luis Enrique watched that Bayern demolition. That’s why he built the Barça that he did. Guardiola watched it. That’s why he built the Bayern that he did, and has built the City that he has. It’s worth considering that in both instances, even with Thiago Alcantara at Bayern, Guardiola didn’t build a Barça analog. This is particularly true at City, where he spent hundreds of millions in building a dynamic unit that can play through wings or midfield with equal facility.

So what of this need for a controller at Barça? Is it a real need, or a desire based on a fondness for a tactical wrinkle introduced by a club legend?

It’s worth considering what a prime Abidal would do for this team, in place of Alba. With sideline-to-sideline range, would the pace difficulties of Sergi Roberto and Pique be as significant? In cases of lost possession and a quick opponent counter, given that both Messi, Suarez and possibly Alba are caught up pitch, what of a calm, pacey eraser to keep Umtiti from having to choose between multiple layers of danger. Umtiti is a hint of it, and look at what he does. He is leading La Liga in passes per match this season, having assumed the Pique attack starter role. What would an Abidal do to enable a two-headed CB hydra. Now imagine Busquets not having to chase speedy mids, or the damage of Iniesta knowing what to do with an opponent counter yet not being able to. Abidal steams in, resolves the issue and gives the ball back to Iniesta, its rightful owner.

But we should differentiate controller from midfield reference, something that Barça does need. At present, too many times there isn’t a midfield reset button. Alba or Semedo get pinned on the sideline, or Messi or Suarez run at a defense. Raktic is following up that run and Iniesta is also moving as Busquets slides up, yielding a midfield that is more like a single-point solar system than a unit. The “where is the midfield” question is valid. One adaptation that Valverde has tried is Sergi Roberto as an RB-cum-RMF, as a migratory reference point. This works most of the time, but when it doesn’t, whoo, boy.

The team needs a mid who can keep the ball even in a hurricane, while the attack changes shape. A controller? Not in the Xavi sense. Busquets is that perfect player, but he’s the DM. So now what?

The idea of a controller was perfect for its time. Messi was farther forward, the team didn’t have a traditional 9, the game hadn’t yet adapted to the way Barça played. Messi is different now. When Dembele returns, how likely is it that we see a front three of Dembele/Suarez/Deulofeu, with Messi behind them and Iniesta/Busquets behind him. THAT attack would require that midfield reference point, the human reset button, but that role would be met by Iniesta or Busquets, or a pushed-up Umtiti. So what of that controller? Is it concept, nostalgia or reality?

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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.

8 Comments

  1. Davour
    November 17, 2017

    “But we should differentiate controller from midfield reference, something that Barça does need. At present, too many times there isn’t a midfield reset button.”

    I really think this is a huge part of the problem: semantics. I feel that many who want a controller really mean a reference. And, really, the distinction is not immediately obvious. We say a calm midfield presence, who can resist high press and offer outlets – of course many think of Xavi. I agree, however, that Busi is perhaps a more apt reference. That’s why I think a player like Jorginho might be a good fit to challenge or replace Rakitic. For control in the more dictating sense, I feel Iniesta, Busi and Messi share that duty between them. That’s why, for me, planning for a life without Iniesta is even more important; we have relative stability, but need creativity. Without Iniesta there is not enough spark. I dream of Alena being that player. I think that both Coutinho and Eriksen could be, but the cost is absurdly inflated.

    But first and foremost: it will be interesting to see how things will shape up with Dembele. He would, I’m sure, benefit from an Abidal backing him up!

  2. squeen
    November 17, 2017

    I went back recently and watched the Barca vs Real Madrid classico of 2010. I believe this was the game right before the team headed to the Club World Cup and played Santos (with Neymar). I had read elsewhere that Guardiola believed that the Santos match was their pinnacle performance, so to me it was an interesting time period.

    The RM team was packed with talent and (slightly) leading the league with an exceptionally long run of wins. It was thought before the game that this was the Mourhino RM team that could finally put Barca to the sword.

    For the first half, Guardiola chose to play Iniesta as the left-winger, with Sanchez on the right, and it was rough going with as a very physical RM steam-rolling us. Towards the end of the first half (IIRC), Iniesta dropped into the midfield and Sanchez moved left. BAM—like magic, Barca was in the driver’s seat again. The passing triangles were back and RM was chasing the ball in their own final third . Barca won 3-1.

    What I believe was lacking was the midfield diamond. Cryuff talks about it in one archived interview you can find on the net (in Dutch). I believe it takes four competent, quick, pass-masters to make it work. Xavi-Iniesta-Busi-Messi. Remove one, and you lack critical mass. Recall in Xavi’s final season under LE—the one you mention in the article—Iniesta made the comment that he and Xavi never seemed to be on the field at the same time. For things to work, you need critical mass. Rakitic is a very hard worker, but he doesn’t have that DNA for quick-passing. While he has improved some, it showed from his very first season with LE when (with the exception of Busi-Alba-Iniesta-Messi-Pique), no one looked like they could complete a pass under pressure. Honestly, with few exceptions, this is how almost every other team looks when playing Barca. They fight so hard to win the ball, and then they throw possession away immediately. You sometimes even feel sorry for them. When RM stopped playing so stupidly (i.e. individualistically) last season thanks to Zidane and learned to move the ball around midfield—I got scared.

    Note that any team can pass when there is no pressure—that’s why the Barca press is so important too.

    Neymar (with his Brazilian ball-control background) had the foot skills too—but he became more and more of a ball-hog as he got comfortable at the club, and ultimately succumbing to his personality short-comings and the relentless expectation of family and world that he become more than he is. As good as he is, Neymar individual magic fell far short of team-play magic.

    In this regard, we are currently looking much better under Valverde and LE. The foot-skills Paulinho has (versus Rakitic or even Suarez) is what makes him look like he instantly “clicked” with Messi. He only lacks Xavi’s vision to look beyond the next pass. Sergi Roberto has got the skills and mentality too—because of La Masia. That actually was the whole point of the academy when Cryuff set it up: to replicate the Ajax Total Footbal revolution (skills and quick-minded team-play over physicality). Isn’t that also what Cryuff saw in a scrawny Guardiola—a kid with his head-up, looking to connect? Guardiola’s first season at Man City was a house cleaning because he lacked the right kind of players—physically gifted but lacking the mentality/awareness for team-play (and too old = set in their ways).

    So despite your excellent article, my answer to the TotalBarca question is still Xavi—not a controller, but the missing 4th piece to complete the midfield diamond. Then perhaps we can go back to making other teams look foolishly inept, which I think we can all agree, is what we *really* want.

    • squeen
      November 17, 2017

      I should add with regards to LE’s first season–pretty sure it was prior to the arrival of Suarez in the winter–and when Barca looked like it couldn’t connect its passes, I will never forgot one television commentator’s remark:

      “…and then Iniesta does that thing where he keeps the ball…”

      Priceless.

  3. Bharath
    November 17, 2017

    Absolutely!
    More than a controller in the traditional sense, we need someone who can essentially hold on to the ball under severe pressure. Every great team that plays possession based attacking football would need at least 4-5 of these types in the team. What made the Guardiola team so pheneomenal in terms of game control was that we had five of these – Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Leo, and Dani.

    I also feel that Neymar was pretty unappreciated in this regard. People forget that a large part of out tactics was to whack a hard pass to him under pressure, and hope that his ball control and dribbling would enable the team to move upfield, into the right positions. Sure, he could be a little too individualistic at times, but he was absolutely integral to our midfield play. The game control only went out of the window when Lucho insisted that this become our only method of advancing up field. A Neymar with a positional midfield would thrive, actually. It would bring a huge level of unpredictability as to whether we play direct or calm and controlled. As much as I love Rakitic ( I wouldn’t sell him, to be clear ), he can only play the former. To play him at his best, the team needs to be geared to hit fast on the break. He also doesn’t demand the ball in tight situations, which any great midfielder would need to have the courage to do so constantly.

  4. ciaran
    November 19, 2017

    With all due respect to the man, I reckon that you are over estimating Abidal. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that he was a great player but he wasn’t the difference between a good team and a great one. He was an extremely useful footballer who allowed better footballers to do their thing.
    If you look hard enough you’d be able to find left backs who would be able to perform a similar role.

    For me, I would pick a once in a lifetime footballer who would be a consistent difference maker.
    My heart says Ronaldo, you know… the real one. For any of you who witnessed his sole season in our colours you’d know just how special he was. At that time he was absolutely unplayable in a distinctly average Barca team. Sure we had a few good attackers and Sir Bobby had them as the most exciting team in Europe but midfield was nothing special and the defense was poor.
    He was an incredible talent, pace and power combined like no one else and ice cold wits in front of the keeper. With him as a 9 and Messi supplying and feeding off him it would be practically irrelevant what the other 9 players would do, especially with the likes of Umtiti, ter Stegen and Busi already in our side.

    My head says Dani Alves. I look at the right back options in world football and no one comes close to his ability to absolutely dominate an entire flank. He would instantly improve the closest midfielder and forward as he could take the ball under immense pressure and do something with it and at the same time hold his own at the other end of the pitch. He was a major reason we did so well for so long.

    Or you could just pick Xavi and guarantee the type of football we would play. Either way I’d be good

  5. Jim
    November 19, 2017

    Weird. Thought I’d checked it but a bit has come up twice in the last post. Apologies.

  6. Old_Messi
    November 20, 2017

    What would’ve happened if Pep’s Barca played LVG’s Bayern in the 2010 Final?
    What would’ve happened if Pep’s Barca played Juup’s Bayern in the 2012 Final?
    999999 out of 1m it would have been a Barca-Bayern final in both 2010 and 2012.

  7. Jim
    November 20, 2017

    Just at quick word of praise for the club for their acknowledgement of World Children’s Day. Both on the training ground and in the boardroom lovely touches. It means so much to the kids and all it takes is some of the adult’s time.

    Well done to all !

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