Posted on November 2012.
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.]