Tuesday, 29 November 2011

What happened to FC Barcelona?

FC Barcelona, from a team winning six titles in one season to a team six points behind the Liga leaders this season, a free fall in the eyes of many observers. Some hot-blooded are calling dooms day, questioning the form of the players, their fitness, their commitment, or their spaghetti-making skills.

But what is really REALLY happening at FC Barcelona?

Nothing. Case closed. Thank you for reading this "insightful" post. But if you insist, allow me to elaborate.

Saying that nothing changed overnight, turning the best club in the world to an old half-dead horse, does not mean there are no "issues" to fix. It means that there are no NEW issues emerging or at least nothing of a great significance.

Word on the street is all about the flaws of Barcelona's system, and the need to apply changes and turn things around. Now those who were generous enough to read many of my previous posts in the past three years can tell, I am not the Shaolin temple of that system. No doubt, I am a dedicated apologist for the key concepts of Pep's method of play, but even during the most glorious, Lets-all-hail-greatness, periods I was the boring dude nitpicking flaws and demanding changes to perfect what is genetically great. Yet, strange enough, what the team need to do first is to go back to the basics of the current system BEFORE talking about any changes. Getting carried away by the praise targeting some of the main features of that system, led to forgetting what system is all about. In fact, every season this team is moving one step further from the system we witnessed during Pep's first year as a first team manager.

Season one:

The first team Pep stitched played -mainly- two offense structures: The first with an offense line of Messi-Eto'o-Henry supported by Yaya, Xavi, Iniesta. The second structure consisted of Messi-Eto'o-Iniesta supported by Yaya-Xavi-Keita in the midfield.

In the first structure, Barcelona controlled Possession thru midfield, but at the same time they had players in the offense line who love to play as close to the opponent box as possible. Henry and Eto'o contributed in the buildup through midfield just when they felt it was needed, BUT were never settled to that. One of the great changes Pep made was giving Henry the permission to act as a second striker when possible, beside his nominal function to run on the left flank to create width. Henry became much more lethal this way compared to Rijkaard's days where the french role was to hug the lines and play as a wing (Remember this point as we will come back to this later).

Henry and Eto'o always tried to demand the ball between defenders or behind them rather than shying away from the defenders to create redundant outlets in the midfield. Their physical characteristics offered them the requirements needed to hold on the ball while having a defender breathing at their necks, offering the chance for more dynamic outlets to move around the mesmerized defenders. By doing so, Henry and Eto'o served like board pins, clinching defenders to hold position, being more worried about how to contain the forwards than how to cover behind their defending midfielders.

In such selection, Barcelona had a midfield combination (and Messi, Alves, ..) capable of swallowing the opponent midfield in a black hole of possession and ball circulation, while the forwards were torturing the opponent defense line and pushing them to the edge. Such mechanism automatically creates more spaces between the opponent lines, something Messi and Co are capable to expose best. To visualize things a bit, get the ball to Messi between the lines and the defender will have to chose either to release Eto'o and intercept Messi (who will ultimately pass the ball to Eto'o through Xavi/Iniesta), or to stand by Eto'o and watch Messi slicing through the box like a shark.

When the offense of Messi, Eto'o, Iniesta was backed by Yaya, Xavi, Keita, Keita was the most advanced midfielder of the three adding more directness in offense to compensate Henry's absence while Iniesta's dual functionality as a LW/CM made the team perform as if they have 12 players in the selection. The importance of a level of directness in the selection was demonstrated during November-December period of Pep's first season (and I always refer back to that period for its significance). Iniesta was injured during that period and by having Keita in the midfield and Henry upfront, the team witnessed one of its most lethal periods scoring like freaks against the best teams in the Liga back then (and the competition was tighter there, for the record).

Season Two:

Eto'o was exchanged for Ibra, not only to add aerial threat but also for being more technical, and more capable of holding on the ball, beside his play-making qualities (Beside many other Eto'o/Pep/Ibra stuff, not so relevant to this post topic). Another very significant factor at the beginning of season two was the -predictable- collapse of Henry's form after winning the champions league. And so the club started the new season counting on an offense line of Pedro-Ibra-Messi.

Out of sudden, two players who were fond of playing close to the opponents' box were subbed by two players -added to Messi- all more ball-o-holic and like to play wherever the ball rambles. The whole offense line sank in the midfield, contributing in crawling the buildup carnival all the way to the offense third. The opponent players who check Barcelona forwards first became the midfielders while the actual defenders became more focused on creating depth and diagonal cover and to close popping up holes appearing here and there.

At the beginning of the season, Messi (by being Messi), and Ibra (by being Ibra) led the scoring sheet decent enough to keep things going, regardless of the systematic failure.  It was about individuals quality in a period still early to expect more chemistry from/with a new striker. Then it all turned chaos when Messi decided to play as a false nine and Ibra decided not to play anymore. There was enough room for mistakes in the Liga and so it was won, but not the Champions league.

Season Three:

When Barcelona signed Villa, I was very excited about the offense line of Villa-Ibra-Messi, and I wrote about that. Keep in mind we didn't know what was happening behind the curtains back then (I can't say I am certain I know now) .

Villa was never a choice for me as a center forward for Barcelona, and I still cant understand how some considered him so. He was an obvious choice for that Missing Henry role. Open to the flank, cut to the center, and score. With both Ibra and Messi being very interested in contributing in the buildup, Villa was the X-factor supposed to add more directness and scoring threat. But the offense line ended up being Pedro-Villa-Messi

We don't need to repeat ourselves, talking about the offense line sinking in the midfield. It needed a supernatural Messi to have an extraordinary season and carry the team on his back to win titles. What we need to note though, is that season three completed the transition of the initial system from being an attacking based system structured on possession to become a possession based system with attacking vibes.

Such transition meant that the possession quality became -by far- a higher priority than offense drive. Losing possession became more drastic from the system's perspective than missing a scoring opportunity. This situation put more pressure on the forwards to become less daring to take gambles. Eto'o and Henry used to lose the ball too often to even work in the system that Barcelona applies at the moment. But I bet they would've kept on doing few things their way. Only a player with enough courage (and ego) would dare to take responsibilities and try stuff from the high-risk-high-return shelf. Villa relegated from being the offense leader he was at Valencia to serve as a co-pilot to Messi, and as Pedro he felt more settled to play it safe and only go for the guaranteed decisions. Offense players are not supposed to avoid doing the wrong things, they are supposed to try doing the right things, regardless of all the risk involved.

Season four

In the summer post Protection, perfection, or excellence we analyzed the possibilities available to strengthen Barcelona's squad during the summer. Pep decided to go for the excellence option (or maybe the players available in the market made the decision for him), and Alexis was the fortunate player to join the group.

It is still too early to figure how far this alternative will work. Theoretically, I believe. Yet, if we learned anything in the past two years its that unpredictable football is way more unpredictable when it come to Barcelona. And there are specific requirements needed for this new adventure to sail in the right direction.

First thing first, "the system" need to be generous enough to accept more diversity. The players available since three years are the best possible to serve the religious practices demanded by the exciting holly system. No new monks can do this better. So if all what's needed is more of the same, buying any player is useless. Unless if "the system" agrees to stop chewing players and spitting them in the same one-flavor bowl, we can safely say this team has reached its ultimate potentials with no more room for any progress. Checked.

To demonstrate that, Alexis Sanchez is a player with sharp directness. Watch him at Udinese, and watch him when he plays for Chile. He receives the ball and first thing he does is to turn toward the opponent's keeper, giving him a dirty look and murmuring: "Here I come Bastad! You better run and hide before its too late!"

Well, most of the time, he doesn't really arrive to the destined station. But if every time a forward want to run over defenders he end up scoring, this sport will turn to a scoring Karaoke!  What we know is that despite all the misses, messes, and possession loss, he generated enough threat to become one of the best performers in South America and Serie A, and he proved good enough for Rosell to sell the club's printers, collecting enough money to buy this energizer Bunny.

Again, it is still far too early to know how this will work out. But there are some signs what left me wondering. Sanchez hesitation on the ball is something new for anyone who followed him enough. His unadventurous passes, bowing to his team's midfielders to take his leash. Lack of the daring spark he is characterized of, and -here you go- being too worried of losing possession in one-on-one that he end up hesitating AND losing possession.

It is really normal for any new player to feel as an underdog and try to play it safe at the beginning till he finds his steps in the selection. I am by no mean picking on him. But he HAS to take responsibilities even if there is a chance Messi will yell at him for not passing the ball. One of the main reasons why Messi is that brilliant is the fact that he take risks and can afford making mistakes and losing possession. Alexis is NOT Messi yet, but he should take a page from that book. Pep has a HUGE role here, and it is a role that exceeds providing enough guidance to Alexis but also to the rest of the selection. Take responsibilities. This is not going to work if the club end up being FC Messi.

Talking about Pep, I believe Villa's role should be modified as well. Currently he is playing the same role Henry played in Rijkaard's last season as a coach. I started to believe that the main tactical structure Pep wanted to apply this season was a 3-4-3, basically to find enough playing time for the Zillion and one midfielder he has in his squad. To do so, it was Villa's role to play as a wing for the head of midfield rhombus (Cesc/Thiago) to attack the center. This was not supposed to work, and it isn't - for many reasons. If the rhombus is a logistic need for squad rotation, play 4-4-2. Regardless of the fact that Pep should use the best selection to get results, not to satisfy players. This is coming from someone who demanded buying the players the club needs and not the players the players of the club need. But lets not go there...

If Pep is willing to play three defenders, then a 3-5-2 is the way to go as it utilize the main qualities of each and every player while covering their weaknesses.

Players picked here were based on the available squad when this image was made

There is nothing catastrophic to talk about in this team. Each and every team in the world has its strengths and flaws. This is still the same team after Getafe's match and before it. On one side, this is a praise, but on the other side it is not the best position to be the same while everyone around you improves, or at least become more experienced in how to deal with you. Great performances will keep on coming and titles are certainties regardless of the frequency of winning them. The main challenge is that there is less room for mistakes, and Barcelona's football method is so sensitive to flaws that it requires perfect performance game in game out to expect consistent results. Is that fair? You already know my response... C'est la vie!

Football mood on Twitter: @FootballMood

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