Outflanked – How Barca’s Pep Revolution Was Based On Width

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Part of the fun of watching FC Barcelona over the last four and a half years has been watching them tinkering with the norms of football tactics and formations. 

For their fans, and for neutrals who simply enjoy watching individual or group displays of extreme technique applied at high speed, there has been plenty to make you addicted. 

For those neutrals who crave a good story (team wants trophy, team overcomes struggles, team lifts trophy, roll credits) there has been drama — Rome in 2009, victory and defeat in Copa finals at the Mestalla, Clasicos galore, Wembley and those two extraordinary semifinal ties against Chelsea.

Guardiola sampled and applied ideas we’ve seen and heard via Hungary’s Hidegkuti, to Inter’s Giacinto Facchetti, through Rinus Michels, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Arrigo Sacchi and the Liverpool of Bob Paisley. 

It didn’t make Guardiola a plagiarist any more than the Beatles were for using the same notes as Mozart or Ferran Adria is for using the same ingredients as Colonel Sanders. Same ingredients, different recipe, new flavours. 

It’s seared in my memory that I had a brilliant English teacher when I was young, Eleanor Fraser, who explained avant-garde to me. 

It was the early 1970s. David Bowie was Ziggy Stardust, Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes had just about ticked out, fashion was androgynous, confusing, daring and about to go punk. 

She said: “It’s like a meteor, or a shooting star. At the beginning there’s heat, motion and light — it’s too bright for most people to understand or to look at directly. But gradually it dissipates and it leaves beautiful sights in the sky, light we admire, patterns, random movement.”

However, the initial fireball has burned out. 

Guardiola has gone, Vilanova is fighting to reassert his well-being and all the most senior players are just hitting that age when mental and physical energy requires a little bit of husbandry — rather than nonstop all-guns-blazing. My honest analysis is that Barcelona remain in the phase where the initial fireball has deposited immense energy, flame and momentum. 

But it was interesting to watch Guardiola last season (how long ago that seems now) pottering and tinkering. 

Even when his reign was still only three years old, he felt the need to modernize, revamp and introduce new Houdini-tricks to baffle those who would manacle or chain his team. Just like an innovative artist, musician or author, some of his ideas soared, some baffled the public and some just didn’t work. 

In a pure football philosophical sense Guardiola’s commitment to starting with three at the back (with the sacred objective of dominating the middle of the pitch) was “cogito ergo sum.” 

We are superior in midfield, therefore we “are.” 

During Guardiola’s initial seasons he would often use Eto’o, Thierry Henry or Pedro wide. Of them, only Pedro can truly be considered a player who is, by trade, an orthodox winger. The African and the Frenchman could produce the goods wide, but they both had long terms in their career as the key central striker. They were asked, perhaps ordered, to adapt. 

However, you’d regularly see Guardiola out in the technical area during a match flapping his arms outward from his chest (like an elegant condor taking flight, coincidentally dressed in the finest Italian suit and tie) to signal that he wanted his two wide players “WIDE!!!” 

The pitch was to be stretched, opposition fullbacks were to be pulled as far out toward the “winger” they were marking as possible, and space down the middle, normally ripped into by Messi, became a little more available. 

Over this season and last that condor has become an endangered species. 

Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez, Cristian Tello, Isaac Cuenca and even Dani Alves have played in the wide positions in the 4-3-3 formation — only Cuenca is a true winger. Each of them likes to cut inside, to give assists via the short pass or 1-2; each of them likes to score goals. In fact, during the weeks when Iniesta has played out with his habitual midfield position I’ve often heard the technical staff and players talk about having performed in a 4-4-2 formation. Shock, horror — Barcelona abandon 4-3-3! 

Width is still important to the Barcelona system, but if it’s to be provided by someone going past the outside of the opposition’s fullback, that width, more often than not, is demanded from Alves, Adriano or Jordi Alba. They are expected both to defend and to overlap the wide attacker to offer Barcelona either four or even five players up front. Clearly, this was also asked in the early Guardiola days, but not so high up the pitch, not so often and with fewer detrimental effects. 

The last few weeks, particularly since the Copa draw against Malaga, and then Barcelona’s first La Liga defeat of the season, to Real Sociedad at the Anoeta, have seen both a series of goal assists from the three principal wing backs and a catalogue of faulty defending in the full back positions which has cost them nine straight games without a clean sheet and which, frankly, threatens their maximum trophy potential this season. 

Going forward, Barcelona’s full backs are devilishly effective. But someone has lost sight of their original purpose. 
The old question that introduces new students to basic economics applies here. 

The teacher says “Why is Apple in business?” The kids answer, “To make iPhones and computers,” and the teacher sneers: “NO! “To make money.” 

Even making allowances for the fact that Barcelona’s principal coach is in New York trying to beat cancer, even accepting that the Catalans’ idea is to play well enough to outscore the opponent, it’s the case that conceding needless goals in the crucial moments last April cost them the league and, even more markedly, the Champions League.

It has been proved over and again that however avant-garde you are, however talented Messi may be, the simple fact of matching the prosaic (defending) with the poetic (Messi-Iniesta-Xavi) makes you more likely to win — particularly on days when the gods, the pitch and the referee appear to have conspired to be against you. 

Often, in sport, it’s good to view your planning, your analysis, your tactics through a different kaleidoscope. Most often it’s important to understand and eliminate basic flaws before letting ambition, creativity and dogmatic philosophy rule your actions.

Read Graham Hunter’s entire post here.

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  1. What’s up, Barca? On recent form and the future | TOKNOWTHEGAME.COM - March 3, 2013

    […] with the cavalry As I mentioned in an earlier post, Pep had instilled in his teams the work ethic with which they used the flanks and stretched the […]

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