Just how does Pep Guardiola improve on the most successful club side in a calendar year? We detail the tactical changes the Barcelona coach has made to his side to make them even better.
After Barcelona’s 1-0 win over Estudiantes in the Club World Cup in which the Catalan side recorded a never before paralleled, six cup wins in a calendar year, manager Pep Guardiola turned to his assistant Tito Vilanova, with bleary eyed with tears of joy, seemingly asking “where do we go from here?” Just how does Pep Guardiola possibly improve upon perfection?
In truth, Guardiola has been planning his quest to create a footballing monster team since he served his apprenticeship as a rookie coach, among others paying a visit to Arsenal’s training ground to see just how Arsene Wenger grants his side the capacity to play with such a euphoric spontaneity and the audacity although he didn’t have to look further than the Dream Team he was an integral part of in the early nineties. He soon took over as Barcelona B coach in 2007 and not coincidentally in one of this season’s group stage matches his starting eleven featured seven La Masia graduates. And when he took over the senior squad a year later he made it the team mantra “diversity in counsel, unity in command,” and then proceeded to strip off the negative influences and shirkers such as Ronaldinho and Deco. That continued at the start of this season also, as he almost unthinkably got rid of a key component of his treble winning side in Samuel Eto’o in a gargantuan part exchange deal to bring in Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the opposite direction. That move people said was going to give Barcelona a Plan B, the option to play direct especially after the way Chelsea shackled them in last year’s Champions League semi-final first leg by playing an ultra-defensive game. And it worked, with Barcelona putting all three past Sporting Gijon in their first game of La Liga from headers but as each match wore on, Guardiola was indicating he had in mind, more than a Plan B, Plan C or even a Plan D. He was looking to add more variety to his Plan A than a Muttiah Muralitharan over, all at the seamless barking of instructions.
Against Stuttgart, in the Champions League Second Round First Leg, Barcelona became unstuck against the German side’s pressuring high up the pitch. Stuttgart, playing a 4-4-2 against the default Barcelona 4-3-3 was able to profit from attacking the wings with speed and the forwards dropping into space with movement – just as Athletico and Villarreal have done in previous season and indeed this season. For the return leg, however, Guardiola switched to what looked like a 4-2-4 and with Lionel Messi revelling behind the forward the Argentine hit a superb hat-trick (and also doing the same the following game against Real Zaragoza). Pep Guardiola is adamant though that this formation hasn’t a name and its asymmetry lends itself to the strengths of the team to cause unpredictability. “Our rivals have studied us a lot and we have to look for alternatives,” said the captain Carlos Puyol. “The important thing is the intensity [we play]; the tempo and that we want the ball.”
Indeed this maxim is what makes the layout and Guardiola’s men were able to cause havoc to Stuttgart’s planning in the way they were set-up. In the centre of midfield, Seergio Busquets and Yaya Toure played alongside each over though not in the same lines, with Toure slightly higher up and slanted towards the left. Iniesta was deployed as the half-winger out wide, used more for his intricacy and link up while Pedro was the more dynamic on the right, looking to engage the full back and pin him back. The result saw a collection of hard to mark individuals in attack and a system which was almost all about chain reactions in the defensive phase to make staying compact easier. “This new look was implemented so that Messi could connect into the game more often because it’s good for us when does,” explained Guardiola when using the same system earlier this season in a 2-1 win over Malaga – though the scoreline hardly reflected the complete domination Barcelona had on the match. “We found him more often than in other games. It also to puts him closer to Ibra. It’s as if Messi were an ‘interior.’ They (Xavi and Busquets) were never on the same line. We have never played with a double pivot. However, we did make a small adjustment with the wingers and their defensive roles.” So in essence the formation was a 4-1-1-1-1-1-1 but numbers will never portray what Guardiola wanted to outline. [Carlo Mazzone’s quote on between-the-lines players may help: “There are trends in football. This is a time of between-the-lines players. From a classic 4-4-2, we now have a 4-1-1-1-1-3-0 as we have at Roma.]
Barcelona’s formation as per the 4-0 win over Stuttgart in the Champions League Second Round Second Leg.
At varying moments in this season, Guardiola has also deployed a back three with either a defensive midfielder dropping back or in introducing another centre-back. The full-backs then become wing-backs and depending on his personnel at disposal, the formation resembles a 3-4-3 (used by Johan Cruyff when coach and was very confident in minimising the risks because of the team’s ability to keep the ball) or a 3-1-3-3.
The tinkering though doesn’t stop there because in the signing of Zlatan Ibrahmovic is a player who creates room for others by roaming around the pitch, doubling up or dropping deep to cause uncertainty in marking and pulling defenders out of position. That tactic enables players like Xavi and Keita to get in the box unmarked which the neither the system of zonal or man-marking has got to grips with yet. The biggest point argued in the loss of Samuel Eto’o, however, is said to be the ability for the forward to get behind the defense otherwise Barcelona may lead themselves to a trap of over-elaborateness. The stats do seem agree with Eto’o fans to some degree as according to OPTA Ibrahimovic has been caught offside the most this season in La Liga yet that stat also may highlight the fact that the Swede just needs to time his runs better. But as displayed in the Champions League win over Manchester United, does this switch indicate a move away from the false nine – the role Messi deployed in the final? Indeed, with Eto’o, the interchange of positions is seamless but with Ibrahimovic it can only be used in periods. Nevertheless, that hasn’t detracted Guardiola from doing so and in doing so presents another problem to the opposition which so far, no-one has been able to answer.