Barcelona - Tactical mentality or Tactically mental?
It was a familiar sight for Chelsea fans that warm Sunday afternoon, as Frank Lampard made a run inside the Liverpool right flank with the ball at his feet. And just as he took a little touch to turn inside, a lunging Javier Mascherano dispossessed him with an inch perfect, clattering tackle. Anyone who has played football will tell you that tackles like those don’t just leave physical marks, they leave a message. Mascherano’s tackling in particular was so impressive that the term “Midfield breaker” became synonymous with the diminutive Argentinian DM.
Alex Song was another defensive midfielder who was making his mark in the Premier League. Most of us will remember one of the goals of the season in 2011, when a scrumptious diagonal long ball from Song led to Van Persie smashing the ball beautifully into the bottom right corner. The assist was as important as the goal, and Song’s ability to tackle, hold the ball and make intelligent runs was making him increasingly important in an Arsenal team which had lost Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona, and Tomas Rosicky and Abou Diaby to constant injuries.
Things changed though, after both players made the almost irresistible move to Barcelona. Now on the same team, both players usually end up warming the bench and for a fault not entirely of their own making. Barcelona’s constant reinvention of their players’ positions had yet again cost two highly impressive players their place amongst the best. After all, everyone remembers a striking legend of the caliber of Thierry Henry on the Barcelona wing, away from the position that made him a phenomenon. Mascherano and Song had now been trained to function as centre backs, and but not too successfully. Mascherano’s inability to win aerial duels, perhaps the weakest aspect of his otherwise excellent game, was constantly exposed in his outings as a centre back. In addition to that, Puyol and Pique had forged a rather definitive partnership in the middle of defence, and Barcelona’s over-crowded midfield led to the exclusion of a player who would be an asset to any team looking for a world class defensive midfielder. Alex Song has fared little better, but after only a handful of appearances this season, he must be wondering whether the move to Cataluñya was really the right one. It is interesting to note that both midfielders have a successful pass completion rate of over 90%, which does suggest that their passing abilities would be of use further up the pitch.
Unfortunately for Barcelona, these 2 players aren’t the only ones who have suffered due to Barca’s inadvertent fiddling with formations and positions to incorporate players. Last season, the addition of Cesc Fabregas to the Barcelona ranks caused immense selection headaches to Pep Guardiola. How would a team incorporate 4 central midfielders in a starting 11, one which included the likes of Lionel Messi? Pep then committed the same mistake Frank Rijkaard did when he lost the Copa del Rey final to Getafe in 2007 (Barcelona led 5-2 in the first leg, lost 4-0 in the second), playing a 3-4-3 with 3 men at the back to include Ronaldinho, Messi, Eto’o in attack and a 4 man stellar midfield in the form of Iniesta, Deco, Xavi and a defensive midfielder who was usually Edmilson. Pep used the same formation against Chelsea at the Nou camp last season in a bid to overturn a first leg 1-0 deficit, but found themselves unable to break down the 10 men of Chelsea as the match ended 2-2. His eagerness to include Fabregas in midfield led to Andres Iniesta being pushed wide left, and leaving Barca to play 3 centre backs. Not surprisingly, Barcelona conceded both goals that night to counter attacks. Ramires ran into a space as wide as a miniature football field and chipped it over a helpless Valdes, and then Torres ran into a Barca half with only Valdes to beat as he slotted calmly after rounding the keeper.
Alexis Sanchez is another player who comes to mind when talking about Barcelona’s almost weird insistence on conforming players to different positions. Alexis Sanchez shone as a 16-year-old playing as an attacking midfielder on the right in his native Chile, and then made his presence known on the European stage after playing in a support striker’s role behind the immaculate Antonio Di Natale at Udinese. His pace, strong build, excellent balance and box full of tricks led him to a big money move to Barcelona, where he has struggled to make an impact this season. In 25 appearances, Sanchez has only 4 goals and 4 assists, not surprising as he has been used in a front 3 with Messi/Villa/Tello/Fabregas. The unnecessary push onto the wings means that Sanchez cannot utilize the strongest part of his game; picking the ball up from deep and running at defenders. Plus Sanchez’s crossing is poor to say the least, which makes him less competent as a winger than an attacking midfielder.
What Barcelona need to realize is that when you’re winning, no one points fingers at the little things that could go wrong. But when they do go wrong, questions are asked. Not every player is like David Villa, who switched from a central striking role to a more left sided inside forward, or like Sergio Busquets who has adapted to both the centre back and centre midfield positions impressively. The facts are that Fabregas has been used in 4 different positions this season, David Villa in 3, Song, Mascherano and Sanchez in 2 different positions. With losses to Real Madrid twice and Milan in quick succession, Barcelona will need to reconsider their strategy to reassign a player’s natural position, before a season that began promisingly leaves the best team in the world trophyless.