El Pivote: Dubious Defence & Midfield Malarky

El Pivote: Dubious Defence & Midfield Malarky

El Pivote (or The Pivot) is a weekly totalBarça column by Anoop Jethwa about the trials and tribulations of FC Barcelona.  From the positives to the negatives, this piece will dive deep into the living fabric that is blaugrana.  We welcome your thoughts and feedback in the comments section.

This week on El Pivote there is more defensive dilemma discussion and we outline Tito’s exact tactical deployment so far this season.

The Defensive Deficiencies

Where better to start than an updated analysis of our team’s defending. Against Deportivo we started out with Song and Mascherano at the back, and early on it looked as though Song was finally starting to show signs of improvement at the position, although there were two times where it seemed that he had almost forgotten that he was playing at the back, pushed into midfield and then suddenly realised that he was in the wrong place. Indeed when Deportivo were given a penalty, from the highlights of the situation I am still struggling to understand to where Song had relocated.

However, it should be a huge concern that if a relatively new onlooker were to have watched this game, it would have been impossible to decide upon which of the central defensive pair had been playing in that position for the past two seasons. As accurately stated in our Post-Match Review, the second yellow card that the Argentine picked up was utterly astonishing, as it seemed that the Deportivo forward pushed his head into Mascherano’s arm. More importantly, the reason for him to be on a yellow card in the first place was completely idiotic and symptomatic of the mistakes that he has been making at the back over the course of this season thus far.

Javier Mascherano was amongst the players who compiled the most amount of minutes in the last campaign, and due to injuries, has been the first choice centre back given the absences of Puyol and Pique this season too. Add in his trips with the Argentina national team, and you are left with a player who is being asked to contribute his maximum for club and country. Immediately fingers will point to Messi, as he has the same commitments, however Messi is able to drift in and out of matches as he pleases or come deep to keep possession ticking over, thus allowing for the slight lapse in concentration every now and again. At the back for Barcelona, especially with no Catalan leader to direct all defensive negotiations, full concentration is required. What is the evidence to support this claim? Messi is not a player to be rested, and even he was given an hour off against Getafe, coming on with thirty minutes to spare. Granted, Mascherano did not play the entire match against Getafe, or even against Deportivo thanks to two yellow cards, but maybe the fans are not the only ones praying for a prompt return for our full strength defence.

Using this theory, could the same logic be applied to Víctor Valdés? Graham Hunter thinks so, “We’ve seen Víctor Valdés [and Pepe Reina] working so hard [at international tournaments], every second summer, and you watch them being in peak condition – the type of condition they might be in November or March – during all of June and July. He comes back and I think what you are seeing is Valdés in the kind of form that you get in pre-season. I think he’s having a natural mental dip where you just miss an inch or two of your sharpness, and that, at this level with the defence not defending as well as usual, costs very highly.”

I, like many other readers of totalBarça, used the links provided to watch our pre-season friendlies over the summer and I can specifically remember Marc Bartra showing immense promise against Raja Club Athletic – not the best of teams but a good early test at a hostile environment away from home. He continued the kind of form that he has produced for the Spanish youth teams and his promotion from Barça B left all of us awaiting his first start as a first team squad member. Puyol’s injury came, Pique’s injury came, but still no Bartra. Even Adriano was seen as a better option. We even began to question the thought process behind removing his B team status as he was not getting any match practice at all. Then against Celtic, Tito provided us with what we have all been waiting for – yet another brand new central defensive partnership. Bartra was on the team sheet to start alongside Mascherano.

The sense of a little bit of extra security was immediate. Samaras tried to dribble at the youngster, whom Lennon, the Celtic manager, had likely highlighted as a potential point of weakness in the defence. Bartra was having none of it. His tackles were strong, his positioning was sound and one thing shone above everything else – his hunger. This was his chance to show that he really wanted to be the rock at the back and he delivered with flying colours. Let’s not forget that it was he, in the last minute, who drove forward down the right hand side to help create one last attack. His ambition and desire didn’t end there as he headed straight for the penalty spot, looking to grab a late winner, or even occupy just one central defender from the Scottish outfit. If it were Piqué, we would be praising his implementation of the ideals of total football. By no means am I suggesting that one good performance makes him a world class defender. Soon enough he will make a crucial error and his reaction to that will be his next learning curve. But maybe, just maybe, did we see a tiny bit of evidence as to why Zubizarreta did not pursue buying a natural centre back?

Safe possession or more direct?

Players of the Johan Cruyff era state that their style of play, whilst based on possession, was more direct than we’ve seen in recent years. Josep Guardiola’s philosophy was an extension of what he learned under Cruyff with an increased concentration on complete dominance of possession. Tito Vilanova has clearly studied both and he is attempting to fully understand how his own squad of players adapt to each system. From the outset, sitting top of the league unbeaten, maximum points in the Champions League and all that with a defensive crisis, Vilanova has certainly gained the respect of many who chose to carefully analyse everything that comes with the territory of being the main man at Barcelona.

Last week on El Pivote, I declared my disagreement with those who claimed that Iniesta and Fàbregas could not play in the same team together. In the next game, Cesc claimed three assists whilst playing in midfield with Iniesta; one pass straight to the feet of Jordi Alba, one roll back into the path of Messi and one deft through ball again for Messi to latch onto. His second assist shows his influence on the team to embrace a more direct approach as instead of coming short to offer himself for Mascherano, he ran deep and created another direct option other than Messi. Defenders would usually expect players in Mascherano’s position to look for Messi with a forward pass centrally; however Cesc was allowed to creep into that false nine space without being tracked. Once defenders went to Cesc, Messi used the new space to deadly effect.

Hypothetically, what if the ball for Jordi Alba had been cut out? We would have had our left back high up the pitch, our midfield scattered from touchline to touchline and our defence having to cover the space. With no Piqué and Puyol, Song and Mascherano would have dropped back allowing Deportivo room to manipulate possession. This is where Guardiola’s Barcelona differs from Vilanova’s, philosophically speaking; – I’m sure Pep would have congratulated Cesc had he made the same pass last year.

Against Celtic, Barcelona managed to conjure up 90% possession of the ball. Vilanova had clearly adopted Pep’s possession approach for this game in order to control matters. Controlling matters is not only an attacking ploy, but a defensive one. It restricts opponents to very few chances. (It must be pointed out that Celtic’s goal and most threatening attacks came from Alexis Sanchez giving away cheap free kicks.) This same tactical approach has brought success for Spain at the international level, and the possession master for club and country is Xavi. With a season debut for Marc Bartra, an out-of-form Javier Mascherano and no Sergio Busquets to sit in front of the back four, it’s quite clear to see why Vilanova chose the Xavi-possession route, and in turn why he decided against bringing on Fàbregas.

Instead of opting for a change of approach from possession to direct, Vilanova threw on a substitution pairing that we’ve seen before. Against Sevilla, on came Tello to stretch the defensive backline and create spaces for a deadly central striker who also came on, David Villa. That night David Villa got the winner, and it was clearly the outcome Vilanova was hoping for against Celtic as well. His idea nearly produced the goods again as Villa’s effort bounced back off the post. With Cesc sitting on the bench, and a third substitution still available, Vilanova still persisted with the simple pass and move strategy, keeping possession and keeping the Celtic defenders on alert.

Therefore, perhaps the question asked should not be whether or not Fàbregas can play with Iniesta, but whether Fàbregas can play with Xavi. My answer is exactly the same as before – absolutely they can, but then the more potent question arises – which philosophy will be followed? In Vilanova’s own words in the Deportivo post match press conference after he had substituted Fàbregas for Xavi, when Barcelona were already down to 10 men: “I brought on Xavi logically because of his superior positioning and his ability to control the game, and Cesc had played in the internationals. Xavi was fresh and he could help us control possession for those final minutes.”

Former Barcelona midfielder Gaizka Mendieta weighed in on the debate, “It is very difficult when you are playing with such big players around you to get the ball off the back and score goals, and Xavi is definitely the one to [do this and] control the game. Obviously when Xavi is on the field, you have to play at the pace of Xavi because he wants the ball all the time, and when Fàbregas is on the pitch the football [style] is always more direct and then maybe Xavi is not as involved as he is when Cesc is not there.

The last words go to Graham Hunter when asked if the two of them can play together. “Absolutely, and I think it’s important that they do because there’s nobody better for Cesc if he has to add that [controlling the game] to his armoury; who better to learn from than Xavi. I think they get on relatively well. There is a point to be made here that Xavi, ten years ago, was playing like Cesc is now…and changed. And Xavi wasn’t sure about playing in the style that he plays now until Frank Rijkaard convinced him to do so. This process of helping Cesc Fàbregas add one last little bit to his game if he is going to inherit Xavi’s position – that’s something that will be interesting to watch. I think he is perfectly capable of it and in the meantime I think there are difficulties but absolutely I think they can play together. Remember, we had this argument or these questions floating about Iniesta and Xavi. There was conviction over here [in Barcelona] that they cannot be played together. Nonsense.

Football is a results business and whatever the approach, Vilanova is making it work without our first choice defence, without a fully sharp Víctor Valdés, without Thiago Alcantara, without a confident and deadly Alexis Sanchez and without Isaac Cuenca to help out. And just in case you want to test Cesc’s ability to control, have a look at this…

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And this…

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Until next time… Visca Vilanova. El Pivote.

Image Credit: Jasper Juinen/Getty Images Europe