El Pivote: Papering over the Crack?

El Pivote: Papering over the Crack?

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.

We return this week* with more discussion on Messi’s dominant role in the team and also whether or not his brilliance is somewhat overshadowing a few factors that Vilanova still needs to work on. totalBarça looks to redress the balance.

*Apologies to regular readers of El Pivote for no article last week due to a demise in the family.

Tito’s Mechanical Engineering

The focus on Barcelona in the last few weeks has been the goal scoring record that Lionel Messi has now snatched from Gerd Müller. But even the genius Argentine wishes that all thoughts be targeted towards team achievements rather than individual accolades, so much so that he neither kept the ball nor his own shirt as a souvenir after scoring twice against Betis on the weekend. Therefore, let’s talk about the true triumph of obtaining 43 points from a possible 45 thus far in the league.

Messi’s record should only be considered the icing on the cake for all of the team play that has solidified under Tito. For me, the best thing about Barcelona this season is the fact that Vilanova is still engineering and adjusting delicate aspects of our team’s game and getting results even though we are far from perfect. I would never say that Messi’s goal scoring feat is symptomatic of how we are performing. The idea in itself is difficult to fathom because Messi is clearly one of the best players of all time. However, instead of looking at the shortcomings in a negative way, it’s very much cause for optimism for Barcelona that there are many areas on the field in which to improve and yet we won our Champions League group and only dropped two league points thus far. If you’ve been seduced by Messi’s achievement over the last couple of weeks, let me give you an idea of why there’s still work to be done by Vilanova.

Match Notes vs Athletic Bilbao

The media hailed this performance as the first work of art under the new Mister. I certainly enjoyed the match, especially as I made my long overdue debut at the Penya Blaugrana in London. The Barcelona anthem rang out after every goal and there were certainly long periods of the match of total domination and class; both were exhibited in Cesc finding Adriano for the Brazilian’s goal. On few occasions this season have I been so determined to watch the game again for analysis.

However, when I put it on for a second, closer examination, although I was still generally pleased, it was fairly obvious that there were still several improvements to be made. After a promising first five minutes, Xavi was tackled too easily on the half-way line, Iniesta lost possession a few times when an easy pass was on, Jordi Alba’s link up play was not reaching the high levels he has set for himself, and Piqué inexplicably dribbled out of the back and went straight into Athletic players. Over critical? Perhaps. Room for improvement? Certainly. In the first fifteen minutes, there was only one save for the opposition keeper to make, and only Busquets was playing near his peak. With Athletic Bilbao man marking all over the place, Piqué and Mascherano were free to bring the ball into midfield and the Catalan’s distribution ensured that Bielsa was thinking that his tactics were working… until that same Catalan had the freedom of the six yard box to put Barcelona in front in the twenty second minute.

After this, the confidence came back into our players and Bielsa’s approach didn’t change. Messi made it two and with Bilbao’s attack being so impotent with Llorente and Muniain missing, the game was there for the taking. After this point, the style of play was magnificent, but the start of the game was certainly not of the same ilk. My critics will blast me for such negativity, but the coach in me seeks out areas in which to improve. Never has any coach gone into a training session and told his or her players that they’re perfect and need not work on anything. Starting the same way in an away game, like against Sevilla, or in a home game against a top side like Real Madrid, will cause us problems, especially if the opponent has a potent strike force with which to capitalise on errors – we’re up against Falcao in our next home game. All in all, whilst we witnessed some beautiful stuff against Bilbao, it was not a perfect performance and it was against a team that is lacking in confidence and lacking in belief in the coach’s tactics. Former Newcastle and Mallorca put it this way, “It’s perfect for Barcelona if a team comes to play them and man marks. 1v1, the players of Barcelona can beat their opponent very easily. If there’s no help from defenders giving you cover, man marking is going to kill you; it’s shooting yourself in the foot to play against Barcelona like that.”  For anyone who still thinks beating Athletic 5-1 was a ten out of ten performance, remember that Madrid beat them by the same score line just a couple of weeks before. However, they followed that up with a loss away at Betis.

Match Notes vs Real Betis

Anyone who expected an easy game here evidently doesn’t know Betis very well. Just like their Andalusian rivals, Betis had played Madrid and faced Barcelona a week or two later.  Both beat Madrid. Both lost to Barcelona. There’s no doubt that it’s all about the three points at the end of the day, but Messi’s two goals ended up being extremely important, especially as Betis were very unlucky not to have scored another two themselves. Alba hit woodwork and Thiago should have scored one, but it could have been a very different game. Cesc going off injured meant that Sanchez came on, and even though I have been as frustrated as any with the Chilean this season, he deserves at least one assist, but we’ll get into that a few paragraphs down. Puyol left the pitch at half time and his leadership evidently went to the bench as well. Although one could say luck was in our favour for this game, Vilanova still would have picked out plenty of things upon which the team can improve tactically.

Pako Ayestarian highlighted why it was not so easy for Los Culés. “The teams that have created problems for Barcelona have been the ones that have closed the middle. The first phase of the defence was the strikers. When Iniesta or Xavi tried to drop off and receive the ball in the channels where they like, Beñat and Cañas were really pressing the space and not allowing [anything], and forced them to play from wider [positions]. You can see that Xavi did not have the space in the middle and had to come wide. And when they [Barcelona] tried to beat the back four, they [Betis] closed the middle and there was not any space. In the second half Betis changed their strategy and didn’t allow Barcelona to start the game from the back. They pressed high and Barcelona couldn’t build the game at all.” There are definitely areas for further engineering developments from Vilanova.

Forward Mechanics

Gerd Müller congratulated Messi and stated he was a great footballer, not just a great scorer. Hypothetical stats have come out; taking away Messi’s, Ronaldo’s and Falcao’s goals this season, showing that Madrid and Barcelona would have 30 points, one ahead of Betis. Some argue it shows how important Messi is. I think it’s a load of codswallop and balderdash. It effectively shows if Barcelona were to play games with ten players. Cesc Fàbregas could play the false nine role. Rafinha looked sharp against Benfica. Deulofeu could come in and contribute. David Villa could even play as the lone striker, not worry about finding the Argentine and bang in several goals – assuming he learns how not to be offside once more. However with the two wide forwards effectively serving Messi now, is David Villa’s time up at Barcelona? The front cover of Sport certainly indicates the question is valid.

We have learned recently that Messi sent a message to Guardiola saying, “Ibra or me”, and the same logic could be applied to nowadays. Sanchez, Pedro and Villa do not want to find themselves being texted to Vilanova. Perhaps Villa has already had it, but Sanchez continues to make runs to drag defenders out of position for Messi to score, and Pedro knows how to keep defenders occupied on the other side of the penalty area. However, when Barcelona won La Liga and Champions League in 2011, Pedro and Villa scored 45 goals between them. In the league, Villa got 18 and Pedro got 13, which together equalled Messi’s 31. That potent combination of serving Messi, but also being dangerous could very well be Vilanova’s major task, especially for when we get to the latter stages of the Champions League.  It must be remembered that since he became a first team starter, Messi has missed 27 games. In these 27 games, Barcelona have won 20. Out of the other 7 games, 3 were irrelevant. Thus only 4 times in over 5 years have Barcelona failed to win a match without Messi. The quality is there in the squad, and staying true to our philosophy, it’s also coming through the youth system too. Perhaps there will not be anyone ever again like Lionel, but the capacity to win games with style will never diminish.

On that note, instead of talking about Messi’s individual records and hypothetical situations of Messi’s absence, I’d rather think about the factual matter that Cesc, a player with whom Vilanova has done better than Guardiola, will miss the next league game at home against second place Atlético Madrid on the weekend. Whilst Cesc attempts to recover his fitness indoors with Seydou Keita, back from the Chinese league’s break, will it be Thiago to fill the void, will Iniesta move inside and David Villa take a place at left wing, or will Sanchez fill in that area? I look forward to discussing whatever happens next week.

Until next time…Visca Barça. El Pivote.

Source: Jasper Juinen/Getty Images