El Pivote: The Inaugural

El Pivote: The Inaugural

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.

Just over a week after securing our eight point lead over our greatest rivals, the bunch of games since the previous international break provides us with plenty over which to ponder for the next set of games. This week on El Pivote, we shall discuss the centre back crisis, Montoya’s promotion to the first eleven and the Cesc-Iniesta combination.

El Clásico fallout

After La Liga games and Champions League games, Tito Vilanova is yet to register a defeat as Barcelona boss. We could have been forgiven for expecting the worst against Madrid, and our fears could have easily become reality had Sergio Ramos and Benzema netted before Lionel Messi equalised. However, did the Barca boss get everything right?

As highlighted correctly here at totalBarça, a lack of sheer pace centrally was a huge concern for Vilanova. Mascherano’s good acceleration means he reaches top speed fairly easily, however his top speed cannot exactly be compared to Usain Bolt, as we saw against Granada. Alex Song takes slightly longer to react and accelerate in situations, as Negredo would testify, and the vast majority assumed that it would be this combination at the back against Mourinho’s men. Some quarters even thought Bartra would be given the nod to start, although this seemed unlikely given his lack of game time thus far as well as the rush to get Puyol ready.

Instead, Adriano got the call. Once the teams were announced, Mundo Deportivo, Sport and Marca were all divided on how Barcelona would line up. Would it be the 3-4-3? Would Adriano be playing ahead of Jordi Alba? Or would he be playing as part of the three central midfielders? All ideas were put forward until word broke that the Brazilian would partner the Argentine in the middle. The ideology worked somewhat in Tito’s favour as Adriano invariably anticipated balls over the top and used his speed to either get there first or shadow the forward, but it was always going to be an extremely difficult game with a brand new back four.

The expectations for Adriano’s responsibility were still fairly high even though he had never played in that position before, but was he really the weak link at the back? Let’s examine some madridista chances. When Ronaldo’s cross found Benzema, who volleyed wildly, Dani Alves had been drawn inside by Marcelo’s run, leaving a huge gap for the Frenchman to strike unopposed. As this was Dani Alves’ area of the field, one could lazily blame him, but Mascherano did nothing to help cover Marcelo, and Pedro must have been alerted before the game about the Brazilian’s runs forward, but only tracked him to twenty five yards out. Further still, Mascherano had the nerve to ask Dani Alves why Benzema was free; a key indication that the leadership of Puyol, or even Piqué, is still paramount for this team. If a centre back fails to take over the marking of a player running into a central area, then the full back must be expected to stay with the runner.

A free header for Sergio Ramos from a corner could have ended up in the back of our net, but rather than picking out Adriano, or any other individual, it comes as a huge concern for many Blaugrana fans that Vilanova continues to leave both near and far post completely vacant at corners, assuming Victor Valdés can cover the eight yard length between goal posts – an impossible task.

Dani Alves failed to close down Piotr Trochowski for Sevilla’s first goal and was rightly criticised. However, in my opinion he was wrongly condemned for allowing Ronaldo so much space. Similar to above when Mascherano’s lack of leadership forced Dani Alves to stay with Marcelo, in this case, Mascherano’s defensive midfielder instincts got the better of him as he failed to contain Benzema, allowing him to turn easily. In effect, if you consider Mascherano to be out of the game at this stage, Dani Alves then became the first defender and had to take one step further inside, because it was really a momentary 2v1 situation, with Benzema (on the ball) being the main danger. Had the Brazilian neglected his second defender duties and gone wider to man mark Ronaldo, either Benzema would have gone straight to goal after turning Mascherano or a ball would have been played in behind for Ronaldo to run onto. As we all saw, Victor Valdés was also partially erroneous by giving too much space at his near post for a shot to come in.

At the end of last season, Barcelona drew away at Betis…

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The second goal conceded that night was due to the full backs not pushing up with their centre backs. The full backs were Adriano and Martín Montoya. The centre backs were Javier Mascherano and Gerard Piqué. Ronaldo’s second goal was slightly reminiscent. As Mascherano immediately pushed up towards Özil, we can infer that he is following continued orders from the coaching staff, more so because Montoya had learned his lesson and remained level with Mascherano, letting Ronaldo go into what he believed should be an offside position. Jordi Alba held his position in line with Montoya and Mascherano, however Adriano decided to carry on running deep, keeping Ronaldo onside when the through ball was played. Montoya has learned. Jordi Alba has learned. Adriano has not.

Defensive Liabilities

We can therefore evaluate that natural central defensive instincts are preciously vacant without Puyol and Piqué.  José Mari Bakero did not waste any time in declaring that Barcelona should have signed another centre back. “Barca must buy a centre back, as I said in the summer. To be a central defender here is very difficult, more so than in any other club in the world. Certain characteristics are necessary”. Let’s be honest, millions of Barcelona fans around the world were saying the exact same thing, and Andoni Zubizarreta’s signing of Alex Song as a central defender is yet to pay dividends, although it’s still very early for him, but does he really have the characteristics of which the technical director speaks?

Conversely, in the aforementioned 2-2 draw at Real Betis from last season, Dani Alves received a red card and rumours were quick to surface that Zubizarreta was willing to listen to offers for the Brazilian. His reason was simple – Martín Montoya. With the Brazilian now out of action for a few weeks, Montoya will have his chance to start regularly and hold down that position, ensuring a healthy competition for places at right back. Let’s not forget that he was inches away from possibly being the match winner in El Clasico!

La banda izquierda (The left flank)

The other signing by Zubizarreta was left full back, Jordi Alba. He has settled in very quickly, albeit returning to familiar pastures, and has continued his excellent partnership with Andrés Iniesta which was a key fixture of Spain’s dominance at the European Championships this summer. This week Vicente Del Bosque was forthright in making a point that Alba makes Iniesta a better player. “Jordi Alba, with his attacking characteristics and his experience of playing on the wing, allows Iniesta to play more systematically in the middle.”

Against Madrid, the left side was wide open for Jordi Alba every time that Iniesta took Arbeloa inside with him. In recent games, a wide forward has opened up defences and allowed Cesc Fàbregas to make darting runs through, scoring against Sevilla and Benfica. Cesc would have had the chance to test Casillas from close range if Iniesta had not opted for a long range curler early on, however the majority of the ex-Arsenal man’s positional play was based on being aware enough to cover any Jordi Alba run, and indeed double up with Jordi Alba when defending against a counter attack.

The inclusion of Cesc certainly aided possession although Pedro seemingly would have preferred another wide forward on the pitch to get in behind the Madrid backline. “In the first half we had an extra man in the middle of the pitch leaving the right wing exposed (one player – himself – wide on his own). Later Alexis came on giving us attacking depth on both flanks and we created more chances.”

It must be said that there are concerns in some quarters as to whether or not Fàbregas and Iniesta can play in the same team together. I do not share this concern. Euro 2012 proved they can play together absolutely perfectly. With Messi in the Barca team, Fàbregas has less space in which to roam around, but has license to run beyond the front man or even drop deeper and assume a traditional central midfield position. The fact that he has not developed a precise role for himself is a problem for some Blaugranas. My view is the opposite. If we have a player who is unpredictable in his passing, off the ball movement and positioning, it means that the opposition will find it that much more difficult to execute a defensive plan against us. Equally by definition, it will be tough for him to produce world class performances in every single game, but the club philosophy is about keeping the ball moving and spreading the ball all over the pitch in a controlled manner – something in which Iniesta and Fàbregas can be seen as experts. They will show you their World Cup winner’s medal if you do not believe them. Let’s hope Andrés can help Cesc add some La Liga and Champions League medals to his collection.

Until next time…Visca Barça. El Pivote.

Source: Jasper Juinen/Getty Images Europe