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.
In this week’s edition of El Pivote we will cover the league challengers, the brilliance of La Masia and one of its best ever exponents.
There’s winning and then there’s winning well
When Dani Alves went off injured against Levante, on came Montoya and with him he lit up the mantra of having 11 players on the pitch who have come from La Masia. You can read in detail the full story of this here on totalBarça. It’s true that it was Louis Van Gaal’s dream, but that’s all it was. The most important thing will always be to bring through top notch players who can contribute in order to supplement the first team squad. If the quality isn’t there, graduates will never be drafted in for the sake of a dream, and that’s an important point to stress, as Graham Hunter elaborates from Barcelona.
“It’s about how they play, it’s about the win, it’s about the speed at which they can make brilliant decisions; the link play of Iniesta with Messi or Fàbregas, the fact that Montoya, the forgotten man, the guy who came on to complete the eleven, can stand in instantly, with relatively little experience, for Dani Alves and if anything the team performance improves. And what’s more, although you can only have eleven in the team, there are four or five candidates knocking on the door, some of whom are Catalan, all of whom have been trained in Barca’s passing system. So it’s pride for the club and here in this city, you feel the pride that eight of them are Catalans and that the eleven were trained here. But as Pep Guardiola always says, it’s about winning and winning with style; and I think that’s the key thing that they’re achieving right now.”
Vilanova’s uncanny art of getting team selection correct has been one of the highlights of the season thus far and there is no doubt that he will throw on a few more graduates from the youth system in tonight’s Copa del Rey second leg game against Alaves. Montoya will most likely start; with Puyol and Thiago getting some much needed match practice, whilst Sergi Roberto and Tello could get selected in order to show their continued improvements. Jonathan Dos Santos and Carles Planas are also in the match squad, but the most intriguing player selected for this game is undoubtedly the rising star of the academy, Gerard Deulofeu. There are two thoughts that spring to mind about him featuring in this game, having also come on as a sub in Russia. Firstly, his selection will no doubt be a further boost to any other youth player at the club. Being able to visualise someone just two or three years older than you could make all the difference when it comes to development and progression based on internal ambition. This can only be inspiring to all Culés around the world. The second point to all this is that Messi clearly does not put personal glory over team mechanics – Vilanova pointed out that if Messi was thinking about this goal scoring record, he would have asked to play against Alaves, and very realistically scored several. However, we know Messi to be an extremely humble person and his humility shines through almost every time he speaks.
“My objectives are for the campaign as a whole. When the season starts, just like the other players in the dressing room, my aim to always to keep winning and to win all of the trophies we are competing for. You could say I am very competitive, that I always like to win, obviously even more so in my profession. Every year I try to do my best and to keep winning things. Without my team mates I wouldn’t have achieved any of the things I have up until this point, especially on an individual level. Winning a Golden Boot means depending on my team mates to score goals and it is because I am scoring goals that I am on the shortlist for the Ballon D’Or. One thing leads to another and my team mates deserve a lot of credit for my success.”
Another game for which Messi could easily be rested is the last Champions League group stage game at home to Benfica. It cannot be forgotten that in the same game last season, Guardiola selected Thiago, Fontàs, Dos Santos, Sergi Roberto, Bartra, Rafinha, Montoya and Cuenca. Also coming off the bench were Deulofeu, Muniesa and Riverola. Although Benfica could arguably be tougher opposition than BATE Borisov, I expect to see plenty of changes for that game as well. The lovers of La Masia graduates will cherish that but the Celtic fans will not. Herein lies the point of winning and winning well. In both games against Celtic, at no stage did they play like they were desperate for the three points. Their ultra-defensive stance saw them win one and come seconds away from grabbing a draw in another. Whilst their reasons for employing said tactics are understandable, it’s not something that constitutes huge praise from a Barcelona philosophy point of view. Los Culés are about attacking football and bringing through the youth, and the game against Benfica is a perfect chance to let some youngsters gain invaluable Champions League experience. If Celtic were so desperate for points, they should have done more themselves to go out and get them. They can park the bus if they so wish. We can play our youngsters if we so wish.
Genius on the bench and genius on the pitch
Vilanova has masterminded an extremely tentative backline all season, and now that he has his first choice defense back, the improvements are immediate. Was it just me, or did the presence of Puyol and Piqué give confidence to everyone that Levante’s penalty would be missed? I certainly had the feeling that our goal wouldn’t be breached, and evidently so did Victor Valdés, who has now kept two successive, clean sheets, as Graham Hunter states.
“It’s something that now the A defence is back (Pique and Puyol), [keeping a clean sheet] is something they hold very dearly. If Messi is winning all the plaudits for breaking records, what they quietly want to do is keep clean sheets. If you discount the tie against Alaves this season, they haven’t had two first class clean sheets since March and I think if you looked at the pace, the aggression, the way in which Puyol is chivvying everyone around him; that their little victory as a back four, no matter how many the forwards score, is to keep a clean sheet. And also, it’s something personal with Valdés. Week by week after a very shaky start his work rate has been high, his concentration has been high, his confidence has been coming back, his baby son has been born and way before that penalty save you could see in the last three, four weeks he’s back in the groove and that’s something that’s extraordinarily important for such an attacking team.”
On the field against Levante, it was marvellous to see the skills, poise and genius of Andrés Iniesta. We have often spoken about the way in which Cesc provides directness and Xavi is a guarantor of possession, but Iniesta is has a bit of both about him and he certainly can be described as a locksmith. In the tightest of spaces, his ability to create and conjure up magic is truly one of the best things any sport has to offer right now. Levante have in the away dressing room a banner that says, “This is Levante. You come here to play and you might win. But you will definitely suffer.” Iniesta’s fleet of foot meant that he mimicked Roadrunner always evading the skulduggery of Wile E. Coyote.
After a first half of the home team playing very condensed and not leaving any space in between the lines, Barcelona seemed to up the tempo in the second half and Iniesta was at the heart of everything. With Xavi, Cesc and Iniesta on the pitch, three assists and one goal from Andrés provided the difference. The Levante coach had promised Mourinho that his side would beat Barcelona. Instead Mourinho has been answering questions all week about whether or not he will stay at Madrid past this season. However, after losing to Levante and drawing against Racing Santander last season, Madrid went and won every game of the next 22 in La Liga, except one – El Gran Clásico at the Bernabeu.
Vilanova knows that an eleven point advantage is great, but winning in Madrid’s back yard in March could be fatal for Mourinho. “I had intended to start the season strongly, to get to know the players better, even though they already knew me very well, to try to start well because with a new manager it’s always important to get wins game after game. We weren’t thinking about getting to this point eleven points clear of Real Madrid. Also Atlético have had a great start to the season and they look solid. It’s no coincidence that they ended last season so spectacularly well under Simeone. There’s still a long way to go in the league; 75 points are a lot. Besides in my first year with the team we had that advantage and we had to win at the Santiago Bernabeu to win the league. There’s a long way to go and Madrid are characterised by always being up there until the end. There’s time for anything to happen.”
It’s certainly not time to be complacent, and Tito will not allow it. Real Madrid vs Atlético Madrid. Who would you rather win this weekend?
Until next time…Visca Barça. El Pivote.
Source: Jasper Juinen/Getty Images Europe