When Xavi’s strike against Granada hit the back of the net on the weekend, the sense of joy was almost matched by the sense of relief that Barcelona would go on to maintain its 100% start to the La Liga season.
With a trip to Madrid’s latest conquerors, Sevilla, next up for Tito’s men, followed by an away match at Benfica and then El Gran Clásico, here at totalBarça we will focus on what our Mister has to analyse ahead of this epic week.
On February 10, 2008, Barcelona travelled away to Sevilla, ironically eight points behind eventual league winners Madrid, and got a 1-1 draw. For those who don’t know who rescued us from losing that night by getting the equaliser against an Andalusian team with only 10 men, take a guess. Messi, you say? Nope. Xavi. The influential midfielder, who has the highest number of completed passes out of anyone in the opening round of Champions League games last week, scored a belter against Granada and afterwards said, “It wasn’t a great game for us, but we took the points.”
Speaking after the past two games, Tito Vilanova basically said what amounts to the same thing; he does not expect his players to be fully sharp until late October, perhaps early November, based upon the physical planning implemented in order to minimise injuries and maximise effectiveness in key stages of the season. The decision not to travel outside of Europe, barring Morocco, in pre-season was a large part of this fitness ideology, especially given that the majority of players were involved in Euro 2012. The result of which is that at the present moment, some players are lacking their usual world class first touch, or mig toc (half a touch, in Catalan) as Carles Rexach would tell Xavi, and composure, and World Cup qualifiers do nothing to help.
One factor that has not worked at all in Tito’s favour is the injury crisis to the central defence department. Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique have a slight chance to be fit for El Clásico, but they will not exactly be entering into that fixture in full flow if they are to be selected. Since Pique signed in 2008, Barcelona have played 25 games without both Puyol and Pique, achieved a 71% win rate and only lost four times, two of which were meaningless games when the league title was already wrapped up.
Back then, we had Rafael Marquez and Gabriel Milito to come in. Now we have Javier Mascherano and Alex Song. The injuries to Fontas have set back his progress, whilst Marc Bartra still awaits his call of duty. Vilanova was quick to explain that he bought Song as a centre back, stating that if Song was only able to play as a holding midfielder, he would not be at Barcelona. It could be said that the Cameroonian was not exactly ready to play against Spartak Moscow, having been thrown in to replace Pique early on. However, his performance certainly improved against Granada, although problems still persist.
Due to the lack of raw pace at the back from Mascherano and Song, they tend to drop slightly deeper, as the space in behind them effectively scares them. When they drop slightly further than usual, Adriano and Dani Alves then have even more distance to travel in order to recover. The defensive unit becomes fully stretched and opponents find it easy to carve out openings, as did Spartak when they got two at the Camp Nou. Against Granada, Víctor Valdés came up trumps against Orellana when Javier Mascherano inexplicably slowed down when running along side the Chilean, allowing a huge amount of space in behind into which a through ball could be played – finding himself exposed in a similar fashion as Ronaldo’s goal at the Camp Nou in the league earlier this year. It’s fair to say his body shape and positioning left a lot to be desired.
There was a significant drop off in defensive stability when Éric Abidal became sidelined and Adriano came in last year. Couple that with the fact that Sergio Busquets now closes down slightly higher up the pitch, and we have ourselves a huge gap in front of our defence; something which Tito will have to work on. I must say that Dani Alves is a shining example of what us coaches call, ‘the recovery run’. Firstly he continues to have the stamina and desire to get back into the defensive unit, but he knows exactly where to run to and then what angle and body shape he needs to display in order to affect the opposing forward. Naturally it does not work all the time, but I feel he must be commended on his improvement of form of late; adding in that he could have had an assist in the Granada match had Messi converted early on from an Alves pass.
Those who agree that the midfield has not flowed as much as expected, with the high amount of class and sophistication as usual should know that Vilanova has chosen five different starting midfield trios in his first five league matches. (Real Sociedad – Xavi, Busquets, Cesc. Osasuna – Cesc, Busquets, Iniesta. Valencia– Xavi, Song, Cesc. Getafe– Xavi, Busquets, Thiago. Granada– Cesc, Busquets, Thiago.) Thiago has come in for criticism of late, but it must not be forgotten that he needs minutes on the field to recapture his top form.
Given that there is so much going on in every department of the field, Vilanova must be congratulated on picking up 15 out of 15 points so far. His tactical change of taking off Dani Alves against Spartak and putting on Alexis Sanchez, bringing back the 3-4-3 formation worked out well. His ideas on the wide forwards seem to be Pedro and Tello as impact players, while Sanchez and Villa are working to return to a high level. Cuenca is yet another player for this position who is to come back from injury, and it’s not lost on the fanbase that Deulofeu has made the bench on several occasions.
As for Messi’s somewhat harsh treatment of David Villa the other night, could it be said that Messi is very much enjoying Cristian Tello’s support from that side and prefers playing with him? Messi said after the game that he has no problem with Villa and so there’s not much to read into it. If the latest reports that Neymar will join the club next season are to be believed, how likely is it that Messi would receive any first time passes from the Brazilian? If Messi desires through balls on demand, perhaps Tello and Cuenca would be better for that position, whilst Zubizarreta spends those funds on a fast, ball-playing centre back.
Back to more immediate matters, in the aforementioned game against Sevilla in 2008, Johan Cruyff was extremely critical of Barcelona’s midfield stating that they played too many square passes with no attacking intent. Vilanova and Xavi both agree that the style played under Pep has slightly evaporated, with a lack of quality building from the back, an increase in long kicking from Valdés (although not in the Supercopa first leg unfortunately), an increase in predictable passing and slow tempo midfield teamwork especially when Xavi is not on the pitch.
However, surely Cruyff would be happy to state that the amount of late goals ensures that the team has belief, has the right attitude and stamina to fight for all points until the end, resulting in the team not dropping cheap points as it did last season. Hopefully Vilanova can continue with another victory against a buoyant Sevilla side, and hopefully Xavi can produce some more magic against the Andalucians. Interesting side note; the man to get sent off for Sevilla against Barcelona four years ago? Seydou Keita. The full backs for Sevilla that night? Dani Alves and Adriano.
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