It’s the pivotal moment of “The Dark Knight Rises”, the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The hero, Bruce Wayne, cast into an almost-literal pit of hell by an amalgamation of unchecked power and thousands of back-and-chest days at the gym, must escape before his beloved Gotham City meets annihilation. It isn’t the best scene in the film, and as far as Crucibles-in-film go, the heavy-handedness of a broken man climbing from, quite literally, his lowest point pales in comparison to conquering the rage and despair the Joker put him through in “The Dark Knight” and any film giving more thought to symbols than a first year NYU film student.
But the scene did have something to say, and its point reaches out from the silver screen. That no matter how driven someone is, that no matter how committed to a cause someone might be, there is no replacement for that moment of life and death. Until this is it, any motivation playing up that aspect is at best an inadequate simulation, a motivation for which the resources to justly create it just do not exist. The unfortunate who hang themselves without the foresight to break their necks still struggle. The unfortunate who strap weights to their legs before diving into water still kick on the way down before meeting the unbreakable grip of death. Even a cornered squirrel will bite at a bear. Instinct, at its most feral, pulls towards survival.
Wayne had lost sight of this. It took him making a climb, wrought with leaps and half-holds and false supports, without any safety net, to escape. And, of course, he was going to escape: a trilogy of blockbusters grossing in the billions isn’t going to end in the fashion wished for by Marty in “Seven Psychopaths”, with conversations and ruminations and peyote in the desert. Wayne was never in any danger of not getting out, and the plot of the film demanded his absence.
Barcelona, however, faced certain demise for the return leg of their Champions League quarter-final match-up with A.C. Milan. Never before had a team overturned a two goal deficit at home without having scored an away goal in the previous leg in the history of the tournament. And, after losing two consecutive Clásicos, the daggers from media and fans alike were out. Barça’s blood, it was thought, was in the water.
So, then, it can be said Barça made the climb without the rope. Without their safety net. They played three at the back.
While deploying Andrés Iniesta as a false winger in order to field Cesc Fàbregas has yielded tremendous domestic returns for Barcelona this campaign, it exacerbated a long standing problem for Barça in the opening leg of the Milan tie: a lack of width in attack. And combined with Lionel Messi’s continued preference for coming deep to receive the ball as opposed to getting on the end of through balls over the top, two of Barcelona’s three nominal forwards were then de facto midfielders, leaving the entire onus for penetrating runs on the shoulders of Pedro, meaning Barça became even more narrow with a winger leaving the flanks. Against defenses with less structure and commitment than Milan’s, the problems can be solved through the brute force of Barcelona’s offensive proficiency. But against a defense as capably played as Milan’s, the prospect becomes orders of magnitude more difficult.
The calculus of three at the back makes undeniable sense for solving this problem: by fielding an added forward, two wingers can be deployed in addition to a central forward to play over the top of Messi. No width is sacrificed, and no matter how the forwards rotate, no fewer than two will be free to go on runs over the top For the return leg, this meant Dani Alves and Pedro kept Milan’s fullbacks honest — though the latter only did so in a token manner — and David Villa provided cover for Messi from the centerbacks, cover that was essential for Messi’s first, preventing the Milan duo from closing out on Messi.
While Barcelona’s offense has rarely slipped below ‘dominant’ this campaign, it would be generous to call Barcelona’s defending ‘average’. A noted drop in the intensity of its pressing, combined with increasingly uncharacteristic mistakes by its defenders, has led to sustained periods of mayhem in defense, of vulnerability to crosses beyond the far post and what would be an inconceivable amount of time allowed on the ball only two seasons aft. The surest Barça has looked defending — a threshold far from ‘sure’ — has been with bodies thrown behind the ball instead of winning the ball back in the final third.
Tito Vilanova and Jordi Roura had to remove the — and this is said loosely — “safety net” of a fourth defender from Barcelona’s game in order to field another forward. What is certain is that the conditions of the game demanded it: a 2-0 deficit is hardly the time for conservatism, and scoring goals had to take precedence over fixing a leaky defense. What can only be speculated on is the effect it had on the Barça players by doing so. Gone were the slow close-outs upon losing possession. Gone was the malaise in midfield for defensive work-rate. Seen again was the capturing of the ball with the temerity of a starving dog chewing on found meat.
With the four-forwards-slash-three-forwards-and-Messi closing down any lost possession in the final third, Iniesta and Xavi were tasked with immediately stopping — or, better yet, intercepting — any attempt to escape pressure through the middle. And in order to prevent the ‘as is tradition’ outlet balls to the flanks, Jordi Alba and Gerard Piqué had to, if not outright prevent, immediately contest and win back any ball sent down the touchlines.
This meant Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano had something of a partnership in the ‘deep center’, though the shared responsibilities didn’t make their task any less difficult: while their first responsibility was to prevent any breaks over the top, they also had to clean up any balls in behind Xavi and Iniesta all while covering for Alba and Piqué. It is here where it becomes evident both how integral Busquets is to Barcelona and that he is the best in the world at what he does: he never made the wrong decision. If Busquets could intercept a pass, he intercepted the pass. If Milan was going to play the ball long or out to the flanks, Busquets was never caught up the pitch. In the chaos of Barça’s pressure, Busquests was the anchor.
It cannot be said with certainty, but Barça’s performance didn’t just seem like a function of tactics. It was a performance which recalled THAT Guardiola press conference from before the first leg of the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid in 2011. The performance has been called brave and courageous, words perhaps in line with the tone of the preceding, but those are too romantic of descriptors: any creature facing death lashes out. What should be noted is not the manner of victory but that the rumors of Barcelona’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. That that level of football can still be reached, and is as unapproachable as ever. That the king is not dead.
The question, then, is how many more games like this does this Barça have left?
For tactical notes during matches and other 140-character chicanery, follow @tpcourier.
Image: Manu Fernandez – AP