On Sunday, against Rayo Vallecano, Dani Alves flaunted his new and rather flamboyant hairstyle. The Brazilian right back admitted that the shorter, faded-white hairdo was the result of losing a bet (surely something to do with Barcelona’s historic remuntada against AC Milan!). Yet, this wasn’t the most striking anomaly of the day. In Xavi’s absence, Barcelona looked to be a distinctively different side; just as effective but with considerable variation in their style of play. A closer look at the 3-1 win (with two of Barcelona’s goals resulting from well-executed counter attacks), reveals that quick transition between the lines replaced the cautious and meticulous build up from the back that culés are accustomed to. While this new style may be temporary, it is a sign that Barcelona is willing to reinvent itself.
Xavi’s Absence and Its Implication
With considerable focus on immediate results, it is easy to forget that this Barcelona team is a team in transition. Xavi is largely responsible for dictating Barça’s overall tempo and rhythm of play and we are far from crowning anyone as his heir apparent. It is becoming increasingly clear that Xavi’s single-handed control of Barcelona’s game is hard to be replicated or replaced. While Thiago offers flashes of brilliance, he is error prone and lacks Xavi’s consistency. Cesc, buckling under enormous expectation, has been unable to cement his place in the starting eleven. He often looks unsure whether to push forward to help Messi or stay further back and lead the midfield and distribute play. As a result, he often occupies the same position as Messi – the space between the opposing team’s defensive and midfield lines.
After being forced to watch the Champions League match against AC Milan from the bench, a decision few culés seemed to mind, Cesc found himself in the starting eleven against Rayo Vallecano. Cesc’s presence signaled a fast paced game. Unlike Xavi, who distributes the play horizontally, Cesc’s time in the Premier League has made him distribute the ball in a more vertical fashion; a refreshing alternative for a sometimes predictable Barcelona. With Cesc instead of Xavi in the starting eleven, Barça resorted to more long balls from the two central defenders, Pique and Mascherano in this case, and quicker transition between the lines. The emphasis on short-range passes was lower. This represents a tradeoff – Barcelona has less control of the game (in the form of less possession) but more chance to catch the opposing defense off-guard, thereby exploiting the space behind the opposing team’s defense and becoming less predictable in the process. Unfortunately, Barcelona’s approach and its success can be attributed more to Xavi’s absence and Jémez’s brave decision to position Rayo’s defense high up the pitch (creating more space for Villa and Messi) than to any brilliance on Cesc’s part.
Messi-Villa, The Deadly Duo
In the match against AC Milan, facing a defense that was sitting deep and intent on protecting the 2-0 first leg lead, Villa played in the center forward position with Messi dropping to the space between the lines. However, it is clear that using Villa as a ‘classic 9′ is not a permanent change, rather, a one-off resort under dire circumstances. The same is the case for the 3-4-3 formation. The routine Liga match against Rayo saw Villa shift back to his normal spot on the left-wing, with Messi playing a central role as a false 9. While there is considerable debate on Villa’s effectiveness on this wing (few can argue Villa’s natural flair in the center of attack), the inevitable question that follows is whether this is enough of a reason to move Messi away from his central role. Regardless, against Rayo, both enjoyed extraordinary form, feasting on the vast amount of space they were given. Clearly able to adapt to this less horizontal style, they were the main beneficiaries of rapid transition and relished the opportunity to run at their opponents in one-to-one situations, exhibiting indomitable pace.
Counterattack & Possession
Given the quality of Barcelona’s forwards, it isn’t surprising how successful they were on the counter. The match, different from how Barça generally play, generated highly unusual statistics. Rayo saw a lot more possession than most teams that visit the Camp Nou. In what is most likely a record since the Rijkaard era, the team from Madrid enjoyed 46% possession, a statistic that along with the final score perfectly summarizes Barcelona’s new look. It is quite telling that it was Dani Alves and not a Barcelona midfielder who completed the most passes (67) despite coming in as a substitute (interestingly Trashorras completed up to 87 passes for Rayo!). For Barcelona’s first goal, Iniesta regained possession deep within Barcelona’s own half and immediately passed the ball up to Messi, who led the 3 vs 2 break perfectly, ending with Villa’s effortless finish. Villa got behind Rayo’s defense turning goal provider for the second, while the third goal came off an opposing corner, a swift counter a la Real Madrid. It was strange but refreshing to see how few touches our players needed, to create goal scoring opportunities.
The match against Rayo does not indicate that Barcelona will become a counterattacking side. However, this does present another dimension to Barcelona’s style of play and it may become a viable option in the future. Cesc is expected to play a key role, though for now, he remains in Xavi and Iniesta’s shadows. His style seems to fall somewhere between that of Xavi and Iniesta’s. The confusion over his positioning indicates he is yet to command an explicit role in the side. His situation is reminiscent of Xavi’s – he too suffered when he was labeled Guardiola’s successor; so unhappy was he that at one point he even considered leaving the club. Cesc (as do some of the culés) needs to realise that he isn’t supposed to play like Xavi or Iniesta, he was brought in to improve the midfield not substitute its main players. The quicker this fructifies, the sooner we will be able to witness what he is truly capable of.
Image Credits: Lluis Gene AFP/ Pere Punti MD