El Pivote: Methodical Midfield Madness

El Pivote: Methodical Midfield Madness

El Pivote (The Pivot) is a 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.

El Pivote is back with a bang, taking issue with a renowned Spanish football expert and adding flesh to the bone of the possession conundrum.

Guillem’s Guff

Regular readers of El Pivote will no doubt recognise that I’m keen on quoting two Spanish football experts who regularly appear on Sky Sports in England. Graham Hunter and Guillem Balague are constantly close to things going on behind the scenes within the game in Spain and so it’s natural to therefore add in a word or two from them to solidify any point I wish to make. But in the interest of being balanced and fair, there is no way that I am going to let slide a comment that keeps emanating from the mouth of Espanyol fan, and Madrid-based journalist, Guillem Balague: “Mourinho has destroyed Barcelona.” You what, mate?

Balague has seemingly gone into overdrive after his constant campaigning to give the last Ballon D’Or to Cristiano Ronaldo fell by the wayside. No one is doubting Ronaldo’s performances in this calendar year, however Balague’s devotion to Mourinho in the past month or so draws comparison to that of Monica Lewinsky to Bill Clinton. After Madrid beat Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey and La Liga games, Balague also said that Mourinho “has left Barcelona behind”. An irony too big to ignore is the fact that around the same time as making these comments, Balague was also touring around UK selling his biography on Pep Guardiola – which is based on Barcelona’s trophy laden dominance.

Trial and error is fantastic, especially when your opponent keeps on playing the same tactics and using the same personnel. After Mourinho’s 0-5 embarrassment at the start of his tenure, almost anything after that would be seen as progress. Barcelona have won a Champions League since then, as well as a league title, a Copa Del Rey trophy and a Club World Cup. Mourinho has won one league title and a Copa Del Rey. Coming to the end of this third, and probably last season, is that good enough for a team that has spent £26m on Modrić, £27m on Coentrão, £24m on Di María, £11m on Khedira, £10m on Şahin, £15m on Özil, £7m on Carvalho – just to name a few, and a squad with which Mourinho inherited £80m spent on Ronaldo, £62m on Kaká, £40m on Xabi Alonso, £14m on Raúl Albiol, £35m on Karim Benzema and £20m on Lassana Diarra? With one La Liga and probably two Copa Del Reys by the end of this season and with the Champions League too difficult to predict; I don’t see how Mourinho’s time can be seen as a successful one for Real Madrid, especially as he cost £15m to come in and likely £10m on the way out. One last irony too big to ignore is that Mourinho used to taunt Arsène Wenger, saying that to be considered a ‘great team,’ one must win titles back to back. Well seeing as he will not have achieved that at Madrid given all the investments made into the team, you tell me, Balague; who has destroyed whom?

To Infinity Passes and Beyond

The key to football at the highest level is scoring goals at one end while keeping them out of your own net. To score goals you need to attack. To prevent goals going in your goal you need to defend. That we all know. The midfield is crucial in supporting how to attack and how to defend; and finding a balance within that framework is what top level football is about. One way is keeping the ball, ultra dominance of play, which should, in theory, guarantee the opponent is no danger to your goal. If they don’t have the ball, they will not score. But conversely, we’ve seen that having the ball for the majority of the match doesn’t necessarily guarantee you goals. So nowadays should we really associate possession with goals scored and matches won, or rather, goals conceded and clean sheets?

There have been matches in the last couple of months where the Barcelona team has neither set out from its stall to attack or to defend. Instead we have, allow me to create a verb, been obsessed with being able “to midfield,” if you will. The lack of focus and intensity couldn’t have been more different in the two Milan games. And maybe Vilanova and Roura didn’t want to change things in the two Madrid games in between to give Milan a bit of a shock in the second leg. However, we’re touted as being the best club side ever in history, we put our faith in possession, but it’s not really the be all and end all when it comes to results.

Fans want to see good technical play, and thus they want to see their players being able to pass the ball around confidently and accurately. But against the big teams, fans no longer turn on their team for not having the ball. With regards to this, the fact that Real Madrid does not bother attempting to control the game against Barcelona is in itself an acceptance on their part that Barcelona is a superior team. Their fans couldn’t stomach this when Schuster and Pellegrini were in charge, but they’ve made an exception for Mourinho to allow their team to play counter attacking football against the big sides – something which their fans couldn’t stand when Capello was in charge. But controlling the game and being superior does not guarantee the result.

Manchester United beat Everton 2-0 in February with only 47% possession at home. Manchester City beat Chelsea by the same scoreline with the same amount of possession two weeks later. Tottenham beat Arsenal 2-1 with only 39% possession. Let’s look at the three losses for Barcelona against Milan and Madrid. Milan beat us 2-0 with only 27.5% possession. Madrid beat us at home with only 34.9% possession, and did so again at the Bernabeu with only 27.7%. Furthermore, with 72.5% of the ball against Milan, we only conjured up 1 shot on target, 3 against Madrid with 65.1% and 2 with 72.3%. So we weren’t attacking effectively and we weren’t defending effectively. We were “midfielding.

Effective football

Balague would probably read that last paragraph and maintain that Barcelona has been “destroyed by Mourinho.” But against Milan, the rise of intensity and the switch from an aimless emphasis on “midfielding” to a traditional form of attacking and defending, proved that we’re very much still in the hunt for another Champions League trophy. However, unless Vilanova gets his team to create more chances on a regular basis from the possession, is it worth keeping the ball for that long with players in attacking positions? Maintaining possession requires the full backs to play fairly advanced and that the midfield and forwards are spread out in order to maximize the space. This plays into other teams’ hands when possession is lost and it gives us no opportunity to counter attack because the proverbial parked bus has no need to go anywhere. Against Rayo Vallecano, Barcelona did not control the match as usual, and this meant Rayo decided to play more expansive, leaving space in behind. Messi and Villa took advantage of that; but would those opportunities have arrived if we dominated the ball completely? No. I’m not saying Barcelona wouldn’t have created chances anyway, but there’s no guarantee of this.

As early as November, El Pivote commented that Alex Song would do longer be used as a centre back. If we class Alex Song as an experiment, we now have the results that it will be very difficult to see Vilanova playing Song at the back again unless absolutely necessary. So all in all, the former Arsenal player could be seen to be an expensive replacement for Seydou Keita.”  With Puyol, Pedro and Adriano out against Paris Saint-Germain, and Alba and Xavi struggling to be 100% fit, is it time that we used Alex Song? Maybe it should be. Do I mean as a central defender? Absolutely not. I mean as another holding midfielder along side Busquets, with the ability to step forward when need be and provide through balls for Villa and Messi just like he did for Van Persie at Arsenal last year.

It’s not by chance that I mention Arsenal because the other player we bought from Arsenal has been finding it difficult to be himself at Barcelona. He is a top class midfielder; his attributes of a fantastic first touch and a wonderful pass cannot be taken away from him. However, can he really be in the same team at the same time as Messi, Xavi and Iniesta? With those three, and Busquets just behind, we are already capable of controlling any match. With Cesc in there as well, not only does it disrupt the others, but it completely distorts the team balance of attacking and defending and puts the emphasis totally on trying “to midfield,” which we have seen doesn’t bring results against teams willing to sit and counter–which occurs in most games against Barcelona.

Two attributes that Cesc does not have are pace and acceleration. This means that he’s not quick enough to close down in high areas of the pitch, unlike Sánchez and Pedro, whose speed at pressing means Barcelona can defend well from the front and attack more often. It also means that when the opposition is breaking, he does not have the recovery pace to track oncoming runners from deep. The football intelligence is there, he knows what he needs to do – he’s just unable to be highly effective when it comes to attacking and defending. The team’s passing is so good generally, that possession will be maintained anyway, and if we’re not attacking effectively and defending properly, what are we doing? You’ve guessed it – “midfielding.”  When Barcelona needed to beat Milan and Spain needed to beat France, where was Cesc? On the bench.

Let’s bring Song back into the equation. Assuming Iniesta must cover for the injured and suspended Pedro on the left side, whilst either Villa or Sanchez takes the centre/right forward side, and also assuming Xavi starts but isn’t 100%, surely it would be better to start Song in the middle, instead of Cesc. No doubt if Xavi can’t play the full 90 minutes, Cesc will be the right person to replace him, but with Iniesta, Xavi and Messi on the pitch, with David Villa up front and two attacking full backs – we need a defensive minded player to balance the side. Vilanova must not opt to dominate midfield for possession’s sake. It’s something we saw under Guardiola often, when Seydou Keita would come in to supplement Xavi and Busquets on away trips in the Champions League. Granted, when it came to away legs in the knockout stage, Guardiola didn’t win very often, but there were many draws and away goals, and his team was always still in the tie. Against Inter in the 3-1 defeat, starting Ibrahimovic alongside Messi and Pedro took away from our closing down, limited creativity and meant Maicon could attack at will. Playing Cesc in a wide forward position would do the same. Playing Song in the middle may mean less build up play, but it would certainly mean more protection for the back four, more expansive play from Paris, and as a result, more space for Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and Villa to exploit, especially on the counter. Less “midfielding,” more defending and more attacking.

Swings and Roundabouts

The focus thus far in this article has been on Madrid and on getting the possession balance right for more effective football. It’s poignantly topical because we may yet face Mourinho once or twice more this season. Mourinho once said after playing Barcelona that he had, “no idea how Barcelona keep the ball so much.” For a year or two, he tried to find ways at trying to get Madrid to do some “midfielding” against us, but figured out that it wasn’t effective. Now we see that he doesn’t even get his Madrid to attempt to control the play. He makes six or seven players defend, and when they win the ball back, instead of seeking possession, they hoof it up field into the space in order to attack. While Barcelona “midfields,” Madrid defends and attacks; and they’ve won the last two meetings. Tito now must analyze this, select the right personnel and enforce balance in the team’s play.

Firstly, however, we must defeat Paris and Carlo Ancelotti, the man who could very well be Mourinho’s successor at Madrid. If we can do that, hopefully Vilanova will be able to field a reserve team in the league games prior to any Champions League fixture to ensure sharpness and intensity. When at Inter, Mourinho kept banging on about the Champions League being an “obsession” for Barcelona. How ironic is it that all Mourinho and Madrid obsess over nowadays is winning another Champions League. Come full circle, it’s more hypocritical arrogance from Mourinho.

And if indeed Guillem Balague believes that Mourinho is the key to ‘destroying Barcelona’, surely the fact that he also believes Mourinho is leaving Madrid at the end of the season means that Barcelona will continue dominating Spanish football for years to come in Mourinho’s absence. More hypocritical arrogance? Pipe down, Balague.


Until next time…Visca Barça. El Pivote.


Image: Jasper Juinen/Getty Images