Barcelona’s Tactical Outlook Post-Guardiola
When you look upon FC Barcelona as a squad, you might think you are looking at a squad that is almost perfect in every way.
They have a squad with experienced players that know each other well. Because they know each other, they play exceptionally well together. They have a tactical setup that calls for a passing and possession game. Their preferred tactical formation is a 4-3-3. The squad and tactics look set and fixed.
However, when a new manager comes into a squad, he tends to clean house, to mold the squad to fit his philosophy, his own playing style, and often renovate the tactical setup. Such is the dilemma that Tito Vilanova will have since he has been chosen to be the man that will take the Blaugrana into the post-Guardiola era.
Often a new manager has a hard choice to make. He can either start from scratch or, build on the foundation left by the previous manager. With Tito Vilanova being new to managing a team such as Barcelona, and because he was Guardiola’s right hand man, it is likely Tito will change very little about the tactical setup of the team. It is in the opinion of this writer that instead, Villanova will build on the squad left to him by Guardiola. What will he correct in a perfect squad you say? Tito will focus on correcting the shortcoming this team current has which aren’t many, but they are critical.
One of the problems that plagued Barcelona this season has been squad depth, or a lack there of. There is no doubt that Barcelona’s starting XI is an extremely strong and capable squad. But this season, we saw a Barcelona that was decimated by injuries and had to go through most of the season without its preferred eleven. Pedro, Villa, Abidal, Puyol, Pique, Afellay, were all injured.
Some of these injuries were for the season and others sporadically. Apart from Afellay, what the rest have in common is that they are members of Barcelona’s starting XI. Barcelona surely suffered, and perhaps, lost some matches due to the absence of these players at one point or another.
Another reason Barcelona suffered was because it’s bench was not of the same quality or skill level to fit into the shoes of those who weren’t available. So Tito inherits a small squad, and a bench that poses a problem. That problem is, are they good enough? And if not what area’s need better squad players?
For Barcelona it is impossible to have a bench that is composed of pure world class players. The board will not give Tito a blank check and having a bench of divas and stars will be a nightmare in the locker room. So Tito will look to have a bigger squad while focusing on expanding it in areas Barcelona is in need of players. Tito must choose players that will be able to fit into Barcelona’s defense and attack.
The midfield of Barcelona is perhaps the most hotly contested area for starting spots on the squad. There is an overabundance of talent, and therefore, it is likely Seydou Keita and utility player Adriano, will be shipped out to enlarge the transfer budget. What Tito will be looking for is not to reshuffle tactics, but to buy players that will offer a tactical solution to a problem.
Football is like chess, it is a game of strategy. Your tactics and your strategy to defeat the opposition is enhanced or hindered by the number of pieces you have at your disposal and, by the functions these pieces serve. Tito will be looking for specific tactical pieces to solve Barcelona’s tactical shortcomings.
In defense Barcelona need another Carles Puyol. Easy to say right? But not easy to find. What Puyol has is experience, its leadership, he is the man who orders Barcelona’s defense. With him Barcelona are more solid, but without him they run into the problem that no one is in charge of the defense.
This past weekend, Betis demonstrated that Mascherano and Pique are both on the same level. That level is that neither are the boss, they don’t communicate, and at times they make tactical mistakes such as going to cover the same man, because neither is the dominant defender.
This is the center back Barcelona must find to fit the tactical void that Carles Puyol is slowly leaving behind. This defender will be someone with an aerial threat, a leader that will make Barca’s defense his defense. This defender must read the game well since Barcelona rely on the offside trap as the first line of defense. But, this man must also be a bruiser, a defender like Puyol, a man that when he is the last man in defense,he is a wall.
Perhaps you don’t know what I’m talking about, you might say that’s impossible to find, but take a look at the man that is now in the twilight of his career and see what Barcelona stand to loose defensively if a replacement isn’t found. Puyol won’t be easy to replace but it is best to start looking early before Carles is gone for good.
Mascherano has had an excellent season, but the fact that he is not as good as Puyol at reading the game, nor is he as tall, nor as fast as Puyol, is cause for concern. Numerous times this season, speed has proven to be the Argentines Achilles heel, and, his stature makes him a liability for Barcelona on corners and set pieces. He will most likely be moved into a permanent midfield role once Tito finds his central defender. Neither Busquets nor Mascherano can realistically be converted into central defenders, the reason being is that they don’t have the positional sense of a defender. Just take a look at the Chelsea goals and you’ll know what I mean. They are riddled with the error of double marking by Mascherano and with Busquets not dropping deep fast enough to cover for the exposed CB.
Another thing that really affected Barcelona besides command in the central defense was an actual left back that could defend. This was a missing element Barcelona suffered the most without. The defender Barcelona lost is sorely missed because in his absence Barcelona lost even more ability to defend. Due to Eric Abidals debilitating health, Barcelona’s left flank became a nightmare to this team.
In the CL semi-finals, defending the flanks proved to be the tie’s flash point. The match between Barcelona and Chelsea was decided by attacks that originated on the flank. Eric Abidal was crucially important to Barcelona because he offered speed, and physical prowess. Big Eric, as Ray Hudson affectionately called him, was just that, a big body defender that used his size and speed to dispossess the opposition. In doing so, Barcelona could effectively always have a three man defense when Alves decided to bomb forward on the right. Barcelona were always secure with Eric since in the case of a counter attack, Puyol would mark Dani’s zone while Abidal handled the left flank and the spare CB would cover the center.
To try and remedy the absence of Abidal, Guardiola would often instruct Busquets to drop deep. But Busquets would drop into a center back role and push one of the other defenders out to the flank. This left a player in a position he was unfamiliar with. If we look at the tie against Chelsea, in the away leg, that should have been Abidal marking Drogba. I’m not saying that he would of stopped the goal, but his speed would of assisted him in getting to the zone were Ramires was crossing to, instead it was Adriano, and he was to slow to make it.
Moving on to the second leg, when Ramires bombed down the left flank, Puyol came out to meet him, but by the time he had moved over to that side, Ramires had lobbed Valdes. If there had been the dedicated presence of Eric on that flank, perhaps neither would this goal have occurred. In essence, Barcelona must find the speedy, big body, reliable defender in the mould of Eric Abidal.
So to sum up what Tito will mostly do is strengthen Barcelona’s base, it’s defense, so as to render it impregnable (or almost) by anything the opposition can manage to throw at it.
Looking at it in this sense, Victor Valdes could also be seeing his last days as Barcelona’s #1. The fact that in these last games he has given away so many cheap goals with his terrible positional sense will surely worry Tito. The best defense in the world cannot keep the opposition from scoring if your keeper gives them such easy opportunities as does Valdes. It is perhaps wise for Tito to start the search for a more reliable man to stand between the sticks.
Just by looking at the attributes Tito will be looking for in defenders and also taking into account that according to the transfer rumor mill, Tito wants a target man, a true tactical change is taking place under Tito. The change that Tito will probably embark on is to make Barcelona a more physically commanding team. You are perhaps looking at the last Barcelona that will be wasting corners, that will be weak in the aerial game, and that will be allergic to physical play by the opposition.
Tito is looking for a target man because parking the bus is a strategy that is easier to implement when the opposition can deny you passing lanes and when they have total command over the aerial play. When a team can snuff out everything you throw at then, you are rendered helpless. Barcelona is helpless if it cannot pass its way through an opposition’s defense.
With Barcelona’s attack not surpassing the 5’9” mark, an aerial threat is unlikely to evolve when a team with superior stature parks the bus. It’s just part of the game, if Barcelona really wants to move into the realm of embodying the total football philosophy then is must have the ability to exploit every medium that football is played through, including aerial play. It must master and command aerial play to makes its attack better. This can only be done by a man that is taller than the current crop of attackers.
The reason I have mentioned for needing a tall defender is because again, with such a small squad aerial play is a dangerous weapon that the opposition can use. Barcelona will also seek more physical defenders because the teams they are likely to face in European and domestic competition also have physically imposing strikers. Falcao, Huntelaar, Ronaldo, RVP, Zlatan, are just a few names that top the scoring charts around Europe.
If you notice a curiosity, Messi has more goals than all of then, but Messi is raw talent and I’m lead to believe this because most the men mentioned today as elite strikers are physically imposing players. Stature also implies more body mass, so with stature also comes the ability to be more physical in a match.
However, not everyone in Barcelona will turn into a giant, this will most likely only affect the defense and the attack. After all, height has very little use if your sole mission is to serve the ball on a platter for attackers. That is not to say Barcelona’s midfield will not feel the effect, in fact it’s one of the few areas that has already felt the effect since Guardiola took up the managerial role. Yaya Toure and Sergio Busquets are tall, physically powerful players, and in their role as defensive midfielders they need to be so. This is what makes Toure and Busquets among the most effective DM’s around, and it’s not a problem for the current Barcelona squad unless of course, Busquets is injured.
But to sum it up, it’ll be the same old Barcelona in the coming seasons. The difference will be that it’s defense might be turned into a force to reckon with, making the team as a whole more effective. Effective in the sense that it will be a physically imposing line able to deal with threats through the air as well as the floor, VV will have a tough life in the Tito era if he cannot get his A game together again, and with rumors coming around that Guaita or Ter Stegen are being considered, I’d play with more poise and calm if I were VV unless I want the best seat in the house to watch the Barca game from (aka the bench).
If rumors turn out to be true and Barcelona do sign Drogba or Llorente, they will probably retake the lost hardware by storm. An aerial threat, combined with the long distance shooting ability of David Villa, and Messi’s scoring instinct, will probably overwhelm any defense around. It’ll make a whole lot easier for Barca and with these tweaks to the fine machine that is Barcelona, the opposition will be back to square 1 in terms of coming up with a strategy to stop them.