Tiny cracks may be starting to appear in the previously impregnable armour of Barcelona, with Real Madrid rampant and Pep Guardiola’s side rudely obliged to play catch-up, but this team’s place in history is already secure. The trophies and the unique, hypnotic passing style have made sure of that, but less remarked upon is the tactical legacy that they have bequeathed to the game.
As the first budding usupers begin to congregate at the gates of the Barca citadel, Football Further looks at five tactical maxims that Guardiola and his team have torn to shreds.
1. ‘Don’t mess around with it at the back’
As any Sunday league football captain will be only too happy to tell you, trying to play your way out of trouble in defence is the game’s cardinal sin. “Not there! Not there!” is the cry whenever a full-back checks inside and seeks to pick out a defensive colleague, or – heaven forbid – a centre-back attempts to carry the ball out from inside his own penalty area.
Professional football, particularly in England, can take a surprisingly similar view of players who try to build up play from the back, but Barcelona’s commitment to guarding possession extends to all areas of the pitch. Yes, passes inside your own area carry a risk heavier than passes made anywhere else on the pitch, but if you trust yourself to pass the ball five yards to a team-mate, why would that trust suddenly evaporate merely because you happen to be close to your own goal?
If anything, Barca’s players almost seem to enjoy playing each other into trouble at times, because they know their team-mates have been taught how to protect the ball properly. It is thanks to this confidence that they are able to rattle passes at each other at such an astonishing tempo, regardless of where they are on the pitch.
2. ‘Goalkeepers – just get rid’
Sir Alex Ferguson’s criticism of David de Gea for the role he played in Benfica’s equalising goal in last week’s Champions League game at Old Trafford – “He should have put it into the stands” – felt anachronistic and not a little ironic, given that the Spaniard was identified as an ideal replacement for Edwin van der Sar largely thanks to the fact his distribution withstood comparison with that of his vaunted predecessor.
Football Further touched on the growing importance of goalkeepers who are good with their feet at the end of last season, and Barca’s Victor Valdés has become the prime example. Valdés often invites his defenders to drop extremely deep in order to exchange passes with him, thereby dragging opposition forwards down the pitch and subsequently freeing up space in midfield.
It is a tactic that can appear brazen in its disregard for the conventions of sensible play, but Valdés’ ease in possession is an integral component of his team’s approach and enables Barca to create space even against teams who are reluctant to abandon their defensive shape.
3. ‘Every team needs a hard man’
Who is Barcelona’s hard man? For all his robustness, it surely cannot be Sergio ‘Peek-a-boo’ Busquets, and one of the most obvious candidates, Javier Mascherano, spends more time playing as a classy centre-back these days than clattering into opponents like the midfield terrier of yore. Carles Puyol represents the rugged rock at the heart of the European champions’ defence, but a career of wear and tear means that the 33-year-old has become an infrequent name on the team-sheet. He has started just four of Barca’s 14 league games to date this season and featured in only 45 percent of their league matches in 2010-11.
In the absence of a bruising enforcer to set the tempo for Barca’s attempts to win the ball from their opponents, Guardiola’s players get stuck in all over the pitch. In the coach’s famous phrase, “We’re a horrible team without the ball so I want us to get it back as soon as possible and I’d rather give away fouls and the ball in their half than ours.”
The fact that Barca press their opponents so high up the pitch also has a convenient side-effect – when they commit fouls, they are not in the kind of dangerous areas liable to yield punishment with a booking. In the three seasons since Guardiola took over as coach in the summer of 2008, Barcelona have finished first, second and first in La Liga’s fair play table. After 14 games of the current campaign they are second, behind Málaga, and the only side in the division yet to receive a red card.
4.’ Indulge your flair players’
“You can have players who don’t run,” proclaimed José Mourinho, then manager of Chelsea, in Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti’s The Italian Job, which was published in 2006. “In our team at Chelsea we have three attacking players but I don’t want them chasing full-backs and making themselves tired… So, for example, [Arjen] Robben might not defend when their full-back comes forward with the ball. That’s OK, because [Frank] Lampard will then go across and challenge him and the other two midfielders will cover for him.”
So comprehensively have Barca’s pressing tactics changed conceptions of the game that such a comment would today be almost unthinkable from a coach at a major club. Mourinho had realised as much by the time he arrived at Internazionale, where his team’s commitment to recovering possession was typified by Samuel Eto’o, who had learnt the value of aggressive pressing under Guardiola.
Mourinho’s current Real Madrid team display even greater dedication to winning the ball back as high up the pitch as possible, which is perhaps the most eloquent testament that can be paid to Guardiola’s impact. Gone are the days when a player, like Ronaldo towards the end of his time at Madrid, could be absolved of defensive responsibilities. Today, everyone is expected to get their hands dirty.
5. ‘The full-backs’ principal responsibility is to defend’
Attacking full-backs are nothing new – you only need to read the bewildered testimonies of England’s players following their 1953 annihilation by Hungary to realise that – but Barcelona have taken things to a different level.
Barca’s high pressing means that Dani Alves is almost completely liberated from having to defend in conventional positions and the way the centre-backs pull wide when the team have the ball enables him to push forward with even more confidence. As a result, Alves spends more time in the opposition half than in his own, and in that respect he is the archetype of the modern full-back.
For a glimpse of what the future holds for the full-back, consider Luis Enrique’s Roma. The Spaniard has taken the principles he learnt during his time as coach of Barcelona B and upped the ante even further, converting midfielder Simone Perrotta and winger Rodrigo Taddei into full-backs and encouraging them to attack with almost reckless abandon.