Barça: The quest for reinvention

July 12, 2013

The signing of Neymar will boost Barça, but Tito Vilanova needs more than that.


In his biography of Pep Guardiola, journalist Guillem Balague portrays a man constantly absorbed in deep thought. Ahead of games, the manager would spend hours in his office visualising the game, dwelling, deliberating, niggling over every detail. Interrupting visitors talked to him, but they never got through. At some point, Guardiola would get a flash of inspiration: “I’ve got it. I’ve got it. This is how we are going to win.” 

Even at a time of superiority, Guardiola kept reinventing Barcelona. Every fixture deserved a customised gameplan. He varied systems from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3, 4-2-4 and 4-4-1-1. Lionel Messi moved into the middle; Dani Alves became a virtual winger; Cesc Fàbregas played as a second striker. There was always something new. Guardiola’s reason was simple: without continual change, opponents would eventually work them out.

That now appears to have happened. Under Vilanova, Guardiola’s successor, Barça have broadly stuck to their traditional 4-3-3 system. When Pep went, so did the reinvention. On a positive note, such tactical stability has underpinned a consistent and title-winning league campaign. But it has also made Barcelona more predictable.

The 7-0 aggregate defeat by Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final exemplified what Guardiola must have feared. After years of domination, Barça had been found out. Bayern knew exactly where to pressure, who to mark, what zones to occupy. Barcelona appeared to play as they always do, hoping things would work out. The 2-3 aggregate loss to Chelsea in the previous year’s semi-finals could be blamed on bad luck. Here the flaws ran on a deeper level.

Amid a frantic inquest among fans and media, several factors were blamed: Vilanova’s long-term absence (due to treatment for throat cancer); an overreliance on Messi; a general decline in quality, and thus the ‘end of an era’. One fact was indisputable: Barça’s side were largely the same as the Champions League-winning team of 2010-11. The goalkeeper was still Victor Valdés; midfielders such as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta were present; Messi, though slightly unfit, led the attack. Age was not an issue: Barça’s oldest player was 33-year-old Xavi. If anything, the players should by now be even better.

The problem was not quality, but the way in which it was utilised. Iniesta’s consistent brilliance was quelled by Bayern’s compact midfield. Messi played poorly in the first leg, yet the number of times he received the ball suggested that, had he been fit, his influence would have been limited anyway. Xavi’s creativity was drowned out in a sea of red shirts. Barça’s Achilles Heel was not a lack of talent, but strategy.

Similar flaws were exposed domestically. In the Clásicos of Guardiola’s last season in charge, Barcelona beat Real Madrid in three out of six matches. They lost once. Guardiola and José Mourinho would exchange tactical blows, repeatedly adapting their systems to trump the other. Under Vilanova, only Mourinho adapted and changed. The statistic turned on its head: Real Madrid won three times and lost once. Appropriately, Barça’s only win came in the season’s first match, in the Spanish Super Cup, when Vilanova’s ideas were still fresh.

This summer at Camp Nou is one in which new ideas are needed. Football, as Sir Alex Ferguson says, goes in cycles, and with regard to the European elite, Barcelona’s system appears to have expired. Added creativity to the attacking line-up has arrived in Neymar, but merely slotting him in on the left won’t suffice. On last season’s evidence, Vilanova will need not only new players, but a new way of using them.

– – –

Photo: Marc Puig Perez


Completely agree. During Pep’s time in Barca, there always was a sense uncertainty in their tactics. In fact i think there were hardly any consecutive games in which he fielded the same lineup..he always used to innovate no matter how big or small the match was..Tito on the other hand comes up with exact same lineups in each and every game whether it be a league match or CL.only rotates sanchez and pedro..whn messi was injured all he did was replae him with cesc..if this goes on, i doubt barca will anything next season even with neymar.. :-(

by Pawan Dhananjay on July 19, 2013 at 4:04 pm. #

That’s right. There needs to be a middle way.

by Thore Haugstad on July 19, 2013 at 5:58 pm. #

I believe it’s not as relevant as the question of what will happen with Barcelona back line. Over the past season Vilanovas’s boys proved that they don’t always need Messi, Fabregas can play the “fake 9” very efficiently as well.

The big question is how will Vilanova address the clearly weakening Barcelona defense? I admire Puyol and his incredible recoveries from career-ending injuries, but it feels as though he is not up to par anymore. Also, every time Tito places Javier Mascherano, Alex Song, or one of the wing-backs, as a central defender, it’s clear that the team isn’t strong enough at the back.
What do you believe will happen with the defensive line?

by Dublin on July 16, 2013 at 8:42 am. #

You are right; they need more defensive options. They are trying to sign Thiago Silva and are linked with Marquinhos (AS Roma), so they’re trying to do something.

by Thore Haugstad on July 17, 2013 at 11:49 am. #

“…2-3 aggregate loss to Chelsea in the previous year’s semi-finals could be blamed on bad luck.”
Bad luck? Chelsea had 10 players.

by nameless on July 15, 2013 at 4:22 pm. #

Barca had Henrik Larsson as a back up plan when Rijkaard won the CL. They kept Gudjhonssen on the bench just in case for a while. That is the type of “X” plan they need. (Actually, I always believe every team contending for a trophy should have a physically dominant striker in their team. It does not matter he should be able to make the first team at all times. He should be there when the opponent somehow locks you up, either sitting back or blocking your creative players. As a contender, you generally play to win & score. A big forward can disturb the defence and just with imbalancing the opponent CBs you can create chances for your forwards who rush in around him. Like I said, you need not have this as a primary option, but it should be up in your sleeve for emergencies).

Barca sometimes tries to do this by sending Pique forward, but when there is someone like Mandzukic, or Gomez in the opponent, you risk too much with that. They were so easily winning with Villa as a false nine that they did not feel the necessity of having such a guy. If they had, they might have scored against Chelsea who sat in their penalty area.

Also, in Bayern games a big forward could have kept German defense busy who very comfortably covered Barca attackers.

Bringing in Neymar is a nice move, but they would still have the same limitations.

by isler on July 15, 2013 at 9:17 am. #

Yes, it would probably be handy – if they can find a good striker willing to start every game on the bench.

by Thore Haugstad on July 15, 2013 at 9:32 am. #

They are Barca. I am sure they can find a big sized young prospect or aging star who would be happy to be on Barca squad, even on bench. Like the examples of Larsson or Gudjhonssen I had given.

by isler on July 15, 2013 at 11:08 am. #

They had that physically dominant striker who was also a technically dominant striker and a huge personality as well in Ibra. Too bad his personal conflict with Guardiola deprived them of such a player.

by Angel on July 16, 2013 at 9:34 pm. #

In what way do you think Tito will change his current system to accommodate Neymar? Clearly Barca haven’t spent the reported 57m to buy another Barca-style winger to play one-twos with Messi. Do you think the creative load will be spread more evenly amongst the frontline next season? And on a related note, will Alexis be given more freedom (Alongside Messi and Neymar) to play to his own abilities as he did in Udinese?

What is certain, though, is that the last semblance of Pep’s frontline system will be gone next season if Barca are to achieve any sort of advancement.

by Ibra on July 13, 2013 at 1:12 pm. #

It’s all about creative responsibility. Last year Messi had most of it. This year Neymar will share some of it. It’s like taking slices from a cake. And it will mean that Alexis is unlikely to be given more freedom. If anything, I suspect he’ll get less.

Difficult to say how Neymar will be accommodated. Tito favours 4-3-3 so I’d guess he’ll play on the left wing, similarly to David Villa (but of course in a different role). As you rightly say though, Barça might have to change the ‘old’ system to stay original. Will be interesting to see what Tito opts for.

by Thore Haugstad on July 15, 2013 at 9:23 am. #