Saying goodbye to Guardiola’s Barcelona

September 23, 2013

“Without the ball we are a disastrous team, a horrible team. So we need the ball.” ~ Pep Guardiola


True idealists are rare in modern football. Perceived romantics – say, Arsène Wenger – also believe their style to be the most efficient. In the old days, when Barcelona’s centre-backs hugged the touchline at goal kicks and Victor Valdés played out that risky short pass – despite facing opponents ready to close down like a pack of wolves – Pep Guardiola viewed his strategy as logical. Barça were weak without the ball. Not attempting to keep it was a greater risk. In the long term, Valdés’s seemingly irrational pass proved the most rational of all.

“We don’t have the players to pull it off playing a different way,” Andrés Iniesta said in a Guardian interview in November 2012. “People talk about ‘pragmatic’ football. Well, for us, this is pragmatic.”

On Saturday (21 September 2013), Barcelona had less possession than the opposition for a third time in La Liga since August 2005. The other occasions were a 4-1 defeat at the Santiago Bernabéu in May 2008, at a time when Frank Rijkaard’s reign was doomed, and against Getafe in February 2010, when Gerard Piqué was sent off after 26 minutes. The game on Saturday was against Rayo Vallecano. Barça won 4-0.

Whatever figures may show, little doubt exists that Barcelona are more direct than earlier. Martino and the players have said it. Long diagonal passes float across the pitch. Fewer risks are taken. On Saturday, Valdés no longer played short passes under pressure. Some may brand this irrelevant given the result, but this is Barça. The value of possession is the open recipe behind the greatest team of all time. On the basis of past success alone, a change of formula should not go unscrutinised.

For neutral romantics the development is depressing yet inevitable. It couldn’t last forever. While Tito Vilanova kept Barcelona’s ideals so close to Guardiola’s that change was hardly noticeable, Martino’s philosophy is taking Barcelona away from their aesthetic golden era. The possession-directed boldness that inspired youth teams across the globe to pass out from the back no matter what, appears to be gradually watered down. Previously non-negotiable principles can now be altered by high pressing at goal kicks.

The real question for many is whether the approach will make Barcelona better. In judging that, only Champions League success can justify the means. The new style is after all designed to improve on the team’s predictability of Vilanova’s La Liga-winning season. Ties such as last season’s encounters with Bayern München are where Martino must show that his methods will yield better results.

Until then we can only speculate whether it will. We can predict that Barça will beat most La Liga teams, whether direct or not. If Barça do enjoy less possession under Martino, we may also predict other things. Defensive fragilities may become more exposed, as the opponent have more of the ball. The increased intensity may leave players tired. Key players may be rotated more often. Barça may rest less with the ball. In 2009 Guardiola did admit Barça were poor without the ball. If that remains true – it may or may not – then logic suggests that enjoying less possession may prove counter-productive.

The quote at the top of this article came after the 2008/09 Champions League final victory against Manchester United, when Guardiola explained why he had moved Lionel Messi into midfield. During the press conference he also said: “If you attack and are daring you have more chances of winning… There’s nothing more dangerous than not taking risks.”

Guardiola applied that same mantra to his constant evolvement of Barça. New innovations ensured opponents always faced something unexpected. In his final season, he probably experimented too much. In Europe, Vilanova probably experimented too little. And so it is right by Martino to ring the changes. Whether more directness is the answer time will tell, but at least stagnation will be avoided. For Barça right now, as Guardiola will have agreed, doing nothing would have been the greatest risk of all.

Yet, brushing the mere matter of results aside, the new style is a sad sight for those neutrals accustomed to staying in on Sunday nights to watch Barcelona’s artists showcase their latest work of technical mastery. Reality is dawning: the Barcelona of Guardiola – the one we knew and loved – is disappearing in the rearview mirror. The individualists remain, but the ‘passing carousel’ is not spinning as fast as it used to. The combinations are different. Patterns have changed. It’s not the same.

Under Guardiola so many games were won on the principle of keeping possession at all costs. One memorable example came in December 2012 at the Santiago Bernabéu. Valdés’s pass gifted the opener, yet he kept passing it short. Barça slowly assumed control and won 3-1. “The perfect image of this game was that after the goal Valdés continued playing the ball,” said Guardiola afterwards. “I prefer us to lose the ball like that but give continuity to our play.” Others agreed. “The key was not forgetting our philosophy,” said Xavi. “We don’t know how to play any other way.”

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Photo: Antonio Gil


I think the key here is for Martino to find a balance between two playing styles: the tiki-taka and the more direct approach. Both are extremely effective but they must be used intelligently. By this I mean that the playing style Barca decides “to use” for a match depends entirely on how the match spans out during the 90 mins. The semifinal game against Munich was really what Barcelona needed to really open their eyes and realize that they must evolve their playing style. In my personal opinion I believe that Guardiola knew he couldn’t really evolve Barcelona that much any more and therefore went to Germany (after a year of course). In Munich he has the perfect team to be “half-physical and half-technical” or maybe even “full-physical and full-technical”. He has the perfect blend of speed power and technique in Munich. In Barcelona, they really have to depend more on their technique to win games rather than speed (although they do have a few speedy players) and power. The perfect example that shows what I’m talking about is the match between Munich and Chelsea. Guardiola managed to tie the game in the last few seconds by using physicality and height. He knew he was going to score eventually with all the crosses pouring into the box in the last few seconds of the game. In other words he knew he could afford to depend on just crossing the ball into the box in order to score and tie the game. However if it would have been Barcelona instead of Munich I am almost 100% sure that Chelsea would have won that game. Barcelona just can’t afford to cross the ball as much as other teams because then it’ll just be a waste of time and most importantly they don’t have the players to do it either. I could imagine Barcelona passing the ball side to side in the last two minutes of that game and waiting for Chelsea to slip up in their bunker defense. Overall I think its important for Martino to bring an alternate playing style to the club. Who knows, he might experiment with different formations as well (if not this season maybe next).

by Loop on October 3, 2013 at 8:48 am. #

I think too much is being made out of one game, and I think that although Tata’s Barca might not have possession as it’s be all and end all, it will still be a possession based side. As Guardiola pointed out and acted on, you don’t want to become too predictable and one faceted and Barca had certainly become even before Guardiola left in certain high stakes games. The Bayern series last year was the pinnacle of them becoming too predictable in some ways. I think Barca as well becoming more direct and pragmatic, should also work on their counterattacking knowing that they got plenty of pace up front (especially with the addition of Neymar) and the technical quality and passing ability to make the transitions and killer passes for those counterattacking goals. Against Rayo the first goal was something close to it, with Song making the splitting pass to Messi, bypassing the entire midfield, catching the Rayo defense unorganized which further was drawn to him which led to the pass for the goal to Pedro on the wing.

by Angel on September 24, 2013 at 4:07 pm. #

I agree they should work on unpredictability – and counter-attacking might be an untapped source in that respect – but I worry that the high-tempo style will drain the players long term. Even in games Barça initially dominate, the ability to keep opponents away from goal drops in the second half. I’d have preferred Tata to keep a slightly slower tempo and work on finding alternative solutions: new roles, movements etc. That said he’s done well so far, and he is entitled to do things his way, so let’s see how it all goes.

by Thore Haugstad on September 26, 2013 at 8:00 am. #

Thank you for this nice article.

by Rajesh on September 24, 2013 at 10:32 am. #