Friday, March 1, 2013

Barca In Clasicos: Dealing With Crushing Losses

When Pep Guardiola was leaving at the end of last season, there were many FC Barcelona fans that were really worried about what the future held for the team—indeed I was one of such people. Then all my fears were laid to rest when Tito Villanova came in.  After the first half of his first season as Barca’s coach, it seemed he produced a result comparable to if not better than his predecessor’s. So smooth was the transition that many people began to say that Barca really did not need any technical input from so-called managers or coaches in order to win matches. Some, whether fans or foes, claimed that Barca’s president Sandro Rosell could literally send in a 10 year old to coach Barca and reliably finish within the top 5 in La Liga. In hindsight, it is very apparent now that this sentiment was gravely mistaken.

As you probably know, Tito Villanova has been sick for a while and has been receiving treatment in a New York hospital thousands of miles away from his professional working site. His assistant Jordi Roura has had the weighty task of taking charge of things at least until whenever Tito is deemed fit to leave the hospital where he is getting treated for cancer. How has Jordi Roura fared? Well, suffice it to say that he has also done remarkably well organizing the boys, leading them to training sessions and making sensible player selections for Barca’s matches in his boss’s absence until he was faced with some weighty tasks that revealed the limits of his competence. In recent weeks, it has become very clear that Barca is now struggling—struggling to win crucial matches against strong teams and also struggling to easily dispatch relatively weaker teams.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do not intend to blame the string of lack-lustre play and heart-breaking losses on Mr. Roura but I think it is fair to say that Tito Villanova is badly needed back now. There is only so much you can do when communicating with your assistant through an international phone call. His absence from the camp, from the training sessions, from the locker rooms, from Barca’s physical therapy clinics, and from the stadium is certainly manifesting itself in the form of fewer tactical ideas on how to win matches and a growing lack of confidence on the part of the players. This is what needs to change.

It is not that Barca’s era of being at the helm of world football has finally come to an end. Far from it—this present cast and crew still have more victories and silverware in them. It is that a combination of factors has served to show us that this team is human; that their star players can have bad days; that they can be beaten and beaten convincingly.

So what are some of the things that might need to happen to make this side return to their winning ways?

First, I have to say that Messi cannot shoulder the burden alone. Messi is a towering giant, and he has continued to break record after record compelling avid comparisons with the all-time greats, however, he cannot be expected to do the job every single time in every single game. Therefore, Barca needs another reliable and sharp finisher to work alongside Messi—someone who can reliably deliver when he is set up with a fantastic goal-scoring opportunity. Messi needs someone else to share the burden with; someone of considerable stature and skill such that Messi does not find himself having to shake off two, three or sometimes four defenders every single time he gets the ball or attempts to score.

This is where Sanchez, Pedro and Villa have been simply underwhelming. In Villa’s case, at least one understands that having been away from active football for about 6 months due to a debilitating injury, it is hardly surprising that he is somewhat rusty and perhaps now a shadow of his former self. But what is Sanchez’s and Pedro’s excuse for their consistent poor showing? It is really frustrating when Sanchez for instance keeps wasting critical goal-scoring opportunities. I for one cannot understand why the man bundles to the floor with nearly every contact. Why can’t he keep his balance anyway—is he just too puny to be an attacker or what exactly? New ideas or new formations are definitely needed here in order to fully tap the talent and resourcefulness of Barca’s forwards. This really cannot be overemphasized—when Barca creates a goal-scoring opportunity for Pedro and Sanchez, they have to capitalize on it by scoring or else make the goalkeeper work hard to come up with a save. They cannot shoot the ball far wide of goal or into the stands anymore; we cannot continue to expect Messi to provide the winning goals for every match.

Secondly, I think Puyol needs to be on the bench more often to give a stronger Mascherano a chance to play. Puyol is 34 and I daresay on the verge of becoming a liability to the team. Why has he not retired anyway? Is he bent on playing till his limbs fall off? He is responsible for a number of errors and slip-ups in the back which have proved deadly to Barca. I know he is the captain of the team and perhaps the motivator and emotional bedrock of the team, but I am sure he can do all this comfortably from the bench and in the dressing room. I personally feel that for strong matches, Pique should be paired with Mascherano at the middle of the defense (even though Masche can sometimes give dangerous tackles that earn him yellow cards or worse give the opposition vital free kicks). At any rate, I still feel that Puyol needs to be rested a bit more than he is. Jordi Alba and Dani Alvez are absolutely fantastic on the flanks and should be encouraged to not overdo the overlapping into the opponent’s defense. The result is that when they push too far forward, the flanks are exposed and poor Puyol and Pique find themselves having to overcommit in order to prevent a dangerous counterattack. This is why I am grateful that we have Sergio Busquets. Without his timely intervention in the back, I daresay that Barca will have more goals scored against them than they currently do.

Thirdly, it seems that as a whole, Barca’s tikitaka strategy has become entirely too predictable. All that the other team simply has to do is massively defend and then massively counterattack. They simply have to load their defense and wait for Barca to tap the ball around till one person invariably makes a mistake. Then the opposing team will simply massively counterattack a Barca side that now finds it harder and more dispiriting to run after the ball when they miss a pass. This was not the way they played before. It should be remembered that the beauty of barca’s tikitaka is in the fact that they used to work like one huge well-oiled machine—the defence blending into the midfield and the attack; the midfield swinging between defence and attack; and the attack so thoroughly disguised and concealed swinging sharply from midfield to goal and back again. No point men, no clearly defined attackers, no clearly defined defenders and pretty much everyone involved in the midfield and in creating goal-scoring opportunities.

That is the formula they need to get back to. It seems like they lack the desire to hustle to recover the ball once they miss a pass, and they are also showing signs of sluggishness with their passing. Frankly, if you would rather camp at your opponent’s 18 yard box to tap the ball around one hundred times without making sharp darting runs at goal, then you might as well dump the tikitaka formula because it would prove largely ineffective. You need to be ever on the march and hustling as it were to shake free any opposing defender to make the space for the sort of critical penetrating passes that result in fabulous goals. Having done so, everyone on that team needs to retreat immediately the ball is lost to provide adequate reinforcement for the defenders at the back. So now, while I am certainly not advocating for the “Park the Bus” strategy, one cannot help but notice how exposed the back line usually is with every opponent’s counterattack.

Tomorrow, Barca will once again clash with Real Madrid in another highly anticipated clasico. To tell you the truth, I am still very worried that the observations and recommendations I made here would not have been implemented by the time the game kicks off tomorrow—in which case, it only means that Barca can expect another disappointing defeat at the Bernabeu. Be that as it may, I am still an ardent supporter of the Blaugrana, and I believe they can redeem themselves in the future after internalizing the lessons gained from the spate of heartbreaking losses and Pyrrhic victories. Good luck to them tomorrow : if they do not succumb to psychological pressure even before the match or make hasty and unnecessary mistakes; if they can create and capitalize on the created chances, then we might see a very different Barcelona tomorrow.

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