* - One common thread occurred to me while reading the piece. Both the Hungary side of '54 and the Dutch side of '74 lost World Cup Finals to West Germany. The Germans have never been credited with a major tactical innovation like the sides that they conquered. Is that a compliment to German teams for overcoming innovators or a criticism that they win without giving anything to the world game, other than stereotypes about efficiency and determination?
Alexander then gets to his point, which is that Barca have been trying a new 3-4-3 formation this year and that their attempts to take another step in evolving might be the reason why Real Madrid are three points ahead with a game in hand:
Though crowned Champions League winners in 2009 and 2011 Barcelona managed Pep Guardiola has sought to vary Barcelona’s approach this season. On one hand it is understandable that he wants to prevent other sides from figuring out a way to stop his side playing (as Inter Milan famously did in the 2010 Champions League), yet on the other hand one has to wonder whether trying to enforce a change on a fluid and evolving game is ever going to be truly successful.The question of whether there is truly natural pressure is an interesting one. As Alexander notes, Barca lost its European title to Mourinho's Inter in 2010, so Guardiola might have been thinking one step ahead: "if Mourinho is spending all summer trying to figure out how to deal with out style, then maybe I need to change the style?" Additionally, trying a new formation is a good way to keep players sharp and interested, which is no small matter when one is trying to motivate a group that has won everything there is to win, both for club and country. Finally, Guardiola was faced with a dilemma this fall in that both of his starting central defenders - Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique - were injured and he was faced with cobbling together a backline using a left back (Eric Abidal), two defensive midfielders (Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano), and a collection of Brazilian attacking fullbacks (Dani Alves, Adriano, and Maxwell). Change or die, right? Well, Barca have dropped nine points away from the Camp Nou in La Liga, they have scored only eight goals in their six road matches, and now they head to the Bernabeu in a must-win position, so maybe change wasn't such a good idea.
The move away from the 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 that had served them so well to an, at times, 3-4-3 (often with no recognised centre-backs) has met with decidedly mixed success. Though there have been victories, it’s difficult to ascertain whether Barcelona won those matches thanks to their new system, or thanks to the extraordinary individual talents they possess...
Given time, perhaps Guardiola’s new way will take root, and set in motion the next stage in the evolution of Barcelona and, by extension, modern football. However, by trying to force change where no natural pressure exists, Pep may have found himself on a dead branch of the evolutionary tree.
Alexander's line about forcing change where no natural pressure exists had me thinking about college football. I remember having a conversation with a friend three years ago about how USC, Texas, and Florida were poised to dominate college football in the coming years. They had the coaches, the systems, the fertile recruiting bases, and the rivals in turmoil to ensure a series of meetings with crystal balls on the line. Leaving USC and their NCAA issues aside, as recently as two years ago, Texas and Florida were both coming off of years where they lost only one game: to national champion Alabama. In the summer of 2010, we read numerous writers opine that both the Horns and Gators were moving away from the spread styles (pass-based for Texas and run-based for Florida) that they had favored in favor of more conventional, power-based attacks. (I remember Tony Barnhart being especially pronounced in making this point, but I cannot for the life of me find a link to verify my memory.)
The results of this forced evolution (maybe devolution is a better term) have been disastrous. Here is Florida's national rank in yards per play from 2008 forward: 3, 2, 78, 67. And here is Texas's: 13, 57, 78, 67. Both Florida and Texas had a style that worked for them and then have gone away from that style, whether by recruiting decisions or scheme. They had evolved into approaches that moved the ball and then chose to eschew those approaches for something new. Two years later, they are both picking up the pieces from those decisions to force change.