Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Barca-Milan: I Feel a Change Coming On

You know that I'm jaded by Barca's success when they close out a 3-1 win over AC Milan - the current leaders in Serie A - and my first thought is "well, that wasn't especially impressive."  Barca played well, created a bevy of chances, outshot Milan 18-3, and were able to take their feet off the proverbial pedal for the last 20 minutes of the match, but because their finishing was poor and they relied on two penalties - one of which was debatable - they didn't win with the sort of panache that one would expect from this team.

Then again, from a historical perspective, I'm probably asking for too much in wanting every home match to finish 5-0, regardless of the opponent.  Last year, Barca benefited a dubious red card against Robin Van Persie and a clumsy touch from Niclas Bendtner in order to see off Arsenal.  Three years ago, Barca slogged their way through 180 minutes against Chelsea before finally getting the break-through in injury time after having survived a number of penalty appeals (one of which was actually legitimate).  In 2006, Barca needed a late miss by Benfica in the quarters and then a favorable call on a potential equalizer in the semi against Milan in order to progress.  In all three instance, Barca won the Champions League.  It's not necessary to dominate every match and it's helpful to keep in mind that I always remember the opponents' close calls without accounting for those of my team.

The main issue that I had last night after watching the match was that Pep Guardiola still seems to be searching for the best combination with this team.  In his two previous Champions League victories, Pep had to shuffle players at the back to deal with injuries and suspensions, but he always knew whom to play in the midfield and forward lines.  In contrast, in 2010, he was dealing with the unraveling Ibra situation and so he didn't really know how to deploy a striker along with Messi and Pedro.  After Ibra flopped against Inter, Pep saw out a second straight league title with Bojan as the third forward.

This year is closer to 2010.  Pep has to deal with Xavi's calf/Achilles issues.  More importantly, he is constantly shuttling players in and out around Messi.  At times, he plays Cesc as a second striker because his interplay with Messi is so good.  At times, he uses Alexis Sanchez as a runner for Messi's passes.  At times, he uses Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello for width.  And then there is a Pedro, a fixture for the last two years and a reliable scorer in big matches, but also a guy who has lost much of his form this year, at least in part because of injuries.

With all of these questions swirling in the background, Pep used a new formation for the most important match of the season: a 3-3-4.  On the one hand, it's nice to have a manager who can tailor his team to the opponent and thus remain unpredictable:

The real interest here was Barcelona’s shape. Dani Alves was pushed up even higher than in the first leg, with (at first) no responsibility to get back into the right-back zone. He and Cuenca played on roughly the same horizontal line, with Fabregas in a free role and Lionel Messi as a false nine. It could be interpreted as a 3-4-3 with a diamond midfield, with Fabregas at the front tip, but he and Messi were often together, playing as a partnership and dovetailing – therefore, the unusual 3-3-4 notation makes sense here.

Barcelona have played that way briefly in league games at the Nou Camp against weak opposition, but this was probably the first time they’ve looked 3-3-4 in a truly big game. In many ways, it makes perfect sense against this Milan side. It allows a spare man at the back, and if Fabregas dropped back slightly, equal numbers in midfield against Milan’s diamond. The obvious problem with a 3-3-4, on paper, is the lack of cover on the flanks – but few sides are as narrow as Milan, so in theory it shouldn’t be an issue.

On the other hand, Barca are supposed to be a team with a set way of playing that says to opponents "we are going to play a certain way and we are so good at it, you'll know what's coming and you won't be able to stop it."*

* - Michigan fans will be familiar with this mantra.  It worked when Bo was the coach and was more problematic when Lloyd was in charge and had only 85 players on scholarship.

Jonathan Wilson, a student of history who has previously wondered if this Barca team is going to reach its statute of limitations the way that most great teams do after 3-4 years, thinks that Pep tinkering with his formations is a good thing:

What marks Guardiola out is his awareness of the future, not in the sense of positioning himself for a move to another club or even in terms of youth development Рalthough he is clearly acutely aware of that Рbut in terms of understanding the sweep of history, of recognising that what is good now will not necessarily be good in a year or two's time. Dress it as the lesson of Bela Guttmann ("the third year is fatal") or Karl Marx ("all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned"*), but that awareness marks Guardiola as a true dynastician. Not for him the club-hopping of Guttmann or even Jos̩ Mourinho: he wants to erect an edifice for the ages, something, paradoxically, strengthened by his refusal to commit to more than a 12-month rolling contract; he will not become a weary leader, governing by convention, but leaves open a perpetual route to step down for a fresher man when the occasion calls for it. (As examples from Tony Blair to Abdoulaye Wade indicate, though, leaving the door open does not necessarily mean he will still be willing to step through it when the time is right.)

In football terms, Guardiola is clearly determined to prevent Barcelona ever becoming complacent or predictable, to make sure they always have a second line of attack. The signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic was intended to give them height, the option of going aerial if the usual tiki-taka didn't deliver and, when that didn't quite work, he began experimenting with the back three.
What I am trying to accept in my head is the idea that change and uncertainty might not be a bad thing.  When a team has won as much as Barca has, it's natural for a fan to say to himself "keep doing what you've been doing."  The memories of Rome and Wembley are so happy and positive in my mind that I want Barca to avoid change at all costs.  However, opponents are constantly changing their approaches to playing the Blaugrana and Barca's personnel is changing in all sorts of ways, so sticking with what worked before isn't a realistic option.  Hard to accept as it might be, if Barca are to win the Champions League again this year, they will have to do it in a different way.

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