Yes, the “Barcelona is revolutionizing football” articles can be a little much even for me. Here is Exhibit A. Peter Staunton’s theory is that Pep Guardiola acquired Cesc Fabregas not to replace Xavi in the next several years, but instead to replace Carles Puyol because Barca are moving towards a lineup where every player is a de facto midfielder. Here is Staunton’s thesis:
The players at Pep Guardiola's disposal, their utter adherence to the ideal and a work-rate unmatched by any team in Europe mean that Barcelona could be about to bring Sacchi's prediction to bear. And the acquisition of Cesc Fabregas, quite aside from being a trophy signing, could prompt the evolution. With Cesc in the ranks, Barcelona can play, in effect, with a team of midfielders; amalgamating the separate strands of defence, midfield and attack into one. Total domination of possession, total domination of space.
Fabregas' arrival could mark the gradual elbowing from the first team of Carles Puyol, not Sergio Busquets or Xavi or Thiago Alcantara. A natural leader, a primordial tour-de-force, the heartbeat of the team he may be, but Puyol is irrevocably in decline. Each passing year chisels another chip from the man of granite. His replacement in the team, gradually at first, totally later, will be Fabregas.
For those of you who are uninitiated, this is wrong for a host of reasons. First, Guardiola’s insistence on having versatile players is borne out of a desire to have a small squad. Pep lived through the downfall of the Cruyff-coached Dream Team in the mid-90s. He was also the coach of Barca B when Ronaldinho and Deco lost the will to play, thus causing the end of the Rijkaard cycle. Pep knows what happens when players lose their hunger and start fighting with one another. One way to prevent this phenomenon is to maintain a lean squad. If there are relatively few players and every player is getting regular appearances, then it is less likely that squad members will become cancerous by complaining about a lack of action. In short, Pep doesn’t want a large, Real Madrid-style squad because of the potential effects on morale.* Thus, he wants players like Adriano, Abidal, Mascherano, Iniesta, and Busquets because they can play multiple positions and can therefore give Pep mix-and-match possibilities. Puyol fits within this rubric because he can play anywhere on the back line. Puyi’s time might be dwindling at Barca, but that’s because of his health, not his lack of versatility.
* – Though he may be an incorrigible douche bag, Jose Mourinho is a master at maintaining the morale of a large squad. His players love him and will run through walls for him, even when they are banished to the end of the bench. Like Charlie Weis’s recruiting acumen, this is one of life’s unanswerable mysteries.
Second, Pep’s system requires a defensive midfielder who can drop back into the defense. In order to give his fullbacks license to get forward and provide width, Guardiola’s system requires that one midfielder be able to play between the centerbacks so the latter can fan out and cover the space left by the fullbacks. Unless I am missing something, Cesc cannot play central defense. Busquets and Mascherano can and the question is whether Keita will join them in the rotation for the position. In short, I seriously doubt that we are going to see a Cesc-Xavi-Iniesta midfield unless Barca are playing a hopelessly overmatched opponent that presents no threat whatsoever.* Again, Pep’s system has a requirement for versatility, but Staunton doesn’t have it right.
* – Those three can play on the pitch at the same time, but only with Iniesta playing forward.
If you want examples of why Staunton sees a scheme where none exists, look at the list of players that he cites as part of the move away from specialization. First of all, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Dmytro Chygrynskiy were players that Pep specifically requested in the summer of 2009, so if he is moving towards universal players, it is a change of course. Second, none of those players left because of a lack of versatility. Ibra left because he could neither get along with Pep, nor function in a pressing system that required defensive aggressiveness and quick movement off the ball. Chygrynskiy was sold (over Pep’s objections) because he was simply too slow for La Liga. And the third player listed by Staunton – Martin Caceres – is, in fact, a versatile player who can play left back and central defender. He was supposed to be a replacement for Puyol because of his multitude of skills. Meanwhile, Pep sold Yaya Toure in the summer of 2010, despite the fact that Toure can play central defense, defensive midfield, and occasionally an attacking midfield role. (He filled the latter role for Manchester City last year.) Toure was arguably the most versatile Barca player and yet the club sold him. Seems like evidence against Staunton’s thesis, dontchathink?
As has been covered in this space before, the Cesc signing makes sense for Barca because it gives them cover at a hard-to-fill position. Additionally, there is a political component to the move because Barca, a club owned by the members and run by an elected president, could not allow a Catalan product of its youth system to flourish for another, prominent club. Finally, the fact that Cesc wanted to return and had friends on the team meant that the club could buy his services for a slightly below-market price, as Arsenal was forced into a one-buyer negotiation. None of those motivations have anything to do with Barca chucking the idea of defensive midfielders and central defenders. Pep has modified his system over the years, but I don’t see this change in the cards. Catalans are opposed to bullfighting, so I hardly expect Guardiola to wave a big red cape in front of opponents and scream “attack my team right through the middle!”