Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Pep Will Make His Players Sweat Milkshakes and Poop Brisket

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!”   


Anonymous said...

If you look at the lineup Staunton suggests, it will be evident that he never intended to imply that Cesc would be playing central defense, but rather that he would replace Puyol in the starting XI, with Xavi moving to deepest midfielder role (don't think he means to suggest that Xavi would be a holding defender however) and Busquets moving to central defense. I don't think he is far off the mark, but as long as Puyol can stay on the field, I believe Pep will use him. I think we saw a hint of what Staunton rather enthusiastically envisions last Wednesday when Cesc was due to come on for Pedro, with Masch at the back, Busquets in holding MF (immediately replaced for offensive purposes following the goal by Benzema) and Iniesta playing wider to the left as Cesc was brought into the midfield along side Xavi. Instead of Adriano on the right wing, I suspect Pep envisions Sanchez there. For what it's worth, I think Staunton is wrong also: I don't think it is Puyol that will pushed out of the starting XI but rather Villa (whose first touch lets him down too much in tight quarters to allow Barcelona to retain possession as much as they'd like; also he doesn't seem to have the positional sense to be where he needs to be to keep the ball circulating at times) with Pedro and Sanchez splitting time at right wing until Sanchez really understands Pep's system. Then his creativity and higher versatility will push him ahead of Pedro in the first XI. Pedro could then be a super sub brought on to challenge tired legs late in games if he could emotionally handle losing the starting role, as he was used in the first leg and looked the most dangerous forward player had while he was on the pitch due to Messi's illness/exhaustion. Adriano is a gem of a player but I feel safer with Abidal at left back, though Adriano was more than capable there in the first leg and offers the versatility that Staunton suggests. He may be the future there.

Michael said...

My overall point is that Pep isn't going to play a Xavi-Iniesta-Cesc midfield against any competent opponent because none of those three can play the holding role. Is Xavi good enough defensively to play the central defender role at times, as the Barca DM is required to do? I certainly haven't seen that.

Interesting thought on Villa. I assumed when Barca bought Sanchez that Pedro would be the one who would see his playing time slip the most.

Anonymous said...

I understood and agree with your assessment about neither Xavi nor Cesc being able to drop into central defense, which makes them unsuitable for DM in the Barcelona system. I may have taken your comments about Cesc's inability to play central defense a little out of the context in which you meant to put them as I thought you interpreted Staunton to mean that Cesc would literally replace Puyol at central defense. In my opinion, unless injury forces otherwise, it is Busquets who must play the DM role, with Mascherano as his back up.

When Cesc was brought on, many people were saying that he was surplus to requirements. He may very well be the third best attacking midfielder in the world, but when the two best attacking midfielders happen to be on the same team and the system demands the third midfielder be able to drop into central defense, then the only place for Cesc would be as a versatile sub or replacement for Xavi or Iniesta. You were one of the voices of reason that understood with the brutal schedule that Cesc was necessary in that role, not surplus. From that perspective, neither Cesc nor Thiago need worry about playing time. There are going to be more than enough minutes for everybody over the course of the season and both will be vital to any trophy chances unless the team stays preternaturally healthy (which already seems unlikely).

However, based on early returns, it looks like Cesc is going to seamlessly fit into Pep's system (whereas Sanchez looks very promising but has a learning curve in front of him) and I believe Pep needs to find a way to get him into the starting XI.

I am a fan of Villa and I know you cannot place too high a premium on players that put the ball in the back of the net. I also love that, unlike Eto'o or Ibra, Villa has embraced the challenge of adapting his style of play to Pep's system and wants to be a part of what is happening at Barcelona, but if you are trying to get Cesc onto the field as one of your five best attacking players (who also deeply understand the Barca possession game)then Villa seems the weak link.

As you pointed out, you can't play Xavi, Iniesta, and Cesc together unless Iniesta moves to forward. The other option is to play a 4-5-1, with Iniesta and Sanchez playing wing roles. I am going to go out on a limb and say that this is the way Pep is going to go in big games this year. 4-5-1 is criticized at times for being too defensive, but with this particular set of players, I believe we will see endless creativity and goal scoring opportunities.

Long time fan of your work. I read all the Barca stuff and appreciate your thoughts on the team.

Keep up the good work,

Jeffrey King

Jeffrey King said...

One last thought: It is Cesc's anticipation that has made him a mandatory starting XI player. In roughly one half of play with Barcelona, he has made at least 3 incisive runs into the box in which he anticipated the way the play was unfolding long before the defense did, leaving him unmarked in front of goal and onside. (On the pass from Iniesta, when the collision with Pique broke up the play; on the Adriano attempted cross where Carvalho saved a goal by almost breaking his ankle, it was Cesc who was five yards behind Ramos (Pepe's recovery speed might have broken the play up but Cesc had them both beaten); and on his goal against Napoli where he started his run at the moment Adriano made his step over feint toward the middle which froze the defense momentarily, leaving Cesc with a tap in goal which he, in good Barcelona spirit, credited to Adriano for the great move out wide, but the key to the goal was really the timing of Cesc's run. You could argue that in all three cases, the defense was awful, but I think Cesc is going to make a lot of defenses look awful because he can see the play before they do.) It's an odd thought, but Cesc has been criticized for wanting to be a role player on an historically great team instead of the captain of a very good team, but we've already seen glimpses of how much better Cesc might be on Barcelona than he was on Arsenal, simply because of how good the players around him are, analogous to how much better Messi looks on Barcelona than he does with Argentina. Ironically, far from relegate him to the bench, the transfer has the potential to catapult Cesc into legendary status.

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Little doubt, the dude is completely fair.