Of all the many options in world football to bet against, the success of Barcelona’s midfield seemed one of the silliest. Xavi is one of the best tempo-setters in world football, Andres Iniesta adds dynamism that is rapidly making him the greatest player in Spain’s history, Sergio Busquets is as effective as he is nefarious, Cesc Fabregas had an extra directness from his time as one of the Premier League’s best players, while Thiago Alcantara seemed to be doing a good job of following in their footsteps before his recent move to Bayern Munich. Not only was it the world’s best midfield, it seemed to be a fairly complete one, and it couldn’t exactly be limited to those who actually played in the middle. Barcelona were reinventing the wheel, turning it into a 5ft 7 one-two-playing central midfielder – this is the club were Javier Mascherano was a centre-back and Fabregas played up front.
Nevertheless, if Barcelona were obsessed with midfielders and became less successful, then surely it is that midfield to blame? They may have won La Liga and their blips in form could be heavily tied to Tito Vilanova’s ongoing heath struggles, but the way they were outplayed at home by Paris Saint-Germain, needing Lionel Messi to rescue them, then more emphatically by Bayern Munich hinted at a greater issue.
In Pep Guardiola’s final year appeared to be finding it more difficult to score goals than in previous seasons. As central attacker Messi would drop deeper and deeper into midfield to help create attacks and David Villa was unavailable through injury, Alexis Sanchez became the lonely focal point of Barcelona’s attack, making diagonal runs behind opposition defences. The role didn’t really suit him and Barcelona often struggled to attack effectively. It would cost them their La Liga and Champions League crowns and, a year on, similar issues remain.
The root of the problem of Messi coming deep to join the midfielders was that it essentially left no one ahead of them for the play to progress towards, resulting in long periods of aimless possession play. When he was brought into the game in the second half of the game against PSG, Messi was the man to give Barcelona that directness and completely turned the tie around, but before then they had suffered with those same issues of passive play.
Here we can see what was pretty much the standard shape for Barcelona in possession in that second leg. At first glance this would appear promising: Cesc Fabregas seems to have found himself a nice amount of space between the lines, but the issue comes from how exactly they would get the ball to him. A huge problem for Barcelona was that their midfield trio rarely moved far from that centre circle, forever playing in front of PSG’s midfield four. The space between the lines is biggish, but not big enough for a lofted ball over without them getting on top of Fabregas before he can bring it down, and the angle for a straight pass is blocked by the midfield wall. The answer to getting the ball into that area may well be by changing the angle of attack – making use of Pedro Rodriguez wide left.
Or perhaps not. PSG were well set up to deal with Pedro, shifting their entire backline towards the right so they wouldn’t get stretched and quickly closing him in when the ball was played in his direction. His natural inclination was to come inside onto his right foot but that just left him surrounded, so he found a modicum more success taking on Christophe Jallet around the outside – he hasn’t exactly got a bulky target man to swing a cross in for though, has he?
The obvious response to this would probably be to stretch play with Dani Alves on the right, but PSG had a way to stop Barcelona’s full-backs getting forward. Most teams bring as many players back as possible against Barcelona, yet PSG left Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ezequiel Lavezzi high up against Barcelona’s makeshift backline, with the latter pulling wide into gaps the full-backs would leave, and encouraged Javier Pastore and Lucas Moura to get forward as quickly as possible. The result was that if Barcelona’s full-backs went too far forward, their team was left massively stretched in defence.
PSG were generally far superior at controlling space despite seeing less of the ball. Whereas Barcelona struggled to make enough space between the lines for Fabregas, PSG were easily able to create open spaces for their teammates to use, moving the ball quickly deep to pull Barcelona’s pressing defenders towards them then hitting it longer towards their free men. This could be seen partially in their goal – Marco Verratti dinking it over Barcelona’s midfield for Ibrahimovic to play a one-two with Pastore to send him past Barcelona’s haphazard backline. A few years ago, Xavi would have been drifting forward into the space in figure 2 – how they made use of any and all gaps was one of the most impressive aspects of their game – yet now their opponents were doing it better than them. Much of the time PSG didn’t need to manipulate space though – Ibrahimovic was pretty much guaranteed to win any aerial duel if he dropped a little closer to the midfield, making him an easy option for knockdowns.
The introduction of Messi saved the tie for Barcelona, but his participation a few weeks later would become something of an afterthought as Bayern Munich dismantled Barcelona using roughly the same tactics as PSG with added physicality. Although they would drop off when the ball got into their half, Bayern frequently took it more upon themselves to hassle Barcelona high up the pitch while one of the strikers would stop the ball from being played into Busquets. This limited Barcelona’s first ball out of defence, making it significantly harder for them to get the ball forward. As a result, Xavi was having to drop deeper to get the ball, leaving Iniesta alone to be bullied out of the game by Javi Martinez.
Like PSG, Bayern’s most fruitful attacks came down to exploiting Barcelona’s attacking full-backs, whom Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben were doing an uncharacteristically disciplined defensive job covering. This essentially killed off Barcelona’s only other way of getting the ball forward, taking their attack as well as their midfield and fullbacks out of the game. Even a half-fit Messi couldn’t do anything to change the game when he never got the ball, and it came as little surprise that Vilanova didn’t bother to risk him in a return leg where nothing had really changed – Bayern still had Barca piined back and their defence isn’t strong enough to cope with that.
You could argue that this is an issue of their midfield or you could argue it is an issue of the way they play, but ultimately it’s part and parcel of the same thing. Stripped down: defenders win the ball, midfielders pass it on and attackers score. Barcelona are a team of midfielders, they pass and they pass and they pass, yet they don’t necessarily win the ball and they don’t necessarily score. Not because the players aren’t good enough, but because of the passive way they play. It’s no secret that Barcelona’s best side came in Guardiola’s first season and Spain’s at Euro 2008 – before they went down that rabbit hole of possession play, where keeping the ball was an end in itself. Without greater effort in defending from the front or flexibility in attack, Barcelona’s play can be fairly predictable at the top level.