Teams of the Decade #2: Barcelona, 2008/09

March 24, 2010

What more can you say about this Barcelona side? European champions, La Liga champions and Copa Del Rey winners, all in the first season under the charge of Pep Guardiola. And they didn’t do it by merely winning games, they did it by winning in style, making them perhaps the most universally respected side of the decade.

The most astonishing thing about their La Liga performance was how utterly convincing they were in defeating the sides around them at the top of the table. Real Madrid (2nd) were beaten 6-2, Sevilla (3rd) were beaten 4-0, Atletico (4th) were beaten 6-1, Valencia (6th) were beaten 4-0, Deportivo (7th) were beaten 5-0, Malaga (8th) were beaten 6-0. That is dominance on an unprecedented fashion – only 5th-placed Villarreal were spared a thrashing. These high-scoring victories resulted in the front three of Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o netting 100 goals between them throughout the season.

Their run to the Champions League final was slightly less assured – in truth, Guardiola was outwitted by Guus Hiddink in the semi-final, and Chelsea really should have won the tie. But their performance against Manchester United in the final was superb – after withstanding ten minutes of pressure when United characteristically came out of the blocks quickly, they went ahead through Eto’o and then dominated the rest of the game.

Tactically, Barca generally stuck to a 4-3-3 shape throughout the season, playing high up the pitch and pressing from the front. Henry stayed wide on the left, with Messi having more license to come in off the right wing, knowing that the energetic Dani Alves would be providing width. In midfield, Iniesta played furthest forward, Xavi was the calm, methodical ‘link’, whilst Yaya Toure sat deep infront of the centre-backs.

Of course, there were further subtleties to the system, both in defence and attack. Upfront, it was not unusual for Guardiola to switch the positions of Eto’o and Messi, especially late in the season. But with Messi a tricky playmaker and Eto’o a natural striker, the formation altered significantly. Messi played in a false nine position, whilst Eto’o played high up the pitch on the flank, with he and Henry significantly more advanced than Messi, but troubling the full-backs rather than the centre-backs. What formation did this create? A version of Roma’s strikerless shape? A 4-3-1-2? Either way it caused problems for the opposition in a similar way to that Roma 4-6-0, although it focussed upon pressuring high up the pitch, rather than breaking from deep.

The alternative shape was tried against Chelsea in the semi-final to little effect, but caused Manchester United real problems – Eto’o opened the scoring from a wide right position, Messi sealed the victory from a centre-forward position, and Barcelona dominated possession.

At the back, the most notable feature was how willing the two centre-backs were to spread to the flank when Barcelona were in possession (particularly when Victor Valdes had the ball), making sure the pitch was as wide as possible. The gap in the centre of the defence was covered by Yaya Toure dropping into a centre-back role to create a temporary three-man defence, giving the full-backs license to go forward, in a similar fashion to the current Brazil side.

This meant that Barcelona were flexible both in defence and attack, whilst possessing perhaps the two best ball-playing midfielders around in Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. They won every competition they entered – and all this after an opening day defeat to Numancia.

The 2-6 win at the Bernabeu in early May was the season-defining victory – two for Henry, two for Messi, but Xavi was the star of the show, running the midfield and having a hand in almost every Barcelona goal:

Their Champions League final victory was also wonderful. Note the goals coming from Eto’o and Messi being in each other’s positions, which caused the United backline a lot of problems. How ironic that before the game, the “Best Player in the World” debate was Cristiano Ronaldo v Lionel Messi – with many pundits giving Ronaldo the edge because of his superior heading ability. And then, up pops Messi to settle that argument, and settle the game.

For the moment that will be remembered forever though, it was this Andres Iniesta goal in the semi-final.

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