Barcelona 2009/10: fewer trophies, better team

May 18, 2010

Barcelona’s 2008/09 season was the most successful in their history; the most successful in any club’s history. Surely they couldn’t have an equally good campaign this time around?

The most immediate answer to that question is no. Out of the Copa del Rey to Sevilla on away goals, eliminated from the Champions League in desperate circumstances at home to Inter – a repeat of the treble was not achieved. But in the league, Barcelona have exceeded their achievements from last year. 99 points compared to 87 last season, just one loss compared to five last season. Real Madrid’s leap forward kept the league going until the final day and suggested Barcelona were not as dominant – but Barcelona cannot influence Real’s points tally (obviously aside from the two head-to-head meetings, where Barca won home and away). Taking Barcelona alone, and La Liga alone, they were better than last season.

What has created the illusion that they were not? For a club like Barcelona, style is often given a higher billing than substance, and certainly, they have played a slightly more reserved, less dynamic brand of football this season. Swapping Samuel Eto’o for Zlatan Ibrahimovic was always going to necessitate a slightly different way of doing things in the final third, but equally as important was the decline of Thierry Henry. The relative lack of form of Andres Iniesta (just one goal and five assists) has not helped either.

The case for the defence

Overall, however, it is possible that Barcelona are a better side than last season. For starters, their defence this season was excellent. In only five league games did they concede more than one goal, and on three occasions that was when they had a commanding lead in the game and were coasting to victory – which has, admittedly been a slight problem with Barcelona this season, that they sometimes seem to have taken their foot off the gas prematurely, such as against Sevilla recently.

Successful defences are always built around teamwork and cooperation rather than individual brilliance, but a notable factor in Barcelona’s defensive excellence this season was the improvement of the individuals. Victor Valdes, long thought of as Barcelona’s weak link – a local lad who got lucky – has been one of the best goalkeepers in Europe. His shotstopping is superb, he looks in command from crosses, and his distribution (for a side like Barcelona, a key feature for goalkeeper rather than an added bonus) is excellent. In front of him, Dani Alves has improved the defensive side of his game without being any less of an attacking threat, whilst Gerard Pique has continued his ascent to one of the best centre-backs in the world.

The defending has started right from the front of the pitch, as Barca have at times played an extraordinarily intense pressing game, most notably in the first half at the Emirates, where Arsenal struggled to get out of their own half. This, coupled with the desire to prevent the opposition finding space ‘between the lines’, means that their defence often played a very high line – consequently, they were often prone to fairly simple balls in behind their defence for a pacey striker, like the one Diego Forlan scored against them in the only league game Barcelona lost all season:

They were sometimes criticized for this, but it was merely a byproduct of the pressing game – you can’t praise one part and then criticize the other – and Barcelona’s defensive record of 24 goals conceded in 38 games means that their defensive tactics were unquestionably a success.

Unfashionable players step up

Another reason for the defensive excellence has been Sergio Busquets, now regarded as Barcelona’s first-choice holding midfielder, ahead of Yaya Toure. Busquets hasn’t yet got the recognition he deserves – maybe because casual observers struggle to understand what sort of player he is. He is not as powerful and fearsome as Toure, but is more disciplined than the Ivorian and more reliable in possession.

That was effectively the difference between Barcelona this season and Barcelona last season across the pitch – they were slightly more functional, slightly less spectacular. The pattern was repeated on the left side of midfield – Iniesta’s injury problems meant that he started only 20 games – Seydou Keita started 23. Keita is clearly the less talented player, and rarely found himself the hero (no goals or assists since October) but his reliability on the left meant Barcelona’s left-back had slightly more license to get forward – Maxwell had a good first season and Eric Abidal took on a slightly more attacking role than he has been accustomed to (although still remains without a single goal in his entire career). Players playing at left-back contributed ten assists for Barcelona this season, compared to just one last season, when you probably wouldn’t have seen goals like this one:

Ibra and Pedro

Further forward, there were changes. Ibrahimovic in and Eto’o out was the obvious one, but equally the rise of Pedro and the decline of Henry altered the way Barcelona play. Again, Pedro is not as dynamic or athletic, but is both a lethal finisher and disciplined defensively. He has established himself so quickly in Barcelona’s side that it’s easy to forget that last season he made just six appearances and didn’t contribute in terms of goals. This season he scored 12 goals in La Liga, 4 more in the Champions League, and his ability to play on the left, on the right or through the middle meant that he was so useful for Guardiola – in the game at the Bernabeu, for example, he started on the left with Dani Alves playing in a defensive wide-right position, before switching to the right for the second half, to allow Maxwell to take up a defensive wide-left position.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic continues to divide opinion, but having won seven league titles in seven seasons with four different sides (Calciopoli notwithstanding) even his doubters must recognize his success. As the second most-expensive player in the history of football, his first season can be considered a slight disappointment, but from 23 starts and 6 substitute appearances, 16 goals is a far from shabby record. Besides, he has unquestionably provided Barcelona with a more direct method of attack – his goal away in Stuttgart was a good example of that. He’s also linked well with Messi – see this unselfish layoff:

And let’s not forget that he scored within minutes of his first El Clasico to give Barcelona the initiative for the rest of the season:

Messi

The obvious star was Messi, and he was a star not merely because of his brilliant football, but because he could perform well in different roles. He started the reason in a right-sided forward role, sometimes played as a false nine (like at the Bernabeu) and was also happy deeper behind a central striker – it’s difficult to say which he prefers. His hattrick against Valencia came when he played just off Thierry Henry…

…and his hattrick against Zaragoza was when he was on the right side of a forward trio:

Does it matter where Messi plays? As long as he can receive the ball in an attacking zone, probably not.

Variety in systems

All of this has been achieved with Barcelona switching between two separate formations. Their standard 4-3-3 from last season was generally favoured, but their plan B was a 4-2-4 shape that provoked much debate about its merits – it was certainly easier for them to press the opposition defence with the four advanced players, and it allowed them to stretch the play in the final third whilst featuring another central attacker. It meant Xavi playing deeper and required an awful lot of running from both the wide attackers and full-backs (possibly too much to sustain for 90 minutes) but when they needed the change in shape, it often worked wonders. The second half against Valencia, where the 4-3-3 had proved so ineffective in the first half, showed how it could outwit opponents, and against Arsenal home and away, Barca dominated.

And there were variations in each shape depending on the personnel, too. Against Real Madrid the 4-3-3 took a more defensive slant with a full-back on the wing, and Messi playing furthest forward. The 4-2-4 was different with Iniesta on the left to with Keita on the left, as Iniesta kept width more, whilst Keita tended to play from a central position. The fact that so many Barcelona players are versatile – Messi, Pedro, Bojan, Iniesta, Maxwell, Puyol, Toure – means it was often hard to guess their shape. The only low point in the season was the two-legged tie against Inter, where twice Guardiola fielded Ibrahimovic as a central striker, when a more fluid system based around pace and movement surely would have been better.

But this was still an extraordinary season for Barcelona, and other managers can take two lessons from it. Firstly, that even if your side is successful, your system must still evolve – the introduction of Ibrahimovic and Pedro made Barca fresher, and meant they played in a slightly different way. Secondly, your side must have a plan B – if Barca had played a 4-3-3 all season, they may have been figured out. The 4-2-4 kept teams guessing.

Whisper it quietly, but this was a better Barcelona side than last season. If the league table doesn’t lie, the greatest points total in La Liga history speaks volumes.

Barcelona 2009/10: fewer trophies, better team

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