Guardiola ends the European Super Cup final with six central midfielders
Usually ZM looks at sides’ starting line-ups for matches, before assessing how the shape changed as the game went on.
This is slightly different, however, because the interesting thing about Barcelona’s Super Cup win over Porto on Friday was the way they finished the game, with six central midfielders amongst the ten outfield players.
The arrival of Cesc Fabregas has prompted various questions about where he’ll fit into the side. The real answer to that question is rotation – with Andres Iniesta a little injury-prone, Fabregas only averaging around 60% of league minutes over the past three seasons and Xavi Hernandez needing an increasing amount of rest these days, it’s not as big an issue as some have suggested.
Nevertheless, it is interesting that Pep Guardiola has tried to strengthen his side in midfield (and further forward, with the arrival of Alexis Sanchez). It’s hardly as if Barcelona need improvement in those zones – epitomised by the fact that when they won the European Cup final last season with a 3-1 win over Manchester United, their three forwards all scored a goal, and their three midfielders all recorded assists.
What Guardiola really needed was a centre-back. At a crucial stage last season he had a severe shortage in that position, meaning Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano had to deputise. Eric Abidal’s return from illness gives Guardiola another option there, but with Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique both out for a couple of weeks, Abidal is the only established fit centre-back at the club. Gabriel Milito has left the club, although with his lack of pace, he was completely unsuited to Barca’s high line. 21-year-old Andreu Fontas has been promoted to the first team, although at this point there’s nothing to suggest that Guardiola sees Fontas as anything like a regular this season.
So, whilst Busquets and Mascherano may have ‘filled in’ at centre-back last season, this campaign they might do so on a more regular basis. Pique, Puyol and Abidal will still be the first three choices, but Guardiola’s decision to prioritise spending €50m+ on a winger and another central midfielder suggests that he’s more than happy to play holding midfielders at the back.
In many ways, it makes perfect sense. Barcelona have the ball for the majority of every game they play, and therefore passing skills become more vital for the centre-backs. Guardiola wants good ball circulation from his side, and having two midfielders at the back will simply increase his side’s ability to pass effectively.
With the side playing so high up the pitch, Barcelona’s centre-backs will probably be playing in a similar zone of the pitch to holding midfielders in post sides, as mentioned with Bruno Soriano of Villarreal in midweek. Marcelo Bielsa, a good friend of Guardiola and another who favours a high defensive line, happily played central midfielders at the back with Chile – with Gary Medel and Arturo Vidal featuring there. He looks to be doing the same thing now at Athletic Bilbao with Javi Martinez and Carlos Gurpegi.
It’s along the same lines as something ZM has mentioned on many occasions – particularly the idea of a ‘modern centre-half’ who would start in midfield but drop into the backline as play develops. Busquets has done that many times before, of course, and did it on a permanent basis at Atletico last season.
It points to the gradual homogenisation of the centre-back and holding midfield roles, and a further development might be to play three players – two centre-backs and a holder – who can all play in each of the three positions. A trio of Mascherano, Busquets and Pique would be able to do that – Pique has the ability to play as a holding midfielder.
In this match, in addition to three central midfielders, Guardiola used Andres Iniesta on the left for the final minutes – nothing unusual about that, since he’s played that position quite often. He was the sixth nominal central midfielder in Barca’s system 4-3-3.
Can it go any further? Quite possibly. Messi, after all, is playing deeper and deeper – having gone from a high right-winger, to a central forward, to a false nine, and arguably now to a number ten in some games. Interestingly, in pre-season Guardiola tried both Fabregas and Thiago Alcantara in the Messi role, suggesting that a midfielder could sometimes play that role, too.
For Guardiola, he is taking his ideology a step further. His impact upon football has been significant in his short time in charge of Barca – having been forced into early retirement as a player because clubs didn’t want passing midfielders, as a manager he set about trying to build a midfield comprised entirely of passers.
The next step is to try and get as many passing midfielders into the side as possible.