I think it’s safe to say that Pep Guardiola knows his onions. After learning his trade at La Masia from the age of thirteen then playing over a decade as the intelligent hub of the Barcelona first team before going on to mastermind three La Ligas and two glorious Champions League triumphs as coach he arguably knows as much – if not more – about football than you and I.
So it probably didn’t escape his notice this summer that following the sale of the maligned Gabriel Milito he was left with just two senior centre-backs at his disposal in his illustrious squad of superstars, one of whom is an aging beast whose bones appear to be creaking with a worrying regularity.
With a reported £70m war-chest to spend surely he would swiftly remedy this shortfall and bring in some quality cover for the veteran Puyol and his comrade-in-arms Pique? Granted Abidal is equally as adept through the middle as on the flanks, but there was clearly a fundamental lack of depth in such a crucial area for a team about to embark upon nine months of top level competition.
Instead Pep went out and bought the electrifying Alexis Sanchez and wrestled Cesc Fabregas back from Arsenal. Fabregas is of course a splendid footballer but with a midfield already containing the sublime talents of Xavi, Iniesta, Keita, Busquets, not to mention the emerging Thiago, he amounted to a luxury item.
With the coffers now empty the campaign got off to a disastrous start with Pique immediately joining the convalescing Puyol in the treatment room with a calf strain. Just days before Barca’s UEFA Super Cup clash with Porto and their opening La Liga fixture against Villarreal incredibly the best team on the planet had no recognized centre-backs to call upon. Well, there was Andreu Fontas but he is so distrusted by Guardiola, and universally loathed by the Catalan faithful, he’s only been selected once this term despite the path being clear for him. Plus, as you’d expect, the squad contains a couple of promising youngsters promoted from Barcelona B to essentially make up the numbers and gain experience.
It would be extreme fodder to suggest that Barcelona’s dearth of defensive cover was an over-sight on Pep’s behalf.
For the season’s curtain-raiser with Villarreal – last year’s fourth place finishers and certainly no mugs – Guardiola went with a back-three of Abidal, Sergio Busquets, and Javier Mascherano. A full-back and two holding midfielders in a 3-4-3 formation. The latter two have been employed along the back-line on several previous occasions and have always performed well but even so…this was astonishing. Especially when, during a game where they amassed five goals and 77% possession, it often resembled a 1-6-3 set-up with only the deep-lying Keita anchoring his position throughout, screening whatever variation of defence there was behind him at any given moment.
A week later, away to Real Sociedad Pep shuffled his pack further, drafting in the doomed scapegoat Fontas who took the blame for a disappointing 2-2 draw.
A marquee Champion’s League clash with Milan finally brought some traditional thinking back to the table with a flat back-four, though with Pique and Puyol still absent, the centre-back roles were again staffed by Mascherano and Busquets.
Inside the opening minute Milan’s forward Pato brutally exposed their shortcomings by knocking the ball into space and skinning them for pace putting the Italians ahead.
Though redemption of sorts followed with an entertaining draw Guardiola’s experiment was stripped naked and humiliated at that very moment. And make no mistake this was indeed an experiment; a bold, arrogant, exhilarating experiment intended to push the boundaries ever further on their quest for the ultimate football fantasia. It would be extreme fodder to suggest that Barcelona’s dearth of defensive cover was an over-sight on Pep’s behalf and of course he knew full well that Pique and Puyol would inevitably miss games, weeks, entire chunks of the season ahead.
Evidently after astounding the world with their enterprising beautiful football Guardiola was now considering dispensing with the very notion of a traditionally structured defence altogether. Why bother when most games were won with such style and dominance? Undeniably there will always be the requirement to have players covering should they lose possession – even the greatest acrobats demand a safety net – but why must they be specialist destructive forces?
It is potentially one of the most extraordinary tactical revolutions in the sport’s history and one that surpasses even the Dutch total football ethos of the 1970s.
I am not for one minute intimating here that the unflappable charmer in the cool-as-fuck sweaters is disregarding the actual necessity of defence but undoubtedly there is a philosophy being imposed, or rather phased in, where the mindset and specialist skills of a player need not be of an entirely defensive disposition.
If so it is potentially one of the most extraordinary tactical revolutions in the sport’s history and one that surpasses even the Dutch total football ethos of the 1970s that so heavily influenced the Catalans and subsequently the Spanish national side. Granted there are examples that foreshadow the centre-back deployment of a midfield anchor – Haan in ’74 – but where is Barca’s Krol? Where is Barca’s destroyer?
What’s more even the fluid mesmerising Dutch recognized the importance of maintaining a solid rearguard – they just switched individuals to man it.
Last Saturday Carlos Puyol finally returned from his long-term knee problem and the mop-haired warrior promptly oversaw an 8-0 obliteration of Osasuna. It was truly spell-binding stuff; a masterclass in merciless suffocation to such an extent that each linesman could have spent forty-five minutes apiece filling in their match expenses.
Though the poor quality of opposition must be taken into account Barcelona’s formation was, by and large, 1-3-1-5. That is nearly the complete opposite of the 5-3-2 favoured by some on the continent twenty years ago.
Of course such extravagance is helped significantly by having a genuine genius in your team surrounded by an array of astonishing talent. It is further aided and abetted by inferior teams often walking onto the pitch already beaten in their minds. Should Coventry City or Bristol Rovers employ such a formation they’d undoubtedly be battered to kingdom come.
However, throughout football’s history every pivotal tactical sea change has been engineered by the greats. Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal bringing in the W-M. Márton Bukovi’s Hungarian 4-2-4. Herrera’s catenaccio.
Incrementally others always follow suit. If you can’t beat them….
So with this in mind Barcelona’s fortunes this season and beyond will be fascinating to assess; they have already taken us to previously unexplored realms of excellence, now they could be showing us the possibilities of an entirely new type of football thinking where defence is stripped down to its barest essentials.
The most beautiful irony in all of this lies deep within our past. Long before the W-M formation took hold – when football was in its naïve infancy – teams such as Old Etonians and Sheffield Albion set themselves up with a single centre-back, two wing-halves and seven attackers. Perhaps Guardiola isn’t the visionary after all? Perhaps he is merely taking us back to our roots?