by Amrita Singh
Barcelona, arguably the greatest club side ever, crashed out of the Champions League in spectacular fashion yesterday. Unable to get a win at the Nou Camp, the likes of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta left the field knowing they would not retain their Champions League trophy. How though, can a group of players this good not become the first side to retain the trophy? It seems ludicrous that such a team of other-worldly talent face the prospect of not winning anything this season. Is their manager the problem?
I know, I know. Pep Guardiola has won 13 trophies in 4 years since becoming the first team coach at Barcelona. He is loved and adored by all, respected in football as one of the truly great managers and prospects. Wanted by Chelsea and England, linked with Manchester United and sought by most club sides in Europe. He has employed a philosophy at Barcelona that has always been there, but made it a fundamental part of everything they do. He has effectively turned the first team into trainees of La Masia, everybody who walks through is learning. While this may not be a problem with the players that have grown up or become accustomed to the Barcelona way, notably, players that have arrived from other clubs have struggled. These have been big name players, players that have considered themselves masters of their trade, possibly insulted by the message of ‘you don’t play the right way’.
The Barcelona production line seems unable to produce what they needed most last night – a target man. A number 9 that is effective for situations like this semi- final against Chelsea. The emphasis (at La Masia) is on technical brilliance and often produces the ‘small technical players’ ala Messi. Therefore, Barcelona have sought attacking players externally – Henry, Eto’o, Ibrahimovic and David Villa. All of these players have been bent out of shape by Guardiola – either shut out subtly or frozen out completely. And when you look at their records for Barcelona, it is amazing that the manager would allow them to leave let alone force them out.
This type of player is used to be being the focal point of a team or attack, presumably a big ego is part and parcel of these players. All of these players have been out of favour with Pep and told they must accommodate Messi. Do not forget that David Villa was rumoured to be looking at a winter move before he broke his leg having not matched the success of his first season after being played out of position. Why then, does Guardiola not embrace these players? Messi can be complimented by the right attacking players and the over reliance on the number 10 was obvious in both games against Chelsea. When chances dropped to Fabregas who was playing as a false 9, he didn’t take them, a natural finisher would have, and you have to believe.
Guardiola seems to have the ability to adapt to new systems of playing and formations; last night’s semi- final employed a type of 3-3-1-3 and this is ever changing. However because of the interchangeable nature of his players and positions, formations are often not very helpful when considering how Barcelona play with the ball. Effectively, it wasn’t working. They needed one of the players with the big egos against Chelsea. Messi was taken out of the game, he creates space but no one was able to use it. Pique had gone off earlier, he is normally used as a target man when Barcelona are in need of a goal. Pep Guardiola didn’t seem to have anything more to suggest or offer and with no cover for Villa, he must be questioned for this. When considering it realistically, Pep is not very adaptable to change.
So what is the problem? Why is this team not winning everything? This team that possesses players that could compile the top 10 players in the world, should be winning back-to-back Champions League trophies. This team should be winning everything in front of them, they are that good. Individually and collectively, they are the best I have seen but that was at Wembley 2011 when Pedro, Messi and Villa put three past Manchester United winning emphatically. The 6-2 Clasico was some of the best football I have seen with Henry scoring two goals. These players compliment the system at Barcelona and are successful. Ibrahimovic’s record at Barcelona is impressive even after he was used sparingly – 22 goals and 13 assists.
Pep Guardiola is undoubtedly a success, I am not arguing that, but perhaps his inflexibility is affecting this Barcelona side, holding them back in a way. His own ego and philosophy will not indulge the (very expensive) players Barca buy. Successful managers have always given their best players freedom and expression, keeping them happy in exchange for them playing well. Ferguson with Cantona and Ronaldo, Wenger with Bergkamp, Henry and Fabregas even Mourinho with Cristiano and Ibrahimovic. If Guardiola intends to stay at Barca he needs to develop his own number 9 or accept that players from outside of La Masia need to be embraced to achieve the heights of success. This line from Ibrahimovic seems not only to sum up Guardiola’s approach with external attacking players but to Barcelona as a whole:
‘You have a Ferrari but drive it like a Fiat’.