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How does Pep improve on perfection?
Claudio Ranieri was crucified for his tinkering tendencies by the British press. But the truth is that every good coach, deep down, is a tinkerman.
Pep Guardiola is a case in point.
While European journalists ran out of superlatives to describe Barcelona last season, their obsessive, workaholic perfectionist coach was less interested in the compliments than the semi-final against Chelsea when his team failed to function like a well-oiled machine.
It would be truly, deeply stupid to draw any conclusions from the soporific Super Cup game with Shakhtar Donetsk.
But the manner in which Shakhtar Donetsk stifled the European champions suggests Guardiola might be right to rebuild.
The best way to unsettle the reigning champions, Shakhtar’s performance suggested, is to bore them to death.
The genius that is Lionel Messi became so frustrated he invented his own variation on the Glasgow kiss, a gesture that may henceforth be known as the air butt.
"Nab him, jab him, tag him, grab him..."
Shakhtar’s clever counter-attacking style could, with a smarter referee, have put them 1-0 ahead in extra time.
Coach Mircea Lucescu, who looked more animated when he ran onto the pitch in protest than most players had been all night, was shrewd enough to realise that the more open the game the more likely Barcelona were to win.
So he organised his troops accordingly, with players blocking the zones where Barca might create, squeezing play on the flanks, packing the middle of the park, and trusting that in any match, even against the European champions, you will get opportunities and, if you can take them, you might just win.
In the first half, Shakhtar had an easy time because Barcelona were too predictable, always trying to play through the middle.
Gerard Pique’s passing was especially one-dimensional – always moving the ball into the congested centre, where finding the right pass was like trying to thread the eye of a needle, rather than releasing Daniel Alves on the right.
At half-time, I wondered if Guardiola would start his team talk by saying to Pique: “Let me introduce you to Dani Alves. He’s a team-mate. Why don’t you try passing the ball to him occasionally?”
Certainly in the second half, Pique released Alves more often, initially with promising results. Messi then drifted out wide to exploit the space as Shakhtar tired.
So Chelsea and Shakhtar have both shown that if you don’t care about the spectacle, you can seriously disrupt Barcelona.
And that’s one reason, according to a very entertaining discussion on Sky Sports' ever-entertaining Revista de la Liga, that Guardiola has set out to improve on perfection.
The goal is to make Barcelona even more awesomely effective by varying the threat up front, making more devastating use of the flanks and improving their dismal record from set-pieces.
Central striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic will sometimes pull back to draw defenders out, creating space for Xavi and Iniesta to run into.
As tactically sophisticated as football can sometimes seem, defences and coaches have still not devised a way to cope with midfielders running into the area, even though this ploy is at least half a century old.
Both full-backs – Alves on the right and Abidal or Maxwell on the left – can bomb forward simultaneously, because one of the central midfielders will come deep so Barcelona have three at the back when attacking.
Ibra: key to a new tactical philospophy
In the interchange of players and formations, this is much more Total Footballish, echoing the 3-4-3 Johan Cruyff deployed as a coach at Ajax and Barcelona.
With players as good as Guardiola, he could risk exposing his defence because he was so confident he would control midfield.
Rinus Michels said this “spectacular but risky” formation depends on the quality of the players in the middle of the park and their intelligence.
But get it right, as Guardiola believes his players will, and your team becomes much harder to predict and nullify.
Against Shakhtar, even with Ibrahimovic, they were so ineffectual from corners they could have taken them all night against an undefended goal and not scored.
But against Sporting Gijon, in their first la Liga game, all the goals in their routine 3-0 victory came from headers.
Shakhtar showed enough speed and technique on the counter to create chances but didn’t always make the right decisions.
In one passage of play in the first half, Lucescu’s men passed the ball around in front of the Barcelona penalty area and the Catalans looked distinctly uncomfortable.
Carles Puyol was caught out a few times – so the £22 million arrival of Shakhtar’s steely, shrewd centre-back Dmytry Chyngrysnkiy, who looked far more composed and accomplished in Monaco than any Barcelona defender, looks superbly timed.
The good news for Barcelona’s opponents is that the Super Cup might have already done for the European champions.
The last team to win the Super Cup and go on to win the European Cup the next May was Milan in 1990.
Since then, only Sevilla, who outclassed Barca in the 2006 Super Cup, have gone on to win a major European competition (the UEFA Cup).
As curses go, it must be on a par with the Community Shield’s.
But maybe Guardiola’s thoughtful tinkering can defeat that curse too.
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Very interesting piece here. It's important to keep in mind that Guardiola is very much a Cruyff protegé so the reference to Total Football is very apt.
I'd like to expand on the role Ibrahimovic is expected to play. I for one was baffled by the decision to swap him (and €40m!) for Eto'o, who is a far superior player. Eto'o scores lots of goals and at important times whereas Ibra has often been criticised (rightly, IMO) for not doing it when it counts. Also, Eto'o works hard, presses high up the pitch and can interchange with the other forwards - as he did with Messi against Utd in the CL final. All these are key to Guardiola's gameplan.
As I see it, Ibrahimovic does none of this so I have been wondering why on earth Guardiola signed him and how he intends to use him (if he wanted to replace Eto'o like-for-like then maybe Benzema would have been better). Your explanation about Ibra dropping deep to draw out defenders is interesting but Iniesta and (especially) Xavi are not really Gerrard-type midfielders who will get beyond the forwards, are they? That's not a criticism, it's just an observation on their game. Will Messi and Henry play more narrow then? Will the fullbacks be expected to attack even more than last season?
It's an interesting question. It was hard to see how Barca could improve on last season in an attacking sense (defensively, I agree that signing Chyngrysnkiy is a good move), other than breaking down stubborn defences like Chelsea and Shakhtar. Is Ibrahimovic really the answer?
I agree, a very interesting piece.
At first I thought the swapping of Eto'o for Ibrahimovic seemed like a good deal, until I heard Barca were also paying €40m for the privilage! But should the plan of Ibrahimovic dropping deep pay off then the risk will be probably be seen as being worth it. But personally I think Barca will have paid a very high price to do so. They would surely be better off paying a high price like that for a striker with more consistency in their game.
Eto'o was in the last year of his contract, been pushing all summer for a move away from the Camp Nou and by all accounts was an unsettling character in the team. It is a safe to assume that if he didnt leave come January his workrate would be non exsistant as he began to speak to other clubs. Now while many (including myself) dont believe the hype that surrounds Ibrahimovic, Guardiola does and with after winning the treble deserves to right and sign who he believes to be right for the club.
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