Barca vs. Chelsea Primer: Has Javier Really Been A Great Masch for Barcelona?

Barcelona is tired.

The genius of Messi has been a little more challenging lately....

It’s not hard to see that. When a team gets tired, they slow off the ball.

Barcelona, more so then any other elite team, thrives with off-ball movement. It’s necessary for neutrons in their attack.

No movement.

No attack.

And you can tell they’re not moving appropriately lately as evidenced by their talisman Lionel Messi laying into the team on the pitch lately.

The Spanish machine–and it should be considered a machine more than any German squad of recent note–is still whirring, but it’s not purring at “spot the checkered flag, seize the checker flag levels” right now.

Throughout the third trimester of this season, Barcelona has slowly began relying more and more Messi attacking defenses like Michael Jordan did in his earlier years. A basic, “I’m going to draw a quadruple-team and I might try and finish or I’ll hopefully pass it to an open guy that knocks down the bucket.” Watch any highlight show on Fox Soccer, ESPN, Sky and they all show the same thing.

“Messi receives on the right hash. Messi dribble centrally. Four defenders converge. [Messi lays off or Messi beats them and just misses.]”

Oh, it works, just not always against the big boys with Chelsea last week playing the role of the Detroit Pistons.

As Messi has been relied on and relied on, the constant funneling of the ball through Messi is taking its toll. Messi’s passing accuracy per match has dipped since January.

Barca manager Guardiola has tried a number of different combinations in attempt to jump-start the attack (read: open the middle for Messi to dance)–from moving Cuena out wide against AC Milan to installing Tello and Thiago this past weekend against Real Madrid.

All of this designed to create space for Messi, primarily, and company to orchestrate.

But Barca–as Guardiola must easily attest–has lacked a fundamental dimension of creating space. And it’s magnified the hole defensively in Pique’s absence–due to form or conflict with Pep.

They can’t and don’t go vertical.

Now, before you cry Bleacher Report, an acknowledgement that  this is, of course, nothing new for Barcelona. It’s not their game to play over the top, diagonally across the field and only occasionally do they get enough space to play a through ball. They guard possession like Tim Tebow guards his virginity. It’s obviously not just about scoring.

Nevertheless, vertical play has been missed.

They procured the services of Zlatan Ibrahimovic a few seasons ago because of that very issue. Then they went out and got David Villa to answer the problem when Zlatan became the problem.

Villa, like Cuenca and Tello play more wide left rather than forward, but he still played like a striker.

This year though?

A perfect storm of minor “issues” has combined to make Barcelona just the wee bit necessary to be vulnerable to being defensible.

First was David Villa’s injury leaving a hole–not a gaping one–but a hole nonetheless in Barca’s attack at the inauguration of the campaign.

The second was the introduction of Cesc Fabregas to the arsenal. While Fabregas has slowly acclimated to his attacking role, it has been just that; a slow acclimation replete with inconsistent movement in the attack, especially forward–the movement that is demanded for Barca to siege the opponent.

With the absence of true player to challenge the line–Alexis Sanchez, more a horizontal player by pedigree has reluctantly become the over-the-top threat while Fabregas’s incisions are spotty at best– Barca has continually had to work harder against good teams to move the ball up the pitch and by consequence of having even less vertical play the defensive line has moved higher up the pitch.

The right Masch?

Barcelona has used an advancing fullback in Dani Alves on the right and any combination of players wide left in an attempt to pull defenders out of the middle and create space.

Thus to preserve defensive integrity and prevent gaps, Barca has played an even higher line on defense

And, while logical, the move to draw that line on defense, it has led to the introduction of Javier Mascherano more frequently in the back. While Mascherano is a wonderful player–his addition helps cover for Alves’s forwards jaunts–and he is being trumpeted as key to Barcelona’s season in Abidal’s absence, has that really been the case?

“Masch” is susceptible to being physically bodied as well as playing more like a midfielder. As you saw this past weekend–Mascherano tried to “track” Ronaldo on his goal-scoring run in El Clasico as oppose to play the angle.

Against Chelsea Mascherano was again vulnerable with his positioning flaws when he wasn’t getting bodied by Drogba.

It’s a minor chink in Barcelona’s arm and today they probably see through to the Final, but it is a chink and teams are preying on it.

Does Pique make a return at centerback to for Pep?

Does Torres start for Chelsea today in place of Mata?

19 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by faithfull on 2012/04/24 at 8:29 AM

    Best Tim Tebow comment ever.

    Question. If you are Barca, what Summer acquisitions do you aim for?


    • Posted by dth on 2012/04/24 at 8:53 AM

      No one. Between the inflated prices Barca have to pay (because they’re Barca) and the time needed to change players to play their style, no one theoretically gets less out of the transfer market.


    • Posted by Ed on 2012/04/24 at 9:39 AM

      Some people are saying Bale with his speed and ability to play out of the back. I would be hesitant because his style is so direct and not exactly the most possession oriented right now at Spurs.


      • Posted by matthewsf on 2012/04/24 at 9:57 AM

        I think he’s too *open a player for Barca. I would see a fantastic fit for him at either Real or Bayern — two teams that love to open it and throttle the counter.

        I always liked Juan Vargas too for Barca as an opposite to Alves. At one time, he was headed to Real.


    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2012/04/24 at 5:43 PM

      Goalkeeper. Said for many seasons that Valdes isn’t good enough. Yes, he does the ‘sweeper-keeper’ well, but his actual goalkeeping fundamentals aren’t good enough for an elite team.
      I think Bale would be a great replacement for Abidal, and he would provide a directness and natural width.


  2. Posted by matthewsf on 2012/04/24 at 9:16 AM

    Well it’s always hard for Barca to integrate players. This is a fantastic piece if you haven’t read it (the end speaks to your question):

    But I *do* think they need to go out and procure someone who can offer a different dynamic, outside of the Barca upbringing perhaps. Zlatan was a good gambit, but I think maybe someone like a pure striker who doesn’t arrive with a big head and doesn’t need to play all the time. Wigan’s Franco Di Santo comes to mind. Still young enough. Still hungry enough. Decent pedigree.


  3. Posted by dth on 2012/04/24 at 9:50 AM

    Olympic draw was done today. Looking at the draw (, I’m liking an Uruguay-Spain final–depending, of course, on the team announcements.


  4. Posted by matthewsf on 2012/04/24 at 10:59 AM

    No Alves for Barca today. They will try to play wide again with Tello and Cuena. Interesting…


  5. Posted by dth on 2012/04/24 at 12:28 PM

    Interesting that Alves is taking a position inside of Cuenca.


  6. Posted by KickinNames... on 2012/04/24 at 2:55 PM

    not near enough love here for the boys in Blue! Overcame their own stupidity (can Terry just please go away?), the Turkish ref (and his assistant!), Barca’s insolence(“We only play ONE way!….) and the whining Camp Nou crowd for a fantastic win.
    Excellent points in the article and quite prescient considering today’s result.
    I thought about this in relation to your Fabregas point and realized that Arsenal is exactly who they remind you of when the tiki-taka isn’t working. That stubborn resistance to just take the shot or play the ball into the box and take what’s given to you might be Cesc’s big contribution. And Barca’s downfall this season…..


  7. Posted by EFG on 2012/04/24 at 6:27 PM

    I’m not a Chelsea fan per se, though I enjoy players on their team, but I was definitely pulling for them to hold on today. It’ll be interesting to see how they match up in the finals against either opponent with all of their suspensions. Also, Di Matteo HAS to remain the manager next season, right?


  8. Posted by KickinNames... on 2012/04/25 at 7:42 AM

    Chelsea Football Club!
    Chelsea Football Clu-ub!
    Chelsea Football Cluuuuuuuuuuub!
    We’re Chelsea Football Cluubb!
    Will repeat daily until the final.

    Bring on the The Special Douche!


  9. Posted by matthewsf on 2012/04/25 at 10:49 AM

    Barca made it this way.

    Barca’s game is usually a game of orchestral beauty, not necessarily free flowing soccer, but more staccato beat-driven soccer. (Such is often the comparison between Brazilian football as well and Samba dancing.)

    however–analogous to run-first football team in the NFL–when Barcelona gets behind they have no and had no second option (as we discussed yesterday). This must change.

    Barca makes their own troubles by playing it’s game of rolling the ball around the pitch and compacting the other team’s defense into a dense meatball.

    A drill that’s often done to encourage proper soccer play at the youth level is: 1) lining up all the players on the endline for a spring across the field 2) the coach yells, “Go!” 3) As the players sprint, a ball is kicked the length of the field to show players that passing the ball achieves space and opportunity faster than running with it.

    That said, a longer pass will obviously be less accurate, but in the case yesterday would’ve create more space. Barcelona refused to try crosses. They played few diagonal balls and they continually took a short pass approach around Chelsea’s 18′ box disposition. All this did was make it easier for the Blues to play defense.

    Barcelona’s offense created Chelsea’s defense and they need a second option in their next campaign or all teams will follow the blueprint of Inter and Chelsea to make it merely a flip of the coin.


    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2012/04/25 at 4:26 PM

      Question: I would agree a lot more with you if Barcelona did not create chances, but they did have opportunities to score but did not take them – is that down to the manager’s tactics or players?

      People also mention the Inter Milan SF final from a couple of years ago, but if I recall correctly, Inter were the beneficiaries of some suspect refereeing decisions. Milito’s third goal in the first leg was clearly offside, but given, and Barcelona scored IMHO a legit second goal in the return leg in the final few minutes that would have surely eliminated Inter?

      And if Messi converts that penalty it changes the complexion of the game.

      I know it is a moot point now, because it did not happen, but I politely and respectfully ask: would we be having this conversation if the correct calls were given vs. Inter and Messi converts?

      The compact defense only works when a team can keep a clean sheet. We all saw what happened in the earlier El Clasico when Madrid’s game plan went out of the window when they conceded early…


      • Posted by matthewsf on 2012/04/25 at 7:22 PM

        I think these are fair questions for sure. however, Barcelona has always been a one-prong attack. It’s just usually better.

        The fact that Chelsea packed it in against them–twice–and came out victorious shows that good teams can bunker and beat them.

        They merely need a Plan B. And their plan B should really be how do we create space ***quickly. It doesn’t have to be divergent from their main attack. But thrusting Pique or Keita is not a 2nd option.

        A Franco Di Santo or better striker is enough to do the trick.


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