Barcelona is tired.
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.
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.
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?