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FC Barcelona: Pep Guardiola's Continuing Evolution

Genius at work
Genius at work

With each passing year, Pep Guardiola has revolutionised the football world. His appointment brought an instantaneous change in the famous Barcelona style of play, with short passing and pressure becoming paramount. In the second year of his tenure he experimented with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. As it became apparent that the expensive Swede was not Barca-material Guardiola was forced to change his system.

Moving a certain Argentine into the centre of attack, a new tactic was born. Lionel Messi’s transition from wing to false no.9 was seamless, and has led to a few goals, not to mention a couple of Ballon D’Ors. Emerging out of a relative "mini-crisis" Guardiola stumbled upon one of football greatest position changes.

Year three saw the introduction of David Villa, and an emphasis placed upon the wingers to act as inside forwards. This slight change to the 4-3-3 was sufficient to keep FC Barcelona one step ahead of the competition, thus completing a League and Champions League double in the process. It is the attention to detail that separates Pep Guardiola from any other coach in world football. Yes, even Jose Mourinho.

While Jose Mourinho still needs to settle upon a single tactic, Guardiola has been afforded the luxury of experimentation and it is this luxury that separates the two sides. Sure, Real Madrid are a point ahead in the standings, but Barcelona remain favourites for a reason.

Just a couple of weeks ago, there was talk of a crisis at FC Barcelona. As Gabe pointed out, it is the job of us sportswriters to overreact, and boy did we oblige. Take a look at his editorial quickly, the points are articulated well, and then return here, where I will provide my own take on the past few weeks.

First up, let’s look at the "crisis". A difficult win over Viktoria Plzen should have been routine for this team, and the Granada match was ever so similar. Struggling to create chances, let alone finish them off, it was not the Blaugrana we have got used to seeing. Whether that makes us spoilt is a different matter...

Despite those two matches, most worrying was the draw in between, of course it was the Sevilla match. In hindsight, I can see the problems clearly, but caught up in the moment, I found it difficult to see what Guardiola was doing. Ever the analyst, Guardiola should have noticed the problems from the Plzen match and fixed them accordingly. Looking back, it is clear that he did see the problems, and the Sevilla match was a tester so to speak.

It may not be what some want to read, but the 4-3-3 tactic of last season was the problem. David Villa was great for periods last season, but here in this stretch of games he was quite frankly abysmal. Pedro was the same, and while it hurts to write this down, the problem was evident: having one-dimensional wingers was always going to end badly.

Pedro is not a one-dimensional winger, but this system saw him operate as one so my concern is not with him. Instead it is David Villa. El Guaje is a fine player, one of the best strikers this generation has seen, but as winger he is a one-trick pony. Think it through quickly...when was the last time you saw Villa continue down the left-hand side and send a cross in?

I struggle to picture it, and all that appears in my mind is David Villa one-on-one with a defender before cutting inside to either pass or shoot. The only times I have seen a cross from the left is when Eric Abidal offers himself on the overlap. This is easy enough to defend, and with teams "parking the bus" it means the left-hand side is Barca’s weakest.

When teams play Barcelona they tuck in the full-backs and clog the middle. Encouraging the Blaugrana to use the flanks, they are waiting for Barcelona to cross the ball before inevitably heading the ball clear. David Villa would cut inside, but in doing so he would be face to face with a wall of defenders that even La Pulga would struggle to pass. Pedro would be a little better, offering an air of unpredictability that defenders despise, but his efforts would be wasted without the proper support.

In amongst this stretch of games was an uncharacteristic goal drought for Lionel Messi. Three games, no goal; it seems unfeasible now and I’m still waiting for the t-shirts to commemorate such a rarity. At the time I (and many others) said that Lionel Messi should be rested. Perhaps we were right, who knows?

Well, Guardiola might just have the answer. Each match saw Lionel Messi shifted out to the right-hand side for large proportions, and it was in these segments when he was least effective. Guardiola could have been rolling the dice. He saw that the wingers were not having any luck against their opposition, so he tested them with the world’s best player. When they did not budge, he knew that the 4-3-3 of last season was finished.

Back to the drawing board it seemed, though Guardiola did not opt for the 3-4-3. Valencia ripped that particular idea to shreds, and he was not prepared to implement it full-time. I’m sure his office was like the laboratory of a mad professor, notes scribbled every which where, before he found his solution. Like many of his greatest decisions, the answer was close to home, and his name?

Isaac Cuenca.

Promoting the winger from Barcelona B, he instantly placed the young Spaniard into the first XI and the world witnessed the emergence of the next La Masia star. Fast, yet skilful; think Theo Walcott with technical ability. I am not saying that Cuenca is one of the world’s best, but he is a near-perfect fit for this new system.

What we are witnessing is the evolution of the 4-3-3 and there is no longer an emphasis on the inside forwards to cut inside. Instead we have true wingers who can deliver quality crosses, in addition to the option that the inside forwards supplied. It adds unpredictability to FC Barcelona’s strengths, and how can the opposition plan for something they do not know?

If Cuenca or Adriano continue to carry the ball towards the corner flag it draws the full-backs back out, creating spaces for the others to exploit. The midfielders can make ruins from deep, and whether they are meeting a cross (think Cesc’s goal vs Plzen) or a cutback, they are threatening the opposition. Not only that, but central defenders have to watch the ball in case Cuenca does try a cross.

That’s where Lionel Messi comes in.

Messi is no longer the defender’s main concern, and he thrives on this. Two consecutive hat-tricks and a general improvement in his play. I count that as a marked improvement on three games and no goal. Not only that, but his presence is no longer required on the wing. Playing as the false no.9 he does not have to drift around looking for chances, they just find him.

I am sad to say it, but David Villa is no longer assured a starting berth, though I am happy to say that the Blaugrana are going to benefit from it. Whether it is Isaac Cuenca, Pedro, Adriano or Alexis Sanchez on the wings, Barcelona are no longer predictable.

Pep Guardiola: You have done it again! Now bring on San Mames and Athletic Bilbao...

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