In recent weeks, we've seen Barça playing a more direct attacking game to best utilise Neymar and Lionel Messi in the wide attacking positions and Luis Suárez in the number 9 role. As soon as the ball is turned over, the Uruguayan darts towards the danger area and in doing so he gifts the wide attackers some freedom to receive the ball but, more importantly, the space to run into when they do. Overall, the ball is being moved out to the flanks earlier and the attacks begin more frequently from just inside the opponent's half. Some may argue that setting up to take advantage of the break is just another string to our bow and that we can maintain our possession game alongside it. However, counter-attacking football and "tiki taka" are often considered to be mutually exclusive given the necessity of sitting deep with the former and the close proximity of the midfield and offensive lines with the latter. Therefore, other commentators have suggested that this could be the beginning of a move away from Barça's playing philosophy. If it must come down to one style or the other, then, given the club's quarter-century long commitment to developing the short passing game, it's reasonable to question whether or not we should be sacrificing it. If such sacrifice helps us win *more* matches, then a portion of fans would reasonably argue we should. Others (not necessarily all of them fans though) have gone as far as to say the jig is up for pass-and-move possession football anyway so there's no sense in preserving it. However, are we really sure that the brand of football Barça mastered between 2008 and 2011 has been "found out" and that, even now with an attacking force of woe and doom, that an increasingly counter-attacking style is more advisable?
The Possession Game
It's true that Barça's possession game has become routinely unsuccessful against the top teams but this isn't necessarily because of a flaw in the overall tactical system. Specifically, while teams have figured out how to beat Barça, they never figured out how to beat a fit, quick, and sharp Barça. They figured out how to beat a tired, slow, and dull Barça. During his tenure, Pep Guardiola's overriding concern was one of fitness. Experimenting with preseason training camps in Britain, travelling to and returning from matches on the same day, and scheduling "mini-preseasons" in November and February, his primary goals were to keep his players as sharp as possible during the year and prime them for explosive fitness at crucial points in the season including late April/early May. When it worked, it was a dream as Pep's charges zipped the ball around the attacking third, dragging the opposition left and right, wearing them down, and ultimately carving them open. In 2008-2009, Barça marched to the treble, sweeping Manchester United aside in the Champions League final. In 2010-2011, they were arguably even better as they demolished Real Madrid 5-0 in the Barcelona Clasico and went on to sweep Madrid and United aside in the semi-finals and final of the Champions League respectively. To put it simply, at the points at which their fitness training began to pay off, they were not only unbeatable, they were unplayable. Therefore, if the fitness of the current crop of players can be maintained and even improved upon, it's possible that this brand of football still has a long way to go. However, this is easier said than done.
As Andres Iniesta pointed out after the win in Wembley, nobody appeared to appreciate how difficult the team had to work to maintain that level of sharpness and how easily it could be scuppered. A minor miscalculation in the training programme and/or unanticipated event during the year (like José selling that last shrivelled up piece of his soul to Faust up a freakin ash-cloud!) could see the team achieve fitness too late so that they faltered when they should be clicking. Moreover, during the intense training of the mini-preseasons, the team were sluggish and susceptible to surprise draws or defeats. The biggest problem came ironically with their success. The powers that be couldn't resist capitalising on the Champions League wins and, against Pep's better judgment, went ahead with summer tours of the US when arguably the team's greater efforts in winning the biggest competition in the world should've earned them a break. Those and the FIFA Club World Cups which were held in Abu Dhabi in late 2009 and Japan in 2011 combined to sabotage Pep's delicate training schedule so that the team simply ran out of gas in March and April of the following years.
The Direct Game
Since Pep's departure a year later, we've seen his various replacements attempt to replicate the same pressing/passing intensity of 2008-2011 but without the same obsessive focus on fitness. The result has been a slow tempo version of what came before, one that disciplined defences can adjust to no matter how often or accurately the ball is passed. And understandably, the failure of this "possession lite" has finally produced deafening calls for a change or at least a modification in style. Tata Martino tried the long ball game and we know how that one fared: - a low percentage attack and a defence that collapsed under the breakdown of possession. Now Luis Enrique is tinkering with strategic counter-attacking and while it's undoubtedly been responsible for a decent run of late, we still don't know how it'll fare against the really top teams in Europe. What we do know is that even though it gets the best out of the Messi-Neymar-Suárez dynamic, the more frantic box-to-box play has seen Barça ship a greater number of goals during this run. Furthermore, this last issue isn't likely to get any better once we meet Europe's heavyweights. So where does Lucho go from here? Continue developing the direct attacking game or attempt to refocus Barça's efforts and fitness at controlled possession?
One or the Other?
If we continue to adopt a more direct counter-attacking game based around the formidable trio of Messi, Neymar, and Suarez then we might indeed win a Liga, Copa or even a Champions League. However, given that there are several other top teams plying the same trade, the chances for total domination are less and so individual matches will often come down to who has the better counter-attack on the day. Contrarily, with the all-out tiki taka system of the Guardiola era, Barça approached a level of excellence that the game had rarely (if ever) witnessed and one that far surpassed the best counter-attacking football of the day. Executing a style nobody else could imitate, they controlled every match, regardless of the opposition's form and when they took the lead, they rarely felt in danger of losing it. But *only* when they themselves were in form.
Currently, the team is on an 11 match run of consecutive victories and with that, Luis Enrique has been getting better press of late so chances are he will opt for the continued development of the more direct game. But before the purists begin to panic, consider for a moment that Barça have recently cancelled their friendly in Quatar so that they would avoid the tiredness that Real Madrid and Manchester City among others succumbed to after their winter tours. Consider also that Lucho has rotated his players extensively this year (something even Pep rarely did) and that all the players feel that their fitness training this year is at its most productive level since 2010-2011. Of course, fitness is critical for every type of football regardless of tactics but none moreso than a hard-pressing/possession-retaining team. And that Lucho seems to be more focused on this aspect than any of Pep's previous successors might indicate he's not about to turn his back on that style.
Is it possible, therefore, that the current manager might just be aiming for a blend between the two styles? Is that even tactically possible? How do you maintain possession and simultaneous invite the opposition forward? Or to put it another way, how do you engineer counter-attacking into a system designed not to concede possession in the first place? Or... maybe some commentators are simply getting ahead of themselves and all we're talking about this season is the introduction of opportunistic counter-attacking:- a short passing tiki taka machine, hungry for possession as opposed to sitting deep, yet primed to counter-attack instead of pass when the opportunity presents itself? Interestingly, the statistics support this last contention.
One only has to look at the recent matches in which Barça have successfully employed more direct attacks. Against Levante at home in the Liga (76% possession, 780 passes), Villarreal in the home leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final (73%, 773), Athletic away in the Liga (73%, 819), Villarreal at home in the Liga (69%, 729), and Atletico away in the Copa (75%, 632) Barça have still managed to show their usual domination of the ball while consistently catching the opposition out on the occasions that they commit forward and lose possession. They've continued to move the ball forward incrementally when there's no break on and are still looking to open up opposition defenses with the use of quick intricate passing. But they're also willing to go direct when the move is on and, more importantly, they're constantly looking for it. In fact, they seem coiled for the attack!
Now, while taking advantage of counter-attacking opportunities might not sound tactically ground-breaking, take a moment to recall that a recurring feature of Pep's Barça was its steadfast refusal to play on the counter. How often did we dispair at the sight of a player on the break holding up the ball until the rest of the attack joined him and assumed their positions? Pep was/is a genius but his tenure at Barça wasn't completely flawless and his fear of the low percentage pass was perhaps a little stifling. If Lucho's Barcelona are merely adding a new edge to their possession game, it might be that little bit of flexibility that was always missing.
Now, the potential downside: Yes, with more direct movement at the breakdown there will be moments when the speed of the game will run away from the team and, during such moments, Barça have and will continue to be caught out of position and lose structure. Furthermore, a counter-attacking side that is hungry for possession can generate a Catch-22 for itself. Namely, with greater pressing responsibilities being placed upon the front line, their ability to effectively counter is inevitably diminished through tiredness. We've seen this problem consistently scupper the tactics of the great but flawed Marcelo Bielsa when he sets his high pressing teams up for direct counterattacking. There's no way around it, if you want the ball, you're adopting high intensity tactics and tiredness will eventually take its toll.
The critical conclusion here is that if Lucho is attempting to modify Barça's tiki-taka to overcome the toothlessness of recent seasons, then an emphasis on direct attacking might work in the short term but, unless his team's physical training is at optimum, they will not be able to maintain it. *If* it is, then not only should the offensive line become a rampaging unit of pressing and attack but the midfielders might even become capable of slowing the pace of the game when the relative headlessness of box-to-box football threatens to destroy it. It's a big "if" and the very same one that saw Pep's long-term project flounder. However, with his concentration on fitness thus far, his braveness in rotation (let's face it, we haven't made it easy for him), and his more direct attacking football, Enrique might be going the right way in achieving it. The next couple of months will tell.
As ever, this article is as much about providing food for thought as arguing one case over another so let us know what you think...