Watching Germany on Saturday made me think about the shortcomings of Barcelona this season, and how they could adapt their play to get the best out of their talent, while honoring its total football heritage.
It was Julian Nagelsmann’s anticipated debut as manager, as he looks to fix the struggles of a proud national team that has dropped to 15 in the FIFA world rankings.
On a side note, I have a hard time understanding how these rankings work. Germany has indeed struggled big time to pick up wins lately, but it’s hard in my mind to make the argument that the United States, Mexico, Switzerland, and Morocco, are all better than them.
Nagelsmann is a manager with something to prove, after his shock sacking at Bayern Munich last Spring.
Bayern Munich and Barcelona are interesting clubs to compare. The Bavarians have opted for a 4-2-3-1 as their primary formation in recent years, while Barcelona still leans on the 4-3-3.
But both teams, regardless of the managers who have come through, like to play out of the back, patiently build through the midfield, and attack the final third from out wide with traditional wingers. They both also have similar profiles from the center forward position in Robert Lewandowski and Harry Kane, and the attacking midfield with Jamal Musiala and Pedri.
In spite of the obvious tactical intentions, both clubs this season are struggling to dominate on the ball, and look a bit aimless and predictable in their efforts to break through on goal.
Nagelmann’s first game in charge, however, was intriguing.
To start things off, he had two Barcelona players in the lineup with Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Ilkay Gundogan.
He had the Germans playing a 4-2-3-1 with Gundogan in a double pivot alongside Pascal Groß.
The first half was a struggle, with the United States getting the upper hand with a spirited effort to win the ball, and an ability to attack quickly in transition with a talented line-up of players from the top four leagues in Europe.
The first 45 minutes were a back and forth affair, with both sides having good chances. The Americans opened the scoring after an emphatic finish by Christian Pulisic, after Niclas Füllkrug missed a sitter in front of goal, that turned into a quick counter-attack the other way.
Right before half-time, however, Germany got one back behind the efforts of Leroy Sane and Gundogan who combined with a give-and-go at the top of the box. Sane’s effort was blocked, but Gundogan did what he did well, trailing the play, and tapping home the easy rebound.
At the break, you’d think that Germany would be disappointed with their efforts. No way they would ever expect the Americans to get the better of them.
And yet, for all the struggles to breakthrough, and the shakiness from the defense, you saw a team practicing their system for the first time, in real time.
In the second half, the team approached the game the same way tactically, but this time, minute by minute, they picked up steam, until finally the dam broke.
Along the way, Gundogan was front and center, putting on the type of masterclass that we haven’t seen yet at Barcelona.
Although he was playing in a double pivot, he was given the freedom to play higher as the team built in the attacking third.
At that point, Germany was very patient and intentional with their structure.
Sane and Wirtz played on the wing, but they would cut inside to create triangles with the two central attacking midfielders in Gundogan or Musiala (who absolutely showed his class in this one), with Füllkrug completing the shape as the center-forward, finding gaps between the center-backs.
They would play very slick combinations with small one-touch passing around the Americans, which resulted in lots of good looks in front of goal, many of which were wasted by Füllkrug.
I can’t remember many, if any crosses coming in from the wingers. Truthfully, there were no wasted balls.
Every player knew their role within the system, and played it well. Even while the German players struggled to build an understanding with one another, you could see the intention. And they stuck with it.
And once it clicked, they were unstoppable, and the American defense looked helpless.
Now, this is just one game with Nagelsmann in charge. Who knows how things will evolve, but from my perspective, it looked so promising because it looked so tactically clear. Germany may not be a powerhouse any more, but their team is loaded with technical talent.
The question is how to unlock it. That’s where a good coach steps in, communicates the ideas, and instills confidence in the players to try it out, and stick with it, until the experiment bears fruit.
It made me wonder, why wouldn’t this work for Barca?
I hope Xavi was watching, and this is what I hope he takes from it.
Gundogan clearly has a lot more to offer. He captains the German team, and after his tenure with Manchester City, is capable of playing a clinical game of one-touch passing.
When Pedri returns, I could see the Spaniard taking on the role of Musiala, breaking down defenders on the dribble, and sliding in the killer pass on goal.
Joao Felix, Raphinha, and Lamine Yamal have the ability to play as wingers in this system because of their creativity and technical proficiency.
Robert Lewandowski would surely put away the sitters in front of goal that Füllkrug missed.
Add in a Frenkie de Jong, or even an Oriol Romeu in the meantime for structural integrity and cover, and you have everything you need to do what Germany showed it could do with Nagelsmann in charge.
But it comes down to intention, and that’s where Xavi as the manager needs to be able to communicate to the players how he wants them to attack.
He needs to get over the wingers chucking in crosses from out wide.
The players need to be instructed to keep the ball on the ground, play small, and be patient, without wasting anything in front of goal. This was the Pep Guardiola way in the days of tiki taka.
Barcelona has had success during Xavi’s time, but this season will be the moment of truth. They have lacked a consistent identity, and that reflects on the manager.
The hardest thing to do on the field in developing a new system is to trust your teammates, and give it time to fail, before it succeeds. But that assumes there’s a plan in place to begin with.
I’ll be watching this new German team with interest.
They got off to an impressive start in the Nagelsmann era against a solid opponent, and the question will be if they’re brave enough to continue down this path, refining and making improvements along the way.
Maybe one day, we’ll see Nagelsmann at Barcelona. Seems like it could be a good fit.
For Xavi, the time is now, to decide what he wants his Barcelona team to be.
It’s still early on in the season, but time will slip away quickly if he loses control this month with fixtures against Athletic Club and Real Madrid up next.
Germany plays Mexico on Tuesday. I’ll be watching, and I hope Xavi does too.