For so many years, the essence of Tiki Taka has been the idea of the triangle. Trying to form triangles on every side of the pitch and including all the positions even the goalkeeper. By my own rough calculation, there are close to eight or more evident triangles in a 4-3-3 formation, with the most important one being the one between Sergio Busquets and the two central midfielders. The two central midfielders are generally different in nature: One meant to drive the ball (Andres Iniesta) and the other to organize the play (Xavi). If these roles change and the two midfielders are similar in nature, it can change the entire dynamic of the pitch. Ivan Rakitic and Iniesta in 2015 were both drivers of the ball and responsible for distributing the ball to the front three in transition but the only thing that worked in that case was the fact that there was the best, even if close to retirement, organizer in the world on the bench in the form of Xavi to protect the lead that the other players left for him. Winning the treble that season proved how important Xavi was even in his latter years considering the fact that even with the best front three in the world Messi-Suarez-Neymar could not win the Champions League again. The “organizer” is the bridge that keeps the Barcelona ship afloat.
After watching Barcelona vs PSV tonight, the most glaring fault I saw was the lack of an organizer. Rakitic can play in that role but he’s much more suited to play his free run-and-gun style that bears him the nickname “Goku.” Philippe Coutinho has been moved to his more impactful role as a winger and Arturo Vidal is very much not a “Barcelona” player. Don’t get me wrong, he’s essential to the team. Barcelona has always needed an outlier even since the days of Pep Guardiola (Yaya Toure). Paulinho was essential in providing the iron strength that Barcelona needed last season, opening up space for Lionel Messi and breaking up play for more creative minded players like Iniesta in a 4-4-2. However the tragedy is that the one match that Barcelona signed him for last season, he was left rotting on the bench against a strong and physical team like Roma. He would’ve been one of the key players of that match justifying his transfer fee but the past is the past. Vidal has to be reserved for matches such as this, to be used against physically mobile teams to compete against the likes of Radja Nainggolan and Daniele De Rossi for strength. Against weaker teams or essentially most teams, it has to be the “Barcelona way” or the highway.
If anyone needed any evidence of how essential Arthur is to the way Barcelona likes to play, this was it. His injury proved more detrimental than people realize. The amount of times I saw Jordi Alba play aimless back and forth passes with Coutinho or on the other end, Nelson Semedo and Ousmane Dembélé, makes it even more apparent the subtle greatness of a player like Arthur. He acts as a bridge between the two wing players on both ends of the pitch, the centre forward and the midfielders and the most important one being between Busquets and Rakitic. His presence makes the entire team better in the most undervalued aspects in football.
His first job is to act as the “bridge.” During the match, I constantly saw Dembélé and Coutinho dropping back trying to pick passes from the wing backs due to the continuous pressure from the midfield four of PSV making it impossible to make horizontal entry passes. There were moments where I saw Semedo almost playing like an inverted full-back due to the lack of space in the middle. This was also because at various points during the match, I saw Vidal almost connected to Messi in a CAM role that was not his to occupy. This made wing attacks a lot easier to manage defensively for PSV in the first half and hence rendered Dembélé and Coutinho less threatening in open space. Moreover, considering the decisive impact of Busquets on any match, it was eye-opening to see him misplacing easy passes to Gerard Pique several times: his bread and butter. He looked out of his depth for long periods of the match due to not having enough space to operate in his usual manner; Space that Arthur creates for him due to occupying two or more pressuring attackers. Rakitic also looked like a ghost of his former self. He likes to play one-twos with Arthur to create more attacking options when he’s running with the ball into the teeth of the defense, but he was reduced to passing backwards more often than any other player. One can only wonder how many more chances could have been created if Rakitic played a pass to Arthur, made a run, got it back, laid it off to Alba on the wing and Alba in his usual style made entry passes into the boxes most probably for Messi and how lethal Messi is in crowded spaces. It seems presumptuous but watching all of Barcelona’s matches this season makes this seem like any other play that they make on a consistent basis and get good results out of. Even Messi seemed out of focus due to the amount of times he would have to pick off the ball and create chances out of nothing in the first half. Arthur would certainly act as a bridge in the match and occupy the central zones that were empty for large periods of the contest, creating more spaces for all other players.
Another job that Arthur fulfills is of the “pressure reliever” or in more formal terms an outlet. In the first half, Barcelona was tested by PSV in their own style: Excessive ball pressure. Pique, Lenglet, Busquets and Rakitic bore the brunt of the pressure. There was a moment in the first half where Pique was pushed into a corner by Bergwijn and uncharacteristically he had to just kick the ball out and like any other mediocre Premier League defender and “get rid of it.” No midfielder came near him to act as an outlet which is a role generally reserved for Arthur. There was another situation where Dembélé was pressured by Gastón Pereiro and he made a few tricks to get rid of the pressure and then misplaced the pass to Malcolm. It’s small moments like this that make or break a game and one wonders if a lot of those misplaced passes under pressure could have been avoided with the presence of an outlet: Arthur. However credit where credit is due: Barcelona did change their tactics a lot in the second half, played more aggressive, played more on the counter but the reason they played this way is the same as it was in 2015 and the reason it didn’t work in 2016. It requires over-dependence on the front three, a lot less defensive cover on the counter and a lot of sacrifice in the long run on possession. To put it simply, it is just not sustainable.
A lot of things went wrong for PSV tonight with missing their chances handed on a platter by shoddy Barcelona passes. A lot of things went right for Barcelona tonight with the best player in the world pulling out another bag of tricks up his sleeve for both the goals and making the match look an uneven contest. Trust me it wasn’t. Barcelona sitting back towards the end of the game and then conceding only proves how much Barcelona missed Arthur as an organizer and stabilizer. We’ll take the win and the cemented top position of the group but I hope we also take the lesson and realize the lack of depth in that position and how Arthur’s injury only proves that Éric Abidal has his work cut out in that department in the January window.