Barcelona. The fluidity of their football and dominance of the football world have left many wondering whether they are first among equals in a hall of fame that consists of Real Madrid’s 1960 team, Holland’s 1974 team, Brazil’s 1970 team, Liverpool’s 1984 team and many others.
As we look at the top teams in the Premier League today we are left wondering what happened to the archetypal British, 4-4-2, long ball, physical football? Steve Barron’s brilliant satire of British football ‘Mike Bassett: England manager’ perfectly summed up everything that was farcical yet familiar about our island’s style of play. But does it ring true any more? Ever more our clubs have shifted away from the two-wingers-two-strikers to a system that allows greater movement between roles for the midfield and striking positions. So effective has Barcelona’s style of play been that it would seem only natural for clubs around the world to try and emulate it. So is this what we’ve been doing too?
The 4-3-3 seems to have taken over English football recently. Adopted at times by Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool, Blackpool, Swansea, Aston Villa, QPR and others the formation is fast becoming first choice for many clubs. The advantages as demonstrated by Barcelona not only lie the fluidity of forwards (Messi, Villa and Pedro are constantly switching position) but also in the dominance of three central midfielders over two. If the recent Barcelona vs. Man Utd encounters in the Champions League have taught us anything is that attempting to play two midfielders against Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta is an optimistic approach. Especially if one of those midfielders is Carrick. The fact is that Barcelona has demonstrated that when your players are playing well there is nothing you can do to stop it a midfield trio. Man Utd fans will have recognized Ferguson often playing five in midfield in Europe last season in an attempt to combat just that.
Defence without defenders
Possession football is a luxurious way to defend that only the best teams can afford to do. Barcelona has become so good at it that they are regularly playing their midfielders in defence. Granted it is through necessity and not choice but they are faring pretty well. I’m not saying that similar tactics will be employed here by choice but the option to have ‘ball-playing’ defenders over ‘defensive’ defenders is definitely on the up in our game. Players like Vermaelen, David Luiz, Sebastian Coates and others are the beginning of a new generation of defenders. No more do we have our back lines modeled on burly, brutish men regimentally playing the offside trap as they scythe down players and relentlessly put their head on the line. That player still exists but the advantages of players like Pique and Dani Alves have been more than highlighted by Barcelona. Arguably Dani Alves only plays as a defender against the best teams. The rest of the time he is somewhere next to Messi on the wing. I’m not saying that Barcelona have patented the attacking or ball playing defenders. Just that their use of them has highlighted the importance of the roles of those players. Role that we are seeing more and more of in British football.
Natural progression or Barcelona impersonators?
There are two arguments that could be touted: a) that these and other changes are just the natural progression of football and Barcelona was simply slightly ahead of the curve; b) we have simply seen how good Barcelona are and thought: ‘I want to play like that’. Either way I think it is perfectly plausible to say that Barcelona have inadvertently changed the way we play football in this country. Of course the idea of a 4-3-3 existed before Barcelona as did the Dutch ‘total football’ but Barcelona have now honed it until it seems idiotic to play any other way. After Inter Milan beat Barcelona to reach the Champions League final a few years ago everyone was saying: ‘that’s the way to beat Barcelona’. Now, with Mourinho having failed to really emulate that feat since, people are starting to realize that you need to play in a similar way. Arsenal’s victory at the Emirates last season is testament to the fact that, even with much lesser players, Barcelona can be beaten at their own game. And that their tactics are pretty useful for beating others too. Nobody in our League has come close to perfecting it yet. But they style and formation they play is more likely to start getting taught in our academies. Even the FA Head of Elite Development Gareth Southgate has proposed that we switch the way we train our youth teams to the same style that Barcelona’s La Masia uses. The Cultural Revolution is in full effect.
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