Throughout Barcelona’s two-year run of groundbreaking excellence, Josep Guardiola i Sala role as a tactician tended to be undervalued. He reinstituted the “Total Football” concept that Johan Cruyff, Guardiola’s former manager at FC Barcelona, instilled when he was a player and a manager at the club, and he changed the culture inside the dressing room.
He sent bad influences Deco and Ronaldinho away, and he brought a sense of discipline and accountability that the club lacked at the end of the Frank Rijkaard era. When it came to the X and O’s of a match, however, most defined the team in his reign as a beautiful machine that only possessed a “Plan A” of ball possession and incessant attack.
If anyone still doubted Pep Guardiola as a tactical grandmaster, the last two matches against Arsenal and Real Madrid should validate his place as one of the top managers in world football.
Debuted against Arsenal during the second half of the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal, Guardiola insisted on the 4-4-2 formation to handle Real Madrid’s abundance of offensive talent. Partly forced by injuries but mostly a tactical decision, the Barça starting eleven was a departure from the norm. Guardiola brought Dani Alves forward as a right midfielder/winger and positioned Seydou Keita as a left midfielder. Carles Puyol went to right back, and Gabriel Milito filled in alongside Gerard Piqué in central defense.
With Éric Abidal reinjuring his thigh against Arsenal, the question surrounding the left back position was if Maxwell would receive the nod against Real Madrid. Maxwell is the natural replacement, but in some instances this season, the opposition caught him out of position when he would make his forward runs. With Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo racing down the left flank, there would be a decent possibility of a defensive breakdown with Maxwell absent from the action. Rather than putting Carles Puyol in a left back role that he rarely ever plays, Guardiola kept faith with Maxwell in their most important match of the La Liga season.
The first few minutes of the match suggested that this pivotal game would be more akin to the tightly contested edition in November than the open affair at the Bernabéu last May. The suffocating Barça press swarmed even harder, and the Real Madrid tackling came with more regularity and venom.
Guardiola positioned his team to quell Real Madrid’s lightning counter-attack, and apart from a couple of instances when Cristiano Ronaldo’s pure talent and speed would defy any defense, Barcelona’s defensive organization and discipline kept firm. A clean sheet through forty-five minutes and zero shots on goal allowed testified to the Blaugrana’s security in the midfield and in front of Víctor Valdés.
With a one-goal lead to start the second half, Guardiola readjusted his formation, bringing Dani Alves back to his usual right back role and moving Carles Puyol into central defense, creating a five-man back line to consolidate an already strong defense. Guardiola knew that his counterpart Manuel Pellegrini would send wave after wave of attacks in the second half to score the equalizing goal, and he felt a reinforcement to stem this oncoming tide would be prudent. Hardly characterizing this change as protectionist with Dani Alves and Maxwell still marauding both flanks, Real Madrid found Puyol, Piqué, and Milito to be uncompromising and intelligent in their tackling and positioning.
Two clean sheets against Real Madrid this season substantiated Barcelona’s claim as more than a club who only worries about scoring goals.
Manuel Pellegrini is no fledgling manager either, and with Real Madrid’s midfield and defensive organization at its season best, it would take more invention and guile than individual splendor to break down their white wall. Who better than Xavi Hernández to solve the problem.
For a player that has and continues to receive numerous accolades throughout his illustrious career, Xavi does not get the full credit for his contributions to Futbol Club Barcelona. He always had a transcendent talent on his team that would garner the headlines: first, it was Rivaldo; then it was Ronaldinho; and now it is Lionel Messi. Others would scoff at their teammates for stealing the limelight, but Xavi would want nothing more than to provide assists for his fellow colleagues as well as deflecting praise to them and his manager.
For Xavi’s first masterpiece, he executed a cheeky lofted ball over the Madrid defense to perfection. Constantly scanning the field for any potential passes to befuddle the opposition, he saw Messi make a run from the corner of his eye. He had two options: an incisive through ball in between the defenders or a ball over the defense. He chose the latter (the much more difficult option), and Raúl Albiol watched in horror as the ball floated over his head onto the chest of Messi, who chested it to his right to create space and smack it past Iker Casillas for the vital first goal.
Xavi’s second offering early in the second half sealed the match. Again, he spotted a run of his teammate in his peripheral vision. Pedro made a diagonal run, and Xavi obliged his effort by slotting a perfect through ball that hit the moving target as well as directing it into a position where Álvaro Arbeloa could not come around Pedro to tackle the ball away. Pedro curled his shot past Casillas, and the 0-2 lead proved insurmountable.
Besides his inventive and sagacious ball distribution, his ability off the ball remains underrated. Sergio Busquets and Touré Yaya are known to be the pivots of the Barça midfield as well as the protectors of the back four, but Xavi is the epitome of a box-to-box midfielder. His harassment of any Madrid player on the ball forced them to rush their movements, causing a few turnovers in compromising areas of the pitch. On several occasions, he fully committed to decisive tackles that broke up feasible goal-scoring opportunities for Real Madrid.
It is no coincidence that Xavi Hernández and Josep Guardiola would mastermind a crucial victory in Barcelona’s attempt to repeat as Spanish champions. When Barcelona won their first European Cup in 1992, Guardiola led the midfield as that deep-lying playmaker that controlled the game without having to score. As Guardiola started to age, Xavi became the natural successor to Guardiola in his position, and Xavi’s teams have won two UEFA Champions League titles, the second with his former teammate Guardiola as manager.
Lionel Messi and Pedro Rodríguez scored yet again in an important match, and the plaudits showered on these two for their brilliant individual moments are richly deserved. Behind all great forwards, however, are the midfielders that provide them with the potent ball to pierce the defense. While Messi creates opportunities for himself due to his amazing ability, he would be the first to say that without Xavi governing the midfield as a maestro and conductor and Pep Guardiola continually instructing in training and in the heat of a match, he would not have matured into the historic figure he has already become.
Fueras de Juego
– Cristiano Ronaldo played his part, consistently flying down both flanks in search of any opening that Barcelona allowed, but his anxiety to prove he is better than Lionel Messi and worth the €94 million transfer fee left his teammates out of the loop as he single-handedly tried to beat Barça on his own. Gonzalo Higuaín supplied the most disappointing performance for Real Madrid, as he could not carve out a decent chance against Puyol and the gang. Although it was not entirely his fault, the papers will again spout out how he flatters to deceive in the grandest occasions despite scoring a tremendous amount of goals.
In case of El Clásico blinkers, there were other matches in La Liga this weekend.
– Sevilla defeated Málaga 1-2 in an Andalusian derby, but both Andrés Palop and Gustavo Munúa provided classic moments for those blooper highlight reels. For Palop, he failed to secure a routine shot from Duda, and the ensuing spill gave Felipe Caicedo a simple tap-in for Málaga to take the lead.
Sevilla’s equalizer from Juan Cala came about from an embarrassing error by Munúa. Ivica Dragutinovic’s free kick floated straight into Munúa’s chest, but he somehow fumbled and mishandled it as if he caught a burning rock, and Cala could not believe his luck as he tapped in his goal.
Málaga was disgraceful with their constant play-acting and time-wasting tactics, and cosmic justice reigned supreme as Lolo headed the winning goal late in the contest.
– Athletic Bilbao notched the most comprehensive victory of the weekend with their 4-1 drubbing of Almería at the San Mamés, and the score flattered Almería. Javi Martínez exhibited why Rafa Benítez and Liverpool are following his every move closely. Two goals and industry in the midfield further cemented him as one of Liverpool’s summer transfer targets as the Reds try to find the replacement for Xabi Alonso that Alberto Aquilani has failed to achieve to this point.
Bilbao pelted Almería goalkeeper Diego Alves with twenty-six total shots, thirteen on target, but the most impressive stat of the match for Athletic Club was that they committed only nine fouls for the whole ninety minutes. Nine fouls in ninety minutes for Athletic Bilbao would be analogous to Barcelona only having 50% of the possession. It hardly ever happens.
– Valencia’s Manuel Fernandes might want to hide under a rock tonight after a torrid game against Mallorca. Admittedly a midfielder forced into central defense due to a host of injuries, Fernandes committed elementary errors in defense, including getting continually beat over the top and stranding his own keeper César Sánchez a couple of times with short back passes.
The coup de grâce came when he netted into his own goal from a Gonzalo Castro cross to hinder any chance for Valencia to salvage a point. To cap off a miserable performance, Fernandes was sent off late in the match for a clumsy tackle on Aritz Aduriz.
Pablo Hernández scored late for Los Che to intensify the last few minutes, but Mallorca dominated Valencia despite the 3-2 final scoreline, and Valencia’s miserable week ended with a thud at the ONO Estadi.