Footy Dressing Room

Is Barcelona really the best team in the world from front to back?

In Opinion on April 6, 2012 at 4:53 pm

The majority of pundits and football fans alike are convinced that this current Barca team consists of the best group of players to be assembled in the modern era. A select few would go as far as to say that they are the best team ever. Player for player is this really the case? Is there a proven formula for conquering this awe inspiring group of players?

Can Chelsea repeat their display of three years ago?

After Chelsea stumbled past Benfica this past Wednesday night, so called football experts united in dismissing any chance of Di Matteo’s resurgent side defeating the mighty Catalonians. It is almost as if they had forgotten the dramatic semi-final the two teams had shared only three seasons ago. A tie in which Chelsea boasted Barcelona’s greatest fears: power, energy and discipline.

The likes of Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Michael Ballack disrupted the ‘total football’ that the Barcelona management demands of its team. This was achieved by getting in amongst the Barca playmakers Xavi and Iniesta and resorting to an aerial game which benefited the players mentioned. If not for a last gasp screamer from Iniesta, Chelsea would have advanced to a second straight all English final against Manchester United.

On this occasion Chelsea dominated most aspects of the game, especially during the home leg.  Iniesta’s match winner was unbelievably Barcelona’s first shot on goal in the entire game. The tie represented how something as simple as faith in your own ability can have such an impact when you come up against a side like Barcelona. Chelsea entered the tie believing they could win, this translated into their style of play, giving Barca little or no time on the ball.

Why all the keep ball?

People often sit startled as to how and why Barcelona’s ball retention is consistently so superb. Half of this comes down to how the players were schooled under Johan Cruyff’s ‘total football’ philosophy whilst being brought up in the Barca youth academy; the other half is a result of the respect that the opposition in general displays.

Based on a fear that their teams will be cut to pieces by Barcelona’s incisive passing, managers tend to adopt a ‘park the bus’ approach, which often results in all 10 outfield players being camped in their own half. Not only does this approach favour the games of midfield trio Busquests, Xavi and Iniesta, it makes the centre-back pairing of Pique and Puyol look like footballing gods due to the amount of ball they see to feet and the amount of time and space they are given to pick a pass.

Chelsea were superb over the two legs in shutting Barcelona down from the front, a strategy which is apparent in other examples and one which could be considered the formula for beating the best in the world.

The pressing of Milan’s giants exposes defensive frailties

Commentators almost let off a sigh of relief as Messi tucked away Barca’s opener against Milan from the spot. Having billed them as the best in the world ahead of kick-off, it’s as if they felt ashamed at the amount clear cut chances Milan had created at the Nou Camp. The end result was far from the “formality” that the commentary team had labelled the game as. Two Barca goals came from the spot, with the final effort resulting from a ricochet which fell kindly for Iniesta.

Again, this game saw the effectiveness of a relentless pressing game. It’s not so noticeable in midfield where Barcelona have the presence of mind to avoid being tackled. But time after time they are found out at the back when lining up against a high energy outfit. Dani Alves takes the definition of a modern right-back to a whole new extreme, as often he is the furthest player forward. It is either Messi or Sanchez that occupies the right wing role, although since Messi’s conversion to a ‘false number 9’ it is Sanchez that plays from the right hand side more often than not. Sanchez is hardly a player likely to assist Alves’ defensive duties as he ventures forward.

In addition, the long term illness of Eric Abidal has led to the creation of a make shift left-back in Carlos Puyol, a player who has never really reached the same level as Barca’s other ball playing defenders. The gap at the centre of defence left by Puyol has led to yet another position alteration. Mascherano has been asked to occupy this space as a former holding midfielder. His partnership with Pique often seems like one made in hell once they come under pressure. Add Valdes to the mix and Barcelona can often be considered fragile.

As good as Mascherano is at defending a grounded ball, he lacks aerial prowess. The opposite can be said for Pique, a player who is dominant in the air but allows attackers to ghost past him. Finally, Valdes occasionally gets it into his head that he has the passing range of Xavi, giving the ball away as a result of audacious distribution.

The most telling example of this is the Champions League clash with Inter Milan at the San Siro in 2010. Despite leading 1-0, Guardiola’s team was roughed up, with Inter playing both within and without the rules. The ball was lumped long to make Pique and Puyol turn and they never got time to settle; Inter chased and harried like Barcelona at their best. The match ended 3-1 to Inter, a result which ultimately killed the tie.

Best in the world?

I am by no means trying to kill the claim that Barcelona are the best team in the world. I am simply trying to find fault in perfection.  The fact that this amount of effort is put into discovering ways in which they can be beaten suggests that they are, for the majority of the time, unstoppable.

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