The Quiet Man’s Silent Revolution

Cesc Celebration

Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, born with his appointment in 2008, will be remembered by the majority as Lionel Messi’s team. He has been the symbol of their dominance, his unprecedented goalscoring records have epitomised the distance between they and almost every other club. His stunning contribution has been a massive part of their success, but the foundations for it have been in their style and the players who enable it; none more so than Xavi Hernández, who has arguably been an even more important figure than the Argentine.

 

From the start of the 2006/07 season to the end of 2011/12, Xavi has played a staggering average of 65 games a season for club and country, including summer tournaments in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012, and has already played 29 at the halfway point of this season. He has just signed a new contract that ensures he will end his career at Barcelona, but at 32 and following from the sheer amount of football he has played over the last six years, he can hardly be expected to play two games a week for much longer. Under Guardiola, he was the personification of their style. He was perennially at the centre of their patient, opposition-strangling, possession philosophy, with the intelligence to know exactly when to play the longer and shorter passes and where to be at any given time.

 

Next to him he has had the more dribbling-prone Andrés Iniesta and behind the pair of them lay the majestic Sergio Busquets, who acted as the brawn of the operation. The three in tandem were arguably something better than any trio that have preceded them; the balance was perfect and the results reflected their shared and self-enhanced brilliance, with Xavi at the heart. His importance is such, that in order to move forward without him they will need a style adjustment. For now, they are attempting to both prolong his career, removing some of the physical strain from him within the games he plays and even more so, build for a life without him, in one swoop.

 

When Cesc Fàbregas returned to Barcelona after 8 years away, the general perception was that he had damaged his career. How could he possibly get a game ahead of Iniesta and Xavi? Quite aside from his own talents, they were the inseparable partnership that had won it all. This issue was initially circumvented by their playing him in other areas. Of his 28 league appearances in 2011/12, only 9 were in his natural position of central midfield. The rest were made up primarily of time on the wings and occasionally as a ‘false nine’, which he would go on to do to such great effect for Spain at Euro 2012.

 

When he first arrived back at Barcelona, he appeared to have a renewed freedom and joie de vivre that was present all too little in his final year with Arsenal. But as the season wore on he followed the trail left by a number Barcelona signings in their first seasons; physically he seemed exhausted, not used to playing with such intensity off-the-ball. Crucially, when he returned, for all the goals and assists he amassed, he still roamed around the pitch as if he were still in the free role that he held at Arsenal. He became more disciplined with time and with that, his effectiveness suffered. Naturally, this led to him losing his place and with it, his confidence. He looked a cut down, forlorn figure, completely stripped of the panache and verve that make him such a wonderful player.

Pep Guardiola, Cesc Fabregas

Fàbregas himself spoke about his issues under Guardiola just before the start of the season, stating that “Under Guardiola I never really got to grips with the system”, continuing, “playing in central midfield was hard for me because I need more mobility and I am not quick off the mark in the first few metres… It is true that I am a bit anarchic, but that is my style.” Since Vilanova’s arrival, his tune has been changed somewhat. “Tito has made it clear that I need to play the way I know. I have to be mobile, look for space and help my team-mates by playing the easy ball.”

 

In a couple of sentences he outlined the difference between what Guardiola could not utilise about him and what Vilanova sought to. Without direct reference, he also alluded back to what made him great in the Premier League: freedom. His, in his own words, anarchic nature meant that although a fit and confident form of himself could perform admirably in multiple positions in Guardiola’s side, the true essence of his ability could only be completely released when he was.

 

Fàbregas is a player quite apart from any of his fellows. Converted from a regista to a classic number 10 (or trequartista), he retains the instincts of his former role – namely the tendencies to collect the ball from the defence and drive forward, start attacks with long passes to the wings and to control the tempo of a game. He harnesses these qualities and couples them with the attributes of a trequartista; to operate in more confined space, maintain composure in front of goal, know instinctively when to surge into the box and most crucially, be a team’s central creative figure. He operates on a different level to other players, always thinking two or three moves ahead. His intelligence is greater than almost any other. His ability further back means he sees the game clearer when further forward. On a field entrenched in chaos, he is the calm head with the ability to make those around him better players. He is the most complete creator on the planet; a genius of the modern game.

 

There was little question he had the talent to make it at Barcelona, but in a system that was so efficient and so elegant, his more tactically rough-edged, yet footballistically more effective and graceful style, just seemed not to fit. Under Guardiola, this was so. Vilanova’s mission was to bring forth Barcelona’s new era. His philosophy, while fundamentally similar to his predecessor’s, differs in a few areas, the most significant of which is that he wishes to make them more direct, more ruthless and more overwhelming to their oppositions. This is closer to Arsène Wenger’s ideals – the ideals under which Fàbregas learnt his trade and which are still the overriding feature of his game.

 

Vilanova was blessed to have the player who fitted this so perfectly, while fitting so well into the soul of what Barcelona are and always will be as a club, with regard to the possession-based, forever attack-minded, 4-3-3-centred philosophy that were brought over by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruijff and became engrained in the fibre of the club’s being.

Cesc and Messi vs Deportivo La Coruña

The variation of the formation that Vilanova has moved to thus far sees the midfield three remain in a 1-2 formation, with Busquets sitting behind Fàbregas and Xavi, but in attacking moves, Fàbregas moves forward and Xavi slightly deeper, seeing it become something closer to a 2-1 setup. This is far more similar to the aforementioned role he had at Arsenal. His roaming makes him almost impossible to mark. As part of ‘looking for space’, he is just as comfortable operating further back when necessary. Xavi’s importance remains in the slower buildup play and the maintenance of possession, which remains so crucial to them, but it is Fàbregas who holds the primary creative responsibility. His anarchy has become his interpretation of conformity, just as it was in North London. His strong pre-injury showings may even have convinced Vilanova to place Iniesta on the left-hand side on a more regular basis, where he has been so fantastic for Spain, and from whence 8 of his 10 league assists have come this season.

 

Fàbregas’ season started as the last one ended. Shorn of confidence and re-adjusting to another new role, it seemed as though the pre-move sceptics could be proved justified in their arguments. His form began to improve steadily, aided by Vilanova’s continued use of him in central midfield. Until mid-November, he was Barcelona’s only outfield player to start every league game, illustrating both the faith the manager had in him, and the importance he possessed. It was not until the rather insane 5-4 triumph against Deportivo La Coruña that it felt like he was truly ‘back’. In that game he made three assists, two of which were trademark, defence-splitting through balls and the other a backheel to Messi that signalled the strengthening of the axis that the two were forming. From this point he replicated similar performances in almost every game he played, until he picked up a hamstring injury at the start of December.

 

Some of his better performances early in the campaign, including the aforementioned game at the Riazor, came with Xavi out of the side. Since, Vilanova appears to have found a way of accommodating both in a way that suits both players. The differences between Xavi and he exemplify the differences between Guardiola’s Barcelona and Vilanova’s. On the pitch, Xavi has visibly handed Fàbregas the proverbial keys.

 

Xavi will remain in an important and extremely valued capacity, but tactically speaking, it is not his side any more. It is Fàbregas’. They have gone from a team reliant on Xavi’s lateral instincts to Fàbregas’ vertical style. Vilanova’s vision is a Barcelona led by him and his abilities, and it is more than possible that Spain will follow suit as Xavi’s years wind down. He was always too good to remain in the mire in which he was engulfed for so much of 2012. Now, it is his time; his era; his Barcelona.

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7 Comments on “The Quiet Man’s Silent Revolution”

  1. wengerball says:

    Another excellent piece.

    I can see some taking umbrage to your assertion that it’s Fàbregas’ side, at least not just yet.

    P.S Typo in second to last paragraph. “Shawn of confidence”

    • Thanks!

      I hear that; would say tactically it’s already his, but symbolically speaking is isn’t his. Not just yet, as you say.

      Ah, my spell-checker’s non-correcting me caught me out there! Cheers.

  2. Martin says:

    This is not Fabregas’ side, nor, in my opinion, will it be. He looked awful in Barcelona’s midfield away in the San Siro and was dropped for the return leg when Barcelona returned to the football that makes them great.

    I believe the style shift from Xavi to Fabregas is a huge one and one that just doesn’t suit Barcelona as a whole. As you said, Fabregas’ style contrasts to Xavi’s (I think using a synonym of ‘sideways’ to describe Xavi is a terrible injustice by the way); Fabregas doesn’t have the discipline to play deep, recycle the ball and maintain the offense, rather his style is to create the individual attacking moves. And in fact Xavi can do all those things. He showed that against Milan in the Nou Camp. He controlled the match from deep and was also involved higher up the pitch. The pass into Villa for Barcelona’s third goal against Milan was a beautiful combination of pace and precision.

    I think you speak too highly of Cesc. He’s a truly marvelous player but he lacks tactical discipline and that really becomes apparent in the biggest games. Doing it against Deportivo is not the same as doing it against a top side in the Champions League. So I think it’ll be impossible for Barcelona to rely on him the same way as they do on Xavi.

    • Martin says:

      NB I think this post is a fantastic piece of writing, I really enjoyed reading it.

    • Thanks for the kind words. I wrote this up before Christmas when it really was becoming Cesc’s side, and it was all about Tito’s style shift. He’d redesigned them to accomodate Cesc, and it was reaping rewards for most of them. Iniesta and he had both been more productive than they had been in ages, Messi and Xavi played as ever they did. Busquets’ foul count went up and Pedro/Alexis suffered as more of their play went down the left but beyond that it ws really working and Cesc was at the heart of it all.

      Difference is, since Tito got ill, there’s been no one to direct them the way he wants, so they’ve gone back to something closer to Guardiola’s style but with Cesc there, which was just bad for everyone. Covered that more in this – http://roaminglibero.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/they-think-its-all-vilan-over/

      Perhaps I was harsh on Xavi – love him as a player – but his instinct is to look for the pass rather than the pass forward, if that makes sense. He certainly can play the killer balls but it’s not his way to do that most games, where it is with Cesc. Think it was a comment by a Barça blog that said of Tito vs. Pep ‘through balls are no longer a sin’.

      Cesc does lack discipline but you have to use that to your advantage, and that comes with players being on his wavelength, which they were in that first half of the season. When he drifted back, Xavi’d go forward, when he went further on, Messi would drop back, same with going wider and Iniesta. He did do well in the 2-2 Clásico at the start of the year – not like he can’t perform in top games for them, but it was starting to get the way it is with Xavi because their style was slowly changing. Not sure how Cesc will sit even now Tito’s back with Villa’s form but we’ll have to see.

      Apologies for the essay!

      • Martin says:

        I suppose the key thing is whether there’s a complete willingness through the entire club to change to a Fabregas-orientated system. The thing that I find interesting is that when things got tough recently, there was a return to Pep’s system and in the short-term that doesn’t really bode well for Fabregas.

        If Fabregas was younger, there’d be more time to make the change to a Tito system. However, he’s 26 in the summer, he’s in his prime (albeit he probably will be at this level well into his thirties) so the change needs to be made now to make the most of his ability.

        I’m a huge Arsenal fan, so when Cesc left I was very disappointed (if not surprised). But the disappointment wasn’t just because we lost a great player but also because I felt he left too early. I think there’s a real danger of Fabregas’ talents going to waste while he waits for Xavi and his system to bow out, and to a certain extent his first year and a half at Barcelona has seen that happen. I worry for him if the Barcelona midfield isn’t made his next season.

        ‘Class is permanent’ is a cliche that I think isn’t necessarily true, people only need to look at Torres to see what a lack of opportunity can do to a top player’s talents. I fear Fabregas will end up the same way.

      • There’s definitely a willingness from Vilanova to make that the case, and the main reason they switched back to something similar to Guardiola’s style was because Tito wasn’t there to direct his!

        I agree there, and those changes were being made. Cesc was adapting and so were they. I shared the fear he’d gone to early and were it still Guardiola there it would be true, but Tito really turned it around for him. That said I’m very interested to see what they do now since Villa’s in such good form.

        He’ll never go the same way as Torres. Even if he does end up losing lot he’s too good to fall like that. As long as Vilanova’s around he’ll be fine at Barça. If not, I suppose we’ll have to see.


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