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.
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.
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.
Wins! Three of them! Remarkable scenes in North London as Arsenal gather 9 points from a possible 9. This last installment of the phenomenal three win trilogy was the hardest-earned by some distance and while it was not quite a laboured crawl over the proverbial line, it was hardly a stroll. Not a classic game but a nice result to take into the Christmas period, especially with the West Ham game, previously scheduled on Boxing Day, being postponed until January.
The main talking point going into the game was the continued use of Theo Walcott up front, after his strong performance against Reading. The idea was clear: Wigan play a high defensive line, Walcott’s pace would allow him to exploit that. He completed just 7 passes in the whole 90 minutes which, in itself, is no bad thing. During EURO 2012 the popular stat going around was Mario Gomez’s only having the ball for around 40 seconds for the whole tournament, yet scoring three times. But with the 9 other outfield players Germany had, they did not have great need for a back-to-goal centre forward (until the Italy game, when he was subbed off at half time). The latter scenario is the one in which Arsenal now find themselves. In the vast majority of games they need their centre forward to drop deep and enable their build-up play, especially as they are still coming together as a team. As Arsenal moved to being more direct in the second half, Walcott saw more of the ball, having a good chance saved and hitting another over. His showing at the Madejski Stadium does not disguise the fact that they still need a striker in January, but it also dictated that he can be used there in some games.
As for struggling against pressing, the reasons were the same as they have struggled against it in other games. They are not wholly comfortable as a unit, which is to be expected, and so do not have the classic pace in passing in movement that is such a key facet of ‘Wengerball’. They were extremely poor in the first half but as stated above, they looked to be more direct and play wider in the second and it paid off, as they looked a lot better for it. This could act as a way of subverting the problems they have found against high-pressing teams.
This renewed approach in the second half freed Oxlade-Chamberlain and allowed hims to show his talents. He has had an inconsistent season but of late he has relocated some of the form that won him so many admirers last term. Encouraging from the 19 year old, but words of caution will not go amiss where he is concerned at this stage.
Due to the fact that they had one fit centre back, Wigan chose to play James McCarthy as a libero (much to my delight), and he did extremely well there. He sat with the defenders when Arsenal had the ball and roamed forward when Wigan had possession, retaining his usual role of being the team’s central creator. His relative success there, following on from Daniele De Rossi’s deployment in a similar role for Italy in the group encounter with Spain, could see the resurrection of the forgotten role.
Arsenal’s midfield seems to be too open. Since returning, Jack Wilshere has played further forward than Abou Diaby – who sat next to the Spaniard – had done before his injury, meaning Arsenal have shifted from a 2-1 in midfield to a 1-2, but one in which the two are so advanced they leave a large amount of space behind them, feeding Arteta to the sharks somewhat. A defensive midfielder more physical and with greater ability to cover ground is also of the essence in January; one who can play both instead of and alongside Arteta.
Wilshere adds the ‘bite’ and ‘nastiness’ that the Arsenal have missed across the team over the last few years, but his occasionally rash nature, coupled with his not being the best tackler has earned him something of a reputation among oppositions to being a target to get cards. Wigan’s absolute determination to get him booked for what was a very, very soft incident spoke to a referee who was influenced by his pre-formed judgements and a set of players under the impression that they could get him sent off. Something of which to be wary.
Following Tottenham’s draw with Stoke, Arsenal are up to third, pending the results of Chelsea’s two games in hand. On one level this emphasises just how poor the Premier League is, but also that the Arsenal ‘crisis’ was ridiculously overstated. A big January (for which the club seem to be counting down the days) and there will be no problems in the league. Now, movement to a squad that can compete on fronts, we hope…
This piece was written for SabotageTimes.com.
As we reach the season’s halfway point, ’tis the season for evaluating what we have seen thus far. And something called Christmas. But more importantly, thinking about Arsenal’s progression over the course of this season. Like all things Arsenal, it has not been smooth, simple or sensical. The buys of Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla, while excellent, were balanced out by the sales of Robin van Persie and Alex Song. They were little stronger than they had been last term, but did not go into the season in the same state of panic and disarray.
Depending on the buys in January, either a crawl to the fourth, or a push towards third. I am not particularly worried about the retention of Champions League football, due to the calibre of the opposition more than the ability of the squad. Either of those would be about par. With a cup, it could be significantly better. Barring a late surge for the League (it could happen!), the FA Cup and Champions League are the only options. Last season’s winners showed that the Champions League can be won on luck, but realistically the FA Cup is the best chance they have.
The foundation for bigger and better things are there, but they need to be built on if anything is to come of them. There is no reason why they cannot come away from this season with a cup and a good league finish if they invest well.