Pep Guardiola will be in familiar surroundings Wednesday night, but the Barcelona he will be confronting has changed significantly from the one he left behind.
As Gerard Pique said this week, Guardiola is a titanic figure in the famous Catalan club’s history. He ushered in an extraordinary period of success while playing some exquisite football, and he will never be forgotten at the Nou Camp.
But sports teams have to constantly evolve, and the team that Pep built effectively died when he departed in the summer of 2012.
Guardiola’s approach was built around the unique skills of three players, Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, and essentially aimed at getting that holy trinity as close together as possible to run the opposition ragged with their combination of passing, dribbling and penetrating movement.
Watching Barcelona in action during the Guardiola years, the most noticeable tactical aspect of their style was how they often had literally nobody up front. With nominal striker Lionel Messi dropping deep to join in the build-up with Xavi and Iniesta, right-back Dani Alves was frequently the furthest forward. Defenders were left standing around, with nobody to mark, while Barca patiently constructed their moves in midfield.
Then…bam! Messi would come darting towards them, with Iniesta and Alves to his right, Pedro or Samuel Eto’o or David Villa to his left, and those same defenders who seconds earlier were essentially unemployed suddenly found themselves under deluge from all angles.
The system was so successful that it lingered around for a while after Guardiola left, badly showing its age in a 7-0 aggregate thrashing by Bayern Munich in the 2013 Champions League semi-final, before being cast aside following a depressing, trophy-less campaign under Tata Martino the following year. Something had to change, and it did with the arrival of Luis Enrique who slowly but surely implemented a new approach.
Now, Barca still base their play around a brilliant trio – but rather than Xavi and Iniesta, the new partners in crime for Messi are, of course, Neymar and Luis Suarez. The unstoppable South American amigos obviously occupy very different playing positions to Xavi and Iniesta, and the team’s entire structure has changed accordingly.
Whereas previously Barca were built around establishing rigid control of the midfield, now they live for the attack and do everything they can to get the ball forward as quickly as possible, especially into the wide areas occupied by their chief creators Messi and Neymar.
Indeed, the fact that the former occupies a new position since Guardiola departed tells you a great deal about just how much Barca have changed.
Most goals scored in the Champions League so far this season:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) October 18, 2016
Borussia Dortmund (8)
Manchester City (7)
Napoli (6) pic.twitter.com/kfS2uEIw2j
The ‘false nine’ was hardly a Guardiola invention, having been utilised by dozens of teams over the years. But Pep was the man to resuscitate the role and give it a fresh lease of life by positioning his best player, Messi, as a deep-lying centre forward.
Now Messi, who is still easily the team’s pivotal performer, has a starting position on the right wing, allowing him to either cut inside with the ball at his feet or arrow tantalising diagonal passes towards the far post.
Stationing Suarez as the focal point of the attack, with Messi and Neymar on the wings, has shifted the whole emphasis of the team to a different place, and Guardiola’s ‘tiki-taka’ era is now just a memory.
It’s still Barca, Pep. But not as you know it.
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