At face value nothing seems unusual about Barcelona’s 4-0 victory at Rayo Vallecano. Until you look at the stats, that is. Rayo produced the same amount of shots/chances, but the far more important number is the ball possession. FC Barcelona were out-possessed for the first time in five years, with the last time being in a 1-4 loss in May of 2008 against rivals Real Madrid. It’s amazing to think Barcelona saw more of the ball in every match under Pep and Tito.
Even before last week’s match, much of the discussion in the Barcelona sports papers had been centered upon the subtle but noticeable change in style of the side under Gerardo Martino. The side passes less, resorts to the long-ball more, and is changing the vaunted style that fans and pundits alike view as nothing short of sacred. Indeed, many twitter comments during and after the match expressed shock at the lopsided possession stat. Here are some thoughts on what we saw against Rayo, why it’s not so bad, and why it may end up being very good.
Rayo are not that bad
Despite their low spot in the standings, Rayo Vallecano were second in the league in terms of passing stats going into Saturday’s game. Their style under manager Paco Jémez has been quite similar to Barça’s in that they play with a high-pressure defense and hold a high defensive line to compress the space their opponents have to work in. This style combined with the narrowest pitch in the league made it a tough task for Barcelona to play their game.
Martino lined up a more direct eleven to meet this challenge, with Song and Fabregas in midfield, Montoya and Pedro on the right flank, and the increasingly impressive Neymar on the left. Cesc and Neymar have 10 league assists between them, and Barça ran away with a lopsided scoreline that flattered them on a day when Rayo out-worked them.
Martino playing to individual strengths
There can be no doubt that Cesc Fabregas has seen a revival under Martino. Whereas he arguably struggled to find form in his first seasons back at the club, he is now playing to his full potential both in midfield and occasionally in the ever controversial false nine role. The midfield has been the most rotated area of the pitch so far this season, and this has highlighted how Fabregas, Iniesta, and Xavi are all brilliant but ultimately different players. By allowing each to showcase his talents rather than conforming to one rigid system with straight replacements, the midfield is slowly starting to show the kind of variability it had lacked in the last few seasons.
Fabregas is the most direct of Barcelona’s star midfielders, and much of the interesting vertical play we have seen has come through his boots. During the course of a match that sees Fabregas playing cross-field passes and finding seams in the opposing defense, his teammates increasingly position themselves for those passes and other players seek to use them as well. By allowing Fabregas to run the midfield his way, even while Xavi is on the pitch, Martino is getting what he wants: the top performance of his key players and the kind of variability in attacking options that the team has desperately needed. If the form of Victor Valdes, Javier Mascherano, Cesc Fabregas, and Lionel Messi are any indication, Martino has done quite well.
Plan A to Plan B
No one can deny that when Pep’s Barcelona were at their best, they were untouchable. But by his final season, despite legitimate attempts to tinker with the formula, Pep could not find a plan B to counter sides that simply sat back and conceded possession. Tito’s side were no different and often looked stagnant in possession against well organized defenses.
This is why having a multi-faceted attack/defense, one that can go vertical as easily as they hide the ball, and more importantly one that can win when the Plan A of one-sided domination fails is for the better of the team. We already saw how Martino changed his game plan midway through the first leg of the Super Cup and why not take some inspiration from last year’s German Champions League finalists, who famously deviated from their normal possession-heavy styles to best their Spanish rivals (as suggested by this blog).
Martino has been very transparent in his desire to maintain Barcelona’s tiki-taka style, but has just as clearly been trying to introduce variation and options into their arsenal. While he has never specifically referred to a Plan B, the ability of the side to change, react, and adapt to different situations in the course of the game should be seen as their number one goal this season. So far he is five for five in the league, has ground out a tough Super Cup result, and had a one-sided result in the Champions League. Barcelona will eventually lose (in the scoreline as well) and the reactions to this should be tempered by an appreciation of what Martino is trying to achieve for the longer term.