Barcelona have started to dominate European football to such an extent that the drawing of group stages was inconsequential to them being pronounced favourites for the competition. As it is, they are drawn with FC BATE Borisov, FC Viktoria Plzen, and Italian minnows AC Milan. Without being disrespectful to the other two clubs, it’s a racing certainty that Barcelona and Milan will progress, and more than likely that Les Cules will top the group. It’s even plausible to envisage Barcelona going through with maximum points from their games, although they were shocked by Rubin Kazan a few years back, and if they’ve already qualified may field a weakened team in order to keep players fresh for the inevitably long campaign.
Barcelona are the world’s best exponents of the tiki-taka style that is at the moment the pinnacle of footballing sophistication. Pep Guardiola’s side are already at the stage of being regarded as an era-defining team, much like Ajax and Bayern in the 70s, Liverpool in the 80s, Milan in the 90s and Real Madrid of the century’s turn. If their success continues, they will soon be considered statistically if nothing else, as the best club side ever to exist.
So, how on earth do you beat them?
Don’t concentrate on Messi.
“Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory” Bruce Lee; Enter the Dragon. Ol’ Bruce wasn’t just a top-notch martial artist and ground-breaking Asian cinema star; he was also a time-travelling football analyst, as proved by the above quote. Messi may well be the focal point of Barca’s striker-less system, but the heavenly glory Bruce was talking about is provided by the exquisite talents of Xavi and Iniesta in midfield feeding the forward three of Pedro, Messi and Villa. If a team puts a man on Messi for 90 minutes, even if he manages to keep the little maestro out of the game (unlikely) he’ll be all over the place positionally and this will allow the other stars in Barca’s galaxy to shine. Barcelona’s motto may be “Més que un club”, but they’re also “Més que un club un home” – More than a one man club. Thanks to Google for that translation. And all the quotes, to be fair.
Stick a man on Busquets.
“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Wise words from American poet and novelist Henry David Thoreau. A bit of a stretch to refer to Barcelona as evil, I suppose – but I get where he’s coming from. He will have probably called football “soccer”, which is less forgivable. Barcelona may look like a free flowing innovative side, but in fact they are highly disciplined. The midfield playmakers of Xavi and Iniesta (and now Fabregas) may be the ones pulling the strings when attacking, but they don’t do so much of the ball-winning. This is where defensive midfielder Busquets earns his corn. He can’t be described an under-rated anymore, it’s now widely acknowledged what an important role he does for the team – indeed since the days of Makelele and even Deschamps the dirty work guys have been getting the credit they deserve (As an aside, England are have been so poor against top International sides because they’ve lacked a player with this discipline, or not been able to trust one). Busquets will not bomb forward when Barca have possession, he’ll remain at the back with the two central defenders (the full-back are long gone, they spend more time in the opposition half) he gets himself in plenty of space and wait for Barcelona to lose the ball. They very rarely do, and as they pressurise opponents all over the pitch, they force them into mistakes and almost immediately get it back. It’s Busquets who feeds the short balls to Xavi and Iniesta. By denying him the space and time to operate, Xavi and Iniesta will be denied the quick feed, and will have to work harder on the defensive side of their game. There is the problem that he flings himself to the ground whenever anyone gets within 10 feet of him (This is the clue – he doesn’t like people snapping around his heels). For a team like Manchester United playing Barcelona, this would most likely mean asking Rooney to drop back and take care of him – although I can see that ending in a quick couple of yellows due to Busquets’ theatrics; for a team such as Manchester City, Barca old-boy Yaya Toure would be capable of a terrific job on Busquets. Mancini has played the defensive midfielder in a more advanced position, and this would be perfect for snuffing the little shit out.
Have a crack from distance.
“Strike hard, strike fast, strike often” words accredited to William Frederick Halsey, Admiral of the US fleet in the South Pacific. “Bull” Halsey clearly had his doubts about Barcelona ‘keeper Victor Valdes. He’s not even third choice for Spain – Iker Casillas, Pepe Reina and Manchester United new-boy are all ahead in the pecking order for the number one jersey. Valdes is suspect. I can only imagine that Barcelona have a policy of promoting Spanish national, preferably Catalans to the team ahead of better players. He’s by far the weakest link in this epic team. Barcelona are often accused of being a little fragile defensively, but looking at a typical back four team sheet of Abidal, Pique, Puyol and Alves, he stick outs like a sore thumb. Granted, Abidal and Alves don’t do so much of the actual defending – in fact Busquets often drops so deep it’s more like a back three with the full-back becoming almost orthodox wingers – but they do their share by keeping opposition wingers pegged back.
Any player getting within range of a shot must be encouraged to do so. It’s the getting there that’s tough I guess! With the full-backs far away, and Xavi and Iniesta rarely dropping back, it should be possible to get half a yard and have a pop. Valdes won’t like it, and he’ll let one in eventually.
Don’t try and play like Barcelona
“Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those who we cannot resemble.” Samuel Johnson. He wrote the dictionary, you know. Arsenal were described as “playing like Barcelona”, until they got beaten by them – dodgy sending off or not. A team in such form, having played together for years in the case of some of La Masia’s graduates, will not be beaten by any imitations. Man for man they have players better suited to the roles, and who are more experienced at doing it.