Gerardo Martino opened his La Liga account with an emphatic 7-0 win over a hapless Levante, the biggest opening match day winning margin in the club’s history. They passed, pressed, shot, scored, defended, you name it; Barcelona were obviously on full throttle the past weekend.
Levante were losing several of their star players such as Ballesteros, Munua, and Martins, which did not help their case, but Barcelona’s performance – especially in the first half – was so emphatic that any team would have suffered against them. Last season, the Catalan club also started their campaign with a dominant win, but it was obvious that there was something different about this Barcelona. Martino spoke at the press conference after his team’s La Liga debut, saying it was premature to make an analysis after just 90 minutes of play but was the first one to praise his players, who “surpassed expectations.” So what did we learn from the Levante demolition?
Martino is Courageous and Capable of Leading
A lot of Barcelona fans were wary of Martino’s appointment, and some still are. A relatively unknown coach was succeeding a duo that will be engraved in the club’s history, but on Sunday, Tata showed that he is capable. When asked if the team can be improved, Martino answered:
“We can be more intense. We can prolong our pressure and we can continue to look for alternatives when we go forward. We need to play on the inside, on the outside, the right and left backs need to come forward, the interior players need to crash the area.”
Even after a 7-0 win he still sees areas where his team can improve. Clearly Martino won’t rest before he witnesses perfection. After each passing day it is becoming more evident that he is a perfect fit for the Blaugrana, not only does he embrace their football philosophy, he also has clear ideas of how to develop them. Furthermore, Martino refused to play an unready Neymar, even though it was something cules worldwide where aching to see. The well being of the team is more important than putting on a show.
“Everyone wants to see Neymar and Messi play together. But that would hurt the player. I want him to adapt to the team quickly, but I don’t want to force anything. We will see his best form in short order. This is how I see it and it’s my decision.”
Upfront Pressing is Back
The suffocating pressure that led Barca to the top of the world under Guardiola’s management has returned to the Camp Nou in style. It was evident that Tata’s obsession to regain this pressure is already bearing fruit. Levante lost several balls close to Navas’ territory, which resulted in Messi, Xavi, Cesc, Pedro, and Alexis having the ball at their feet and close to opposition’s goal, which is synonymous to absolute danger.
A clear example was the third goal; Lionel Messi robbed David Navarro of the ball near his goal line and after a few quick interchanges, it eventually bobbled through to Dani Alves to poke it home. The off-ball movement and positional interchange were also exquisite, leading to Messi dropping deep and dictating play with a fine set of deadly passes that almost always resulted in an opportunity. The combination of traditional Barca possession and triangulations with occasional long passes to surprise the opponent was also evident. Messi and Cesc did it in midfield, while Pique and Valdes did it from the back.
Rotation Will Take Place
The spectacular effort deployed in order to apply the aforementioned pressure can only be sustained with proper rotation. One of the game’s big surprises was the substitution of the untouchable Leo Messi on the 70th minute. Martino explained his decision:
“We’ve talked to Messi from the beginning. The season is long and this way he can rest if he doesn’t play every minute in a couple of matches. We came to an agreement quickly; agreeing on substitutions beforehand is a complicated matter. No one would ever take Messi out of a match if the teams are evenly matched. But it can be done in matches where we take a big advantage, this way he can preserve his fitness.”
Not only did the new manager take Messi off the field, he also did not play Alba and Iniesta because they traveled with their national team to Ecuador. Last season, Tito Vilanova was under immense pressure to reclaim the league title that he fielded his best eleven in almost every game. Even when the team had a lead of more than 10 points, he failed to properly rotate his squad, which led to some players suffering from scarce playing time, and others from fatigue.
Defensive Balance and Man-Marking on Corners
Alves and Alba’s tendency to attack left the team’s defense unbalanced last season. It was clear that Martino is starting to firmly address this issue. Busquets brilliantly provided the proper cover once one of the full-backs attacked, and there was a certain amount of equilibrium between Alves and Alba’s forward surges. As a result, Barca managed to constantly snuff out any possible Levante attack.
Another of Tata’s adjustments in Sunday’s game was the man marking that was applied when defending corners, where each player is responsible for marking an opposing player with the exception of Pique, who is left free to provide help where the ball is going, and Xavi, who is guarding the near post. Guardiola and Vilanova both preferred zonal marking, and numbers proved that this strategy failed because Barcelona conceded way too many goals from corner threats, and while the man-marking is still to be tested it does serve as an attempt to rectify one of the team’s previous shortcomings; after all, Victor Valdes stated that he prefers the current tactic.
Xavi is Still the Focal Point
Xavi scored one goal, played an amazing ball to Fabregas which led to the first goal, and forced a brilliant Navas save from an astonishing free kick. He also completed more passes in the first half than the whole Levante team. The diminutive midfielder was at the heart of everything Barca created. In addition to his ability to dictate play and control the tempo of the game, Xavi managed to provide attacking support with his late surges into the opposition’s penalty box. An ever present figure in the Barca starting eleven, the maestro illustrated that he is still very much a reference point in his team’s setup.
As for the “La Liga is over before it even began and it is a dying non-competitive league” conclusion that almost all people reached at the end of the Barcelona-Levante game, I do not agree with such a claim. Such a strong claim cannot be drawn from one game. It’s true Levante did not put up a fight but again, just look at the Real Madrid-Betis and Atletico Madrid-Sevilla games to recognize that La Liga is as competitive as any other European league. It is worth mentioning that Manchester United won last season’s League title with a 11 point difference over their city rivals.
Written by Hassan Chakroun