Barcelona rose to their status as the best team in the world on the back of Pep Guardiola’s extreme, idealistic vision of football. That 2008-2012 side were renowned for their incredibly high rates of possession, but an absolutely crucial, and overlooked, element of that philosophy – especially by the teams who would soon attempt to emulate Barca – was their central penetration.
Fast forward to 2016 and it seems that central penetration is missing from the Catalan club themselves. Visualised below by @11tegen11’s passmaps, we see 10 games this season in which Barcelona have been forced wide by the opposition.
Four years ago, Guardiola left with his philosophies, followed soon after by his primary weapon of central penetration: Xavi. Andres Iniesta, the second most vital player to this concept, sees his playing time dramatically reduced as he reaches the age of 32 and the accumulation of over 600 appearances for the club catches up with him.
Passing through the heart of midfield lies mainly at the feet of Sergio Busquets now and it’s something he is seemingly struggling with. Some put this down purely to form, but there are systematic issues at play here which are limiting.
Shutting down Barcelona by tightly marking Busquets was once the secret key to standing any chance against the great team, but it is now standard operation for every opposing team. Of course, focusing so much on one player opens up space for others. Typically, when Sergio is man-marked, he’ll bring his marker with him away from the ball and give Gerard Pique space to bring the ball forward and make the play.
Pique has had some minor injury issues so far; of the 10 passmaps given, Pique and Busquets both start in six of them. Perhaps that justifies only four games, and it’s not like Umtiti and Mascherano are especially poor passers of the ball. Space is also left deep for Croatian maestro Ivan Rakitic, but rather than operate as his team’s playmaker he remains high and a little wide so as to flatten and stretch the opposition midfield, which alleviates and links him with Leo Messi.
There’s also an argument to be had here about the limitations of passmaps. Despite being fantastic visual data tools they’ve also come under a little scrutiny recently because the combination of pass tracking and average positions can give a skewed view of the angle of the passes being made.
While Messi and Neymar receive a large number of passes on the touchline they’re also the two best players in the world at bringing the ball inside into goal-threatening situations through both dribbling and creative passing.
Neymar’s (left) and Messi’s (right) Whoscored heatmaps against Granada:
This is where Barcelona are something of an exception to the rule. They can lean on their unmatched individual ability to consistently create high-quality, central situations from simple passes to feet out wide. That movement under Luis Enrique towards individualism and a more direct style of play is both the reason for a lack of central passing and the argument against it being a problem.
Barca’s form isn’t perfect. They lost in the Champions League to a Manchester City team that exacerbated Barca’s width by turning the entire centre of the pitch into a congested, high-pressure zone. They sit second in the league, two points behind rivals Real Madrid. Barca show a different style of play in the post-Guardiola era and their form doesn’t live up to his legacy either. But it was never realistic to hold them to the expectations set under Pep in play-style or form. In fact it was absolutely imperative that Barcelona looked to gradually evolve in new directions under new management rather than attempt to re-create a previous side as the memories and squads grew more and more distant. They remain – tactically imperfect and with an extraterrestrial talent level – one of the three best teams in the world, and that’s exactly where they belong.