“Gerardo who?” was the question most commonly heard among football fans when Argentine Gerardo Martino was appointed as Barcelona manager in a somewhat controversial decision. When the accomplished South-American man was announced as Tito Vilanova’s successor, the case immediately began as an extremely popular one, both due to his largely unknown background in European football and the urgency of his arrival.
Tata Martino blossomed at the Catalan giants under his first game with a convincing win over relegation candidates Levante, dismantling the Mediterranean coast Spaniards with astounding ease 7-0 and forcing a few critics to bite their tongue in silence with increased caution. However, Barcelona’s intelligent and worldwide fan base were not quick to ease into the Argentine’s arrival. “The man isn’t experienced at top level” was the common statement muttered by fans globally, but after mere months in charge, Tata is beginning to look like the real deal.
There was a lot of talk after the 7-0 aggregate thrashing from the Bavarians that Barcelona fans will never hear the end of, and one of the most common was the philosophy that the Catalans were using and if it was in need of urgent change. Bayern exploited and exposed most aspects of Barcelona that they fought so hard to conceal over the years, weak abilities in defensive transitions, height at set pieces, and lack of physicality.
But could Vilanova’s health concerns have been the main reason for the poor, lethargic Barcelona that we saw in both legs? Gerard Pique admitted it himself during pre-season when he was questioned about the astonishing Bayern defeat, responding “Last season we were slaves of our philosophy.” This utterly true statement, whether provoked by Tata’s words or self-realization, spoke volumes, and the ‘philosophy change’ debate was sculpted.
The new manager has seen a number of changes regarded widely as good ones, long diagonals switching play when CB’s are pressed and also a new aspect of aerial play being involved that has led many to believe that the Catalans are in search of a target man to claim the position Messi has stamped his appearance on for the last five years.
These new aspects have been consumed greedily by Barcelona fans as they’ve welcomed the fresh, even pragmatic changes to their new style of play. Gerardo’s experienced, somewhat ‘aged’ winning team have even appeared to be slightly below the tempo that previous managers seem to have implemented into their side, but clearly the Argentine prefers this approach, having only been defeated twice so far this season.
The experience that lurks throughout this Barcelona side is fascinating, but whether it can have a deleterious effect over them is yet to be seen. Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Xavi, Busquets, Mascherano, Puyol, Alves, Valdes, and Pique have won literally everything in for their club, and many wonder if Gerardo will vivaciously ignite the winning mindset that his side appears to have lost even slightly.
Role of the Wingers
It is certainly a debate whether or not the changes Tata has made are beneficial for Barcelona, one in which many sentimental fans may opt for the old, strict possession based game. But Martino’s changes has certainly made an emphatic, fresh impact. Many Barcelona fans noticed the permanent change after the loss of possession to Rayo Vallecano - the first time in 317 games - and the words from Madrid manager Ancelloti were quite unsettling, highlighting the transformation that Barcelona are undergoing.
“It was strange to see Barcelona counterattack,” told the Italian manager who was clearly intrigued by the situation, stating the obvious as Barcelona certainly utilized the counterattacking system to full effect with a jubilant Pedro netting a hat trick in the 0-4 win. Long balls were often and sometimes unnecessary, however with the CB’s looking to meet wingers’ runs, they often conceded possession.
Of course, the early games from Tata resulted in a very raw system; lots of players filled with new instructions to be tested in the new season. The defensive organisation was particularly inconsistent in the 2nd and 3rd phases, often letting a man slip unmarked in a free zone and allowing possession to be progressed through Barcelona’s midfield at times.
The integration of counter attacking has definitely been an interesting sight to see in this Barcelona team. When winning possession down the channels against Almeria, Barcelona would immediately seek to play vertically or initiate counterattacks. This remarkable system would see the majority of the side sit deep and walk forward while the countering player would sprint to the final third, with the aim of scoring with speed and as quickly as possible. If the goal was not possible, then the Barcelona team would catch up with the transitioning player, shifting ever so slowly and conserving energy for defensive phases.
But the roles of wingers weren’t strictly offensive, as the two wide players had an important pressing role to carry out, initiating the 1st defensive phase. However, a simple press or picking up a player neutralizing passing options would not do. When the CF was extremely fatigued during the latter stages of the game, the wingers would have an important role and would be worked all game. The pressing would have to be carefully implemented by the wingers as the passing lanes were absolutely important in relation to cutting out the pass.
Too often Neymar’s raw talent and weakness when it comes to defensive duties saw him press prematurely, causing weaknesses and often resulting in an entire passing exchange for the opposition to carry out. Messi and Neymar were often a risk defensively by playing them out wide, but their influence offensively would always see them walk into the starting eleven.
The Recovery System
It is fair to say that one of Tata Martino’s main aims on the footballing pitch is to maintain numerical equality in all positions, and if possible, gain numerical advantage by overloading these areas. This required a lot of off the ball work and tracking back due to the high line Barcelona utilized quite often, often inducing fatigue in the later stages of the game.
It had advantages and disadvantages as all systems do, one of the latter being less dominant of possession as Tata wouldn’t carry out an aggressive pressing game until the 2nd phase. It is at this time that the two CM’s would press 1v1 while the CF dropped, suffocating the ball carrier out wide or forcing a risky vertical pass in which Barcelona would have an excess of bodies in.
Barcelona would often funnel possession out wide, forcing the opposition to the touchline. While not aggressively contesting for the ball, Barcelona would close off all routes out of wide areas due to numerical overloads by dropping bodies deep surrounding the ball zone. This would usually force a costly mistake in which the Catalans could carry out a quick counterattack, usually carried out by their wingers as they are the highest men forward due to their pulling deep.
When Barcelona would lose the ball in the 2nd or 1st phase buildup, usually due to a risky long ball to wingers, they would already have a deep positioning so they could maintain a stable defense and have numbers behind the ball. This would set up the 1st defensive phase, which would be pressing the RCB with CF or LCB with RW and forcing them backwards or a long ball forward. Iniesta or Sergio Roberto would man mark the deepest dropping midfielder and try to offer a solution out of the back four as a passing option.
This ticked most options and often recovered possession, however fatigue during the latter stages of the game resulted in lack of pressing intensity, allowing progression forward in possession by the opposition. In these cases, Barcelona would carry out the 2nd defensive phase, a 1v1 press while the CF would track back. They would be intercepting passing lanes and forcing a risky possession choice usually out wide, and if this wasn’t successful, Barcelona would initiate their 3rd phase. In this phase, the CF Fabregas would retreat into central midfield and cause a 4-man overload, proving to be very effective against 4-3-3′s.
This overload caused by Fabregas or Neymar forced the opposition to keep the ball wide in less dangerous outposts. Barcelona then surrounded the player with the CM nearest to ball zone, the LW dropping deep, and the LB pushing forward. This created a triangle around the ball zone, a very effective 3v1. The CM closed off the passing lane into midfield supported closely by the DM and closed down the space around the ball with the DM Busquets or Song providing nearby support.
Whenever the CM did this he was drifted from his position, in which the CF would temporarily occupy providing numerical equality in midfield, one of Tata’s most important aspects of his game. The LW or RW prevented the pass backwards to the defense and the full back directly contested the ball carrier. This was a solid, reliable method of regaining possession in deep areas as long as the ball carrier did not find a route out of the defensive triangle. But the actual time to recover the ball sometimes dragged due to the opposition often holding onto the ball for an extensive amount of time, and a foul was occasionally conceded due to frustration and impatience from Barcelona.
Another key factor to this system is compensating for Messi’s non-existent defensive contribution. Tata undoubtedly instructed Lionel to take up very high positioning to utilize his incredibly prolific abilities in the final third, meaning Barcelona would have to cope without the 4 time Ballon d’Or winner’s defensive efforts.
This would automatically induce an increased work effort from one player, and that was Fabregas. He was utilized totally in this axial CF role that is vital to their system, carrying out Messi’s job of blocking and intercepting passing lanes in the triangle and preventing passes backwards towards to the defense as an escape route out of the suffocating triangle while Messi stayed furthest up the pitch. It will certainly be interesting when Messi recovers from injury as to where he will play, either as CF or RW.
Weaknesses of the Recovery System
Barcelona would often drop very deep to carry out the 3rd defensive phase in particular due to the demands of this triangle on the flanks, requiring huge work ethic from the front three as well as the CM’s as they instinctively took up non-advanced positions during possession phases. This choice of retaining numerical equality from Tata resulted in the non-immediate regaining of the ball, as work to track back was slow especially during the latter stages of the game and an overload of the ball zone by creating a defensive triangle on the channel wasn’t always effective.
If the full back was beaten then Barcelona would be extremely vulnerable, or a pass was found out of the block, and contributing to the weakness is the fact that the immense amount of bodies that would be required to carry out this 3rd defensive phase would result in a huge shift of players over to the ball side. This would create a huge weakness on the weak side, so if the ball was switched in these circumstances the Catalans would have to reorganize extremely quickly to the other side to maintain solid defensive organisation, further contributing to fatigue.
The extensive shift from the Barcelona side apart from one winger meant that they depended on the triangles during the 3rd phase to maintain solidity at the back. If the pressing wasn’t compact or solid enough, the player surrounded by red and blue shirts would find a route out usually by a pass, in which the opposition would be wary of Barcelona’s vulnerability on the weak side and initiate a high tempo horizontal switch of play.
The shift to reassemble sides of the pitch would occur from Barcelona as they would press extremely aggressively. Crosses from the opposition would be extremely dangerous, for they have been Barcelona’s nemesis over the years and even more so now that the 5”8 CB is regularly contesting against six foot target men. Barcelona tried to prevent these situations from occurring as they gifted the opponent time and space on the ball, something which is rarely allowed against a fanatical possession based team. Real Madrid’s best 10 minutes in the second half of El Clasico were during these high tempo horizontal possession phases in which they outplayed Barcelona and exploited the weaknesses of their 3rd defensive phase.
Gerardo Martino’s transformation with Barcelona is becoming more obvious by the game as results are grinded out, with the Catalans currently sitting top of La Liga. The Argentine has been bombarded with both criticism and praise alike, the former being thrown at him for the immense changes he has made in Barcelona’s image and their philosophy, and the latter for bringing phenomenal results over Madrid and consecutive wins in the league. But is it a bright future for Barcelona or will the European giants succumb to fatigue and crumble under Martino’s intense philosophy come May? Only time will tell, but it will undoubtedly be an intriguing ending.