When Tito Vilanova’s failing health forced him to quit the Catalan giants, a relatively low profile Tata Martino was presented to the football fans around the world. Some undermined him for his inexperience at this level. Some hoped he would prosper just like another Argentine has done over the last decade or so. Results have been mixed so far; but how far has Martino reached in stamping his own authority? Debojyoti Chakraborty takes you through the season at Nou Camp.
It was going to be a job under scanner after Pep Guardiola revolutionized football with his tiki-taka. Tata Martino was handed the job amidst speculation surrounding his so-far moderate CV. To add to that, Martino is not a Catalan, neither is he a Dutch – Barcelona’s spiritual ancestors. Martino did not play for the Spanish giants and was a greenhorn in the club. So it was always going to be interesting how an outsider could fit into the system, or improve the system.
It is unclear whether the former coach Tito Vilanova would have stayed beyond the 7-0 thrashing by Bayern Munich in last year’s Champions League semifinal even if he did not have any health concerns. One thing was for sure – something had to change. Barcelona was not surely 7 goals adrift of the eventual champions.
But the core philosophy – pressing, possession and fluidity –had to be retained. Understandably, Martino did not go for a complete overhaul of the system that has been so successful over the years. Rather, he has tried to tweak it here and there. So, the strategy of pressing high up the pitch, winning the ball back and then rampaging ahead to mesmerize the opposition defense – at least trying to do so – remains in tact. Barcelona continues to play the rather familiar 4-3-3 formation where Messi dictates terms. Martino tried something rather unusual against Valencia when they were trailing 2-3. He introduced an unusual 4-2-1-3 system in the 77th minute with Messi supporting the front 3 — Christian Tello, Alexis Sanchez and Pedro Rodriguez. But unfortunately Jordi Alba’s send off a minute later threw his strategy afield.
Tata Martino started with a bang as he created history by winning the first eight games in the league. To tackle the packed defensive cordon of most of the opponent teams – two banks of four or parking the bus – there has been more emphasis to stretch the playing area. Rather than going through the middle, which is the Catalan trademark, Barcelona are trying to spread the game wide and switch flanks in an attempt to draw the opponent out. Dani Alves, in particular, and wingers like Sanchez and Pedro –each scoring 16 and 13 goals and providing 7 and 8 assists respectively – have been instrumental in this new style of play.
Another new dimension to Barcelona’s play has been its increased directness. Last season they created 397 chances – a little over 10 chances per match. This season, with more directness in their game, the average has gone up beyond 12 (328 in 27 matches) – that too when Lionel Messi has been injured or absent for seven of these matches and has played less than 30 minutes for another three matches. Possession is all good, but they are trying to give it a proper end product.
This directness and wing play has resulted in five headed goals already, matching the entire last season’s tally. It is an improvement, however slight it may be, but still there is no target man up front. Sometimes this deficiency becomes very critical, especially to open a dead lock. Barcelona has shifted their focus towards more long rangers, from angles and situations where they have been reluctant to shoot and try to walk the goal. Martino has been instrumental in convincing his troop that clear-cut goal scoring opportunities are hard to come by and Barcelona need to find other ways to score.
So, Barcelona are trying to play more sensibly, cutting down on killer passes. They are instead trying to be patient and looking for moments. But their ball possession has dipped, albeit slightly, compared to their unusually – rather absurdly – high standards. In fact in the 4-0 win against Rayo Vallecano their possession dropped below 50% for the first time since the start of Pep’s reign – breaking a jaw-dropping 316 matches stretch .
Tata Martino has already proved his adaptability even before joining Barcelona. He is deeply influenced by his mentor Marcelo Bielsa’s attacking philosophy. Yet he never hesitated to grind out results nor bore the spectators to death while in charge of Paraguay during their commendable showing in 2010 World Cup campaign (Quarter Final exit against eventual winner Spain) or at the following year’s Copa America (losing to Uruguay in the final).
So it is no surprise that Martino has also tried to bring in more defensive urgency. That is commendable considering Barcelona plays with such a high pressing line. In La Liga, they have the second best defensive record (goals conceded 22) behind Atletico Madrid after 27 rounds. But the old problems continue to haunt him – be it lack of height in set pieces, or losing out in physical battles or a heavily exposed defense on counter attacks down the flanks.
Some variation in play sees Barcelona sometimes stepping back to soak up the pressure and trigger a counter attack. But this style is not suitable with a fragile defensive line. An aging Carlos Puyol, injury-hit Gerard Pique are not the ones to provide stability to a make-shift backline. Pressing high up the field meant holding midfielders with good passing skills (Alex Song, Xavier Mascherano or Sergio Busquets) could pitch in as stop gap center backs as they need not do combative defensive duties or mark the opponent forward to track his runs – just pass the ball around for most of the time. But no longer, with this sitting back approach.
Martino has still tried to work with his limited resources and has shown his adaptability and game reading skills. He swapped Maschearano and Pique so that the Argentine is on the right hand side and could take care of Cristiano Ronaldo during El Classico. The move paid off as the Portuguese star was quiet for most part of the game.
But not all his moves have been so successful. His sit-back-and-invite-opposition strategy and occasional long ball theory has led to 24 aerial duels per match so far compared to only 20 last season. His preference for zonal marking over man marking has also been suicidal as poor height of most of the players meant most of these aerial duels would be lost. Barcelona conceded only 3 goals (out of 40) from headers in La Liga last season, but the number has gone up to 8 (out of 22) already.
Busquets often used to drop deep under Pep or Tito to help his center backs and make a 3-v-2 situation against the opponent front two. He continues to do the same this season. In fact he has been the fulcrum of two very important triangular pattern of play – dropping deep to provide support to center backs and staying back to cover up for more advance central midfield duo – thus being an integral cog in transition of play.
In the midfield, more emphasis has been given to what Martino himself calls vertical play. In a nutshell, it is actually long periods of possession culminating in a sudden burst of attack. Another aspect of this style is to try out long goal kicks from Victor Valdes. Opponent midfielders can no longer commit to press the Barcelona back line assuming that they will build up the game from back by playing it short. But then again, Barcelona does not have the players to win the aerial balls – out of 183 long balls only 59 had found its destined target – and hence this plan has not been fruitful so far.
One player benefitting from the style of play is Cesc Fabregas. Having spent his grooming years in England, he is more comfortable with the vertical approach and that is why Martino has given him a more integral – as well as more advanced – role in his plans. That is why he has racked up 12 assists already along with 33 key passes. Those figures for the entire league campaign last season was 11 and 39 respectively. Agreed his numbers have improved as he has been time and again thrust into a false 9 role – both tactically and due to Messi’s injury. But Fabregas has been an able deputy to Iniesta and seems destined to fill up the void when Don calls it a day.
Along with Messi’s injury, another concern for Martino has been Xavi’s diminishing influence on the game. He is still one of the best midfielders in the world, but by his own high standards, it might just be the beginning of his swansong. He is playing in a much deeper role and his forward passes are more and more overshadowed by square passes. He had 76% successful take ons out of a total 29 last season .This year in La Liga, the figure has dropped to 47% out of 15.
We have to accept the fact that Pep era was as much fictional as much real, it simply could not continue and Barcelona, like other great clubs, are on a natural decline cycle after 3-4 years of stupendous success. Tata Martino has his own limitations but he has been cruelly hit by injuries, an ageing midfield general, an already sloppy backline and insurmountable pressure of being compared with his predecessor’s success. His position in the club has become even more uncertain after this week’s loss against Valladolid. But he may just deserve another full season to prove his worth.
MAXIMUS TACTICUS : Real Madrid
One of the most famous and successful football clubs of today, Real Madrid have time and again assembled a league of extraordinary footballers to form the Galácticos. Their astronomical bids have re-written the transfer logbook over the years. This year too has been no different. Carlo Ancelotti has received a star-studded team which will be expected to win every match. May be more than that – play exciting football, score at will and then WIN. Debojyoti Chakraborty analyzes how Real Madrid are going about achieving their goal this season
It should seem like an altogether different team – to the players, supporters and critics alike. Carlo Ancelotti has taken over at Santiago Bernabeu and he has wasted no time in stamping his authority. He is much calmer compared to his predecessor. The same approach is evident in their playing philosophy also. While José Mourinho deployed a quick transition from attack to defence, Ancelotti likes to build up an attack – hold on to the ball and pass it decisively.
One thing that has not changed is Iker Casillas being still sidelined. Diego Lopez has made the goalkeeper’s position his own since his introduction last season and has not let Casillas a foot in. This has been a peculiar situation with Spain’s national team captain and first choice shot-stopper not getting picked in his club team. Casillas is yet to play in La Liga – his appearances have been limited to a few Champions League games and domestic cup matches. But this is far from ideal for both Casillas and Vicente Del Bosque, national team coach with World Cup in Brazil just months away.
Sergio Ramos, the acting captain in the absence of Casillas, is partnered in the heart of the defensive unit by Pepe. He has been ever so consistent with his on-field theatrics, giving a hard time to Ancelotti as well as the whole team. None so evident than in the Champions League group stage match against Galatasaray where Ramos got himself sent off leaving Real to battle it out with 10 men on the pitch.
As far as the central midfielders are concerned, Luka Modrić has featured in the most number of matches this season and looks set to continue the trend. He is the complete playmaker Ancelotti wants – great command over the ball, perfect visionary and unmatched game reading. He knows when to slow the game down and when to raise the tempo. He will be pivotal in guiding the young midfielders like Isco, Asier Illarramendi and Casemiro playing around him.
With the introduction of Gareth Bale and departure of Mesut Özil, a revamp of attacking forces was evident. Actually, the shape has changed completely as Ancelotti does not prefer to have a number 10, so integral in a 4-2-3-1 system. He thrives on 4-4-2 with good quality midfielders who have good command over the ball, pass accurately and link up attack with defence. In his new set up, Bale has occupied the right wing, replacing Angel Di Maria, and Isco has been preferred in the middle to play just behind the striker up front. After a superb start to the season, the youngster has mellowed down a bit but definitely, he is a future star in the making. On the left is Cristiano Ronaldo – making it inverted wingers in both the flanks as both Ronaldo and Bale do not miss any opportunity to cut inside and shoot with their stronger foot.
Looking at the starting position of the players, it looks like Ancelotti is taking the tried and tested route of 4-4-2 or its derivative, 4-4-1-1. But that is only a superficial view of things. The right-sided attacking midfielder – be it Di Maria or Bale – is encouraged to stay wide all the time. This allows Isco to join Ronaldo and Benzema in attack, making it a lopsided 4-3-3. Alvaro Arbeloa, the right-back, needs to double up for this strategy to work. He is not a naturally attacking full-back and this is where Ancelotti is using Daniel Carvajal very effectively – Carvajal has started in 10 matches for Madrid, same compared to a much more experienced Arbeloa. Even after pampering the flanks, Madrid is keen to play through the defences to create an opening. Cut backs and one-twos are the order of the day – number of crosses measures up to only 4% of their total number of passes.
To give more stability to the team, the lone defensive midfielder is slotted in the right hand side of the park. Xabi Alonso, a perfect midfield anchorman and a technically brilliant footballer occupies this spot. His deputy, Illarramendi is another promising midfielder but he may eventually take up a more advanced role as he matures. Already facing stiff competition from Isco, this does not at all sound good for Sami Khedira.
Since the midfielders and attackers are shifting towards the left side of the pitch, leaving the right wing for Bale or overlapping Carvajal, the left full-back need not venture forward that much. This is where calm and composed Nacho could find himself being preferred to the flamboyant Marcello. Being a centre-back, Nacho gives an extra stability to Pepe and Ramos as well to make it a solid back three when rest of the team is in attack.
Up front there are question marks. Gonzalo Higuain has moved on to Napoli and Karim Benzema is the only recognised senior striker. He is deputised by promising newcomers Alvaro Morata and Jesé. This is far from ideal for a club of Real Madrid’s stature. Lack of options has seen Ronaldo sometimes been deployed as the frontman flanked by Bale and Di Maria in fluid and interchangeable front three of 4-3-3 line-up, but not with much success – most notably in El Clásico. But having Isco as a false 9 flanked by Ronaldo and Bale would be a mouth-watering prospect for launching a quick counter-attack. Besides, it gives Ancelotti the luxury of having one more central midfielder. Considering Ancelotti’s love for compact midfields, don’t be surprised if Real Madrid tries out this strategy, especially against very attack-minded opponents like Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Let us put things into perspective and compare the statistics of Real Madrid with their main competitors in La Liga.
Avg. Pass Length (m)
Stats Galore from La Liga
Real are miles ahead in terms of chance created so far in the league. But most of these chances are not clear-cut ones – these chances have led to almost same number of shots towards goal and subsequent conversion compared to Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. May be a more potent striker (poacher?) would have got them more goals out of half chances. For now, Real have to depend more on the set pieces – no wonder when you have Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale to blast free kicks. But the most concerning part is the defence. Injury to Xabi Alonso has hurt them but Real are playing a more expansive game this season, unlike a more compact one à la José Mourinho squad. Real have conceded 21 goals so far – close to the combined figure of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. This is way too high for a club of Real’s stature – 18 of those have been from inside the box – and might just cost them the title.
Real Madrid current squad is still very young – only three players are aged over 30 including two goalkeepers. Yet the team is quite strong and there is no dearth of match winners. Add to that the amazing youth system all across Spain, and Real do possess a galaxy of upcoming superstars. Ancelotti will have hard times picking the right team for every match and giving adequate match time to his squad players. An intriguing challenge indeed. The task has taken its toll as Real have fallen behind a bit in La Liga. But the second half of the season could be much worse with a tricky tie against Schalke 04 waiting in the Champions League, Round of 16. One thing is for sure – Ancelotti will have lots to think about in 2014.
Maximus Tacticus – Newcastle United
In this feature, Debojyoti Chakraborty analyzes the strategies of top EPL sides. This time it is Newcastle United.
Newcastle United have set themselves a target for this season – they want to make up for lost time. From playing in the qualification stages for Champions League in 2003 they had only gone backwards and even tasted the dogfight in the Championships. No more of those agony stories. They have a settled team, a cool manager at the helm, and as always, a passionate fan base. Europe does not seem too far away this time round.
New Era Beckons
The summer started with much of uncertainty for the Magpies. Known and established faces left the club and the manager refused to splash cash and bring in some star players. Alan Pardew opted for young starlets and his policy is now paying rich dividends. He may not have the strongest of squads at his disposal, he might be lacking a bit of depth in his squad, but Pardew certainly has put together a strong team who can give their opponents a run for their money.
The policy of trusting on youth has rarely been so effective than Tim Krul, the #1 goalkeeper for Newcastle this season. A little known 23-year old Dutch coming from a small club like Den Haag has caught everyone off guard with his command on the game. Krul is a typical English-like goalkeeper who can hurl the ball a long way. He has a good outing sense and likes to punch the ball away and thus initiates a counter attacking move. He may have to work on his reflexes but he is already a valued proposition and a possible transfer target for many big clubs.
Newcastle’s captain this season has been a summer recruit who was no headline when he joined the club in August. But Fabricio Coloccini has provided the much needed stability in the defence with his calm and composed demeanour. He is good with the ball and often comes out of the danger zone with the ball in his feet. With close to 85% passing accuracy, he can easily dictate the game from the back. Coloccini’s partner in crime in a silk-n-steel defensive pairing has been Steven Taylor. A perfect foil for a ball playing defender, he is a no-nonsense stopper who plays a primary blocker and clears the ball out of defence at the first opportunity – eight clearances in each game on an average. His strong physical presence is always an asset in set piece situations – both while defending and when attacking. The star man in defence, though, has been a little Taylor playing down the left flank – Ryan Taylor. On the right back position, Danny Simpson is given the license to venture forward in his marauding runs as Ryan Taylor sits back making it a compact 3-man defence.
Pardew has opted for a traditional 4-4-1-1 formation in most of the matches. But he has been flexible enough to bring out the best in each of his players. That is why quite often his on-field strategies have revolved around a 3-man central midfield formation of 4-2-3-1. This is to be expected when two commanding midfielders are marshalling the centre of the field – Cheik Tioté and Yohan Cabaye. Both are quite similar in nature with strong physical presence and ability to marshal the midfield by quick ball interception and accurate passing. Cabaye in particular has been impressive with his leadership and ability to dictate the play. He is given a free roaming role at the heart of Newcastle’s midfield and is entrusted with the responsibility of linking the flank with the strikers. Together with the tireless Tioté or Danny Guthrie – deployed as the defensive screen, Cabaye has ensured that Newcastle play to a high tempo, take a direct approach, press high up the pitch but flood the attacking third if the opportunity arrives.
Strong attacking flair is provided by Jonás Gutiérrez from the left flank. A nimble dribbler, he is equally adept at cutting inside, opening up the defence with short interchange of passes or delivering a telling cross. Coupled with Ryan Taylor, he has formed a deadly partnership. Newcastle have missed the same threat from the other flank as Gabriel Obertan has been rarely impressive with his final balls. Another sore point for Pardew is the supporting striker/ attacking midfield position. Hatem Ben Arfa has been inconsistent or sidelined due to injury for most of the time. Leon Best is not the typical #10; he can win some aerial duel but his overall awareness of the game as well as his work ethic quite often lets him down. Shola and Sammy – the Ameobi brothers seem not good enough to play at this level week in week out.
Having covered them all, we come to the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle and how well has he fit in! Demba Ba. It won’t be wrong to say that he has single-handedly propelled Newcastle to the position they are right now. Worrying days await Pardew as others have failed to contribute except him. This might make Newcastle pay dearly in their charge towards Europe when Ba is unavailable owing to injuries or on international duties.
Man to Watch (1) – Demba Ba
He is a perfect striker – good with the ball on his feet, strong physique to win headers and capable of displaying a thunderbolt of a shot to catch the opposition unaware from a distance. To add to that, Ba is playing the football of his life and have rejuvenated a side that was lacking a serious target up front with the departure of Andy Carroll. He is not easy to mark either as he can cut inside to shoot with his reverse leg or can cut through a defence with some slick touches. He has been in lethal form this season and has netted 15 goals averaging almost one goal per game. Playing for a team with limited ammunition going forward, it is a brilliant achievement. But to measure his influence with goals alone would be wrong – he drops back effortlessly drawing his marker along with him. This creates a vacuum in the opposition defence which his team mates can exploit. He is more than a poacher, sometimes even playing as a false nine where he lurks outside the penalty box for the right opportunity. This is evident from his movements in the 3-0 thrashing of Manchester United recently.
Man to Watch (2) – R Taylor
Ryan Taylor, the left back, has been sensational this season on both fronts – two goals, three assists to go along with seven clean sheets. Besides his delightful long balls towards the opponent’s penalty area, he is the stand-out free kick taker for Newcastle. Taylor is a right-footed left back who attacks like an inverted winger. This has made him a very unique player for the Magpies and a headache for the opponents. To summarize his influence let us have a look at his performance against Sunderland. He got a decent 70% accuracy in his passing but most importantly, he was spot on with the balls which mattered. Out of his 14 miss passes/ attempts, 3 each were free-kicks and throw-ins – cases where 50-50 balls are delivered more often than not to open up the defence and hence accuracies are naturally on the lower side. Six of the remaining eight miss passes came along when Taylor was trying a long diagonal, proving he was quite smooth in his own half while defending. To top it up, he also scored the only goal of the match from a direct free kick. Not bad, Ryan Taylor, keep it up!