Maximus Tacticus – Barcelona

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.


Down but not out
Down but not out

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).

New Picture (1)
Still fluid, still pressing but less effective

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.

"Keep calm and have faith"...but will they?
“Keep calm and have faith”…but will they?

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.

Fabregas playing further up front
Fabregas playing further up front

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.