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Sunday, March 4

Barcelona 3 - 1 Sporting Gijon: "I used to go with the wrench."

A look at Barcelona jumping ahead before fighting back with ten-men to defeat Sporting Gijon.

From Good Will Hunting:

     INT. SEAN'S OFFICE -- DAY

                           SEAN
               My dad used to make us walk down to 
               the park and collect the sticks he 
               was going to beat us with. Actually 
               the worst of the beatings were between 
               me and my brother. We would practice 
               on each other trying to find sticks 
               that would break.

                           WILL
               He used to just put a belt, a stick 
               and a wrench on the kitchen table 
               and say "choose."

     INT. WILL'S CHILDHOOD APARTMENT -- FLASHBACK

               A large, callused hand sets down a wrench next to a stick.

                                                               CUT BACK TO:

     INT. SEAN'S OFFICE -- DAY

                           SEAN
               Gotta go with the belt there...

                           WILL
               I used to go with the wrench.

                           SEAN
               The wrench, why?

                           WILL
               Cause fuck him, that's why.

Barcelona entered the weekend ten points adrift of Real Madrid atop La Liga, and should the still-to-play Los Merengues take care of business at home against Espanyol, that's how they'll exit.  It's a domestic campaign that is all but lost for Barça, a climb back to the top made all the more unlikely by the squad depth of Madrid consuming all non-blaugrana opponents.  With a Champions League title still to defend, a Copa del Rey final against Marcelo Bielsa's Athletic Bilbao awaiting and a number of Barça B players knocking on the door of the first team, it would be more than understandable if Pep Guardiola used the remainder of the league to audition the likes of Cristian Tello, Martín Montoya, Marc Bartra and Sergi Roberto.  It, even, would take a special kind of rationale to oppose such a decision.

Already missing Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Eric Abidal, and with a midweek European contest with Bayer Leverkusen looming, it stood to reason Barça's starting eleven against Sporting Gijon would more resemble a U-23 or reserve side than the one which decimated Madrid back in December.

But Guardiola, as is the norm, had other ideas.

The Starting XIs

Not sitting were Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Seydou Keita in midfield.  Not sitting were Dani Alves, Gerard Piqué, Javier Mascherano and Adriano in Barça's back-line.  Nor was Cesc Fàbregas, not exactly a stranger to missed games himself, out of the lineup.  And even though both Alexis Sánchez and Carles Puyol started on the bench, they both played, meaning every available Barça first-teamer touched the pitch.  For Sporting Gijon, Javier Clemente had his side open not in their choice 4-2-3-1 but in a shallow 4-5-1, which, given the defensive tasks of the nominal forward Miguel de las Cuevas, resembled a 4-6-0.

The first half shared many a similarity to the first leg of Barça's Champions League Round of 16 tie with Bayer Leverkusen:

-- Gijon, like Leverkusen, parked the bus in defense -- though with a lower block than that of the Bundesliga side -- inviting forward runs from Barça's fullbacks.

-- Pedro Rodríguez, playing the Sánchez role at right-wing, attacked towards Gijon centre-back Alejandro Gálvez, dragging right-back Roberto Canella inside, opening the flank for Alves.

-- Iniesta routinely ran over the top of Cesc Fàbregas, the false-9, like he did with Messi as the centre-forward in Guardiola's 4-3-3.

-- Gijon countered, and countered fast, bombarding the ball down the pitch.

There were differences of note, however:

-- Where Leverkusen was cavalier in possession, blindly sending balls forward, Gijon deliberately and smartly played balls out to the pacey Formose Mendy in behind Adriano or out to the other flank behind Alves.

-- Iniesta took a far more proactive approach with his dribbling, feinting his way through defenders with the ball seemingly glued to his feet.

-- Adriano looked to penetrate the interior of Gijon's defense with his runs rather than supply the last-pass-width Abidal did.

Gijon, with their defense sagging towards the middle and their midfielders dropping deep, had redundancies to pick up Barça's forwards, Iniesta and Alves, but that focus left Adriano and even Mascherano free to make deep, dribbling runs which dragged defenders from their natural marks to open space for the Barça attack.  Accordingly, it was an Adriano run towards the edge of the six-yard-box which keyed Iniesta's tap-in to open the scoring for Barça, who, just like against Leverkusen, scored late in the first half after dominating possession.

And then, at the dawn of the second half, Gerard Piqué received a straight red card.  Clemente, managing a Gijon side more than flirting with relegation, saw an opportunity to perhaps steal a point or three from the Catalans, and brought on striker David Barral and winger Gonzalez Carmelo for right-back Damián Suárez and the largely ineffectual Garcia Perez Ayoze, the latter having started his first game since September.  An immediate dividend followed the two positive substitutions: a Barral goal from a Mendy crossback off the endline brought the match level.  Even if Barça goalkeeper Victor Valdés was not without blame for letting Barral cross his face to get on the end of the dangerous Mendy's pass, Clemente getting Gijon off their back-foot was a needed -- if, also, mandatory -- move.

The goal left the Camp Nou faithful's lungs quit of air, unable to lift Barça's sails.  And, already down ten points to Madrid and now down to ten men, Barça was less than a half away from ending what little title drama lingered in the 2011-12 La Liga season.

There have been times throughout this campaign that Guardiola has employed a hybrid of his 4-3-3 and 3-4-3: away in the league against Valencia, the first halves of both the first and second leg of the Clásico Copa del Rey quarter-final.  Being down to ten men, however, perhaps bore witness to the truest hybrid yet: the 3-3-3.

Barça's 10 vs. Gijon's 11 (after 59' subs)

Gijon's substitutions, while making them more dangerous when in possession, was not without blowback: the game was now more open.  Even down to ten-men, this played to the strengths of the always-possession-oriented Barça, and upon getting their wits about them, they became every bit as dangerous as they were in the first half.

But, just like for the better part of the first half, they were goalless, staring a draw in the face.  In the 59th minute, Guardiola made the second of the game's double substitutions, taking off the struggling-to-finish Fàbregas for Sánchez and replacing the often-needed complement that is Pedro for Tello, a livelier creator down the wing.  Tello went out to the left, with Isaac Cuenca moving to the right.

The 3-3-3

It was a three-man back-line for Barça, but its outside defenders, Alves and Adriano, played the role of fullbacks rather than the usual role of two markers sandwiching a central sweeper, with Alves still surging forward down the right flank and Adriano, while not as aggressive as he was in the first half, still looking to support play to the left.

They were able to do this because of Seydou Keita playing the Busquets role.  When Barça would play its 3-4-3, "3-7-0" or other exotics, Sergio Busquets would often drop into defense, alleviating any pressure building, keeping the back-line steady, functioning more of a centre-half and a link to midfield than as a traditional midfielder.  Keita, whenever there was the potential for imminent danger should Gijon win possession and counter, dropped into defense, either directly covering for one of the fullbacks or playing centrally, leaving Mascherano free to slide wide.

Piqué's absence meant, when building out of the back, Barça's outfield players all had to essentially rotate "down" a level towards their own end, bringing their lines closer to the ball to ensure the necessary amount of bodies to play their methodical way out of their half.  If Keita was the link between the back-line and midfield, then Sánchez was the link between midfield and the forwards.

While not sharp in front of goal, Sánchez was, regardless, brilliant.  He joined the midfield to aide possession.  He held up play in front of the centre-backs to either give time to his recessed midfield to join the attack or go on runs over the top of him.  He made runs himself over the top.  He looked to hold up play at the edge of the area.  He didn't just play both roles of Messi and Fàbregas' false-9/false-10 partnership, he also played the "true" roles those of which the partnership's derived from.

Joining the multiple-hat-wearing-party was Xaviesta, tasked with dictating the game from midfield all while getting forward over the top of Sánchez to attack the net.  And Iniesta, in one of the standout performances from any campaign this season, still was able to perform his take on Messi's role as a midfielder, dribbling through and around defenders to help unlock Gijon's numerical-advantage-having defense.

Gijon adapted to this approach, but just as Adriano found his way forward to create Barça's first, it was Keita who made the run from deep to drive home Barça's second after more scintillating play from Iniesta and Sánchez.

While it may not have been the defining example of the total football exhibited by Barça's 4-3-3 that Alves' goal against Atlético last week was, Keita's go-ahead against Gijon was a celebration of Guardiola's ethos, an achievement of a commitment to one way of football above all else.  It didn't matter that Barça was down to ten men: Guardiola's bravado demanded not an abandonment of his side's principles but an all-hands-on-deck commitment to keeping their way of football afloat.

And all of this in a game that, barring a historic Real Madrid collapse, won't matter.  Reduced to ten men and down ten points atop La Liga, with little reason to even field a side half-comprised of first-team players, Barcelona -- by way of Seydou Keita's left foot -- delivered one of the best moments of the football season.  Barça is going to lose La Liga.  They can't even drop one more point to match last year's total.  The risk of injury in domestic games to an already-thinned squad is threatening their ability to repeat as European Champions.  But, in the face of all of this, Barcelona picked the wrench.

The wrench, why?

Could their answer be anything other than Cause fuck Madrid, that's why?

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2 comments:

  1. Damn straight. I am what they would call a "bandwagon" cule, a fan of only these past two seasons, but it feels almost impossible to invest yourself into this team without also buying into the sentiment: fuck Madrid. Which is, of course, actually secondary to: Cause that's how we roll.
    Nice writing, thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm waiting for a new tactical post since March 4. Can you make just one ?

    ReplyDelete