What was The Barca Way?
I know the history of The Barca Way go back further than this, but I’m gonna be focussing somewhat on fan perception for a lot of this so because of that my reference point really has to be more recent than that, and really there is no other reasonable choice than the era of Pep Guardiola – it’s pretty much unquestionable that his time at the club (especially the early parts of it) defined a lot of what today is considered part of The Barca Way in the eyes of modern fans. The 433, the high pressing, the lightweight pairing of Xaviesta, Dani Alves rampaging down the right flank and the slow, patient possession game that dominated and picked apart teams.
The football was obviously imperfect (as football always will be), but it has often been widely described as the best club team of the modern era or even of all time.
But far more interesting to me are the details of this team that aren’t remembered – you rarely hear praise of Eric Abidal dropping into the back 3 to cover for the attackers knowing that Iniesta and Henry were more than capable to being the offensive threat down that flank. Likewise, you rarely here praise for the ball winning abilities of Xavi and Iniesta either – obviously though far from incredible in that field both more than pulled their weight defensively, something that players compared to them since rarely do. What this has led to is a very warped and unbalanced perception of what made the Barca of that era good
What is The Barca Way?
Here is (unfortunately) the section where I’m gonna start getting a little mean – both towards some players and towards some fans. As I alluded to previously things have become rather muddled in the decade and change since. That that has led to some absurd levels of dissonance in what it means for a player to have Barca DNA.
Arthur seems a good place to start – pretty much universally hailed as having it due to his press resistance and accurate passing. Pity he didn’t really do anything with them. Xavi was not good because he could evade the press and had a high pass completion percentage, Xavi was good because he did that AND won the ball back defensively AND dragged players out of position AND was an elite creator who set LaLiga assist records – but he isn’t remembered for those anything like as much. Often perception of players colours how we see teams, but this is a clear example of the inverse – the perception of the team as a possession monster alone has reduced Xavi to that as well. But in both cases, what made them great was the breadth of skillset, not a single outstanding attribute.
This (arguably disrespectful) narrowing of what makes teams work leads to some strange tactical perceptions, most notably in midfield selection. I (and many others) have railed against the idea of a Puig-Frenkie-Pedri midfield for a while, and the common opinion for why people want this is to fit in the latest creative gem in Puig – which is an understandable goal, even if naive.
I do not think this is the sole root of this desire. Mostly because it isn’t new. Calls for a trio of Coutinho-Frenkie-Arthur predate the emergence of Puig and Pedri but are essentially the same idea that if you get enough good passers in a midfield then they’ll just somehow work it out the way Iniesta-Busi-Xavi did (once again erasing the genuine defensive nous all three had). Hell, this is even more evident when people talked about them in those terms: Coutinho was the Iniesta replacement, Arthur was Xavi’s spiritual successor and Frenkie was (somehow) just like Busquets. You can easily frame this as a form of idealism, rather than engaging in the material skills a team needs but instead engaging with what an ideal team SHOULD need.
Beyond that though we even get the really strange ones. I’ve made my criticisms of Nelson Semedo pretty clear over the years, but one of the defenses that took me most off guard was seeing him described as having Barca DNA due to his pace down the flank. It really was pretty bizarre after having the virtues of technically-but-not-physically-gifted players to see Nelson Semedo of all people in the squad being seen as embodying it. What this in my opinion demonstrates is the desire for direct replacement for that era’s legends – Dani Alves pushed high and athletically on the right, so Semedo should too. The individual characteristics of both players are pushed aside here – Semedo’s poor efficacy on the ball ignored as well as Alves’ ability to come inside and link play. The lack of much similarity beyond the aesthetic speaks volumes about how The Barca Way is used rhetorically, not to defend a certain type of play but to defend the desire to relive an idealised version of 2009 through surface similarities.
Chasing a Will of the Wisp
This desire to recreate the image of past glories is a very strong influence on the club and it’s fanbase. It’s a shame and a pain to admit we’ll quite possibly never see a side like that again, but as discussed above its manifestations are toxic and have serious effects on the running of the club.
For an example, lets look at the elections: Joan Laporta won and comfortably so, riding high on a wave of nostalgia for (you guessed it) 2009 era Barcelona. And yet he wasn’t even the candidate who banked most on Nostalgia – Victor Font the runner up largely bet his pitch on the nostalgia and name recognition of Xavi and Puyol, it obviously didn’t work, but between the two of them the fact that nostalgia for the era was directly driving the direction of the club was clear.
But that era is gone. The footballing landscape has changed, and those players are once in a generation if not rarer.
And even the defining icon of the era has moved on.
Football in 2021 is very different to how it was then and a large part of that can be put down to 2 basic concepts: Transitions and Structure. More and more top teams are building their teams around either exploiting transitions or preventing them outright – just looking at this season’s UCL final is a clear example of this. Both Pep’s Manchester City and Tuchel’s Chelsea are both teams dedicated to the latter. And the way they build such systems is through rigid structure.
In fact, transitions have been a key part of the overall story of Pep’s story at all 3 of the top clubs he’s managed and though they were obviously a thing back then and managers used them, they were not as ubiquitous as they are now in terms of tactical thought. For Pep though, dealing with them has been a key consideration through building all his teams, his well-known tendency to do something mad in UCL knockout rounds can all be explained through desire to prevent transitions and counters. And while I could give and rundown of how he did that and why, that article has already been written by Grace Robertson – go read it.
The move towards structure on the other hand I haven’t seen such a comprehensive breakdown of, so I’ll discuss it in a bit more detail. Structure in football is often thought of as a fundamentally defensive characteristic, with the implication being that the offensive side of the game is much more letting talented attackers do their thing – and there are a lot of coaches who do exactly that. Pellegrini and Ancelotti generally took this approach and it served them well.
Key word being ‘served’ – cos it’s not really doing so now. In both cases despite being very highly decorated coaches, they’re currently at upper-mid table clubs (Real Betis and Everton respectively) not at the elite anymore. And why really does relate to their luck of offensive structure.
As team structure becomes ever more present in the game, if anything it causes a feedback loop because the best way to break down a structured defense is with structure of your own, with specific kinds of movements designed to drag the opposition in such ways that it makes you space. Just go watch Manchester City’s centurions and you’ll see what I mean. I’ve already written about the value of consistent attack patterns and Pep in that season found a pattern that worked and abused it like a video game glitch.
So, if controlling transitions and a concrete attacking structure are key components of an elite football team, we should probably talk about why Barca struggle with them so much.
Midfields are fake actually.
And so, to the recent Barcelona sides. If you’ve watched Barca at all since Valverde was sacked and you’ve seen a goal conceded, it’s quite likely it came from one of 2 sources: either a simple defensive error or from a quick transition and counter into the space behind our midfield – both have been painful in their frequency. The former there isn’t much to say other than “FFS Lenglet concentrate!”, at least not within the scope of this article.
The counters behind the midfield line are, unsurprisingly, due to structural issues with the team. The 1-2 shape in midfield (present in both the classic 433 and current 3142) gives has it’s benefits offensively, but as a trade-off it leaves free the half spaces behind each 8 for the opposition to attack. Short of just never conceding transitions there are 2 main ways of combatting this if you want to keep your 8s high: either have an incredibly mobile and tackle heavy holding midfielder (think Casemiro at Real Madrid) to mop up errors, or to have a full back shift inside (think Azpilicueta at under Mourinho or, oh yeah, Abidal at Barca).
As you may have guessed, Barca do not do either of these things. At Barca both Alba and Dest push high to try and have an impact in the final third (the former even succeeds in that endeavour) and Pedri, Frenkie, Moriba and someone I’ve conspicuously forgotten push high to link play and make off the ball runs. This leaves to defend just the CBs and Busquets. And at this point Busquets is neither incredible mobile, nor tackle heavy.
Now to given Koeman (and to a lesser extent Setién before him) has clearly recognised this and responded by playing a 3rd CB – Mingueza under Koeman and Sergi Roberto under Setién. Both players have experience at full back and the skills required to impact highers up the pitch so they can move up to assist in midfield duties, but even so the half spaces (especially on the left) largely remain open – if you want a good example of this watch Barca’s 2-2 away draw with Celta they LOVED to counter into the space show below as Barca’s midfield often left Umtiti exposed.
On the attacking side however, we see the opposite: Barca are extremely reticent to use counterattacks. Now yes, it’s obviously going to be true that possession dominant teams generally have a lower proportion of their attacks come through counters obviously – but short of Messi winning the ball off an opposing midfielder and running at the defense it’s something that’s completely absent from their play. This of course limits your ability to exploit transitions when attacking and limits your capacity for tactical flexibility for bigger games. But even in the modern era this was not always the case.
A club in Transition.
Under Luis Enrique, Barcelona were not afraid of going direct – Lucho recognised that giving his world beating attackers space to cause havoc would get the best out of them. There was still structure behind the chaos with Messi > Neymar > Suarez > goal being an absurdly frequently progression of attacks. It could happen slowly or quickly, utilising transition or foregoing it. And they won a treble.
Now don’t mistake this for a treatise on why Barcelona should be a counterattacking team now, but that first season showed both it’s value and more broadly the value of tactical flexibility. The seasons after that showed Lucho’s shortcomings – the struggle to break down top opponents was very clear because when the MSN trio don’t have the space to attack it turns out the control and more complex structure orchestrated by Xavi and co is extremely useful (quelle surprise?).
But this isn’t a pure retrospective, it’s a discussion of what the club needs to be in order to stay relevant, why and what changes need to happen to realise that? I can start with a discussion of the squad and just for the hell of it why not: get Emerson back at the club due to his better defensive ability and what little funds are available, prioritise a mobile and defensively active 6.
But fixing the squad does nothing if the structure of the team isn’t there to take advantage of those improvements. Barca are one of the most passive teams in the league in terms of pressing, they press high, but in the middle and defensive thirds that intensity drops off hugely compared to other teams.
Furthermore, the pressing structure is poor as well – the current Manchester City team use pressing as a mechanism to prevent the opposition from having a chance to create a chance. For Barcelona, the disorganised pressing is often the mechanism by which the opposition creates chances – there is a desperate need of structure.
Barcelona as a club lie at a crossroads. After years of mismanagement at MANY levels something is going to have to give. The club needs to modernise the scouting department and to solidify it’s mechanisms for ensure a long term sporting project, but at a fundamental level it’s footballing identity needs modernising, or at the very least a reality check – because the football that the fans remember isn’t what won titles a decade ago, and even if it were, the world has moved on.
As it stands, Barcelona is a club clinging to their past for fear of deviating too far from it. But eventually you must let go of fond memories and embrace the real world. The Barca Way is not a concrete set of styles and techniques, but a rhetorical device used to handwave away legends waltzing into jobs they’re unqualified for, to damn those who propose mechanisms to modernise the systems that hold the club back and to dismiss genuine tactical critique that demonstrates how this core identity is used against us.
The Barca Way is dead.
And everyone knows it but us.