Barcelona has become a boring side to watch. Not because they are suddenly playing defensive football, but because their playing style is becoming too predictable, too machine-like. In every match, one can foresee the same things happening during the course of the game. Plenty of possession (usually sterile), lots of exchanges in passes (often in the midfield zone), hardcore relentless pressing by the whole team, a piece of Messi brilliance and their monopolising of the ball.
When our smiles were genuine
When Guardiola took charge of Barcelona from the 2008/09 season, watching Barcelona was like a breath of fresh air. For years, the European football scene had not seen a team play quite like them.
Barcelona’s play is centred around a system where every player is comfortable receiving the ball and releasing it to the nearest player. Each player just keep on repeating this motion until a clear goal-scoring opportunity appears. The central axis of Pique, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta and Messi are the spine, controlling the movements of the team.
Barcelona employ vigorous and relentless pressing on the opposition, usually starting their pressure on the opposing defenders. This is equivalent to the basketball full court press where the players start the press immediately after the opposing team got hold of the ball.
The only time Barcelona appeared genuinely flustered by their opponents was in the 2-2 draw with Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao in November 2011. This was the only time a team had managed to match Barcelona offensively and aggressively.
For the rest of the 200+ games that Barcelona played under Guardiola, Barcelona had used the same approach, domination of the ball and space. Yes, they might have lost the odd games here and there. However, the losses were mostly a result of the opponents packing their defence and then scoring through a counter attack.
Barcelona’s decision to replace Guardiola with his assistant Tito Vilanova ensured that there was continuation in the philosophy of the club. Vilanova expanded on Guardiola’s ideas and implemented a more vertical style of football. The basis of the team is still the same, with its focus on pressing and ball retention. Though under Vilanova, they look to move the ball forward quicker.
When watching Barcelona, you sort of knew what to expect in the game. One of the joys of football is in the unpredictability of the games. Barcelona’s dominance and superior technical ability has instead turned their matches into one where you know how the match is going to unfold. Lots of Barcelona possession, lots of passes and the majority of the game spent camped inside the opponent’s half.