Graham Hunter
Graham Hunter

New trends emerging at Barcelona

Thursday 19 September 2013, 19.56CET
FC Barcelona may have made light work of AFC Ajax, but the win revealed a number of patterns developing under Gerardo Martino, Graham Hunter explains.
Published: Thursday 19 September 2013, 19.56CET

New trends emerging at Barcelona

FC Barcelona may have made light work of AFC Ajax, but the win revealed a number of patterns developing under Gerardo Martino, Graham Hunter explains.

For anyone who finds FC Barcelona an intriguing and thrilling football proposition, it has been fun this week to see them pitched against the blueprint from which much of their modern success has flowed.

Your hearing didn't require particular acuity to pick up the echoes – Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, Frank De Boer, Marc Overmars, and Bojan Krkić among others. While AFC Ajax attempt, constructively, to reposition themselves at Europe's top table, the Catalans are going through a minor metamorphosis.

Thus it's appropriate, now that the rose-tinted, 'better-days' previews are dealt with and the match has been played and won, to glide from stories of the past towards trends of the future.

©Getty Images

Lionel Messi starred against Ajax

There are a host of examples. Firstly, possession. Despite the firm nature of the scoreline and the little gem of a performance from Lionel Messi, the stats were slightly surprising. Especially since Barça have made a habit, perhaps an obsession, of heavily dominating possession of the ball since Josep Guardiola took over in 2008.

Whether playing against top-drawer opponents or pushing about lesser rivals, this squad, over the last five years, have usually been in charge of the football for anything between 65% and 73% of a given match.

Not against Ajax – the share was 56%-44% in favour of the hosts. Now, part of that was, as both Marc Bartra and Leo Messi underlined to me when I spoke to them post-game, because the Dutch champions were confident and capable when it came to keeping the ball and using it well. "They were hard to press properly because they used their keeper so cleverly as a sweeper," both Barça men emphasised.

However, the more central point, moving forward, is that Gerardo Martino has asked his team to be more direct, to essay the occasional quick, long pass and – to use the current vernacular – to play more 'vertically'. It is a liberation which, for example, Gerard Piqué has welcomed, telling an Italian journalist that seeking alternatives to the basic playing style has been intelligent and that, perhaps, there had been a hint of being overly dedicated to the central concepts of the last five years.

Nobody is promising a playing revolution, but the evolution may bring lower possession stats, the quicker release of runners like Pedro Rodríguez, Neymar, Messi and Alexis Sánchez, and a Barça side that looks less meticulous, less patient than over the previous few years.

Secondly, there was Xavi Hernández. This imperious footballer, who remains the cerebral leader on the Camp Nou pitch, was not only rested, he was brought on to brilliant effect.

No matter that this is arguably Spain's pound-for-pound greatest ever footballer, age and the pain of his constant Achilles trouble mean that both his Barça coach and the Spain boss, Vicente Del Bosque, are going to have to be 'cute' in how they get the best out of him.

©Getty Images

Xavi Hernández came on as a substitute

'Rotating' the squad, Xavi included, is something which their Argentinian boss says will be a central part of his squad husbandry. But it means that when a game is stretched, when the players who would normally try to lean on their youth and athleticism to hound and 'press' Xavi have perhaps grown a little tired, then his introduction can bring a clinical and devastating impact. So it was when he supplied the fodder for Messi's hat-trick goal.

One last nod to the future was more equivocal. Post-match, Messi told me that Víctor Valdés has been "an all-time great" for years. The keeper played blisteringly well, his squad-mates absolutely revere him and, beyond his saves, his pure footballing skills make him the absolute epitome of what this club needs given the tactics they rely on.

However, Valdés continues to insist that, at the end of his contract in June, he'll leave for a new experience. As someone who's changed country in search of a new football experience, I'd wish him well and applaud his thirst for learning.

But however well Barça cope with evolving their playing style under Martino, the club's scouts and technical staff have one heck of a job on their hands trying to find this man's replacement. Had it not been for him on Wednesday then Ajax, the club who so influenced Barcelona's recent past, might well have made their immediate present a good deal more uncomfortable.

The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.


Last updated: 21/11/13 14.32CET