IT IS difficult to escape the feeling that Barcelona’s playing philosophy has hardened into a dogma. A few possession stats out of keeping with the revered tiki-taka ball domination that was patented by the deity Pep Guardiola and suddenly some Catalan footballing fundamentalists are rushing to present new coach Gerardo Martino as a potentially heretical figure.
The debate about a Martino-makeover has been fevered further to last Saturday when, for the first time in more than five years and 317 games – since the pre-Guardiola era, to put it another way – Barcelona had less possession, fewer completed passes and fewer shots on goal than their opponents, Rayo Vallecano. “Yes, but they won 4-0,” Neil Lennon pointed out the other day, the Celtic manager entirely unconvinced Barca will follow a noticeably different gameplan in Glasgow in the Champions League on Tuesday from the one adopted in their defeat at Parkhead last November. “It was bound to happen [that their possession would drop below 50 per cent in a match]. I wouldn’t dwell on it as a coach because of the score. Whether [the stats] were down to Rayo playing very well or Martino adjusting the style, I’m not so sure.”
Others have seized on any signs to suggest that Martino is meddling unnecessarily with the Catalan credo. In welcoming the new coach’s desire for more variation, Gerard Pique made screaming headlines with his comments that Barca had become “slaves” to tiki-taka and were “very predictable”. The defender made his thoughts known just before the 4-0 win over Ajax in the Champions League. During that game the Dutch had almost as much possession as their hosts – unheard of in recent times, whatever opposition has rolled up to the Nou Camp in continental competition. “It is OK to score a goal with one pass,” Pique said.
Pique’s intervention would probably have been considered unhelpful by his Argentine coach. A man who has suggested, not unreasonably, that any tweaks he has made in pressing higher up and introducing more “vertical attacks” would have gone unnoticed were he Dutch or had come through the club’s La Masia academy. Martino also noted that by last week, Barca’s overall possession percentages was only 0.2 lower than last season.
Moreover, Lennon’s assertion that the match against Rayo which ended the possession streak was more down to the slick showing by the vanquished team was endorsed by the Vallecano coach, Paco Jemez. Yet within such an explanation he also acknowledged that the current Barcelona are not simply seeking to recreate the template adhered to by Guardiola and, last season, his promoted assistant Tito Vilanova. “More than a global change, it is details,” Jemez said. “It is not that they want to lose possession of the ball, because the more they have, the better. But now they allow you to draw breath, while before they smothered you with pressure up top.”
It might be considered faintly ridiculous that Martino is having his methods questioned when his team had won all seven of their league games ahead of facing Almeria last night, and scored 18 goals in their past five outings. Yet Martino, a Hercule Poirot fanatic, would surely be able to solve the puzzle by looking beyond the nationality issue. He certainly played the Barca way in guiding Argentine club Newell’s Old Boys to an restorative championship last season – the club where as a player he was idolised by many, including Lionel Messi’s father Jorge. However, suspicions over his stylistic impulses might be attributed to the fact he led Paraguay to the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup, where they were narrowly defeated by eventual winners Spain, by eschewing the aesthetic for the pragmatic. Paraguay were a stuffy, less-than-scintillating watch. That was true even though his over-arching coaching principles flow from the teachings of fellow Argentine and guru of the game Marcelo Bielsa, another major Rosario-born football figure, as is Messi. And Bielsa, in turn, forged a high tempo 4-3-3 system as a result of embracing the Dutch’s total football transformation... which in turn, courtesy of Johan Cryuff, underpins the whole Catalan credo.
It is little wonder then that another Argentine coaching godfather, World Cup winner Cesar Menotti, has scoffed at the notion that Tata (a nickname that means granddad) Martino does not respect the tenets of tiki-taka. “Tata is not trying to make any revolution,” Menotti said. “The concentration must be reset, [but] the idea sustained. You do not need to invent what has already been invented. It would seem to me foolish to try to change a work of art like that which Guardiola built, but you need to rebuild certain things.
“When the Barca players find their rhythm and their form, I do not see why you would change anything from what was so good and won so much. It makes me laugh when people talk about predictability. Talent is not predictable. All this talk about predictability has annoyed me a lot. Innovation can exist inside the predictable. They are trying to disguise that many players were physically exhausted. Instead of talking about the idea of Barca, why do we not talk about physically and mentally recuperating some exhausted players.”
Lennon finds himself singing from the same hymn sheet as Menotti when it comes to the possibility that the current Catalans are not an exact copy of previous incarnations. “I think there has been a lot of hysteria over the changeover but maybe Martino is right to change things a little bit,” the Celtic manager said. “I mean look at the way the season finished, it obviously wasn’t working against Bayern Munich, and it was not the Barcelona we have become accustomed to. Unless that was just fatigue setting in because these guys play football non-stop for club and international teams. So, maybe they just hit a brick wall at the end of the season.”
Lennon isn’t going overboard that Bayern, with a 7-0 aggregate win in the Champions League semi-finals, found a way to slice the Barca system, as it might be said he did in masterminding the 2-1 victory at Celtic Park last season. “Bayern are the best team in Europe just now,” he said. “Milan found a way last season [to beat Barcelona] and won 2-0 at the San Siro but it took a monumental effort from them that night. In the Nou Camp they couldn’t maintain that and lost 4-0, but they were always in the tie. We are talking about the cream of European football playing against Barcelona. We will look at recent games and we’ll work on things.”
In sending his players home on Friday with a DVD of the club’s Glasgow glory night to study, Lennon has acknowledged they must try to make the same elements work for them again. Which includes putting their opponents under pressure from set-pieces – a tactic that yielded goals against Barca both at Celtic Park and the Nou Camp – even though he accepts the Catalan club could be better placed to deal with such threats, regardless of the fact defenders Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba will miss out with injury.
“The only disadvantage I have this year is that I haven’t been out to see them live,” he said. “To me, it was a great thing to watch them live last season, to be able to see the whole picture. To see how they defended, their movement off the ball, how Messi and the front three defended and see them at set-pieces. But I don’t think they will change that much from last year. They might be a little bit more physical. Pique will play. [Marc] Bartra may play. [Alex] Song may play to give them extra height. Neymar has come in and there is no question he will make them better and give them a different impetus going forward. But any team with Messi in it is going to be deadly and you have to have your levels of concentration at a maximum at all times.”
The constants that the Catalans can count on make them colossal. Irrespective of their coach.