Barcelona won everything under Luis Enrique this season: La Liga, Copa del Rey and the Champions League. And yet Enrique’s side is far more pragmatic than Pep Guardiola’s “Dream Team.” Perhaps it is because the current squad, as good as it is, does not match up to Guardiola’s side. Or maybe Neymar and Ivan Rakitic do not quite grasp tiki taka. Whatever the reason, Barcelona no longer shuns counter-attacking football or the occasional long ball and has been just as effective over the past season.
Indeed, during the Champions League final against Juventus 10 days ago Barcelona put on a something of a functional performance. The Catalans’ 4-3-3 formation offered a midfield three that was more concerned with keeping shape and covering advanced players than trying to work the ball through the Italians’ centre.
In wide areas neither Jordi Alba nor Dani Alves looked to overlap with frequency. The Spanish left-back always offered an open outlet for long-balls from the right, while Alves, whose new two-year contract will preclude United from signing the Brazilian, looked to buttress the midfield rather than providing genuine width.
Up front Neymar offered thrust from the left, while Suarez played as a vanilla number nine and Lionel Messi constantly moved into the number 10 position rather than attacking the box. Louis van Gaal calls the role “false winger” – one that Juan Mata played frequently in recent months.
In fact, the Barcelona system in Berlin was highly reminiscent of Manchester United’s recent 4-3-3 formation. Rakitic and Ander Herrera, and Messi and Juan Mata, are interchangeable in terms of role on the pitch, while both United and Barça looked to the left to provide attacking drive. It is also worth noting that Antonio Valencia at right-back was among the most frequent passers at United last season. In the Olympiastadion the game ended with Alves as the player with the most passes to his name.
Of course, no matter how much money Ed Woodward spends this summer, United will not boast a front three on par with Barça’s come August. It is, however, reassuring that Van Gaal’s philosophy can be particularly effective with better players.
Success through replication is a well-trodden path in business as well as sport. Uniqlo and Zara make money by aping pioneering designers. Samsung has become a giant in the smartphone market by following in Apple’s footsteps. Barcelona’s treble speaks for itself and Enrique’s side may prove to be the football equivalent of Thom Browne or Apple to Van Gaal’s United.
It is ludicrous to suggest that Memphis Depay and Ashley Young are on the same level as Neymar on the left, while Mata or Adnan Januzaj may offer only a passable impression of Messi, but most of ingredients are already in place for Van Gaal’s Barcelona-esque system to work at Old Trafford.
There is, of course, a difference between Barcelona and United in the midfield composition. Andres Iniesta is technical rather than blunt. Maroune Fellaini will struggle to imitate the Spanish World Cup winner and, if deployed in the same role as over the past 10 months, will crowd out Depay in any case. This issue can easily be fixed though and United is already in the market for a new midfielder. It should also be noted that Angel di Maria is essentially a more adventurous version of Iniesta when deployed in central midfield.
Tactically Barça has evolved this season. Cross-field balls to shift angles have long been a part of total football, but Barcelona’s incorporation of the direct game is particularly telling. Predictable attacks, even as well executed as Guardiola’s tiki taka, can be stopped. The Bayern Munich manager’s failure to get the better of Barcelona and Real Madrid over the past two seasons is a case in point. Possession has proven to be something that may be gained by superiority – not a necessary and sufficient condition for domination.
That means taking risks at the expense of possession is a worthwhile endeavour. Long balls, inherently inaccurate and therefore risky, certainly have value in this line of thought. Van Gaal’s first season at Old Trafford was an exercise in exerting control. It remains to be seen whether the current Barcelona template will turn out to be the culmination of the Dutchman’s philosophy or otherwise. The European champions’ willingness to embrace risk should be taken to heart.
If United enjoys a good summer in the market Van Gaal will have more tactical flexibility next season. Barcelona’s relative pragmatism is counter-balanced by extra creativity on the right – Alves and Messi are more than capable of blasting through any deadlock. There is a clear difference between being functional and choosing to be functional. A note for United’s work in the market.
The situation up top is more of a stumbling block for United. As despicable as some find Suarez the Uruguayan ensures that Barça’s system works. Neither Wayne Rooney nor Robin van Persie offers the same guarantee. The England and United captain’s “special privileges” may very well render this discussion moot and force Van Gaal to adopt a new system anyway.
It is reassuring nonetheless that a 4-3-3 system can work at the highest level. The Champions League final has demonstrated a template that can by followed even in the status quo at Old Trafford. It is a default option that can be fruitfully explored should the Dutchman indulge in some tinkering next season. In fact Van Gaal may very well consider the match a vindication of his management last season, although certain philosophical tenets so evident in Berlin should be noted in the campaign to come.