El Centrocampista

TOTAL FOOTBALL AND SQUARE PEGS – The growing pressure of adaptability at Barcelona

By Lee Roden

Saturday night saw Manchester United gain perhaps the least satisfying piece of revenge in the history of football.

The Red Devils defeated F.C Barcelona by two goals to one in Washington D.C. in front of a sold out and seemingly evenly split American crowd.

Alex Ferguson will take little if any catharsis from the result however, particularly due to Guardiola’s decision to play a makeshift side consisting largely of B team players, eventually ending with Barça fielding two 16 year olds (Espinosa and Balliu) in the final minutes of the game.

The match was a more or less standard pre-season affair for F.C Barcelona, with the performance varying from at times excellent, to more often than not stuttering, due to the lack of consistency in the line-up.

Perhaps the most consistent element of the game, and Barça’s preseason in general, has been Thiago Alcantara, who again popped up with a wonder goal against United.

I have eulogised him elsewhere however, and will no doubt continue to do so, but that is not my aim in this particular piece.

The most intriguing aspect of Barça’s performance was Guardiola’s decision to deploy young Jonathan Dos Santos at right back, a position he also filled in the Audi Cup against Bayern Munich earlier in the week.

Dos Santos is a midfielder by trade, and a talented one at that, who has featured sporadically throughout last season’s campaign in the Barça first team.

He also already seems to be overshadowing his older brother Giovani, in both consistency and ability.

Right back is an unfamiliar position to the young Mexican and, despite hiding this to the best of his abilities against Bayern, it became evident against United.

He was often at fault for the loss of possession in key areas, and made a few rash tackles that would normally be punished in a competitive match.

The purpose of this article is not by any means to lambast a young player who,  is still in the early stages of his FC Barcelona career, and was indeed playing in an unfamiliar position.

Far from it, Jonathan done fairly well in an attacking sense and showed some decent touches (moreso against Bayern than United), and crucially was at least willing to try and fill his position with enthusiasm.

What has emerged from this somewhat strange decision on Guardiola’s behalf however is that for new midfielders to break in to Barça’s first team, they must be prepared to adapt.

Barça’s midfield is extremely over crowded.

Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets have the three positions in the starting 11 tied up, and Keita is normally the next on the list followed by Mascherano thereafter.

Both Adriano and Maxwell have been deployed in midfield roles in the past (to varying degrees of effect), and Thiago is already making a strong case for his presence on not only Barça’s bench, but in the starting 11 at the beginning of the season.

For any midfielder looking to find some kind of consistent presence in Barça’s main squad then, they will need to consider alternative options.

Adaptability is perhaps now more than ever the most important aspect of a new Barça prospect.

No player is too big to adapt at Barcelona – Javier Mascherano is a clear example of this.

Despite usually missing out in his natural midfield position last season, by winning Guardiola’s confidence as a centre half Mascherano gained valuable minutes on the pitch and became a vital part of Barça’s success in the process.

Likewise, his colleague in the holding midfield role, Sergio Busquets, has often filled in at centre back (again, to varying degrees of success) both last season and throughout the current pre-season.

Players must be willing to play in any position asked and then, just maybe, they might be given a chance to stake a claim in the thoughts of el mister.

Guardiola is once again demonstrating his dedication to the school of Johan Cruyff (as I detailed in an earlier article).

Cruyff’s version of total football demands that, ideally, players are able to adapt to varying positions and be equally effective in multiple areas of the pitch.

Guardiola has shown more and more that he has faith in such adaptability, exemplified in not only Mascherano, but also Abidal (playing as a fullback or centre half), Maxwell (playing as a fullback or in the front 3), Adriano (playing just about everywhere except in goal!) and now Jonathan.

Jonathan’s deployment at right back is a great reminder of how desire to work combined with talent and luck can go a long way.

With Dani Alves still on vacation, the obvious choice to fill the right back position from the B team this pre-season would be Martin Montoya.

The promising fullback was first choice under Luis Enrique, and gained a few first team caps towards the end of last season.

He is still a week or so away from fitness however, after picking up a hamstring injury whilst on under-21 duty with Spain.

In recent months Montoya seems to be slightly injury prone, and picked up a different injury at the tail end of last season whilst playing for the first team.

As such, Jonathan will feel some pressure to make the most of his opportunities whilst given a short window to prove his worth.

If the young Mexican can stake a genuine claim to play at right back as cover for Alves, he may find Montoya’s niggles also aid him in turn.

That being said, Dos Santos could easily take the opposite trajectory if he performs poorly, which would then leave the door wide open for the relatively consistent Montoya (if he can stay fit).

Jonathan will be keen to avoid such a path after his older brother’s demise at Barça.

Guardiola has proven faith in youngsters (see Pedro and Busquets in particular), and will not read too much into Jonathan’s poor performance against United.

A few more however, and he may start to take notice.

Ultimately it is up to the young Dos Santos to prove to Pep that he is a viable option from the bench, regardless of the position he plays in.

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