El Centrocampista


Six weeks ago, Levante were flying high at the top of the league, with their anarchic yet effective brand of counter-attacking football slaying many a giant in the process. Their form and position has dropped since then, but none the less, Pep Guardiola and Barcelona will have expected a tougher challenge than they faced tonight at the Camp Nou.

With Barça scoring five goals that could have easily been six or more (and by the way, how did Messi miss that, and can anyone tell me why that goal was offside?), Levante were well and truly outclassed with little positives to show for it.

The dominance was so brutal that Guardiola even indulged in the luxury of taking Sergio Busquets off at half time, with the midfield pivot successfully avoiding a yellow card and therefore suspension against Real Madrid. Indeed, even Carles Puyol’s forced substitution couldn’t take the sheen off the win, with the club soon confirming that the change was merely a precaution due to a clash of heads, and that the captain appeared to be completely fine after some time on the bench.

Most importantly, it was not necessarily the win itself that will please Guardiola most, despite the huge goal margin. Rather, it was the way in which Barcelona went about achieving it, with a reliance on width and aggression more common in an English team than at the Camp Nou, albeit with a touch of Barcelona class mixed in. If anyone has been doubting Guardiola’s tactical prowess over the last few weeks, tonight will surely force them to reconsider.

One Catalan journalist astutely pointed out that Fabregas, with his goal from outside the area and his second courtesy of a classy header, was bringing l’estil Premier League (premier league style) to Catalunya. Cesc wasn’t the only one either: Alexis and Cuenca stuck to the wings for the most part in the first half, only occasionally coming inside when the options close to the by-lines were few.

It is precisely this kind of width, complete with the ability to exploit it with style, skill and penetration, that Barcelona have lacked in recent years. Even Thierry Henry was more prone to moving inside the closer he found himself to the goal. It seems that Guardiola’s desire to constantly develop and alter Barça’s style is paying off, and for the first time this season, this new desire to use the wings truly benefitted the team.

Guardiola had previously tried a similar tactic using Adriano and Cuenca on each side at the Camp Nou. Isaac Cuenca is at his best in this position, and seems to flourish there. Despite not being particularly quick, his excellent close control allows him to gain a yard on an opponent in an instant. Adriano however, is better on the overlap than when his starting position is further forward and out wide, and I would argue that he is a much better fullback than winger for this reason. In Alexis, Barcelona have found the perfect counterpart for Cuenca on the opposite side.

Moreover, the presence of Cesc added a target for the wide players to focus on. The midfielder’s ability to pluck a ball out of the air and, even more impressively, out-jump a taller opponent is becoming evident this year. His headed goal was as picture perfect as the one against Atheltic Bilbao, but this time it was a glancing, directed header rather than an aggressive one, suggesting Fabregas also has variety in his aerial arsenal (no pun intended).

This unorthodox approach only lasted the duration of the first half, but was extremely effective, and Guardiola will be delighted with the way his team were able to switch style in the second half and still maintain the same level of danger. With Cesc retiring to the bench, Messi moved further forward and Barcelona re-adopted their now familiar short passing style in the final third. It worked just as well, and completed a perfect plan from Pep.

Barça’s unexpected use of width completely threw Levante, who would have expected to be able to pack the midfield and force Barcelona out onto the wings against their will. Instead, Barcelona weren’t forced, they were happy to use this space effectively.  When the damage was done, the Catalans were equally content in reverting to their usual approach and further throw their opponents.

Looking forward to the game in Madrid, Jose Mourinho will have a difficult task in guessing exactly how Guardiola will set his team out. Will Barcelona stick to their familiar style of play, and therefore run the risk of being stifled as Mourinho so effectively managed to do in the latter half of last year?  Or, will Barcelona go for the more risky move and attempt to beat Madrid out wide? I suspect the answer may be a bit of both, but what is certain is that Guardiola has options, and approaches the weekend in a much stronger position than only a few days ago. Oh what a difference a day makes.

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