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Chasing Barcelona

*Jones*

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Dec 28, 2009
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Written by Graham Hunter

IT'S not often that Paul Scholes opens his mouth and lets rip - not to the media, not to his teammates, not even to Mrs Scholes, legend has it.

You get an inaccurate pass and a clean well-timed tackle from Scholes more often than you get a sentence which begins: "I've been meaning to say for some time and now's the chance…''

So I enjoyed hearing what he wanted to articulate this week.

Phrases like: ''On the night of the Wembley final [against Barcelona] we felt we were a million miles away from them'' seem to me soccer's version of ''realpolitik'' - an unwelcome acceptance of how the hard facts actually are.

And Scholes added that ''you have to hold your hands up and say they [Barca] were better''.

''You don't like admitting it, but this time they were and two years ago they were.
''The manager will have been thinking about the game all summer, working out how he can avoid that sort of thing happening again.''

Patently Scholes has too.

Another recent retiree, Gary Neville, added his couple of cents (I'm sure it wasn't sense?) to the debate when he blithely predicted that: ''Next season will be tougher for them [Barca] because United and other teams will have learned.

''I think we will progress and we will get there. I think the likes of Man United and Real Madrid will get past Barcelona in the next two years.''

Leaving aside the fact that Barca has beaten Real Madrid on aggregate 20-5 in their past nine meetings and holds a 5-1 margin over United in their past two Champions League cup finals (so evidently the gap ain't closing that quickly, Gary), it's wonderful to hear the English champions gritting their teeth and setting the ''seek and destroy'' sights on Pep Guardiola's team.

I've spoken to players from that United squad at Wembley, who talk with a kind of reverence for the football that Barcelona plays and the ease with which the Catalans can casually destroy any other team in the world if given even a couple of millimetres of space.

But, to a man, their attitude is: ''How can we haul them back?'' or ''we are building again and Sir Alex Ferguson will not rest until he pushes us up to their level''.

It all meshes with what Ferguson, a proud man who hates losing but who treated defeat in London that night with dignity and a searing forward vision, said post-match at Wembley.

''We don't get to train our kids enough in this country, we have a limited time to work on their skills because, by the rules, we can't train with them for more than 90 minutes per day,'' was his major complaint.

Since then he has tried to buy fast, young, technically competent players because Barca has exposed that United moves, thinks and plays the ball in a pedestrian manner by comparison.

David de Gea is young and very, very raw but talented. If he's given time to soak up valuable experience, there is a terrific, competitive, athletic keeper waiting to develop there.

Ashley Young is a talent in need of being pushed and prodded into pressure situations where excellence and relentless hunger are demanded, not asked for nicely as was the case at Villa.

United has tried to buy the brilliant and mercurial Alexis Sanchez but won't get him because he's in love with Barcelona. How do I know? Because the kid won't shut up about how his only destination, if he leaves Udinese, must be the Camp Nou.

Sir Alex Ferguson is pushing very hard for Sami Nasri, a tough, talented, quick-footed thorn in his side when playing for Arsenal.

And, like Alexis, a footballer who could easily fit in at the Camp Nou.

In summary, everyone who is anyone at United has been burning with plans, ambitions, hunger and hard work since the final whistle blew on their humiliation in the last Champions League final.

That's as it should be.

But what of the other club that genuinely shapes up as a rival, one which should be easing up behind Barca in order to sink its claws in and devour it this season?

Real Madrid remains a club in search of an identity. And some commonsense.

Perhaps the way to differentiate between United and Real Madrid is to let you know a little bit of what has been going through Cristiano Ronaldo's mind.

Towards the end of the season, during late April and most of May, I spent a lot of time talking to players and technical staff at Manchester United in preparation for the big final against Barca.

What I found was that Ronaldo was in regular contact with three of them and also with others around the Carrington training ground I don't know.

Ronaldo was often on the phone, or would text, in order to get off his chest how frustrating a club he has found Madrid in comparison to United.

The in-fighting at the Bernabeu, the outrageously partisan media in Spain, the enormous and confusing chain of command at Madrid, the lack of major trophies, the defensive, counter-attack mentality that his coach José´ Mourinho used against Barcelona in the Champions league semi-final.

Ronaldo would even phone up the United kitman Albert Morgan for a natter.
In summary, he kept telling his former club mates that his ''grass-might-be-greener'' dream of playing for Real Madrid is a disappointment.

He finds Madrid less well run corporately than United, he feels far more exposed to media dog-fights than he did in England (''is he happy?'', ''should he pass more?'', ''has Ronaldo had a bust-up with Iker Casillas?'') and above all, he misses the 100 per cent authority that his old boss and, let's face it, friend Sir Alex commands at United.

Several of the people who noted to me that Ronaldo was ''homesick'' for Old Trafford added that he would often use the phrase ''if it wasn't for the horrible weather over there then I'd actually consider …''

But he stays to fight on and the question now is - is Madrid finally getting its attention properly on the prize? Like United is doing?

Jorge Valdano, World Cup winner and once an excellent coach, has been sacked because he was Mourinho's arch enemy.

In Fabio Coentrao, Madrid has added a superior left-back to the one, Marcelo, who cost it two of the three goals Barca scored in the Champions League semi final.

But the lunacy rumbles on at Madrid, with Casillas not only being forced to use a media conference in Beijing this week to deny that he might be replaced as club captain by Ronaldo, but also to admit that he was unsure enough of the crazy rumour that he had phoned Mourinho … just to check!

How each of these two grand institutions chooses to close the gap on FC Barcelona is up to them and it will be absolutely fascinating to discover whether, as Neville happily predicts, United is on an upswing and Barca won't be able to maintain its dominance for two more seasons. Personally I doubt that, but those of us who are a sucker for watching the pack try to hunt down the alpha male will be tuned in.

The two contenders, United and Madrid, have their chance to take a shot at the champion's chin in next to no time. United is only three weeks from its first attempt at revenge, against Barca, in Washington.

And then, exactly a fortnight later, comes the first part of the two-leg Spanish Supercup, which starts with Madrid meeting its bitter Catalan rival at the Bernabé´u on August 14 and concludes with the return leg at the Camp Nou on August 17.

Scholes, Ferguson, Mourinho, Ronaldo and Neville - all of them have their chips on their shoulders about Barcelona, their plans about how to ''knock them off their effing perch''.

But have they had the time to assimilate what they each learnt while being taken apart by the Spanish and European champion?

It strikes me that the only way for them to overtake a side so far ahead would be to abandon UEFA rules, merge the clubs, pick the best 11 players from the two squads and then try to find weaknesses in Guardiola's team.

Now that I'd pay to watch.


Link.
 
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GodCubed

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Apr 11, 2010
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Interesting. However.

It strikes me that the only way for them to overtake a side so far ahead would be to abandon UEFA rules, merge the clubs, pick the best 11 players from the two squads and then try to find weaknesses in Guardiola's team.
Mourinho managed it with Inter. It can be done.
 

*Jones*

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Dec 28, 2009
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Interesting. However.



Mourinho managed it with Inter. It can be done.
True, but very few people seem to appreciate this due to how he managed it with Inter. 'Ant-football' etc etc. Something that he can't really do at Madrid, because of the board and the fans..
 

Mike.

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Feb 15, 2009
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True, but very few people seem to appreciate this due to how he managed it with Inter. 'Ant-football' etc etc. Something that he can't really do at Madrid, because of the board and the fans..
United managed it, but's harder over 90 minutes where you need to match them at their own in parts, something we could not do for the vast majority, though Rooney's goal was one any Barca player would be happy to score. I still expect a top class player, whether its a usual suspect, or someone more left field Hamsik
 

TJD07

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Nov 6, 2010
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Meh, one real reason teams are getting trampled on by barca is because they just expect to lose.
How can you go out and try to win when you're sitting there thinking you've lost already.

Barca aren't some unstoppable team, they play brilliant football at take teams apart but they're not unbeatable at all. United have a much weaker team than they've had before and Madrid have always just based their success on throwing money at people and bringing in the big names.
 

*Jones*

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Dec 28, 2009
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United managed it, but's harder over 90 minutes where you need to match them at their own in parts, something we could not do for the vast majority, though Rooney's goal was one any Barca player would be happy to score. I still expect a top class player, whether its a usual suspect, or someone more left field Hamsik
Exactly, the only way to stop them appears to be over 90+ minutes. Madrid in the Copa Del Rey went to extra time [Madrid won 1-0]. I say this because I don't think Barcelona can keep up their pressing game for more than 60/70 minutes, so if a team is still in it by then, they've got a chance.

RE: United - I expect them to close the gap before Madrid - but this article seems to go on the principle that Barcelona won't continue to grow and get better. It seems impossible for them to get better, but they'll certainly try!
 

Mike.

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Feb 15, 2009
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Exactly, the only way to stop them appears to be over 90+ minutes. Madrid in the Copa Del Rey went to extra time [Madrid won 1-0]. I say this because I don't think Barcelona can keep up their pressing game for more than 60/70 minutes, so if a team is still in it by then, they've got a chance.

RE: United - I expect them to close the gap before Madrid - but this article seems to go on the principle that Barcelona won't continue to grow and get better. It seems impossible for them to get better, but they'll certainly try!
Ive mentioned this before, but i feel they may have the same problem as Saachi's Milan in keeping the hunger and the sheer amount of work it takes, mentally and physically. Pep is already looking so haggard. But i see where the writer is coming from, its hard to see where thy can find another level, and the rest will have taken note
 

ajt09

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Oct 23, 2009
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It's physically impossible for Barca to get better? Isn't it? Chilling thought......
 

*Jones*

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Dec 28, 2009
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Ive mentioned this before, but i feel they may have the same problem as Saachi's Milan in keeping the hunger and the sheer amount of work it takes, mentally and physically. Pep is already looking so haggard. But i see where the writer is coming from, its hard to see where thy can find another level, and the rest will have taken note
I don't think hunger and desire will be a problem, especially with Barcelona now relying on La Masia so heavily. This will be something that is emphasised at the 'school'. Like you said, probably the most difficult thing will be keeping Pep/replacing him when he leaves [to join Liverpool :')]. Although, it wouldn't suprise me if Pep knows who he wants to succeed him.

Again, I agree. It's hard to see where they can find another level, but I'm sure that next level does exist, the question is "What can Barcelona do to develop their game and take them to that next level?". I guess one criticism of them could be they rely on Messi, so is it possible for them to develop their game so they don't rely on Messi. Or perhaps the next level means they can use their high pressure technique for 90 minutes. Who knows.

As a Liverpool fan, it's quite scary though because we have to catch United before anyone else, and who knows how long that could take. & if SAF believes that it'll take United 2/3 years to catch Barcelona, well then how long will it be before Liverpool become a European force again? It's something I look forward to though. I'd love to think that Liverpool will be the ones to break Barcelona's strangle hold on European football, but sadly, I just can't see it...

[Though, as a fan of Barcelona, I don't mind it tbh.]
 

GodCubed

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Apr 11, 2010
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I suppose the next level of Barca's game would be to add aerial dominance to their game, and find a better left-back (since Abidal is going to be playing centre-back next year), or as you said to improve their fitness levels to the extent where they can press for 90 minutes. It's hard to see what else they can do really... a Plan B would be good, I suppose, rather than their current Plan B of, uh, giving it to Messi.
 

Jamie.

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Nov 7, 2009
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I firmly believe that Barce fear one team, Chelsea. Hiddink almost beat them 2 years ago if refereeing decisions were made correctly. The pure fitness and physicality plus the organisation of the Chelsea team scares Barcelona, they fear Walcott+Chelsea... Not unbeatable but undoubtedly a truly great team.

Will make that one of my blog topics today, brilliant article by Hunter and I'll try to assess how European teams can catch Barce in this window and the reality as I see it of how they can be beaten tactically.
 
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sunilvk7

SAF greatest ever.
Dec 16, 2008
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Great team but they wont go forever. Famous Milan side, Juve side had their time and others found the way to get ahead of them. Samething will happen IMO. Like Fergie said it happens in cycles..
 

*Jones*

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Dec 28, 2009
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I suppose the next level of Barca's game would be to add aerial dominance to their game, and find a better left-back (since Abidal is going to be playing centre-back next year), or as you said to improve their fitness levels to the extent where they can press for 90 minutes. It's hard to see what else they can do really... a Plan B would be good, I suppose, rather than their current Plan B of, uh, giving it to Messi.
Where've you heard Abidal playing CB next year from? I've heard them linked with Jose Enrique [Newcastle] who's a pretty solid left-back so he might be a decent signing. Plus he's Spanish, so I'm sure that'll please the fans & I'm sure he'd join Barcelona over Liverpool as it'd probably increase his chances of being in the Spain side. As for improving aerial dominance, this isn't really the Barcelona way is it, they put emphasis on technical ability rather than physical, so I guess they don't mind losing something in the air, when they can play 99% of teams off the park.

Thing is, they've tried a Plan B [Ibrahimovic] and it didn't work. It lasted a season and then he got sold and they went back to normal. I think last season, Barcelona became a lot more tactically diverse [helped by the signing of David Villa]. For example, they'd have games where Villa would start central, and Messi would drift in from the right. In other games, such as the the Champions League Final, Messi started centrally and frequently dropped deep, whilst Villa & Pedro drifted from side to side. I think it's that fluidity and movement that makes them such a good team.

Great team but they wont go forever. Famous Milan side, Juve side had their time and others found the way to get ahead of them. Samething will happen IMO. Like Fergie said it happens in cycles..
Of course they can't go on forever. Many people are saying when the likes of Puyol, Xavi etc retire/leave, that's when Barcelona will start to slip, but will they? They've got good players coming through [Thiago, Dos Santos, Muniesa etc.] who they hope will fill the gap. It's the Barcelona way. It just makes for something very exciting as we see how the likes of United, Arsenal, Madrid and so on try and catch Barcelona. I expect United to do it first, purely because Madrid need to build some foundations [started doing so last year] before they can compete fully with them.
 

GodCubed

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Apr 11, 2010
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Where've you heard Abidal playing CB next year from? I've heard them linked with Jose Enrique [Newcastle] who's a pretty solid left-back so he might be a decent signing. Plus he's Spanish, so I'm sure that'll please the fans & I'm sure he'd join Barcelona over Liverpool as it'd probably increase his chances of being in the Spain side. As for improving aerial dominance, this isn't really the Barcelona way is it, they put emphasis on technical ability rather than physical, so I guess they don't mind losing something in the air, when they can play 99% of teams off the park.
Can't remember, but it was a pretty decent source and makes sense. Same thing happened with Maldini after all.

I know Barca put technical ability over physical, but that doesn't mean they can't blend the two. Being tall and strong doesn't mean that you have no technique at all: look at the likes of Ibrahimovic, Vieira and so on. If they can bring in some taller players it would definitely help, even if only for improving squad depth which is their main weakness IMO.

Thing is, they've tried a Plan B [Ibrahimovic] and it didn't work. It lasted a season and then he got sold and they went back to normal. I think last season, Barcelona became a lot more tactically diverse [helped by the signing of David Villa]. For example, they'd have games where Villa would start central, and Messi would drift in from the right. In other games, such as the the Champions League Final, Messi started centrally and frequently dropped deep, whilst Villa & Pedro drifted from side to side. I think it's that fluidity and movement that makes them such a good team.
This "Ibrahimovic didn't work" is a myth. On pitch, it worked perfectly well in situations where it was demanded. Sure, it didn't work with Inter, but that was because of Guardiola's tactical mistakes, playing a target man striker against Lucio and Samuel, two of the most physical and aerially dominant footballers on the planet. Overall, in the games Ibrahimovic played, he scored or assisted in exactly three quarters of them, better than Villa's ratio of a goal/assist every 0.6 games for instance.

Barca have found their set pattern this season, and rarely deviate. There are a few instances as you said where Villa starts central, but almost always it's Messi, and his false nine movement coupled with Pedro and Villa's off-the-ball intelligence makes them formidable. Thing is, I'm not suggesting they replace that, I'm suggesting they get a Plan B, and a Plan B is just that: a secondary plan, one that you can turn to if the primary one isn't working. Ibrahimovic was a good Plan B, but didn't settle. I'd like to see Barca get Fernando Llorente, a Spaniard familiar with tiki-taka.
 

*Jones*

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Very good points [as usual].

Regarding squad depth, I heard something about Pep liking a smaller squad [i'm not exactly sure why - I guess it's something to do with then promoting youngsters to fill positions] but last season it could've come back to hurt them. For a large amount of the second half of the season, Masch & Busquets had to play centre back because of injuries. Hardly ideal, although Mascherano actually seemed pretty good at Centre half. I know Abidal has played there a few times, so like you said it'd pretty much be a natural transition.

As you said, Left Back is obviously a weakness, but then who could they sign? I think Pep likes playing Abidal there because he can play centre back as well, so it enables Alves to on on those marauding runs we've become so familiar with.

As for a Plan B - yes, I'd say it's needed and Llorente would probably be a very good signing. I don't understand why they're so intent on going after Alexis Sanchez and Fabregas, as that would be £50M+ that wouldn't improve the first XI as both would sit on the bench. Why not go out and sign a player like Llorente, who can help them out when they need a different approach.
 

GodCubed

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Apr 11, 2010
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Very good points [as usual].

Regarding squad depth, I heard something about Pep liking a smaller squad [i'm not exactly sure why - I guess it's something to do with then promoting youngsters to fill positions] but last season it could've come back to hurt them. For a large amount of the second half of the season, Masch & Busquets had to play centre back because of injuries. Hardly ideal, although Mascherano actually seemed pretty good at Centre half. I know Abidal has played there a few times, so like you said it'd pretty much be a natural transition.

As you said, Left Back is obviously a weakness, but then who could they sign? I think Pep likes playing Abidal there because he can play centre back as well, so it enables Alves to on on those marauding runs we've become so familiar with.

As for a Plan B - yes, I'd say it's needed and Llorente would probably be a very good signing. I don't understand why they're so intent on going after Alexis Sanchez and Fabregas, as that would be £50M+ that wouldn't improve the first XI as both would sit on the bench. Why not go out and sign a player like Llorente, who can help them out when they need a different approach.
Luckily for Barca, Busquets is more or less natural as a centre-back. Masch seems a little uncomfortable, but filled in well enough. Backup is needed though.

Left back... well, I'd have said Coentrao, but obviously not any more. Quality left-backs are hard to find nowadays.

Agreed on a Plan B. I'd say it was vital: you inevitably sit deep against Barca when trying to frustrate them, and Llorente would relish a defensive line 5 yards out from goal.
 

Jamie.

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Re LB weakness: LB=Adriano, they 100 pct see him playing the role first team for the next 4 years, slightly longer term they are keeping tabs on Didac at Milan/Escudero at S04.

Re Barcelona needing height/Younger CB: They have alot of faith in Muniesa, they let Alberto Botia go to Sporting Gijon which shocked alot of people, he has the physique of a Premier League CB extremely strong and alot of power both Aerially and on/off the ball. Guardiola will attempt to step up Muniesa, but I would expect him to sign a new CB since Milito is being forced out the door. Fontas has also been promoted to Barcelonas senior squad this season from the Atletico side. And Barce are looking at Schalke Spanish LB Escudero as a possible long term player for the LB position (But again, they have alot of faith in Adriano medium term).

I think alot of people will be shocked by the capacity Barcelona will show, they are promoting alot of new blood into the senior squad/B squad and will sell off alot of 'assets' who have not quite lived upo to expectation such as Jeffren (Sevilla), Bojan (Loan with 10 mill clause), Soriano, Dos Santos, Oriol etc etc. This is the year of transition for Barcelonas youth/B/Senior ranks as it always has been where they bring in entirely new people into the systems. For example Thiago's brother Rafinha Alacantra is joining the B team and is widely touted as, as good if not better than his brother.
Sanchez will be tied up by next Tuesday and Kiko has already signed from Hercules for 2 Million Euros (Unreal bargain)m with that sort of strength improving the depth up front and youngsters coming through for the midfield the only position that they need to strengthen for the long term is CB, but after the huge failings of Henrique/Chygrinskyi Guardiola is extremely hesitant to go back out into the market for that type of 'prospect' player. Perfect CB for Barcelona= Amorebieta at Athletic Club, sensational young Spanish CB who needs his chance at the top, already proven himself imo quality defender.

Anyway just chipped my 2p in to say agree with most the points raised about how Barce can improve because from watching some La Liga games there is definitely room to get better for them.
 

Joss

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Nov 23, 2009
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Interesting. However.



Mourinho managed it with Inter. It can be done.
This. So did Arsenal over 90 minutes (and ****** nearly 180 if RvP hadn't been sent off/Bendtner had taken his chance in the 90th minute). Hunter almost claims they're invincible, when they're plainly not. They're ****** good, but they're pretty one-dimensional and that Plan B is much-needed if this side is going to go on for much longer IMO.



Exactly, the only way to stop them appears to be over 90+ minutes. Madrid in the Copa Del Rey went to extra time [Madrid won 1-0]. I say this because I don't think Barcelona can keep up their pressing game for more than 60/70 minutes, so if a team is still in it by then, they've got a chance.

RE: United - I expect them to close the gap before Madrid - but this article seems to go on the principle that Barcelona won't continue to grow and get better. It seems impossible for them to get better, but they'll certainly try!
Really?! I think Madrid can topple them to an extent next season - disregarding the Super Copa because it's pre-season and despite being yet another clasico means little if we're being realistic. The CdR was a big step, and RM certainly matched Barca in the final 2/3 clasicos. Maybe not in terms of possession, but what good does possession do if the scoreline at the end of the game isn't in your favour?

With the money RM have been splashing about over the past 2/3 seasons, and the clear improvement they had made in terms of team blending/gelling, I think they can definitely win La Liga and/or the CL. Will that be "competing with them"?

Re LB weakness: LB=Adriano, they 100 pct see him playing the role first team for the next 4 years, slightly longer term they are keeping tabs on Didac at Milan/Escudero at S04.

Re Barcelona needing height/Younger CB: They have alot of faith in Muniesa, they let Alberto Botia go to Sporting Gijon which shocked alot of people, he has the physique of a Premier League CB extremely strong and alot of power both Aerially and on/off the ball. Guardiola will attempt to step up Muniesa, but I would expect him to sign a new CB since Milito is being forced out the door. Fontas has also been promoted to Barcelonas senior squad this season from the Atletico side. And Barce are looking at Schalke Spanish LB Escudero as a possible long term player for the LB position (But again, they have alot of faith in Adriano medium term).

I think alot of people will be shocked by the capacity Barcelona will show, they are promoting alot of new blood into the senior squad/B squad and will sell off alot of 'assets' who have not quite lived upo to expectation such as Jeffren (Sevilla), Bojan (Loan with 10 mill clause), Soriano, Dos Santos, Oriol etc etc. This is the year of transition for Barcelonas youth/B/Senior ranks as it always has been where they bring in entirely new people into the systems. For example Thiago's brother Rafinha Alacantra is joining the B team and is widely touted as, as good if not better than his brother.
Sanchez will be tied up by next Tuesday and Kiko has already signed from Hercules for 2 Million Euros (Unreal bargain)m with that sort of strength improving the depth up front and youngsters coming through for the midfield the only position that they need to strengthen for the long term is CB, but after the huge failings of Henrique/Chygrinskyi Guardiola is extremely hesitant to go back out into the market for that type of 'prospect' player. Perfect CB for Barcelona= Amorebieta at Athletic Club, sensational young Spanish CB who needs his chance at the top, already proven himself imo quality defender.

Anyway just chipped my 2p in to say agree with most the points raised about how Barce can improve because from watching some La Liga games there is definitely room to get better for them.
Academy CBs is clearly an area they want to improve. They've been linked with a lot of young Spanish defenders, and tried to re-sign Ignasi Miquel before he came to Arsenal in 2008.
 

*Jones*

Pikachuuuuuuuu
Dec 28, 2009
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Didn't expect this to create as much discussion as it has done tbh. Although, it's created it with the sort of people I know you can have a good footballing debate with [godcubed, joss, mike, jamie etc.] so that's pleasing.

RE the posts above, I'll get back to them tomorrow, I'm too tired to do it right now haha
 

SunderlandDanny1973

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Apr 29, 2009
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Barcelona won't hold their dominance forever as people have said above but if their is another level for them to find they will find it possibly going an entire league season unbeaten isn't really beyond them lost I think twice last season maybe at the very start against Hercules then near the end when they had bascially won the league so not that far away from acheiving that.

As for can anyone catch them the only real team in any postion close to getting near them I thin is United as their appears to be to much infighing and politics at Madrid, however if Mourinho (who I consider the best manager after SAF) was allowed to play the way he wanted rather than the way the club wanted him to play with the funds at allure of a club like Madrid he could do it as he knows how to win and most importantly beat Barca and ruffle their feathers abit.

In all it will take alot for anyone to get ahead of the Catalan kings plus Messi technically has is best years ahead of them which is scary.....
 
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