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Pep Guardiola has become adept at using midfielders 'out of position' at centre-back. But what if that was the plan all along?

ANALYSIS
By Peter Staunton

Arrigo Sacchi, the innovator who coached AC Milan to a pair of European Cups, once declared that the next step in the evolution of football would be the conversion of the entire pitch to one midfield area. The teams at the vanguard of tactical rejuvenation would be able to count on players to line up in a range of positions on the field of play but actually function as midfielders; closing space and passing accurately within their sectors, using the ball intelligently, moving well off it.

In an interview with the author Jonathan Wilson for the prize-winning book, 'Inverting the Pyramid', Sacchi stated that the proliferation of ‘specialists’ in certain positions has only served to inhibit the fluidity potentially contained within a group of players. For example, a playmaker, such as a Zidane, demands an enforcer like Makelele.

In order to progress football, Sacchi told Wilson, universality was integral; it was necessary to eliminate specialists and forge a collective of performers capable of functioning as one liquid unit, no matter their nominated position of play. The Dutch model of Total Football, formulated and implemented by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff at Ajax in the 1960s and 70s, brought with it interchangeability. Players would nominally be named at a position but would be competent and clever enough to press high, read the nuances of the match, fill in for absent colleagues and pick up the slack in many areas of the field.


“It’s become all about specialists. Is football a collective and harmonious game? Or is it a question of putting x amount of talented players in and balancing them out with y amount of specialists?”

- Arrigo Sacchi 

The players at Pep Guardiola's disposal, their utter adherence to the ideal and a work-rate unmatched by any team in Europe mean that Barcelona could be about to bring Sacchi's prediction to bear. And the acquisition of Cesc Fabregas, quite aside from being a trophy signing, could prompt the evolution. With Cesc in the ranks, Barcelona can play, in effect, with a team of midfielders; amalgamating the separate strands of defence, midfield and attack into one. Total domination of possession, total domination of space.

Fabregas' arrival could mark the gradual elbowing from the first team of Carles Puyol, not Sergio Busquets or Xavi or Thiago Alcantara. A natural leader, a primordial tour-de-force, the heartbeat of the team he may be, but Puyol is irrevocably in decline. Each passing year chisels another chip from the man of granite. His replacement in the team, gradually at first, totally later, will be Fabregas.

Dani Alves and Lionel Messi have been integral components in this Barca transition. They have redefined their positions. Cesc will bring the evolution further.

How Barcelona could look with Fabregas replacing Puyol

GOALKEEPER

Victor Valdes


RIGHT-BACK
CENTRE BACK
CENTRE BACK
LEFT-BACK

Dani Alves

Sergio Busquets

Gerard Pique

Adriano


CENTRE MIDFIELD
CENTRE MIDFIELD
CENTRE MIDFIELD

Cesc Fabregas

Xavi

Andres Iniesta


RIGHT FORWARD
CENTRE FORWARD
LEFT FORWARD

Alexis Sanchez

Lionel Messi

David Villa

Pep’s preference for playing a ‘defensive midfielder’ in an auxiliary centre-back role has raised eyebrows in the past although Yaya Toure, Busquets or Javier Mascherano have yet to prove they can’t actually do it. Barca have even done it, twice, in Champions League finals when orthodox central defenders were available. Moreover, the utilisation of midfield players in the back-line has been deliberate, measured and it is in line with Sacchi's heralding of tactical evolution.

Busquets has featured in the centre of defence extensively in pre-season, Mascherano played there at Wembley while the ball-playing capabilities of Gerard Pique are not matched by many of his stature. The role of the central 'defender' will become obsolete in the Barcelona system; making way for one more passer, one more ball retainer, one more playmaker.

Fabregas will come into the starting XI in midfield while Busquets or Mascherano will revert permanently to the rearguard. Those two have their defensive deficiencies; slow on the turn and uncomfortable under the high ball. But even specialist centre-backs suffer those blights. And, in all honesty, how much defending are Barcelona likely to do? They routinely keep the ball for 70 per cent of any given match so aerial onslaughts and rapid, repeated raids on their defensive lines are unlikely.

Barca's shorn specialists

Martin Caceres
Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Dmytro Chygrynskiy


Martin Caceres, Henrique and Gabriel Milito have all been shown the exit door this summer; specialist defenders. They have been cast on the scrapheap onto which Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Dmytro Chygrynskiy were thrown last year. Zlatan is not compatible with the Barcelona system. Chygrynskiy never looked like a Barca player. Neither is adaptable. Neither has a second function. Guardiola is gradually ridding the team of 'specialists', in a positional sense, and nurturing a squad who will treat the entire pitch as a midfield area. Rapid possession win-backs, quick passes, every man, potentially, the playmaker.

Puyol and fellow veteran Eric Abidal, as well as David Villa, will be the only exceptions to the rule this season. The two defenders will be phased out. Indeed, the signing of the versatile Adriano last summer ago could in hindsight be seen as Pep's first attempt to implement a midfield of sorts in his preferred back-line although it has not quite worked like that as yet. Villa, a centre-forward by trade, has been reinvented as a wide attacking player capable of devastation in front of goal when on form. Even he is now a midfielder.

Cesc has not come home to replace Xavi, that honour will eventually be bestowed on Alcantara. He has come home to eventually supplant Puyol and take Barcelona, tactically, to another realm. We stand on the precipice of Total Football, Cruyff’s Barcelona dream-team and 30 years of Masia graduates drilled to do things the Barcelona way being assimilated together in one team.

The best team in the world, playing in sync, playing fluidly, using the entire pitch as their personal fiefdom, closing the spaces high up the field, perpetually recycling the ball once they seize it. It's complex and it keeps the ball and it tires you out. A Barcelona team which are far, far ahead of their rivals will evolve the game as we know it.

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Felipe Melo and MohaThis time last year it was

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