Barcelona, Manchester United and the Perils of Superclub-dom

This is a Major Reversion of Images (Cropped)
It’s slightly hypocritical to say you’re ‘more than a club’ and then act like your biggest rivals.

Mes Que Un Club’ adorns the seating at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.

The motto ‘More Than a Club’ signifies Barcelona’s importance as an emblem of Catalanism, but also how the club produces some of the world’s greatest players in its academy, La Masia.

“We never stand still,” said Ryan Giggs as part of speech at Old Trafford in 2014, referencing Manchester United’s struggles after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, but also what the football club is supposed to represent.

“We always give youth a chance and we try and play attractive football.”

Both football clubs want to be known as places where young talent can grow, develop and continue a tradition. They want to be football teams that aren’t just a collection of players on a pitch.

But revolving your club around something like this becomes more difficult when, more recently, you have simply become yet another superclub.

Superclubs, a term which describes the world’s rich and powerful football clubs that dominate domestically and in Europe, use their accumulated wealth to acquire the best players and managers in the world.

For example, Paris Saint German spent over €400 million on two players (Neymar and Kylian Mbappe) and made their way to the Champions League Final – mainly off the back of the former’s brilliance. Real Madrid have always been honest and open with their intentions. The ‘Galacticos’ policy gave a name to their strategy of purchasing Europe’s superstar talent for incredible fees. Even Chelsea’s success has been, in part, down to the constant hiring and firing of several high profile managers.

Yet despite both club’s positions amongst the European elite, Barcelona and Manchester United have always felt they were not the same as these superclubs – trying to promote more elite talent from their youth setups rather than purchasing it.

Much of Sir Alex Ferguson’s early success at Manchester United was built upon the ‘Class of 92’ – a group of homegrown players that included David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. Barcelona’s rise in the early nineties contained a midfielder that rose through the club’s youth ranks – Pep Guardiola. Guardiola used La Masia graduates years later, as the club’s manager, to dominate world football – calling upon players such as Víctor Valdés, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi.

They were both wealthy and dominant football clubs, but they also had an overriding principle they attempted to stick to. But as the landscape of global football changed over time, both appeared to admit they would have to spend more money to remain competitive.

Ferguson spent £19 million (a British record) on Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2001, £29 million on Rio Ferdinand in 2002, £26 million on Wayne Rooney in 2004, £30 million on Dimitar Berbatov in 2008 and £24 million on Robin van Persie in 2012. All were key figures at various points during Manchester United’s prolonged success.

Guardiola spent €34 million on Cesc Fàbregas in 2011, and after the manager left the club, Barcelona spent €88 million on Neymar in 2013 and €81 million on Luis Suarez in 2014. Fàbregas eventually moved back to England to join Chelsea, but Neymar and Suarez joined Messi to form a front three that helped Barcelona win the Treble in 2015.

Despite spending vast amounts of money, the sides still contained the youth products they had championed for so long – Giggs and Scholes had been important players in virtually all of Ferguson’s successful seasons at Manchester United, and that 2015 Barcelona team still contained Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta.

But after both clubs suffered the departure of the stabilising, and more consistent, parts of their success, their images of being ‘more than a club’ started to merge with that of any other superclub’s.

Ferguson retired as Manchester United manager in 2013, joining Scholes who announced his intention to finally retire at the same time, and Giggs soon joined them in 2014. Barcelona also suffered. Puyol retired in 2014, Xavi and Iniesta left in 2015 and 2018 respectively, and even Neymar was sold to PSG in 2017 for a world record €222 million fee.

Barcelona have gone through six permanent managers in as many years, and Manchester United, a club once praised for its managerial stability, replaced Ferguson with David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjær.

Both clubs have won trophies since the departure of those key figures, but they also had to spend sums of money comparable with other superclubs in order to get there. David Moyes spent £64 million on players and won the Community Shield. Louis van Gaal spent £276 million and won the FA Cup. Mourinho spent £362 million and won the Community Shield, the League Cup and the Europa League. Solskjær has spent around £268 million and is yet to win a trophy for the club.

Barcelona have won 15 trophies since Guardiola left, and four since Neymar left in 2017. But since the Brazillian’s departure, they have spent €582 million on six players alone – Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembélé, Malcom, Antoine Griezmann, Frenkie de Jong and Miralem Pjanić.

Paul Pogba personifies this change in philosophy. He’s the former Manchester United youth player the club had to pay Juventus £89 million to get back.

Admittedly, there are graduates from both youth setups that feature for each team – for example, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood for Manchester United, and Sergi Roberto and Ansu Fati for Barcelona. However, neither clubs are championing their homegrown talent like they once used to.

It’s hard to say you “give youth a chance” and “play attractive football”, and then hire José Mourinho as manager. It’s also equally as hard to say you have a “Barcelona way”, and then hire Ronald Koeman as manager.

Years of questionable leadership at boardroom level for both clubs has resulted in them spending hundreds of millions of pounds, only to watch their biggest rivals dominate the competitions they covet so dearly. Also, a lack of success and progression at Manchester United and Barcelona has led to uncertain futures for star players at each club, as the noise surrounding Paul Pogba and Lionel Messi continues to get louder.

Admittedly, some of the money Manchester United have spent more recently has secured high quality players (for example, Bruno Fernandes) but the same cannot be said for Barcelona. And understandably, not every young player that these teams produce will turn into a superstar.

But for clubs that proudly declared love for their own academies, they’ve spent humongous sums in recent years. These clubs claim to have identities, but stray further from them with each record breaking transfer – for every Marcus Rashford, you have a Harry Maguire, for every Ansu Fati, an Antoine Griezmann.

You cannot profess to be more than a club, and then act like all the others.

Pep Guardiola & Manchester City: Pressure Makes Diamonds

Ardfern (Cropped)
Better late than never, but here’s a look at Manchester City against Arsenal on Wednesday night – and Pep Guardiola’s old, but not outdated, tactics.

No one would disagree if someone said that sport is about evolution.

It’s about taking what those have done before you, what people are doing now, and building upon those ideas to make something better. To make something that is all conquering and unbeatable. To make something that beats even the ideas you based it upon.

Pep Guardiola has done just that, building upon the ideas of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan and, especially, Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona.

It’s no secret how much of an impact Cruyff had on Guardiola – his famous quote is: “Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it.”

In short, what Pep does is based upon what Cruyff did. In turn, what Cruyff did was based upon what Rinus Michels, his manager at Ajax in the 1970s, did. That great Ajax side played a 433 that turned into a 343 – dominating possession and dropping a midfielder into the defence (essentially having three backs).

Cruyff did the same at Barcelona when he was in charge – playing a 343, and controlling possession with a greater number of midfielders than the opposing team. This was dependent on the fact that Cruyff’s team had, in essence, two diamonds. These diamonds helped create passing angles for both the back three and the midfielders.

The player at the tip of the diamond (in this team, Guardiola) that involved the back three, would also form the base of the diamond in the midfield (although incredibly narrow in the first one, it is seen in the two images below):

The outside centre backs would eventually sit as wide as they could (along with the wingers, who didn’t play as conventional wing backs) which made the pitch as big as possible – an advantage when attacking. This formation also helped the central midfielders in-between the lines, placing them in the inside left or right positions, allowing them to find space.

So getting to Guardiola.

He did a similar thing when he was Barcelona manager. He created a back three when on the ball by spreading his centre backs (Piqué and Puyol or Mascherano) out incredibly wide, and dropping Busquets in-between them to make a three, which is useful against teams playing two strikers (below):

With the two full backs in the wide areas of midfield, it makes a de facto 343. He did something like this at Bayern Munich, letting Thiago or Philipp Lahm come deeper and sit between the centre backs, or by completely inverting his full backs into midfielders during the build up.

What’s this got to do with Manchester City on Wednesday? This provides a little bit of context before diving into how Guardiola set his team up.

Namely, decades later, the same tactical ideas still prevail.

Where this is going may well be obvious to some. City, of course, set up in a 433 formation to start (below):

This 433 is what City held when they were defending.

The principle that Guardiola subscribes to, is that of making the pitch as big as possible when attacking and as small as possible when defending. The same principle as Cruyff.

This is done with City’s press as it prevents the other team starting comfortable build up play. If they don’t win the ball back instantly, they stay in this 433 formation – making sure the opposition have no space to exploit.

But what was noticeable (when considering the 433 becoming the 343) was what City did in possession.

In the pivot role, Gündogan still picked the ball up from the two central defenders – either Laporte or Garcia. But he wasn’t alone. Kyle Walker also stepped into midfield several times.

This let Laporte step up into the same horizontal midfield level as Walker, just behind Gündogan. By inverting a full back Manchester City had made a diamond that started at the defence (below):

That image also shows the advantage of doing so. Aubameyang has come inside and followed Walker, which, although not seen, has given Mahrez on the right acres of space. But if he didn’t come inside, City would completely overrun midfield. It’s done again here:

The space this movement created led to Manchester City’s first goal. That and David Luiz.

Mahrez and De Bruyne had swapped positions. Mahrez was in the inside right, and De Bruyne was wide, which, due to Aubameyang cutting infield to follow Walker, meant he was in plenty of space. This space allowed him to get his head up and put the ball in the box that Luiz didn’t properly clear. That mistake led to Sterling scoring (below):

As mentioned, Guardiola wants the pitch to be as big as possible when attacking. The wide men become so important in this. If Walker is inverted, De Bruyne or Mahrez need to be in that position on the right hand side to spread the defence out and create more space for others.

On the other side Mendy was the one staying wide. This came into effect with Manchester City’s first goal. Mendy’s width meant Sterling was free to come inside, allowing him to get into the box and score.

With Walker in midfield, Mendy needed to be hugging the touchline, providing width and creating space (an example of this below):

But was it specifically designed to be a diamond starting at the defence?

This becomes unclear with how the midfield was shaped at times.

The reasoning may be more to do with sheer numbers as opposed to certain shapes, but the foundation that Cruyff laid is still there. Outnumber the players in midfield to dominate the ball, all while making the pitch as big as possible. This photo shows Manchester City have the numbers – but it’s hardly a diamond (below):

You can note that Saka may be closing Gündogan down, negating their numerical advantage in midfield. But if he does, again, Mendy will be in space – as De Bruyne was with the goal.

Walker stepped into midfield to essentially create a 343. Gündogan was at the tip of the defensive diamond and – with Silva and De Bruyne in the half spaces – at the base of an attacking one. That formation would look something like (but not exactly depending on positional interchanges) this image below:

Although not using the exact same system, Pep has built upon an idea used in the 1990s, which itself was built upon an idea used in the 1970s. It’s one of those things that once noticed, cannot be unnoticed. Once it’s been done, it cannot be undone.

History repeats itself. Maybe because time is a flat circle. Or a flat diamond.

Hopefully this made sense – I thought it was amazing that the same ideas from the 1990s are still being used today. I’m only writing about football right now because it’s all that’s going on, but, who knows what the future may hold. If you want to see any videos on tactics, this is a great watch and super informative in regards to the real ins and outs of Cruyff’s system.