The Weight of Iniesta and Pique
A big part of the evolution of F.C. Barcelona this season has to do with Andres Iniesta. His performance has increased the weight of a midfield that until recently was more of a way station, and his status as the orchestrator has changed the way the leaders of this league attack. Luis Enrique dotes on him, protects him and gives him the minutes he can, always wary of his age and relevance in the system.
Due to some physical discomfort, as well as having in mind what’s to come in the near future, the Asturian decided to not include Iniesta in Barcelona’s visit to El Madrigal. As replacements, he went for Arda Turan position-wise, and Leo Messi functionality-wise. The Turk, who has never had to play a similar position before arriving to Barcelona, would have had more options to land himself a spot in last season’s Barca, where none of the attacking midfielders were asked to provide a very pronounced continuity in the game. It was a team that had the forwards in mind, with the rest of the team acting accordingly. In this current Barca, the left midfielder is a position reserved for the director, which is a strange and new role for Arda who is still finding his feet in this new team.
For such reasons Villarreal, which usually lifts a wall up in their half of the pitch, came out with a defense set to press and play higher up than usual, which was especially effective when the ball rolled towards the left part of the cule team. Arda Turan specifically, and Barca in general, needed a safeguard, which is the tool that controls the team when the Catalans don’t have Iniesta: Leo Messi not only fell back, but did so with a lot more focus, offering himself to anyone who had the ball in order to begin the attack, with Ivan Rakitic always near by as his support mechanism. Perhaps that is what Enrique was counting on, and because of this, he chose Sergi Roberto as fullback, a player capable of covering the entire wing up front and who, defensively, by today’s measures, seems safer than Aleix Vidal, who, just like Arda, still needs time to find his footing. And perhaps it was for this, too, for the weight and influence that Leo Messi has earned in midfield, that Enrique’s team left the field at half-time winning two goals to nil. But, having managed to find more control with the ball, they still rather lacked profundity.
With the Argentine playing further away from the box, the good defense that Victor Ruiz and company managed to create around Luis Suarez ended up leaving Neymar, as an attacking threat, very isolated. Apart from that, due to the lack of Andres, and with Messi playing so far behind, there was no way for Barca to get together in an attack close to Villareal’s box, which really hurt the efficiency with which Barcelona was able to win the ball back while defending in the opponent’s half. Sergio Busquets, Arda, Rakitic, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto, when losing the ball, found themselves in a position too far away, which allowed Villarreal to make the first steps of their counters in a clean and efficient manner.
After half time, everything changed. The first of these changes was Messi, who moved up to occupy a higher line that was missing, thus claiming his habitual role as forward. The second was Arda, who, at least initially, started touching the ball a lot more, with Busquets even offering him the base to take on the role of Xavi, Iniesta or even Leo himself, who had just done that in the first half. However, despite the attempt, and maybe because he was trying to profit from Villarreal needing to take risks in order to close in on Bravo, Enrique took the Turk off for Alves, who would step into Roberto’s position, who moved inside the pitch. This seemed to provide Barca with a scenario of a more open match in which it’s front line, just like numerous times before that, would make the opponents pay for the excesses they would have to allow themselves in order to get back in the game.
It needs to be mentioned, however, that only two minutes before that, Pique had to leave the pitch as well, and with the still cold Mathieu and Alves entering the game, the hole that was left by the Catalan defender was as apparent as ever. Suddenly, the locals who refused to lose faith were handed options to punish Barca. Gerard is fundamental in the defensive work because, apart from his individual talents, he is a man that brings order to the entire backline. He gives Barcelona advantages even in zones that are far away from his position, which prove fundamental when Barca’s defense suffers against an assault. Without his laying the foundation at the back and without Iniesta, who could have responded by adopting a position of an alternative defender, Bruno Soriano and Trigueros could move the yellow attack forward, with Denis Suarez driving it, Soldado bettering it and Bakambu bringing it towards the net. Once again, Barca was missing their best defender, in the outcome as well as the approach, where it proved vulnerable in open play and unsure on set pieces.