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Laying the Foundations of a Football Team

Laying the Foundations of a Football Team

Laying the Foundations of a Football Team: The case of FC Barcelona and why players remain the core in every football team.

Players are the core of every Football Team

No one is closer to the football played than players. The game is full of actors and layers of complexity, but the ones who are most central to it are the only ones who can touch its tangibles. The ball, the grass, the goals. No one affects these elements more than players.

But that the tangibles are at the core of football doesn’t mean that the intangibles and indirect relationships have a lesser importance in it. The directives sign the players; the coaches select the players and manage the interactions between them. It is due to the players being so essential that the people who can influence the players can be as decisive.

Everyone would like to be his club’s sporting director. Everyone in football has an opinion, the media has created a culture of division and clickbait, and FIFA as a videogame has encouraged thinking that everything is as simple as it seems. It isn’t.

Squad management is a black box. The matches we watch and the newspaper covers we read are not enough to have a full perspective of a player’s characteristics, personality, character, tastes, reactions to different demands…

How will someone respond to being a substitute in two consecutive fixtures? How will he behave if he has to take up a role that is uncommon for him? How much of an open mind will he have to absorb new information? How will he perform tasks in training that are unusual for him in real action? And how capable is he of improving aspects he struggles at?

These are all questions that cannot be answered with complete certainty unless you are living their everyday routine. You play like you train. Far from a mere cliché, it is an enlightening truth. You can’t properly assess a player’s hypothetical validity until you see them train.

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Sir Alex Ferguson and Johan Cruyff tended to criticize how at clubs it was businessmen who made the sporting decisions without professionals who knew the inner secrets of the game. Often, a board and a dressing room behave as two separate entities, without a natural link that ensures transparency between both.

Unless it is a bombastic figure that causes daily fires and is not in tune with the boss, having someone, usually a former footballer, who is close to the institution’s higher-ups and also has the team’s respect and can consistently witness their trainings can be very helpful.

Pictures in the Bundesliga where the sporting director is sat on the bench next to the coach are juicy for the tabloid press, but there is a lot that could be imitated from the likes of Ajax and Bayern Munich in this sense.

Laying the Foundations of a Football Team
Ajax coach Eric Ten Hag and Sporting Director standing next to him a a match

There are personal traits which are hard to appreciate from the outside but which are needed in a dressing room and make a manager’s job easier.

No player ever wants to be on the stands, but some are more acceptant with it in order to not damage the collective. Pep Guardiola labelled Oleksandr Zinchenko exemplary in this regard. “Incredible is the only thing I can say. Oleks has showed me again what I thought before; the importance and the value of being a good guy, a good lad. I never saw him with one bad face, one bad training session. The day after the games is always difficult for the guys who didn’t play and most want to show me how disappointed they are. This guy was the complete opposite. I can only say thank you. More than the way he plays, it’s his approach. Everybody can learn from Oleks. Everybody”

He said something similar on Eric García: “There are players even who don’t play any matches. I think, for example, of Eric García, who is one of my favorite players. I would love to have 15 Eric Garcías for the way he conducts his behaviour. He is always thinking of the team. He always has a good face in the good or bad moments. He helps the manager and the backroom staff all the time. He will go to an incredible team and when the people say they are unsatisfied if I don’t play, I think of Eric. Most of the time he’s not on the bench because he’s going to move to Barcelona, I hope so. It’s tough, but it is what it is”

DONE DEAL: Deal done: Eric Garcia will join Barcelona on a free deal

Youngsters, for having achieved little and being living their dream, are typically more patient to wait for their chances. It is unknown how Barcelona’s decorated veterans would react to being sidelined for successive encounters. This, as well as their contracts and predisposition to accept salary reductions, should be taken into account when addressing a binary dilemma: keep or sell?

The Case of FC Barcelona

It would be ideal for Barcelona if they, who are childhood fans of the club, were receptive with adopting less minutes. They have dominated their positions for over a decade and could pass on expertise to the incoming generations. The likes of Gerard Piqué and Sergio Busquets would not be benchwarmers and they can still exhibit their class on the pitch, but their relevance off it could be as big.

Alongside this, Barcelona’s squad should be comprised of players who not only have the humility and desire to learn, but the cognitive aptitudes for it. Pedri and Frenkie de Jong appear as two footballers who can take in information very naturally. Guardiola is in love with Eric García’s wit and alertness. In September 2019, he explained: “He pays attention to absolutely everything. Today in the warm-up we had doubts with the formation of Quique [Sánchez Flores, Watford coach], whether it is four at the back or five at the back, and he saw in the warm-up and said ‘they make some movements for four at the back’. He is so clever. He pays incredible attention”.

Youth and La Masía could play a big part in this. Youngsters are raw material. They have some given conditions but the more malleable they are, the more useful they will be.

Barcelona should target universality. Multifunctional, versatile players are precious, and having the right coaches and being able to develop the talents in such a way could propel the blaugranas to another dimension. Having an intelligent group makes it more unpredictable and apt for growth.

READ: Pep Guardiola – The Ultimate Thinker

De Jong and Nico González have the makings of total footballers, adept at making an impact in many zones and phases. But from Alejandro Baldé to Sergiño Dest to Óscar Mingueza to Pedri, their natural abilities mean they can all be repurposed for new, distinctive uses.

More than playing them, what would help these prospects the most is to open their eyes to new functions and to guide them through a cohesive path. No more illustrative example of the unpopular process to cultivate a teenager than Guardiola’s care of Phil Foden.

Youngsters need playtime, but sometimes not as much as a good teacher. Pedri or Dest, for instance, would perhaps have benefitted more from a bit less minutes, rather than being unchallenged for a starting spot, but being nurtured slowly. There is no set pattern and every case must be treated differently, but the tempos of Foden’s learning curve seem to have been handled expertly by Guardiola. More doesn’t mean better.

Planning for 2021/22 is full of hypotheses. Qualities are not rigid, but they can be transformed and reshaped by the manager. Who will sit in the dugout and how skilled will that person be to scratch the surface will dictate how high the ceiling of certain players will be.

Before discussing each line in the following articles, it must be said that as long as the coach has the required knowledge, conviction and ideology, which Xavi could have, any tactics I could imagine would by no means be as appropriate as the ones he would choose. Some managers, such as Guardiola, have the gift to do things no one else would dare to do and to make them work. The ability to surprise is invaluable.

RELATED POST: A Review of Barcelona’s 2020/2021 Dead End Season

With that said, if I were in charge, my preferred formations would be a 4–3–3 or diamond 3–4–3 with wide wingers instead of wing-backs. Primarily, I would prioritize these for the creation of triangles, the possibility to generate superiorities in midfield and the flexibility they offer. But also, for featuring two positions which I consider indispensable for positional play: interiors / central midfielders in front of a single pivot, and wingers glued to the touchline. Other roles could be as key, but the presence of interiors and wingers would make me prefer the 4–3–3 and diamond 3–4–3 over other systems.

However, as with the individuals, there could be versatility and adaptability to switch between these set-ups depending on the context, phase or rival.

Barcelona’s rejuvenation should continue this summer. A big advantage of youngsters is that they are the ones with the greatest room for improvement, while those raised at La Masía have been inculcated with a same style and have grown up together. If the coach is aligned with that and he is chosen to lead a long-term project, he could have the tools to slowly but surely model a team in his image and likeness.

READ: Three of the Most Common Football Tactics Explained

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