Despite word on the streets to the contrary, Barcelona's recent footballing success does not revolve around passing the ball to Lionel Messi and hoping for some magic. Each point earned, each game won, each trophy secured has been due to the relentless tactical reworking that goes on behind the scenes at the club.
While this cartoon may have you believe that Pep Guardiola and his coaching staff have an easy job, the truth is far from that.
Here are five of the most awesome tactical moves that have kept Barcelona winning trophies till today.
Barcelona's 6-2 thrashing of Real Madrid in 2009 was one of the first games where Lionel Messi started in the center of the field. Before this, Messi started the majority of the games on the right flank, with Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry starting in the other two attacking slots.
In that exhilarating match at the Bernabeu, however, Guardiola's new tactic came to fruition—Messi tore apart Real Madrid's defensive center with some incredible passing, movement and vision. Given authority to do whatever he wanted in the center, Messi made light work of everything Real Madrid threw his way, scoring two goals and assisting two.
Since that match, Messi has established himself in a new role, which brings Guardiola's Barcelona side closer to the Total Football philosophy. Messi's position—which is deeper than a traditional center forward, but higher up the field than a midfielder—means Barcelona no longer have a target man to aim for. The three attackers playing up front are not confined to individual roles, but are free to roam across the width of the pitch, making it harder to cut off the supply to any one player.
The "strikerless" formation and the fluidity that it brings is the most, well, striking feature of Guardiola's team.
Alves was a great fullback at Sevilla, no doubt. That is why Barcelona bought him for the amount they did.
At Barcelona, his role has become much more crucial than just that of the marauding fullback who can defend once in a while.
Pep Guardiola gave Alves license to roam all over the right flank. He could play as high up the field as he wanted to, as long as he came back to defend when needed. This was a singularly brilliant move for two reasons:
1. Alves' presence allowed Lionel Messi to cut inside
Early in Guardiola's time at Barcelona, Messi was still an inside right—a player who cut inside from the right flank to shoot with his left foot.
In football, a winger and a full-back usually handle a wing. With Messi cutting inside, the right wing would be left exposed to counter attacks. Alves' presence served to cut off any early counters, and ensure that the wing was not left unguarded.
2. Barcelona effectively had an extra midfielder to run the show
A very important facet of Guardiola's tactics is the crowding up of midfield with a large number of players who can play the ball among each other.
With Alves playing very high up the field, Barcelona gain an extra man in midfield, which enables them to control the game more effectively.
Alves' shift from marauding fullback to winger/midfielder/defender makes him almost irreplaceable for Barcelona.
Very little needs to be said about both Pedro and Busquets and their caliber as players. This was not the case before Guardiola arrived.
Promoting both these players in consecutive seasons has been a move that has paid amazing dividends for Barcelona. Busquets has become a defensive midfielder par excellence while Pedro is now a regular feature in the first team.
Busquets was promoted in the 2008-09 season. At the end of the season, he had started the Champions League final against Manchester United. His progression has continued unabated, to the extent that he is Guardiola's first choice defensive midfielder ahead of the likes of Javier Mascherano.
Pedro's promotion was more than a little surprising considering he was on the verge of being discarded from Barcelona Atletic. His promotion coincided with a severe dip in form of Thierry Henry, which allowed Pedro to really prove himself in the first team as a regular starter. He then became the only player ever to score in six different competitions in a season.
Guardiola saved a lot of money by promoting players of such quality, and also helped add to the notion of Barcelona being a primarily home-grown club.
When Barcelona manages to thrash Villarreal 5-0 without a fully established center-back on the field, we know something special is happening.
Guardiola managed to find the perfect formation to utilize both Lionel Messi's and Cesc Fabregas' talents to their maximum. At the same time, he overcame the problem of having several first choice defenders unavailable for the game.
The 3-4-3 is relatively new in Guardiola's arsenal, but he has praised it before when used by Rijkaard's team.
For Guardiola, the 3-4-3 allows him to:
1. Play Fabregas, Xavi and Iniesta together, without compromising on the presence of a defensive midfielder.
2. Effectively have two extremely lethal players (Messi and Fabregas) in the hole between the opposition's midfield and defense. In the words of Tom Williams, it allows Barcelona to have a false 9 and a false 10.
While this may not be the formation of choice for the entire campaign, the 3-4-3 will certainly make many more exhilarating appearances this season.
This might be a surprising choice for some, but Mascherano's purchase from Liverpool is one of Guardiola's best signings. Yes, he may have spent quite a bit of one season on a bench, but he has been a crucial reason for Barcelona's trophy haul.
Carles Puyol's long-term injury, which he has not yet recovered fully from, could have had disastrous consequences for Barcelona's late season charge for trophies. Guardiola could, however, call on the hard tackling former Argentine captain to fill in the boots of El Capitan at center back.
And fill them he did.
Mascherano's rather brilliant defensive displays in some of the biggest matches have completely vindicated Guardiola's decision. Crucial games against Manchester United, Real Madrid and FC Porto could not have been won without Mascherano's incredible tackling. Barcelona fans will fondly remember the way in which he closed down Cristiano Ronaldo for 90 minutes at the Camp Nou in the semifinals of the Champions League.
At the turn of the new season, with Puyol still out injured, Mascherano has established himself as a regular starter in his new position. A new signing could scarcely have been as effective as Mascherano has been when asked to play in this new position.