After Barcelona had beaten Real Madrid in last Saturday’s Clasico, Tata Martino told reporters that he believed his own influence on his players was minimal, because he had inherited a great team from his predecessor. Adding that he wanted to get to know his players better and to be able to pick the best line-up for each match, the Coach appeared to be hinting that change might be afoot.
With a relentless La Liga schedule and another demanding Champions League campaign to navigate, Martino needs to deploy the full breadth and depth of his squad, resting players and trusting new combinations to do enough to win games. Without underestimating opponents, the Coach must take a realistic view of their threat and plan accordingly.
Sure enough, when Martino announced his side for Tuesday’s game at Celta Vigo, there were no fewer than five changes from the XI that had started against Real Madrid. There were good reasons why he chose to start with Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Neymar all consigned to the bench, with the Celta game just three days after the Clasico and three days ahead of this Friday’s Catalan derby. Fixtures are coming thick and fast and even the best need recovery time.
On the other hand, when Alex Song replaced Iniesta in the second-half on Saturday at the Camp Nou with Barca 2-0 up, the Catalans’ midfield was patently weakened and looked in danger of loosening their grip on a game they had dominated. By continuing in a similar vein against Celta, Martino had clearly taken a realistic view of the quality of the opposition, despite their 5-0 win at Malaga.
The comparative weakness of Song and Sergio Busquets and as holding midfielders alongside Cesc Fabregas was highlighted by a good first-half spell for the Galicians, who threatened to restore parity after Alexis Sanchez’s early opener. With his seasoned midfield ringmasters on the bench, Martino switched to the more direct style that he has been criticised for introducing in recent weeks.
The high-tempo close passing game that is synonymous with Barca’s name was sacrificed in deference to long balls out of defence, effectively bypassing the midfield and resulting in a reduced percentage of possession. Ironically, the opening exchanges had seen Celta taking on Barca at their own game with some crisp passing and a high attacking line. The Galicians’ Coach Luis Enrique, a former Barca player and lifelong fan, reportedly passed up the chance to lead Barca before the role was offered to Martino.
After a clear change in approach by Martino, the second-half saw a return to a smoother passing game and it was a close passing move around the edge of the box that set up Fabregas for Barca’s second and a classic Messi-inspired move that created their third for the former Arsenal man.
The ultimate ease with which Barca emerged 3-0 winners was doubtless a vindication of Martino’s approach. Flexibility to adapt to different styles, even within the same 90 minutes, and a belief in their collective strength, continue to make this Barca side impossible to overcome, even when they are somewhat short of their best.
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