The Barcelona team of the past few years have established a reputation for themselves as of one of history’s greatest ever sides. However, in the wake of the Catalan outfit’s recent defeat by Celtic in the UEFA Champions League (plus losses to Inter Milan and Chelsea in the past few years), the most common criticism faced by Los Culés has returned.

Swashbuckling | Lionel Messi scores his second goal against Real Zaragoza last weekend in a 3-1 win, which reflects Barcelona’s typically successful strategy, (Image | Independent)

They have been chastised for lacking a “plan B” and being unable to unlock deep defences. Barcelona operate a distinctly possession-based style that the club rigorously keeps faith with, but is there any value in the above complaint?

After all, any team will lose a game from time to time. That is one of the great merits of football: because it is a low-scoring sport, it becomes easier for the underdog to claim victory, even if they are inferior in technical ability.

Therefore, should we really blame Barcelona’s failings on the lack of a “plan B”, particularly when “plan A” is so clearly effective?

This not only applies to the Spanish giants: Arsenal, and more recently Liverpool have also been accused of lacking an alternative strategy.

Having a “back up plan” is one thing, but when pundits criticise the lack of a “plan B”, what they really mean is that a team does not simply bring on a big player and begin lumping long balls up to him in the hope of overpowering the opposition or scoring by creating chaos. Indeed, tactics are far more complicated than that.

Los Culés: plans A-J?

Firstly, Tito Vilanova’s tactics are based around dominating possession. If the opposition do not have the ball then they cannot score. This is blindingly obvious, and to a large extent correct. Quite simply, more possession tends to lead to a higher chance of victory, a view explored by Zonal Marking in an intriguing recent article.

Obviously it is not that simple and there are (and always will be) exceptions and anomalies. Celtic’s fantastic and well-deserved victory over Barcelona last week is a prime example, especially given that the Glasgow side achieved their success with as little as 16% possession.

Thinker | Tito Vilanova speaks to the press before Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Spartak Moscow in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday. (Image | Barca Blaugranes)

The longer the game goes on, the more tired the other team becomes, both physically and mentally. This allows the Catalan side to pick off their opponents with many late goals that often turn the game around.

When this system relies so heavily on maintaining domination throughout the game, why would you change the tactic at the point when it becomes most powerful? That would be illogical.

I should also comment that the Barcelona coached by Tito Vilanova are a noticeably more open, attacking side than that of Pep Guardiola. Vilanova’s team are conceding more, but scoring a wider variety of goals, particularly from long shots.

Furthermore, Vilanova makes a large number of tactical tweaks throughout the game, with his substitutions proving particularly effective in providing a goalscoring spur.

Is it a system or a philosophy?

I keep referring to the system adopted by Barcelona as though it is a “plan A” that the team simply do not deviate from, whereas in fact it is more of a philosophy than a system.

The truth is that while the Blaugrana continue to play with the same philosophy throughout the match, they actually alter their tactics and shape more than almost any other team around – a point made strongly by Guillem Balagué and other pundits on Sky Sports’ Revista de La Liga show.

They change from playing wingers wide to narrow, switch between having four, to three and sometimes two at the back, and even occasionally play Carlos Puyol up front as a last resort.

The Catalan club play with so much more than just a “plan A”, that they actually have a “plan B”, “plan C” and so on. During a recent interview, Vilanova himself commented on this very topic, emphasising the same general arguments.

Skipper | Carles Puyol celebrates giving Barcelona the lead against Malaga, and his aerial prowess if often made use of by Vilanova. (Image | Zimbio)

It could be argued that playing Puyol up front constitutes reverting to the “plan B” that British commentators and pundits so often refer to, but it really is not.

Vilanova’s team would not be aimlessly lumping long balls into the penalty area in an attempt to cause chaos in the hope that it leads to a goal. If Puyol is switched to the attack, it is simply in order that Barcelona’s wing play is not wasted by lacking a target man. Puyol can thus act as an additional threat, providing another option in attack.

To be frank, simply giving Lionel Messi the ball is enough of a “plan B” for Barcelona, but joking aside, it is hard to imagine that any teams have a greater number of variations in their imaginative attacking play than Barcelona.

It’s important to remember that Barcelona bought Zlatan Ibrahimović in the summer of 2009 in an attempt to provide the team with a powerful front man.

However, this purchase never quite worked: perhaps it was simply an issue of egos or a personality clash, but it is not as though Barcelona have stubbornly ignored this option. They have simply found themselves to be better off without it.

The short-sighted “plan B” reference

Despite the merits of direct and high-pressure football, talking simply of a “plan B” is a classic case of the British footballing template. If you are losing the game then you must change to a “plan B” or else you will be branded as trying to be too clever or stubborn with your tactical decisions.

Shake up | Brendan Rodgers altered Liverpool’s tactics at half time in the recent clash with Chelsea, and it led to Luis Suarez equalising for the visitors. (Image | Caught Offside)

In this game between Liverpool and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge earlier this month, Brendan Rodgers switched from three at the back at half time and changed the game in the Reds’ favour. This was a “plan B” that clearly worked, and nobody was forced to witness the ball being hit long to the less than graceful Andy Carroll (who actually, I rather like as a footballer).

Manchester City, meanwhile, went from four to three at the back, a decision that changed the game around against Tottenham Hotspur. In this case “super sub” Edin Džeko became what you could call a “plan C”, and this was without having to resort to desperate long balls.

There are many more examples, but the point is simply that while the typical “plan B” may be effective on occasions, there are a wide array of tactical changes and alterations available to managers without resorting to such desperate measures.

Moreover, the tactical set-up used by Barcelona is far from the stubborn and rigid one-style play that is often suggested following a rare defeat for the Blaugrana: their style is about as rich and varied as they come, and we should enjoy it while we can.

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