A Dutch legend once introduced a concept named “Total Football”, a playing style so fluid and beautiful, a style in which every outfield player is able to play in any position as required in the course of game. The legend was none other than Johann Cruyff. This concept changed people’s perspective of looking towards football. Clubs such as AFC Ajax and FC Barcelona, where the presence of Johann was at its peak, adopted this playing style. It gave rise to many brilliant footballing minds to ever manage the game, one such is Pep Guardiola. He has created a legacy which takes up years for anyone to build. The guy started so young that even his former players have entered the managing section of the game. In this essay of a blog, I’ll try to throw some light on two of his students, ahead of their Europa League clash.
ERIK TEN HAG
ETH worked under/with Pep when both arrived in Munich in 2013. Later on, Ten Hag took the Ajax project under his belt. He built a fearsome team when in Amsterdam. The likes of Frenkie De Jong, Hakim Ziyech, and Donny Van De Beek excelled under him and went on to grab huge moves for themselves. The 2018-19 team fought till the semi-finals of the UCL, only to have their hearts broken in the last minutes by Spurs. Erik instantly received everybody’s attention with this incredible Champions League run. Then came the start of the ’22 Premier League season, when he was called for his services at the OLD TRAFFORD, after interim manager, Ralf Rangnick, left for the Austrian national team job.
Erik ten Hag surely had a lot of work up his sleeves to mold this mess of a team into a bunch of ransacking and ravaging raiders as they are now. With an out-of-form home-talent Rashford, mentally disturbed Sancho, error-prone Maguire and this blog will fall short if we start to count the problem areas of Manchester United. The resurgence of the club started slowly and steadily. The arrival of Lisandro, Varane, Casemiro, Eriksen and Antony has been like a catalyst to this transformation for the Dutch Walter White. With the inclusion of these massive players, the Ten Hag Ball was more replicable than ever.
The Ten Hag Magic
A tactically fluid, possession-loving, building-from-the-back sort of manager meant that the players should be excellent on the ball. But along with that the off-the-ball movement was became a noticeable thing in the team as well. On paper a system of 4-2-3-1, a formation most preferred by ETH, but building the play with 3 at the back. At times, Shaw plays at the left centre back in the defense trio with Malacia providing the width. This shows how tactically fluid the manager is. The Redemption arc of Marcus Rashford has helped Man United in many ways as it completely overshadowed the exit of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Rashford has been in the form of his life with 15 G+A in just 23 matches. The Brazil international Antony was a demanded winger from Erik, and Manchester United literally emptied their pockets for signing him. He is a sort of winger who remains wide, allowing the supporting player to make an underlapping run. This is where Fred comes into the picture as he is really good at making attacking runs, this can be seen in the Brazil NT as well.
Kudos to the manager for using Fred upto his potential. Diogo Dalot and Wan-Bissaka have been giving stellar performances as well. Shoutout to AWB’s performance against Manchester City, the man was balling out there, dribbling past multiple city players. Such has been the magic of Erik ten Hag over the red devils. He has brought them into the title race along with Man City and Arsenal. Isn’t it unbelievable that they are still alive in all four competitions. Well, let’s not jinx it by saying that, as we all know that being alive in all competition doesn’t necessarily bring happiness (*laughs in Scouse*).
“The apple never falls far off from the tree.” A saying which couldn’t fit any better to Xavi, as he’s on the path which once was carved by his former teammate and manager Pep Guardiola. Coming back to his home after retiring from football and making few memories in Qatar, ascending the sacred throne after Koeman’s coup. When Xavi took the reins in hand in November 2021, the club was at trembling 10th position in La Liga. A delicate situation to be handled in UCL as well with not enough players to build a proper system which he wished. He had his first blow when the club failed to make it past the group stages of UCL but with Laporta’s backing a certain few players were brought in, in the winter transfer market.
The likes of Aubameyang and the La Masia product Adama Traore, helped the situation at Barca along with the tactically flexible Ferran Torres. Slowly the results started coming, with a proper of home-grown talents such as Pedri – Gavi and heavily invested players like Dembele, and De Jong. The club finished 2nd in the table at the end of the season, a very massive feat underlooked by most people.
Barca went big in the summer transfer market, bringing in Lewandowski, Raphina, Kounde, Kessie, and Christensen. Finally, Xavi-Ball was up for the spectators to be witnessed. The players fit in the system so aptly that the Nou Camp was once again lit bright like once it was. Still, the storms never ceased to hit the club as for the 2nd time in a row, Xavi failed to qualify for the Champions League, even though the reason might be the absence of few crucial players in defense but yet a shameful thing. But after the rainstorms comes the rainbow with beautiful sunrays falling on the water droplets everywhere. Barca has been doing it just fine in La Liga with the top position untouched, but since after the World Cup, the recovered players has been back with the squad and the team has never looked so crisp and sharp. So lets see how tactically has Xavi fixed the situation.
Xavi is an admirer of the 4-3-3 (defense) formation, which heavily relies on possession-based football. Barcelona’s build-up starts from the back with German Airlines, Ter Stegen. Accompanied by 2 center-backs, mostly Araujo and Christensen with the former being an absolute beast in defense this season and later phenomenal with ball distribution and on-time intersections. The wings generally open up wide to create width and stretching the opponents. Barca’s no. 6 role is carried by Busquets who plays a huge role in the system and the club has yet to find his replacement. The no.8’s Pedri and Gavi pinning up the backline or providing the attacking runs so that the backline of the opponents gets pushed back and Lewa dropping to create numerical superiority in the mid. Xavi demands width in his gameplay and Dembele and Raphina help him in achieving that.
Dembele has been the pick of the season, providing the attacking threat at the front. With him unavailable due to a thigh injury, Xavi has started playing 4 midfielders with Gavi as the right-wing player who tucks inside allowing Balde to maintain the width and make overlapping runs. Since having 4 absolute ball controllers, Barca can have the ball all day. A high-pressing team with a good rest defense of 3 at the back, makes this team play a highline with speedy cheat codes like Araujo, Kounde and Balde to cover up any mistakes. A fluid system overall.
IN THE NUTSHELL
As we can see, how both coaches have built excellent setups with what is being provided. The level of man management, as turning Rashford and Dembele into the demons they are now, is no child’s play. Creating rock-solid defensive units. From attack to defense, the 2 teams sound complete. Pep could only be proud of the achievement attained by his 2 students who will be facing in Europa League clash on 16th February. So, will Manchester United finally get to have their revenge of all these years or will Barcelona again comes out on the top, a happy debate but a mouth-watering clash for football fans. Brace yourselves as we are about to witness a clash of the disciples.