opinions | 2015-04-06
The Iniesta Problem
Justifying Iniesta's drop in form
Luis Enrique has introduced a different system of playing at Barcelona, one that focuses on a vertical, direct approach that doesn’t prioritize controlling the flow of the game in midfield – as Barcelona fans were used to. Having possession isn’t the same as controlling the match, and while Barcelona still enjoy the majority of possession in most every match, they no longer control the flow of the game, which is a stark contrast to how the blaugrana used to play in the Guardiola and Tito Vilanova eras.
That is clear for anyone watching Barcelona matches. We play differently and the midfield is merely acting as a support tool to feed our attack and even the fullbacks are more participative, getting more touches on the ball than any of our midfielders. While Javier Mascherano and Ivan Rakitic get praised for their influence on the game, since both are a better fit for Lucho's system, Sergio Busquets and, especially, Andrés Iniesta are constantly accused of being “past it”.
That is harsh. That is also a lie.
The fact that we are asking players from La Masia – players who have spent most of their lives playing our traditional playing style, the one implemented by Johan Cruyff in 1988 and has given us not only more La Liga titles than any other Spanish club since then, but also four out of four Champions League trophies – to perform as well under a completely different system, a system that literally does not use any of their strengths, is surreal.
Let’s look at where Iniesta spends most of his time on the pitch nowadays, compared to the 2011-12 season in which we played under our traditional style:
In Pep Guardiola’s last season as our coach, Iniesta would play as the left-center-midfielder, but would also drift towards the middle constantly, a position that allowed him to get the ball 10 meters from the area and create chances with his dribbling, vision, and superb passing. He would even step into the area to score great combinative goals, like the ones scored on the Champions League that season.
This season, Andrés gets the ball on our own half, and stays limited to a very short stretch of pitch, rarely approaching the box. So, how could he possibly produce the same amount of chances, through passes, and shots he used to, if he’s at least thrice as far from the box as he was before?
Pulling a through ball when eight or 10 meters from the box, where you have played your whole life is one thing, but trying to do the same when you are thirty meters from it with limited movement on the midfield is way more difficult.
The following stats reveal clearly how this new position and his defensive duties are hindering Iniesta’s overall performance and our team’s ability to create chances and superiority in the midfield:
Goals were never and won’t ever be his specialty, since he was gifted with everything he could as a footballer, save for pace and finishing. So, even though he hasn’t scored in La Liga or Champions League, he’s within his average.
We have two more months to play, but Iniesta has only given three assists so far. The difference between his last two seasons is simply enormous.
Shots: Iniesta isn’t the best finisher, but this season is the only one we are seeing him shoot rarely. The trend from 2013-14 is kept, which means the two seasons played with a different style are hurting his scoring chances greatly.
Pass Success: Here is where Iniesta shows he remains the best at what he does. Even though he is farther from the box and covering for Jordi Alba's attacking runs, his quality with the ball remains the same.
Tackles: His second-best quality, in terms of frequency in tackling. This proves he’s been asked to defend more strictly, but mostly on our own half, not up the final third of the pitch, like before.
Interceptions: The same number as 2012-13, his best season in the previous seasons, but for a different reason: Back then, he was always up the pitch, so he couldn’t intercept many balls. Now he’s too far back, and other players do it before he can.
Fouls: Iniesta, one of the most graceful players in world football, is having his worst season in terms of fouls conceded. Since he is playing as a defensive backup so that Alba can make his runs, Iniesta has to defend and keep track of the opposition midfielders, something he has never done before, nor is well equipped to do. So, instead of using him to do what he does best, which is to create chances, we have him marking and fouling.
Dribbled Past: Again, this just proves he’s much more involved in the defensive aspects, and since that isn’t his specialty, players are going through him easily.
Key Passes: One of the players with the best vision in Europe is at his worst in terms of frequency of key passes in the last four seasons. The position he features in and the other demands he has to fulfill are directly affecting the one thing that has set him apart from the rest of midfielders around: His vision and ability to create clear-cut scoring chances.
Dribbles: Iniesta is also having his worst season in terms of completed dribbles. Since he gets the ball near the adversaries’ defensive midfielders, and rarely faces their centerbacks, he either has too little space to complete a dribble, or is always surrounded by the opposing midfield before being able to even think.
Dispossessed: Andrés is now losing the ball less, and that isn’t a good thing. He used to lose it often because he would play in attacking positions frequently. He starts plays too far back from the area and now simply passes the ball back to the centerbacks or Jordi Alba. He cannot dribble an entire midfield.
Average Passes: The player who was part of the best midfield of both the best FC Barcelona squad and the best Spain National Team of all time, now gives less passes than he used to. Strikingly less. This illustrates that his influence has diminished greatly on his current positioning. Fullbacks are touching the ball more than one of the best midfielders to ever grace a football pitch. And that is never a good thing.
Long Balls: Also his worst season in this regard. We used to invert plays and send the ball from our midfielders to our fullbacks and forwards with ease. Now we keep doing it, but the long balls come from our defenders and fullbacks. Who is more equipped to pull a pinpoint long ball: Andrés Iniesta or Jeremy Mathieu? The answer is obvious.
Through Balls: Last, but not least, now Andrés is undergoing the least amount of through balls he has ever had. HALF the number he did last season, and 33 percent less than he did in 2012-13 and 2011-12. The reasons are now clear for anyone who has read it this far: Iniesta is too far back, and swamped with other duties to deliver the best of his abilities: Through balls that make the forwards’ life easier.
The facts don’t lie. Andrés Iniesta is not guilty that Barcelona’s midfield no longer dominates matches. He is a victim of the playing system that does not focus on dominance in the midfield.
You cannot ask a fish to walk and expect it to do well. Let’s stop judging Andrés Iniesta for not performing well on circumstances that do not favor him at all.
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