Every now and then a goal comes along that highlights some important concepts in our philosophy and tactics. In my arbitrary opinion, our second goal against Racing does exactly that. So, follow along as we break down that goal second by second.
To do that, I am using a mysoccerplace.net full game clip for the first time in the hope of following our whole possession (not just the goal) and see what our movements are. Please go to Part 2 of the Video.
- 9:55 Abidal has recovered the ball after Pique headed it towards him (it was a “boot it out clearance by Racing). Note that he is on the center of the field. Why? Because before that the ball was on our right wing and we were therefore overloading towards that side. Also, right before Abi gets the ball, you see Puyol running behind him and to our left to cover Abidal’s hole. Good job by the Captain.
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- 9:56-57 Abidal cedes to Busi. To his right and front we see a staple of our offensive and possession game: the Xavi-Messi-Alves triangle is already in place and waiting to receive the ball. Henry sees Abidal was in the center and starts going to the left and tracking back to at least partly cover the hole that Abidal’s absence left, at least until Abidal runs back to position. Note that Racing is in a 4-4-2 at the moment with two strikers up front (this will change).
- 9:58-10:10 Busi passes to Alves (the open man) and initiates a basic move in our arsenal. What we see in this segment is pure old school Masia football between our MAX (Messi-Alves-Xavi) triangle on the right. Receive, pass, move, offer, receive, pass, move, offer… All of this while being in a triangle. Shifting positions but always being triangular. It’s classic Barca and given the three players involved, very hard to stop. The idea is to on one hand keep possession while at the same time dragging in defenders, passing around them, and looking for an opening. Since most lines organize horizontally, three players moving forward on the wing, especially MAX, forces the midfield line to shift towards that side or a fullback to be dispatched from the defensive line to help out. This opens up space in the middle of the field and it is exactly what we are aiming for here. We frequently do this for a while and then quickly pass the ball to a wide open center-mid on the other side. Note how one of the strikers joins the Racing second line thus forming a five man midfield while Busi has sneakily moved back towards the center of the field.
- 10:10-10:15 Messi switches with Alves, dragging a defender back with him and passing to the wide open Busi in the center. Xavi meanwhile is tracking back both to offer himself for a give and go with Busi and/or to drag another defender back with him. Look at Messi, as soon as he passes he keeps moving leaving the Racing player he dragged out of position behind him, finds an open space between four Racing players, and offers himself to Busi for a pass.
Always the same: receive, pass, move, offer… Note #21 for Racing, Pape Diop (the only dark skinned player for Racing so he is easy to pick up on the small screen). He had a bad day as a holding midfielder. First he gave away the free kick that led to the Ibra goal and now he will be dragged all over the field to open up spaces for us. When Busi receives, he runs forward to pressure him but opens up a space. Luckily for him, Busi chooses the shorter pass to Messi rather than a longer one to an open Keita closer to goal.
- 10:15-10:19 First big mistake by Racing. Messi receives between FOUR Racing players but one is out of position (Diop) and has to race back to cover Keita, another (the forward) retreats back to his forward spot, and the other two meekly retreat behind the ball instead of pressuring Messi and forcing him to pass back. I would accept the excuse that they did not want to leave Alves open but Alves was as open as a Seven-11 anyway. Furthermore, why the HELL would you play two forwards against us with you being Racing? Are you nuts? That forward should have pressured Messi into a quick decision from behind but he sneaks out of the picture. Now we work to open up space. To do this we move the ball from side to side using our width to spread the field and drag defenders out of position thus opening up wholes. Messi now has two choices: pass to a wide open Alves on the right wing or pass to Xavi who has moved into the space vacated by the retreating Diop and start passing the ball to the left. He chooses the latter.
- 10:19-10:23 These are the little things that Xavi does. Look at how he moves two defenders to the right simply by looking that way and positioning his body as if going to pass to Alves or Messi. Mind bullets, bitches. Mind bullets. He moves you with his eyes. One midfielder goes to cut off a possible pass to Messi while overeager Diop runs to pressure Xavi. Count the midfielders. That’s three on screen which means Diop’s over eagerness just opened up a huge whole through Racing’s second line in the middle. Oops. Their second line is now unbalanced. Keita runs back to offer himself to Xavi who, after making it seem like he was passing right, passes left (to Keita). Meanwhile, off screen, Busi has retreated to play defensive libero (i.e. lateral cover in front of the the two CB’s) with Abidal bombing forward and Puyol presumably moving further left to cover for his absence. Now, Keita has the ball.
- 10:23-10:28 Wait, the fourth midfielder is double teaming Ibra with a CB? NOBODY is within 15 feet of Keita? Shoot, Keita! Shoot! Keita is wide open and the fourth midfielder, as well as Diop, desperately run to cut off his shot. I was pissed off that he didn’t shoot but luckily for us, he didn’t. Instead he passes to Abidal, who as previously mentioned has run forward. THIS is how we use width and spread the field horizontally to open up holes. Henry cuts in and becomes a second striker while Abidal bombs up to take his place on the wing. Somebody has to cover him so the Racing midfielder who ran to cut off Keita now sprints back to take Henry as their right fullback leaves Henry to cover the suddenly appearing Abidal. Now, Abidal passes it back to Keita.
- 10:29 Pause the video. Now it seems like we are doing something we commonly do: calmly passing the ball from one end of the field to another while defenders struggle to adjust. Look at Ibra. This is a part of what he gives us. Two CB’s double teaming him. Look at the big hole this opens up between him and Henry. At the same time, Diop, who has been run ragged, races back (again) to cover Keita. He personifies how their second (midfield) line has become unbalanced since the Xavi pass since he is still running to keep up. Xavi has switched with Messi (Total Football) and is now playing as a forward with a midfielder marking him. This switch leaves Messi wide open while Alves takes a man out of the play simply by being on the wing and stretching the field. Now, lets review where Racing’s second line is:
- One guy is covering Henry because the FB covering him had to run to mark Abidal.
- Pape Diop is running to mark Keita.
- The other center mid is marking Xavi.
- The fourth midfielder is worried about Alves and is out of the play.
Didn’t they forget somebody? Oh yeah, that short Argy guy with the big nose. Uh oh…
- 10:29-10:35 Checkmate. This is where we completely break past Racing’s second line and into their back line. Keita passes to Messi. Since he is completely umarked (and he is, you know, Messi), Xavi’s man leaves him and runs out to mark Argy Bargy. Tendencies indicate that he will turn to pass it to the open Alves. However, Messi sees that Xavi’s marker has left him wide open and Xavi has expertly offered himself to receive a pass. To use an American football analogy, this is a quarterback simply seeing where a blitz is coming from and instinctively knowing that the receiver in that general area is open. Messi then carries out a beautiful, absolutely perfect one touch pass to Xavi that serves as the coup de grace that completely breaks the Racing second line. Their two wing midfielder were taken out of the play by our fullbacks (part of the benefits of spreading the field and keeping width), Diop is too far back because he ran towards Keita, and now the Messi and Xavi tag team overwhelm the other center midfielder and leave him in the dust. Messi’s pass was the line breaker here.
Now Xavi runs towards the backline. He has Henry wide open for a throughball to his left but instead lets the defense collapse on him and drops the ball back to a slightly trailing Messi. While all of this is happening, Zlatan is setting a screen that any basketball player would be proud off as he shields a defender from getting to Messi and then drops back as Argy Bargy barges by. The rest is just Messi magic, breaking a defender and getting off a quick snap shot between a small hole that develops. What gets me here is how quickly he ripped off that shot.
What did we learn?
- The MAX Triangle is a staple of our offense and unbalances the opponent’s second line, leading to open spaces in the center. It also allows us to keep possession for long stretches and play defense by means of possession if the situation calls for it.
- Keeping the field as spread horizontally as possible is a vital aspect of our tactics. There should always be somebody on both wings, stretching the field. This opens up holes in the middle. Just by being on the wings, our fullbacks eliminated two Racing players from the picture.
- When a team plays behind the ball, we move the ball from wing to wing, trying to unbalance their lines and looking to find ourselves with either a mismatch or an outnumbered opposing player.
Other Things to Consider
- Racing did do something wrong here. The lazy ass work rate of their second forward left them with “only” 8 defenders. Against us you cannot do that. You need a five man midfield or back line.
- Note that Racing reacted to our fullbacks and went to mark them. One of the things that Chelsea did as well as others (coincidentally, the same thing the US did to Spain in the Confed Cup) was to pack the middle of the field but partly ignore our fullbacks and invite crosses into the box knowing that they had the height and physicality advantage. Racing on the other hand took two players out of the picture for the primary reason of cutting off our FB’s ostensibly to prevent crosses. Either Racing did something very wrong or Zlatan’s presence is paying dividends as teams are reacting to the threat of crosses into the box thus opening up more space in the middle. As the season progresses we will see which one it is. If we can prove to have consistent threat from crosses then teams will have to spread out to cover us and Messi-Iniesta-Xavi will have a better chance of cracking buses through the middle. We’ll see what happens but it should be fun.