Robustness is an important quality for nearly every type of system. Robustness is the ability of a system to withstand stress and pressures while still functioning as it needs to. One of the reasons why the internet works so well is that it’s extremely robust. You can knock out hundreds of thousands of servers and the whole network will continue to run.
One of the hallmarks of contemporary football is that it’s become a systems based sport. Individual effort and talent are fundamental – but their ultimate impact and value depends on an underlying foundation for how play is organized and functions. Individuals can be resilient – up to a limit. But it’s systems of play that allow teams to become robust and fend off all of the various challenges that need to be overcome to win at the highest levels in multiple competitions over a grueling season.
This was one of the most remarkable parts of Barça’s 2010-2011 campaign – how robust it proved to be. Despite the back line being decimated by injuries and accumulating fatigue across an undersized squad causing significant drop off in individual player performance – the whole system remained relatively intact and functioned at the level needed to win the double.
There’s only so much one can learn from a pre-season match, even one that’s played for a trophy. It’s simply far too early to draw specific conclusions. However, often the best opportunity to understand how a system normally functions is by examining what happens when parts of it break and stop working.
From the Barcelona perspective, what was so interesting about the first leg of the Super Copa was how it demonstrated key limits to how robust the Barça system can be. As such it clarified characteristics of play that the team readily cannot do without. At the same time it also demonstrated other dimensions of play which the team usually does not need to depend on to compete – but that they can turn to in moments of need. The game showed both the limits to how robust the Barcelona system is but also how diverse the system is when placed under stress.
From the Madrid perspective, what was interesting was how the game demonstrated their continued transition. Madrid continue to evolve as a squad from what they have been in the recent past – a collective dependent on and oriented around individual talent and effort – to what they are becoming now – a systems based squad in which individual talent operates in a larger, cohesive framework.
Madrid came out from the start playing at a very high tempo. The key to their approach was aggressive, physical pressing high up the pitch by their forward line. Not only did Madrid maintain this tempo defensively – but also in attack. They played the ball forward rapidly and executed attacking maneuvers at pace. This combination allowed Madrid to dominate long stretches of the match. However, this dominance of play was thwarted by limited end product. Here Victor Valdes’ outstanding game was critical to minimizing the damage Madrid could inflict especially at the very onset of the match when the Barcelona defense was particularly porous.
In the eighth minute C. Ronaldo played an excellent cross into Benzema which the striker was able to head into the ground. Valdes made an outstanding one handed deflection to avoid a certain goal to keep the match scoreless. However, given how play opened it seemed as if it were only a matter of time before Madrid would find the back of the net. Madrid execution in attack and defense put Barcelona under significant pressure for much of the match, the first half in particular. This play set the tone for much of the match. However, Madrid was far from fully fit and as the match progressed they clearly tired particularly in the second half. In turn their ability to continue to press aggressively high up the pitch decreased.
Barcelona opened with significant uncertainty in their play. As was widely anticipated, Barcelona’s lack of recent match fitness and form and players absent from the starting line up left Barcelona with significant gaps in play. While both teams are not close to fully match fit and have traveled widely in preseason, Barça started their match preparations as a team a week later than any other team in La Liga due to the Champions League Victory and Guardiola’s desire for his players to take time off rather than return to train early in the summer. And the two team took different preparation pathways as well with Barcelona playing their preseason games heavily dependent on youth players from the B team while many first team regulars rested.
For a number of key Barcelona players this was their first preseason match of the season. And the effects were apparent. For example, Messi was so lacking fitness that he vomited out on the pitch.
Key starters were missing due to the Copa America and Guardiola did not want them to return early to train. While national team experience is match play, the systems they run are entirely different than Barcelona’s. Additionally, due to his late signing and international duty, Alexis Sanchez only had a few practices before the match. Barcelona’s system is highly intricate and depends extensively on timing, movement, coordination and mutual understanding. The squad simply hadn’t spent much time playing together recently and it clearly showed.
The starting line up Guardiola chose reflected these issues with several key players out of the starting line up, most notably the Xavi and Busquets who together form the central midfield axis of the team. The absence of those two was further heightened along the spine of the team through the absence of Pique (whose ball skills were sorely missed especially early on) and the long standing problems Puyol has had.
All that said – credit to Madrid. They sensed weakness in Barcelona and exploited it, dictating play in this match. They were excellent. It was interesting to see the same 11 players who started the 5-0 match last season come together and now play an entirely different way for Madrid.
The Limits to Robustness: What Barcelona Were Missing
In Guardiola’s interpretations of Michels and Cruyff’s total football, players are expected and trained to be all around footballers first and specific positions second. These strategic imperative means that the team has a tremendous variety of skill sets distributed across the pitch. Players are able to take on a diverse set of roles – not only across a season but within games and individual plays. This fluidity and flexibility is at the heart of why the Barça system is so robust. It’s what saw the team through to the double last season.
But in the first leg of the Super Copa we witnessed two specific tactical issues diminish that caused Barça’s entire system of play as usually practiced collapse. First, in defense Barça did not systematically press the ball with coordination or energy as a unit. Secondly, the team’s axis of play in the center fragmented. This fragmentation made it difficult to maintain the usual geometry and shape Barça depend on across the pitch to maintain coherent possession and to use the ball efficiently.
The Barcelona Press
The Barcelona back line looked very unsteady throughout this match, with Eric Abidal in particular having a clumsy, pre-season game. However, while the back line looked suspect it wasn’t the fundamental problem Barça had defensively. In some ways the problems at the back were more a symptom than a cause. The larger problem was the lack of the usual aggressive pressing we have come to expect from Barcelona.
As detailed in the preview one of the major open questions headed into this match was how form and fitness would impact the ability of the teams to defend. In Barcelona’s case the question was whether the team would have the fitness and energy needed to press a highly athletic team like Madrid. It was clear from the onset that Barcelona was not going to press with nearly the intensity they usually do, likely due to limited fitness and stamina. This was likely a tactical adjustment by Guardiola as it was the entire team that was defending at a much lower tempo and intensity rather than a few individual players.
The lack of pressing crystalized the overall state of the squad. Much of what makes pressing effective is under one’s own control. It depends on coordination, positional intelligence, reading the game and perhaps above all work rate. These are all qualities Barça has exhibited in defense over and over. And from the start of the match what was noticeably missing was that intense work rate in defense.
Intense pressing is fundamental to the Barcelona system. What this match demonstrated was how vital it is as a tactic. Because without that intense, coordinated pressure across the pitch the high line Barça play in order to retain possession by staying compact gets exposed and cannot maintain cohesion. In other words, tactically, the Barcelona system cannot be robust against the the absence of intense pressing. This is why fitness is such an area of focus for Guardiola.
And it was this tactical limitation which was directly involved with Barcelona conceding that first goal.
Much has been made out of the defending of Abidal, Mascherano and Keita on the goal scored by Oezil. However, the primary defensive problem occurred far up field. To start the you have to go back to Barcelona’s possession as the goal was scored through transition play.
In the shot above Iniesta has just passed the ball to Villa along the touchline and Messi is making a run through. Notice how effective Madrid’s shape in pressing is. They have four defenders in a disciplined box around two Barça attackers forming a cage around the ball. To beat this kind of pressure requires rapid ball circulation and strong off the ball movement. But one of Barcelona’s major problems in attack was that their off the ball movement was sluggish. This was evident from the start. Much like the issue of pressing off the ball movement was likely related to fitness. This is not to say that the Madrid press wasn’t effective in it’s own right. It’s just to say that Barça didn’t have the usual tools they would have at their disposal to counteract the defense they faced. Above, after passing to Villa in tight space Iniesta stands outside of the box of Madrid defenders rather than making a run into open space. With not clear outlet Villa attempts a close pass to Messi and Barça are dispossessed of the ball.
The still shot below typifies much of the game defensively for Barcelona.
Ramos has gathered the ball. But rather than attacking him as they usually would Messi, Iniesta and Villa largely watch the ball. Villa makes an effort a moment later but there’s not coordinated “hunting in a pack” which we see time and again from Barça. In real time what’s most striking is the way that Messi simply stops the play once they lose the ball. He stands up and starts walking. He never does this in a real match and given him being sick on the field later this half it’s likely that he was far from fully fit. For much of the game he looked to be conserving energy (Interestingly it was Messi who was marking Xabi Alonso on Madrid’s second goal. He pulled off marking Alonso far too early – again very curious defensive mistakes from Messi – but the kind of thing you expect from a first pre-season match.)
Ramos then plays a very skillful ball to Di Maria – and once he does Madrid have broken defensive containment and have found space. And this is where they are simply deadly in attack. Adriano is isolated as a lone defender and caught in no man’s land as there is no one around him to coordinate pressing. Di Maria then plays an outstanding through ball down the flank past the Barcelona defense for Benzema to run onto. Again – there’s little the bara back line can do to stop any of this penetration. The press has failed higher up the pitch and now defending is trying to control damage. Benzema does a wonderful job using his close control of the ball to drive Abidal back while simultaneously holding up play for the midfield runner – Oezil to catch up.
Madrid was at a 2 vs. 3 numerical disadvantage with Abidal, Mascherano and Keita defending. In theory they should not score. But Benzema puts Abidal (who had a poor game) on his back foot which requires Mascherano to run towards the ball to back up Abidal.
And it’s at this point where the second major problem Barcelona faced – their central axis of play – becomes a major issue. Initially Keita does what a DM is supposed to do in this situation – he tracks the midfield runner. But seeing Abidal on his back foot and not looking up to locate the other CB, Keita leaves Oezil to assist on stopping the ball. This isn’t really Keita’s fault per se. It’s just an example of his limited experience at DM. He approaches the play as if he were an advanced midfielder defending on the press. He moves to close down the ball rather than track the runner. With Mascherano and Keita both moving towards the ball Barcelona turn a 3 vs. 2 advantage into an open man in Oezil. Benzema makes the play with his excellent skill on the ball – holding it up and then threading a perfect ball onto Oezil’s stronger left foot.
Barcelona’s Central Axis
The first leg of the Super Copa vividly demonstrated how dependent Barcelona is on play through the base of their formation – the central axis of play. And for Barça this central axis is formed by the central midfielder in Xavi and the holding player in Busquets. These positions are fundamental to everything Barcelona does. It allows them to control possession, dictate tempo and build play up from the back. Building play out from the back through this axis is particularly important when the team is facing the kind of physical pressing Madrid were utilizing.
This match showed how vital that central axis is to the team. The system cannot be robust without it. And this is likely why Guardiola was so intent on acquiring Fabregas for this season.
In this match neither Xavi nor Busquets were in the starting line up. Instead Thiago and Keita took their place. This was the right thing to do for Guardiola. Not only in terms of resting Xavi and Busquets who have had recent knocks – but in terms of giving the other two midfielders experience against Madrid in controlled circumstances. However, both Thiago and Keita struggled. For much of the first half Thiago looked uncertain. His touch was heavy and he misdirected several passes giving Madrid dangerous transition opportunities. That’s not a criticism – Thiago is only 20. Neither Xavi nor Iniesta could have controlled a game at the Bernabeau with Madrid playing as well as they were at that age. Keita has very limited experience at DM and in this game it showed. It’s just an enormous amount to expect for him to play in a relatively new position – a position he himself has said he does not feel comfortable in – and expect the team to operate as it would with Busquets.
These comments about Thiago and Keita aren’t criticisms. They are more to point out the responsibilities that are involved with these two position in the Barça system and how vital they are to how it operates. The system is not robust to loss of play along this central axis.
Barça Survive their Deficiencies: Robustness through Brilliance
From a systems perspective, Barcelona was completely over run for much of this match. But despite that – despite all of the fundamental tactical problems they were faced with they obtained a wonderful result in the first leg and did so in the away leg at the Bernabeu. This match was a testament to what this squad has learned by winning all of the trophies it has. It figured out a way to walk off the pitch with what it needed in terms of the competition itself.
But in addition, we also witnessed part of Barcelona’s “plan B.” Much of the system Barcelona usually depends on broke down. But the team overall was still robust – it still obtained a favorable result. And it did so through another resource it can depend on – individual skill that is able to change the dynamics of the game.
With the midfield breaking down – the forward line wasn’t getting any service. Despite that – it was very clear that the forward three would have to take on the responsibility of producing magic – and they did – twice. On the other end, with the pressure defense missing and the back line disorganized, it was clear that Victor Valdes would have to save the game for Barça through his own effort – and he largely did.
From a tactical perspective what was noteworthy about the two Barcelona goals was that in both situations Barcelona were at enormous numerical disadvantage. Not only did Barça produce goals against the run of play – they did so against the numbers as well.
Villa’s goal was simply an amazing wonder strike. There are only a handful of players in the world who could have made that shot – fortunately Villa is one of them. And before anyone wants to describe that as luck – that goal was very reminiscent of the one Villa scored in the Champions League final – it depended on the same curling action to the corner.
However, while that piece of skill was remarkable, the set up for Villa’s goal was brilliant and indicative of all the ways Barcelona can hurt another club. Madrid had a 6 vs. 3 advantage in the final third on Villa’s goal. While’s Villa’s strike was wonderful skill, what was critical for him being able to score that goal was that he found himself isolated 1 vs. 1 in enormous space against Ramos. How does a 6 vs. 3 numerical disadvantage in the final third turn into a 1 vs. 1 situation where the defenders must cover large amounts of space? The still shot below show how:
The play starts with Messi dropping deep to receive the ball and making a run. He beats the first defender – Carvalho – and then forces both Khedira and Pepe to try to close him down. One attacker has drawn 3 defenders. This leaves the other two Barcelona attackers 2 vs. 3 in the final third. And Ramos initially pinches in centrally to make up for the two CB’s who have stepped up to stop Messi. This means that on the initial move Villa is completely unguarded. A 6 vs. 3 disadvantage has turned into a 1 vs. 0 advantage for Barça.
This is one of the most brilliant parts of Messi’s game tactically – he has the ability to turn situations of significant numerical disadvantage for his team into numerical equivalence or even superiority on other sections of the pitch by drawing such a disproportionate number of defenders to him. Even when Messi releases the pass – three defenders track his run. This leaves Villa alone 1 vs. 1 with Ramos.
The other critical tactical aspect to this goal was Barcelona’s use of width. Both Sanchez and Villa are playing near the touchlines when Messi makes his run. By making the field as large as they have Villa and Sanchez make it difficult for Madrid full backs to receive support. Finally, this width also forces Ramos to have to defend an enormous amount of space by himself. Villa can go in any direction he wants on the initial move towards goal. This is why Ramos does not attempt to close out the ball. There is too much space around him to defend.
Barcelona’s second goal was another piece of brilliance by Messi. His ability to maintain balance and fight off much larger defenders was remarkable. But there’s an aspect of this play that has gone largely unnoticed that I wanted to point out – as it was the key to the goal itself. This piece of play was created by Alexis Sanchez who had an outstanding debut game – especially given the circumstances of his first game being a Clasico away.
Here is the set up to the goal:
Madrid have a 7 vs 3 numerical advantage in the region where the ball is (notice all of the Barcelona midfield players standing and holding their deeper positions rather than joining the play – very unusual). Thiago has played a pass in the air at chest level in very tight space to Alexis Sanchez. Sanchez then proceeds to make one of the most intelligent and skillful plays of the match.
Notice in the still shot that Sanchez is starting to bend deeply at this knees to receive Thiago’s pass. The natural reaction to that kind of pass from Thiago would be to trap the ball with your chest. But Sanchez does not want to do that. Instead he’s trying to get under a pass which while in the air is not head height. Why is he doing this odd maneuver when it would be so much more direct to control the chest level pass with his chest? He’s already seeing a play develop before it happens.
Sanchez’s priority is to play the ball into the only open space available – the region between Pepe and Marcelo. However, if he traps the ball with his chest – the play is done. He’ll get closed out by the swarm of Madrid defenders around him. The only way to make this play is through one touch football. And the only way to play one touch football is to pass the ball with his head. So that’s what Sanchez instantly decides to do.
When Sanchez executes this maneuver Messi is hardly in the play – he’s trailing and behind Thiago. Despite that Sanchez has the vision and creativity to play the ball through for Leo to run onto – even in the absence of any immediate space around them.
And what’s so wonderful about this connection is that Messi is already starting his run. He also see the potential for the play. Messi’s makes these kinds of runs often – he can see something – even something that may appear impossible. And while visionary players like Xavi and Iniesta can spring him free many others cannot. This is especially true of players new to the team who have to learn how to play with Messi. For Sanchez to be able to read this play and spring Messi through a sliver of space on a perfectly executed one touch pass with the head is very special – and that’s only with the two of them playing together for forty minutes.
And this is exactly why Guardiola was intent on acquiring Sanchez. He has the skill set to remove the burden of play in advanced positions from Messi’s shoulders. Rather than Messi opening up play for others through his creative brilliance here is another player who can open up a game for Messi. Sanchez sees this unlikely play. Most other players would not – and on top of that he has the skill to perfectly execute what he envisions.
It’s remarkable to see how much better Sanchez has gotten this last year and how rapidly he’s improving. In the past he’s had a reputation of dominating the ball too much – and he himself had stated this tendency is one of the challenges he needs to overcome in his career. Last year in the World Cup you could see his skills – but often he was guilty of trying to do too much with the ball through dribbling. But he blossomed this past season at Udinese. And here he is in his first match at Barca playing perfect one touch football with Messi – a talent who is very challenging to learn how to play with.
Brilliance in the Net
Finally – Barcelona was able to obtain a result despite the system level problems they had in critical areas due to one of their most under appreciated resources – Victor Valdes. Valdes was man of the match and again demonstrated the elite nature of his game. VV is often criticized for not having much to do. But this match was just the opposite.
Madrid outshot Barcelona four fold. Were it not for Valdes’ agility and skill in the nets the game would have gotten out of hand very quickly and Barça would never have had the chance to level the match. In addition, due to the problems in the central axis of play Valdes was under even more pressure to act as a distributor of the ball and initiate play. Few goal keepers could have supported a shaky midfield under duress of intense pressing the way Valdes did in the first leg. When the usual ways Barcelona uses to control play fail, the team is fortunate to have Valdes as a last line to keep them functioning at the level they need to find success.