European Super Cup Match Review – Barcelona 2-0 Porto: Barça’s New Dimensions of Play

Barcelona wins its twelfth major trophy under Pep Guardiola, who is now the most decorated manager in club history, surpassing Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team era mark.  Xavi wins his eighteenth major piece of silver, making him the most decorated player in club history.

Cruyff and Guardiola.  Guardiola and Xavi.  History making itself new again.

And most importantly, this match demonstrates again how driven this squad is.  The intensity of their dedication to winning is remarkable.  And the frightening part is that the team continues to grow and expand its capabilities.  Complacency?  Nowhere in sight.  In fact, they are getting better.  Against a wonderful Porto team that played an outstanding match, Barça demonstrated both the determination and execution needed to see the game through as well as exciting new dimensions to how they can play.

 

Overview:

When two highly talented teams playing similar systems and styles face off, the match result can sway heavily from small differences in execution, opportunity and decision making.  This was the story in large of this Super Cup match.

Both Barça and Porto play a dynamic 4-3-3 oriented around attacking flair.  Both sides look to dominate possession and aggressively pressure the ball high up the pitch.

Average Position for Barcelona and Porto

Porto manager Vítor Pereira made his intentions very clear coming into the match.  Porto would play their game.  As Pereira said, “You will see our own game plan and identity; you don’t adapt to your opponent.”

However, given that Porto was unlikely to be able to control possession the major question headed into this mach was how would Pereira and Porto articulate their game plan and identity without the ball?

Match Context

This was a match in which focusing on the overall quality of play was unfortunately secondary.  Simply put – the pitch was horrendous and had a major impact on the quality of play for both sides leading to many uncharacteristic poor touches and passes.  Both teams played on the same surface so both faced similar challenges but the pitch very much dimmed the brightness of play.  This was an occasion where you look to obtain a result and move on.

Match Analysis

Porto’s High Pressure Defense

Porto came out very aggressively and pressed very high up the pitch.  How high Porto came out pressuring is well illustrated by the average positions on the pitch they occupied in the first fifteen minutes of the game:

Porto’s formation is on the right.  Notice how high up the pitch their front four attacking players are positioned.  They are higher up the pitch than Barça’s front four were.  While part of this was Porto’s attacking intent, even in the first fifteen minutes Barça had the majority of possession.  So most of Porto’s positioning was due to how they were defending.

This effective high pressure forced Barça to build play from very deep and shifted a significant proportion of Barça’s possession into their own half.  The key feature to how Porto pressed – and the key feature of the match at large – was how compact Porto was and how high their back line needed to play to stay compact.  That compact shape is evident from the positional diagrams above but is vividly demonstrated in the still shot below:

Porto Compact

The image above typifies how Porto defended and the shape they pressed out of.  They are arranged in a highly organized block with a single holding player (Souza) stationed between the lines.  This shape was the foundation for Porto being able to aggressively pressure across the pitch while also maintaining discipline (this is very reminiscent to how Barcelona press).  What is perhaps most noticeable is how remarkably compact Porto is playing.  There is only roughly twenty-five meters or so between their back line and most advanced player, Kleber.  Porto’s goal was to make the field as small as possible to suffocate how Barcelona could use the ball and for much of the match they did this very effectively

However, in order to make the field so small and pressure so dynamically, Porto had to play their back line extremely high.  In the still shot, their back four in stationed just inside of the center circle.  In other words, nearly half the entire pitch is behind Porto’s back line.  The other concession that a team needs to make when playing their back line that high is tactical fouling.  Playing that high up and that aggressively almost dictates that a team uses fouling to stop the ball.  And this means that there is always a high risk for having players sent off, especially when the opposition has the ball for 70% of the game.

The Central Balance of the Match

Given how high this line was playing and how congested Porto’s compact, dynamic pressing made the pitch in advanced positions it was clear that Barça’s approach would require them to attack that high back line.

Ultimately, this was the dynamic that shaped the match.  Porto insisting on a high back line in order to stay compact to pressure while Barcelona was attempting to unlock the density of defenders occupying a small space on the pitch by probing and unlocking the vulnerabilities in that high back line.  In other words, Barcelona was trying to exploit the Porto defense in the same way opponents are constantly trying to beat Barcelona.

 

Barcelona Reorients its Central Axis 

The surprise immediately headed into the match was in Guardiola’s player selection.  Against a side that was going to press aggressively, he chose to start Keita at holding midfield.  Given how strong Busquets is in that holding role and how deft he is at rapid ball circulation his skill set is almost ideal to counter a team like Porto.  It did not appear that Busquets was injured, either.  And his absence from the line up caused cules no end of worry given that a trophy was at stake.

However, since it became clear over the summer that Barça would not be adding another center back, it become quickly apparent that a key feature for Barcelona’s success this season was Keita being able to play holding midfield, a position he has not played very much and doesn’t feel particularly comfortable with.  The entire issue of buying another center back had much less to do with the “problem of playing” Mascherano at CB – the issue was that Barcelona lacked the needed number of central defenders between CB and holding midfield.

If Mascherano plays CB that means that the first team only has one holding player remaining on the roster.  That just isn’t a viable situation.  So if Mascherano is going to play CB for major minutes, as it’s clear he will need to, then Keita is going to have to play holding midfield and play it well.  It’s simply a function of math.  And a major part of that math is the number of competitions Barcelona is playing in.  They have a very difficult match against Villareal to open La Liga only three days after the Super Cup.  It is possible that Guardiola played Keita as a way to rotate the squad.

Given this, it is misleading to focus the evaluation of Keita’s performance in the holding role with Busquets as a point of reference.  Keita and Busquets are very different players with different skill sets and levels of experience at the position.  Keita is not going to circulate the ball like Busquets and if that becomes the standard Keita is held to he is going to be a failure almost by definition.  Compared to Busquets most experienced holding midfielders would seem insufficient when it comes to rapidly moving the ball and building play.  So Keita’s performance at the role needs to be seen in it’s own context.

And in this match, Keita played perhaps the best game he’s had in the holding role.  His positioning was much better – he stationed himself to ensure that he could defend deep and didn’t get caught higher up the pitch (which has been his instinct in the past – he’s played the holding role too similarly to the way he plays his more advanced, defensively oriented midfield role).  He made several key interventions (including one that likely prevented a goal after he himself had turned over the ball).

No, Keita didn’t circulate the ball as well as one ideally would like – but he’s still growing into the role and his ball distribution was better in those deeper positions than it has been in the past.  For example, Keita completed 90% of his passes this match and did so against a team that was pressing very intently.  He’s a very intelligent player who will hopefully get better in this new role as the year goes on.

Now all that said, one of the reasons why Keita played better this match was a major tactical change implemented by Guardiola.

 

Xavi Hernandez Turns into Guardiola’s Guardiola

It’s rare for any player to achieve brilliance.  It’s even more special and infrequent to encounter brilliance consistently.  But that is the level of play that Xavi has attained.  It’s one of  the characteristic that distinguishes him from other great midfielders.

In this match, Pep changed Xavi’s role in subtle, but critical ways to address the absence of Busquets and to counteract the Porto press.

Pep rarely gets credit for what he does tactically.  In general everything about the way Barça plays gets thrown into a generic black box of, “the players have been playing this system since they were boys.”  Even when that’s not true, it still becomes the over riding logic for explaining Barcelona’s performances.  And Pep wants it that way – he wants the focus to be on the players.  But in the process his own impact on matches as a manager goes overlooked.

In this match, Pep dealt with the absence of Busquets by functionally splitting the holding midfield position in two.  He distributed the responsibilities of that position not only to Keita but to Xavi as well.  Keita was responsible for ensuring a defensive presence in the holding position when Barça was defending.

However, Xavi spent significant amounts of time playing even deeper than Keita when Barcelona was in possession – especially when they had to build play out of the back from very deep in the face of Porto’s intense, high pressure.  In this deeper position Xavi functioned almost like Pep himself did when he was playing the deep lying pivot for Barça.  Here’s an example of how deep Xavi was playing for much of this game:

Xavi Drops Deep to Defensive Line to Build Play

Above, Xavi has received the ball in almost precisely the position where center backs usually play.  That’s how deep he was playing to counteract Porto’s pressing.  Keita is in a deep position but advance of Xavi.  Keita’s role here in building play is to make himself available as an outlet for Xavi.  This inverts the relationship Xavi usually has with Busquets.  With Busquets playing, when Xavi drops deep he often  does so to make himself available as an outlet to continue building play. It’s Busquets role to initiate play.

Here Guardiola has expanded Xavi’s usual role even further by having him play as the deepest midfielder, asking him to not only build play but to initiate it as well.  And this showed in how hard Xavi had to work this match.  Xavi covered 11 KM this match – more than any other player on the pitch.  The Barcelona player who covered the second most distance was Iniesta at 10KM.  Xavi ran more than 1 KM more than any other Barça player.  And while Xavi often leads the team in distance covered the reason why the gap between him and Iniesta was so large this match was due to Xavi being asked to make runs to play so deep while also orchestrating play in the center.

Xavi’s ability to expand his presence on the pitch in this fashion was instrumental to the way Barcelona was able to manage against Porto’s high pressure defense.  It was the key to the match.

 

From a Deep Position Xavi Creates Space for Iniesta and Messi

To better appreciate the enormous impact Xavi had on this match let’s compare two moments from early on.

Porto Very Compact Making Pitch Small

What’s striking about the image above is how compact Porto are in the center around Messi who has the ball.  Porto has nine outfield players within roughly fifteen meters of each other from front to back  (approximate distance from the back line to Moutinho; Kleber is higher up and not directly defending].  90% of their outfield players are defending 15% of the entire pitch.  They have made the pitch very small.  The result of this is extreme congestion around Messi, who is forced to play the ball backwards under pressure.  Notice that in this moment, Xavi is in an advanced position and Keita is open as the deep midfielder.  Compare that image to the one below:

Xavi Dropping Deep Opens Space Inside Porto Defense for Iniesta and Messi

Notice how much more open space there is in the middle.  In the image above, Xavi has dropped deep to receive the ball and build play.  Notice what happens to Porto’s ability to stay compact.  As Xavi receives the ball Porto are forced to run out quickly to defend him by pressing in numbers.  The effect of this is to open space in the middle.  And it’s this space in the middle against one defensive midfielder that Iniesta and Messi attempted to exploit the entire game.

In fact, this became Barça’s primary mode of attack.  Have Xavi receive the ball in a deep position to force Porto to open up and lose their compact shape.  Once that area opened Iniesta and Messi could ghost into that newly created space and look to play the ball quickly forward to exploit the Porto high back line.

It was up to Xavi to orchestrate this entire mode of play.  For example, this was partly why Iniesta produced so many dangerous runs and near moments of magic.  He was able to find space Xavi had created for him. Barcelona tried this approach again and again.  And on several occasions it almost worked.  But poor touches and inconsistent finishing limited the benefit Barça derived.

On a horrendously poor pitch and facing an excellent pressure defense, Xavi attempted 122 passes and completed 113.  That’s a 93% completion rate.  No other player on Barça or Porto came close to dictating that much of the game.  Figures like this are often dismissed as Xavi just passing sideways or backwards.  But in the Super Cup more than 10% of Xavi’s pass attempts and completions were long range.   And on those long range passes – the ones often most difficult to execute – his completion rate was 80%.

Xavi was once again the center piece for how Barça played. He expanded his role to support Keita and allowed Guardiola to rest Busquets in a match which had a trophy at stake.  He dictated the game both directly through his presence on the ball and indirectly through the way he created space for Messi and Iniesta to move into.  He was the most influential player on the pitch, carried the most responsibility and was the centerpiece for Barça tactically.  For all of these reasons, Xavi was man of the match.

 

All Tactics Involve Trade Offs

At the same time, there was a distinct trade off to having Xavi drop so deep and tactically splitting the holding role between him and Keita.   Keita had to maintain positional discipline even when Barcelona had the ball.  He had to make sure that he wouldn’t get caught out if Porto rapidly repossessed the ball with their pressure defense.  The effect of this was to leave Barcelona with both Xavi and Keita stationed relatively deep when they had the ball.  In turn, this left Barça at a relative disadvantage in terms of numbers higher up the pitch.

In the same light, while Porto’s high pressure was critical for much of the first half, Barcelona starved them of possession and forced them to chase the ball.  This took Porto’s leg’s away from them.  And when they tired their back line became progressively more exposed with the reduction in advanced pressure.  Barcelona had more time and space on the ball while the back line remained high.  This opened up the pitch, allowed Barcelona to control more of the play and ultimately forced them to resort to more tactical fouling.

 

Villa and Pedro Struggle Against a High Back Line

Villa and Pedro both had subpar games.  Pedro should have scored two goals and were his touch and game decision making in more midseason form he likely would have netted at least one of the two opportunities he had.  But even with those two opportunities he wasn’t as much of a presence in attack as one would expect.  Villa had a very quiet game and his presence was infrequently felt.

The problem both Villa and Pedro encountered was related to how Porto defended.  Both Villa and Pedro’s greatest strengths in attack are their finishing.  They are at their best when they are closest to goal.  A high back line though moves them away from goal.  Because beating players 1 vs 1 off the dribble in open space isn’t a primary part of either players game, against a high back line they are dependent on other players to create through ball opportunities for them to run onto.  This is why Barcelona was off side so much – Villa in particular.  Part of why Villa is off side so often is that he doesn’t have great pace.  In order to beat the defenders for balls played into space behind them, Villa is constantly trying to start as early as possible.  In turn he’s off side repeatedly.

Messi and Iniesta came close to springing both Villa and Pedro for goals on multiple occasions.  But last minute interventions by Porto, poor touches and finishing, and the status of the pitch all resulted in missed opportunities.

The ineffectiveness of Barcelona’s wide attackers exacerbated the trade offs that had to be made to play Xavi and Keita deeper.  One of the best ways to beat a high back line for example is late runs from deep.  Keita excels at this but couldn’t make these runs often because he had to maintain tactical discipline.

This left Barcelona with too many moments such as the one below:

Messi Breaks Down High Back Line with Run But Barca at Numerical Disadvantage

Messi has broken containment in the middle of the pitch and run at the Porto high back line leaving them completely broken in shape and under great pressure to defend all of the space behind them.  Messi plays the ball to an open Pedro.  But there’s no effective shot on goal that results.  The problem is lack of support.  Barcelona are completely outnumbered.  The midfielders are all trailing the play from deep positions but not making runs forward. Villa doesn’t have the pace to break with the play.  Pedro doesn’t have the skills on the ball to beat players to make up for the numerical disadvantage.  He tries to square the ball to Messi – his only other option – but it’s deflected away.

The point I’m trying to make here isn’t to criticize Villa or Pedro.  I’m only trying to explain part of why they were so quiet.  All players have certain strengths and limitations.  The impact of those players skill sets is influenced by the tactical systems they are up against.

All that said – Barcelona this season has a deeper more diverse set of skills than any other year under Guardiola.  Remember that image above when we talk about Fabregas’ goal later on.

 

The Barcelona Pressure Defense

Barcelona’s pressing was excellent yesterday.  Against a Porto team that is very good on the ball, Barcelona defended high up the pitch effectively.  This was a marked improvement compared to prior games they’ve played so far this season.

As an example of this effectiveness – one of the most striking aspects of this match was how invisible Joao Moutinho is.  Though Falcao and Hulk received most of the attention during Porto’s great season last year, it has been Moutinho who makes the team run.  Yesterday he was largely taken out of the game and the the Barça press was a major reason.

Much has been made out of Guarin’s mistake that led to Barça’s first goal.  And while a clear mistake, the way the play is being described misses the context of what was happening on the pitch.  This wasn’t simply a mistake that arose out of nowhere, inexplicably.  Let’s take a look at what happened in the moments before hand:

Wave 1 of the Press: Iniesta Closing Down Guarin

 

Wave 2 of the Press: Xavi Closes Down Guarin in Support of Iniesta
Wave 3: Pedro Presses Guarin Who Under Pressure Makes a Crucial Mistake

Consider how much pressure Barça put Guarin under.  First Iniesta runs at Guarin.  Guarin avoids him and retains possession.  But then Xavi comes and presses in that next wave while Iniesta continues to try to close down.  Guarin keeps the ball.  But then Pedro arrives as a third wave and in response to these three waves of pressure Guarin tries the ill fated back pass which winds up going directly to Messi (note – while Pedro didn’t finish well he was outstanding on the press – his work rate again, tremendous).

While Guarin’s decision making was poor, a major problem is the Porto players just standing around not moving off the ball to provide Guarin with a valid outlet.  In the last still shot, Guarin is outnumbered 4 vs 1 against the pack of defenders clsoing him down with a solid wall of three defenders directly in front of him.  For a team that defends via pressure up field, it was interesting to watch Porto not understand how dangerous three waves of pressure against one outnumbered player can be.

After a first half of frustrating attacks, Barça scored a goal through it’s defending and the brilliance of Messi.  Do not discount the difficulty of Messi’s finish there in transition. Helton came out strongly and closed down quickly.  Most attackers miss that shot.  But Messi is not like most.

 

It’s Not a Make Shift Back Line Anymore

“Make shift” is a description we hear often when discussing the Barça back line.  But at some point when something happens frequently enough it’s not really make shift.  It’s just the way things are.  This is the Barcelona back line and how it will be structured for much of the season.

The first dimension to “make shift” that needs to be erased is the notion that Mascherano is some temporary patch back there.  The back line yesterday was inconsistent in it play and had a lot of moving pieces.  Mascherano was once again the bedrock of protection.  Time and time again he made critical interventions against Porto, often cleaning up the mistakes of other defenders.  A major strategy of Porto’s was to try to play the ball up top to Kleber quickly.  Despite Kleber being much taller, Mascherano neutralized and frustrated the Porto striker.

Mascherano was also good helping Xavi build out play from the back.  In the context of the Barça system, as a holding midfielder for Barça Mascherano’s ball skills are adequate.  Moved back to CB, they are strong.  It is very clear that Mascherano may be entrusted to pick up the mantle from Puyol to anchor the line.

Adriano was a force once again.  Matched up against the strength, pace and skill of Hulk, Porto’s greatest threat, Adriano was terrific.  While not tall, Adriano has outstanding pace and deceptive strength himself.  He repeatedly outpaced and held off Hulk on challenges.  His positioning is improving.  He generated several strong chances in attack.  He has the skill set to become a world class left back.

On the other side, Alves was also solid defensively.  His pace and positioning completely neutralized the much stronger Cristian Rodriguez on the wing.  Alves didn’t get forward as mush as usual, though he did create a few very dangerous opportunities that fizzled due to poor crossing.

Abidal – had a very inconsistent game with several clumsy mistakes, particularly in possession.  He still looks to be in preseason form and it’s important to remember he hasn’t played very much football over the past six months.  His pace however did prove vital on several interventions, the miscommunication between Valdes and Mascherano as the prime example.

Given Barcelona’s team composition, it’s very possible that we will see Mascherano and Busquets paired at center back again (at least until Pep believes Fontas is ready to play in critical fixtures).  Yesterday Busquets played well at CB.  As Porto tired they struggled to get forward and test the Mascherano and Busquets pairing.  In turn, Busquets ball skills were a plus and his limited pace not an issue on the counter.

 

The Nets

Not Valdes’ best game.  He got caught out too far from goal on a few occasions and should have communicated better on that misplay with Mascherano that almost led to Porto equalizing.  His shot stopping however was again fantastic.  His finger tip saves on shots from Moutinho to open the game and Guarin in the second half were outstanding.  Few keepers have the athleticism to deflect those shots.

 

Barça New Dimensions: World Class Talent on the Bench

When you are playing against a very high line that is pressuring effectively there are a number of way to structure the attack.   Balls through the channels for wide player to run onto.  Beating players off the dribble to get behind the line.  You can play balls over the top.  Exploiting great pace to get behind defenders.  Delayed runs from deep can be particularly devastating.

The unifying goal is to exploit all of the space that is open behind the line.

For much of the match, Barcelona’s attack was limited to the creativity of Messi and Iniesta to either play channel passes or beat defenders off the dribble.  And given how deep they were positioned in midfield it was unlikely that either would be able to dribble past the last line.  As described prior, the midfielders behind Iniesta and Messi were generally too deep to make delayed runs and the wide players greatest strengths are not dribbling.

Fortunately, this season, Barcelona could turn to players who had precisely the skill sets needed to unlock the defense.

Sanchez has great pace and dribbling ability.  He has exactly the kind of skill set Barça needed to counter how Porto was playing.  He played a very composed game yesterday however.  It’s impressive to see a player so used to dominating the ball making sure to adapt to his new system of play.  Sanchez is almost going out of his way to quickly pass the ball back to teammates.  But the talent and potential impact are very evident.  He will grow into the system.  Finally, entering up 1-0, Sanchez’s work rate and defending were just phenomenal.  He really has a chance to be a special player in both attack and defense.  He made several outstanding tackles and defensive plays and worked very hard to prioritize defending over maximizing how forward he could get.

Watching this game was strange.  For almost the entire second half I sat there thinking that Barcelona should get Fabregas onto the pitch because his delayed runs towards goal from deep positions would be ideal to counteract the Porto high line.  What was so strange about the experience as a cule was the notion that Barcelona has a midfielder with this skill set.  It just hasn’t been part of their squad for quite some time.

 

Key Adjustments After the Red Card

Often after a red card, the team with the numerical advantage tries to press on continuing to play the same system they were playing when the game was level.  But the game changes when a player is sent off and to maximize the advantage you need to adjust depending on how the opposition counters (Zonal Marking has commented on this point insightfully on many occasions).  Guardiola did that wonderfully yesterday.

When Sanchez initially came into the game he was positioned on the left wing.  When Fabregas entered for Pedro, Iniesta moved to left wing, Sanchez to the right and Cesc centrally.  But that only lasted for a few minutes.  Once Rolando picked up his second booking Guardiola brilliantly changed shape in response.

By the time of the card, Pereira had already used his three substitutes and couldn’t bring on another defender.  He adjusted to the loss of Rolando by moving the holding midfielder Fernando back to CB.

By moving his holding player to CB, Pereira was forced to concede space in the center of midfield.  If Guardiola had maintained his existing shape he wouldn’t have been able to exploit that open space in the middle fully.  Instead, he moved Iniesta from left wing back to central midfield.  Barcelona was playing a highly fluid shape, but they were almost organized as a 4-2-2-2, with Keita and Xavi deep in midfield, Fabregas and Iniesta in advanced mid-field and Messi and Sanchez up top.  Sanchez then moved back to the left so that Messi could stay on his preferred right side in the two man formation.

Guardiola’s focus was to overload the area of the pitch that had been vacated by Porto’s holding player moving back.  And given the multi-skilled players he had all over the pitch, he had no trouble doing so.  Moving Iniesta back to midfield into space was decisive.

In terms of the Barça system – this moment in the match was a tactical landmark of sorts.  It is one of the few times Barça have ever played anything but their highly fluid 4-3-3 under Guardiola.  And what makes it really significant, is that it may not only be an aberration.  It may be a picture of things to come given the flexibility the team now possesses.

 

The Culmination of Play

Barcelona needed very particular keys to unlock Porto.  In years past, Guardiola didn’t have these keys on his ring.  He does now.  And they proved decisive. Let’s take a look at how Barcelona scored it’s second goal.

 

Three Barca Players Closing Down Two Porto Attackers; Sanchez Supports Deep Defense

Above, the play starts with Porto in possession.  Moutinho has played the ball to Hulk who plays the ball back to Moutinho.  The key factor that springs the play is the Barça press.  Three players rapidly come to close down the two Porto attackers.  With Keita close behind him, Moutinho tries to play the ball back to Hulk quickly in tight space.  Sanchez intercepts the ball and plays a deft touch back to Keita. Keita executes a very nice turn to protect the ball from Moutinho and once he does circulates the ball to Fabregas who is completely alone in space alongside Iniesta.

 

Keita Circulates Ball Quickly to Fabregas Who is Open in Space

Once Keita has played the ball to Fabregas Porto has been effectively sliced open.  Look at how much space there is now in the middle of the pitch.  It is a completely different shape than the compact, pressure oriented block Porto used to compress the middle of the pitch at the start of the game.  Part of this is Porto wearing down from fatigue.  But the open space is primarily due to Porto losing their CB due to tactical fouling and needing to move their holding player back.  That said, Guaridiola’s tactical change to move Iniesta back to the middle in the 4-2-2-2 like formation was pivotal.  It was that change which allowed Barca to exploit this new open space so efficiently.

When Fabregas receives the ball to foot from Keita, he understands the free space around him.  He doesn’t try to dribble despite being open.  He quickly plays the ball to an even more wide open Iniesta to speed up the tempo of the attack.

Iniesta Receives the Ball in the Space Vacated By the Porto Holding Player; Sanchez Starts Diagonal Run; Fabregas Works to Follow the Play

Iniesta has moved directly into the space where the Porto holding midfielder would have been.  He has utilized the most vulnerable area on the entire pitch to position himself to launch an attack.  Barcelona aren’t known as a counter attacking team – but that’s mostly due to how much possession they have.  They are deadly on fast transitions.  In the shot above notice an additional key detail.  Once Iniesta receives the ball Sanchez immediately changes direction.  He was initially running in a vertical line.  Once Iniesta receives the ball in proximity to Messi, Sanchez angles inwards and starts to make a directed diagonal run.  This is again, wonderful vision and positional awareness by Sanchez.  He senses that the end play will be run through Messi and he needs to link up.  Finally, Fabregas doesn’t give up on the play.  He starts his own run vertically down the pitch to trail the play.  Iniesta breaks at speed and plays the ball to Messi.

Messi Left 1 vs. 1: Sanchez Occupies Two Defenders and Fabregas Times Run from Deep

The image above is one of those moments Barcelona produces of impending disaster for the opposition.  You can just see the result before the play unfolds.  Even in real time you could see what was coming as Messi plays the ball and Fabregas streaks into the play.  Iniesta has directed the ball to Messi who again has been stationed on center-right of the pitch with the change in shape after the sending off.  This of course positions Messi to play off his left foot.

What’s critical to this play however that can go unseen is Sanchez’s run and positioning.  He is critically occupying both central defenders.  Just think about that.  Sanchez helped start this play deep in Barça’s own half.  He then has the intelligence to read the play and start his diagonal run.  Finally, he has the tremendous pace to cover the ground needed to join the attack.  Sanchez had to run much farther than any other player to join this attack because he is starting wide and has to cover space diagonally.  But he has the speed to do so  (Compare this image to the one I showed earlier where it was only Messi and Pedro surrounded by defenders).

With Sanchez occupying the two central defenders and pushing them back, Iniesta also drifts centrally on his run, occupying Moutinho the trailing midfield defender as well as taking the attention of the right center back who now has to worry about Iniesta as well as Sanchez.

The key result of Sanchez and Iniesta making these runs is that they produce an end state no defense ever wants close to the box:  Messi left alone in space 1 vs. 1 against the defender.  This is the key to the play – Messi with space isolated against one defender.  Messi cannot be played 1 vs. 1.  But Barça has forced Porto into this situation.  And once Messi is 1 vs. 1 he just has so many options on how to hurt the opposition.

Next Messi intelligently holds up the ball (despite not being a target man Messi holds up play wonderfully with his ball skills).  And the reason why he holds up play is because he has the vision to know that Fabregas was coming, that Cesc was making that run from deep, probably just like he used to when they were both 13.  The kind of run that Barcelona midfielders don’t often make.

Messi Holds Up Play as Fabregas Continues Making Run from Deep Through Open Chanel Between RB and CBs

Fabregas’s run was superb.  Iniesta winds up in an offside position.  But Fabregas’s perfectly times his arrival and splits the open gap in space between the right back and the rest of the defense.  Messi’s cross is just beautiful, the kind of pass that completely separates him from other high goal scoring attackers. Perfectly weighted and timed wonderfully for Cesc’s late run (Messi doesn’t even consider passing to Iniesta in his offside position).

Messi Lofts a Perfect Cross Into the Pathway of Fabregas' Perfectly Timed Run

And Fabregas then puts a remarkable touch on the ball with his chest to control and finishes with an exquisite volley finish.  Few strikers in the world have the touch and finesse to finish the way Fabregas did.

Finally after putting the ball in the net to score his first meaningful goal in the shirt, a goal that seals a trophy, a goal he’s probably been dreaming about for a long time, Fabregas just stops his celebration.  Initially running to the corner towards the Barça supporters, he just stops.  And turns around and points to Messi for the pass and jumps into Leo’s arm and celebrates with his teammates all around him.

The End:  A Note on Tactics and History

With Busquets, Fabregas and Sanchez on the field, Barcelona may have played one of the most tactically interesting formations football has seen since Cruyff’s Ajax teams.

With those three substitutes Guardiola made it was very possible to describe Barcelona as fielding a team composed of 9 multi-dimensioned outfield players who are all functionally types of midfielders in their all around play and skill sets.  Nine outfield players who are highly interchangeable and play “positions” largely as a function of where they are standing on the pitch rather than roles they are bound to.  The squad that ended the game was one of the most stark examples of universalism of play we’ve seen for decades.

And on a night where Guardiola surpassed Cruyff in trophies it was a wonderful to end the game fielding a team that is in many ways the culmination of Cruyff’s vision and doing so because it happened to be the most effective way of seeing the club through to another trophy.

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115 Comments

  1. y2k156
    August 28, 2011

    Wow, 8 – 2 could easily be 15-5 and it would not be unfair. United also blew bunch of excellent chances.

    If this is not the wake up call, i really have to imagine what is. I admire Wenger for his philosophy but his insistence of not even paying market prices and buying (mostly) french players is simply too outdated in today’s world.

    Btw, Man City look scary. Man U are very good but for me, Man City have the better squad. If Chelsea do not buy Modric or some one similar, hard to see them challenging two Man clubs.

  2. Humphrey Bogart
    August 28, 2011

    I hope now canteros will think twice before leaving La Masia for Arsenal, just to be thrown to feed the wolves like that.

    • Eklavya
      August 28, 2011

      Ha! Good point.

    • Mila
      August 28, 2011

      And yet even after Spurs – City, Bartra is being touted to be sold to the Spurs…. Why? Please let it not be true!!!

  3. August 28, 2011

    Also – up 6-2, Patrice Evra blatantly dives in the box to pick up a penalty kick.

    Just think about that. 6-2 – and he dives for a penalty.

    And there’s no comment on it. It’s just completely ok because there’s no such thing as diving in the EPL.

    • August 28, 2011

      Wow. Just…wow.

  4. Jackieboy
    August 28, 2011

    I feel bad for the Arsenal goalie, he’s such a good kid and stood no chances on either of those goals. Also, Man City does look better than than Manyoo, but I don’t see either of them being a threat to us as long as we stay relatively healthy.

  5. August 28, 2011

    I think this might be the first non-Barcelona club football match I go through the trouble of downloading.

    Yes. I think it will be.

    • August 28, 2011

      Replay is at 3:25pm on Setanta (I’ve got a free preview). Definitely gon’ check it out..

    • Mila
      August 28, 2011

      It is really worth it – the game was wonderful, opened and just wow!

    • Miguel
      August 28, 2011

      I fell asleep through it. It was just sad. I kept picturing a suicidal Wenger calling up Fabregas and telling him he was gonna ‘do it’ unless the Catalan came back to him. Arsene’s whole world just fell apart today. Or it should have.

      City looked really good today, especially considering it was Nasri’s first game. I was just so happy De Jong wasn’t in the line up.

      So is the Madrid v Zaragoza game being broadcast?

  6. Vj
    August 28, 2011

    This slaughter makes me worried about our backline problems. Do we follow suit tomorrow?

    • August 28, 2011

      You’re joking, right?

    • Vj
      August 28, 2011

      I’m genuinely concerned. OK I might be exaggerating a bit but yeah I’m worried. Some of these days someone might call us out like Arsenal..

  7. August 28, 2011

    Last season much too much was made of Man City being “negative” under Mancini. Mancini has been tactical and defensive in the past but not nearly that bad.

    It was very clear that Mancini saw last season as a transition year – he was still building his squad.

    And he really had one goal – do what’s necessary to qualify for the CL. He did that – and won a trophy.

    Last season they really didn’t have the players to play an expansive game.

    Mancini has unlimited resources to use – but he has bought high quality talent.

    I’m still just so surprised more teams – Chelsea especially – didn’t try to bid on Aguero.

    And on another note – Mancini is a much, much better tactician than the vast majority of managers in the EPL. That seems to have been a major reason why City dominated the spurs so badly today.

    • Barcaleya
      August 28, 2011

      Thank God, Chelsea didn’t get Kun.

      I don’t like them. I started disliking them during Mou’s reign and even though he’s not there anymore, I don’t like the club still. I love Torres and Mata though. But it would have been terrible if they got Kun.

    • Ryan
      August 28, 2011

      And don’t forget Romeu, he’ll be fighting for a spot soon enough I bet.

  8. Srini
    August 28, 2011

    Euler,

    Commenting here so that my question doesn’t end up in the clutter.

    I think that Alexis Sanchez is going to play the full back role on Monday. If I remember correctly he played that role in the World Cup game against Spain for Chile? Can you please confirm? He was the LB then. I wouldnt’ therefore be surprised if he reprised it, but at the RB position.

    Suspect the squad on Monday would be Valdes, Sanchez, Mascherano, Fontas and Abidal in defense.

    • August 28, 2011

      I don’t remember Sanchez playing at FB for Chile in the WC. He was repeatedly dropping deep to press the ball in his own defensive half.

      I would seriously consider Sanchez at FB as I wrote above. My only concern would be that he’s not familiar with how Villareal play and they have an unusual system.

      I’d probably use Pedro there with Sanchez ahead of him and tell Sanchez he needs to support Pedro on that flank defensively. It’s somewhat arbitrary but having Pedro in the deeper position may be helpful.

      We’ll see – Bartra did practice with the first team today. If I had to guess I think we’ll see Bartra at RB.

    • August 28, 2011

      One other thing I’d add about Sanchez at full back.

      Here’s the question I would ask him:

      Do you feel that you understand enough about how Isla has played behind you at Udinese and Chile to play that role?

      If Sanchez feels comfortable and says that yes I understand what Isla has been required to do and I can play that role I would strongly consider using him at RB.

      Basically that’s what they would need Sanchez to do against Villareal – play an Isla-like role and pay particular attention to the villareal strikers cutting wide.

  9. Humphrey Bogart
    August 28, 2011

    Seems Puyi is close to return,maybe we could turn to him in this case of emergency

  10. Barcathegreatestever
    August 28, 2011

    I think the Villareal game could be very tricky and being the first game requires as many experienced first teamers as possible. So Maxwell Masch Sergio and Abidal in the back Keita with Iniesta and Xavi and MVP up top. Cescs defensive qualities are a question for me. Alexis is completely unproven as an outside back. Start the rotations another day

  11. adopted cule
    August 28, 2011

    Great analysis as always Euler.

    The finishing note is the most interesting part about this piece, to me.

    At the end of both Super Cups, with the result very much hanging in the balance, Pep has chosen to use Fabregas, Xavi, and Iniesta on the field together and the ineffective duo of Pedro and Villa substituted off, effectively using a 4-4-2 in both instances(in the Porto match, because Xavi was playing so deep to ‘split’ the DM role with Keita, it looked more like a 4-2-2-2 as noted) and in both instances Barcelona’s attacking play was revitalized. Given that Pep is only carrying 4 nominal forwards on a team that supposedly plays a 4-3-3 over a brutally long season, I wonder if we are not going to see much more of this 4-4-2 or even a very fluid and attack minded 4-5-1 from Barcelona this year, with both Messi up front and Fabregas from the midfield given license to roam freely on the field to find space to exploit, a la Cruyff in the Ajax total football of the ’70’s.

    • August 28, 2011

      You’re asking one of the central question of this season. Given the disproportionate number of central midfielders the team has and the amount of talent those players have how does the team best deploy them as assets?

      Pep partially answered that question last season with Mascherano and Busquets. Trust the diversity of their skill sets and use them at other positions and in other parts of the pitch.

      In terms of personnel, a 4-2-2-2 or 4-4-2 diamond make sense for the reasons you’ve described (especially now with Afellay out and the team down to 4 forwards).

      But those formations bring up serious tactical questions that make them difficult to utilize for tiki-taka.

      The biggest issue with those formations is that they can become very narrow as you can lose width. That is a major problem for Barca as teams already try to defend narrow. This would largely facilitate those defensive approaches.

      Those formation also pose problems for barca defensively. They will not be playing a conventional 4-4-2 with wingers. In a 4-2-2-2 or 4-4-2 diamond it can be very difficult to press efficiently because you may not have players on the flanks to close down the ball.

      Finally, moving out of the 4-3-3 may risk losing Messi in his false 9 role. I don’t know if Pep wants to do that. If anything he is building the team completely around Messi playing in that false 9 with advanced players on both sides (without two forwards flanking him Messi’s passing would not be as effective when he drops deep).

      We may see some changes in shape like we did against Porto – but I think that won’t be a major approach (again, even against Porto it was in response to the sending off).

      Instead, I think we are going to see more redeployment of those talented midfielders to other positions so that they base shape can be maintained.

      We’ll see quiet a bit of Iniesta on the wing. We’ll see Fabregas as a false 9, etc.

      I also think we may wind up seeing a more advanced attacking player move back to full back at some points this season. The barca full backs are hybrid full back – wingers and there’s significant overlap between who the wide players in the 4-3-3 and the full backs play.

      When barca are in possession they convert to a 2-1-4-3 as it is with the full backs playing wide in the middle. I think Pedro or Sanchez could assume those roles if needed.

    • adopted cule
      August 29, 2011

      Unsurprisingly, your analysis here is tactically way beyond anything I conceived of, particularly the aspects of moving a out of a 4-3-3 potentially narrowing the field and reducing Messi’s false 9 effectiveness. What led to my suggestion was something far simpler: Hasn’t Cesc, in less than one full game on the field, already shown that he is miles beyond both Villa and Pedro, given that they are not as versatile as most of the other players on this team, in as far as implementation of both Cruyff’s and Pep’s total football vision. If my eyes were to be trusted, Cesc was clearly the fourth best attacking player on the team (actually my eyes told me he was just behind Messi, but I have too much respect for Xavi and Iniesta to just pop Cesc up ahead of them after 3 games). His runs from midfield are numerous and incisive. His chemistry with Messi has the potential to be electric, if it isn’t already. My thought was simply this: doesn’t he have to be on the field as a starting XI player, and if so, what does that mean for the formation?

      Your points about losing Messi as a false nine and about keeping width might be answered by an aggressive 4-5-1, which is what my emotional side wants to see: with Iniesta and Sanchez playing the wide roles, this can still effectively function as a 4-3-3 if it needs to. How much do you lose with essentially replacing Villa with Iniesta and Fabregas sliding into Iniesta’s spot? Sanchez is probably going to take Pedro’s starting XI spot because of his versatility in any case.

      If Pep really wants to keep the 4-3-3 shape, Iniesta vs Villa really might be an upgrade, but the glaring red flag might be losing the chemistry between Xavi and Iniesta in midfield.

  12. Barcathegreatestever
    August 29, 2011

    I can agree that Iniesta is better than Villa in the middle but not as a forward, they are just different. Cescs work was against 10 then 9 men. Barcas best moments in recent history were when they could penetrate out wide to the end line and attack from the end line as well as from Messis spot. Henry and Eto’o were the Kings at that. Villa and Pedro and also Sanchez and Affelay are going to destroy the offside trap by the end of the season. I’ll bet Pep has them working night and day on it.

  13. August 31, 2011

    Very lengthy report on the match.

    Just wondering where you source the stats (passing, positions, etc) from? I couldn’t find much other than basic shot/possession stats for this game.

    Interesting to read another view point aswell – I took a look at the match from the opposition view.

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