We only had one defender, Abi – besides Andreu – so we decided to play this way, with a lot of ball circulation.
– Pep Guardiola, post-match comment
Breathtaking. Where to end? I could write about this match forever.
We most often think of water as a fluid. But that isn’t necessarily so. Only under the conditions we’re most accustomed to does it exist in that form. Cool it enough – ice. Heat is enough – steam. Change the pressure it exists in and you can do the same and make it either.
This property of water, its ability to transition into different states, is part of the foundation for life. But to create those other states of steam and ice requires the input of energy. It requires the input of work to move outside of what we’re used to on a day to day basis.
Then there’s a state water can achieve where it realizes all of its possibilities. Where it doesn’t have to be one or the other. It can be everything – liquid, ice, steam – all at once. It’s a kind of small miracle to watch water do this, to be scalding hot and ice cold at the same time. To be dense and flowing simultaneously. The triple point. That’s what it’s called.
Seeing water exist at its triple point, reminds you that there are possibilities hidden all around us that we never experience on a day to day basis but that under the right conditions – with enough energy and work – can emerge. And when those latent possibilities do emerge they produce the unlikely beauty we call wonder.
Barcelona played at its triple point against Villarreal. It was everything all at once. Fluid and shaped. Heat and ice. Solid but somehow still vaporizing.
And they did all of this in response to crisis. Who could have foreseen this kind of brilliance, these kinds of hidden possibilities under such circumstances?
This is what Guardiola and his players have now created. Football at its triple point. The unlikely circumstances of wonder.
Last season at Camp Nou Barcelona and Villarreal played a highly competitive match which was one of the most entertaining played in all of Europe. Though it ended 3-1, the score was not indicative of the quality and ferocity of play by Villarreal. This season the match turned out to be not even remotely competitive. How this happened is what we’ll be exploring in this post.
Villarreal has received significant criticism for the way they played and the effort they gave. This was not the dynamic of the match, however. This was not an issue of Villarreal simply being bad or their players not making an effort. This was a systems level match.
When two talented sides play such a lop sided game it’s because one system of play has overwhelmed the other. One system forces the other to collapse, leaving the losing side without a viable template to base their play on. Individual effort no longer adds together, it fragments. The strengths of the dominant system amplifies the talent and effort of that team in ways which attack the weaknesses of the losing team’s system and take away its strengths. It becomes relentless and the net effect is a kind of death spiral out on the pitch.
A year ago at Camp Nou Villarreal had a reference for how Barcelona would play. The Villarreal players out on the pitch could operate in a system which was aligned to try to minimize Barcelona’s strengths and maximize Barcelona’s weaknesses. This year at Camp Nou Villarreal tried to do the same thing – they tried to play their game. But Guardiola continued the trajectory of his vision and had moved past what he was trying to do with the team a year ago.
Using a potential crisis at the back – a crisis which would have creative unsolvable defensive problems for most elite clubs in the world – Guardiola not only developed a solution, he enacted an almost new style of play, a system so highly fluid and dynamic that Villarreal lost all references for how it was to operate themselves. And it’s easy to blame Villarreal. But that’s just because it’s easy to think cynically of the efforts made by a wonderful group of players in Yellow when you are not out on the pitch facing the dizzying system Barcelona had assembled for the first time under Guardiola, a system that produced a dynamism and variety perhaps not seen since Cruyff was at Ajax.
Liquid. Solid. Vapor. How do you play a team that’s all three at once?
Context: The Villarreal System
To understand how innovative what Barcelona did in this match was, it’s necessary to understand how Villarreal’s own system usually operates as Guardiola orchestrated the match to take maximum advantage of the trade offs Villarreal makes in its play (note this is not a criticism of Villarreal – as I’ve said here before – all tactical systems involves trade offs). For a detailed analysis of Villarreal’s system see the detailed post here at BFB from last season
I’ll highlight key features here for context. Villarreal play a dynamics 4-2-2-2/ 4-4-2 in attack. The advantage of a two striker formation is that it allows for partnership to develop closest to goal. However, playing two strikers in advance positions means that you have fewer players either in midfield or in defense. This is one of the limitations of a traditional 4-4-2. There are only two midfielders. The 4-2-2-2 was evolved in response to this limitations in the 4-4-2. By drawing the wingers inwards it provides four midfielders rather than two. The legendary Brazil World Cup team of 1982 featured a 4-2-2-2 and used it to devastating effect and the formation became a reference for Brazilian football.
There is however a distinct limitation in the 4-2-2-2. It can quickly become an extremely narrow formation. The only potential players who are on the flanks are the full backs. They have to occupy the entire flank by themselves (as a side note this is part of why Brazil has produced so many remarkable full backs and why Dani Alves plays the way he does now – it’s an outgrowth of the requirements of the 4-2-2-2 tradition in Brazil). Not only is this lack of width a problem in attack – it can become a major weakness in defense. Full backs can be isolated in 1 vs. 1 situations or even 2 vs. 1 situations relatively easily.
Villarreal has adopted a mixed system which seeks to balance the limitations of the 4-4-2 and the 4-2-2-2 in two major ways.
First, their advanced midfielders play a hybrid role shuttling from interior positions to control the middle of the pitch and move outwards wide when needed in attack and defense. Villarreal’s system is asymmetric – the advanced midfielder on the left plays wider than the one on the right.
Second, their two man striker formation plays very unconventionally. Rather than trying to stay close to each other to link up in a partnership, Rossi and Nilmar play very wide – almost as wingers. This gives them additional width in possession and allows them to isolate their skillful attackers away from the center backs and defensive midfielders.
This dynamic system has been the basis for Villarreal’s system and the exciting football that they play. They are able to develop numerical superiority in midfield against a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 as their advanced midfielders pull in. At the same time they can limit the damage from becoming too narrow by shuttling the midfielders wide and splitting the strikers up top.
In defense, they will utilize a mixed 4-2-2-2-/ 4-4-2/ 4-2-3-1 to defend as needed. They press out of this block and move in a coordinated fashion as a unit from flank to flank in vertical columns to pressure the ball.
This formation is why Villarreal has had so much success against Barcelona and frustrated the blaugrana so much recently. Barcelona’s strength has been to play the ball through the middle. Villarreal has countered by drawing in their advanced midfielders and forming a solid block of four in the center to suffocate play. Here’s an example of how Villarreal attempts to maintain shape in defense and some highlights of how that system can be attacked:
Notice in the middle how Bruno, Marchena, Valero, and Cani have formed a kind of asymmetric box of four defender around three Barcelona attackers clustered in the middle – Messi, Iniesta and Fabregas. Regardless of how talented the attackers are, that is very difficult space to get through. Villarreal excel at making the pitch small in the middle when they are executing their template. And that can be particularly effective against Barcelona because this is the space that Messi, Iniesta and Xavi all like to play through.
The limitation to Villarreal’s system however is that it asks its advanced two midfielders to almost play two positions at once. They need to be central midfielders and wingers. You can see this in the still shot above. Notice Cani’s positioning. He’s trying to fall back to form that box with the other three central midfield defenders. However, because Thiago stays just wide of that midfield space Cani can’t form the ideal shape on the pitch Villarreal would like to. He’s drawn out, mindful of Thiago and the danger he creates.
If the advanced midfielders don’t transition fast enough Villarreal can be hurt – especially in defense down the flanks as their full backs can get caught alone. In the prior image Cani has to keep track of Thiago because if Thiago makes a vertical run forward the left back will be left 1 vs. 2 against Thiago and Sanchez, who is staying wide.
Here’s another example of Villarreal trying to form this defensive box shape when they pressed up the pitch:
Villarreal have again used four players to compress space and this time have dispossessed Barcelona of the ball.
This image shows another limitation is that the advanced midfielders have to be able to run long distances in a match and do so at pace to decrease potential threats in transition that are part of the system. Given this they are at risk for fatiguing. In the image above, look at the distance between Cani on the top left and Sanchez. Similarly towards the bottom look at large distance between Valero/ Marchena/ Nilmar and Pedro. However, by containing play to the center and pressuring in an organized shape Villarreal has dispossessed the ball before Barcelona can utilize the players open in space.
For these reasons, the critical way to beat Villarreal is to utilize width. The goal is to break up their ability to form a box of four central midfielders by forcing the advanced midfielders to play wider than they want to. This is what will open up space in the center of the pitch. It will physically wear down their advanced midfield two and can create 1 vs. 1 opportunities against their full backs.
In addition, if you can stretch the pitch wide, Villarreal will have difficulty playing in the narrow block they like to press out of, which will damage how they can pressure the ball. Because their system uses a high back line, any drop off in pressure higher up will expose that line and put it at risk for getting beat in the space behind it.
Coming into this game, the loss of Alves, Adriano and Maxwell were critical for these reasons. They are significant sources of width that Barça would be missing. The loss of Pique and Puyol was very troubling because when Nilmar and Rossi split wide they are often left 1 vs. 1 with their defenders along the advanced flanks. Asking young, inexperienced defenders like Fontas and Bartra to defend two highly skilled strikers 1 vs. 1 would be putting them in very dangerous situations repeatedly.
The Barcelona System Continues to Evolve
Coming into this match, Barcelona were missing five of their top six back line defenders. No elite side in the world could handle that situation easily, especially against a terrific side such as Villarreal. Rather than addressing the situation by trying to make pieces fit into an existing template, Guardiola redefined the template itself.
The question at play was how would Barça structure its system given the loss of those defenders? When the line up was officially announced we learned what names would be playing but still had little idea of how they would be playing. One traditional defender – Abidal – was playing amongst the ten outfield players. Six central midfielders would be playing in addition to Messi in his false nine role. The permutations were so wide and varied it was difficult to know how the team would line up.
And ultimately, every guess would turn out to be wrong as Guardiola pushed the limits of how the game is played.
What nearly everyone was wondering as the match was starting was how would the team line up? And on a strategic scale, what Guardiola did was to make this question irrelevant to the game. And by making the question of formation largely irrelevant he caused the Villarreal system endless problems which forced it to become unhinged from its reference template.
Barcelona nominally lined up in a mixture of four different tactical formations:
2) 3-4-3 with a midfield diamond
(3-2-2-3 is also called the “WM” formation which was originally advanced by Herbert Chapman at Arsenal in the 1930’s and hasn’t been used in the European club game significantly for years. See Jonathan Wilson’s wonderful book “Inverting the Pyramid” for a description)
However, at the same time, it can be said the Barcelona didn’t line up in any of these systems at all or that the team played all of them at the once. The system was so highly fluid and dynamic that the question of formation became almost completely secondary. Now, this is a general principle for how Guardiola’s Barcelona play but we’ve never seen that idea pushed to this limit under his stewardship.
Ultimately, tactical formation such as, “4-3-3” are forms of notation. They are useful in understanding the game but their utility varies depending on the style of play.
For example, how Barcelona played could be considered a 3-4-3 with a midfield diamond. However, the midfield diamond was completely unorthodox. The usual 3-4-3 runs into the problem of becoming extremely narrow and losing width as the midfielders attempt to link up with each other in the middle of the pitch. Guardiola’s midfield diamond was often completely the opposite – it was enormous in its breadth often stretching from touch line to touch line. It was a midfield triangle designed to attack Villarreal where they were always weakest – through width.
But even that wasn’t the extent of how unconventional Guardiola’s interpretation of that formation was. The diamond formed, broke up, broke into triangles and then reformed somewhere else on the pitch.
Controlling space on the pitch is foundational in football. It is absolutely critical to winning. Most sides in the history of the game have emphasized shape as a way of controlling space. What Guardiola has done is to emphasize another set of methods to control space on the pitch – first, by using the ball and then second, by defending through an attacking pressure defense which can close down space rapidly. But the ball is critical. If used right, the ball will allow you to control how space is orchestrated on the pitch. If you take away the ball fast enough, you can re-control space.
Every kind of system – whether it’s a colony of ants or the internet or a football team – has two basic components to it: its structure and its dynamics. How it is arranged and how it functions. The notion of formations captures the system’s structure but doesn’t represent the system’s dynamics.
Structure and dynamics are always connected – but what Guardiola is doing is pushing the equilibrium between them in the direction of dynamics as much as possible.
“We only had one defender, Abi – besides Andreu – so we decided to play this way, with a lot of ball circulation.”
Since taking over as manager what Guardiola has been trying to do is to augment system dynamics and free it from the confines of structure. That’s the direction he’s been pushing the team. It’s a radically different way to create a template. But this is what Guardiola was getting at in his comments after the match when he equated how to structure the back line with circulating the ball more. Pep is saying that we had a problem with the structure of our team due to the loss of our back line players. Rather than trying to directly repair that problem in structure with parts that would be strained, we decided to play more dynamically by using the ball. Lose structure. Increase dynamics.
And this is why Barcelona overwhelmed Villarreal and caused the Yellow Submarine’s system to collapse. The fluidity and dynamism Barcelona displayed on the pitch against Villarreal may have last been seen over forty five years ago in the Netherlands.
Garrido still believed that Barcelona would depend on the team structure that it had used in the past. It wasn’t much structure but it was something. Garrido held on the belief that forming a midfield box to crowd space centrally would work to congest the middle, that splitting Rossi and Nilmar wide would isolate the Barça back line in space, that Villarreal could still form a solid, organized block to press out of. These were the right assumption to make on his part. What else was he to do?
But this wasn’t how Guardiola had his team play. It wasn’t how he allowed Villarreal to play.
Guardiola imagined the match in a very different way. And while it took a crisis in the defensive line to spur this change, it seems likely that Pep has been imagining what we saw and building towards it for years. It feels like this is what he’s been growing since he was coaching the Barcelona youth sides. There’s a coherent point of view linking his work all the way to back then. And the seeds of these imaginings were of course sown years ago when he was playing for Cruyff.
And that’s what Villarreal were trying to play against. The history of an imagination.
In part two of this review we’ll examine how that imagination was specifically put into practice to produce a critical result in Barcelona’s opening league match.