Match Review (Part 1) – Barcelona 5-0 Villarreal: The Triple Point

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.


Match Analysis


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:

VIllareal Successfully Establishing Shape in a Central Box of Four Defenders to Congest Middle

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:

Villareal Maintain Narrow Box Shape to Defend on the Press Higher 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:

1)  3-1-3-3

2) 3-4-3 with a midfield diamond

3)  3-2-2-3

(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)

4) 3-3-1-3

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.



    1. Had to register with the blog, just to, well – thank you, Euler. You’re analysis here and regarding the Spanish Super Cup are profoundly insightful and much appreciated…

      I’m fascinated by the stark contrast between Guardiola’s ideation which is evidently predicated on fluidity and dynamism versus Mourinho’s touted emphasis on structure based upon strict formation.

      Looking forward to part dos. Gràcies.

  1. Fantastic opening salvo.

    I’m sure you’ll mention this in part 2 but when I saw the team sheet come to life on the field I was thrilled. A return to the 3 man defense! The reason I was so excited was because the purpose of a back line is to always have a spare man at the back; to deal with the attackers in a way that would favor your defense numerically. Against a 2 man front, like Villareal employs, it would be overkill to field a 4 man backline: because their strikers like to pull wide, and their advanced midfielders like to come inside, you would face the risk of being overrun in two key areas, especially if their full backs were able to push forward and support the strikers.

    By playing Sanchez and Pedro you not only reduced the risk of the full backs pushing forward, but you provided cover to the two outside defenders because of each player’s defensive acumen.

    In midfield, the additional player (afforded by the reduction of numbers at the back) helped the side avoid being overrun in the middle of the pitch by Villareal’s advanced mid’s pinching in. Essentially you would maintain a 4 v 4 in that area, and bank on your superior technique.

    In defense, Busquets played a similar role to the one he played at At. Madrid last year. Essentially a sweeper role that freed Macsherano and Abidal to stay close to Rossi and Nilmar. Not that it particularly mattered, because of the pressing and ball retention skills of the attacking players.

    Whats important in all of this is that it was the perfect game plan for Villareal. People thinking this is the system we will play predominately are, i think, misguided. Like Euler states the formation isn’t as important as the dynamics of it. 4-3-3 or 3-1-3-3. It doesn’t really matter. Against 2 strikers, sure, switch to 3 defenders. Against a forward line of 3? You probably want 4 back there. What’s great about the squad that Pep has built is that you can play multiple ways. Dynamism at its finest.

    Thanks again euler

  2. Can Somebody Explain me Whats this “False 9” role All about?? I am new to this Blog Sorry! 🙁

    1. @ barca96 -Messi was playing the false 9. Cesc was playing the false Messi. Duh! 🙂

      @- fiazhamsath – Better to wait for Ueler for the False 9, enganche, trequarista differentiation. Ahsan explained it well once but it’s buried in old posts.

    2. A Nine that is fake!
      Not exactly 4.5 but 7.24 or 8.55.
      I am here I am not that kind of Nine.
      Oh I am a striker now, and oh, I am in midfield now.

      Hey. Boom. I score.

      That kind of 9.

    3. in a nutshell (correct me if im wrong) messi’s role in the team is that of a striker (no. 9), but his positioning is usually closer to that of an AMC (no. 10), drawing the opposing defender out to close him down. he then makes runs into the box with or without the ball.

    4. ^This.

      Bojan’s bad luck to be promoted into a team with Messi in it. Just didn’t suit his game as a central striker and he never looked as good playing on the wing.

    5. Bojan is an exceptional striker/wing player. I had the pleasure of watching him play during the time when Frank Rijkaard was the coach, when he was just 17. He was sensational. That first season he was on fire. I remember Messi being injured a lot during that time. He played exactly the same role that Messi plays during that time.
      Yes, Bojan has the bad luck of being in the same team as Messi, and playing the same position as Messi.

      Regarding Messi, his role has no definition. The Barca team last season was built around him. This year we have a couple of other exceptional players like Cesc and Alexis and the team is more dynamic. But from what I see Messi will be interchanging with Cesc in the midfield/forward role(Supercopa second leg). He will be playing winger supporting Cesc(against Porto). But Pep comes up with many interesting possibilities and the sky is the limit given his talent, and the talent that rest of the team possesses.

  3. This is a review that matches the how Barca played in the match. Wonderful work.

    Dynamics v Structure is always interesting debate. Dynamics way of doing things is the way to being the best but if the components are not there, dynamic way is much more liable to fail as compared to structure. Structural way of thinking and playing is much safer as most people understand structure. Dynamic way of doing things is much more difficult as you need people on same wavelength. Pep seems to increasingly take the team to play in dynamic way and adjust itself throughout the match to opponents. I cannot wait to see how this evolves. Hate the international break right now.

    Waiting for part 2:).

  4. So glad that someone pointed out the irrelevance of these so called formations ‘4-3-3’ ‘3-4-3’ ‘3-1-3-3’ as if they are set in stone.
    Brilliant analysis as always correctly pointing out the importance of dynamics as opposed to structure in a system like Pep’s.
    wonderfully simple words “how they play” needs more attention than “how they are set up”.
    looking forward to the second part. hope you also touch upon the ‘off-ball’ movement which can get messy in this kind of a fluid lineup, but something barca appears to have pulled off rather easily.

  5. What was exciting to note was that all this fluidity was balanced, the triangles seemed to form effortlessly and at the loss of possession there were always two players near the ball due to these triangles. When a wide-forward pinched in a midfielder went wide, when Messi dropped back a midfielder lead from the center (and all of Iniesta,Fabregas and Thiago ended up there)

    It was dynamism in perfection. The most TOTAL of all total football.

  6. The teams that can adapt to different formations will be the most successful teams.

    Both teams played very carefully for the first 15 minutes. I think that Barca was waiting to see what Villarreal would bring to the game and, as Villarreal continued to play conservatively, Barca took control.

    It allowed Barca to then play a superb game, filled with so many variations that I think it stumped Villarreal as to what they could change to counteract what was happening.

    Villarreal did not change their tactics last night – they had some sort of gameplan, but it was one-dimensional. Even when they were 3 or 4 goals down, they were still forming 2 defensive rows, each with 4 men, in their half.

    Not that I’d have wanted to be, but if I had been Garrido, at 0-2, I would have thrown on another player or 2 up front, as then they might have had a chance at disrupting Barca’s tactics because the Barca 3-man backline would have needed reinforcement. (Instead, he subbed on 3 midfielders when 0-3 down.)

    I’m sure that Pep was prepared for that, but for Villarreal to do nothing to challenge the 3-man defence must have surprised him. I have no doubt that a coach with the calibre of Ferguson or Mourinho would have been all over that 3 man back-line, trying to find a way through.

    Euler – I love your analogy to the 3 states of water. It perfectly describes Barca’s play last night.

  7. And people were crying that with the arrival of Cesc, it’s going to stunt Thiago’s growth and limit his chances. Pep says, “Take that”!!
    Plays all 4 of them 😆

    1. AC Milan are interested in signing Barcelona left back defender Maxwell (30) on a free loan. [corriere dello sport]

      Those cheap….:lol:

    2. Thiago’s first goal was beautiful btw and golazo no.4 is the kind of goal that honestly only our team makes…amazing t’estimo Barça!

    3. Thiago’s goal was so Messi-esque don’t you think?
      Messi does that a lot. Drag everyone one way and then take a half-full(power) shot across the goal. You would expect Thiago to pass. I didn’t expect him to take the shot. What a confidence!!

    4. Cesc and Messi helped Thiago get that goal. Thiago was playing for a pass to Cesc and Messi who were dragging defenders wide, waiting for Thiago’s pass. In the end the defenders covered Messi and Cesc, but by that time Thiago was at the edge of the box, and by the time the defenders realized their mistake it was too late. Thiago had to just slide the ball across the goal at that point.
      Watch that goal again and watch the movement of Messi and Cesc in that goal.

    5. Thanks for that, just noticed it now, straight after the goal Thiago points to Cesc becuase he knew Cesc pulled back those two central defenders for Thiago to move closer to the edge of the box. Just goes to show that I was worried about how Thiago would react to Cesc being in the team and grabbing all the attention, but slowly the two are complementing each other on the field.

  8. Coffee in hand, I turn on my laptop this morning, get onto BFB, and find a lesson in THERMODYNAMICS! Huh?

    I look at the size of my coffee cup and realize that I had better brew some more.

    Yeah, and last year we had discussions about angular momentum after Pepe’s tackle on Dani so why not thermodynamics.

    Now could Doctor Euler please explain to me what keeps the particle in the one dimensional box? (I could handle thermodynamics but quantum mechanics was the bane of my existence)

    Brewing more coffee now.

    Love this blog, love this team, love Euler!

  9. Phew! lucky I studied fluid dynamics last semester. funnily enough water is considered incompressible, just think about that.

  10. Just checking in from Laos to say that my Barça shirt gets tons of chants everywhere. Even on the Mekong River in between Laos and Thailand. So wonderful.

    1. Hope you are having a great time! If you didn’t catch yesterday’s game, you are in for a treat when you get home!

    1. Awesome pic! I love our goal celebrations. So much different than the push your teammates away and take the glory all for yourself celebrations that you see elsewhere.

  11. Wow, that’s a great and long review Euler. This is only the first match of la liga, I hope you don’t feel burnt out after a month or two!

    Also, is Kxevin going to write any review this season? While I don’t always agree with him, I miss his passionate opinons and well thought out ratings which can provoke good debates. Seeing (some) people calling Kxevin biased all the time is kind of funny too 🙂

    1. I keep on getting false alarms whenever I see the word review when I enter BFB. I keep on thinking it’s Kxevin’s review or at least his post. I miss his jokes.
      And calling him biased 😆

  12. Wow, what an introduction, Euler.

    For me, as a student of physics, this was probably the best introduction ever. I’ve seen water at its triple point during my lectures, it seems so unreal – almost from another world. Comparing Barca’s new tactics to this phenomenom is priceless.
    Hats off!

    The analytical part is awesome, as always.
    To describe the dynanism of all the different structures that the Barcelona players assumed during this match, you need to be a master in fractal geometry. It might seem chaotic at firt glance, but if you look closer at it, it looks wonderful.

    “The diamond formed, broke up, broke into triangles and then reformed somewhere else on the pitch.”
    Playing like Barca is like watching through a kaleidoscope 🙂

  13. Speaking as a realist, the main reason we win games is because we have an amazing team of talented players with a smart coach, period. Yes, it’s fun to analyze the different formations and how they helped to win the game, but at the end of the day Barca is just a superior team – far and above any other team in La Liga – and so we’re just going to win most games. Because each Barca player is a team onto himself, we’re going to win when we’re down to 1 real defender or midfielder or forward, when we have less training time, when we have longer travel times, when it’s raining, snowing and when it’s sunny. Of course, the ball is round for all teams, so we will occasionally lose. If we’re honest, the cards are stacked. It’s a once in a lifetime moment to see a team gel like Barca is doing at this very moment in time and because of that, it’s hardly a competition anymore.

    1. The decisive part of your first sentence is with a smart coach, albeit I would say a smart coach is not enough, the coach has to be on the same level of genius as his best players are. Rijkaard was also a smart coach, but believe me, we would be nowhere near where we are now, if the exact same amount of players had been coached by Rijkaard over the last 3 seasons.

      So analyzing the system is not only fun, it underlines what distinguishes this unique team from any (or almost any, I didn’t watch Cruyff’s Netherlands, for instance) other team in the world. And that’s not the pure talent of the players.

    2. I would disagree and agree w/justsayin at the same time. I agree because you need very talented and a very smart coach to implement brilliant tactics. I disagree because it is not enough to say that Barca has players so talented that they can play whichever way whenever and still win most games. Football is full of talented players. I don’t think that Barca has the most talented 11 players in the world individually. Fortunate to have the best forward in Messi and arguably the best mid in Xavi but other teams like EE and MU are not far behind. Perhaps the best technique, but EE players and a lot of EPL players are more athletic. In a way, Barca’s technique, Pep’s coaching and his tactics compensate for the athletic weaknesses of FCB players.

  14. The way we played last night was totally immense, I still can’t stop thinking about it. The movement, the passes, the running, the pressing, the track back, the ideas, the thru balls…the coach, the players, the team.

    I cannot stop thinking about it. It’s too good, and it is also true. It did happen last night, at Camp Nou. Football displayed in a form of celebration that takes you off your seat and your breath away. This game is so epic that it has etched it’s motto in the stone of history that reads “Total Football of Barcelona, 2011”. Amazing.

    We were flatout unplayable last night. Total domination of the game. Villareal could not do a single thing without the ball, and when they had it, they couldn’t do a lot of things either. We crushed them with out system, form, shapes and state.

    – We evaporated into steam when we attacked, uncatchable.
    – We turned into ice when we defended, solid and cold in our tackles.
    – We melted back down to water when we did what we do best, ball circulations.

    Imagine Garrido was preparing this game position by position. Meaning, Zapata would face Abidal and Pedro. But they went here and there. Sometimes Iniesta, sometimes Alexis, sometimes Messi or Cesc. You can’t adapt to so many things, huh? We changed our forms so rapidly that they couldn’t even imagine.

    Other than some of the goals and Victor Valdes’ golden moments. My best moment was when we were caught on our backfoot. Mascherano made a great sliding tackle to work the ball loose. Only to see a Submarine player to cross the ball to the weak side of the pitch, Thiago tracked back, jumped high enough to head the cross away, chased the ball, slid tackle to slow down Villareal’s attack again.

    It’s only a sample of last night’s great display. A center midfielder that does so much to keep the shape of the team even. Balancing out defense and offense. Each player did what is left off to do, completing tasks which wasn’t done, keeping the totality of things. They all knew full well what was asked of them to do, and they all did it with a purpose.

    We should really celebrate for this team.

    1. My best moment was when we were caught on our backfoot. Mascherano made a great sliding tackle to work the ball loose. Only to see a Submarine player to cross the ball to the weak side of the pitch, Thiago tracked back, jumped high enough to head the cross away, chased the ball, slid tackle to slow down Villareal’s attack again.

      If I’m not mistaken, I think Thiago initially gave the ball away during that sequence. It was good to see him run all out to get it back.

    2. That scene from Thiago, whether he gave the ball away in first instance or not, combined with all the brilliant passes and dribblings that have already been praised in various medias, makes Thiago my MotM!
      Although almost everyone was damn good yesterday.

      And I feared Cesc might hinder Thiago’s development and reduce his playing time *shame on me*

    3. The fact that Thiago gave it away made it the most beautiful for me. I was STILL chiding him to the TV screen when my father said “Isn’t that Thiago tracking back?” and I thought “wait, but he was all the way up th-” and his attempt to atone for his mistake turned me admonitions into wild cheers.

  15. Wow Euler. You are an unbelievable writer. Each article you write is a piece of wonder. You are a philosopher(equating states of matter to play), a scientist(states of matter), a historian(past historical references), a sports fanatic and a genius.

    I bow down to the greatness of thy. You put everything into context. I was wondering how such a dynamic team like Villarreal, who played champions league, collapsed under Barca. I had no clue what happened yesterday, or how it happened. It all comes to focus now after reading your article.

    I don’t want to take anything away from the genius of Pep. One thing I want to mention though, which is the injury to one of their players, I think it was Borja Valero, towards the end of the first half, which caused the loss of one of the midfield players on the field. This was the time when Barca scored the second goal, which effectively finished the match. I think Villarreal were a little unlucky in that aspect a little. He was injured and off the field, compared to injuries that usually get treated on the pitch. He was subsequently substituted on the 50th minute, but, the match was over at that point.

    I saw a significant loss of energy in their play after that goal was scored. The Villarreal players seemed to have given up after that goal.

  16. Fantastic read as always. Respect. You will be the premier English language chronicler of the contemporary Barcelona era, someday.

  17. Amazing review, eagerly waiting for part 2. This kid Sanchez is impressing me every time he plays. Not only he has attacking ability but also look at his defensive qualities! Dude can tackle and press. With Cesc another tackler in our disposal, we are not only great attacking wise but also solid defensively. And sMasch is getting close to playing like Puyol, performing those last ditch goal-saving tackles. He also went forward couple of time like Puyol does when he plays like a right/left-back.

  18. Euler, that was a wonderful review — not only a tactical mastery, but a nice flowing mode of expression.

    But please. Do me a favor. Memorize this:

    When “its” is used as a possessive (as in, “the structure lost its shape”), there is NO comma.

    When “it’s” is used as a contraction (short for “it is” — as in, “it’s annoying to see a word misspelled over and over again”), it HAS a comma.

    Thank you very much for your attention to my request. — Word

    1. I’m sure he does know the difference. Please keep in mind he writes these — honestly — in the dead of the night after watching the game multiple times. He doesn’t have the time to go over every detail and edit the post.

      And as a general comment, for some people there are certain words they spell wrong over and over because they think it’s the right spelling. For example, one of my high school English teachers always spelled the world ‘their’ as ‘thier’. Every single time.

  19. BarcaGirl_Indo: I think that line up surprised Villareal. it ruined their game plan. they didn’t know who, when, and where to mark or press.

    Euler: The system was so highly fluid and dynamic that the question of formation became almost completely secondary.

    This pretty much sums it up. When the official Barça lineup was announced, my Twitter timeline dissolved into a hilarious mass of confusion and panic. No one knew what Pep was doing, or what his plan was. But the plan was “there is no plan”, not in a formal sense anyway. The plan was to keep the ball circulating as quickly as possible with almost the entire team pressing at once. Don’t lose the ball and don’t give the opponent a second to breathe when they have it. Everyone moving all the time. This is essentially the same plan Pep always has, except with the intensity ratcheted up like never before.

    This explains why Fontas, our only other pure defender, was not given a start. He is excellent in his way, but his on-the-ball skills are just a notch slower than the players Pep did start. Same with Villa. Amazing striker, but not quite at the one-touch level as the rest of the team. They would have slowed the ball circulation down and given Villarreal opportunities to take advantage. I actually wish Pep had left Villa on the bench for the whole match. Not that he was bad when he came on, but he was unnecessary. The game was more than won. He should have given those minutes to Sergi Roberto or Bartra.

    I also love the way Pep has effectively silenced all the doubters (including many in this space 😛 ) who thought Cesc would stunt Thiago’s development. Looks like they can both play after all. And Sanchez! I am amazed at how he has immediately gelled with this team. Fabregas we already knew would fit in, with his La Masia and NT credentials, but Sanchez looks like he has been playing with this team for months, if not years. When he took off for the goal with the ball at his feet, he took a split second to check if there was a player in a better position, even though he must have already known he had a good chance to score. That told me everything I need to know about him right there. No wonder Pep wanted him so badly.

    1. It’s possible that there was never an intention to bring on Villa, but once Pedro received a knock and couldn’t continue, he did appear. At this stage, the experienced player was given precedence over the “novice” first team players. Villa actually didn’t receive much ball, as they mostly played on the right after he was subbed on. He did find time to go offside though! 🙂

      That goal from Sanchez started with his movements way before he received Thiago’s assist. He ran in from the sideline behind the Villarreal defensive line, circled back in to be onside, ran back to receive the ball, drew in the defenders, passed backwards and then turned to run forwards to receive the assist. He created the gap in the defence to run into. I think that this is what Pep sees in him. Sensational stuff.

  20. not only this team has players and coach from out of has its fans also from out of world.
    once again great review euler looking ahead for the second part

  21. ahhhhh so that’s why there are so many awesome Brazilian fullbacks!

    this game was a masterwork. you’re entirely correct in noting the victory on a systemic level rather than, although not in exclusion of, an individual level. Villareal had no mechanism, defensively or otherwise, for coping with what Barca brought to the match. The question of whether Villareal, as players, played well or poorly is irrelevant – they weren’t really invited to play.

    Did anyone else notice some negative reactions to Thiago’s goal? Messi and Guardiola in particular looked somewhat less than pleased. Guardiola, rather than happy (as he would be later when Messi scored his first goal), seemed to applaud only dutifully and through gritted teeth. But who can claim to understand Pep?

    I missed this over the summer – the feeling that Barca is pulling out all the stops. You get the impression FCB doesn’t *really* care about the SuperCups as much as it cares about any single Liga match. I’m looking forward to at least 37 more games of a passionate Barcelona.

    1. Did anyone else notice some negative reactions to Thiago’s goal? Messi and Guardiola in particular looked somewhat less than pleased. Guardiola, rather than happy (as he would be later when Messi scored his first goal), seemed to applaud only dutifully and through gritted teeth. But who can claim to understand Pep?

      Pretty sure you aren’t reading the situation right. I’m sure Messi and Pep were happy. There was nothing to be unhappy about. Cesc and Messi dragged defenders away from Thiago, whose first intention was to pass. Because of that, he had the space to fire off a great shot. 1-0, everyone is happy.

    2. Guardiola’s first-goal celebrations do tend to be more subdued – perhaps in recognition that there is a lot more of the match to be played and anything can happen. The most excited that I see him get about 1st goals is against RM and in CL games.

      With Fab’s goal, he was more open, because it was Cesc’s first La Liga goal.

      With Sanchez’ goal, I think that he was more annoyed that Alexis took off his shirt. I’m sure that the player got reprimanded for that, later!

      With Messi’s first goal of the night, he was delighted, mostly because it was Messi’s 100th goal at the Camp Nou. He wanted it, and Messi really wanted it – you can see the effort that he made to get that ball into the net once he rounded Diego – and shot with his “weaker” right foot! 🙂

      I did notice Messi’s “non-reaction” to Thiago’s goal. I think that he expected Thiago to pass to him, as he was open. (But offside too, I think, as Thiago ran out of options with 5 defenders enveloping him.) However, he soon shrugged it off and was the 3rd player (behind the closer Cesc and Pedro) to join the celebratory huddle.

    3. He looked offside to me, too.

      And if anyone has any theories about a “lack of feeling” between Messi and Thiago, they only need to look at the two of them celebrating Messi’s second goal (Thiago assist). Lots of love happening there. 😀

    4. I noticed Messi not celebrating and I watched it several times carefully and in context I’ve come to privately (willfully choose to, though I honestly believe it’s the most likely) believe that he wasn’t upset with Thiago for making an error in not assisting, he was too dumbstruck with what just happened. He was still ‘What? Really? OUR little Thiago scored like that from there here now what huh?’ while dumbly wandering over to give him his hug. There didn’t seem to be any scowling or bitterness in Messi’s reaction, just confusion.

    5. Just rewatched. Messi was the fourth person to come over to congratulate Thiago and join the pile of celebrants. And he did it with a big smile and a big hug. Not to worry, y’all.

    6. At 1-0, the game is not settled, thus his celebration is subdue. When it’s 2-0, he can celebrate more. So, when you see Pep sit down at 4-0, you know why. There were games which Pep merely clap his hands when the fifth goal came.

      Pep is all about winning games.

  22. Guys. I have huge news. I know some of you thought it would improbable, nay, impossible, but it’s true.

    Saul has fudged off to Alcorcon on loan until the end of the season.

    Ce-le-brate, good times, c’mon!

    Also, Eid Mubarak for anyone who is celebrating! Barça has given you Saul to Alcorcon as a present!

  23. One of my favorite parts about Pep’s tactics yesterday was how it was impossible for Villareal to predict who was going to make a run into the box. Usually, it’s just one of our front three, with Iniesta darting forward every now and then. But yesterday, everyone was taking turns making runs into the box: at one point it was Messi, at another Thiago, Fabregas, Iniesta, Sanchez, Pedro. Villareal’s defenders had no way of predicting who was coming at them.

  24. Does anyone have the full remarks Villarreal president Fernando Roig made after the match? I read the “killing Spanish football” comment, but the way it was presented it almost sounded like he was blaming Barça for being too good (rather than a badly organized league).


      This is the link. I think he was talking about the unfair tv money and how his club has to sell its best players to balance the book while others can keep on spending and file for administration protection without any real punishment. As a result of that the big two are dominating the league and it’s gradually killing spanish football. Not sure if that’s an accurate translation b/c I used google translate.

  25. I have been loitering around this site for over an year now… thought I’d acknowledge the amazing reviews of Euler!
    These reviews have made me feel closer to Barca and love their way of playing. Thanks for writing such amazing stuff.

    Privileged to be watching them through this era in the sport. Waiting for the part 2


  26. Good post, Euler. Lots to say about barca’s match, and will do soon. But I’ll spare some time to talk about villarreal who were disappointing last night. not only because Barcelona were brilliant (they were) but also because they helped it.

    Even before the kickoff, there was a demonstration about the Liga’s mismanagement. One of the best teams in the league and a Champions’ league horse is still without a sponsor, not because they don’t want but because they didn’t get any realistic offer.

    And even before the beginning of the match, Villarreal received a very confusing news, Barcelona’s selection. They had absolutely no idea who will play where and how. In that, they were not prepared tactically and mentally to take what Barcelona will throw on them. The key was to customize the tactics based on what Barcelona provides. Or so we thought.

    Barcelona played what was –on paper- a 3-4-3. But the triangle of Messi-Cesc-Iniesta and the floating functionality of Thiago made it inaccurate to call the selection 3-4-3. The false nine was both Messi and Cesc each at a time. In the other hand, Sanhez and Pedro were the players responsible of creating width on the flanks.
    Barcelona’s tactics in offense were very systematic.. Ball circulation thru the flanks to stretch Villarreal’s defense moving the fullbacks far from the center, while the lethal offense operated centrally. The triangle Iniesta-Messi-Cesc were responsible of tempting center backs to step forward to check the floating false nine (Mainly Messi) creating a space behind the defense line, then one of the other two players in this offense trio make the run inside (Mainly Cesc) receiving a pass from Thiago or Iniesta. Names changed and interchanged positions but the roles were standard.

    Villarreal didn’t react properly to that and instead handed their throat to Barcelona. First thing they should have done was to defend deeper and narrower. When Barcelona approach Villarreals’ defense third, it was unacceptable not to have any presence in the box for the submarine defenders. In all the conceded goals, Villarreal defenders were caught tracking the attack rather than defending it.

    In the other hand, Villarreal lacked the aggression needed on this level. I’m not talking about Mourinho-istic thug-ness. Still, if you watch Thiago’s goal for example, none of the five players surrounding him was there to make a tackle or interception. They got caught in the possession mill and ended up sleepwalking.

    Offense wise, They should have moved Rossi to play as an attacking midfielder leaving one striker upfront. His presence there assisting the two midfielders will help his team generating attacks through the flanks where 3-4-3 struggles most.

    Alright it is long already. will save some for later.

  27. There is much speculation that these tactics were used specifically because of the players available and the opponent. Many others believe this to be a natural evolution of Pep’s vision and that we will see a similar approach in future games. With a full squad available and against opponents unlikely to be able to play on equal footing regardless of formation, Pep may choose to play a conventional 4-3-3 simply because the less often he shows this kind of attack to future opponents, the more it will seem that these were makeshift tactics born of specific situational needs. In addition, the less often Barcelona play this way, the less footage future opponents will have to devise tactics to neutralize this style. Thus they will be unprepared on two fronts.

    It would not surprise me to see Guardiola have the confidence in both his vision and his players to go out and play in variations of this theme the entire season, basically saying, ‘I don’t care if you know it’s coming, you still can’t stop it’, but neither would it surprise me if he only unleashed this kind of attack when he really needed it.

  28. I’m proud to say I read the whole post. (Thanks for making it 2 parts!) I see my post-match Kxevin ratings icecream addiction being replaced by a tactical analysis sandwich.

    Water analogy is perfect.(and all this time I thought Barca was so like iodine…able to (be)sublime at any moment.)

  29. What’d we learn from this game?

    Cesc is a vanity purchase and just here to warm the bench.
    Cesc on the bench is pushing Thiago down the pecking order, he should be loaned out.
    Last year’s first versus last year’s fourth ends in 8-2 its considered a great game. Unless it’s in Spain, and it ends 5-0 then it becomes a two-team league. Completely lopsided. Unfair.
    Pep only wins because he’s handed this great team. His history in the transfer market is bad. ZLATAN!!!!1

    I get tired of reading about the unfair TV money. I mean unfair is the wrong word. don’t madrid and barcelona DESERVE the lion’s share? I mean they are the two teams in Spain.

    It should be distributed more equally, but the word unfair is improper. It’d be unfair to the big two if they got less, and do they not do any research, those brits? Isn’t there a deal in place for 2014?

    I think what Brosep meant to say was Mazinho was clearly mad when Thiago scored because he used his left foot. He let Pep and Messi know this and they shared his distaste.

    1. Was a little disappointed this wasn’t the video from his Ajax days where he talks about himself in third person. :\

    2. Also, Valdes is a crap goalkeeper who can only make saves because Spanish cheats are too busy diving for a penalty to take a real shot. Let him try making saves on a wet night at the Britannia! Utterly classless!

    3. Just because he got lucky only once doesn’t mean he’s suddenly the best goalkeeper in the world! Look at him, he doesn’t even bother yelling at his defense like a real hard English shotstopper keeper would do because he knows it was his fault the striker even got the shot off because he wasn’t commanding his area properly!

  30. So Hleb is off to the Bundesliga for the third time, is he? Excellent news. We get a little money and a very large burden off our shoulders. One of the worst transfer failures in recent Barça history (let’s not mention Ibra, OK?). Why did it all go so wrong? 😥 😈

  31. I’ve been reading this blog for a long while, but today I finally decided to register so I could thank you, Euler, for the wonderful reading time. After each match I keep checking the blog so I can read the amazing, enlightening things you have to say. Gràcies!

  32. While Guardiola emphasized the dynamic play of the team as instrumental, and this was likely the predominate factor in Barcelona’s dominance, Guardiola also implemented some fantastic structure changes for the match. A 3 man defense has always been particularly effective in stifling 2 man striker teams. On the opposite note a 3 man defense typically struggles against a single striker system with two dedicated wide players – not only does the defense have 2 extra men at the back instead of 1, but it is also constantly in danger of being over stretched and leaving holes in the middle. For this reason it’s unlikely this will become Guardiola’s full time formation, there are just too many teams that use the 4-2-3-1 that a 3 man defense would struggle against.

    Ramzi mentioned the other really interesting structural change Guardiola made which was playing Pedro and Sanchez very wide and expecting them to maintain width almost all the time. This is a departure from 3-4-3’s or 3-1-3-3’s (or whatever you want to call this formation) that have been used in the past. In the past the outside attackers have been more forward type players, players who can create and score chances. Pedro and Sanchez both fit in this category, but they played much wider than their historical equivalents. This took maximum advantage of Villareal’s lack of width by pinning back their full backs. It also stretched Villareal to the max when we had the ball and created space for our numerous attacking midfielders to exploit in the middle.

    It’s interesting to note that this is a move Guardiola wouldn’t have felt comfortable making in years past, and it’s the addition of Sanchez that makes it possible. Last season Pedro was the only forward on the team that is truly suited to maintaining width from the front (except Jeffren, who didn’t really count). Messi likes to play centrally these days, Villa and Bojan are players who are best starting wide and making central runs – and this isn’t conducive to maintaining width from the front. Guardiola remarked this summer that they chose Sanchez instead of Rossi because Sanchez was a true winger, and now we can see why Guardiola wanted another winger in the squad.

    On a different note, playing Thiago directly opposed to Cani was an act of genius. As Cani spends more time moving wide than his counterpart this was the area in the midfield that was going to have the most open space. Thiago’s ability on the dribble and his ability to pick a killer pass when given time on the ball made him the perfect choice. It paid off well too – Thiago scored after a fantastic dribble through an open corridor of space, and then played a phenomenal assist to Sanchez from an open position. He even put in a very workmanlike defensive performance – it’s hard to imagine a year or two ago people were saying that Thiago didn’t work hard enough in defense.

    1. “it’s hard to imagine a year or two ago people were saying that Thiago didn’t work hard enough in defense.”
      This is easy for me to imagine.
      Thiago: I don’t work hard enough in defense, eh!? I’LL SHOW YOU!! I’LL SHOW YOU ALL!!!

    2. it’s hard to imagine a year or two ago people were saying that Thiago didn’t work hard enough in defense.

      This is actually quite an interesting point. I don’t know if you have ever read Thiago’s player profile on the official site, but in last year’s description as a B team player there was a note that he was “not asked to defend” or some similar phrase. I remember it specifically because it struck me as very odd at the time and not in keeping with the Barça philosophy that everyone defends and everyone attacks. If anyone knows anything about this, I would love to hear it.

      If you look at his current profile, there is nothing of the sort, and I don’t believe for one second that Guardiola would have a player in his team that didn’t work as hard at defending as the rest of the team. We certainly saw the evidence of Thiago’s defensive contributions on Monday.

    3. My understanding was basically, with the B team, he was never played as a DM, always playing the most advanced of the three midfielders.
      Technically, he is on par with a forward but tactically he is on par with midfielders. My guess, with any other team he would be a trequartista behind 1 or 2 strikers.
      Last night he definitely played the Xavi role, making 108 successful passes out of 120 attempts according to the official site. He is also the bravest midfielder we have which could be construed as indiscipline but maybe it’s just the Brazilian coming out.

    4. It doesn’t matter where he was played, it is that they went to the trouble of adding to his profile that he wasn’t asked to defend. That is very unusual, bizarre even. No one put in Nolito or Soriano’s profile that they didn’t have to defend…because they did. Everyone did. That’s how Barça plays football.

      Smells of Mazinho to me.

  33. Put the best player in the world in the middle. Surround him with the best playmaker in the EPL for the last 8 years, the Copa Italia player of the year, the hottest European U21 player, the Balon d’ Or runner up, the most recent Captain of Argentina, the European player of the year runner up, then sprinkle in a defender with arguably the best individual ball control, a Keita, and a Pedro, then demand they press like hell and have fun. ” If you don’t have the players no amount of tactics are going to work, and if you have the players, any tactic will work”

  34. Has anyone seen the players’ average positions for this match? Or has someone a link to one?

  35. Excellent analysis, which should come naturally for a guy named Euler.

    re:Hleb. How do we sell a guy AND keep paying his wages? #epicallyHlebbed

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