Part 1 of the match review provided an overview of play, examined the strengths and weaknesses of the Villarreal system and evaluated Barcelona’s formation. Barcelona’s system could be described in a variety of ways: 3-1-3-3, 3-4-3 with a midfield diamond, 3-2-2-3, or a 3-3-1-3. Ultimately the way they play had characteristics of all of these formations and the system was so dynamic that the team moved fluidly and mixed all of those structures.
The Villarreal match builds on the general trajectory Guardiola has implemented since taking over as manager – to intensify the dynamics of the Barcelona system so that more open and flexible formational structures can be implemented while still maintaining the levels of organization needed to obtain a result.
In the second part of the review we’ll look at the highly fluid, hybrid three man defense.
The Back Line: Pressuring Villarreal’s Two Striker Formation While Keeping an Extra Man at the Back as a Sweeper
Barça’s reconfigured its system in response to the loss of five of its top six defenders. The defensive back line was the driving force for enacting change now. How to compensate at the back for the absent defenders while also developing a solution for countering Villarreal’s dangerous two man striker formation?
Since Fabregas joined, there’s been a great deal of speculation about Barça playing three at the back to accommodate an extra midfielder. However, the way Barcelona implemented their three man back line was highly unconventional.
The still shot above demonstrates how Barcelona structured its back line. Mascherano and Abidal are positioned higher up the pitch than Busquets who is playing as a sweeper behind. Both Mascherano and Abidal are stationed very wide.
Three man defenses traditionally utilizes three center backs who often play relatively narrow. The general idea is that if you only have three defenders in the back up against skilled strikers you want to make sure that they are defensively solid and working in conjunction with each other to form a coordinated wall. For example, in this system the three backs move in unison from flank to flank depending on where the ball is located on the pitch.
This traditional approach was not how Barcelona’s three man back line was arranged as can be seen in the still shot above. And the innovations introduced to the three man defense were both to highlight Barcelona’s strengths and counteract Villarreal’s.
It’s generally true that playing three at the back against two strikers is advantageous because it allows you to mark each striker while having an extra player at the back. However, Villarreal does not play a traditional two man striker formation. Rossi and Nilmar do not position themselves centrally nor do they try to link up with each other immediately to initiate an attack. They do not depend on physical dominance in the middle. Instead, Rossi and Nilmar base their game on movement, pace and technique. They split very wide in advance positions and often play down the flank almost as wingers. Their purpose is to drag back lines out of shape by playing wide and forcing defenders to come out into space to close them down 1 vs. 1. Out wide they can use their technique to beat more physically imposing central defenders.
So even though a three man back line should work well against a two man striker formation, against a highly unconventional striker duo like Nilmar and Rossi, a traditional three man back line could potentially be a poor match up. Nilmar and Rossi could drag the center backs from the three man line out wide and beat them in dangerous advance positions. For example, a three man back line of Pique, Fontas and Puyol sweeping might have difficulty with Rossi and Nilmar as Pique and Fontas would be forced to defend much quicker players out wide in space.
Barcelona’s three man back line in this match was oriented to function in a very different way than three man back lines often are. Barça played three at the back but the emphasis was on mobility and the capacity to press dynamically rather than emphasizing the defensive solidity of three defenders linking together to maintain shape.
For example, in many ways it would have made more sense to have Mascherano as the sweeper due to his tackling ability and capacity to make strong last second interventions. Those are qualities generally highly prized in a sweeper. And on the whole, in three man back lines the strongest deep defender often plays in the middle to provide cover. But Guardiola placed Busquets in the sweeper role, prioritizing dynamism in defense towards the flanks.
This system was structured to aggressively pressure the Villarreal attack by having Mascherano mark Rossi and Abidal mark Nilmar. Guardiola wanted both of his players who had more pace and experience defending 1 vs. 1 to track the Villarreal duo when the Yellow Submarine were in possession. The goal was to close them down very quickly before they could turn or receive the ball to foot. Here’s an example:
In the still shot above Nilmar has received the ball to feet and is preparing to turn. Notice how high up the pitch Abidal is pressing. He’s defending in the space that midfielders usually do. Keita is in front of Abidal so there isn’t even a holding midfielder behind. This is a very unusual way for a Barça player to press. Rather than being able to rely on multiple players closing down in unison, Abidal is alone in space and has to press 1 vs. 1 rather than in a “pack” with his teammates.
That said, in the shot above before Nilmar can even turn Abidal has closed space and then successfully dispossess him of the ball to restart the attack for Barça very high up the pitch.
Why can Abidal press so aggressively? First and foremost, it’s a testament to how effective a defender he is. Very few managers would even consider having their left center-half press this high 1 vs. 1 in a three man back line. But Guardiola trusted that both Mascherano and Abidal could absorb the responsibility. But also notice the distribution of players in the still shot. Including Nilmar there are nine Villarreal outfield players defending eight Barcelona players. Deeper, Barcelona have Mascherano and Busquets up against only one player – Rossi. Even if Abidal gets beat without a holding player behind him Barça would still have a 2 vs. 2 situation. This is evident in the still shot below. The goal keeper has played the ball long out from the back. This image gives a sense for how the Barcelona back line was spaced for much of the match.
Above the Barcelona back three is really a back two with Abidal playing much higher up the pitch almost as a holding midfielder. Notice how Mascherano and Busquets are 2 vs. 1 against Rossi with Abidal not playing remotely close to their line. This is not the traditional way that a three man defense is structured.
The reason why Abidal is so much higher up the pitch than Mascherano and Busquets is that his role was to mark Nilmar. During the match Nilmar was often dropping extremely deep to look for space, support midfield and try to collect the ball. Dropping Nilmar deep appeared to be a tactical adjustment made by Garrido in response to Barcelona playing three at the back.
In theory, if one of the two strikers drops deep enough, Barcelona would have three central defenders marking only Rossi. In turn, this would give Villarreal an extra man in midfield who would go unmarked and free in space. Garrido was trying to use Nilmar’s mobility and skills on the ball to use the three man defense against Barcelona by exploiting the trade offs required to play that shape.
And against a traditional three man back line this should have worked. Nilmar should have represented an extra man free from a marker. This should have created a significant advantage for Villarreal in midfield. For example consider the still shot below:
Nilmar has dropped deep looking to relieve pressure on the ball by supporting the right back Zapata (Nilmar is being marked by Iniesta). By dropping deep, Nilmar gives Villarreal nine outfield players in their own half. Barcelona has eight defenders because Abidal has tracked Nilmar. This should allow Villarreal to control the ball. But they can’t retain possession.
Now imagine if Abidal had stayed deeper forming a three man line alongside Busquets and Mascherano. Nilmar would be able to find space towards the flank forcing Iniesta to either follow him or remain in the middle. If Nilmar could force Iniesta wide then space would open up for Villarreal to maintain possession. If Iniesta doesn’t follow then Nilmar is completely open. The problem however is that Abidal hasn’t stayed in the defensive line. He’s not “maintaining shape.” He’s dynamically following Nilmar. If Nilmar moves wide Iniesta will remain in the middle to pressure the ball as Abidal will track Nilmar’s movement.
Barcelona played a three man defensive system, but they did not play a “back line” per se. The system emphasized dynamics from both Abidal and Mascherano. Villarreal implemented tactical adjustments that should have worked against Barcelona’s theoretical shape. But those tactics didn’t succeed because Abidal and Mascherano are far from typical center backs in a three man line. They are much more dynamic and mobile. This mobility allowed them to defend in ways that prevented Barcelona from being stuck with a 3 vs. 1 against Rossi which would have given Villarreal an advantage in midfield with an extra man. The mobility allowed them to pressure high up the pitch while also tracking runs into the Barcelona defensive half.
Guardiola’s three man defensive system was too dynamic and fluid for the Villarreal to respond to in typical ways that should work. Rather than giving Villarreal an extra man all Nilmar playing deep did was to deprive them of one of their chief scoring threats putting himself into dangerous positions to score.
Abidal and Mascherano had dominant games. Their pace, mobility, and capacity to defend 1 vs. 1 in space neutralized one of the best two man attacks in Europe. The importance of this is difficult to overemphasize. The Villarreal attack is highly dependent on creative flair from Nilmar and Rossi, especially now that Cazorla has left. If those two players can be quickly closed down or prevented from getting forward the Villarreal is going to struggle to attack.
In possession Masherano and Abidal provided significant width to space the pitch often stationing themselves close to the touch line. Again, this is a very unusual way to structure a three man defense. It requires both lateral center backs to be very comfortable on the ball. If they turn it over the defense would be in poor position to defend as there is so much space between the back three.
In the center, Busquets again demonstrated why he is one of the world’s most flexible players. Playing as a sweeper in a three man defense is different than playing as a holding player who drops back to the defensive line when the full backs attack. But Busquets deftly handled the new challenges.
For example, playing a sweeper with the kind of high back line Barcelona plays is very odd in many ways. The base Barcelona high back line is very dependent on running the off side trap to perfection. Without coordinated action of the back line that offside trap won’t work. And with one central defender behind the two others it isn’t possible to execute the off side trap in the same way Barcelona usually executes it. That is a major part of how the team defends radically changed. Guardiola was depending on Busquets to read the game and adjust to those kinds of challenges from his deep position. Given the dynamism and movement of Mascherano and Abidal this was not straightforward.
Guardiola implemented a three man back line but interpreted it and implemented it in his own way. Rather than the three defenders acting as a cohesive line to maintain coordinated shape, Guardiola’s back three was flexible and dynamic. This dynamism not only neutralized how Villarreal try to play, it also thwarted tactical adjustments Villarreal attempted.