They have a variety of tactics that allows them to play with three defenders and that gives them an extra player in the centre of the field. Thus, it is physically impossible to beat them for possession… I’m angry with how the result looks, but we are facing one of the best teams in history.
– Gregorio Manzano, post-match
Nearly every team facing Barcelona has to rethink how they will play the game. Simply put – you will not have the ball. Even teams oriented around defense have to adjust to the extreme degree to which they will be orphaned from the ball. One of the first decision that needs to be made is whether or not you will try to go get the ball and pressure, sit deep and defend or mix approaches.
Regardless of which specific approach is chosen, it is critical for the opposition to control space. If you do not have the ball and you do not control space you will likely be played off the pitch.In general one of the fundamental methods of controlling space is to maintain shape and stay highly organized. Doing so provides structure, it allows you to grow your own skeleton over the pitch. We often equate maintaining shape with defending deep – but shape is a central principle to defending regardless of positioning on the pitch.
One of the more interesting aspect to Barcelona’s 5-0 victory over Atleti was how the match clarified the intense pressure the blaugrana places teams under by retaining the ball.
In terms of the results of course the match was a disaster for them. But in terms of process there were certain real positives and in some ways, Atleti played a very strong match. Atleti were disciplined and maintained shape well. Without the ball they were highly organized for much of the match. In other words, they did things that are required to beat Barcelona, things they haven’t done well over their recent history.
In the past Atleti has been a perennial underachieving club, their results never fully matching up to the perceived talents and abilities. Central to those shortfalls has been their inability to stay organized in defense. They’ve often focused more on their attack, almost trying to match the style of play of Real Madrid, and haven’t focused enough on the kinds of things they did well yesterday against Barça – retain disciplined shape and stay organized.
Were I an Atleti supporter I would hope that yesterday’s match would be continued a sign of things to come for a team in transition, that it was the sign of a team whose manager has spotted a fatal flaw in how they have played in the past and is attempting to fix it. That they match was part of the growing pains of change. Whether or not that proves to be case can’t be decided yet. It depends on how Manzano is committed to changing their system and how the project evolves. It’s simply too early to tell.
That said – what must be equally disheartening in the short term is that despite the theoretical positives, Atleti was entirely played off the pitch from nearly the opening whistle. This was a team that executed it’s game plan, did some of the foundational things required to forge success against Barcelona in terms of tactics and were still dominated. But this is what Barcelona is able to do – it’s why they instill such a sense of disillusionment in the opposition. You will not have the ball. Given that you try to do what you can control but it’s still not nearly enough. You have to execute almost perfectly to win.
Atleti’s Shape: The Trade Offs Required to Counter Barelona
Atleti came into the match with heavy squad rotation introducing seven players who did not start the prior match. This included three of the four back line players. Despite that, Atleti continued playing in the general style they’ve adopted under Manzano – play aggressively and look to pressure up the pitch. Coming into the match Atleti had the fewest goals conceded of any team in La Liga and they looked to continue building on what made them successful.
Overall, Atleti did a good job of maintaining shape and they were particularly good about staying compact. The still shot below demonstrates this shape:
In the image above, Atleti’s is set up with a high degree of organization. They played in a disciplined 4-2-3-1/ 4-5-1 block (which also fell into a 4-4-2 in defense depending on Barça’s movement). Two important characteristics of their shape are shown in the image above. First, they are very compact. There is very little space between their lines. Second, they are very narrow – their “wide” midfielders playing in the line behind Falcao are severely pinched in.
Staying compact is critical to strong defending. Atleti did that very well – far better than they have in the recent past. Playing narrow and clotting up the middle has by now become a well defined way of trying to play Barça. Manzano not only adopted that approach but significantly intensified it by pulling so many players to narrow midfield. This was likely a tactical response to Barcelona now playing four midfielders. Even if you play a 4-2-3-1 type formation you will be at numerical disadvantage 3 vs. 4 in the middle against Barça’s four man midfield. Manzano looked to counter this by playing very narrow.
But the image above also distinctly shows the trade offs that Manzano had to make to overplay the middle.
First, there is a great deal of space behind Atleti’s back line. In order to stay compact while trying to win the ball up the pitch you must play a high back line. If you don’t you either have to give up being compact (which makes it impossible to disrupt the Barça passing game) or you have to sit and defend deep (which is not Atleti’s system).
Ultimately it was this space behind the high line that Barça would set out to attack relentlessly and do so with success (more on this later).
Second, by playing narrow Atleti was essentially giving up the flanks. As is evident in both still shots above – Barcelona had enormous space on both flanks in wide positions (in the first image above notice how much room Pedro has to drop into and how isolated Villa is on the other flank; in the second the same holds for Fabregas, Villa and Messi).
Throughout the match Barça used this free wide space to build play, launch attacks and find open outlets to retain possession. The other impact that staying narrow had on Atleti was to limit their own capacity to attack. By maintaining positional discipline in a narrow block, Atleti themselves had difficulty utilizing width – in the transition phases of the game they simply didn’t have players out wide to relieve pressure as outlets. Not only did this allow Barça’s press to be very effective to win back the ball in the middle, it also protected Barcelona’s back three. A back three formation can be vulnerable to attacks down the flank – Atleti often didn’t have players in wide positions.
The contrast between Atleti and Valencia over the past two matches was interesting in this regard. Manzano set his team up to do something very similar to what Unai Emery did when Valencia played Barça the match before.
Emery also looked to overplay the middle by narrowing his formation (as he has over and over against Barça). Here’s the difference however. Emery chose to play an asymmetric formation – he pinched in the right side of his defensive flank towards the middle while keeping both his full back and winger very wide on the left. This enabled him to exploit the Barcelona three man back line through attacks wide of Mascherano (the outer back on the right in that match) down the left flank. Atleti could never do this as they were so narrow on both sides. At the same time by pinching defenders in off the right, Emery was able to clot the middle. The problem with the match against Valencia was that Barcelona never fully utilized the enormous open flank they had on one side of the field. This was a mistake they would not repeat against Atleti.
Every System Has its Limitations
If Atleti played in this disciplined, organized fashion – why did things go so poorly for them? As often happens, when playing Barcelona the best plans can quickly dissolve. And on this night it was Barcelona’s movement and width that cracked open an Atleti system that proved to be organized to the point of being brittle.
Atleti almost placed too much focus on shape and structure. While they did a good job in those dimensions of defense they wound up neglecting others. While organization is necessary to defend well – it is not sufficient. Atleti simply couldn’t put enough pressure on the ball. In fact, often times it seemed as if they were so focused on playing their system and keeping its structure that they became static defensively and lacked dynamism. It was almost as if they had been so drilled and focused on covering their assigned zones that they couldn’t react to Barcelona’s dynamism. And once they fell behind additional energy drained from them (especially once the third goal scored). This was made only worse as the game wore on and Atleti, starved of possession, tired.
Around the Sides…
After playing a poor match both in terms of tactics and execution against Valencia, Barcelona rectified many of the mistakes they had made midweek. The still shot below demonstrates the successful adjustments Barcelona made in response to Atleti’s narrow, organized block of defenders pushing up high.
Atleti’s back line is well positioned. They are compact. They have two midfielders playing the space between the lines. They are very narrow to ensure that they will not be overrun in midfield (they have a 4 vs. 2 numerical advantage in the center circle). Tactically, their shape and structure is strong.
The problem is that Barcelona have vacated the entire advanced middle of the pitch making that system structure ornate but ineffective.
A key thing to notice here above is Messi’s positioning. Throughout this match he tended to drift right and pull wide to find space. This was clearly intentional and was a key aspect to the first goal he scored (third team goal).
But it’s not just Messi. Xavi is side on the right behind Messi and is outside of Atleti’s widest advanced defender. Thiago is positioned the same way on the left. Fabregas is even wider along that left flank completely open in space. Villa is well outside of his marker (RB) as is Pedro (off screen in shot).
Manzano created a system that is in theory ideally suited to defending a four man midfield “diamond.” I’d guess he drilled this into his players in practice over and over. But once the match started and Barça saw how Atleti was defending and their “diamond” just fluidly melted into new shapes and did so with such speed that it made Atleti’s organization irrelevant. This is well demonstrated in the image below:
Atleti are well organized to defend a narrow midfield diamond. But there is no diamond. In fact – there really four “midfielders.” Look at how wide on the right flank Xavi is. He is stationed almost where we are used to seeing Alves play. Thiago is again wide of his marker on the left.
The player who perhaps benefit most from all of this was Messi. By simply positioning himself out of the center of the pitch he repeatedly found open space as shown in the image below:
Messi has the ball at the bottom of the shot. How often do you ever see him open in that much space. At the same time notice how many Atleti defenders are in the middle of the pitch.
Messi’s first goal in this regard was indicative of much of the match. From a throw in off the right touch line he receives the ball back quickly from Alves and starts a controlled run probing the defense. Rather than jump out to close him down the Atleti defenders prioritize playing space.
In the shot above notice the reaction of the defenders to Messi’s run. They are playing him to go left and are prioritizing the defense of space in the middle of the pitch. In addition, they are hedging their bets against a Messi pass. Instead of continuing to play the ball to the middle however Messi instead just cuts the ball back wide.
Again – notice how the Atleti defenders almost seemed convinced that Messi is going to run centrally. They both form a wall to that part of the pitch. So extreme is the way they maintain shape that they are effectively defending the opposite touchline rather than staying goal side.
Defensive systems can be thought of as having two basic components. First, a system of covering space and second, a system for marking defenders. Essentially what Barcelona did was to decouple those two systems to the point where they were no longer coordinated. It allowed Atleti to maintain their organized system of coverage while decimating their system of marking. They ceded space in the middle to Atleti and utilized dynamism to win the match instead.
…. And Over the Top
One of the most striking parts of Barcelona’s early season form has been their propensity for playing balls over the top. This seeming new dimension to their play has been in part a response to how defenses are orienting themselves against the blaugrana. Two main issues are at hand. First, teams are looking to press Barça more. This requires them to play higher back lines. Second, given that Barcelona has expanded their dominance of midfield, the opposition back line is being forced to defend more in midfield, drawing them up the pitch (e.g. Now not only is Messi dropping deep from an advanced position – so is Fabregas).
The shot below shows the story for much of the opening part of the match when Barcelona repeatedly attacked the Atleti back line:
Atleti is again in a strong defensive shape. Compact, well organized, narrow, and clotting the middle of the field. These have all been signs of successful defending against Barça in the past. There’s no way for Xavi to slide the ball into Fabregas in the advance middle, for example.
However, Barcelona wasn’t trying to play the ball through the middle this match. And Atleti simply do not react fast enough to Xavi possessing the ball. Rather than close him down and pressure the ball the defenders stay back and overplay the middle of the pitch. And you cannot give Xavi time and space on the ball. In the image above Xavi has pulled the ball back increasing the space he has and is in the process of crossing the ball over the top to Villa who has stayed wide. The first goal was the result as Villa expertly controlled Xavi’s long ball over the top, played it to his left foot and then cut it back inside to his right to score a beautiful goal. To give a sense of how much space Xavi had and Atleti’s defensive thinking take a look at the other angle to the play:
Atleti is organized and is keeping their shape. But Xavi just has too much time and space on the ball. Atleti just doesn’t think that Xavi can hurt them from that position because Barça has in the past not played balls over the top that often. The gesture of the defender in the middle is instructive. He is signaling to direct the organization of the defense in the middle of the pitch as Xavi is about to delivery a dagger ball diagonal to Villa, by passing the entire middle of the pitch.
Barcelona’s Three Man Back Line Continues to Evolve
A great deal has been said about Barça’s use of a three man back line, particularly in the wake of the Valencia draw. As I’ve written here before, tactical systems are largely neutral – what really matters is how they are implemented and how they are enacted in the context of the match. So while Barcelona played three in the back they once again implemented the system in a different manner, largely because Atleti structured their own play differently than other opposition have.
In fact, in many ways, the whole notion of three at the back was misleading. Playing three men in the back against one striker would have been wasteful and would have denied Barça a needed player wide. So Barcelona really played much more fluidly than a three man back line would suggest. Their real priority in terms of having numbers back was to make sure they had at least two defenders marking Falcao at all times.
Atleti are in transition in the shot above and are looking to break. Notice how Barcelona’s reaction is not to form a three man back line. Alves stays wide and looks to press the ball. Mascherano watches the play develop in front of him while picking up Falcao’s run. Abidal tracks Falcao from the other side to ensure two defenders are playing the lone striker. This is not typically how three man back lines function. In fact, this is very much like Barcelona’s four man back line works.
A key feature to this kind of defensive set up is the defensive play of the midfielders. For Barça to be able to defend with so few in the back while not playing two dedicated full backs means that the midfielders (especially the wide midfielders) must be committed to tracking runs and defending. In this regard, Thiago and Fabregas continue to show their value and outstanding level of play. On a night when he wasn’t as dominant with the ball as we’ve seen from him prior, Fabregas was outstanding defensively. In the same vein, Thiago continues his revelatory play this season. And the revelation isn’t what he’s doing with the ball – but how he’s defending. He’s often committing himself to acting as a quasi-full back to ensure the three nominal defenders have needed support.
Busquets’s role also facilitated a sound back line. He played relatively deep and particularly early on was mindful of being available to drop deeper to form a four man back line. As the match progressed and Barça controlled the ball and Atleti system of staying narrow became clear Busquets was able to join the attack more.
Team: Outstanding. Not only did they win but they were able to come out and take control of the match early allowing them to conserve energy later on. In a long season, these kinds of matches are critical. That the team put up another manita while not needing to exert full energy is another testament to how dominant they are.
Guardiola: Made important adjustments in response to the Valencia match. The new formations they are utilizing are experiments – not only for the players but the manager as well. Overall, he continues to challenge this team to grow and play better.
Valdes: Excellent distribution and on the one occasion he was needed he was a wall to stop an Atleti opportunity.
Abidal: After a few miscues against Valencia – he was once again a rock. This match shows how much of defending is a team based endeavor. Abidal made mistakes against Valencia but those mistakes were the influenced by the fact that Barcelona’s tactics didn’t match up with how the opposition was attacking forcing the Barça back line into confusion and uncoordinated movement. Today the system is much better suited to the opposition and Abidal is again near flawless.
Mascherano: At this point – while he doesn’t have the armband he is in practice almost a co-captain of the team. Along with Xavi, he has become one of Pep’s managers on the field. With Puyol not on the pitch, it is Masch who is the one organizing the defense and communicating with Pep on what to do.
Alves: Very intelligent, controlled game. He did an outstanding job of knowing when to stay back in defense and when to make runs forward. Was always available as an outlet wide to retain possession.
Busquets: Fantastic match. It is remarkable to see how much he is able to control a match from deep when he has a defender behind him. One of the reasons why Xavi was able to move out wide when needed was because of his confidence that Busquets could still organize possession in the center of the pitch.
Thiago: His season so far has almost surpassed by best case scenario for him. I honestly cannot believe how well he is playing defensively. I thought it would take him most of the season to start integrating himself into the defensive system at this level. If Thiago continues to focus and work he legitimately has a chance to become the best midfielder in the world.
Fabregas: Worked very hard all game. With Atleti overplaying the center so much, Fabregas’s play through the middle was thwarted some. So far he hasn’t been as dangerous from wider positions. It’s part of his game that will develop.
Xavi: It seems almost impossible for someone to be as good at their job as Xavi is at his. He dictated play. Man of the match.
Villa: Beautiful finish on that first goal. His use of both feet was outstanding to create the opportunity. His unselfishness is also wonderful to see. At the end of the match he repeatedly looked to try to spring Messi free on goal. And when Messi did find the back of the net Villa was thrilled for him.
Pedro: Great work rate and effort as always. His finishing still isn’t in form.
Messi: Given his own standards, he was both brilliant and at times mundane this match. His goals were of outstanding quality. The kinds of goals few players in history could have created or completed. While he did often dwell on the ball too often, in substance how he played made sense given the context. With Atleti emphasizing shape so much and staying so organized while lacking pressure in defense, making runs at the defense was one of the single best ways to destabilize them. With Iniesta and Sanchez out Messi was the one to provide that. Given how much space he could find in wider positions, it made sense for him to run at the defense.
Barcelona have just completed one of the single most difficult sequences of their entire season. And during that time they suffered from significant injuries. However, this team continues to demonstrate even greater flexibility and fluidity in their play allowing them to adjust. Those periods of change aren’t going to go flawlessly, as the Valencia match demonstrated. Nonetheless, this team continues to build and insist on trying to get better.