When you play a match, it is statistically proven that players actually have the ball 3 minutes on average. The best players – the Zidanes, Ronaldinhos, Gerrards – will have the ball maybe 4 minutes. Lesser players – defenders – probably 2 minutes. So, the most important thing is: what do you do those 87 minutes when you do not have the ball…. That is what determines whether you’re a good player or not.
One of the qualities that makes great artists great, is their ability to see and render the spaces between objects. In a still life of a bowl of fruit, a glass of water, a table cloth and wall paper, they not only see each individual entity but also see the relationship between them.
Great artists not only draw or paint what’s physically present, but what’s not there. The geometry between edges. The background. In art these are known as negative spaces.
One of the qualities that makes football so beautiful, that can give it an aesthetic dimension that far surpasses its rudiments of eleven players, a ball and the pitch is that it is a game of negative space. If the ball is the point of reference and the focus of attention it is the parts of the game taking place in more distant regions of activity that sculpt a match. It is not only the players that matter, but how they interrelate on the pitch. So much joy comes from what happens in those spaces that aren’t dictated by the ball, that aren’t occupied by anyone at all.
In their last match Barcelona comfortably beat Zaragoza 4-0 at Camp Nou. Though the victory was far from a surprise and Zaragoza is far from a formidable side (particularly defensively), the Blaugrana played very well. In fact it was one of their better recent performances.
What the team did very well this match that it hasn’t done well over the past few matches was to use space to make the pitch functionally “large.” Much of this was due to the role that Barça’s two advanced flank players assumed.
Both Sanchez and Cuenca had interesting matches. Neither notably altered the match through their direct play on the ball or their individual quality. Sanchez was clearly off form. He’s played little football this season overall due to injury. And he’s particularly played limited minutes within the Barcelona system. And that was clearly apparent in the Zaragoza match. Cuenca individually played well – but he wasn’t incorporated into the match as much as he could have been by his teammates.
Nonetheless, together, they exerted significant influence over the outcome through their tactical play. In this regard, the Zaragoza match was a stark example of how a player can be decisive, even in attack, without touching the ball. It shed’s light on Cruyff’s maxim about what makes a player “good” in any particular match.
The image below typifies much of Zaragoza’s approach to the match.
Zaragoza is playing very narrow and compact – much as Sevilla, Viktoria Plzen (Camp Nou leg), and L’Hospitalet have done this season to thwart Barcelona from translating dominance in possession into scoring.
All ten of the Zaragoza outfield players are stationed between the width of the eighteen yard box. Zaragoza are particularly concerned about defending “positive space” – that is the player with the ball and the immediate space around him.
For much of the match Zaragoza sought to defend the ball with two to three players (one man on the ball and the nearby defenders forming a “wall” to the goal or cutting off passing angles to disrupt the short passing game).
Zaragoza have formed a cluster of four players around the ball. Behind them there are four more Zaragoa defenders. There are seeking to form a dense column of defense between the ball and the goal to prevent Barça from playing the ball through the middle.
They’ve accomplished this objective effectively – Zaragoza have numerical superiority in this region of danger 8 vs. 4. In the central space their ten defenders occupy they outnumber Barça 10 vs. 5 – they can literally double mark every Barça player stationed towards the middle of the pitch.
The key to this sequence is what’s happening in the space Zaragoza is choosing not to defend. Notice how Isaac Cuenca is stationed extremely wide at the touchline. Zaragoza is pressuring Xavi who has the ball. They have Xavi and Alves outnumbered 4 vs. 2. A wall of three players cuts off Fabrgas from Xavi – there is no pathway for a pass. Towards the middle Messi is triple marked.
Rather than running to the ball Cuenca stays wide however. He doesn’t creep into towards the ball. Critically, he remains positioned to in a way that ensures that Xavi has a strong passing angle. If he edges forward or moves backwards – that passing angle deteriorates. Cuenca appears to be just standing there – but what he is doing is orchestrating negative space perfectly.
Watch how radical a simple ball from Xavi to Cuenca impacts Zaragoza’s defensive shape:
There is no ideal way to play the game. In seeking to overplay the center to take away Barça’s greatest strength, Zaragoza has had to leave the flanks relatively open. Once the ball is circulated wide they have to completely reconfigure their shape. Notice how disorganized they’ve become. Xavi and Alves – once facing a 2 vs. 4 situation are now each single marked. Messi once triple marked is now 1 vs. 1 with his defender as the Zaragoza backline is forced to drop a few steps deeper. Most importantly, notice what’s happened with Fabregas. Before he was stationed in space that was cut off from the other players. Now he is free, finding a center space between the Zaragoza defenders.
Comparing the two images above demonstrates why spacing the pitch wide is so critical. It makes the pitch large and forces the defense to zone more area. This in turn opens up more space in the interior. And it’s this interior space Fabregas has so deftly moved into, putting himself into a very dangerous position.
All of this came from one simple ball from Xavi to a completely wide open Cuenca.
Cuenca then easily splits the two defenders seeking to close him down with a short pass to the now wide open Fabregas.
Commentators often make remarks about Barcelona’s “useless” passing. Indirect play, short passes, etc. Many of these remarks are made because too much attention is paid to the positive space around the ball.
This sequence started with Xavi under pressure and completely cut off from Fabregas – he had no passing angle to get Cesc the ball. With one short pass what Barcelona has done is to sculpt a passing angle to Fabregas. By staying wide Cuenca is able to make the pass that Xavi could not.
This sequence ends with Barcelona generating a dangerous scoring opportunity. Fabregas shortly goes on to play the ball back to Alves and link up with him for an incisive 1-2 towards goal.
Overall, Cuenca had a better game than Sanchez as the Barcelona left wing looked significantly off game form due to lack of minutes. Nonetheless, Sanchez’s tactical impact was similarly significant as demonstrated by the sequence below which demonstrates how dynamic Barcelona’s play was along both flanks.
Staying wide, Cuenca receives a long pass from played quickly by Keita from the Barcelona half.
Rather than immediately pass the ball, Cuenca takes a few dribbles to run at the defense. While again this appears to be a simple action, what it does is to draw Messi’s defender away from him. For much of the match Zaragoza attempted to defend Messi with three defenders. Through use of width and direct play, Barcelona have created a situation where Messi is unmarked.
Messi receives the ball open in space from Cuenca, who continues his run centrally.
Notice how the Zaragoza defense reacts to Messi have the ball free in space. The entire defense collapses centrally. Zaragoza becomes extremely narrow with their entire backline and holding midfielders attempting to clot the middle and prevent Barcelona from playing in this space.
Over the past month or so we’ve seen this kind of situation develop again and again for Barcelona. Messi makes a run, the defense narrows and collapses to the middle. The Barcelona attackers gather to the middle to link up and play the ball short and fast (likely back to Messi on a 1-2). Messi then has to thread a pass through a high density of defenders – a pass which has to be made perfectly or the play is broken up.
What made the game against Zaragoz different is Sanchez’s positioning. The left defensive back has pinched in to the middle. However, Sanchez, maintaining tactical discipline, stays very wide. He’s hardly moved in at all despite all of the action and movement to the middle. Sanchez instead is orchestrating space that’s being ignored and where no visible activity is taking place.
Rather than being forced to play a low probability pass through tight space Messi has another option – an outlet in Sanchez.
The ball played to the open wide player again causes the Zaragoza defense to lose shape and become more disorganized. Zaragoza throughout looked to defend the ball with at least two players – one to pressure and one to cover. With Sanchez free to move onto the simple ball from Messi two defenders have to move towards him. This in turn takes two defenders who were in the middle away from that vital space. Additionally, the entire backline starts to drop deeper.
Notice how Messi initially passes the ball and delays his run. He knows that this pass will force the defense deeper. As the defenders speed up to retreat, Messi slows down momentarily to develop the space around him. This is a perfect example of why he is so effective as a false 9.
Sanchez, then takes a few quick dribbles to run at the defenders. His goal isn’t to beat them per se. Instead, it is to further draw the two defenders towards him.
Through the wide player receiving the ball in space and running at the defenders Xavi is now open in space. It wasn’t even much of a run – but it’s often the subtle factors which define how space is used.
Also – notice what’s happened with Messi. He is now single marked. That is one of the major outcomes of this sequence for Barça. All match Zaragoza attempted to mark Messi with multiple defenders – and here he is at running into the 18 yard box single marked. This is a significant tactical “victory” for Barcelona.
In the image above, once he’s drawn the defender away from Xavi, Sanchez passes the ball the now open playmaker. Seeing this, Messi accelerates his run and Xavi is now able to make a relatively simple pass for Messi to run onto inside of the 18 yard box.
Zaragoza outnumber Barça 6 vs. 3 around the ball. But by shaping negative space Barcelona has created a situation where Messi is 1 vs. 1 with the defender inside of the box. Barça have forced the opposition into the exact situation their entire defensive tactical system was designed to stop.
If Messi had initially tried to play the ball through the middle rather than having the option to go wide to Sanchez it is unlikely this would have happened. There was such a density of defenders that a perfect pass would have been required to play the ball through the middle. But by opening up space Barcelona has achieved exactly what is hopes to – Messi in the box with the ball single marked.
Ultimately Xavi’s pass was slightly wide and Messi lost his footing. Nonetheless the sequence created twp dangerous opportunities. First it gave Messi a chance in a dangerous space. Second, the defender had to play the ball out to dispossess Messi setting up a corner. It was that corner which Puyol made a great run from deep and got a free header on goal – a chance he usually buries for a score.
The team that controls the ball largely controls the game. But controlling the ball involves much more than possessing it. Barcelona is at its best when it’s able to use the ball to control space on the pitch.
Doing so however requires Barça to not only arrange space around the ball but to enlarge the pitch, to force the defense to play in spaces where it doesn’t want to. To execute in this fashion requires Barça to sculpt space across the pitch by using the flanks dynamically. As we’ve seen, this kind of play doesn’t need to be complicated – often simple balls can creates dramatic impacts, particularly because so much of the defensive focus of the opposition has to be central.
Over the past month or so when Barcelona struggled somewhat they didn’t use space across the pitch effectively. They became too focused on the positive space around the ball. It was good to see them getting back to a more tactically balanced way of playing against Zaragoza.