I’ve always thought that there are no good or bad coaches but coaches who are brave and coaches who aren’t.
–Pep Guardiola after the match
Coming off one of its poorer performances of the Guardiola era in the loss against Getafe, Barça returned to Camp Nou to face Rayo Vallecano. The match was described as a “test” by many. That particular description seemed tenuous given the team’s rich vein of success over the past three seasons. With that recent history one match versus any squad is exactly that – one match – not an assessment of their aptitude or character.
Nonetheless, given the importance of not falling behind anyfurther in the table, and perhaps even more critically – the need to get back towards playing at the level they are capable of – the match was one of note, an opportunity to edge back closer to optimal form prior to the Clasico.
To date, Barcelona’s season has had a jagged, unsettled quality to it. Factors such as recurrent injuries have prevented the team from achieving consistency not only in results, but in the quality of their play. Interestingly, for a team that has the level of accomplishment that Barça do, it has been a team searching for an identity this season. Or rather it’s been a team that seems to be exploring a number of new identities, and is still in the process of defining what it will be.
For many, Barcelona this season has been a team in flux and it is this incessant change which has been the drivers for these inconsistencies. Changing tactical systems and squad rotation are argued to be preventing the team from achieving consistency. In exploring identities they’ve become protean. From this point of view, what Barcelona need to do, particularly prior to the Clasico, is to urgently define their model. Pick a line up and a system and play it so that the team can cohere.
However, it’s often easy to confuse symptom for cause. An alternative hypothesis is also important to consider. Perhaps the team isn’t playing as well as last season because it hasn’t changed enough. That other teams, constantly trying to catch up and evolve ways of diminishing the blaugrana’s edge, have gained insight into how to stop their model. From this perspective the problem isn’t that the team is changing too much – but hasn’t changed enough. It has perhaps become a bit too homogenous and one note in its style.
During the Spanish Super Cup that started this season, Madrid came out and made a statement – not only were they prepared to play Barcelona, but they had evolved themselves as a system. They were going to try to play in a very different way and create new challenges.
At that point, Barcelona really had a choice – double down and look to maintain your system for the season as it functioned last season – or explore new modes of play.
These are the kind of choices we face all of the time. You can build a fortress. Or you can learn how to run. Or you can go through the difficult process of trying to build something that’s in between, something uncertain, even ambiguous, something that’s agile yet sturdy. Something that feels like home, at least for now.
The increased competition and challenges were always inevitable for this Barcelona project. Other teams were never going to sit on their hands and watch Barcelona dominate. That’s the history of football.
And this is why Guardiola is always looking to push his side, to acquire different weapons even when the fit may not be readily apparent. This was the impulse behind playing a 169 cm player as a central striker for the first time during a trip to the Bernabeau and then playing him there again in the Champions League final against Manchester United. It’s this same impulse that led to spending 70m on a 195 cm striker from Serie A. But it’s that same impulse that led to trusting a skinny kid few had heard of as a holding midfield in place of Yaya or trusting a player who had never played CB to take the spot of Puyol at the back. The same spirit, the same intellect drives all of these kinds of change.
Isaiah Berlin famously categorized great thinkers as hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs know one big thing; they know it deeply and that guides them. Foxes know many things. Doestoevsky was a hedgehog. Checkhov a fox. What made Tolstoy so great according to Berlin was that he was by nature a hedgehog but in practice a fox and the two sides of him were constantly struggling, burning with creative tension.
Berlin didn’t mean this to be rigid. People are almost always a mixture of both hedgehog and fox. It’s more a way of thinking about thinking.
When we think of total football – and of its modern interpretation in tiki-taka, it’s hedgehogs that come to mind. Cruyff and his stringency is perhaps football’s quintessential hedgehog. Today, Xavi may also be described that way. Uncompromising. Stringent. There’s a way to play football at its highest level – and one must strive diligently to play according to those principles. Indeed, individuals who see football as a system often have a similar point of view. Arigo Sacchi was one of football’s great hedgehogs.
After defeating Manchester United to win his second Champions League Trophy as a manager, Guardiola said of the match, “The way we won is what I’m most proud of – this is how I want to play football.” Like Cruyff and Xavi, Guardiola is often considered a classic hedgehog. But he’s not. He’s much more fox than he seems at first.
Guardiola was part of one of the great sides in the history of the game as a player – and he watched not only as that team’s cycle ended but watched as the entire club itself took step backwards as that era closed.
Inspired by Cruyff, the Dream Team was more of a hedgehog team. It was Crime and Punishment. The Idiot. The Brother’s Karamazov. And for a while, Pep may have felt at home in that language. Radical and uncompromising. But that can be a very hard way to live. Or at the least, a hard way to survive.
So as a manager he’s been creating a side – and an organizational model – that is far more supple and divergent than it may seem at face. If you sat down with him and private and talked to him I’d guess that he would admit that there are many ways of being brave. That a manger’s responsibility is understanding what a group of players needs to find to in order to best believe in themselves.
So headed into a match like the Rayo Vallecano match – a match in which many were saying Barça needed stability, needed to get back to their model, what did Guardiola do? The exact opposite. He went full force forward into experimentation and engineered one of the most creative and messy approaches to a match that his tenure as manager has seen.
And in the process of figuring things out, in the process of exploring identities, he crafted a way of putting his players in a position not only to win, but to dominate and do so after an opening in which they were on their back heels at Camp Nou.
Against Rayo, Barcelona played one of the more interesting tactical matches the Guardiola era has seen. What made a seemingly comfortable performance against a mid-table team of such note? Barcelona evolved how they played through three different systems during the match and did so using the same set of players. In addition, the match turned dramatically when Barça settled into a system they had rarely utilized under Guardiola. Dominance was produced by coupling talent and skills with novelty and innovation.
This match passed through three distinct phases. In the first phase, Barcelona played their base 4-3-3 and Rayo Vallecano was able to press very effectively high up the pitch. The key to Rayo being able to do defend this way and do so as well as they did was the manner in which they overloaded midfield. Rayo was one of the first teams to effectively acknowledge that Barcelona don’t play a true striker and defended as such. This phase of the match lasted for roughly the first 11 minutes of the match.
In the second phase, Barcelona changed systems from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3. This phase roughly went from minutes 11 to 28 of the Dani Alves stopped playing RB and was moved to a right sided midfield position. Alves played very similar to the position Thiago has when Barcelona play a 3-4-3 with a lopsided midfield diamond. During this phase Barcelona started playing a three man backline with Pique as the sweeper, Abidal the left center back and Mascherano sliding over laterally to a right center back position. While this formation helped Barça maintain possession better when faced with the Rayo pressure, it didn’t allow them to create penetration.
In the third phase of the match, Barça reconfigured their system again, changing to a 3-5-2. Sanchez moved from the advanced right forward to left flank winger. Alves moved from midfielder to a right winger. Villa pinched in from the left wing centrally and played in the most advanced attacking role, with Messi just behind him playing a free role in the two man striker formation.
And once Barça moved to this formation the entire match changed. Barcelona went from a stuttering performance to an electric one where they simply overwhelmed the opponent.
With Afellay the club’s only player missing from injury, Guardiola had at his disposal the most fit squad he’s had for some time. And he started close to what appears to be evolving into this first choice line up: Valdez-Alves-Mascherano-Pique-Abidal-Keita-Xavi-Iniesta-Sanchez-Messi-Villa. Busquets was rested again and was the only first choice starter not fielded.
This match demonstrated the range of talents and the flexibility this squad provides Guardiola. One of the most remarkable aspects to the match was that Barcelona was able to move through three very different systems – and do so without any substitutions.
In general, to move from one system to another requires substitutions to be made. To move from one system to a second to a third would require multiple substitutions. However, Barça were able to play in very different arrangements by simply shuffling the starting line up into new configurations. This allowed Pep to experiment, to try out a style of play in response to how Rayo was playing to see if it would work without committing to removing a player and potentially wasting a substitution.
Phase 1: Barcelona Plays a 4-3-3 and Rayo Dictates Through Aggressive Pressing
The opening of the match saw Rayo pressuring the ball very high up the pitch and doing so effectively. Again, the competition and their strategy has evolved. It is now common to see teams look to press Barça high up the pitch. This is something we saw far less frequently in 2008/09. Then teams wouldn’t think of it as they were afraid of getting beat and outnumbered deep. But over time, teams have decided that the risks of allowing Barcelona to systematically build out from the back and develop rhythm to their passing game is greater than the risk of Barcelona beating them through fast transition play while they are defending high.
The key to Rayo’s pressure was how they defended in midfield. This is well shown in the image below:
Rayo is pressing very high up the pitch. But the key things to notice is at the backline and midfield. Rayo has five defenders in midfield. They have numerical advantage 5 vs. 4 even with Messi dropping deep. In addition, notice how there are no central defenders at the back in the middle of the pitch. The area has been vacated.
Barcelona’s response above was the right one. They spread the full backs and wingers very wide to make the pitch large through width. However, by moving four players so wide, Barça had more difficulty building play through the middle and were “losing” the battle there.
Since moving Messi to the false 9 Barça has again and again derived an advantage from the way the opposition has defended. In general, teams have wanted to keep their CB stationed where CB traditionally are – deep and central. But this means that when Messi or Fabregas or even Villa drop deep they can go unmarked between the lines or in midfield.
Rayo’s gameplan was to prevent this. Rayo used a system of zonal coverage with man marking. They were willing to vacate the center backline in order to overplay the midfield. The deepest defenders are the full backs who are deep to check the Barcelona wingers Villa and Sanchez.
By allowing their defenders to defend in a mobile fashion Rayo was able to place an extra defender in midfield. This is why their pressure was so effective and why Barça had so much difficulty getting the ball out of its own half. As Valdez or the defenders looked to play the ball midfield was overplayed by defenders. This often forced Barça to try to play the ball long – which they just aren’t good at. In turn the team lost possession far more frequently than they are use to.
The image above is worth remembering. We may see it again in the coming Clasico. The manner Rayo defended had a number of similarities to the system of defending Real Madrid have adopted (and what we saw in the Spanish Super Cup). Rayo clearly doesn’t have the talent or athleticism Madrid have. But in principle, the two systems share common principles. Pressure high while overloading midfield to prevent Barça from building up of play.
Phase 2: Guardiola Looks to Retake Control in Midfield by Switching to a 3-4-3
After ten minutes or so Guardiola had seen enough and reconfigured Barcelona’s system. Dani Alves was pulled off the RB position and played as a right sided midfielder. Now Alves often playes a fluid role – but in this game he was clearly moved to midfield with Barça changing to a three man backline.
Compare Alves’s position to the first image. Alves has tucked into centrally to midfield which is now roughly diamond shaped – Keita at the base, Xavi at the tip, Iniesta left and Alves right. At the back Barça have three defenders (in the shot above Abidal is pressing and as such not level with Mascherano/ Pique).
Moving Alves to midfield allowed Barcelona to regain numerical advantage in midfield. Alves acted as an extra man in midfield. This allowed him to act as an open outlet in the region of the pitch that had been most problematic for Barça earlier due to Rayo’s defensive scheme.
Notice above how wide open Alves is. Rayo didn’t have a defender available to mark Alves in midfield. This left him open often and Alves quickly became Barcelona’s most dangerous player making decisive runs forward and putting a very dangerous shot on goal after breaking free in midfield.
Part of why Barcelona could comfortably play this system was that Rayo was playing a 4-4-2. Against a two striker formation, Barcelona could play three at the back and still have a free defender to support.
However, while moving Alves to midfield facilitated possession, Barça still wasn’t able to create enough penetration to create danger. Build up still went through the middle, the region Rayo was still most focused on.
Phase 3: Guardiola Finds the Right Balance by Changing to a 3-5-2
The game changed dramatically once Barcelona switched to their third formation – a 3-5-2. The team played with much more fluidity and dynamism all around. And suddenly after a 28 minutes of struggling, Barça scored three goals in 15 minutes.
Above, Notice how deep Sanchez has dropped. He and Alves are spread wide and given license to move up and down the entire flanks. Barça is playing two strikers up top, as Villa has pulled in centrally to join with Messi.
One of the issues that Barça has on their left flank is that the left winger can become isolated. On the right, the right winger can be supported by Alves. The left backs are generally more conservative.
Moving Sanchez to the left winger position game Barça a player with qualities similar to Alves. Sanchez has the pace, explosion and work rate to man an entire flank by himself. By splitting up Sanchez and Alves, Guardiola put two athletic, players with pace in wide positions. This destabilized the entire way Rayo was trying to defend.
The focus of Rayo’s defensive scheme was to control the center of the pitch. Now Barça not only had width – but dynamic width on both sides of the pitch.
In the 4-3-3 Barça ’s frontline wide players occupy the most constrained roles in the system. They aren’t given that much freedom. Their job is to stay wide and advanced, creating tactical width. In the 3-5-2 the wide attackers gained more freedom and space to operate in. Due to their pace and aggressiveness towards goal Sanchez and Alves gave Barça attacking thrust on both flanks while still being able to cover space defensively behind them (modern 4-4-2 can be very problematic for a 3-5-2). Often it gave Barcelona four frontline attackers.
Rayo had significant difficulty adjusting to this change of formation. The key disruptive force was Alexis Sanchez, who destabilized the left flank. Moving Sanchez to the left overloaded Rayo’s defense because Villa moved left-center and drew two markers and Messi continued to draw two markers as well while Alves stayed wide.
Alves and Sanchez wing play was well demonstrated in Sanchez’s first goal.
Notice Messi and Alves’ positioning. Messi has dropped deep right while Alves is in advance of him. In otherwords, Messi has dropped into the space that Alves would usually be occupying in the Barça 4-3-3. Messi runs at the defense. Notice the large gap between the Rayo CB. This is due to the positioning of Villa left of center while Alves is very wide right. Because Rayo wanted two men marking the central striker Villa, Sanchez is left unmarked wide left.
Messi beats his man and draws a second defender. The Rayo defense reacts by closing space on Villa to try to prevent the through ball via the middle that Messi loves to play. Instead Messi passes to a wide open Xavi. Sanchez is now all alone because while he’s drifted in he’s stayed wide outside of the Rayo right back. Sanchez does well to hold his run and not drift offside.
Xavi plays a very simple pass to the open Sanchez. Now while Sanchez is open in space a goal from that angle is by no means a sure thing. The keeper can close down the angle to the near post easily leaving the wide player with no angle to shoot. Sanchez though demonstrates wonderful ball skills and quick feet, cutting the ball back to his right foot, using the onrushing defenders momentum against him. He then curls in a beautiful curl to the far post between two defenders.
That is exactly the kind of goal scoring Barça has been missing this season. A source outside of Messi who can beat a player and finish with finesse and calm.
Alexis Sanchez: Welcome Home to Camp Nou
Sanchez was Barça ’s major purchase over the summer. A young player not necessarily considered a superstar across the world, his purchase seemed to come out of nowhere to many. However, Sanchez was arguably the single best player in Serie A. The major question with Sanchez was how would he adjust from playing as a dominant trequarista last season to a wide player for Barça . In particular, how would Sanchez’s finishing around goal develop?
What was so encouraging about the match yesterday was the calm and finesse Sanchez displayed around goal. His first score was simply brilliant. It immediately brought to mind the kind of lovely, curling finishes that are David Villa’s hallmark at his best. While the second score was more direct it was built off a broken play and would have been easy to get under or shank as it was bouncing. Also, he never stopped tracking forward towards goal which was why he was in position to finish the play.
Many supporters were criticizing Sanchez, wondering why he was purchased. Yesterday started to demonstrate why Guaridiola targeted him as a player who could expand how Barcelona can play.
David Villa: A Step Forward
David Villa has obviously been having a very difficult time on and off the pitch recently. The Rayo match was one of his best of the season. Not perfect – but a real step towards the form Barça needs from him. Villa looked much more fluid and dangerous in his role as the advanced striker in the 3-5-2. The issue wasn’t only him playing centrally, but of him having more freedom than he does when he’s asked to play wide.
Now, whether it Villa is the right player to play centrally against a team that sits deep and defends in numbers like Getafe did is a separate question. But against Rayo he played very well. This is important because during this season, Villa has in fact not only struggled against teams that defend deep and in numbers, but also against teams that play a high back line. Against a high back line Villa is moved away from goal and isn’t able to utilize his finishing skills. Yesterday against a team that plays high Villa had his best game in weeks.
Not only did Villa score but his movement, particularly around the box was very strong and opened up opportunities. His interplay with Messi worked very well – rather than getting in each other’s spaces both Messi and Villa had room to work as their were only two only two of them flanked by wide players. Hopefully this match gets Villa back on track.
The 3-5-2 in Action
While the 3-5-2 has many advantages – 3 man midfield, wide players, two man striker formation. It comes with a real cost. It can become very complicated defending at the back. It requires enormous work and effort from the wing backs and coordination between defenders (backline, wing backs and holding midfielder in particular). It was interesting to see how well Barcelona did these things in the new system.
In the shot above, Ray has played the ball quickly out to the left flank behind Alves. This is one of the issues with the 3-5-2. It’s also why it’s so important to have lateral center backs with pace and strong positional sense – they have to cover enormous space. Mascherano quickly moves to close out the player behind Alves.
When Mascherano moves out to the flanks however, Barça can be caught short at the back. Keita however, seeing Mascherano move wide, drops deep to the middle to act as the new CB with Pique moving rightwards to fill space with Mascherano.
Watching this match for a second time – it seemed to me that Barça ’s coordination and movement were so on the mark that Guardiola has likely been drilling them to play this formation in practice for sometime. I can’t say for sure – just a guess.
The ability 10 players to start a game playing one system to then seamlessly morph into an entirely different system was well demonstrated on the fourth goal.
Rayo has the ball along the right flank. Alves is defending the ball wide and a Rayo attacker moves laterally into the space a RB usually occupies. Mascherano follows him – notice the space that’s opened up between Mascherano and Pique. This is the kind of situation where a three man backline can easily get dragged out of shape. The key intervention to prevent this is Sanchez’s positioning. He’s dropped all the way back to the front line to act as a fourth defender deep, occupying a position similar to where a left back would be playing.
Rayo plays the ball centrally – which is exactly the space that they should play the ball into against a three man backline after the right center back has had to move wide. Sanchez however pressures the ball aggressively to support Abidal and Pique centr
ally. Sanchez dispossess the ball and then holds the ball by dribbling as three Rayo players look to repossess the ball.
Sanchez plays the ball to Mascherano. Rather than playing a short pass to Xavi he plays a long pass to a single marked Messi. With one touch Messi flicks the ball wide to Alves. All Messi needs is to get a foot on the ball because Alves is completely open in space wide. Notice how fast the transition play is here. Alves started the play defending. He’s now quickly moved into space to attack.
The Rayo midfielder is forced to move wide to close down Alves. At the same time Villa makes a driving run towards goal to occupy two defenders. Both center backs have to follow Villa because Sanchez, through his pace, has caught back up to the play even though he was the one who started it deep in his own end by dispossessing the ball. Because these two Barcelona attackers are occupying three Ray defenders while Alves is occupying a Rayo midfielder wide, Messi is left 1 vs. 1 with the full back.
Almost no defender can contain Messi 1 vs. 1 in space and Messi easily accelerates around the full back. What’s so interesting about the shot above is how two Rayo defenders continue to mark Villa in the center. Villa has continued his driving run and the markers felt the need to stick with him rather than close down the ball. This may be sub-optimal defending – but out on the pitch at speed – these aren’t simple decision to make.
Team: Strong performance. Really changed their level of play when they opened up the pitch in the 3-5-2.
Guardiola: Terrific in game adjustments. Had his team ready to play.
Valdes: Rayo put significant pressure on him to play the ball out from the back. VV is going to have to adjust to these strategies as he will see them more frequently. Almost caught flat footed on a curling shot in the first half he was originally thinking would go over the bar but dipped goal wards. Not good to see, especially after he let the ball roll out of bounds for a corner against Getafe. Made a strong save in the second half.
Mascherano: Another masterful performance. Against Valencia earlier this season he struggled greatly as a right center back. Against Rayo he excelled, covering enormous amount of space on the right – which was the area Rayo tried to attack behind Alves.
Pique: Assured at the back defensively. Beautiful run into space as Barça spread the defense open to set up that third goal.
Abidal: Another terrific performance. Like Mascherano his pace and positioning out in space were terrific, especially early in the match.
Alves: Strong performance. Yes his passing could have been more accurate. However due to the Rayo pressure all of the Barça passing was off (Xavi completed “only” 83% of his passes for comparison – much lower than his usual). And the big picture was that Dani’s skill set and flexibility were instrumental in allowing Pep to run three different systems until he found one that worked.
Keita: Terrific in midfield. Played a very fluid role and did so well. One adjustment Keita needs to make – his tendency is still to often shade towards the left. When he’s a DM however, he needs to be aware that teams look to attack behind Alves – often because they think of Alves as an out of position full back rather than as a wing back or midfielder.
Iniesta: Looked very lively and dangerous. When the pitch opened up in the 3-5-2 he really grew into the game. Good to have him back.
Xavi: Against Getafe Xavi attempted 123 passes in 90 minutes, completing 92%. Against Rayo he played 54 minutes and only attempted 30 passes – completing them at a 83% accuracy. That speaks to how much Rayo was looking to overplay the middle and stop the Barça attack. The team’s creativity was more distributed this match – and they were much better off for it.
Sanchez: Brilliant performance. Demonstrated his game changing ability on the ball and deft finishing. His work rate and defending are phenomenal. Man of the match.
Messi: Really excelled playing off Villa in the 3-5-2. The extra open space that developed augmented the danger he brings to the match.
Sort of lovely to see him playing that way – the contemporary 3-5-2 was a formation first invented by Carlos Bilardo at Estudiantes. The formation became known world round during the 1986 World Cup. It was the system Argentina utilized and the reason why Bilardo adopted it was that it provided a platform for Maradona. In another touch point in history – here was Messi playing not only the same way – but in a similar position to the one Maradona did. This match was sort of the tactical version of Messi’s famous goal against Getafe.
Villa: Thought he had his best game in weeks. He really needed to score and he did. Sure that’s a relief. But more than that – he was much more involved and active in overall game play. Not just a tactical piece staying wide – but a dynamic force shaping the match. Had two opportunities to score in the second half. Would have been good to see him convert at least one of the two. But this was a positive – keep moving forward.
Fabregas: Still growing into the team. When he and Thiago entered the match Barça lost some sharpness in possession and attack. By the time they entered the outcome was decided – but nonetheless, didn’t dictate midfield play. He’s been his best in a free role for Barça rather than when he’s been asked to play as a more traditional midfielder in Xavi or Iniesta’s spot. Did create a terrific scoring opportunity for Villa.
Thiago: Easily the most accurate passer on the team for the match at 91%. However, he gave the ball away a few times in non-passing situations. Neither he nor Fabregas controlled the match in midfield.
Adriano: Good to see him back. Unfortunately, he’s now injured his hamstring again. Perhaps he came back too early?
A welcome match – not only for the result but for how Guardiola orchestrated the match and how the team responded to the way he had them change play. People may want Barça to go back to a stable system with a set line up. But it seems like Guardiola’s treatment calls for more variation and change rather than moving back towards prior modes of play.