At the individual level, football contains within it dazzling variety. Nothing repeats-every match is unique in its own patterned ways. At the team level, however, systems are more constrained. While there are many different interpretations and implementations of tactical systems, there are only so many different baseline ways to set up a side. As such, in any particular time, many of the most radical ways of making the game new can emerge by drawing directly or indirectly on football’s rich history. Innovation can emerge by repeating a pattern long forgotten or relegated to a dark crevice of memory.
2-6 at the Bernabeu. The 2009 Champions League final. 5-0 Villareal. There are certain matches this Barcelona project play that establish tactical benchmarks for the system and Guardiola’s thinking. They are matches – often subtle and ostensibly un-noteworthy at face value, which will go on to act as touchstones for Guardiola’s Barcelona. The home match against Getafe was one of these.
In defeating Getafe 4-0, Pep Guardiola utilized a tactical approach that incorporated certain elements of play not regularly seen in the game for almost a century. What was so noteworthy and at times, breathtaking (even lovely), about how Barcelona played in this match was how old and antiquated it was in so many ways and how at the same time it was completely pragmatic and devoid of nostalgia. The past returned due to necessity and circumstance. If history is indeed a dustbin, this match was a kind of polished gem made from the weight, from the pressure that can be applied now to the carbon ash of the past.
Inverting the Pyramid
Football in the 19th century was a game that would be difficult for us to recognize now in comparison to the modern sport we are accustomed to. At the time, football was still in the process of formalizing itself. There were few set it’s rules. There was a stringent debate over whether it should be legal to intentionally kick an opposing player in the shins. Professionalism was still something not part of the sport. Outside of these issues of standardization and business, the approach adopted by teams was radically different. The standard formation had 7-8 players on the front line acting as forwards. All out attack was the focal point of competition. The primary thrust of how the game was played was largely oriented through dribbling in direct lines to the opponents goals. In fact it was only in the 1860’s that it became legal to pass the ball forward. Prior, according to one existing rule, Law Six, it was illegal for any player to be positioned ahead of the ball. The very notion of passing was considered an inferior way of playing. (1)
All of this would change however. This history is brilliantly recounted in Jonathan Wilson’s seminal study of tactics and their evolution, Inverting the Pyramid. But the transition to a more interlinked way of playing was slow. As Wilson describes, when the Law Six was altered making the forward pass legal the game initially changed little. Teams didn’t take advantage of passing even after it was legalized. Innovation came from outside of England, which was then both the home and dominant center of the game. Passing was first leveraged as a means of playing in Scotland.
In order to pass the ball better a new kind of formation was developed. One of the seven forwards was drawn back and the 2-2-6 was developed.
Soon however it became clear that the 2-2-6 wasn’t the optimal way to set up a side that was oriented around the pass. Another forward was drawn back and the forerunner of the modern center half was born in the 2-3-5 formation.
The 2-3-5 would go on to be the predominant system played in much of the world until the 1925 when further changes in the offside rule were made. This in turn led to the emergence of the “W-M” formation (3-2-2-3).
Wilson deftly summarizes the history of the game after the dominance of the 2-3-5 as a process of he describes “Inverting the Pyramid.” Managers became progressively more and more concerned about creating defensive solidity over the course of the 20th century. As such, they continued to drop forwards from the 2-3-5 back deeper to create additional defensive positions.
In the mid-1980’s Carlos Bilardo, manager of Argentina, developed the 3-5-2 as a system to play in the 1986 World Cup. Part of the purpose of Bilardo’s 3-5-2 was to provide a defensive platform for Maradona to play in front of, a structure that would allow his genius to shine and not burden him with the need to defend. The 3-5-2 would quickly go on to become one of the most favored systems in the world. Part of it’s widespread adoption was related to its flexibility – how it was implemented could vary widely. While the 3-5-2 can seem like a highly attack oriented system latent within it is an extremely defensive variant. Play the defensive block deep and focus the wing backs on solidity and the 3-5-2 quickly turns into a 5-3-2. And this is what many sides did in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The original pyramid formed in the 19th century – the 2-3-5 oriented around attack – had undergone complete inversion turning into a 5-3-2 oriented around defending.
Re-Inverting the Pyramid
Coming into the Getafe match, Guardiola’s options for how to set up his side were severely constrained due to injuries, particularly at the back. Pique, Alves, and Abidal were all unavailable leaving only three first team defenders available. Further complicating this issue was that one of these three defenders was Adriano, who generally plays as an attacking full back and whose usual style of play isn’t ideally suited to act as a lateral center half in a three man backline.
Heading into the match it was widely thought that Guardiola would thus play a four man backline of Adriano, Mascherano, Puyol and youngster Martin Montoya at RB. This however did not prove to be the case. Despite the absence of a true left center half, Guardiola chose to utilize Puyol, Mascherano, and Adriano as his nominal backline. I say nominal here because in fact these three players didn’t truly function as a backline in the usual sense (more on this later).
The other issue of note in the line up was the number and variety of attacking players. With Cesc Fabregas unavailable due to suspension, Guardiola chose to utilize both Pedro and Cuenca in addition to line up stalwarts Messi, Sanchez, Xavi, and Iniesta along with Busquets at holding midfield.
This season Guardiola has often opted to play Iniesta at LW and Fabregas in midfield. With the line up against Getafe, Barça was functionally playing with an additional wide forward rather than midfielder as even on the LW Iniesta often pinches into midfield.
While the line up was set, how Barça would play was very unclear given the range of different formations the team has utilized this season. To immediately open the match, Barcelona came out in a 3-4-3. Puyol, Mascherano, and Adriano formed a back three with Sanchez at the 9 and Pedro and Cuenca on the wings. Messi played behind Sanchez as he has in a few matches this season (most notably at the Bernabeu). Xavi and Iniesta opened in midfield.
However, Barça quickly morphed out of this opening 3-4-3 alignment. This is well illustrated by the average positioning of the players:
Positional diagrams can be very difficult to interpret for Barça because the system involves so much movement and position switching. However, there are few points that are well illustrated by the visual above.
What sticks out most perhaps is how relatively deep Mascherano stationed himself compared to other players. Functionally, he acted as a sweeper in a last line of defense. That said, what the diagram doesn’t accurately portray is that while Mascherano consistently stayed deep to defend he really didn’t act as a one man backline (more on this later).
The second interesting point from average positioning is how high Puyol played. Puyol didn’t truly play as a backline “defender” for much of this match. Instead he almost functioned as a right sided holding midfielder. To this point-Puyol actually played higher this match than not only Adriano did at LB but also Busquets.
Notice how leftwards Busquets played. He shaded that way because it was often Adriano who would rotate to a deeper position to defend alongside Mascherano. Busquets would then fill in that left flank space in defense. In a sense there was an overlap in role and positioning between what Busquets was doing on the center left of the pitch and what Puyol was doing on the right.
One of the key tactical features the positional diagrams demonstrates is the significant gap in space between inner four Barcelona players (Xavi, Iniesta, Sanchez and Messi) and the outer two (Pedro and Cuenca). The wingers clearly provided tactical width that almost created a kind of wide boundary for the inner four to play within.
Finally, Sanchez and Messi’s positioning are worth noting. In the initial Barça formation, Sanchez was ostensibly acting as the striker playing in front of Messi. However, those terms are relative. And over the course of the match it was Messi who in fact wound up playing higher up the pitch on average than Sanchez. Again, this isn’t a rigid positioning – as I’ll show later with still images – Sanchez was generally slightly advanced of Messi. But Sanchez would drop behind Messi to play the ball. And perhaps even more importantly, Sanchez would often occupy the CBs freeing Messi to make darting runs towards goal from a slightly deeper starting position.
In a sense, it’s very difficult to state who the “10” was and who the “9” was. And perhaps what is most important is that both Sanchez and Messi played very advanced, almost as if Barça were playing with two strikers or two mobile false 9s. While they would move back on occasions for the ball they didn’t frequently drop deep into midfield to collect the ball. Instead they stayed pressed closer to goal.
How did Getafe respond to this complexity? Below is the average positional diagram for their side:
This positional diagram also has to be interpreted in context as Getafe players moved quite a bit in to close down Barça and looked to attack largely on long counters. In general Getafe played in a 4-5-1/5-4-1 defensive block which doesn’t come across clearly in the diagram (will be evident in the still shots presented later).
A few things to note above. First, as is often done vs. Barça, Getafe tried to stay extremely narrow through midfield.
Second, significant gaps in space existed between the Getafe CBs and their full backs. Even with playing five at the back Getafe developed gaps in the channels of their block.
In essence, while Getafe played very narrow across midfield, they did not stay as narrow across the backline. This was one of the primary impacts of the tactical width Pedro and Cuenca created. This tactical width was critical in two of Barcelona’s four goals.
To make up for this problem they had Rios act as a hybrid CB/holding midfielder and dropped both wingers into midfield. This essentially isolated Miku as the lone striker in space, as seen in the diagram (note the positioning of the winger Rios #16 is somewhat misleading by average position as he was the one who would often try to make long runs to support Miku when Getafe had a chance to counter).
Getafe’s defensive system was predicated on having nine outfield players behind the ball. Guardiola anticipated this and in response took the bold step of playing 9 players in the opposition half (or more accurately 8 ½ as will be explained later).
Structure and Dynamics
Every system has to balance structure and function. Too much structure and systems become suffocating and rigid. Orient a system too much towards dynamics and organization deteriorates and a kind of chaos can emerge. Vibrant systems in nature such as a colony of leaf-cutter ants or a coral reef maintain the balance between the two forces of structure and dynamics.
Football is much the same from a systems perspective. Traditionally, for attacking sides such as Barcelona, developing an appropriate level of structure is a recurring challenge. The tendency is to often go too far in the way of dynamics. One of the great examples of this was the brilliant Brazil 1982 World Cup squad.
Barça itself is constantly challenged with this balance and at times the club falls into too heavily into dynamics with too little structure. For example, Barça can often at times lose width by fielding too many players who seek to move dynamically through midfield.
In this match Guardiola balanced these competing demands by distributing the pitch with players who fell into three kinds of roles:
Provide structure: Three players in the Barça system provided clear structural roles:
- Mascherano: formed the system base
- Pedro: outer wide boundary left
- Cuenca: outer wide boundary right
Provide dynamic force: Three players played free to relatively free roles in the system.
- Messi: free role
- Iniesta: shifting from frontal attack to space between the lines
- Xavi: moving across midfield band to orchestrate as needed
Provide a mixture structure and dynamics (semi-structured role): Four players could be considered in this category.
- Sanchez: point of reference while also dropping back to play ball
- Busquets: holding midfield to circulate ball while also staying positioned to move to backline cover as needed
- Puyol: outlet for ball on right while assisting defensive base.
- Adriano: defensive base deep while also making surging runs forward if space
As with all categorizations there are areas of overlap. It would be reasonable for example to shift Sanchez to the Dynamics category or Xavi to the Mixed. This schematic is intended to be illustrative rather than definitive.
This framework provides a model for understanding both how Barça plays overall but how they played differently vs. Getafe than they usually do.
Against Getafe Barcelona had much more defined wide structure than they usually do. Fielding two player who acted in the roles of true wingers, Barça had well defined outer boundaries that stretched the pitch horizontally and vertically. They had increased structure on the right side of the pitch as they had two players stationed in advanced to relatively advanced positions there – Cuenca and Puyol – rather than one in Dani Alves as they often do. Additional structure was provided by Sanchez playing in the middle as a point of reference.
Structural differences also developed not only from the roles the players assumed but also how they played with respect to each other. Barcelona played three in midfield for much of the match but they did so in a very different shape than they usually do – the three players in midfield often played along the same line rather than in a triangle (more on this later).
The main source of different dynamics primarily rested in Adriano and Puyol’s roles. Mascherano was the base of the defense. But Adriano consistently dropped back to make sure that Barça always had two markers versus the Getafe lone striker.
At the same time, when Barça was controlling possession and space opened on the left, Adriano would surge forward, especially with the ball. One the opposite side, Puyol played an analogous role, one that was contingent on reading Adriano’s play. When Adriano went forward Puyol would track back to form a back two with Mascherano. Busquets would also key off of Adriano’s positioning and drop back for cover – however this is the kind of role he usually plays within the Barça system.
Because the system structure was different in this match for Barça let’s focus on those elements. Below is a partial diagram of key structural elements. This diagram is intentionally filled in only in partial for the sake of simplification and highlighting key features.
While by average position it seemed that Barcelona played only one at the back they nearly always had two defenders deep. Mascherano played deepest. However, he was neither alone nor was his role to mark the striker. Instead, for most of the match, there was a second defender there whose job it was to mark the striker.
In the diagram above rather than a name I’ve marked it with and X. The reason for this is that more than a specific player functioning alongside Mascherano, it was really a tactical role that paired with him. This tactical role was shared by the team. While it was most often Adriano who filled that role, Puyol, Busquets and even Xavi and Iniesta filled it at others.
It was very clear that Guardiola not only wanted two defenders deep but wanted them to play different roles – one to “cover” and one to “pressure.” Mascherano was to cover deep while the second defender was to mark more closely to pressure him when he got the ball. These two different roles are important for the Barça system.
The problem with playing defenders deep for Barça is that the team can lose its compact shape. Part of the role of the second defender was to ensure this doesn’t happen by asserting pressure. In this regard, while Guardiola fielded two at the back he did so in a very different fashion than teams often do against a lone striker. Miku wasn’t truly double marked by having two defenders in equal proximity to him at all times.
At the same time, because Getafe was defending deep and looked to get nine outfield players behind the ball, Guardiola didn’t want to create a two man defensive set that was overly structured. Instead, he gave Adriano license to go forward and move as the game unfolded. However, when Adriano did this another player generally moved back to cover in his place. In a sense Barça almost played 1 ½ defenders at the back in order to balance structure and dynamics.
Because Mascherano was playing deep and the Getafe striker was marked, Mascherano was also nearly always open as a deep point of reference and outlet to retain possession.
The other structural elements shown in the diagram relates to the wingers. Both stayed very wide and up the pitch. The main purpose here was to create tactical width in order to stretch the two full backs as wide as possible.
As is suggested by the diagram – Barcelona utilized a structure which would make the pitch as big as possible given that the match unfolded in only one half and limited space was present behind a 4-5 man defensive line sitting deep.
While it’s always difficult to exactly describe Barça’s formation because of how dynamic and fluid the team plays, patterns do emerge. Those patterns speak to the structure that Guardiola looks to create as a foundation for the team’s movement, position switching and other dynamics.
In this regard, while there are several different numerical designations one can use to describe the Barça system there are certain themes that anchored how Guardiola set up his side for this match.
As described above, Barça played with two at the back to ensure that there would be a spare man at the back against Getafe’s lone striker.
Two players roughly played in the same line across midfield-Busquets and Puyol.
Xavi shuttled in a free orchestration role but was often playing along the same region/line as Busquets and Puyol in midfield.
Two wingers pressed wide and up the pitch against the Getafe backline.
Three attackers played free or semi-structured roles: Messi, Iniesta and Sanchez. These players generally pressed agains the Getafe backline or dropped into the space between the lines while also moving into midfield as needed dynamically.
At the same time, because Getafe was defending deep and extremely compact, these three attackers in free/semi-structured roles generally played very high up the pitch.
Pulling these themes together the best way to describe the Barcelona formation is as a 2-3-5. In essence, Guardiola “re-inverted the pyramid” Wilson described.
Again at times in the match Barça could be thought of as playing a 3-4-3 or a 2-2-2-4 or even a 1-2-2-5. But overall, balancing accuracy with parsimony, a 2-3-5 is likely the single best summarization.
If the dominant tactical trend of the 20th century was the inversion of the 2-3-5 pyramid towards a 5-3-2, in this match, Guardiola was almost reverting that pyramid back in time. Back to two at the back, three in midfield and five in attack. Or more accurately, driven by necessity and his philosophy of football, Guardiola reinterpreted the past to enact a system that was both very old and entirely new at the same time.
The image below summarizes the general positioning of the Barcelona system, particularly when the team was building out of the back. Because the Barça system was so well spaced it was actually somewhat challenging to find a shots where all ten outfield players were present. I bring this up because Barça so dominated possession and retained so much possession in the Getafe half play in the middle region of the pitch wasn’t necessarily indicative of much of the match. Nonetheless the image shows the basic formation well:
At the base of Barcelona’s “re-inverted pyramid,” Mascherno is deep along with Adriano who is slightly advanced in the back two as he bring the ball out.
Notice how Puyol is both wide right and relatively advanced already. He is playing on nearly the same line as Xavi and Busquets.
Cuenca and Pedro are both very wide and high up the pitch. Sanchez is in the center occupying the CB. Both Iniesta and Messi are in advanced positions between the lines but very close to the front line.
In essence, one could describe this formation as a 2-3-2-3. But as we’ll see in subsequent images for much of the match this kind of formation was more a variant on a base 2-3-5.
On this point, one thing to note in this image is how many triangles Messi and Iniesta create in the formation by dropping even slightly into the space between the lines. This kind of positioning to create triangles is particularly important during buildup play which is why both players are between the lines on opposite sides of the pitch. This is another good example of how Guardiola enacts structure within the “carousel” of Barcelona’s passing game.
Another point to note on this image is the problem that tactical width creates for the defense. Pedro and Cuenca are both equally wide on opposite flanks. However, look at how radically different Getafe’s defense reacts to that width. This image summarizes much of what happened in the match.
The L FB of Getafe is forced to pull in centrally in order to mark Messi. Sanchez, in his point of reference role up top, is already occupying the L CB. In general teams look to double mark Messi. At minimal they must have at least one marker on him at all times. As such the L FB narrows.
This means that Cuenca winds up alone in space completely unmarked. Amplifying this effect on the that flank is the positioning of the LW. Because Messi is preferably double marked the LW also narrows and is dropping back to support the L FB. This is why attackers positioning themselves between the lines can create such problems. There’s often no direct defender to account for them.
Critical to this flank in addition is Puyol’s intelligent positioning. Notice how Puyol reads the position of the LW. The Barça captain moves wide right – nearly as wide as Cuenca but intentionally stays deep also to maximize his space.
Barça have two players on the right flank who are essentially unmarked. This happened over and over in this match. Additionally, Puyol consistently read the match to position himself free from the defense. He was the player who had the most time and space on the ball throughout.
This defensive problem caused by tactical width would create the context for how Barcelona scored its first and third goals (more later).
On the opposite flank notice how differently Getafe is defending Pedro. The full back is closely marking him along the touchline. Unlike Cuenca he is not free in space.
However, this creates an entirely different problem for Getafe. Their backline along the right is unable to stay narrow. Because the R FB is marking Pedro wide a significant gap in the channel between the R FB and R CB has developed. The R CB doesn’t want to adjust his position because he is looking to support defense through the middle on Sanchez and Messi. Leaving these kinds of gaps in the channel against Barcelona is disastrous.
This defensive response to width would help lead to Barcelona’s second goal.
The primary adjustment Getafe made to these problems as the match went on was to drop another player to the back line to act as a fifth defender. This allowed them to better mark Pedro and Cuenca wide while lessening the risk of gaps in the channels. However, this in turn meant that they lost a player in midfield which made it even more difficult for them retain any possession and attack. Guardiola functionally turned tactical width into attack into another form of defense.
Finally, notice how Iniesta between the lines, like Messi, if is being double marked. This creates open space for Adriano to run into with the ball. This happened throughout the match and was part of why playing a fixed back two rather than Mascherano and a player rotating into the other back two spot would have been highly inefficient on Guardiola’s part.
Here is a different view of that basic 2-3-5 structure from a different angle:
The Base: Two at the Back
In the prior images we saw the arrangement at the back Barça played most often – Mascherano deep as a sweeper and Adriano partnered with him.
However, that second defensive role varied as different player occupied it at different times depending on match dynamics.
In the image above Adriano is positioned towards the left and advanced when Getafe recover the ball. In this transition situation, because Adriano isn’t in position to double mark the Getafe striker with Mascherano Puyol drops back.
This was a general tactical principle Guardiola implemented in this match. He always looked to have a spare man at the back.
Above Puyol Adriano is along the flank pressuring the ball. Busquets is supporting him. At the same time Puyol who had prior made a run forward isn’t in position to defend at the back.
Given that the two lateral center of the “backline three” halves are out of central, deep position one would expect Mascherano to be in a 1 vs 1 situation with Miku. However, he’s not. Instead, Iniesta has read the situation and dropped to deep to assume that open defensive role alongside Mascherno. In addition notice their positioning. Iniesta is most immediately marking the striker while Mascherano is deeper for cover. The structure and relationship of that back two base doesn’t change – even when it’s an attacking central midfielder filling one of roles. This is a great example of who Barça defends as a unit.
Again, while Barça generally played two at the back the general tactical approach Guardiola looked to implement was to have a spare man at the back. This is exemplified in the image below where Getafe gets 4 attackers forward on goal kick.
Getafe has sent central striker and two wingers forward. Barcelona’s response is to drop Busquets back while Adriano and Puyol also move deep. The full back has also gone up field but Pedro has tracked his run. Getage have sent four players upfield – but Barça still retains a spare man at the back.
Part of the idea of having a spare man at the back is that this player’s primary role should be cover rather than marking. As such, in the two man defensive formation Guardiola instructed one player to pressure the lone striker while Mascherano swept behind.
Notice how Adriano isn’t simply marking Miku in the center of the pitch or when the striker is on the left. Adriano has tracked him to pressure all the way to the opposite flank. Also, notice how Barça aren’t immediately double marking Miku. Adriano is marking and pressuring him 1 vs 1. Mascherano stays deeper to provide cover.
Midfield Three and Attacking Five
In this match Guardiola, by playing most of the match with a back two, took one player and turned him into an additional wide forward compared to how Barcelona usually play. The other defender taken out of the backline was turned into an additional midfielder of sorts. This was essentially the position and role Puyol occupied.
The image above typifies how Barcelona played in midfield for much of the match. Notice how high up Puyol is playing. He, Busquets and Xavi are effectively playing on the same line (as was evidenced on the average positional diagram as well).
The basic structure of three attackers is also visible with Pedro and Cuenca keeping tactical width close to the touchlines with Sanchez in the middle. Iniesta and Messi are technically between the lines but they are so far upfield and Getafe was so compact that they are close to playing on the same line as Pedro, Sanchez and Cuenca. All match long Messi and Iniesta would station themselves in very advanced position and fall off that line front line to support possession. In the image above Iniesta is running back towards Xavi to make himself available.
In addition to Puyol joining midfield, the other thing which was different about how Barça organized this region was it’s shape and orientation. Barça usually play a three man midfield with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. Those three are arranged in a triangle. Against Getafe, the midfield orientation was very different. It was much more linear and flat. It almost had a geometry similar to the midfield of a 4-4-2.
In this match triangles were created dynamically through the movement of Messi, Iniesta and Sanchez dropping back off the front line while Pedro and Cuenca stayed wide. Those five players operated as a synchronized five man unit balancing the need to attack in numbers while still supporting midfield to retain possession. This can be seen in the image above as Iniesta is dropping back off a five man front line to support midfield play. If Iniesta continues his run above into space multiple triangles are formed: Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets; Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro. Iniesta, Busquets, Sanchez; Iniesta Sanchez, Messi.
Barcelona used this strategy to strong effect throughout the match. Arrange both the front five and midfield in relatively linear arrangement. Move players back off that front five to create triangles dynamically. This allowed them to create geometry on the pitch in response to Getafe trying to control space through shape.
The reason for this unusual, linear midfield three was that even in this region Guardiola was looking to create width. Puyol generally stayed wide in open space.
Notice how upfield and wide Puyol is playing with the ball. He is advanced of Busquets and Xavi. This was due to the fact that Getafe prioritized defending very narrow – especially in midfield around the Barça right flank. The reason why they did so was due to concerns about having multiple defenders around Messi at all times.
In the image above notice who Getafe are now playing five at the back. This allows them to extend their L FB laterally to mark Cuenca. However, there is now no natural defender to mark Puyol. As such he was open as an outlet all match long – as long as he stayed wide. If Puyol were to pinch into the middle of the pitch it would have been far easier for Getafe’s narrow midfield line to mark him while still marking Messi.
Five Man Attack
While certain players would drop off the front line into midfield to support possession and combination play, Barça consistently attacked with five players pushed high against the Getafe backline throughout the match.
In the image above, Barça have five attackers in a line pushed against Getafe defense. By flooding forward deep into the box, Barça have caused the defense to lose shape (compare this image to prior images where Getafe were arranged in two clear banks). To further augment the confusion, Iniesta and Cuenca have switched positions.
Even with the apparent chaos created through all of this movement, notice Barcelona’s utilization of structure here. Pedro remains wide left. Iniesta has switched positions with Cuenca but even so he remains wide of the most lateral Getafe defender on the Barça right flank (this points out how width has important relative dimensions). Sanchez, almost back to goal, watches the play and acts as a point of reference.
In midfield this same discipline is retained. Puyol remains wide of the most lateral defender and Busquets stays deep acting as a pivot. They are both unmarked and Puyol forms a direct outlet for Xavi to swing play to the other flank through.
Notice that by staying even a few steps deep of the line Xavi and Puyol are playing on, Busquets forms a triangle in midfield. This is necessary because Barça are relatively linear along that front line. Geometry can’t come from Iniesta, Messi or Sanchez as they are moving aggressively towards goal as a unit.
Creating Opportunities: The Balance of Structure and Dynamics in Barça’s 2-3-5
Two of the primary purposes of defending deep is that it facilitates defending in numbers and controlling space in front of goal. Guardiola’s priority in this match was to diminish the numerical advantage Getafe would normally enjoy by defending in this way.
To accomplish this Guardiola was willing to send players forward by utilizing only a sweeper and support defender at the back. By doing this, Guardiola always had at least eight outfield players in the Getafe half to combat the nine defenders they utilized. In addition, because the support defender next to Mascherano was a flexible role players would rotate in and out of, Guardiola in fact often had nine outfield players involved in the attack within the Getafe half. Despite looking to defend deep, Getafe didn’t necessarily enjoy numerical superiority even close to their eighteen yard box.
This however only minimized the issue of Getafe having numerical superiority deep. Getafe could also maintain shape to control space. To address this problem, Guardiola balanced structural elements in the Barça system with dynamics to great effect. We’ve covered a number of those points in this review already. Now we’ll take a more detailed look at how this combination of numbers forward coupled with structure and dynamics led to opportunities.
In the image above play has shifted close to the touchline on Barça’s left flank. Because Mascherano has shifted and stepped up to close down the ball Puyol has dropped deep into the sweeper position. Even though the blocks of both teams have shifted leftwards Cuenca remains wide right of the most lateral full back.
Pedro controls Mascherano’s header sending the ball to Iniesta who passes the ball to Messi. Messi deftly chest passes the ball to Sanchez. The action is all taking place on the left side of the pitch. However, the key movement is occurring on the right.
In the image above Sanchez has received the ball from Messi and both are not attacking aggressively. What’s critical however is to look at what Cuenca is doing. Specifically, compare Cuenca’s positioning in the last two images.
What is Cuenca’s reaction to Barcelona controlling possession at the extreme left flank? He makes a run wide right. In other words, rather than running to the ball or closer to the play, Cuenca runs away from it. This is the embodiment of tactical width.
And in the second image where Sanchez has the ball we see the impact that Cuenca’s intelligent movement has. Notice how he’s dragged the Getage L FB out of position. This is very evident by the large gap in space between the L FB and the Getafe CB. The CB is holding position to close down the ball. The L FB is caught in between because he’s tracked Cuenca’s run away from the ball. This creates a large channel (This space is similar to the one we saw earlier in this review that was created when the full back edged towards Pedro.)
In the image above, Sanchez is about to uncurl the shot that would score Barça’s first goal. Notice how he’s dribbled into the exact gap in space between the CB and FB that was created by Cuenca’s run away from the ball. The L FB is late to cover due to the room he had to make up. Interestingly, in the image you can see that even at this late moment the L FB is still concerned about Cuenca – he’s still trying to hedge his bets that Sanchez may pass the ball to Cuenca (he isn’t directly facing Sanchez -he’s trying to maintain visual contact with Cuenca while moving over to support defense on Sanchez). It is only a moment later – when the shot is off – that the FB fully commits to Sanchez. By then it is too late.
Above Barcelona are again attacking as a five man front line. Here Sanchez has come wide to receive a throw in. When he does Pedro loops inwards. Sanchez plays the ball to Iniesta who dribbles to the middle and sends the ball to Messi. With both Iniesta and Pedro towards the middle Sanchez reads the play and assumes the role of tactical width.
However, this movement has unsettled Getafe and caused them to lose shape. As usual, defenses react to Messi receiving the ball by immediately allocating multiple defenders to stop him. Two midfielder look to fence him off. The L CB has shifted over behind the midfield to create a second line of defense. Because Sanchez has vacated central space, the other CB looks to drop deeper to cover.
Notice how Pedro also stays relatively wide rather than running into the center. Pedro is also providing a form of tactical width here as he’s making sure that the FB doesn’t have the chance to pull into the middle and that the other CB has to keep an eye on a player on his left side.
As seen in the prior image, Iniesta reads all of this and runs into the exact space vacated by Sanchez and kept open by Pedro. With the nominal central striker pulled wide, Iniesta moves to fill that space. He now acts as a point of reference for the attack. Messi slides an intelligent ball to Iniesta who executes a brilliant back heel return to Messi to set up Barcelona’s second goal.
Above Getafe are defending narrow. Messi receives the ball in midfield and the L FB pulls in further to the middle to help defend. Cuenca however continues providing tactical width out right. Even when Messi is pressured by multiple defenders he knows he has an outlet open on that flank. He passes the ball to Cuenca who is now completely open in space. There isn’t a defender remotely close to him. Cuenca drives the ball forward and delivers a fantastic cross to Sanchez who heads home Barça’s third score. Delivering accurate crosses isn’t an easy piece of skill. Cuenca’s job was made much easier because he is so free in space.
How Does Guardiola Make This Work?
What I’ve tried to do in this review is both provide an analysis of how Barcelona played vs. Getafe while also placing some of the innovations Guardiola implemented in some historical context. Barça functioned dynamically out of a 2-3-5 formation, a system that was last regularly played prior to the 1920’s. This is not to say in any way that Barça is reproducing those older systems. Formations are neutral. How they are implemented are what largely matters. And the 2-3-5 Barça played likely has limited similarities to the 2-3-5 formation that once formed the norm for football.
But there are touchpoints. Guardiola utilized this formation to minimize the numerical advantage Getafe could create around goal by defending deep. He did this by taking positions off the backline and shifting them forward.
Guardiola then added elements of structure and dynamics into that base 2-3-5 to increase Barcelona’s ability to break Getafe’s shape. I’ve tried to demonstrate some of this through images of key moments throughout the match. To see how some of these dynamics unfolded from a different perspective, see this excellent video from Allas on Barça’s formation.
The 2-3-5 was a formation that grew out of a period of time when the game was structured around attack. As the game modernized, this intent became less and less pragmatic. How is it possible for Guardiola to utilize key features from such an antiquated way of playing?
Ultimately, what makes this feasible now, what likely makes the Barça 2-3-5 very different from it’s ancestor formation, is the way Barcelona defends as a complete team unit and the multi-dimensional skill sets of the players on the team.
Guardiola shifted players off the backline to implement a two man unit. But he never reduced the number of defenders. The team still defended with ten outfield players. Guardiola just shifted where they were positioned on average. This involved real risk as the last line of defense was only two men. But Guardiola was willing to absorb those risks in order to gain other advantages.
How can Barça play this way? The sequence below summarizes for me how they can do so.
Barça lose the ball. But look at how well organized they immediately become out of possession. They are arranged in three clear banks and arranged in zones that cover the pitch. Every Getafe player is marked. Busquets pressures the ball. Another midfielder makes a run to provide a passing option but Xavi is tracking him.
Another important feature to this image is Sanchez and Messi’s positioning. They can see that even though Busquets is pressuring alone, Getafe are having difficulty advancing the ball. Rather than retreating to hunt for the ball both stay on their players and wait. Take note of where Sanchez is positioned in particular.
When Busquets hounds the man with the ball deep enough Messi springs to press the ball as well. Since every outlet is marked the midfielder is forced into a back pass to the CB that Messi had been marking. Once he does that Messi then attacks in defense to try to dispossess the ball.
Consider what has just happened. While Barcelona haven’t recovered the ball they’ve not only forced it backwards but even more importantly taken it away from a midfielder and forced it to a CB, a player who is likely mush less skilled on the ball. The defensive attack then starts on the CB. In essence, Barça have systematically decreased Getafe’s ability to retain possession despite playing a very conservative back pass.
Notice how the rest of the defense, sensing Getafe is in danger, stay on their marks. Barça usually defend by hunting in packs. In this instance it’s not necessary.
Finally, notice how Sanchez has changed his positioning on his marker. Reading the play develop Sanchez gets behind his marker slightly and at an angle towards goal. In essence, Sanchez can already see what’s going to happen next before it does.
Uncomfortable on the ball with Messi pressing him, the Getafe CB turns back towards goal. But Sanchez, having already read the probability of a back pass to the keeper is already started a dead sprint aimed at the passing lane. This is the kind of intelligent, insight into the game that Barça possesses throughout its squad and it’s critical to how they can defend so efficiently through anticipation and reading the game.
The ball is played back to the keeper but due to Sanchez’s read of the back pass before it happened the keeper is under great duress. Sanchez uses his pace to close space and just misses the ball. Getafe’s L CB – the player Sanchez had been marking – is now open for a pass. But the keeper is under so much pressure that he doesn’t have time to find the open man. In addition, Barça have systematically forced players with poorer ball skills to retain possession for Getafe. The keeper’s only interest now is to boot the ball away so Sanchez doesn’t strip him of the ball so close to goal. Ultimately this leads to a turnover. Barça get the regain possession.
Barça may have been utilizing a 2-3-5 formation. But doesn’t mean they are playing with only two defenders. So many players can be sent into attack in the context of the modern game and the way it’s played because all of those attackers also read the game and defend vigorously the second possession is lost.
High performance systems integrate their structure and dynamics cohesively so that their components add up to be more than the “sum of their parts.” Structure and dynamics feed into the other. This is central to the Barcelona system as well. How Guardiola implements these features varies from match to match depending on requirements. Against Getafe he expanded his level of innovation by drawing on something very old: “reverting the pyramid” back to a 2-3-5 formation that hasn’t been played in decades. But rather than simply mimicking the past he reinterpreted it and made it new and relevant to the modern game.
We often believe that tradition and innovation are in opposition. But often they aren’t. Or at least they don’t need to be. Many of the same needs and goals that drove the past echo today. We can re-appropriate those yearning to make things new. That’s what imagination can do when it’s coupled with deep understanding.
Experimentation isn’t an aside for Barcelona. It’s at the core of how they function. The system is set up on principles but how those principles are implemented can vary widely. Guardiola learns and improves the team through an evolutionary series of trial and error. Not all experiments work – but they form lessons. Getafe was one of those experiments, one that was successful in particularly interesting ways.
It’s interesting to see this level of experimentation happen at this time of year. Certainly it was in part driven by need (injury and suspensions). But Guardiola often looks to push creativity when Barça is going to face it’s most difficult challenges. Often he does this with the Clásico in mind.
The last time he undertook this level of experimentation was probably the match vs. Rayo Vallecano in the first half of the season where Barça moved through three different formations without making any substitutes. That match formed the template for how the team would play against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu shortly after. We may very well see Guardiola implement elements he experimented with in the Getafe match against Chelsea and the next Clásico.
(1) Wilson, Jonathan. Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics. Orion Books. London. 2009.