It’s been a while, guys. I apologize for my Thong Boy like work rate over the past few months. Anyways, the Deportivo La Coruna and Club World Cup games have been fascinating from a tactical perspective. Pep employed a few new wrinkles into our usual gameplans that deserved their own post so here it is. Let’s start out in Galicia at one of my favorite Spanish cities: A Coruña.
More after the jump…
Let’s use this brief youtube video for reference. Some of the usual diagrams are also included.
Pause at 1:18– This is when Pedro came in for Henry. Yeah, that’s a 4-2-4. Pep is awesome or nuts or both. Keep in mind that the game is still tied 1-1 and we are on the road. This is usually not considered the best time to introduce a new wrinkle to your tactics but there you go. We have Pedro and Iniesta as true wingers, Ibra as a 9, Xavi and Busi as advanced double pivots, and Messi playing in the hole between the pivots and the front line as a supporting striker. Like so:
Have we seen this before? Back in the day of the Dutch coaches, we used a somewhat similar 3-3-1-3 inspired by Master of Terror van Gaal’s legendary 1995 Ajax squad that also showed up under Rijkaard. However, that formation was more of a 3-4-3 with a diamond midfield.
The three defenders were much less inclined to advance past the protection of the “bottom prong of the diamond” midfield protector. In other words, providing width was on the shoulders of the wingers who had less support than usual from overlapping fullbacks. Now, why is the general reaction to the phrase “4-2-4” usually something along the line of “that’s nuts!”? Look at the above diagrams. The 3-4-3 provides much greater midfield solidity. The front and midfield lines are connected, there are passing triangles all over the place, and the defensive midfielder at the foot of the diamond is in good position to provide diagonal cover in the case of a counterattack. In other words, it is a much more cohesive and solid formation. On the other hand, the nature of the 4-2-4 implies that the supply line between the back line and the front line is paper thin: two midfielders. What good do all of those fancy forwards do for you if you can’t get them the ball? By playing a 4-2-4 you risk giving up control of the midfield and the effectiveness of your forwards is reduced if they cannot get supply. Not to mention that you are heavily exposed to counterattacks with nobody to provide diagonal cover for your centerbacks, especially if the fullbacks are upfield. Make no mistake, this is a big risk. Real Madrid tried it against us when Busi was sent off (Kaka, Higuain, Benzema, and Raul up front) and Pep responded by bringing in the Yaya and moving Messi back to midfield. The result was that they lost control of midfield to a team playing with a man less. Again, its a risk.
What we see here in the Pep Version is a variation of this which Pep tweaked to use width to better effect with the trade-off of added exposure to counterattacks. The key is our fullbacks. The most common “park the bus” defense we see are two highly compacted and disciplined lines of defenders spread across goal. Sometimes its two lines of four whereas other times it is a backline of 5 and a line of four in front. Here’s a simplified example of a basic 8 man bus against our basic 4-3-3:
The more compact those two lines are, the harder the bus is to break. You will have a hard time getting behind such a defense so you try to get between it. Our goal is to open up spaces between the lines; both horizontally and vertically. To that effect we use three primary weapons:
1) Wingers and width. Why Pedro for Henry? Answer: for this type of tactic we need wingers who can de-stabilize through the wings. At that moment, a fresh spritely Pedro could do a better job of that than a tired 32 year old Henry. The two line parked bus has several weaknesses. One is that a concentrated attack through the wings would spread out the entire two lines by forcing defenders to shift towards the wings to cover the wingers and/or fullbacks. This opens up space horizontally through which midfielders can crash the box or throughballs can be filtered in. Also, one on ones can be had if you play your cards right and the key is having offensive players with the capacity to win those matchups on the wings. This is a very simplified diagram of the general idea behind the concept of width on offense:
Alternatively, a defense could choose to stay compact and instead shift towards the point of attack thus leaving the other wing wide open if you can move the ball to the other side quickly enough which can result in something like this. Either way, the defense gives something up when you attack through the wings.That is why width is so important on offense and Barca keeps pumping out guys like Pedro, Jeffren, Gai, and, eventually, Gerard Deulofeu from La Masia. It’s also why you will see Pep constantly motioning his hands outwards: “spread the damn field!”
2) Movement by Strikers to Separate the Lines. Another weakness of a parked bus is that by nature it makes it easy for attackers to stay onside (because defenders are parked so deep into the box). However, the flip side to that is that it is extremely hard to get throughballs into a striker. If the first line does not intercept the balls then the second one probably will. Thus, our striker should focus on two things: receiving aerial or hard crosses from the wings and drawing defenders out of position by moving the lines to open up spaces for either other players crashing the box or medium range shots at goal. This is where Zlatan comes in handy: as a legitimately scary aerial threat, he can move the opposing back line in such a scenario better than most strikers. In this formation, we want to attack through the wings and have one of the strikers time his run in conjunction with the wing attacker who has the ball (so as to stay onside) to move the opposing back line towards goal and separate them from the second line thus creating a hole that the other striker or a crashing midfielder can exploit. To hold the second line at bay, the pivots must stay nearby and provide the threat of shooting from a cutback pass that the second line must respect.
3) The Fullbacks Provide the Extra Man. This is where Pep got a little nuts. When you have a 4-2-4, conventional thinking provides that the wingers will provide the width while the fullbacks are needed to beef up midfield or provide diagonal cover for the exposed back line. Pep said: “screw it, that’s a 2 on 1 opportunity if they advance”. He instead alternately advanced both fullbacks depending on which side the point of attack was coming from. Why? As one of the opposing (defending) fullbacks, the natural instinct and traditional tactic is to mark the attacking winger because the CB’s will be occupied with the striker. You are supposed to count on the second defensive line to pick up advancing fullbacks. However, by attacking through the flank and moving one of the two pivots into the same sector, the second line defender can be neutralized by the pivot’s presence (as you will soon see) thus creating 2 on 1 opportunities. The drawback to this is that with the two pivots already advanced, we become highly vulnerable to counterattacks.
Now, let’s break down the video and see how this all comes together:
Pause at 1:24. Depor is defending in two compact lines of four. We are using the 4-2-4 with Messi as the supporting striker currently standing close to the two pivots and Alves already advanced. Notice how Xavi and Busi (the pivots) have shifted slightly to the right therefore indicating where the point of attack will be. Also note how alone Iniesta is on the left wing, they are not even marking him. Remember the two choices the defense has when the field is spread by wingers (mentioned in point #1 above)? Instead of spreading out, they have decided to stay compact and slightly shift towards the point of attack. If we would have been able to move the ball quickly enough to the other side then Iniesta would have had a good run into the box. Instead, we decide to spread the two defensive lines vertically.
Look at Messi . By him staying back with Busi, Xavi, and Alves, we outnumber the leftmost (from the defense’s perspective) three defenders on the second defensive line 4 to 3 thus forcing indecision (point #3 above). What about the fourth defender on the second line? He is held back by Iniesta’s presence on the other wing. With the two defending center midfielders occupied by Messi and Busi, the leftmost second line defender is caught in an island against Xavi and Alves. Since the defense chose to shift instead of spreading out, Alves has plenty of space to run through closer to the wing.
Pause at 1:26. Xavi now passes the ball to Alves in space. Since the second line defender was held back by Xavi’s presence, Alves has plenty of space to receive and pick off a pass. Notice what Zlatan did. He just switched to the right CB’s left side. By doing this he puts himself in a favorable position to receive an Alves cross and takes that CB temporarily out from the play. Thus, this forces the other (left) CB to hesitate. Should he cover Zlatan lest he be wide open to receive a cross or go out to cover Pedro? A subtle move but vital for this goal. Also, watch Messi. He is already beginning his move into the space between the lines. He takes out the rightmost defender on the second line by, similarly to Zlatan, running in front of him so as to be facing in the direction of the Alves attack. Also, he confuses the other second line defender by sneakily running behind him while he stares in Alves’ direction. When that defender notices Messi, he is already past him.
Pause at 1:28. Alves’s run has paid off. Filipe Luis (their left Fullback) panics and leaves Pedro to mark Alves (there’s the payoff from the 2 vs 1 situation with the fullbacks) since the second line defender is too far back to prevent a cross. Instead of crossing it, Alves will calmly pass to the now wide open Pedro who is not molested by the nearest centerback because that defender is too preoccupied with the impending cross to Zlatan he thinks is coming. Meanwhile, Messi has burned two second line defenders and is now in between the lines. One of the defenders is behind him and already knocked out from the play while the other is caught flat footed due to Messi ghosting in behind him.
Pause at 1:32. Pedro easily receives the ball and turns around to pass while continuing forward to keep Ibra onsides. Zlatan splits the two defensive lines vertically by continuing his run towards goal. His presence alone has prevented the CB’s from noticing the midget ghosting in behind them and they run with Zlatan to prevent the cross that is surely going to go to him. Messi has changed the names of the two second line defenders he left behind into Burnt and Toast and is in the hole between the two lines. As Zlatan crashes towards goal, the gap between defensive lines widens and there is only space and a pale Argentine midget in the middle.
Pause at 1:33. Pedro wisely sees Messi’s run and lays out a beautiful cross/pass that is a free header which Messi turns into a goal. Look at everybody’s positioning. Ibra separated the two defensive lines by moving their backline towards goal thus allowing Messi to ghost into the gap between the lines and Pedro read the move perfectly. Beautiful.
Why did I write about this goal? Sure, it was beautiful and Pep putting out a 4-2-4 was brilliant/crazy. However, it came back to mind when watching the Club World Cup. In the second half against Atalante, after Iniesta got injured, Pep put in Bojan so we ended up with Bojan, Pedro, Messi, Ibra, Xavi, and Busi. Count’em up: four forwards and two midfielders. Does that sound familiar? It seems like something we may see more of in the future. We won’t see it to start games but we will see it occasionally depending on the situation. It’s yet another interesting trick to add to our bag.
How about the second half against Estudiantes when we improved dramatically and were inches away from scoring several goals? At the half, Keita was subbed for Pedro (again, a midfielder for a forward). However, that was not a 4-2-4: it was the Ajax 3-3-1-3 I drew out above (hey, I did it for a reason 😉 ). It had mixed results in my opinion. We got plenty of chances and Ibra and Henry seemed to love it with the former presumably already used to it with him being ex-Ajax and all. However, Alves did not seem comfortable in his more withdrawn role (notice how he was pumping in his crosses from much further back than usual) and Messi never got comfortable with constantly changing positions with Xavi and playing so far away from goal. It is, however, something we may see more of, especially with our depleted depth in midfield for January. The possibility nobody has considered is that Pep may just move Alves to play as a midfielder in the 3-3-1-3 and play with just two true midfielders at the same time. Keep an eye on that development as well.