Common Misconceptions Debunked: Why Barça Need a 9

Or, corollary to that, ‘Why False 9 Isn’t a Viable System Anymore (At Least in Europe).’

Why hello there, BFB. Long time, no talk.

Well actually, there’s been plenty of talk but it’s mostly been about this year’s Barça. Not enough possession, too direct, crap defense, the whole nine yards. But I’m here to blather on about this other thing that hasn’t been beaten to death enough and that is: Barça need a striker, preferably one with height and can play a hybrid CF/RW role.

“No!” you say. “What Barça need are center backs! I mean, come on, they just signed Neymar.”

Well, I don’t disagree with you about the CBs – and yes, I think we do need another CB even with Bartra – but I’m going to detail all the ways Barça need a striker (which Neymar is not) and hopefully by the end of this gargantuan post, you’ll agree with me.

But before I do that I want you to turn the clock back to the 2008-09 season, commonly known as the treble winning season. Do you remember exactly how Barça played back then?  If you don’t, it was like this: Messi played on the right wing, Henry on the left wing,  Samuel Eto’o in the center as a striker, Pep was there, Hleb was there, and we won a bunch of stuff.

Also, Messi often subbed in for Hleb. Don’t believe me? This just in: pictorial evidence.

Yeah, this is a thing that happened. Twice.
Yeah, this is a thing that happened. Twice.

But that isn’t the important point. The bigger question I want to ask is: do you remember how the opposition teams defended Barça back then?

If not, then hey oh. That’s what I’m here for. I’m going to refresh your memory.

a return to glory days, where it all began : barça 2008/09

Barça at that point was a team that was defended like one that had a central striker. What does that mean? It means in a four-man defense, the two CBs would defend Eto’o (the striker), the left full back would defend Messi (the right winger) and the right fullback would defend Henry (the left winger).

Henry is #14, Eto'o is #9, and Messi is #10
Henry is #14, Eto’o is #9, and Messi is #10

Now, teams will always look to nullify the main threat – that’s just basic tactics. The reason the likes of Messi and Henry were often left one v one against their respective fullback was because the opposing team felt that Eto’o was the main goal scoring threat. Think about the roles wingers usually have: they are there to support (i.e. assist) the striker who scores the goal, so even when they beat their marker, it’s likely that they will just square the ball back to the striker instead of going for goal themselves. The opposition team, anticipating this, will have two players on the striker  so they can cut out the pass before it reaches him.

And yes, these diagrams were made by me. Cos that's what I do.
And yes, these diagrams were made by me. Cos that’s what I do.

It might sound laughable now that teams would choose to focus on Eto’o instead of Messi but you have to remember the context back then. Messi was not a known goal scorer  (his career best back then was 15 goals and that was seen as very impressive), was often injured, and Eto’o had been the club’s leading goal scorer for many seasons while Henry was still trying to fit in, so he was quite inconsistent. Therefore it made sense, tactically, to try and stifle Eto’o, and take their chances with Messi and Henry one-v-one against the fullbacks.

Of course, this was treble-winning Barça, not the Barça that had finished 3rd the season previous 21 points away from RM, so that worked about as well as you might expect.

With Eto’o occupying the CBs, all Henry and Messi had to do was beat their marker and they’d be free in loads of space to score themselves instead of squaring a pass to Eto’o – and they both did that regularly, Messi especially.

For an example, take this goal. It was the goal-ahead goal against Malaga on March 22, 2009.

In a regular passage of play Xavi gets the ball in the center circle.

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That’s Eto’o in the middle and Henry at the top of the picture is maintaining width. Xavi spots Messi on the right (off-screen) and passes to him.


As you can see (or maybe not, sorry for the picture quality!) Messi is one-on-one against the Malaga left back. I circled Eto’o (in yellow) because I want you to notice how many defenders are in and around his area. Malaga is rushing to cover their left back since it’s clear Messi is in a dangerous position, but it goes to show how they focus on closing the space around Eto’o.*

(*But even then, Malaga aren’t marking Eto’o as tightly as they do to “false 9 Messi” but I’ll get to that later).

As you’d expect, Messi beats the Malaga fullback in one move – a beautiful chest pass to himself.

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In the picture below, you’ll see there is a defender in front of Messi and one that is trailing behind Leo on the left hand side. Normally, Messi is double teamed by the left back and the left midfielder who comes over for cover.  If things get really dicey, maybe the left center back will come over too, but that’s it. Just something I wanted to mention.

Anyways, Messi will continue his dribble but the interesting thing is the Malaga center back I’ve circled in red. You’d expect him to come over and help the defender circled purple and/or act as cover in case purple-circled defender gets beat by Messi. But he doesn’t. Why? Because he’s keeping his eye on Samuel Eto’o. Remember – wingers generally pass to the striker and leaving Eto’o open and in space is a pretty bad idea, so they’ll take their chances with Messi.


So what happens? Well, you can guess.  The right center back ends up coming across but by then it’s too late and Messi scores.

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So that was how many goals were scored in that season. Great, huh? Well, it wasn’t always that easy.

teams adapt

Of course, once it became apparent that Messi was scoring many, many goals from the right wing and was becoming the bigger threat, teams did what they always do: they adapted. That meant they started to overload the flanks — that is, throw a bunch of people Messi’s way instead of Eto’o’s – and tried to limit the amount of space Messi has.

And that last point is key and something I was to stress right now. Leo Messi is obviously a brilliant footballer who could dribble in a phone booth, but one thing is very clear: Messi is at his most dangerous when he has space to play.

It’s a simple equation: Messi + space = dangerous and Dangerous Messi = bad things for the other teams = Barça winning a lot. Therefore Barça managers (and any manager with sense) are always thinking about  how to devise a system where Messi is in the most space. (Some succeeded better than others, but that’s the focus.)

That may seem like an obvious bit of common sense, but sometimes it isn’t.

So the most space Messi has in that era is on the right where he only has two defenders at most to deal with. Fantastic, play him there. Except teams said nope, and tried to put a stop to it. How? Well, just look at this from the Copa del Rey quarterfinal against Atletico Madrid on January 2009 (yep, from the same 2008-09 season. Teams adapt fast to deadly threats, don’tcha know?)


In the above pic, Messi just received the ball on the right. He has Alves with him and you can see the four (arguably five, if you could Simao) defenders in his way.

Messi and Alves actually link up in the following moments to score the first goal (sick backheel from Alves) but it’s interesting to note how open Seydou Keita is (circled in red) and how much space Bojan (technically the striker here, circled in green) has. This will have a bearing on what happens when a false 9 comes into play.

Also – another thing I want to add: it’s pretty obvious here that between Bojan, Iniesta (who was playing LW) and Messi, Leo is the bigger threat. Thus, Atleti focused on limiting his space and not Bojan’s, despite the latter being the striker. Remember: teams nullify the biggest goal scoring threat.

(Sorry, Bojangles)

As an aside: That Atleti game is actually one of my favourite Messi games, because even though it was just after winter break, Messi was coming back from injury, and Atleti was totally focused on him, he still scored a hat trick and completely dominated the game. It was awesome.

Okay, so now that I’ve refreshed your memory about that Barça, let me move onto the main tactical system of the Guardiola era: the false 9.

what is the false 9 system

To make this short: it’s when a player plays in the 9 role – that is occupies the two CBs – but drops into the midfield. It makes the CBs marking that player unsure as to whether they should follow him or stay in position (which is hard for them because there’s no one there to mark anymore). That hesitation causes gaps in the defense to form, allowing space for midfield runners to crash the box and the player in the false 9 position to spray passes into space for the wingers.

why false 9 worked

Well, the main reason why the false 9 was so successful was it allowed Messi to stay in pockets of space close to goal and influence the game in the most dangerous zone of the pitch – the center. It allowed him to escape being boxed in on the wing by defenders (like in that Atleti pic from above). Messi’s ability to dribble and his vision made it doubly effective. He could pass with startling accuracy (just think of David Villa’s second goal against RM in the 5-0 Clasico) and if that fails, he could simply dribble past his marker and generally wreak havoc.

Also, teams still thought Eto’o was the striker (which he was, to be fair), so when Eto’o moved to the right wing, it threw the opposition CBs and the LB for a loop because the CBs weren’t sure if they should follow Eto’o out wide and the LB was not sure if he should follow Messi to the center.

There are two games from the treble season where the above happens that I want to highlight. The first is the 2-6 Clasico on May 2, 2009 when Barça effectively sealed the Liga title and was one of the most memorable wins of the Pep era.

In this match, Barça were only two points ahead of RM and the game was sandwiched between those two Chelsea games in the CL. Barça came into the game drawing 0-0 with Chelsea and the momentum was in RM’s favor – they had closed the gap on Barça from 12 points at Christmas to a paltry 2 and were feeling good about themselves.

This game was memorable not only because of scoreline (but oh yeah, that’s part of it!) but also because it was the first game I can recall where Pep used Messi in the false 9 position to start the game (as shown in the picture below).


Just look at the sheer amount of space, particularly between the lines – that means between Lass and the CBs, which I’ve indicated with a black line – and between Ramos and Cannavaro. That becomes important.

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If I go in-depth about this match, this post will be a million pages long, so I’m only going to highlight two of the goals Barça scored: Thierry Henry’s equalizing goal and Messi’s first.

Madrid actually pressed Barça well in the first 15 minutes of this game and took the lead through Higuain. Luckily Barça responded minutes later.

It starts here with Messi picking up the ball.


You can see Cannavaro’s moved up to try and close Messi down, so Ramos shuffles over to try and cover for him – but that allows Henry to make a run behind Ramos. (Note: Look at Sammy Eto’o and how he occupies one of the CBs  for Madrid in addition to the Madrid LB. Remember that although he was playing right wing in this game, he’s still a striker. I’ll talk about this later)

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As seen above, Messi plays  a brilliant pass to Henry. Ramos tries to intercept with this weird flying kick thing (lmao) but it’s obviously ineffective, and Henry goes on to score.

A couple of minutes later, El Capita Puyol heads Barça ahead which was beyond epic (kissing-the-armband celebration FTW) and things are looking good. It would look better when Xavi and Messi combine to put Barça up 1-3 at halftime  – and that’s the other goal I want to dissect.

I’ve talked pretty extensively on how Eto’o moved right, but another key factor of the false 9 are the midfield runners. In this goal, it’s highlighted brilliantly through Xavi.

It starts off with Madrid under pressure. Messi had robbed the ball off Gago but Cannavaro manages to pass the ball back to Casillas before Henry gets to the pass. Casillas dishes the ball to Metzelder (one of the two CBs RM played, the other was Cannavaro. Good times, eh?) and he passes to Lass.

Unfortunately for Madrid (hahahaha), Xavi is still high up the pitch and he robs Lass of the ball.

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Xavi passes the ball to Messi and you can see where this is going:

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And then it’s off to the races and Leo scores.

Catch these midgets if you can RM! (Spoiler alert: you can't)
Catch these midgets if you can, RM! (Spoiler alert: you can’t)

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In general, Xavi played further up the pitch under Pep – but it was in these “false 9 Messi” games where we could see the impact he had when he played that far up.

ciao italia

So that was the first of the two false 9 games I mentioned. The second? The 2009 Champions League Final against Manchester United.

There are so, so many things I can say about this game but if I did that, this post would never end, so the bit that I want to blab about is the first 10 minutes of the game.

Here’s an interesting tidbit: teams back then used to try and battle Barça for possession. It seems like a foregone conclusion nowadays that Barça will have 60-70% possession but that wasn’t the case then, so when the false 9 system went into effect there were often large pockets of space for Messi, Iniesta and especially Xavi to play some deadly passes into. (Forgoing possession to Barça was another way teams adapted, and the “parked bus” tactic came to be the norm against Barça when teams realized giving space to FCB by pressing Barça players was a terrible idea – but I’ll get to that later.)

So in this game, Man Utd started the game with the majority of the possession and much like Madrid in the 2-6 Clasico, they really pressed Barça.

Pep started this game with Eto’o in the centre and Messi out wide marking Evra. (Apologies for the picture quality!)

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The thing is, Man United prepared this game with Eto’o in the center in mind. They knew that Messi liked to drift inside, so early on they often passed the ball to Evra who moved forward to great effect.

For example, Vidic in the above pic passes the ball to Evra (circled in yellow in the pic below). Messi doesn’t track him and Evra makes a run forward.


You can see Anderson making a run forward as well, but what I want you to focus on is Puyol.

Defenders have two jobs: to defend the attacking player, but also to defend space as well. What does “defend space” mean? Look at the area I’ve marked in red. That’s empty space Puyi has to defend.


Puyol can’t close Evra down because if he comes over, he’s leaving a lot of space behind him. Anderson is making a run – but so are many of the Man Utd players. Just look at Cristiano Ronaldo and The Yaya who is marking him (underlined in yellow). If Puyol commits to Evra, he’s leaving The Yaya at risk – there’s no doubt Cristiano will run into that space that will open up. And, uh, that’s pretty bad, to say the least.

As I said before, Man Utd started very brightly in this game. Anderson continues his run and is fouled by the Yaya. That leads to a free kick that Valdes has to save and a rebounding shot from Park Ji-Sung (or Ji-Sung Park, for those who want the Western naming conventions) that Pique blocks brilliantly.

Around four minutes in, Pep has seen enough and switches Messi to false 9.

posting because Pep has hair, omg
posting cos Pep has hair, omg

I know this because a minute later, you can see how Barça line up.

That red blob is Eto'o and that blue blob is Messi, I swear.
That red blob is Eto’o and that blue blob is Messi, I swear.

To further illustrate the move, I post the pics below:

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Okay, so now that I’ve set up the stage, let’s look at Eto’o’s opening goal. It starts with Vidic receiving that ball.


He’s got four passing lanes open to him: to Carrick, to Ferdinand, to Evra and he can also pass back to Van der Sar. With both Messi and especially Eto’o closing him down, Vidic takes the safest option and passes back to Van der Sar (off screen).

However, Eto’o continues his run and closes Van der Sar down with remarkable speed.

Eto’o circled in orange. Yup.

Yeah, that dot is Eto’o. He’s running so fast, he’s literally a blur!

Anyways, Van der Sar boots the ball away and it bounces around until it reaches the feet of Iniesta. You know how that ends.

I really liked that Eto’o goal, because it showed that although Samu was on the wing, he still had the killer instinct and went for goal. The Man Utd CBs still defended Eto’o like he was a striker – and he was, but he was one who played on the wing and it opened up space for Messi and Iniesta to dribble the ball forward, and that was key to the goal.

(Also, I’ll post the links for you to watch this final again. For those complaining about this year’s Barça, take a good look at the one that won the 2009 CL final with 51% possession, 36-year-old Sylvinho at LB, Puyol at RB and The Yaya at center back – and still won.)

Alright, so that’s false 9. It was pretty sweet, to say the least.

why it doesn’t work anymore

It’s quite simple, really. Teams adapted. Again. That’s just what happens. It’s the nature of the game and what all great teams go through.

Coaches saw how much space Messi had in the center and correctly thought – this can’t go on. So they clogged the middle, which is to say what used to look roughly like this:

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Now looks like this:

credit: lev's vid
credit: lev’s vid

Time and time again, we see it happen. The dreaded “parked buses” that Barça struggle to find a way through. Just take a look at these videos, courtesy of Lev.

Remember way up in the post when I talked about Eto’o in the Malaga game? How he was surrounded by players but the marking was quite loose? That was because Malaga could afford to give Eto’o that much space. His first touch wasn’t very good and he is not a dribbler, so defenders can leave some legroom, so to speak.

This is not the case with Messi.

How many times have we seen him literally surrounded by five or six players with little to no room? Barça fans brag about it all the time – the ‘You know it’s Messi when this happens’ meme – but tactically speaking, that’s not good for the team.  Just look at this GIF from a Benfica game in 2012.

Benfica collapse centrally on Messi opening up space on the wing. Often when that happened in past seasons, Eto’o or Ibra would have space to take advantage of and score. But right now Barça is in the position where Messi is the main goalscoring threat, but he has absolutely no space to work with.

In a false 9 system, the player in that false 9 position drop into the midfield. For Barça that makes Messi drops deep and that allows Iniesta and Xavi to make forward runs, as well as gaps opening up for whoever is playing on the wings, be it Pedro, Alexis, Neymar, or Tello.

The problem is, neither of those players are natural or known goal scorer, except maybe Neymar (because it’s too early for me to tell yet). They don’t really shoot very much. Xavi and Iniesta’s first instinct is to pass. That’s just how they are. And that actually goes for many for the players Barça have right now. Pedro and Tello can score a goal here or there, but they aren’t as efficient and normally want to cross or pass the ball anyway. Same goes for the overlapping fullbacks, Alves/Montoya and Adriano/Alba.

All those players – they’ll pass to Messi. That’s entirely normal because Messi has a ridiculous conversion rate. Give him the ball and a large percentage of the time, it’s a goal.

But when teams crowd around Messi, sure, space opens up for the players on the wings but more often than not, they look to pass back to Messi anyway. (Alves is particularly egregious with this). With all those players around Leo, it’s likely the ball will either be intercepted or the space Messi has will disappear and he’ll be forced to pass back (or lose possession, which is the ultimate faux-pas at Barça).

Despite being open in that above GIF, no one took take advantage of that Messi pass and Barça lost possession to Benfica in the next play. That happens very often.

I want to stress here that it’s not really the players’ fault, it’s just in their nature to pass. The term used for those kinds of players is “associative ” and Barça just happen to have a lot of associative players in the squad.

I haven’t mentioned Cesc Fabregas yet because he’s an interesting case and probably warrants a post itself. Although he’s a midfielder, he brings a more direct game and has a good eye for goal. It’s probably the effect the English game has had on him that he isn’t as “associative” as Xavi or Iniesta. Having said that, the fact remains he also isn’t a goal scorer.

[Also, on the subject of midfield and midfield runners, once upon a time we had Seydou Keita who used to crash the box, as seen in the Atleti pic earlier in the post. Iniesta and Xavi make runs, of course they do, but it’s generally a surprise when they actually chut de bol, amirite?]

As another aside: I’ve heard that people complain that Messi isn’t as “explosive” anymore or that they prefer 2009!Messi to 2013!Messi, but that ignores two things:

  • Teams don’t defend Barça the same as they did in 2009. They don’t fight Barça for possession anymore, they don’t leave gaps in defense, and they clog the middle where Messi likes to play.
  • How can Messi be explosive when he has no space to explode into (so to speak)? Before Messi used to have about 3 defenders on him, max. Now? Four, five, sometimes even six! And even then, Messi was still Barca’s top scorer with a ridiculous amount of goals and assists. It’s truly incredible.

But that in and of itself is a problem. Because Messi is so individually brilliant that he can often play himself out of disadvantageous situations (ie. having to play with no space and still do stuff like this while injured :

Barça figure it’s okay to just add in more wingers and not take the load off Messi. For over three seasons now, Messi has had to be both the reference point and the main goalscoring threat. That’s an enormous burden. Obviously he’s been able to carry that burden okay, but we’re arguably seeing some of the ramifications of it right now.

Messi’s not just physically exhausted but as some people have mentioned – Cesc, Xavi, Pique – he’s mentally exhausted too. It’s not hard to see why. And that’s on us.

so how can Barça fix it

And now I finally get to the main point of this post: Barça need to get a striker who can also play on the right wing, if necessary. Or, in other words, we need to go back to the model we had in 2008/09.

A striker would take some defenders attention away from Messi and give him some much needed space. I want to be clear here: when I mean striker, I mean someone whose main job and first instinct is to shoot and score.

Players like Pedro, Alexis, Tello and Neymar – they are primarily wingers. Remember what I said the role of a winger was? To assist the striker. Although it’s been shown that Pedro and co. are able to score, it’s not their main asset, so to speak. A winger at Barça is a tough job full of defensive duties. Right now, they must be able to score, because teams crowd Messi and they have to take advantage of the space – but you wouldn’t expect them to have 20+ goal seasons, for example.

In the 2008/09 season, Eto’o was the top scorer in La Liga with 30 goals. You want to know how much Messi had? 23. That was seen as a great haul by Leo. And what position was Messi playing primarily in that season? A winger.

[Note: I didn’t mention those numbers to say that we need to reduce Messi’s goal haul or something. (Please continue to score 50+ goals, Messi!) It was just to illustrate the point about the difference between wingers and strikers re goals.]

A 9 would be able to occupy defenders and allow the likes of Messi and Neymar space to play in. And it just so happens Barça had a 9 before: Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Now, the reasons Ibra didn’t work out at Barça are many and I detailed them here, but the main point is that it was not because Ibra failed as a player.  Many people claimed and actually continue to claim that because Ibra was sold, a Plan B (i.e. a striker) won’t work at Barça. That is simply not true. There were so many things Ibra in the striker role brought to the side that Barça desperately need right now.

To see what I mean, I’m going to take you back to the 2009 Club World Club semi-final against Atlante.

In this game, Atlante defended very well and often clogged the middle. The score was tied 1-1 when Messi comes off the bench (he had to be a sub because he had an injury a couple of games before). In the very next play this happens:

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Ibra receives the ball from Xavi and is surrounded by three players. You can also see a fourth is coming across as well.

Now, Ibra takes the ball and shuffles to the right. By doing this he draws two additional Atlante defenders, as seen below. This results in a gap forming between the Atlante left back and the rest of the defense that I highlighted in red.


Messi, spotting the gap, will start a run.

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When Leo makes his run, Ibra has the vision to not only see Messi but the ability to lob a perfectly weighted pass into Messi’s path as well.

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And then Leo goes on to score.

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Ibra essentially took out five defenders in one move there. It was really remarkable and I just have to show you the pass from a different angle.

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Here’s another example of how Messi (and by extension Barça) benefit from a 9.

This next goal is from the Getafe away match from 2009/10 season. It was the goal that clinched all three points – a header from Messi. Let’s break down it down.

It starts with Dani Alves on the wing. He’s crossing the ball to Ibra who’s made a clever run to the back post. I’ve circled Messi, though, because just look at how much space he has.


The two Getafe defenders know what a threat the six-foot-four Ibra is in the air and so they hang back to double team him. This, of course, leaves Messi open.

Ibra doesn’t try and head the ball, though. He instead controls it and lays it into the path of an incoming Messi.

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And Messi scores a nice header. (A bit counter-intuitive, that).

Look at his leap, holy.
Look at his leap, holy.

Now, Ibra is a special player – you will not find a player that has his height and his vision. It’s unique. But the role he played – taking away all those defenders and leaving Messi open – that’s a role that any sufficiently talented 9 could play.

For example, take this goal scored by Samuel Eto’o in the same Malaga game from March 2009. It’s something we’d get if we could find a striker who could also play on the right wing.

When the Malaga defense crowds around Messi, Eto’o cleverly stations himself on the wing.

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Messi will pass to Xavi who spots Eto’o and does what Xavi always does. Eto’o does well to hold his run and keep himself onside.

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And that’s that. Eto’o is mano-a-mano against the Malaga goalkeeper and scores.

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This goal was interesting because Messi and Eto’o effectively switched positions to the same effect. Messi in the center technically took defenders away from Eto’o on the wing so he could score. Recall how Messi scored from the wing earlier in the post. It was from the same Malaga game, in the same half. Something to chew on.

in conclusion

To sum up: teams adapted to Messi playing RW in the second half of the 2008/09 season so Barça responded to that adaptation by playing Messi at false 9. Then teams adapted again to false 9 Messi but Barça have yet to respond to that.

And that, my friends, is the problem. It’s been three seasons and counting and Barça still haven’t found a change for the false 9 system.

Pep Guardiola tried to when he signed Ibra for the 9 role (the reason Eto’o was sold despite also being a 9, in my honest opinion, was that for what Pep had in mind, Ibra was actually an upgrade, being a player with height, the ability to hold off defenders, and had the vision and passing accuracy of a number 10).

But by the best laid plans of mice and Peps, Ibra hadn’t panned out and was sold. In the same summer Villa was signed, but what people forget is that in that summer Henry left the club too and tactically speaking, Villa actually replaced Henry, not Ibra. Pep made adjustments in the system so Barça could maximize the skill sets of all their players and the success of 10/11 Barça lulled people into a false sense of security and lead many fans/media to believe that meant the “Plan B” doesn’t work for Barça. I hope the above shows that isn’t true.

And actually, you can argue that the Barça players had to elevate their game to the frankly ridiculous level where they could play intricate, inch-perfect passes to dissect defenses every single game. They managed it in that 10/11 season, of course. But the so-called extreme version of tiki-taka isn’t a system that leaves much margin for error and I’m pretty sure we saw the downsides of it last season, especially when you add in fatigue (both mental and physical, and that fact that our players are in fact human beings and not football playing space aliens. Huh.)

[As for the Alexis signing, you should remember that Alexis at Udinese was a playmaker who often set up Antonio Di Natale (the striker). The big gamble that Pep and Barça took was that Alexis would be able to add another dimension to his game: score goals. Alexis struggled with that early, but he’s obviously come into his own this last year. And besides, for the kind of wingers Barça need, Alexis is perfect. Plus he can do stuff like this:

I love Pep’s reaction

False 9 was a great system that allowed us to take advantage of teams overloading the flank because of Messi. But now that teams are now overloading the center, we need a striker who can provide an additional goal-scoring threat. Defenders went after Ibra because it was obvious he was a known goal scorer who was strong in the air and a danger in all areas of the pitch. They went after Eto’o because he was the 9 and was top scorer for Barça for many seasons.

Back then we forced teams to choose: defend Messi and you leave the striker open, or defend the striker and leave Messi relatively open. The issue is that the current Barça don’t have the players to force that choice – and it would be solved easily if they sign a striker.

It’s not even that we need Messi to play on RW. He just needs someone that will take away some defenders when he makes a run, like Ibra did against Atlante.

Another thing a striker will bring is better defence re set-pieces, but that’s a discussion that will have to be saved for another time, as will the dissection of ‘Messidependencia’ which is a notion I violently (okay, maybe passive-aggressively) disagree with. If I can really hustle, a post about match control and direct play will also be on your way.

So that’s it. Well done if you read until this far. Hopefully I’ve illustrated why Barça need a 9. Gracias for reading and see you in the comments!

[Or, if you wish, you can hit me up @officialkari on Twitter. Whichever floats your boat]

By Isaiah

Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.


  1. tl;dr: Barca did this thing, then changed to this other thing, and now need to back to the first thing. The End.


    Anyway, because I am a total boss and always keep my promises, you can watch the full 2009 CL final here:

    Pre-Match Build Up:

    First Half

    Half-time Analysis:

    Second Half

    Celebrations + FT Analysis:

    Also you can watch the 2-6 Clasico here:

    1. Oh Thanks Kari.
      Do you, by any chance, have a link to the post match analysis of the 2011 CL final.

      I wonder how long you spend for this post, though.

    2. Not as long as you’d think, actually. This was done last weekend. I just hadn’t got the ability to post until yesterday.

  2. Wow! Brilliant post! Hats off to you, Kari! So glad to have you back!

    Anyway, back to the issue at hand, I agree about the necessity of a 9. Although I am kind of curious to see how Neymar works out this season. He has the quality of drawing defenders too, and if he would score on a constant basis in a few games the defenders of the other teams would have to take him into consideration more than they do now. We haven’t really seen a fully fit Leo – Neymar combo so far this season. It is possible that Messi’s absence provides Mr. Da Silva Junior with more confidence to just shoot the ball instead of looking for Leo, because he has the instincts for it. That is why I want to see how this season pans out first. But adding a real, proven, number 9 in the summer will just give us more options regardless.

    The other issue with the 9 is: who do you sell? Tello is a goner, in my books (I’m sorry, but I just don’t see the quality I want from a Barça winger in him) and I don’t think Pedro would accept falling so far behind in the pecking order. So many questions… And so many important decisions to be made next summer (GK, CB, what to do with the kids -> loans + promotions) and with this board and it’s decisions…. Uff!

    Thank you again for all the hard work, Kari. Spectacular post!

    1. Yay! Thanks so much for reading it all, haha

      I’m curious to see how Neymar pans out, too. I can’t yet with him, but he’s definitely got that killer instinct.

      You bring up the biggest problem with getting the 9: the logistics. Without getting into the politics (which some of you hate, for good reason) I don’t think Barca is interested in getting a 9, as Bartomeu confirmed earlier this month. They probably don’t want to raise the ire of the local fans by selling Masia products if they don’t have to. It’s likely they will just rely on Messi-Neymar and the individual brilliance of the players.

      That depressing thought aside, the fun part is seeing how Tata reshuffles the squad and tries to make adjustments with the players he has. He’s got Alexis (strong on the ball, quick turn, great athleticism) and we’ve seen him briefly play as the 9 under Pep in his first season – at the Bernabeu no less (and he scored!).

      It’s worth a try. Although I said there’s a lot of associative players in the squad, there are also players capable of playing a direct game too (cough Cesc cough) and the future of Barca with Cesc, Iniesta, Busi – or more succinctly, the future without Xavi (ouch, ouch, ouch, that hurt to type) – is a direct one. One with less match control because you honestly cannot replace what Xavi brings.

      There’s also another interesting bit with the likes of Deulofeu, Rafinha, and other youth team players but I don’t want to count on or overhype any of those players, because they’re still developing and we should leave it be for a bit.

    2. Neymar has been overtly conservative so far IMO. Which has been nice in the sense that he has shown the humility to subdue the most exuberant aspects of his game in the interest of the team, but he has not scored nearly as many goals as he is capable of. Part of which is because he has missed a lot of good chances that he usually buries (although he has never had the conversion efficiency of Messi so that’s not entirely surprising) but part of it is also that he has not looked to shoot much. Let’s see what we does over the next 2 months, but he has scored 5 goals in 18 games so far (notably, he has also given 10 assists) and it would be good if these 0.25-0.3 goals a game become 0.5-0.6.

      I agree Tello should be sold. As I have said many times, I don’t think Deulofeu and Rafinha are the answer. It takes a lot of watching from a highly trained eye to spot a great young midfielder who would play well for us (I don’t think any of us would have thought Busquets would become the player he eventually became if we had watched him in the C and B teams back in the days) because the position requires the future development of qualities that are not always immediately obvious. But with wingers it is a different story – all the historically great ones have been world beaters at quite a young age. And Deulofeu is already 19 and has yet to show he can consistently dribble past an adult full back. I hope I am wrong but I see his ceiling as the level which currently commands a 30M price tag (which is not really saying much these days) but not Cristiano Ronaldo level (remember that Cristiano was consistently dribbling past defenders when he was 17, in the EPL, and after that he actually outperformed all expectations he initially set).

      We have to face the reality, which is that La Masia has been a extraordinarily productive youth-development system by any standards, yet the Guardiola-era crop of players is something we simply cannot expect it to produce all the time, and most young players will be inevitably overhyped just because of the fact they play for us.

      The way I see it, the problem with buying a striker is that there are very few players that fit the profile, while that uniqueness of the skills and quality combination required puts pretty much anyone who would fill that role well in the category of players who will not be happy sitting on the bench for extended periods of time. So if you already have Neymar, Messi and Alexis, who do you buy?

  3. Nice post. Especially the Villa replacing Henry rather than Ibra observation.

    Since Messi won’t be moving back to the wing if we get a 9 and since we don’t like to have to make a substitution in order change tactics, the question for me is where else can the 9 play and what happens with out midfield if the 9 plays there.

    1. Tata’s played Messi as a RW a few times this season right? I don’t see why he couldn’t continue to play as a RW with a 9 on the field. If the 9 is comfortable playing on the wing, we could see some nice interchanging among the front 3 to confuse the hell out of the opposing backline.

    2. Yes! The first “where will Messi and others play” questions. This is the really fun part.

      To save you all from having to read x 2 the size of this post, I didn’t go into it, but we don’t actually need Messi to play RW. He’d just be boxed in and he wouldn’t influence the game as much. We just need someone to take some defenders off him. But before that we need defenders to worry about someone else that’s not him (or Neymar, actually).

      So the plan would be this: get a 9 who can play centrally. Once the CBs get used to defending him there, shift him over to the right. What will happen will be two things:

      1) The CBs will follow the 9 to the right and leave Messi kinda open in center (cos Messi will stay in the center)
      2) The CBs will stay where they are and Messi can play in the 9 to score.

      Either way, they’re screwed. 😈 Can I get a hoorah? Hoorah!

      Oh and as njwv noted on twitter, Messi will end being a 10 (just behind the striker) anyway, so you can in him being able to play the 9 and Neymar in with those defense splitting passes he can do. I see that as something that will happen naturally anyway, rather than a conscientious tactical decision per se.

    3. Nice point. I guess with a true 9 on the field, we could move closer to Pep’s dream of just fielding an XI that could change formations and systems organically within a game without the need for substitutions to wreak havoc on an opponent’s defense.

    4. My question was also wondering what happens to wherever the 9 moves to. So if he shifts to RW, where does the RW go (and who was covering it before the shift)? And what did our midfield look like before the shift?

      In my mind I’m seeing what Pep did with his 3-4-3 converting to a 4-3-3 (or vice versa) without subs.

      But even if we do have to use subs, something about tiring a team out with a true 9 and Messi at the 10 then bringing in someone like Alexis and moving Messi forward against a tired defense sounds good to me.

    5. In my mind I’m seeing what Pep did with his 3-4-3 converting to a 4-3-3 (or vice versa) without subs.

      Yeah, I was thinking of the 1-3 win at the Bernabeu from 2011. The 9 playing in the Alexis role, Messi as a 10, Cesc playing the box-to-box role, Busi as a libero…such good memories.

      But even if we do have to use subs, something about tiring a team out with a true 9 and Messi at the 10 then bringing in someone like Alexis and moving Messi forward against a tired defense sounds good to me.


  4. Thank you for the post Kari! Is there any way you could forward this piece to the board? Maybe you can succeed in convincing them of the apparent (in my mind at least) need for a 9.

    Let’s say the board magically changed their minds and decided to sign a 9. Who in your mind would be a good option for the board to try pursue?

    1. Thank you for reading!

      Well, I’ve got my powerpoints ready but I just need a ticket… 😀

      Options for a 9 in fantasy land where we could get anyone available: Ibra would have panned out I kinda really wanted Cavani but that obviously didn’t happen (went to PSG).

      In terms of general people I like: Diego Costa (I know, I know. Weakening the rivals, etc, etc. But still. He’s boss); Aguero (sentimental reasons, even tho he’s a midget too); I haven’t seen a lot of Draxler, but I’m caught a game or two of Schalke 04 and he’s interesting.

      Lewandowski looks pretty much Bayern bound, but I really like his hold up play. Don’t know how well he could play on the wing, though. Reus is more of a second striker (again, from what I’ve seen) but he’s quite tall by our standards and I like his overall game, though he didn’t really shine on Saturday.

    2. Nice, your list matches up with mine for the most part. I’ve seen Euler mention Draxler often on Twitter, but I unfortunately haven’t gotten a chance to check him out yet. I would love to get Costa, but I don’t see Atletico giving him up without a bitter fight. Agreed on Lewa & Reus as well.

    3. Aguero and Messi is a dream duo. I am among that minority group who wished for Aguero signing from Atletico. Now he must be so expensive.

      Even if Messi plays as a NO.10 or No. 8, we should never expect him to see so much space, like he did in 08/09. That one Milan semi final in 09/10 season, Mourinho proved to the world that a plan with 3 defensive midfielders, who had back up if required, can suffocate Messi. Now wherever he plays he will have the attention of at least 3 players.

      If Barca goes for a 9, I would see Messi doing a perfect 10 job, and still scoring some goals, like he does for Argentina. We just need a sharp 9 and alert Neymar/Alexis/Pedro to convert all the ‘put me in’ passes he will create.

      ‘put me in’ – this was an expression by Tito after the last Copa America when he mentioned the chances Argentina failed to score, created by Messi.

  5. Great post, really enjoyed reading it!
    With a little bit of work, could Deulofeu fit into the starting 11 of barca next year as RW eliminating the need to buy a CF, as the barca rely on their youth so much?

    I watched him against liverpool and as soon as he came on, he had an noticeable impact on the game.

    btw(im a new reader)

    1. Welcome!

      The thing with Deulofeu (and this goes for the youth team in general) is that the environment at Barca B right now is not conducive for their development. The coach at the moment, Eusebio, has an experience first policy that means many of the players from Juvenil A aren’t getting the coaching and playing time they need. Adama, for example, hasn’t started a single game for B this season.

      It’s why Deulofeu and Rafinha went on loan, in my opinion.

      For Deulofeu, I like how Martinez is approaching him (maybe he should play him more, but he hasn’t thrown him into the fire which is positive). Wouldn’t be surprised to see him return their on loan again this summer as well.

      As a player, Deulofeu is explosive and a real talent. I think he will be an interesting option in a 2-3 years, not next season at the least. Still needs more time to develop (attitude is something he needs to work on, for example.) Someone to keep an eye on for sure, though.

      Thanks for reading!

  6. Yes, Barca does need a nine, but I’m all in favour of a big-unit goal-poaching aerial-threat toe-poker who just hangs around the penalty area causing trouble. Against the parked bus, mobility is less important than size and muscle. A couple of years ago, Klose would have been fantastic. The little guys roll the cannon balls up to the big siege gun and he fires them into the goal.

    1. I don’t think we could have a poacher because that would weaken our defense. Our hypothetical 9 needs to be able to press press press with the team. One of the reasons why the 08-09 team did so well was because Eto’o and Henry were absolutely pressing monsters. As we saw last season, if the high press isn’t good, it leaves the rest of the defense exposed. Even two years ago, I don’t think Klose was in a condition to do that.

      Jackson Martinez is my other first choice along with Diego Costa after Cavani went to PSG. Damn, we coulda been so good with Cavani. Anyway, Martinez is great; tall, strong, freakishly fast, can play anywhere along the front line. Porto always overcharges for their talent, but he’d be worth it.

  7. Such a nice article! I didn’t even come to know when i finished reading such a lengthy one. Anyways, do you think Dongue can step up to be the striker? He is powerful and got pace.

    1. Thank you, Kamali!

      Dongou is an exciting player. He’s powerful, has a real eye for good you can’t train, and he brings thing no other player has in the youth team right now.

      Having said that, it’s far too early to count on him as an immediate option or even an option in 2 years time. A hurtle right now is in the B team where they have a coach that, simply put, doesn’t really know what he’s doing. That, or he’s gunning for a Liga team to come get him. Either way, the Barca B players aren’t learning core values that’s necessary to succeed in the first team, and that includes Dongou.

  8. A nine will just stifle our attacks because the wingers wont rotate and roam as much as they do now, the presence of a true 9 will make barca look ordinary and means teams can square up against us at trade punches, play a tightly contested game and get beaten 3-1 or not. the harsh reality behind the true 9 tactical tweaking is that it removes the fear factor away from the team, a true 9 makes barca predictable and nobody fears the predicted, a true 9 is only suitable for teams that play behind the ball, not for teams that press high up the pitch. you might not have noticed but aguero/lewan/van persie are being asked to play the false 9 roles, and you can see that aguero is racking up a lot of goals coz not a single PL defender has a clue how to stop a false 9, luiz suarez is a false 9 but because he scores loads of goals many think he is a true 9.

    reverting to the true 9 formation is a step-down the tactical switch, as other teams have emulated and mastered the false 9 philosophy. The fact that not one single one of you all consider leo as a true 9 is even shocking, maybe he doesnt meet ur criteria for a true 9 inwhich there is no other criteria but to be clinical in front of goal. messi has been a true 9 right in front of us but you wont notice, he doesnt track back, holds up play or otherwise burst towards goal, assists and bullys defenders…isnt that ur criteria for a true 9?…oh and he scores headers too.

    i’m confusing…i know, u deserve that!

    1. I’m not saying we need a true 9 though. I said we need a hybrid 9/RW, that means that the player can both play on the wing or in the center if needed.

      Sorry to say, but Barca as false 9 is very predictable. You see it every game in Europe and in La Liga where teams clog the center and surround Messi. They know how to defend false 9. That’s the problem.

      The way teams defend Man City and Barca are different, and I don’t see how the two are correlated with respect to Barca needing a 9 as Man City both play in a different league with a different system.

      he doesnt track back, holds up play or otherwise burst towards goal, assists and bullys defenders… isnt that ur criteria for a true 9

      No it isn’t, actually. The 9/RW hybrid I have in mind defends in set pieces, puts pressure on the CBs and the team’s defensive midfielder (if necessary) as well as helping to take the load off Messi and the rest of the article that was devoted on the pluses of a 9.

      Anyway, thanks for reading.

    2. it has been wonderfeul trading banter with you and recieving your stunning comebacks, however, i am not swayed to the point of buying a CF/RW hybrid when we already have players that can consistently cause trouble to opposition defenders in that area. having messi close to goal is the best thing for any side, it is true that lionel messi has vision but its the execution that matters alot, messi passes are one directional, in that he cuts inside drifts in, drifts in then passes to LW(which was why alexis was frozen till the latter stages of last season and performed when messi was absent) which is predictable.
      lets not talk about its tactical affect on masia graduates such as sergi roberto who is tipped to be the next xavi, messi behind an attacker and two wingers usurps the characteristics of iniesta and xavi because they are no longer allowed to roam into the AM position that will be messi’s territory.

      In the area of defending corners, for a headed goal take place, the cross must be well flighted and precise as to the jump/original height of the target, the defence must lost sight of the ball/or the targetted player, the header must match the power of the ball. we’ve seen shorter players score versus pique and busi because thier general awareness is found wanting. in a certain newcastle vs man united match, obafemi martins not reknowned for his aerial strenght in terms of physical hieght, sandwiched between rio ferdinand and nemanja vidic, outjumped the pair and scored, you know why? see above…

      truth is a parked bus is a parked bus irrespective of your very own formation, the key to breaking down parked buses is to probe and probe and probe and probe till you find a goal, according to kxevin “i don’t see how lunching aerial balls to a 6ft+ is going to solve it” and i agree with him. NEWS FLASH; thong boy scores more headed goals than ibra.

      shifting from our traditional 4-3-3 to your proposed formations is a loss identity and an extreme sacrifice for a particular position. and even if we do get a 9 he will spend a large part of his barca career wondering what the barca concept is all about. Ibra didnt just turn rogue or hates the pass to messi concept, he never really understood what all the many passes were for…

      i might just add in a parked bus, the 9 is the most difficult to locate

    1. lol until today I still wonder what he was doing at Barca. Sepp Blatter would’ve joked, “looked like he spent more time at the hairdresser”.

  9. Epic post, Kari. So happy you are back!

    I think your analysis is really good, but I am not sure if I agree with your conclusion. I am not saying that getting a “9” is a bad idea, because you are making solid points (another pro would be that he could help defending set pieces, btw). At the same time I just don’t believe it to be something we absolutely need.

    One problem as I see it is, who do we get, and who do we sacrifice. Neymar? Alexis? And if we move Messi to the “10” position (like you, I don’t see parking him on the right wing as a sound long term strategy) then do we bench two out of Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc? I’d like to hear your thoughts on this, Kari, before I am convinced.

    Also, I think that the creating space / multiple threats on the wing and in the center of the pitch has been solved by adding Neymar to our squad. They haven’t had much time to gel due to Leo’s injury, but they will. There is no way opponents can leave either of those two alone. Also Ney has left his scoring boots in Brazil… One of these days his mom will sent those over to Catalunya, yes Sir, and then it’s gonna be on.

    Also, I’d like to echo Kamali’s question. Has anyone seen Jean Marie Dongou play this season? He hasn’t scored yet in his nine league appearances for Barcelona B, which for a striker I find worrying…

    1. I’ve been watching Dongou pretty carefully, and I am sorry to report that under Eusebio’s “tutelage” he seems to have regressed. This may just be one of those natural dips in form that happens to every player, but at the moment he looks nothing like the dynamo he was on the Juvenil A team or even last season when he played mostly a supporting role to Deulofeu and Luis Alberto. He’s a big talent, but right now he’s not capable of leading a forward line for Barça B, much less the first team. He needs a real coach to take him in hand.

      Still working my way through Kari’s post. I’m keeping an open mind, but I have the same reservations that Lev mentioned above.

    2. I’m kind in your camp, Lev. Wait to see what we have before we add to it. Sad about Dongou. We have to loan out all our most promising talent to get them away from Eusebio. Unfortunately, that means less B players of sufficient quality to bring up when needed.

    3. It’s the same people responsible for keeping or getting rid of Eusebio and for loaning out players

    4. What if we played like a 4-2-3-1ish?

      Back 4
      Busquets – Iniesta
      Alexis – Messi – Neymar

      In this system of the future, I think Fabregas is the most obvious sacrifice, although he could sub in for Messi if need be. Can you imagine how effective Messi would be behind a 9 and Alexis and Neymar cutting in? The stuff of dreams.

    5. Thanks, Lev!

      One problem as I see it is, who do we get, and who do we sacrifice

      Yup. That is a problem. In all honesty, although I devoted this whole post on why we need a 9, actually getting a 9 is a whole ‘nother issue. I think that train has passed with the Neymar signing, where I feel the club is banking on him and Messi to create magic themselves in the long run.

      That’s not a bad thing, per se, but it’s also not ideal. I feel like we’re putting more pressure on Neymar and Messi to perform than trying to allievate some of it.

      More than anything, I think Barca need diversity. If that means we can get Neymar and Alexis to try to break out of their “assist first” mode and try and shake things up…. I’m down for it. We did try Alexis as a 9 once against RM in the Bernabeu that was interesting.

      I agree with you that Neymar hasn’t tried to shoot much (and therefore hasn’t scored as much) and that we haven’t seen him with a fit Messi.

      As for how it would play out for the team, it’d look roughly like this:

      Neymar – Striker – Alexis
      Iniesta – Busi – Xavi
      LCB – Pique (spitfully, I’d say Bartra) – Alves

      I say left CB because once upon a time we’d have Abi to play the role, but it’d still be a 433 esque formation, except Messi would drop deeper to play the 10. For the real technical nerds, it’d be a 3313 but the important part for cules is that the style won’t change. It’ll still be the crazy amoeba formation we’re known for!

  10. First of all, Kari!
    I must say that the tone of your articles and the generous visual illustrations ensure that your articles are always informative, fun and go down as comfortably as a premium single malt. You truly are the gem of this blog even as there are other brilliant ones, with their unique voice. But your voice is just lighter.

    As for the content, this is what I’ve been saying for some time. That Barca needs a CF as much as it does a CB. And a GK soon. Some posts earlier I wrote about how Cavani would have been perfect for our system and how he can succeed where Ibra failed. Skills and competencies wise He checks all the boxes, but obviously PSG is screwing things up for us in more than ways one with their hard cash. While Neymar has pitched in to relieve and unburden Leo to some extent, I’d still maintain that just like how Villa was bought and only replaced Titi, the same has happened in Neymar replacing Villa, albeit a considerable upgrade from him it appears. We still haven’t replaced Eto’o and Zlatan and we need to. In the long run, it’s the only move that will bring out the best from the team, especially with its new direction, and bring out the best from Neymar and Messi with the latter’s evolution into a classic 10 seeming more inevitable. Ibra turned rogue, Cavani went elsewhere. Aguero’s yet another midget and Klose/Drogba? I’m not so sure. Jackson Martinez and Edin Dzeko, I’d take a close look, even if it appears that they lack somewhat in the football IQ and technical department. Man, If only we could convince the big Lewa to ditch Bayern, he’d be a great fit. Messi, Xavi etc would have a field day benefiting from his movement, holding and linkup play.
    But Why on earth would he ditch Germany and Pep? sigh.
    Anyways its not really a pressing matter and we have other positions we need to upgrade and develop depth in, for the immediate future. And thankfully we are not exactly suffering from goal droughts or anything eithr. For the long term, I entertain hopes that a Jean Marie Dongou will develop rapidly to fill the void that his country left.

    1. Thank you, Ultracule! That means a lot and you’re always so sweet!

      The thing with Lewandowski is that I’m a little leery of his wing play ability but his hold up play is aces.

      I pretty much agree with your whole paragraph but particularly this part: “the same has happened in Neymar replacing Villa, albeit a considerable upgrade from him it appears.” Very true.

  11. Very nice, Kari. Very thorough and well done…except for Hlebbing us…that was just mean!

    I would like to wait a while to see how a healthy Messi plays with Alexis and Neymar before committing to a 9. We haven’t really seen that particular Death Star of a front line fully functional yet. I’m not sure defenses will know what to do against two such threats as Neymar and Messi in the front line at the same time. Which poison do you pick? And Alexis has been on fire lately. Concentrate on Neymar and Messi and that leaves Alexis open to do his magic. Pedro seems to be ready to regain a “!” soon, too.

    That being said, get me Lewandowski or Kun and I’m not gonna complain. But they might have to sit on the bench a little too often for the price tag.

    What do y’all think about Messi dropping back into the midfield with a high quality front line (Neymar/ Lewa or the like/ Alexis) in front of him? Some cons are the fact that it would take our danger man farther away from goal and would be at the expense of a midfielder or defender (are we ready for a 3 man back line?). Some pros would be the many and diverse ways we could decimate a defense. Seriously, who ya gonna defend (having fanciful visions of defenders collapsing to the ground in frustration and crying for their mommas)? It could work. I doubt it would be disastrous.

    Did we really only have 51% possession in that “08 final? Why, that’s only 2% higher than this year’s Rayo game. The people complaining about Tata abandoning the “Barca Style” should read that.

    1. Moving Messi to a pure 10 position would mean having to field 2 defensive midfielders. Otherwise it won’t work – there have been many examples in the past, including our own experiments with the 3-man back line 2 seasons ago.

      Right now Brazil are playing something like a 4-2-1-3 and it works very well for them but the 2 are Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo who are not great creative players but are extremely solid defensively. Brazil’s pressing in midfield over the last year has been hugely impressive (and you saw what that did to Spain in the Confederations Cup) but that would not be possible without those two.

      We tried the 3-4-3 with only Busquets as DM under Guardiola and it did not work – we were too exposed at the back. We will be too exposed at the back in a 3-3-1-3 formation too, because while that’s a fantastic offensive formation, it has the same defensive problems and then some.

      So if Messi as a 10 is going to happe, unless somebody finds a way to make the other options work, it will have to be 2 DMs in 4-2-1-3 or something of the sort (and not that such a formation leaves all of Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc out). Maybe there was some truth in those Luiz Gustavo rumors, who knows.

      P.S. That final indeed was 50-50% possession and nobody thought that was unusual. In the 2008-2009 season we had 5-10% less possession on average than we would have in the subsequent seasons (it kept climbing steadily with each season under Guardiola, from to low 60% until it reached the low 70%. But that was because we had Henry and Eto’O to run onto through balls and over the top passes, thus we played a lot more of those, and more importantly, as extensively discussed in the original post, because teams tried to battle us for possession. Once they decided to park the bus in subsequent seasons, it became hard not to have 75% possession as we were forced to circulate the ball around the two banks of four stationed in and in front of the penalty box patiently looking for openings. It’s not that we wanted to have 75% possession for the sake of it, it was also forced on us by the way teams played us.

    2. I disagree slightly about the 3-4-3. I still belive the 3-4-3 with will work brilliantly if we do not use the three man as pure defensive setup. That means no space for Alves or any other flying backs.

    3. I know. But that means no Messi as a 10, because there is no true centrally playing 10 in our version of 4-3-3

    4. Wouldn’t matter, really. What is important is that within the 4-3-3 as played by Barcelona teams there is room for a playmaking 10.

      The problem is imho, like I mentioned earlier, what do we do with Xavi, Cesc and Iniesta if we go that route?

    1. Short but sweet. A nice little workout for this Spanish student.

      Xavi Hernandez: futbolista supreme, mushroom hunter, meme, and writer!

  12. This post is so good that I almost considered using an emoticon!

    It’s funny, but Guardiola clearly wanted a 9 (Damn you, Ibrahimovic!), and if the rumors are to be believed, Martino also wants one. The problem(s) as I see them are significant: cost, quality and playing time.

    Any 9 good enough to earn time in our team has to be REALLY good, which will make him expensive, which will make time that he spends on the bench precisely beCAUSE our team is so good, seem like a waste of money. I confess to not being sure how to resolve that, even as I find the idea of a 9 playing in front of Messi fascinating.

    I then wonder about the limitations of space attendant to such a tactical tweak. What makes Messi so dangerous now is that he can roam anywhere from RW to left side of center, and score from any spot out there. Not sure how a 9 plying his trade in the center will affect that (again, damn you, Ibrahimovic!).

    I could waste time describing the ideal Barça 9, but it’s just easier to say “Ibrahimovic.” That said, you wonder who is out there that would meet that particular, and I mean VERY particular, set of specifications. Some suggest Cavani. I see him as good, but limited in our system. Lewandowski closest player not first-named Zlatan, but again, he’s spendy and already gone to Bayern.

    It’s a challenge.

    1. On twitter, I’ve jokingly suggested getting a new CB and using Pique as a 9. Not sure he’s enough a goal threat (so to speak), but a 4-2-3-1 with Pique as the 9 and Bartra/Masch as CBs switching to a 4-3-3 with Masch as the DM (and Busquets continuing his development into a more attacking player) intrigues me.

    2. Danke, Kevin!

      I confess not to know how to solve it either, only that it’s been a problem for years now and I’m enough of a troll to point it out when arguably nothing can be done (until we see for sure in the summer)

      @njwv – Striker!Pique is worth a shot. He seems a bit confused in teh CB position. I’d try Pique as the striker because yolo.

      @Lev – Forgot to add this in my reply to you above but I’d bench Cesc if we need to. I mean, if I had to pick between Cesc and Xavi… kinda a no brainer.

  13. All this hassle for something unrealistic.
    Quick Counter:

    Barca won the Sextuple in 2009 not wholely because of a #9 No! But because our refined new philosophy( tiki taka) was unpredictable thereby it made the team invincible.

    Even in 2009 Messi at the wings was our deadliest threat..scored more goals and assist than Samuel Etoo.He’s the best ever so?

    The answer to Park the bus isn’t the acquisition of a CF no but the efficiency and Hybrid of nature of our MF to make the rondo passes and as well as being Vertical in play

    Neymar would drag markers to himself and thread killer passes into space for either Messi or Alexis to finish off.

    Purchasing a CF also would disrupt the Balance of the Squad.

    Finding the right method and tactics for every game as it comes as Tata does is the way to go.
    Balancing tika taka w/ direct/vertical play is the way forward for now.

    1. I didn’t say that Barca won the Sextuple because they had a 9. It was a culmilative thing that had many factors that can’t be boiled down to something like that. The reason I brought it up was to highlight the different way team defended that Barca, which is not how they defend the Barca of today. That’s relevant because many people are still holding up the Barca of 2009 as the way Barca should be playing all the time.

      I respectfully disagree.

      In general, 10/11 Barca lulled people into thinking extreme tiki-taka is a norm. it’s really not. Sure, you can argue that the team wasn’t at full fitness + were unlikely (both true) but it ignores the greater issue which is that they play a system that leaves no margin for error and forces the players to stay at peak form all the time. That’s just not sustainable.

      As a cule noted on Twitter, Barca won’t return to their greatness by imitating that style and they won’t achieve the synchronicity that was achieved by the Pep era teams. That’s the reality right now. The reasons for that are many: too many games in the players legs, different ways teams play them, different players, etc.

      All this hassle for something unrealistic.

      Tis the life of am amateur blogger who has no access to the club and can only talk to strangers on the internet.

      Thanks for reading.

  14. Excellent post, Kari. Takes a lot of time and dedication to make such a thorough post on a huge topic. The screen caps, gifs, and videos were awesome.

    Some pretty good comments here so far so I have nothing new to add, but like DianaKristinne said, this summer should be very interesting because of the young players, the CB issue, and the question of a 9. Think it’s fairly obvious Martino wants a striker. He’s even mentioned Sanabria potentially being Barça’s 9 in several years (though I guess that won’t be the case if he leaves). I think he has a lot of ideas and if he gets the time, space & backing (money) to properly plan for next season, I think one of the purchases this summer could be a striker. That leads to other questions because obviously the striker should be someone who could be play a hybrid role and there are only so many of those available.

    But yeah, awesome job.

    1. Dankeeee!

      Good shout re Sanabria. Think Martino sees the way the Barca template has changed and wants to shake things up… but yeah, I echo that “wait and see” approach.

  15. 9 or no 9, guys, we gotta game coming up!

    FCB News&Negativity ‏@cynicule 4m
    Barça starting XI: Pinto, Montoya, Piqué, Mascherano, Puyol, Song, Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc, Pedro and Neymar

  16. Damn..poor first half. Ajax are playing just like real in the last away clasico. All the players are in midfield with insane pressure. These are the type of games in which we need Busi, messi and Valdes. Now TATA time! Let’s see how he’s going to turn this one around.

  17. Ajax are deservedly 2-0 up at half time… or more accurately we deserve to be 2-0 down.
    We have been absolutely terrible, every single one of our players.
    We also have nothing on our bench. mmmm. interesting.
    Hopefully something will change in the 2nd half…

    1. Yeah, can’t argue with the score. Poor all over. We’ll get some control back in the second half I suspect but can’t keep making bad passes out of defence and being posted missing. I’d put Puyol at CB where his lack of pace is less of an issue and his better judgement would keep things tighter and move Masche to RB.

      Problem is a second place finish makes for a very difficult game later on.

  18. Excellent post, Kari, thank you. Even managed to motivate me to get my off my lazy ass write a proper comment deserving of your post.

    You, like most folks watching Barca since 08-09 glory days, have noticed and highlighted Barca’s forward line’s tactical evolution very well. I slightly disagree with the notion that we should “come back to the first thing”, but think we should rather continue evolving forward. Meaning, instead of simply repositioning Messi back to RW or something, we have to at least change our “big game” template.

    During the 08-09 season, the only season we had a real “Plan B” so to speak, was playing Messi as false 9 during the “big” games. The 6-2 against Madrid was the first high profile game in which Messi was played as a 9, but Pep had actually tested him out in that position earlier in several other lower-profile games. Infact, he would actually have the whole forward line rotate. See the highlights of the 5-2 match vs. Lyon and notice the positioning of Eto’o and Messi on each goals. Or else, check out the Betis game we tied 2-2 in Feb 09. We had been losing 2-1, so Pep subbed Messi *on* (crazy, I know) and told Eto’o to shift positions with him in order to have the former in the false 9 position to tactically alter the game. Eto’o had been unwilling, arguing that the Messi-Alves tandem-combo on the right wing, which was in full effect those days, would help them score. Eto’o eventually won us the game (by dribbling two defenders in the centre and scoring all by himself) and then ran to Pep right after scoring and pointed his fingers, to show that he was right to remain in the center. He even shouted “I told you so!” in Pep’s face. You can rewatch it in full glory here:

    I am digressing a lot here, but since we’re at it: I personally believe there were several other similar moments, perhaps in training, that went by largely unnoticed by fans which eventually convinced Pep he had to sell Eto’o – for tactical evolution but also because Pep demands a 100% unquestioned commitment by his players otherwise he is effectively done with you. Eto’o – a strong character – likely sent out vibes Pep didn’t like, and was sold. Pep also admitted later he didn’t have this “feeling” with him. Similarly, Ibra, the following season, politely reproached Pep for not being able to play to his full capacity in the tactical framework that was then being employed, and Pep slowly cut off all communication with him, as described very well in Ibra’s biography, which led to the latter becoming increasingly frustrated and eventually gave up trying to fit in.

    Coming back to the original point I was making, I strongly believe we need proper templates like in 08-09 for important matches and less important matches, both that allow place for efficient tactical variation within that framework. Without any clear strategy, we will not evolve enough tactically, won’t be a step ahead and definitely won’t be able to stun our opponents anymore like we did in the 6-2 Clasico. In other words, we will rely solely on the players’ qualities, their executions, and hope for the best.

    In order to come up with a strategy like in 08-09, we actually need to have players with the required qualities to change the template. This , more than anything else is why we need a CF, IMO. Even with Neymar, as good as he has been – and he has been bloody good – we are still largely playing on the template as previous seasons. Neymar is a major upgrade, but is part of a familiar formula. He, like Messi, will benefit enormously from a proper CF, without whom we will never see proper variation up ahead.

    I think the future “big game tactic” lies in the direction of playing a CF in front of Messi to pin the opponent’s CBs and allow Messi some space between the same lines our opponents have learnt to compress effectively. As we saw vs. Milan and Sevilla last season when Villa played ahead of Messi both times, we won both matches, and even as this opened up only a small pocket of space, it was still a lethal strategy benefitting both the strikers.

    Note: in the 4-0 against Milan, we didn’t play Messi as a midfielder in 4-3-3, as all of Iniesta-Busi-Xavi still played in our usual midfield combo. Rather, we played a hybrid-ish system, with Villa and Messi were specifically told to play in a certain way, i.e. Villa ahead of Messi, using his runs and presence to create space for Messi, and – when the opportunity presented – to be available as an outlet. My point being that we don’t have to sacrifice one of our mids (as some of you above have been pointing out) to play like this in *some big matches*. Instead, we had Dani pushing high to compensate for our right wing’s open space, and we obviously needed all our players, especially our strikers, to press A LOT. Obviously, this isn’t viable for every game we play in a season, which is why a) this should only be a big-game template, and more importantly this is why we should b) buy a freakin’ striker, to be able to rotate with others so that high pressing largely remains a doable option over the long course of a season for the whole squad and we can slowly evolve our “small game” template as well. For largely similar reasons, we need to buy more athletic players for all aspects of our team: transition-defense cover, offensive pressing, disruptive midfield play, box-to-box crashing, etc. List goes on. Like Euler keeps pointing out, our squad has become way to homogenous.

    Pep, the great tika-taka master coach, who obviously only liked small technical players, actually had the board buy Keita, Alves, Ibra, Chygrinsky and a few other physically imposing and athletic players. So there is absolutely no way that Pep in his final season, or Tito last year, or Tata now haven’t noticed or understood any of our squad’s incompleteness. This is where the failings of the board, and Rosell’s unwillingness to buy, come into open play, as the consequences of their actions now reflect evidently on the team. And yet, they continue to be unwilling to buy what we really need.

    1. Holy cow, boss comment, Ek!

      I slightly disagree with the notion that we should “come back to the first thing”, but think we should rather continue evolving forward. Meaning, instead of simply repositioning Messi back to RW or something, we have to at least change our “big game” template.

      Dammit. That’s what I get for being too lazy to edit my comment and add in “come back to the first thing (with some changes)”. I’m not actually saying the we should play exactly as we did in 2009. Messi’s game has evolved for RW and he is pretty much always going to play in the center where he has the most influence.

      What I meant was that we need someone to take some defenders off him, like Ibra did vs Atlante. People above made a good point that we should wait until we see a fit Messi with Neymar and Alexis. But I feel like we do need some diversity, so as long as people don’t differ to Leo too much, we could see something interesting.

      Betis game we tied 2-2 in Feb 09

      Funny you mention that, I actually have printscreen of the game but had to take the decision to leave the game out (for length reasons) but kudos to you for mentioning it! You’re absolutely right.

      As for the rest, I have nothing to add. I’m in absolute agreement. Thank you for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment.

    1. Yes. The team improved in the second half but still couldn’t find their rhythm. The pitch was pathetic though.

  19. BTW Celtic have nothing to play for now.

    Barcelona 10
    Milan 8
    Ajax 7
    Celtic 3

    So the next game is meaningless for them.

    1. It still gives them a million euro for a win and 500 000 for a draw. Pretty meaningful if you ask me.

  20. Well, can’t argue with this analysis….

    Pique: “What happened in the first half can’t happen again. The attitude wasn’t right, the whole team knows that.” #fcblive. (Barcastuff)

  21. It was a disgraceful performance against a very bad Ajax team.
    Ajax out ran us, out worked us and in the first half completely outplayed us. They deserved it.

    Their keeper didn’t even need to make any saves. Tata didn’t have a huge amount of choices in his lineup but he should have tried more to change it.
    He could have tried to play Cesc in midfield, Iniesta on the wing and Neymar in the centre or something.

    I agree with Ultracule, Puyol has never been fantastic on the ball but he has become even worse.

    None of our players can be proud of their performance but lets hope that they get back to winning ways with Alexis back from suspension at the weekend.

    1. I’m not sure I’d agree they were very bad, Ciaran, but they certainly wanted it badly and, as you say, deserved it. It’s not a disaster but we could have done without it and the most disappointing aspect was the performance itself.

      I’d cut Puyol some slack in his fourth game back after a long layoff and not playing in his best position. I hope we play him more regularly to see how much he can get back unlike Villa who never really got a run in the side after his injury to regain form.

  22. I think the ultimate player for us to sign this summer is Aguero. He is not as tall as Eto’o, but I think he could perform very well for us as a ‘9’, occasionally dropping out on the wing. Just imagine a forward line of Neymar – Aguero – Messi, with Sanchez, Pedro and (possibly) Deulofeu as backup.

    1. I quite like Kun (as I’ve repeated a lot lately) for a lot of sentimental reasons. I was actually thinking of something that’s like a 3-3-1-3 where Messi is the ‘1’ and Neymar-(Striker)-Alexis make up the front three. We’ve played that lineup before and beat Villarreal 5-0 so it’s not something alien.

    2. I agree that it would be interesting to see Leo in a natural ’10’ role sometime in the future. Often when he played out on the RW he would move towards the middle to see more of the ball (opening up space for Alves). Maybe, like you said, the solution is to put Messi in center from the beginning, while having three attackers in front of him. Interesting idea

  23. first choice goalkeeper out
    three first choice full backs out
    first choice def. midfielder out
    two first choice attackers out

    that was obviously a little to much.

  24. Young legs, immense quantities of Want and a favorite who was warned by its coach, but wasn’t ready. And in that first half, that favorite got its ass handed to it. That’s the classic formula for an athletic upset, and we see it time and again. Barça is no different. Add a very recent international break and it was screaming out to happen.

    Ajax won every battle, got to every loose ball first, did everything they had to do to get a result in this match. Hats off to them.

    People will take time to pillory favorite targets, but this was a team failure, from top to bottom. The only player who looked like he had life was Neymar, and even he made poor decisions in the face of the Ajax pressure. Matches like this will happen. Thankfully it happened now, when it doesn’t really matter.

    P.S. Keep the Ajax supporter who fell in your thoughts. Last I heard he was in hospital, in critical condition.

  25. Sounds blasphemous but I think the next evolution of this team is simply 4-2-3-1 and Xavi and Iniesta are holding it back. If Barca are not going to dominate possession at all cost anymore (probably not even possible from now on with Xavi losing his legs at 34) and play more directly with Messi being the fulcrum of the team, then this is how it should be:

    ———Busquets—B2B CM———

    Basically Messi playing the Iniesta position and a striker occupying the old Messi position.

    Box to box central midfielder could be Gündogan.

    Centerforward someone like Suarez or Agüero.

    Would be absolutely undefendable. Who the hell defends Messi, Agüero, Neymar and Sanchez upfront? lol

    Yes, 60+ % possession would be gone for good. Instead Barca would destroy teams with insane transitions. Dortmund on steroids basically. But is that a bad thing?

    1. I don’t understand this question. 4-2-3-1 is a standard formation. We’d defend like every team in the world. How do Dortmund defend? They have the same formation. Bender instead of Busquets and Mkhitaryan instead of Messi.

      34 year old Xavi and Iniesta aren’t exactly making us defensively solid. They used to but no longer since we can’t dominate possession at will anymore.

      Messi would have to up his workrate a bit more.

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