[Heya, BFB! This, unfortunately, isn’t the fun times post you’ve been waiting for. Hopefully, it will entertain you in some other way, though!]
Match control is what pretty much every team in football strives for. As the saying goes, control the match, control the game. Control the game and you win. Unless you fail to score goals There are a couple of ways a team can control a match. The most common ways of match control:
- creating numerical advantage in the midfield (i.e. having more players there than the other team)
Generally, teams uses a blend of those, like technique with some physicality and vice versa (how many times have you heard someone say a player is there to add some ‘steel’ or ‘flair’ to the midfield?), but there are some that lean towards one than the other. Arsenal, for example, tends to favor technique in the midfield, but that’s been the subject of discussion in England as teams in the EPL largely favor physicality as a means of control and Arsenal tended to struggle with that.
A thing that made Spain so interesting from Euro 2008 and beyond was they were able to have success without having physically imposing players, as Iniesta notes below.
“The 2008 Euros were so important because they showed you could win that way with a group of players who weren’t physically imposing in any way – if anything, we’re the opposite.”
I’ll talk about Spain a little later but first, we’ll walk through how Barça controls the midfield.
touchline to touchline
One thing you need to know is the midfield is not just the center circle. It’s that whole strand of the pitch, from touchline to touchline.
Historically speaking Barça’s always been a technical side that’s had steel in the midfield. With the arrival of Guardiola, Barça have favored creating numerical advantages in the midfield along with obvious technique in the side. There’s a reason for that. Mostly, it was to play to the strengths of Xavi – a player who is very associative, who needs to have teammates surrounding him and passing lanes to be effective. Pep moved him higher up the pitch to take advantage of his defense-splitting passes and vision, but that meant Pep also had to push more players forward so Xavi would have players to link up with.
The result was the signing of Alves, who would occupy the right side of the midfield.* So when Xavi moved up, he’d have Iniesta on his left, Alves on his right (and most awesomely for Barça, Messi in front).
(*Jordi Alba was also signed, presumably, to have that effect on the left side, but that’s led to an imbalance throughout the team, particularly when Alves plays at the same time. But I’ll talk about that when I get to talking about the defense.)
For those interested, I’ll go a little bit more in-depth about numerical superiority below. If that’s too boring, you can just skip this part, haha
By pushing Alba and Alves up, we increase “triangulation”, which basically means we make more fancy triangles.
In the above pic, that’s basically the ideal triangles we like to make. So what does this all mean for match control? Pretty simple: more players means more people to pass to, which means playing keep away and holding onto the ball is easier.
Having numbers is basically a must for Barça right now since they persist with playing with the false 9. This is because teams play narrow; that is, they try to limit the space Barça has in the middle and make the pitch smaller. Barça’s response, of course, is to make the field bigger. They do this by using tactical width that comes from the wingers. You’ve seen it with Cuenca and Tello especially, the way they hug the touchline. Pedro/Alexis and Neymar/Tello do that for us, along with the fullbacks Alves/Montoya, Alba/Adriano. That makes it easier to play our game and try to overwhelm the opposition.
Of course, this didn’t come without risk. When all those players pushed up the pitch and Barca playing a high back line as a result, that left the defensive midfielder a lot of space to defend. From the left touchline to the right touchline, that’s all Busi.
How is it that can Barça get away with routinely leaving a player to cover what is essentially the space of three, often four players?
Busi is a freaking boss, that’s how.
The answer is simple but largely under the radar.
Positional play was one of the absolute fundamentals of Pep’s Barça, and it was something that declined most last season. Positional play is what allows the ball to do the running, and not the players.
It’s also the ability to travel together throughout the pitch. Ray Hudson likened the players to an amoeba, and that’s an apt description. They are together in the offensive zone and in the defensive zone like a giant, gelatinous blob of organized chaos.
When the midfield triumvirate of Xavi-Iniesta-Alves moved forward, Busi was able to position himself in a way that makes it easy for him to be there to make a tackle. This was made easier by the way Busi had at least two additional passing lanes open to him to relieve the pressure and keep possession.
If you want an example, take this from the Getafe game in April 2012:
Every single Getafe player is marked. Not only that, but marked in a way where each Barça player has the ability to form triangular passes as well.
When it was Alves on the right touchline and Abidal on the left, it wasn’t too bad as Abidal was a lot more conservative moving forward (and he was fast as all hell, so he could just run back like a boss). With Alba now bombing forward, Busi has to cover that whole midfield area essentially by himself. Not only that, but when Busi does win the ball, his passing options are often limited. This is particularly bad with the Spain NT.
Passing is the lifeblood of the sport. What makes it effective, though, is having people open to pass to. That sounds obvious, but with players being marked, it makes being open difficult. Thus the movement of players is crucial. Movement means that greater positional play. Greater positional play means the geometry we’re used to. Geometry means quicker passes and a faster tempo. Faster tempo means overwhelming the opposition. That leads to goals which leads to victory. Simple? Well, the hardest thing to do in football is to play simple.
Pressing and positional play
When people talk about Barça and pressing, you will hear the term “hunting in packs” about a million times (and if you haven’t, congratulations, you either have infinitely more creative commentators or you have a selective hearing ability you must share with the world). It describes the idea of Barça players crowding around the poor sap who’s got the ball.
Generally speaking, what’s implied is that it’s through an incredible work rate that the ball is recovered. You read these quotes and think they are talking about that off-the-ball effort, the work ethic, the running.
If you lose the ball, the key is how to get it back again. The old idea was to go to defend our area and press to recover before. Now they [Barça] have perfected the details and the most spectacular thing to watch is when Barça don’t have the ball. – Johan Cruyff
In today’s football, it’s a mistake to make a tactical foul when you lose the ball. What you need to do is to steal the ball with pressing, as Barça do. – Laureano Ruiz
Not quite. Whilst it’s true that Barça do close people down and with the likes of Samuel Eto’o, speed and hard work were an assets that Barça processed, the real triumph of Barça – and easily the most overlooked part – was the positional play of the team. That’s really what Cruyff and Ruiz are talking about.
The times when Barca lost the ball, it was in the opponent’s zone. But the key thing here is what when that happened, the team was organized so that the one who lost the ball was surrounded by two or three teammates. That is what helped Barca recover the ball and “hunt in packs.”
A master of this, as I mentioned before, is Busquets. Notice how he never has to go to ground or do the flashy sliding tackles? He just comes and nicks the ball, often leaving the opposition player lost and without the ball. It’s truly remarkable.
When Barça aren’t pressing well, it’s not only that they’re tired. They aren’t in the ideal position, so they have to travel a farther distance to close down the player. Before, they were close enough to the ball so that they could run full tilt and be relatively okay, but now Barça players have to run farther for a longer period.
For example, a player that used to get the ball a meter from you now has the ball five meters from you. Would you close him down as quickly? You can argue that they’ve gotten slower, but I’d argue that it’s because of this distance that it’s more noticeable.
There are reasons for that of course, not having your coach for a chunk of the season is a pretty major one. Thierry Henry talks about how much work Pep and Tito by extension used to put in organizing the team, in set pieces, in defense, in offense (around 1:00).
How crucial a coach is to the day-to-day function cannot be understated. The idea that Barça’s players are so good they could coach themselves is one that baffles me. Positional play is something that Barça have struggled to regain in the last year, but Martino has done a good job in this regard. It’s improved greatly since the tail end of last season.
But there’s another thing that Barca midfielders have that allows them to control not only the midfield, but also the tempo of the game, and it’s a concept that is particularly revered in Argentina.
This is the ability to put the brakes on, to feint so that the opponent trying to tackle you misses by a couple of meters. It’s being able to establish some calm in a frenetic game and seemingly put the other players on hold until you pick your next pass, like pressing pause on a play. This is taught in La Masia from a young age.
For an example, I turn to one Andres Iniesta to show you.
And if you want to see that in slow-mo, yup, made a gif for that, too. (Because there is no such thing as excess when it comes to watching Iniesta own RM players).
Interestingly enough, what made Cesc Fabregas such a success in England was the pausa he brought to Arsenal’s game; in a league where two sides are running at each other full tilt, he was able to slow it down a bit and pick out a pass. It was very noticeable that when Cesc had the ball, he could take a touch, think, and pick out the pass he wanted. It’s also what Ozil has in spades, as well as Cazorla, Mata and Silva, so their success in the league isn’t much of a surprise. All they had to do was adapt a bit to the tempo, and the roar of the crowd that always wants them to run forward.
The Xavi-Busi axis of total control
Xavi is the barometer of our team. The tempo increases and decreases when he wants. He’s not fast, he’s not physical, he’s not particularly tall, but he can still put a pressing player on his arse with a simple turn under pressure. That’s Xavi and he’s unique.
Spanish journalist Marti Perarnau described Busi as your invisible friend:
“Busquets is the first firefighter on the scene and the last to collect the fire hose and put away the helmets. […] He’s neither fast nor agile nor flexible. He’s not strong or powerful, nor does he have a low centre of gravity to rely on. But he’s essential. You don’t see him, but he’s always there. He’s the invisible friend.”
He is, along with Xavi, the one who makes the geometry of Barca work. Right now, Busquets is the Barca player who I trust most with the ball. In the future, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him take the reins of the offense – well, as soon as we can get someone to do even half the job he does now in the defensive midfield, of course!
Contrary to popular belief, Cesc was signed not to replace Xavi, but to add more verticality and direct play to Barca. It’s why Alexis was signed in the same summer, too. While Cesc brought la pausa to the English game, Pep wanted Cesc to bring the direct tempo of their football to Barca. That’s why when Pep was asked if he was bringing back the Masia player who got away, he replied, “No, I’m signing the Arsenal captain.”
Now below I’m going to self-indulgently talk about something that we see all the time when FCB play.
What happens when you combine numerical superiority with poor positioning?
Well, that’s pretty easy. More men forward means less back to defend, and when those forward players don’t position themselves well they can’t be in a good position to press. That means there’s a lot of space for the opposition to counter attack in and a heck of a lot of space the defensive midfielder needs to cover.
For example, say the ball is lost somewhere up front. Iniesta and Xavi are often clustered in the middle with Messi. On the wings, Alba and Alves are “out of position” so the opposition use the space they leave behind to make Busi’s (and the rest of the, err, two man defense) job harder.
As seen below, it’s largely left to Busquets to defend the space of (min.) two players – Xavi and Iniesta – as well as the space of Alves and Alba. He does this pretty much every game.
(So when you play Alex Song who, amongst other things, doesn’t have the knowledge of the Barça system – i.e. where to position himself – in Busi’s position… well, you can see why Tata moved him further up the pitch, right?)
There actually isn’t a conclusion, because I’m too lazy to write it. We’ll just continue talking in the comments! (Or, I guess, on twitter. I’m @officialkari, if you forgot).
Also, I actually made all the gifs in the post, omg.
(No, seriously. I did.)