Match control, Barça and you

[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:

  • technique
  • physicality
  • 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.

pitch mid
Area highlighted in red is the midfield

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.

Numerical superiority in the offensive zone
Numerical superiority in the offensive zone

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

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:

courtesy of euler

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.

La pausa

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.

Yes, that’s Cesc falling over.

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!

Cesc Fabregas

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.

Team loses ball. Arrows show opposition counter
Team loses ball. Arrows show opposition counter

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.

Red is the space Busi is basically responsible for
Red is the space Busi is basically responsible for

(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?)

In conclusion

There actually isn’t a conclusion, because I’m too lazy to write it. :mrgreen: 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.)

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. This also shows why Valdes as sweeper keeper is so perfect for us. A lot of the counters are long balls into space. CBs have to trust that Valdes will be fast off his line for a lot of those.

    The other note is that Xavi often drops a bit deep as well so that Busquets can do more of the hybrid CB/DM job.

    I’d love to see us get another CB so Masch can take over the CB/DM job and Busquets can move forward a bit more.

    1. Yup.

      Busi also never misses a pass when he decides that he’s going to get this done offensively too. Xavi doesn’t have the pace / the long, Bambi legs of Busi, so it’s harder for him to drop deep, but he makes it look effortless sometimes because he’s Xavi, yo.

      What I want to see us get is a LCB and one with pace. I feel like we’d balance a bit better; the LCB would provide the structure we need… but then again, we’d probably move to a 3313, like we’ve played before.

    2. That was the implication. It’s the new thing, trying to say what needs to be said without actually saying the word.


    3. Is it the case of telling Alba to stay back (he did this vs Milan 2nd leg) or buying someone new, with similar attributes to Abi?

    4. The latter.

      What allowed Barca to play 3 at the back and not look that uncomfortable was largely because Abidal not only had the pace and athleticism to recover ground whenever he was out of position, but he was able to combine it with strong passing game, height, and near-perfect positioning.

      Now that we’ve sold the guy, we have to find a player with his quality. Unfortunately that’s easier said than done. I see why Barca went after Thiago Silva, but they went after him two seasons too late, and that’s their fault.

      Also – the thing with Alba is that as an offensive threat/tactical width, he’s great. Maybe it was because he was a left winger before Unai Emery moved him to LB, but his pace and technique become an asset when used as a offensive-minded defender.

      He has pace, but he’s caught out of position more than is normal for a Barca full-back, and he wouldn’t be using his strengths if he was asked to be more conservative, because at heart, Alba is best when he’s going forward. That he can also defend is what makes him so appealing to many coaches.

    5. I like Alba but I suspect he may work better with a three-man backline so he has more freedom to bomb forward.

      If not a proper 3-4-3, some sort of pseudo double pivot type formation (kind of like Spain in 2010) where one drops into CB when both wings go forward.

    6. @busi_16: welcome and don’t worry about it, haha. I’ve just got very strong opinions about how Barca’s treated Abidal and all the jazz. Feel free to comment any time. :mrgreen:

      @njwv: Busi doesn’t need a double pivot to wear him down yes, I mean you, Alonso . But I think that you shouldn’t play Alba and Alves at the same time, because Alba brings the things Alves does and it leaves too much space behind. One or the other, not both, imo. But we don’t have a choice since we’ve got only one “conservative” fullback in, Montoya and you wouldn’t bench Alves for him, at the moment.

    7. Er busi_16, abi is worth many mentions.
      & there’s no such rule, that was merely my observation.
      Good day. Happy to see you here.

    8. Regarding Busi and the double pivot. I’ve held for a while that he and Xavi are effectively working as a double pivot anyway. Except that instead of both being DMs, one is a DM/CB and the other is a DM/AM.

      The problem (as much of a problem as you can claim to have when winning the World Cup) with Alonso was that he forced either Xavi further forward (generally not good) or Busquets further back (better since it allowed both FBs to attack).

    9. That’s interesting point. I suppose when you look at it that way it doesn’t seem so defensive! Would like to hear more about it before I’m sold, though.

      The thing is, I understand why a double pivot is necessary for Spain tactically, I just don’t think Alonso is a good partner for the role. He simply has no speed, so he constantly has to wipe out the attackers to stop them.

    10. Alonso also isn’t versatile enough to pair well with Busi or Xavi.

      But Barça-wise, if you started with a 4-3-3 of:

      Alves, Bartra, Pique, Alba
      Masch, Busquets, Iniesta
      Alexis, Messi, Neymar

      You’d end up playing something like a 3-1-4-2 as Masch, Busquets, and Messi drop back while Alves and Alba move forward:

      Bartra, Masch, Pique
      Alves, Iniesta, Messi, Alba
      Alexis, Neymar

      (no Xavi for forward-thinking reasons)

  2. Laureano Ruiz, by the way, is a retired coach who managed Barca and Barca B for a bit in the 70s. Mostly known for FCB’s youth team, though, and he was a major component of La Masia in the 70s/80s. Resulting pressure was a thing he valued a lot; Perarnau called him the grandfather of pressing.

  3. Welcome, busi_16.

    Kari, I don’t think we have only one “conservative” fullback. We’ve got selections, really. Adriano is laid-back. So as Montoya.

    When fit, it permutates like this:
    Alves — Adriano; Or Adriano — Alba; Or Alves — Montoya; Or Montoya — Alba, et c.

    Illuminating post, by the way. Shukran.

    1. I don’t really see Adriano as a conservative player by nature though. He’s definitely more attack minded than defensive minded. I mean, you could ask him to stay back and he’d obviously listen, but his skills are better suited when he’s bombing forward (and trying to score golazos). Not all that surprising seeing as he was also a winger that was converted like Alba.

      Also, shukran for reading, haha! :mrgreen:

    1. Coincidentally I was asked this on twitter too. I know people were clamouring for his signing when he was at Ajax but to be completely honest with you, I haven’t watched him a lot recently. From what I’ve heard he’s consistent (when fit, so there’s some doubts there) and his Ajax background makes him appealing.

  4. Excellent post, Kari! Reminds me of the BFB heyday from a couple of years ago.

    The new de rigueur seems to be maintaining possession but with greater muscularity and quicker transitions upfield – Bayern’s model. (

    We’ve been trying to introduce some Verticalidad into our game as well, and I’m just wondering what you think we’ll ultimately see from our team in its most ideal state.

    1. Thanks a lot, Jafri!

      That’s a really good question. Honestly I want Barça to try and stay away from the false 9 in Europe, anyway, because it makes us easier to defend – with or without Messi (but worse w/o Messi ofc because we play Cesc there and….yeah.)

      I don’t think we have the players to play 3 at the back comfortably anymore, but when we play with Alba, we effectively play with three defenders anyway ( yes, I’m counting Busi here).

      I’d also like us to try Alexis as a pseudo-9 because he has the strength and pace down or even Neymar since he’s so good you can play him anywhere in attack.

      So, the result would be a 3313:

      Alves -Piqué – Mascherano
      Xavi – Busi – Iniesta
      Pedro – Alexis – Neymar

      That comes with a lot of trade offs and Neymar would have to pull his weight on the left, to say the least. But the upside is pretty huge.

      If Cesc is in the lineup…well playing him in the hole is where he played at Arsenal (roughly) but I’d like to see him as the pseudo-striker, since he’s good a keen eye for goal.


      Alves – Pique – Mascherano
      Xavi – Busi – Iniesta
      Alexis – Cesc – Neymar

      Looks a little wack, but hey. Why not? Maybe we should play Pique as a 9, just once, haha

    2. Alves – Bartra – Masch – Alba
      Iniesta – Busquets – Messi
      Alexis – Pique – Neymar

      in-game switching between that and

      Alves – Bartra – Pique – Alba
      Iniesta – Masch – Busquets
      Alexis – Messi – Neymar

    3. That’s total football in a nutshell. We’ve already practiced shifting formation with no subs, so I think this squad could handle it. I mean, what’s the point of having versatile players if they can’t display their versatility, eh?

  5. Aside:

    I’ve observed that, you — Kari, different from other mods, respond to each commenter on your posts, the recents I’ve seen, though. Nope, it’s not a slight at the other mods, who are fantastic in their arcs. But I think it’s special, that blend with each commenter, I think it’s special. So, I love you, Kari.
    And nope, I’m not often this effusive.

    1. Am not from Spain but the love I have for fcb is beyond me… Here’s my handle @slim_dtauro, you’re welcome

  6. Thanks for the great post, Kari!

    I started to follow BFB for articles like this. But they are pretty rare these days.

    1. Thanks for reading, norden!

      I think it’s mostly a time issue – banging out opinion pieces are easier than making diagrams, haha

  7. I finally believe I’ve begun to understand the ideas behind the long diagonal pass. Even if these don’t succeed, they give time for the rest of the team to run back into position and give less time to the opponent to adopt again a defensive stance.

    And the numerous videos of Xavi, Pique and Masche trying to score baskets from thirty meters finally begin to make sense. 🙂

    1. Bingo!

      Cool how you pieced that together by reading between the lines. When keeping the ball, it actually always the teams regroup. That’s why counters are always so effective, taking advantage of people out of position to do some damage.

    2. One more thing – the diagonal pass, especially after stopping a counter, is the fastest way to accomplish simultaneously a couple of objectives: bring back the ball in forward positions so that the frontal probing can begin anew as soon as possible; change the direction of play, thereby negating the possibility that a new attack can come from the same direction; take advantage of the fact that the opponent may be in the process of reshuffling.

      It may not be very likely, but these long diagonal passes achieve something else as well – they could drag a defender out of position(if he tries to run forward to intercept that pass) and open a chink in the enemy armor; furthermore it’s a diagonal pass that changes the direction of play and also passes in front of the eyes of the entire opponent team. It’s tempting to follow the ball for just a second, but that immediately opens up the possibility of a Kansas City shuffle(They look right, Messi goes left 😀 ).

      Granted, these are miniscule things, but sometimes these little things can tip the scales. As long as the team has the players that can exploit the possibilities that the diagonal pass creates.

Comments are closed.