The ‘Illegal’ Pass Into Space.

Since the beginning of this season, and definitely the seasons before, the ‘Xavi style’ of attack has minimized the risk Barcelona players take when approaching goal. There is hesitance in the style of play. There is a lack of confidence in the pass.

I call it the Xavi style but Xavi is definitely not the only man responsible for this mentality when approaching the opponent’s area. In fact, Iniesta has his share of it as well. And when zooming out of just blaming the players, you notice the bigger picture. Any player who plays in Barcelona’s midfield will suffer the same change in mentality because of how dominant that style of play is in training. You can call it a belief if you may.

“Always pass to the player’s feet, never into empty space”

Who suffers the most from all of this, though?

Neymar: The man has been on great form recently. But one of the main reasons his danger is minimized is because he doesn’t get to run the way he has always been taught. When our midfielder has the ball and sees Neymar running into empty space you can actually notice a look of hesitation on the midfielder’s face. That is, of course, before he rotates his body left or right to look for a safer pass. And Neymar’s hope, along with our attempt of scoring a goal, is crushed.
It is worth pointing out that Neymar is possibly one of the best players who move without the ball and playing to his powers will be crucial for his development and Barca’s success.

A great example on all of this is Neymar’s goal against Atletico Madrid last season in the Champions League:

Neymar 1-1 CL QF

Iniesta’s pass to break the entire defense was one of his best. However, if he just hesitated and turned around like many Barca midfielders do we would have wasted yet another Neymar run.

Suarez: The same things that apply to Neymar apply to Suarez but there is something worth adding about Luis:

Suarez has the ability to physically overcome other defenders. Whether it’s a ground pass or a long ball, Suarez is Barca’s missing physical link in attack. He is the typical striker everyone talks about(with great vision too but that’s another issue). He’ll fight for every ball. Let’s just say if a defender and Suarez were running after a ball with equal chances I’ll have my money on Luis. But again, if we don’t ever provide that ball into space for Suarez then we’ll be minimizing his danger.

Multiple times this season Neymar has waited for midfielders to take that risk and trust in themselves and in Neymar himself but they rarely did.
Actually, Messi has been practically  the only one encouraging Neymar to run into space which lead to the connection we see between them. Because beyond just football, Neymar knows that Messi will push him to the edge while other midfielders won’t. And Neymar, thankfully, responds in a very impressive way to each time Lionel gives him an opportunity.

This has also affected Suarez in his first ever match for Barcelona. He waited for a through ball 2 or 3 times and never got what he wanted.
This kills a player’s enthusiasm. Because, put yourself in their shoes, the constant feeling of rejection is not what a forward wants.

The midfielders:
Yes, the midfielders suffer from not taking a risk as well. They minimize the possibility of being chance creators which is the basic confidence boost to any midfielder in the world. It is almost as if the midfielders enter the field with the intention to pass left of right until the forward pass seems 100% safe and TO THE FEET. By doing so, they minimize the time spent on creating chances and maximize the time spent on just passing the ball around endlessly.

Some may argue: “what about the counter attack if we lose the ball because of a risky pass?”
That’s just looking at the glass half empty.
Because what about the amount of chances these guys upfront  are capable of scoring? They already proved their skills. Time to give them what they need.

Problem here is if Barcelona had mediocre midfielders everyone would understand the need for safety. But Barca can go up against almost any team in the world and say: “we have better passers than you”. With that said, being great at something means you have to utilize it.
We all know that our midfielders can play the safe pass perfectly. They only need to remember that their passing talents never stopped there.


  1. Welcome to the blog, Chief!

    You can follow Chief on Twitter at: @BarcaChief

    The rest of the team:
    Kxevin: @kevvwill
    Blitzen: @blitzen13
    Euler: @euleri
    Levon: @barsalev
    Linda: @blackwhitengrey
    Isaiah: @rockofthune
    Kari: @officialkari
    Me: @nzm_fcb

    Hope that I didn’t miss anyone – apologies in advance if I did.

  2. Quite the debut for the Chief, that has me nodding in agreement. It’s a problem for Neymar and Pedro, and was a problem for Sanchez last year. If you hitch your greyhounds to the fence, they aren’t going to be very good greyhounds.

    Pedro gets a lot of stick for not creating, but how is he going to? He is never going to be the guy who gets the ball and beats two defenders. He is the guy who will outrun them, as he did during his goal blizzard last season. Balls into space, and he got it done.

    Neymar has the skill to, from a stationary point, make a move or a burst and beat his marker. But even he would benefit from being able to just run onto a ball. It’s like we have purchased racehorses, then hobble them.

    1. Villa suffered from this as well.

      The key is adaptability – and the ability to recognise when a through pass is going to work.

      Obviously, vs. a deep defensive line, you have less chance of success, but when the opposition’s defensive line is playing higher up the pitch, that’s when the through balls can be game winners.

      Our players have to recognise when the chance is there and take it. I’m so sick of seeing the chance for a counter get slowed down in midfield, giving the opposition defence the time to re-set.

      Keeping a high possession rate is great but only if, at the end of the game, you are 1 goal ahead of the opposition!

    2. The question is why we’re in this situation now. It was not the case not that long ago, with the same players playing in midfield.

    3. I feel like they have lost confidence in their ability to play the key pass or they fear the counter attack too much. Either way it is something that needs to be fixed. We just have too much quality up front now for it to be wasted on slow, meaningless possession!

  3. Brilliant post and spot on. I feel like this was not always the case though, not in the first few years under Pep. Look at a lot of the goals Henry, Pedro, Eto and Messi all scored in those first few seasons, a lot of them are off of passes into space and Xavi was one of the best at playing those passes. I feel like both he and Iniesta have regressed in that regard. Too much reliance on playing it safe, worrying about the counter, being obsessed with keeping the ball even when there are great passes on. The number of times I have seen our attackers, Neymar especially, start making an amazing run into space for the midfielder with the ball to just ignore him really frustrates me. We have the players to make the pass the the players to create the space.

    I feel like that is one of the main reasons we are seeing less and less movement off the ball. What is the point of all that movement if nobody is going to play the pass into space to take advantage of it. It is all very frustrating to see! We need a player in midfield who is willing to take more risks, especially now that we have Suarez. We are going to have so much movement up front it simply cannot be wasted!

  4. Messi is currently the only one who regularly plays that pass. Tello only looked like a good footballer when Messi was on the pitch because Messi would give him the chance to run onto the ball rather than at his feet. Tello was really good in behind defenders but didn’t have the tricks to beat players off a dribble.
    I used to love watching Giuly play for us. He would always look to run in behind the fullback rather than stay out wide waiting for the ball. He knew that he could do more damage running off the ball than with it. Deco and Ronaldinho used to give him so many chances from similar positions.

  5. Nobody deliberately ignores a good forward ball, especially not Xavi or Iniesta who both run at pace with their heads up something only Messi in the team can also do. So you’re talking about dangerous balls which carry a high risk of losing possession which is fine as we’re in their third and why I always get upset when someone is accused of playing a part in losing a goal because they tried something in the final third. However, in order to play them you need movement from forwards. I mentioned in a previous post that two or three times agains tRM I watched Iniesta carry the ball because there was no movement up front. Because the oppositions back line is well into their own box you only have a couple of yards to drop the ball into, hence Iqniesta’s battered pass to Messi a couple of weeks ago which nobody else in the world could have controlled first touch imo, apart from maybe Iniesta or Xavi. There has to be room for the pass and room against a packed defence comes with moving the ball side to side quickly and choosing the right time for the incisive pass, preferably into an on rushing attacker but that’s even more difficult in the middle. Which is why we end up recycling the ball out to standing FBs to loft a slow lob for the opposition to clean up. This is not a xavi / Iniesta problem near the box. I would agree that there are times we could go more completely for a quick break and that that doesnt come naturally to either of the twins but if LE tells them to do it they will. I would also add though that none of our attackers has the Lightning pace of CR7 or Bale do over thirty / forty yards.

  6. By the by, y’all should give a proper BFB welcome to our newest contributor, Barca Chief. If you aren’t following him on Twitter, you should be.

  7. Busquets dangerously let his man run in behind without tracking him, leaving Mathieu make a very good last ditch tackle. An on form Busquets tracks his man. It’s disturbing.

  8. With Mascherano’s hopeless attempt at winning a header and Dani’s terrible control I don’t know who should take the lions share of the blame for that one.
    I’m yet to see a reason that Bartra isn’t starting in defense with Masch in midfield.

    1. I wouldn’t be say that it’s a joke. We have been unbelievably unlucky. Four attempts hit the crossbar and their keeper is having one of those days where everything goes right. If we play like this for the season I’ll be very happy.

    2. I agree. Barca had games where they couldn’t produce any chances, but this wasn’t one of them. Suarez alone could have had two, as well as Neymar.

      It seems to me that at the moment, our top attackers are playing a very different game than our top midfielders (Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets). Neymar, Messi, Suarez seem to thrive on very fast combination play and dribbles, while the midfield excels at keeping possession and wearing opponents down. I hope the midfield players will be able to adapt (because I don’t think Rafinha or Sergi Roberto are quite at the level of our top midfielders).

    3. and Celta could have scored 3 or 4 more.

      this was not “just one of those days”; that whitewashes some pretty serious structural issues in our play which were quite clear this game:

      :: we can’t NOT control the midfield (which was at times completely bypassed) AND keep the current set of our defenders who can’t defend

      :: put another way, we can’t “stretch” our play until we have a more orthodox defensive system to build from

      :: Messi, Neymar, and Suarez can’t all be risk-takers with the ball and expect a weakened midfield and non-defending-defenders to bail them out. that’s why a player such as Pedro has been seen as, and in fact is, necessary; he doesn’t take risks with the ball in dangerous zones, and he works to track back. Neymar, by contrast, lost the ball a half-dozen times, and doesn’t do any tracking back. now, Neymar is a brilliant player and arguably should be allowed to take those risks because they sometimes pay off; but you can’t have 3 players doing that because it’ll leave your midfield exposed out of position

      :: Rakitic has been papering over cracks, but he’s not capable of running and controlling our midfield himself; Busquets is clearly struggling in Lucho’s new, less-controlled midfield system. that’s a big piece of our jigsaw to lose, and to persist with him over Mascherano who’s much more accustomed to such a system in midfield while continuing to be beaten in the air/out of position as a center-back seems self-defeating. Rafinha is a luxury player who has a great profile that i think we should keep, but not on the same page as the rest of the team.

      I highly suggest you follow both Euler and Santapelota on Twitter, as we’re in agreement on almost all of these issues. Euler has a few choice things to say about the state of the squad that the administration left Lucho with at the beginning of the season, as well.

      Celta weren’t lucky, we weren’t unlucky. Celta had a better gameplan, they executed it better, were the better side and deservedly won.

  9. Terrible.. two losses in a row.. too hard to take.. the only good is we weren’t at our best playing against Madrid.. we lost against Celta straight after… Messi needs to move back to his central role with Surarez and Neymar supporting him .. till Suarez gets his Mojo back.. most attacks were breaking with Surarez.. Enrique needs to get him in slowly…

    4 shots off the crossbar… need some luck….

  10. Oh, and greetings to our new writer Barca Chief. With new articles from various writers, plus the semi-articles from people like Jim and Peter in the comments section, this place is staying very interesting.

  11. Hats off to their goal keeper, What a tremendous performance!, But i still resent him, Bastard!

    Another thing i resent, Is the ‘elitist’ attitude many fans take, If a result goes wrong, Then it must be something WE did wrong, It was OUR fault, Yes it may be true in some occasions but not all of them, I specially resent this ‘take’ because it dismisses entirely the effort the other team puts, and undermines them, And that’s just not fair.

    The universe doesn’t revolve around our team.

    After their classico performance, They deserved the lashes and criticism they got, But this is different.
    2 ridiculous saves, 1 mind boggling clearance, And 3 bars, says enough. The team on the other end of the pitch was simply in the zone, It was their day, That’s it, It’s a bummer for us, But that’s football.

  12. Please dont chalk this loss up to ” luck” there are real issues here atm. I’m too steamed to say much more, it’s not the loss it’s HOW we lost.

  13. Don’t know that to think about it. We did have a good game, but you cannot miss so many chances. That’s simply inexcusable.

  14. Saying it was luck, to me, is the lazy man’s module of ignoring the tactical mess we are in. I am absolutely clueless about what system Enrique is trying to put up. No clue. We are playing like Galácticos. It is ridiculous.

    I lack the strength to say more now.

  15. Tata doesn’t seem that bad now, does it, Catalan media?

    It doesn’t hurt, not yet, but it will. Right now I’m numb. It seemed, it felt like the last days last season when practically nothing clicked together. Damn…

    1. Losing points at home in a league dominated by only 2 teams can dramatically decrease the chances of winning at the end, Definitely worrisome.
      After the loss against valencia in camp nou last season, I felt the cup slipped from our grasp, There are games where you can’t lose points at.

    2. again, though, so important for us to distinguish that the issue isn’t THAT we lost, it’s HOW we lost. clear structural problems in every area of the pitch, but particularly with an ill-defined midfield and a defense not capable of playing in the current system being attempted. these are issues which will affect the team going forward, quite possibly for the next 2 years (given our transfer ban which wasn’t adequately prepared for) unless Lucho can somehow find something that works for the sort of players we have and what they want to do on the pitch.

      perhaps a 3-4-3? i honestly am at a loss.

  16. BA i agree with your analysis but this is a result that could easily have been different. We could have been 4/5 up by halftime such were our chances. They could also have scored the odd goal or two. Even then that should not have papered the structural the structural flaws you refer to.

    You watch the match and are amazed with the disorganisation. How many times the ball is hoofed up. The utter lack of pass and movement in the midfield.

    We created chances because of the superiority of our players. Against Celta that usually is the default case. But man the lack of a clear way of playing is disheartening. Lucho needs a plan and very fast.

  17. i was watching the celta highlights today and noticed this ongoing worrying trend with the barca defenders always having to play their out of trouble, i know its the sacred barcelona way to play the ball out of the defence but at times it could be costly and it was against celta alves could easily have cleared the ball away but i think he was trying to dress the ball and then BAM! got outmuscled of the ball and we know the rest. Same thing happened with pique against madrid he was running for the ball with benzema but tried to dress the ball close to the 18yard box and i think he also got outmuscled of the ball.

    And can messi please allow neymar and suarez have a go at direct free kicks because he doesn’t look like he would score one soon, for example like the one against real madrid and celta that flew into the stands at least he can take the ones from the right hand side and leave the left handside to Neymar or Suarz who are quite as good as him or probably better than him. Even CR7 steps aside for Bale to take some messi shouldn’t monopolize it

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