Space. The final frontier


The post-mortems have started coming in about the best Barça performance that anyone has seen in a very long time. I have watched it three times now, and I keep coming back to a very simple thing, summed up in one word: space.

The key to the excellence of Atleti has always been the way that it controls space, with and without the ball. With the ball, they come in overlapping waves this season, an intelligent attack that is also cognizant of possession. But it is without the ball where they truly excel.

When they beat RM in the Copa, it was with a heavy rotation squad, but the space control ideas were the same: funnel attackers into zones with ball pressure, where they can be controlled. It seems simple, but it’s so very complicated because nobody can take a moment off.

Barça has tried to manage space before over the years, and the Guardiola Treble team was most effective at it as it destroyed opponents with geometric precision. Without the ball, defenders converged from 2 or 3 points to ensure that no matter what, the person with the ball had a difficult time getting past that wave of pressure. The option would be to hoof it long, where defenders were waiting to scoop up errant balls, or try to play it out among a group of 6-8 pressing attackers.

On offense, the Treble team controlled space not only with triangles, but with pace. The movement off the ball of Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o was extravagant and effective, a constant wave of action that coupled with the passing triangles to always present Xavi with an option. Atop this, you had Iniesta making his runs at the defense with the ball, a non-scoring scoring threat, and Messi … always Messi.

The net result was that opponents weren’t allowed to play football at either end of the pitch.

Attacking the unbeatable

As Barça evolved (or more correctly devolved) and deficiencies became clear, opponents chose different ways to manage space against our team. Going over the top became in vogue, in an attempt to get directly at the back line of non-defending defenders. As solutions were found for that, a different way of space control manifested itself, most typically by Bayern Munich and to a letter extent, Paris St.-Germain in their home leg against us in Champions League.

Both teams make the flanks their battlegrounds, deciding that using those areas against the Barça attacking fullbacks was the way forward, and both had success in doing that while also exposing deficiencies in the team.

When Luis Enrique took over the club this season, leaving aside the cries that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, doesn’t have a plan, etc, etc, some of that plan became evident in the string of clean sheets that the team began to amass. Defense wins championships, and any win starts with not conceding. Seems simple enough, but that method of thinking isn’t part of the Barça Way. Yes, the team has had excellent defenders, but when a coach prioritizes defensive structure, that is something significant.

Pique was benched, and a clear message was sent: raise your game or sit. He raised his game, and is back to being an excellent defender. Jordi Alba is in his salad days, never having been more effective as a defender, and Jeremy Mathieu, his yips when it comes to clearing the ball aside, is fast, tall and agile, with vertical and lateral coverage capabilities. Add Mascherano to that as the fireman, and by just adding one player and helping the starting LB develop into his role (time in grade also helped there), the back of the pitch is as solid as can be, right down to the drama-free opponent set pieces this season.

Modifying The Way

The attack of Messi, Neymar and Suarez has its own space management complexities as it relates to the midfield, particularly against low blocks. Simply put, the Barça Way fails when there aren’t spaces to pass and move into, when the intricate give-and-gos run into waves of defenders. But even this season, the team has been making chances against low-block teams. La Real wasn’t a loss because of a lack of chances, but rather poor execution of those chances. In each of the four losses this season there have been opportunities squandered, moments in which a player just didn’t get it done. It’s easy to blame to coach for those, and Enrique is certainly part of the team that plays the match. But to lay the blame exclusively on him, as so many have done, ignores the simple fact that he isn’t the one squandering the chances.

The midfield has always been the complexity with the linking of the three Barça systems. As I said in the “preview” before the Atleti match, Iniesta would be the key, or potentially Raktitc, someone to bridge that space gap between midfield and the attack so that each system can do what it does. This is, in many ways, the exploitable weakness of Enrique’s structure — it is capable of being defeated by isolating its various parts, and the only way around it is for the team to do what it did on Sunday in making everyone part of all three phases of the game, even as this is an approach that also requires a complicit opponent.

Atleti came into the match expecting the calm, logical Barça that it saw all last season. What it got instead was throwback Barça, a team that truly attacked and defended with 11, that managed space on its own terms through a number of very simple ways:

— Ball technicians can thwart a pressing opponent. Barça has just a couple.
— Width, real width rather than Pedro standing around on the right, makes the pitch too big to control.
— It’s difficult to stop a moving Messi.
— Neymar took the reins from time to time.

In addition to all of that, there was the shuttle player. Suarez could occupy the Atleti CBs, leaving FBs to try to deal with Messi and Neymar as other players tried to deal with Rakitic and Iniesta, both of whom had excellent matches, the latter as an elegant, incisive Modified Xavi.

In attack, the space between Neymar and Messi was usually wide at the start of an attack, but rather than the usual spacing we have seen in which opponents can just play passing lanes and isolate Barça attackers, a more conservative Alves meant that Rakitic became a midfielder again, a dynamic presence which meant that Busquets could return to his spot at the base, a reference point for the two midfielders. Busquets also had his best match in a long time, and in many ways it was because past became present as the team that beat Atleti played a lot like Treble Barça.

Neymar was trickster Henry, Suarez played the Eto’o role and Messi featured as himself. With Rakitic and Iniesta moving, there were simply too many spaces to control, too many gaps to fill. Anyone wondering why coaches decide that putting 10 behind the ball and 8 in the box is the way to play Barça need look no further than Sunday’s match. Atleti didn’t know what hit it, just as culers didn’t know what they were seeing. Hell, it took me a while to figure it out.

The way forward?

Suarez AND Neymar were on the doorstep for that first goal. Perhaps if Juanfran doesn’t whiff on the clearance, things are different. Maybe if the early aggression of Atleti had resulted in a goal, things would have been different. But as the match proceeded it was a simple exercise in space management as for the first time we saw something of what I reckon Enrique’s Barça is supposed to look like, though I rather imagine that when Mathieu is healthy there will be difficult decisions to be made, as Enrique considers Mascherano a necessity.

We are also getting a sense of what Enrique’s gala XI is. It was the 27th different lineup in 27 matches, but this time only one player was different, in Iniesta for Xavi.

When coaches devise match plans, they do so based on not only the capabilities of their team, but the opponent. Atleti was surprised by what they got. So were culers, if they are being truly honest. I sure was. It wasn’t the drive and intensity, though Simeone commented after the match that threw them for a loop. It was also the logic of the approach. It was a match plan devised for Atleti, and it made perfect sense. It also worked.

It didn’t work because of individual brilliance, though there were many brilliant plays made by individuals, as there will be when you have talents such as Barça has. But there was a system … three phases joined by ball and player movement. The first goal started with Claudio Bravo. It didn’t take much to remind you of when Barça goals originated at Victor Valdes.

Is what’s old new again? In some ways, yes. Then as now, there are three dynamic, world class, creative attackers. But this Barça potentially has an extra dimension in Neymar, who is as capable of shifting to a central playmaker’s role as well as his usual slot on the left side of the attack. Notice the times that Rakitic was standing in the Atleti box, in space. As with Guardiola’s first year, a system such as that works best where there are simply too many targets to hit and space is managed through effective movement between phases on the pitch.

It seems so simple when you lay it out like that. Why we haven’t seen it before now is due to, frankly, who the hell knows? As Sid Lowe wrote in his top-class after match report for The Guardian, coach Juanma Lillo said, “Sometimes people tell me reasons why my team have lost, when even I haven’t got a clue.”

The same is often true for why a team wins, or decides that today is the day that it will all come together. Anger? Okay. The chance to finally slay the demons that plagued these players all last season? I’ll buy that. The necessity of a 9 becoming so abundantly clear? For sure.

But it’s sport. Just as the same tennis player can do no wrong one day and miss every line the next, the margins are slim. Think about it too much, and you start to be in danger of missing out on the wonder of it all.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. I’ll also add, having Pedro out of the starting line-up really, really works. Heneeds to be shipped out EOY, had more than enough time and for everyone’s interest, should end up at Arsenal or similar for ~15mmil.

    Pains me to say that about him, but he isn’t the Pedro!!! or random chaos generator(tm) that he was once.

    1. Just because he shouldn’t be in the starting line up doesn’t mean he should be shipped out. He is a super sub and he is very valuable to the team. Furthermore who else wouldn’t mind coming here to play as a sub? Would you rather have Pedro or Munir coming onto a match? We always talk about having a strong bench, having Pedro on the bench is in the right direction.

    2. I agree if it wasn’t for the ban, Pedro has needed to go for years. If we are down in a game and need pedro to rescue us, odds are his one trick won’t be of use. But he runs and doesn’t complain so here he atsud

    3. Cmon Barca96, super sub? What will he provide? His goals have clearly dried up and his assists and other general contributions have too. Fact is we got rid of the wrong runner(Sanchez) and kept Pedro. He hasnt been the Pedro!! Or RCG since his breakout season in 2009-2010.

      We have super subs and players that can do what he does and more, including those on loan that will come back. Perhaps his saving grace is the transfer ban, but even then Id ship him out ASAP and bring the loan boys back.

    4. Would Alexis be happy riding the bench most of the time? Who is this super sub other than Pedro that you are thinking off? At the moment we don’t have any other forward and on loan we only have Deulefou who couldn’t get into the starting 11 at Everton and now the same story at Sevilla.

      Pedro was just getting into form unfortunately the winter break came in and now he needs to build momentum again.

  2. KXEVIN – excellent as usual.
    Everyone always talks about Messi playing “between the lines”. But that is a terrible place to play him because it means he can be the focus of the defence. Both the midfield and the backline can easily sandwich him. He gets attacked from 360 degrees.
    However, play him out on the right and he only has to worry about the players right in front of him. There is no midfield to squeeze him against the backline.

    1. True if the lines are close to each other.

      When the strategy was originally devised, they weren’t.

      Now they’re often either separated by just 5-10 meters, or they are both blocking his way

  3. Messi’s starting position is not an issue. Because he usually ends up where space takes him. The key for me is to involve as much as is possible.

    1. It is reAlly because it is no problem to commit a couple of men from an 8 man defence to look after him in the middle as they’ll be there anyway. However, you send two out to your left back position to watch him permanently you will struggle elsewhere. If you don’t he gets that fatal step or two to get started. Plus, win Messi out there we don’t feel he need for every all to go through him, lessening dependence and letting he other two grow.

      Mind you, lest we get carried away their LB was awful. Committed himself far too easily, imo.

    2. Yeah Jim that was Juanfran, he had a terrible game for them. Your points about Messi on the right is quite true, provided he can follow and be happy to hug the line as much as possible I think it really aids in our play.

  4. Meant to say, a good read, Kxevin. And I largely agree with you that space was the key. Whether Atleti were a shade below their best or we utilised it better or what I’m still not sure. However, some things, to me, came out of it and I suspect other teams will now have to think about.

    With Messi on the right wing it is no longer a place where attacks go to die which is what they have been relying on in the past. There is now danger in letting the ball go wide unattended.

    They have always overloaded Alba/ Neymar’s side and will struggle to do that so well.

    We have someone in the middle who takes two to watch as well. He has more movement than the traditional bag of angry ferrets ! As a bonus he’s also bigger than I thought. This in turn will give more space for Xavi/ Iniesta/ Rakitic to get into the box.

    I suppose I would temper the above by saying that the space wasn’t caused by us catching them unawares and undermanned. I don’t think that happened much at all even as Bravo was good at releasing the ball early and sometimes long. Btw, I’m not sure why you mention Bravo in connection with the first goal. All he did was tap it to Pique.

    In fact, other than Messi on the right Id argue that space was more important in the defensive sense. None of the goals were a result of them coming out at us or fewer players between us and their goal. It WAS all down to the front three but that’s what they can be superb at, backed up by the midfield / Alves. Alves I would say was slightly better at choosing his times to go forward ( see the first goal) rather than playing defensively so still a little more work needed there.

    Defensively, for me, the biggest thing was that our hunger for the ball was back, we pressed well but also we are not the soft touches to a clearance up the park we used to be. We are no longer getting caught with only one or two back ( although if Masche is gonna play at the back he can’t get caught like at their one breakaway – too far up and too far away from their only attacker.) Not his fault he slipped but if Mandzukic had any pace he was away on his own with no need of Torres. Still, it is good to feel that the defence can handle defending again!

    However, you just know I’ll take issue with the Pique bit. Pique was dropped because LE came in looking to make an example of a soft superstar ” pour encourager les autres”. He was brought back because we lost too many goals to errors, not because his work now is any better than it has been over the last season. Too many folks, imo, take the lazy view of assuming his slow gate means slow thinking. Nobody has been able point to errors leading to goals in the last season or so down to him. He is a world class defender and even after the last match I’ve seen comments like ” now if Pique can just get his act together” or “as long as Pique doesn’t make any more errors”. Can we start watching the matches a bit more closely? Pique is the rock on which our good defence is founded. He is excellent in the air, on the ground, only tackles when he has to and has a superb sense of where to be ( that nasty positioning word). If you don’t think so have a look at what he does in the Mandzukic break ( I’ve given my view of it in the comments on the last article). First class defending.

    Finally, I agree with the comments in the article about bodies in the box. We have missed this for a couple of years. However, all the front three are now after goals, capable of beating a man in the box, making the right runs to get them and comfortable in tight spaces. With all due respect to Sanchez this is an upgrade. Add that to midfielders able to do the same due to a tighter defence and we’re cooking. Probably until the next game . . .

    1. Hehe Jim, been reading your comments since I been more active on this blog. And, you don’t make it hard to realise that you have a soft corner for Pique and a ‘hard’ corner for Masche. I am terrible in re-accounting defensive errors, but there have been quite a few glaring ones committed by Pique over the seasons. I know its a shallow statement without evidence to substantiate it. I hope I dont get any of those in the coming matches to point you to. But there’s no denying that he had a more ominous presence in our defence especially against AM and generally in the last few matches. I will keep enjoying that. I agree, Pique is the best defender in Barca especially for Barca’s weak points – set pieces, crosses, aerial threats. But no one is better than Masche in leadership and in slide tackles.

    2. Hi Neel. Welcome. Good that you are becoming more active.

      I’d preface my comments with the thought that the whole defence played very well against AM. I suppose I could start by saying that I have no favourites but I’m not that sort of fan. I’ll have to admit to a preference for intelligent players like Xavi, Iniesta and Pique. However, I wouldn’t exactly agree with the soft spot idea although if you mean I think Pique is a better CB then yes, every day of the week.

      (Slightly) in my defence I would say that I’ve had no objection at all to Masche in the team at DM where tackling possibly has a bigger part to play, is less dangerous and I said in a previous post that I admire the attitude he brings to games and I’d consider him as captain, certainly ahead of Pique so I think my objection is more specific and not personal – but probably won’t change. He can’t add extra height so playing him there means we lose the chance to cut down our vulnerability to set pieces. He dashes into tackles from behind – it cost us three FKs in the last game against FK specialists then we had to rely on Pique to clear up behind him because he’s not gonna win balls in the air, and also as indeed he had to on the Mandjukic break. He also doesn’t, for me, have the discipline to stay in position at CB. Pique’s mistakes, again for me, usually tend to be carelessness in non vital situations or he gets blamed because he’s nearby although I did criticise him in a game earlier this season when he lost a one on one. Happy to hear from anyone if they think he is at fault as the season progresses. I’m sure there will be occasions.

      I get that it’s easy to like Masche because he thunders into the tackle but it’s not for me and its a pretty limited view of what should be going on defensively. However there are many on here who would disagree and that’s fine. I’ll just plough my furrow pointing out if or when anyone costs us defensively because that is the main reason we’re not leading this league.

    3. You know, Jim, I think Masche has been really solid at CB this season. His lack of height and his usually bad judgment of deep balls played over the top have really not been an issue so far.

    4. Can Instart off by saying that I think he has played quite well in that position generally recently? Also, that I’m only responding to these posts as I’ve been directly asked. I’m not quite as sad as I look by repeatedly posting- honestly.

      Otherwise, I’d agree on the height, Lev, but I think that’s more by good luck than anything else. What height did we have against AM? Pique won 10 aerial duels.! Now,he’s getting good at fooling them ( for one of the corners he pretends to be coming to the front but immediately backs off towards the back post as the kicker runs up to the ball and gets it away) but how long can we ride our luck in that regard? How many of Masche’s tackles from behind which led to a FK in a dangerous place were necessary? Look at his positioning for the Mandjukic break. Do you think that’s where one of only two defending CBs should be, fifteen yards inside their half ? Who is marking the guy on the wing ? He slips because he is coming inside away from the man and has to turn back quickly. Not huge but avoidable. You get in huge trouble if your CBs advance fifteen yards into their half and it is never necessary, especially since we’re not blessed with the quickest defenders. If he’s even five yards back he has the whole game in front of him.

      Don’t really want to go back over all my issues with him, Lev. It makes me sound like a ranting maniac but just briefly he got sent off because he didn’t know enough not to try to hold our backline right at the centre circle, he was the only one broke ranks against PSG to run back with Cavanni and then lunged in when Cavanni had his back to him making it easy to score, he waded then did nothing in for their third goal in the Clasico when Iniesta had the battle won and flicked it back to him. I’m not even going back to that decisive game against AM at the end of last season when he comprehensively lost Godin etc etc. The very fact we had to use him against Godin points out our deficiency. I think Rami it was who said I was making too much of some of them and maybe I do sometimes but my question is why is it always Masche?

      Another recent development is him trying to get the defence to hold a line too high for free kicks leaving a big area which keeper can’t get to. . The idea is usually to bring them out but not so far that you leave them with an easy ball to drop between keeper and backline. Imo, Mathieu could be an excellent pairing for Pique and I’m sure Masche would have something to add at DM ( at least keeping Busi on his toes) so why take chances?

      Anyway, enough. I’m taking a Kxevin like sabbatical from the comments – at least till the next game !

    5. Whoooah, it’s not about you and I debating because we’ve been two of the steadiest voices in support of NOT playing Mascherano as a central defender over the last couple of years.

      This season he hasn’t been flawless (no defender is) but he’s been pretty solid.

      As an aside I also like what we’ve been seeing from Pique so far. I think it is a real plus he has added offensive headers to his game, something that was sorely lacking before.

    6. No Jim, you cant take a sabbatical from commenting. For the sake of readers like me who follow quality comments as much as quality articles written on this blog.

  5. If luis was from the summer with the team now we would be top of la liga and a much better team.The guy is not eto, is so much better than eto.

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