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.