*Hector Note: Due to technical issues with my laptop I had to pretty much re-do the second section of this. I’ll post it up later today (you’ll see EDITED next to the post title and now that I updated it). Hopefully this keeps you guys busy until around mid-day.*
Here we go again, folks. It’s Part II (finally). In this installment we’re going to be covering what actually happens when we lose the ball and how our ball pressure philosophy has seemingly intangible benefits on our players.
In football, the hardest moments are the transitions (offense to defense and vice-versa). This is when we, or the opponent for that matter, are the most vulnerable. To briefly recap Part I, for pressing to be efficient it is vital that the defensive line compress the field and to keep the distance between our lines as short as possible without committing tactical suicide. This makes sure that we have plenty of players around the ball to pressure if it is lost and delays possible counterattacks. This tactic has inherent risks which we accept as tradeoffs for our offensive style as well as risks that can result from individual mistakes which must be minimized.
Going along with Kevin’s Thelonius Monk analogy, our team is like a band composed of jazz musicians who are allowed to improvise at their discretion as long as they keep in tune with the song being played. It’s chaos with a purpose; a team dynamic that allows the expression of individual genius within a framework. As such, the creativity we employ on offense in turn means that there are infinite places or ways in which we might lose the ball. Where the ball is when it is lost determines in large part how the team executes the ball pressure. For instance, if one of our centerbacks (CB’s) loses the ball near midfield a madcap “all hands on deck” chase will probably ensue since the opposing player will have a chance at a breakaway whereas if a forward loses it near the opposing goal we apply a more methodical approach.
Of course, the closer to the opponent area we are when it is lost then the better. Still, there are so many possible situations that we have to employ a bit of generalization to understand this better. Also, I will use more video examples than diagrams due to the same reason. The following are my observations based on what I saw from Barcelona last season with Pep as coach. So, for simplicity’s sake let’s cover our main tendencies and concepts of our pressuring philosophy first and then break down situations in which we turn the ball over into two main scenarios that determine in large part what happens after the ball is lost:
Common Tendencies and Concepts
- A common denominator regardless of where the ball is lost is that the man closest to it is the first to pressure. This means that the intended recipient of an intercepted pass or the man who is dispossessed always is the first to pressure unless the ball is quickly booted out or passed out of his range. We can’t afford to have that man rolling on the ground in fake pain, complaining, or sulking. He has to pressure quickly. Also, yes. I’m looking at you, Busquets and Alves!
To quote Pep: “Everybody on this team runs so if somebody slacks off he stands out. If I see him whining because he lost a ball and not running, he will watch the next game besides me on the bench.”
- High intensity running is critical immediately after we lose the ball. This is where the title of this article comes from. To quote Pep: “the great virtue of this team is that they run, run, run!” Hold on! Isn’t this the same Guardiola that also said: “You need to think, not run. Let the ball do the running for you.” What’s with all the contradicting, Pep?
What he’s doing is referring to us first on defense and then on offense. This is where we differ from most teams. We prefer to let the ball do the running when we have it but pressure and run like mad men when we don’t. Why? Won’t that tire us out? Here’s the Johan:
“What did Koeman do at Barca? He played a maximum of 5 meters behind the center of the field. When he advanced only a few meters, the team as a whole would move with him and utilize only half the field. Minimum physical wear but maximum effectiveness. Romario pressured due in part to the benefit to himself. He knew that if he pressured the opposing goalkeeper then we would get the ball back faster and he would save himself having to backtrack 30 meters only to have to run them back again. Football, as I see it, is that simple.”
What does he mean here? Running hard in short bursts is less tiring on a body than having to run hard 30 or 40 meters up and down the pitch as counterattacking teams tend to have to do. It’s a sacrifice to save ourselves the work of getting the ball back to the opposing area or having to backtrack to recover it only to have to run it back. Our players are sold on this and try to recover the ball as quickly as possible whereupon we resume our offense at the pace that we dictate.
- We play offensive defense, if you will. To quote Pep yet again: “The first thing is the will of the player. He has to want to go after the opponent and screw the ball out of him. Attack him. That’s the key to everything.”
Our first goal when pressuring is not to prevent our break up counterattacks. It’s to recover the ball as quickly as possible. If a counterattack is launched then we focus on breaking it up or slowing it down but otherwise we stay. We will keep our men up top and the team will withdraw to its own half as a block depending on where the opposing players are. Only if they start moving forward do we move back. Otherwise we stay in their area and pressure. Possibly our biggest difference with Arsenal is this. They love to counterattack and as soon as they lose the ball, they withdraw to their half and focus on slowing counterattack so that they can in turn eventually launch their own counterattacks. Not us. We think launching counterattacks from our own area simply implies that we gave the opponent an opportunity to get near our own goal and score.
- Our ball pressure philosophy lets our player be more creative on offense. Huh? Let’s see what Pep has to say: “We tell our players to not be afraid to try something daring on offense because they might lose the ball; Messi knows he can try anything because if he loses the ball, 10 other players will give their all to get it back if he fails. If he screws up, nothing happens.”
Players’ confidence and mentality is vital in football. By having our whole team buy into the ball pressure philosophy, they become fearless in offense because they know the team has their back if they lose the ball. This allows them to dare to try the impossible or the magical on offense.
Okay. Let’s summarize these concepts.
1) No excuses. If you are closest to the ball, you have to pressure.
2) High intensity running is vital when ball pressuring. Everybody runs hard. “Run, you bastards, run!”
3) Running hard in short distances to get the ball back quickly saves us physical wear in the long run.
4) We only retreat into own area if the opponent sends men forward or manages to get off a counterattack in motion. Otherwise we stay close to their area pressuring. We are not a counterattacking team.
5) Our players are more creative and fearless on offense if they truly believe the whole team will pressure and get the ball back if they lose it.
Now, let’s look at what happens when the ball is lost. As previously stated, for simplicity purposes this is a generalized explanation.
If Ball is on the Wing
– Trapping on the wing: We use the touchline as an extra defender. Drive the opponent towards it, and you take away options, where he can go, and where he can pass. The caveat to keep in mind with this is that when you do this, you have to slow the opponent with the ball down or make him go or pass backwards. We usually do this with two players while a third can join if feasible and depending on where other opposing players are. As discussed in Part I, an inherent risk in our version of the 4-3-3 (or 3-4-3 J ) is that it leaves space open on the wings around center midfield when we are in full attack mode. We should not let that attacker go through to the wide open space. However, if we trap an attacker against the touchline and mark him from the front and the side, his passing options will decrease. Also, we have to take into account another opposing player running into the space in front of the trapped player which is why we also employ the next tactic.
– Overloading: To further add to the trapped attacker’s misery, we overload to that side to further take away his options. What does this mean? Our whole team shifts slightly to that side to take away the player with the ball’s options. Our midfield marks their midfield closest to the trapped player while our forwards roam across their backline. This gives the feeling of asphyxiation to the trapped player, increasing the chance that he will make a bad choice and give away the ball in a bad (good for us) spot. This also helps in the sense that if the trapped player does manage to pass to one of his teammates, there will be Barca players close by to fall on him quickly.
– Risks: If you were attending our reading our Liveblog for the Gamper you might have read my rants about Man City’s cross-field switching passes. The reason for this is that the logical escape to these tactics due to the overloading is a cross field pass to the other side of the field. If you watch every Barca game, you can clearly see the huge open space on the other side of the field when we do this.
So, why doesn’t this regularly (because occasionally it certainly does) hurt us? You’d think if ol’ Hector sees it from his TV then coaches certainly know this as well. A couple of reasons…
- The trapped defender has two or so Barca players in his grill and all around him he can see Blaugrana shirts. Not every average player has the calmness of mind to think “hey, the other side of the field is open” or to see through almost dozen players to the other side of the field where his winger or fullback is wildly gesticulating about how open he is.
- A cross field switch is hard. It takes precision. Even more if you are doing it while under pressure. Not every player has the vision to see it or the quality to do it. Also, the player receiving the pass has to have the quality to control it.
- Even if the pass is made, the pass usually spends a long time in the air, buying us time to shift to our normal formation and run back. Very few players can do a line drive switch and few can control those. It’s usually a “bombito” or “fly ball” which gives us at least some time to react.
That said, even if we react, the opponent will definitely be on our side of the field and probably near our box. Our fullbacks will then most likely get tested. One of the reasons Abidal is so important to us is that he has great recovery speed to run back to the other side of the field and slow down the attacker who received the pass while the defense organizes. Nonetheless, this does hurt us on occasion. It rarely directly results in a goal but it usually gives and opposing winger or forward a one on one look on a defender and gives them a crossing opportunity near our box that does occasionally result in a goal. Life’s all about tradeoffs and this is one of the risks we assume in exchange for all those goals we have scored from giveaways in the opponent half. It’s something worth keeping an eye out during games because it is easy to see. Citeh did this more than a team would frequently manage, hence my ranting about it in the liveblog.
– Video Evidence (please watch the sequence and then pause at the end of each one):
- 0:43-0:59 This sequence illustrates a lot of the aforementioned points. It is a great example of overloading and trapping. Look how our players funnel the ball carrier towards the touchline and how our team is overloaded towards the side of the field where the ball is. The three men back are the Cb’s and Abidal while Puyol (at right FB) is pressuring in front. It also illustrates the risks. The Yaya trips and impedes Eto’o, resulting in Mallorca breaking into the spaces on the wings that I mentioned. Now I wanted you to pause at 0:59 to watch the risk of overloading. Look at the other side of the field. What do you see? Wide open grass with an unmarked Mallorca right winger. If the left winger had made the cross field pass, the other dude would have had tons of space. However, Puyol and Xavi (I think but am not sure) pressure him into a quick decision and the Mallorca winger doesn’t trust his abilities enough to attempt the pass or simply does not see it.
- 1:33-1:39 Yet another great example of trapping and overloading. A Mallorca player gets the ball and two or three Barca players converge on him and pressure without fouling, asphyxiating him and trapping the ball against the touchline. This also once again demonstrates the beauty of overloading. Again look at the Mallorca right winger. He’s open like a Seven Eleven but the extra pressure we exert by overloading (more players near the ball = more pressure) prevents any of the Mallorca players from setting up to make the cross field pass. It’s both aggressive and risky and I for one love it.
- 1:45-1:48 Check out the overloading. Our whole front two lines are marking every Mallorca player near the inbound throw. We have absolutely nobody on the other side of the field minus Puyol.
- 3:46-4:05 Check this sequence out. From 3:46 to 3:51 we see three Barca players trapping a Mallorca player against the sideline while the team overloads to that side (our left). Also note the wide open Mallorca winger on the other side of the field. The player with the ball can’t get the cross field pass off because of our pressure (our right). However, the Mallorca player manages to pass the ball between three Barca players to a teammate behind and to the left of him. Xavi, a right side CM who is there due to our overloading, picks him up at 3:51. Notice how Xavi attempts to pressure and harass him back towards the sideline in accordance with the concept I mentioned before but unfortunately his prey plays a sweet one two and the ball gets passed to the center and eventually is passed to the Mallorca left winger/fullback. He was wide open a few seconds before with no Barca player nearby but as the ball was moved from the sideline to sideline by Mallorca, our players had time to shift with the ball and pull off the same trick we did before on the other side of the field. He receives the ball unimpeded but immediately has a Barca player on him. We went from overloading our left to overloading our right and kept pinning the ball against the sideline, eventually recovering it. Awesomeness.
Ball in the Center of the Field
Now things get more complicated. A player on the center of the field has 360 degrees of options as opposed to around 180 degrees for one on the wing. This is why we see Messi cutting into the center, it gives him more options. How do we apply pressure in this situation? Well, it depends on where our players are and where the ball is in reference to the two boxes when it is stolen or given away. This dictates the speed of the opposing counterattack, how much ground it has to cover, and how many of our players are in position to stop it or slow it down. This where what was covered in Part I is so important. We must have players near the ball to pressure as soon as it is lost in order to break up or slow down counterattacks. If the lines are not sufficiently vertically compressed then we won’t have enough players near the ball. I am not going to use diagrams for this part because when we are on offense too many looks and situations are possible. Instead I am going to try to make this as simple as possible by breaking the roles down by individual positions.
– The CB’s and the Defensive Midfielder/Libero– Our standard defense while attacking is typically two “CB’s” who could be anybody from Pique to Abidal to Yaya to Xavi depending on positional shifting with what I call a pseudo libero in front of them with more freedom to roam who can provide diagonal cover from sideline to sideline as well as be an outlet for our midfield. All of our players advance at one point or another during the game. The key is that when one of the back line players advances, another must take his place to avoid leaving space. If one player advances and another does not cover for him, something like the Man City goal happens. This is how our back three look like with a typical scenario: the opposing team parks the bus and only leaves a lone strike up top. Our two CB’s flank the striker and double team him while the libero is trusted to make the right decisions and be a brick wall in front of the strikers.
Of course, the opposing team may choose to leave two strikers up top which is fine by us. In this case we leave four men back but get much more space for our midfield and offense to work their magic.
What role do these guys play?
- “The Hammer and Anvil”: If a counterattack is immediately launched after we lose a ball and is in motion, this is a common remedy. Our back three are usually the Anvil. What you will see is our midfielders and forwards tracking back and, usually flanking the opponent with the ball, either trying to steal it back or funneling them towards the three guys in the back who must correctly read the play and position themselves to intercept. This is why positional awareness is vital in our CB’s even more so than pure speed. That’s why high IQ players who are not so fast like Pique and Marquez thrive in our system. It’s actually more about smarts than speed for them.
To position themselves to intercept, they usually must leave a forward that they are marking and must pick the right time to do it so as not to play him onside. Also, you will see the opponents funneled towards the sidelines if feasible so as to take away as much space as possible. Hence, the hammer and anvil analogy. We close out the player with the ball by driving him towards a dead end and put him under pressure to make a quick decision to pass before he is closed out. Often, the pass goes astray, the player is closed out and the ball stolen, or the counterattack is sufficiently slowed to take away immediate danger. The libero can be the hammer or the anvil. By definition he has a free role. He is the eraser. He mops up loose balls, provides diagonal cover, funnels attackers towards the CB’s or the sidelines, and positions himself to intercept attackers that are being funneled towards him.
- Long Ball Recovery– We often see teams trying to bypass our compact midfield by lobbing long balls over the top to a long striker so he can recover them and hold off the CB’s until their team can move forward. Our two CB’s are vital for this. We rarely let teams play the ball on the ground from goal kicks. So they must also recover the goal kicks.
- Intercepting- This is another example of why we need smart players above all else in these positions. The CB’s have the freedom to leave the striker if they see a pass they think they can intercept and subsequently advance the ball. We trust these guys to make the right decision when the time comes and give them the freedom to do it.
– The Midfielders: These guys do the most running. By midfield I mean the middle line. It can range from 3 to 5 players depending on the situation. Usually when we transition to defense, Messi and Henry become part of this line or at least assume the same roles. These guys must keep the correct the distance from the other two lines and be alert in order to shift positions. For instance, you will see Xavi occasionally taking Yaya’s or even Pique’s spots when they advance the ball forward. Situational awareness is key. Typically, these guys are the ones that have to run the hardest and the fastest. Let’s look at some of their roles:
- Backtracking and playing the Hammer: Remember the “Hammer and Anvil” analogy? Well, these are the hammers. If a counter is in motion. It’s on them to run as hard as possible back and funnel the ball carrier towards the sideline or the waiting libero or CB. Why is backtracking effective at generating scoring opportunities? Because players don’t have eyes on the back of their heads and when they get the ball, sometimes they only think of running forward thus making them vulnerable to a player running harder than themselves coming from behind. These guys can appear in opposing player’s visions from just about anywhere and have very good chances of stealing the ball.
- Helping out the #9: If the opponent somehow manages to retain possession around their own goal, it is likely that we see several midfielders helping out by prowling passing lanes while the 9 pressures the opponent back line. How many do this depends on how many opposing players are staying back. Typically the ratio is one-to-one. If four opposing defenders are handling the ball around their goal then our three forwards and a natural midfielder pressure up top. In this scenario, the midfielder typically just marks the opposing player while the #9 is the one running around like a madman. The idea is to be in position to intercept when a pass is forced or to force the GK to kick a long ball which our backline can hopefully easily recover.
– The #9: This player has a vital role in our ball pressure scheme. It also the simplest albeit one that requires constant running.
- Pressure the GK: Did Samu play this role to perfection? Yes but he didn’t start it. Here’s the Johan again on Romario:
“Yeah, he was the guy that most had the look of a dumb bean that I ever met but also the quickest to execute. When the goalkeeper got the ball, he immediately ran to pressure him. That way he accomplished two things. First, a benefit to the team: by harassing the GK he prevented him from launching quick accurate long passes and gave us time to organize in the back. If the GK passed it long, the ball generally fell to us whereas if he passed it short then everybody else was positioned to pressure or steal the ball, [I quoted this part before]Secondly, Romario pressured due in part to the benefit to himself. He knew that if he pressured the opposing goalkeeper then we would get the ball back faster and he would save himself having to backtrack 30 meters only to have to run them back again. Football, as I see it, is that simple”
Bojan did a great job of this against Sporting. It’s not that hard to understand. If the GK gets the ball, then the #9 runs straight at him forcing him to kick it out while the wingers and midfielders position themselves to cover the defender. Doesn’t this tire him out in comparison to the wingers? Its gets made up for because when defending, the wingers are part of the midfield and have to track back while the #9 stays forward.
- Pressure the Backline and Prowl the Passing Lanes: Another thing Samu did to perfection. When the opponent retains possession and gets the ball back to their defense to organize an attack, the #9 is the one running at them and harassing them into making an errant pass. When, an opponent is trapped by the midfielders or winger, the #9 is the one prowling in front of the back line in case the trapped player makes the mistake of trying to pass it to his back four or GK to retain possession.
– Video Evidence
These first ones refer to the video posted up top. Some of the sequences are repeated albeit with different points to focus on:
- 0:43-0:59 Note who breaks up the play: a backtracking midfielder. That’s the advantage of backtracking wingers and midfielders. They can sneak up behind players and get steals.
- 1:08-1:15 Excellent example of the “Hammer and Anvil”. Our back three in this sequence is Abidal and Maraquez as CB’s and Puyol as the libero, illustrating the versatility of our players and the extent of our shifting positions. Pause at 1:11 and look at the two backtracking midfielders playing the Hammer and closing the Mallorca player with the ball down from both sides, forcing him to make a quick decision to pass. Puyol, playing the Anvil, has his target covered. This, combined with the pressure exerted on the passer results in a loose ball that a midfielder recovers.
- 3:17-3:21 Mallorca players gets funneled towards Marquez who, playing the Anvil, intercepts albeit with a foul.
- 4:06-4:10 Our player use the sideline to funnel the attacking Mallorca player straight into the Yaya who lies in wait and pokes the ball away.
This is from “Pique vs. Real Madrid”
- 1:16-1:23 Yaya, Xavi, and Iniesta funnel and harass the RM player straight into the waiting Anvil (Pique) who dispossesses him without fouling.
- 2:00-2:06 Messi, who played at the 9 for most of the game, pressures Casillas into a long pass that Pique easily wins in the air.
“Eto’o Presionando y Mas”
- 0:42-1:07 Everybody remembers this goal against Bayern but did anybody see what led to it? Samu pressured the Bayern backline resulting in an errant pass that we recovered. We launch a counter and Samu then ends up assisting Messi. Brilliant.
Bonus- Mini Anatomy of a Goal
There is not much to explain about the goal itself. Pure genius. A one touch pass via a pseudo back heel from Ibra to Messi who just simply does what he does. However, how we intercepted the ball that led to the goal is worth a look.
– (Pause at 3:03) Remember that when the midfield helps out the forwards while the opponent has retained possession around their own goal, I wrote that the ratio of Barca player near the opposing goal to opponent players is 1-1? Count. Take into account that there is another Bilbao CB just off screen to Ibra’s left. Thus, its 5-5. Note how Ibra is the one running at people while the rest of our guys overload the Bilbao left side (except for Henry) and prowl the passing lanes.
– (3:04) Ibra runs at the Bilbao CB pressuring him to do a one touch pass before thinking about what he was doing. Remember the importance of keeping the lines together covered in part I? Bilbao forgot that because the lines were too far apart. This gave Xavi time to see the pass and intercept. Thus springing the break forward that led to our goal.