Barça has completed its first round through La Liga and done so with a record midseason point total. The Blaugrana’s 4-1 victory over Malaga demonstrated a number of the key aspects to how the Barça system has evolved and why they have become so difficult to play this season. Let’s take a look at some of the specifics
Guardiola started his favored 11, deploying them in the formation and style that has become Barça’s usual mode of play: a free flowing 4-3-3 with Messi acting as a false 9 and the two full backs moving high up the pitch almost as wing backs.
Manuel Pellegrini generally favors a dynamic 4-2-2-2/ 4-4-2 formation. On Sunday, he deployed an asymmetric 4-4-2/ 4-4-1-1.
Duda, Baptista and Apono would drop back or move forward depending on where the ball was being played. The asymmetry in the formation was largely due to the role that Duda played on the left wing for Malaga. Duda’s responsibility was primarily as a defensive winger charged with tracking Dani Alves’ runs forward.
Due to this role Malaga’s left flank was often shaped and operated differently than it’s right flank. (This reengineering on Pellegrini’s part is yet another example of Alves’ tactical impact on matches. On a team with Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and Villa the player who had a specific defender assigned to marking him was he Barcelona right full back.)
Malaga played a relatively high defensive line and generally tried to stay compact while not sitting uniformly deep. At the same time however they didn’t press aggressively as a unit. This may have been due to concerns for getting caught over-committed higher up the pitch and leaving the back exposed.
In the image above, notice how compact Malaga are – there isn’t much space between their two strikers and their defensive line. Usually this kind of defensive compactness is a critical aspect to strong defensive play.
But if a defense is going to be this compact and play the backline this high, then it has to pressure the ball aggressively otherwise it is at risk for attackers and the ball getting into the space behind the backs. Giving the opposition passers time and space on the ball with a line this high at the back is a significant risk.
Pellegrini has only recently taken over at Malaga and they’ve brought in a number of new players. As such, he may have drilled Malaga on staying properly compact but the team still hasn’t been able to absorb and put into practice the pressing aspect of his philosophy. Alternatively the team or Pellegrini may not have felt comfortable pressing a team that retains possession like Barça.
In the image above also, notice the asymmetry in the formation I described prior with Duda (green-blue line) at the top pinching outwards to track Alves (orange line) even though Xavi has the ball on the left.
The rest of the Malaga formation has shifted leftwards but Duda lingers in a wider position, outside wider of even where the left fullback is playing. This asymmetry helps track Alves but at the same time opens up spaces inside of the Malaga defense. Barça successfully exploited this space to help score their first goal.
Here is another example – one that exemplifies why it’s so hard to defend Barça.
The Malaga backline is playing very high and their defense is very compact. Staying compact allows Malaga to defend in numbers in the center of the pitch against Xavi (blue line), Iniesta (yellow line), and Messi (red line).
But this comes at the cost of giving Busquets (purple line) time and space on the ball. No one is pressing him. When teams don’t pressure Barça, Busquets often has a great deal of time and space on the ball and against Malaga he was able to make himself available as an outlet to not only maintain possession but to also maintain the continuity of the build up of play. This allows the team to continue circulating the ball rapidly despite congestion in the center as Busquets can can pivot the ball unimpeded.
A few other things of importance in the image above that I wanted to point out that are important aspects to how Barça has played this season. Notice how Wellington (purple line on Malaga) has stepped up from the backline towards the middle of the pitch leaving an enormous hole in the Malaga backline. This is good example of how Messi drags defensive lines out of shape through his role as a false 9. Wellington is trying to anticipate that the pass will go to Messi from Busquets. But that additional defender in the center comes at the cost of lost shape at the back. Villa (green line) intelligently is starting a diagonal run to exploit this space. (This is also an example of how Busquets needs to develop his game – if he’s given space on the ball he could do great damage if he looked to play more incisive passes from deep from time to time. He has a lane open to him that cuts down the pitch that Pedro or Alves could make diagonal runs into with support from Villa).
Finally, Barça has also effectively countered Pellegrini’s attempt to play Duda (green-blue line) as a defensive wing to track Alves (orange line) through position switching. Pedro (white line) has dropped deep and Alves has pushed forward and stays wide. This forces Duda to pick up Pedro and leaves Alves open in space. The left full back can only keep track of Alves to a certain degree as he has to stay pinched in to make up for the space that Wellington has left as he tries to track Messi dropping deep as a false 9.
This dynamic – a defense that tried to stay compact and push relatively high up the pitch without aggressive pressing – had a significant impact on shaping the match. (This is similar to what happened in El Clásico.)
By now it’s almost assumed that Barça will dominate possession. However, some defenses have found some success by doing two things. First, by trying to reduce Barça’s possession as much as possible (e.g. to under 70%). And more importantly, by disrupting the quality of Barça’s possession by interrupting Barça’s ability to build play through continuous patterns of passing (e.g. Athletic Bilbao at San Mames or even Levante in their own third).
Malaga’s defensive approach not only facilitated Barça’s ability to dominate the quantity of possession but to also maintain high quality possession. There simply wasn’t enough pressure on the player with the ball to force Barça into mistakes.
At the same time, because of the relatively high line the Malaga defenders often seemed unsure of themselves and tended to collapse backwards when under even initial pressure from Barça’s attack. They played a high line, but their priority often was to defend the space behind them. This put Malaga at high risk for losing shape at their back line even when they tried to defend in numbers due to movement. Barça took advantage of this over and over by directing the action of play and then exploiting space that opened up away from the ball.
The next play highlighted provides a very clear example of this dynamic.
Above, Barça have regained possession in their own half and Iniesta has the ball. Notice how disjointed the Malaga defense is. The defense is high up the pitch but a large gap has developed between the front six Malaga players and their back four.
The Malaga backline is so concerned about being high up the pitch that they immediately start to retreat once Barça regains possession – even though the ball is deep in the Barça third. Under minimal pressure, Malaga has conceded its compact shape as a team.
In turn, Messi (red line) has intelligently dropped back into this large gap in space. Critically, the defenders up the pitch have collapsed around Xavi (blue line) but are not pressuring the ball. This allows Iniesta (yellow line) to make a direct pass to a wide-open Messi.
Here Messi has received a simple ball to feet from Iniesta, who sends the pass through the open space that develops when the defenders collapsed around Xavi. Giving Iniesta this kind of space to make a pass makes it very likely that Iniesta will deliver a perfect connection. Pedro (white line) seeing Messi in open space is already anticipating the pass from Iniesta to Messi and has already started his run down field.
In the image below we see the immediate result. Given space and time on the ball Messi has threaded a perfect diagonal through ball to Pedro on the break at speed.
What’s so telling about this play isn’t where the ball is. Notice the positioning of the Malaga back four. None of them is facing Messi any longer. The moment Messi received the ball to foot the Malaga back four stopped back peddling, stopped facing the play and turned around and started sprinting towards their own goal rather than trying to pressure the ball which is one of the major reasons for playing a high back line in the first place (note – though in the image above Messi has released the ball, the Malaga defenders had already turned towards goal prior to the Messi releasing the ball).
The backline is so concerned about getting beat by one of Messi’s mazy runs they move back into space rather than trying to stop the ball. They are trying to create as much space in front of them as possible to create a cushion to defend against Messi. At the same time, four of their players are still high up the pitch. Malaga is no longer defending in a team efficient manner. Their defense is functionally broken in two.
And here is where Messi has become so lethal this season. The entire back line is sprinting to defend the space behind them to avoid getting beat by Messi on the dribble. But seeing the space in front of him Messi puts into practice the principle that the ball can move faster than the player. He only takes a few dribbles and quickly releases the precise diagonal pass that threads through the channel between the center back and the full back directly to Pedro.
Notice where Pedro and Villa are positioned above. Both are wide of full backs. Malaga have numerical advantage 6 vs. 3 overall and 4 vs. 3 at the back. But Villa and Pedro have made the pitch so functionally large that those four defenders can’t control space anymore.
Critically, by simultaneously having Messi drop deep and keeping the wingers very wide, Barça have made the Malaga center backs almost irrelevant. They are marking no one nor were they controlling space to cut off the angle for the diagonal through ball. They are redundant defenders chasing shadows. This is one of the single most important tactical development in Barça’s entire approach this season. The team’s capacity to turn the center backs – usually the heart of any defense – into bystanders.
The play above didn’t result in a goal, but it did create a dangerous opportunity and illustrates the problems Barça created for Malaga in this match and across this season for most teams.
In no way is this analysis intended to find fault with Pellegrini or Malaga, per se. But watching them try to defend in this fashion during the play above was eye opening. Rather than trying to directly defend Messi, the Malaga defense is attempting to defend the space behind them. Despite that highly conservative approach and the numerical advantage, Barça still turns the situation into a dangerous chance. There is no ideal solution on how to defend. It’s a matter of how a team decides to make trade offs and what risks it’s willing to accept.
In moments like these one sees the impact that the Barça machine has on defenses. And in particular, one sees the impact that El Clásico had on the opposition. One of the dominant stories of the Clásico was Barça getting behind Madrid’s backline over and over and simply dismantling Madrid. The Malaga back line defenders were clearly aware of Barça’s ability to exploit space between them and goal. Over and over, despite starting in higher positions, the Malaga backline’s tendency was to fall back to defend the space behind them, even in their own half.
This type of dynamic not only operated in transition, but also when Barça was dominating possession in the Malaga third.
The image above captures much of Barça season in a single picture. It encompasses key aspects to the tactical evolution of the team and system this season compared to last.
Messi (red line) has dropped back to receive the ball and then runs at the defense. This forces the center back Demichelis (purple line) to commit to either falling back or stepping up to stop the run. Demichelis chooses to step up. When a center back does this the back line loses shape and he must win the ball. But that’s no easy task when it’s Messi who has the ball. Above loss of shape at the back is made even worse because as Demichelis stops up the rest of the Malaga defense falls back towards goal from their relatively high initial positions. In turn, Malaga loses significant shape in the back while also keeping both Villa (green line) and Pedro (white line) onside. The collapsing defense around Messi also leaves Iniesta (yellow line) open as an outlet.
The loss of shape in the Malaga backline opens up the kind of passing angles Messi has exploited again and again to such devastating effect this season. Messi can thread a diagonal between the two center back s due to the space that develops when Demichelis steps up or he can pass around Demichelis and the right full back to Villa in space. Demichelis stepping up leaves the right full back especially vulnerable to the space behind him and outside of him. The right back cannot count on his center back being behind him to defend should he get beat by Villa because the center back has stepped up.
Finally, notice above how narrow the Malaga defense is. Seven players form almost Christmas tree type formation in the center of the pitch with Duda pinching into the center as the eighth defender.
This is one of the most interesting tactical aspects of the Barça attack this season. In the past staying narrow was critical for many defenses against Barça. This was due to the fact that Barça played the ball through the middle so much and didn’t utilize width effectively. This was a particular problem for the team last season.
This season that’s entirely different and that’s evident above. Despite Messi’s run in the middle both Villa and Pedro retain tactical discipline and remain in wide positions. Villa in particular is not even remotely close to being defended but he does not edge towards the middle. Instead the wingers make the pitch as large as possible negating the defense’s narrow formation.
This patience is what has allowed Villa and Pedro to find space in the opposition third so often. It’s this width and tactical discipline that allows Messi’s precision passes into space through the channel between center backs and full backs to turn into goals as the wingers run into that open space where the ball is going. It allows Barça to play from the middle to the flanks and utilize width dynamically rather than to stagnate in the middle.