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Sporting Gijon successfully fought Barça to a 1-1 draw a week ago because they were the side that largely set the agenda for how the match would be played. It’s often now repeated that the best way to defend against Barça is to “park the bus” – that is to defend in number, play deep and stay narrow.
This notion oversimplifies the situation. A number of the teams this season that have presented the most difficult challenge for Barça to break down have been sides which have pressured high up the pitch with intensity, such as FC Copenhagen and Athletic Bilbao in the second leg of the Copa Del Rey (both sides playing more aggressively in the home).In fact, often against Barça, the best way to defend is to vary approaches and tactics over the course of the match. The purpose is to become less predictable. To force Barça to adjust the nature of the possession they are likely to dominate to uncertain conditions. This is what Sporting did so effectively against Barça and was a key reason for their success. They came out and pressed up the pitch to varying degrees.
Their overall tactical approach was to press high up the pitch early to pressure Barça. These tactics worked as the constant pressure generated a number of dangerous chances that pressured a high Barça back line that was missing Puyol’s sense of positioning and Abidal’s pace.
David Barral made dangerous run after dangerous run, catching out the Barça CBs Pique and Milito out on pace repeatedly generating several dangerous chances. The goal was ultimately poor team defending involving many player, but Barral’s pace against Pique and Milito caused the final problems that led to the score.
After scoring the decisive first goal, Sporting altered part of their defensive tactics falling back much deeper, the two strikers particularly dropping back and effectively pressuring the Barça midfield. It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of that first goal.
Other teams that have successfully pressed Barça up the pitch have been unable to capitalize on those efforts simply because they physically wore down. Few teams outside of Barça can press for 90 minutes. And it’s unlikely that any team can press aggressively across the pitch against a team that maintains 65%+ possession. They will invariably wear down.
This is why it is critical for Barça to maintain composure and mitigate risk early in such matches, particularly away from home. If Barça prevents the opposition from scoring during these early bursts of energy and intensity the Blaugrana will be able to take advantage later on. But that depends on not allowing the opposition to score first.
That said, while Sporting varied some ways in which they defended – there were two major tactics that they continued throughout the match: 1) Staying very compact; and 2) Actively pressuring the ball out of a dynamic, modified 4-4-2 block to close down space.
Finally, one of the most important tactics Manuel Preciado utilized was to structure his defense asymmetrically. That is, sporting did not defend the same way along the right and left flanks – and this decision was instrumental in Sporting’s success.
Staying Compact and Actively Pressing
The phrase staying compact refers to the distance a team plays between its lines – particularly the overall distance between its back line and strikers. Staying compact is one of the principles that crosses successful defensive philosophies. Whether focusing on pressing high up the pitch, or sitting deep and absorbing pressure staying compact is often critical. The reason why is that it’s one of the most effective ways to make the pitch as small as possible and to choke off space.
Sporting Gijon remained both compact and active throughout the match regardless of how high up or deep they were on the pitch. They maintained a very disciplined block in which the players understood how to interrelate to each other’s position. They were able to do two things at once – maintain shape while also actively pressuring the ball and closing down space as a unit (this dual activity is highly dependent on staying compact and is made easier when defending deep).
In the above shot Sporting in relatively high up the pitch but notice how little distance there is between between their back line and their strikers even as one of the strikers is chasing to press.
Above Sporting are pressing Maxwell high up the pitch. Technically Barça has numerical superiority in their own third (7 vs. 5) and should be able to move the ball effectively. But Sporting have done a very effective job of making the field “small” for Maxwell with their five players in the area and three players closing down the ball (notice also Barça’s poor geometry – no triangles). This in turn led to Barça losing the ball deep in their own third.
In the screen shot above, Sporting’s compact shape is even more pronounced and once again we see the impact this has on the match. Staying this compact not only makes the field very small but also creates a high density of bodies in a small area “clotting” it. In theory Barça’s 4-3-3 should have a 3 vs. 2 numerical advantage in midfield against Sporting’s 4-4-2. This problem should be made even worse with Messi as a false 9 potentially dropping into the middle creating a 4 vs. 2 advantage.
We see how by staying compact Sporting have negated the problem and have numbers around the midfield circle equal to those Barça does even with Messi dropping into midfield. This is part of what allowed them to not only press so effectively but to do so without wearing down physically over ninety minutes. The distances between defenders aren’t very large because the compactness has made the field so small. This is what I was referring to above by saying that Sporting set the agenda for the match.
Here Sporting is playing deep. But again notice how similar their modified 4-4-2 block looks to the shape it had when they were playing higher up the pitch. Even with defenders reacting to the Barcelona movement, they remain compact and well organized. In this regard, while Sporting adjusted important aspects to how they defended after scoring, their basic shape and pressure they applied out of that shape maintained significant continuity throughout the match.
Making Trade Offs: Maxwell as an Open Outlet
So how did the Barcelona attack respond to the way Sporting was playing? Tactically Barcelona did the correct thing – they played the ball through their open outlet. Unfortunately, this was likely what Preciado was hoping they would do and how he structured the Sporting defense.
It is nearly impossible for any defense to guard all of the opposition’s player while also defending space uniformly. Trade offs are nearly always required. For example, Barça essentially decides to leave large amounts of space behind its back line in order to press across the pitch and across all of the opposition’s players.
Sporting’s defense was structured asymmetrically and as the match went on this became more pronounced. In essence, Preciado decided to not only defend in numbers through the middle – a tactic we’re used to seeing against Barça – but he also decided to “overdefend” Barça’s right flank. Once again, this was a match where the presence of Dani Alves had a fundamental tactical impact on the way the match was played, with Preciado committing two men to defending on the edge against Alves (more on this later).
However, the net result of this commitment to defend in numbers through the center and right flank provided Barça with an open outlet for much of the match – Maxwell on the left flank.
Notice above how all of the Barça players are marked or even double marked while Sporting drops off Maxwell, who is the open man the ball is going to. Even after Maxwell received the ball to feet in this sequence, Sporting did not close him out aggressively. Instead they overplayed the other Barça players and were willing to risk an open Maxwell doing something dangerous with the ball. Compare this to the way Sporting double marked Dani Alves on the opposite flank:
The still shot above demonstrates how both the Left Wing and Left FB are defending in a coordinated two layer approach to Alves. If he beats the first man there is still a second line of defense. This is very differently to the way Sporting defended its other flank. And in the above sequence Alves goes on to beat the first wing defender only to be closed out by a tackle from the LFB who Alves also managed to elude and make a dangerous run to goal.
This difference in how Sporting defended the right and left flanks was also evident on the average positions the Sporting players occupied (see diagram at the top of the post). Sporting defenders were clustered towards the center right with Sastre relatively independent on the flank.
The difference between how Sporting guarded Barça’s right and left flank was pronounced. Both directly and indirectly what Preciado did was to provide Barça with reasons to play the ball through Maxwell as their open outlet.
Maxwell has been a useful squad player. Unfortunately, this season he has played a great deal due to the injuries and lack of depth at CB. And in this match he simply didn’t provide enough of a direct threat or use the ball well enough given that he was the player with the most time and space in attack. Give Preciado credit – he forced Barça to try to beat Sporting with their least talented player on the pitch and that wager paid off well for him.
Indeed, the a major turning point in this match was Preciado’s decision to even further augment his defense on the left flank in the second half when Pedro was substituted into the game and Barça started playing the ball through Alves more. It was clear that during half time Guardiola saw what Sporting was doing in terms of the left vs right flanks.
Opening up the second half, Barça was more determined to play the ball through the right flank rather than accepting the open outlet they had on the left in Maxwell. And starting around minute fifty the momentum of the match started to change.
Dani Alves adjusted his positioning and started playing slightly higher up the pitch and at times pinching in more centrally to find space and then making the intelligent delayed runs that are such a strength of his. In turn Alves made a number of dangerous runs. One of those runs he beat both defenders off the edge and squared a beautiful pass to Xavi that probably should have been turned into a goal.
It seemed like there was a good chance that Barça would score given the pressure they were generating. Seeing this Preciado changed the dynamics of the match by removing De Las Cuevas and substituting in Canela, a LFB, to play on the left wing spot.
Alves was now not only being double marked, but was double marked by two natural defenders. This substitution helped sway momentum again as Alves was unable to continue making those same dangerous runs and the extra defender also helped keep Pedro from threatening down the right.
Barça’s Attack – A Dangerous Formation Doesn’t Produce
Playing as a false 9 this season has given Messi new kinds of flexibility to respond to defenses that commit numbers to defend against his runs. We’ve seen him drop deep to find space and do so with devastating effects either by finishing himself, playing fast 1-2’s to get the ball back to continue a run, or by making dangerous passes.
However, the drawback of Messi dropping deep is that it leaves Barça without a presence in the center. Now in and of itself it this isn’t a problem. Where it does create difficulties however is that without a “target” in the middle two things happen with Messi drops deep: 1) Messi has fewer possibilities to create link up play and use fast 1-2’s, and 2) It leaves him without a threat to pass to if the CB’s step up on one of his runs.
Due to the compactness Sporting maintained and density of defenders in compressed space, Messi was forced to drop back. This in turn required David Villa to draw in centrally. This may seem like an odd tactical decision because it leads to Barça losing width on the left. However, it’s a tactic and formation they’ve utilized all season to devastating effect this season.
In essence, what Villa’s job becomes to act as a mechanism for link up play with Messi. His function becomes the Barça version of the classic “target man.” But rather than hold up play from long balls over the top, Villa’s job in this role is to play fast 1-2’s with Messi where his function is to first and foremost act as a “wall” for Messi to play off of and secondly, to adjust to the defense and make runs to goal depending on how Messi is played. A key feature of Villa’s roll is to occupy the two central defenders so that they cannot as readily protect against Messi’s run. This role is partly why Villa has so often seemed “static” this season.
Whats’ striking about the still shot above is how both Xavi and Villa are positioned. Messi is making a penetrating run. However, neither is looking to make his own run to goal. Instead both are facing back away from the Sporting goal and looking at Messi. In essence the goal of both players is to act as a target for Messi to play passes off of.
While this strategy has worked throughout the season, this game played into Sporting’s strength. If further allowed them to draw men off the left flank and leave Maxwell open as the man who was going to be the one with the best chance to beat them. As Villa drifted centrally to link up with Messi, Barça lost important width Maxwell simply couldn’t be counted on to take advantage of.
Barça was always going to drop more points during the season. It’s why winning so many games in a row is such an accomplishment to begin with and is unprecedented.
This match saw a number of circumstances come together to make that happen. Injuries, a coming CL match incentivizing Guardiola to rest starters, returning from an International break, playing away against a determined, tactically strong team that defended with energy and discipline. These are the kind of things that happen over the course of a long, exhausting season.
The match was interesting tactically. The story of El Clasico was the following – defending Barça in numbers and narrow is a dangerous approach due to Barça’s capacity to attack off both flanks.
One of the more interesting tactical matches Barça has played since then was against Levante who seeing what happened in El Clasico not only committed to defending the center in numbers but both edges as well. In doing so however, Levante essentially made it nearly impossible for themselves to attack.
Preciado played it half way committing numbers to defend in the center and right flank, with a particular focus on stopping Dani Alves. In turn he allowed the Maxwell to have time and space on the ball, particularly when Villa shifted in centrally. In doing so he supported Sporting’s ability to attack on the counter and make dangerous runs when the opportunity offered itself.
An adjustment was needed by the players on the pitch and by Guardiola, particularly when Canela was substituted in. Width needed to be reestablished on the left in order to take advantage of the way Sporting was defending. This was a match were the attack and link up play between Messi and Villa would have been more effective coming from action off the left flank – not the center.
Unfortunately, this was just one of those matches that is going to happen – the usual plan of attack doesn’t work optimally and changes had limited impact or weren’t made quickly enough. Credit to Sporting for doing what teams need to do to succeed – they set the agenda for the dynamics of the match even though they were the team who didn’t have the ball.