As we all know, in a move that seemingly inspired more controversy than Jose Mourinho’s entire career of playing mind games combined, FC Barcelona traded one of the best strikers in its entire history who happened to still be in the prime of his career for a certain Big Ass Ninja Gangsta Swede (BANGS). The particular horse that is the issue of whether his transfer was right or wrong has already been killed, dismembered, and nuked so let’s instead focus on ways in which we might expect Pep to use our newly acquired BANGS.
To quote The Johan in his latest blog:
“The signing of the Swede affects the whole team including even the goalkeeper. Valdes now has a new option available: kicking long balls for Ibra to either hold or take and attack. Same thing for the defenders and, it goes without saying; the midfielders and forwards will also have new options.”
So, what new options are we talking about here? Let’s have a look. Today we’ll start out with what he adds to one of our favorite tweaks from last season: the False 9 formation.
If you read the Barca Offside blog then you probably saw me make quite a few comments on this formation. Let’s first analyze how it works and then what Zlatan adds to it.
It’s always risky talking about formations because all the different possible shifts and variations lead to the question of whether there is any point to giving a name to a formation. I’ll let Jonathan Wilson, he of Inverting the Pyramid fame, eloquently state why there is a point: “There is, because it gives us a basic shape, but we must always be conscious of differences within systems that ostensibly appear to be the same.” Therefore, keep this in mind when I refer to formations and use diagrams. I don’t have the space to outline all the subtle differences between the systems used by many different teams but still referred to in Spain as the “doble pivote” or double pivot. If you want to go more in depth into these differences, check out some excellent Jonathan Wilson articles here and here. However, for the sake of clarity and conciseness let’s state that a double pivot system features two holding central midfield players that both protect the defense and link them up with a four man attack. In Spain they call it a 4-4-2 Double Pivot whereas in England they would call it a 4-2-3-1 (like Liverpool uses). In reality there are differences but the common denominator is in its namesake: two pivot players man the central midfield. Also, when in attack, they heavily rely on the fullbacks (FB’s) to bomb forward and provide width, confident that the two pivots will protect the centerbacks (CB’s). Our False 9 formation exploits all of these factors.
I’m on the record as calling this formation our Double Pivot killer because when we play it with Messi, Iniesta, and Xavi in form and playing at the same time there is no formation in the world with only two central midfielders (“pivotes” in Spain) that can shut our offense down. Why is this important? Because just about all of the bigger more offensive teams in Spain and England play a variation of the Double Pivot which makes this look a handy thing to have. Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, Valencia, Liverpool, and Villareal all use it although Real Madrid has played with a crazy “magic box” like 4-2-2-2 but in preseason they also used the 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 (Pellegrini’s choice at Villareal).
Fancy pants diagrams? Fancy pants diagrams:
This is how our basic 4-3-3 looks like in theory.
This is how a Spanish 4-4-2 Double Pivot looks like (more like an English 4-2-3-1).
And this is how our False 9 Formation looked like when employed against a Double Pivot Team last season and we had possession (note: the opposing team is the black circles)-
How it works:
– Our spear tip like trident would be inverted into a V shape. However, Samu would shift to the right wing while Messi assumed the 9 but dropped back into the midfield making him a “false 9”. On the risk of going off on a slight tangent, what is the main offensive importance of fullbacks? To give you an extra man in midfield. Here, it’s the same idea. Messi gives us an extra man in the midfield. Why Messi? Because of all our forward line he was the only one with the technical characteristics (positioning, vision, ball control, passing, one touch play, etc.) to make an excellent extra midfielder. Also, he is the most dangerous player in our front line with the ball at his feet and in space.
– The main purpose of this formation is to outnumber the two pivots by forming a triangle of Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta around them. If you look at last season’s second Clasico, Messi always looked at Gago, the deeper lying of their two pivots as a reference, and stayed behind him but in front of the CB’s. This Magic Triangle allowed our guys to wrest control of center midfield by outnumbering the two pivots 3-2 and passing around them.
– But, what about all the other opposing players? Would they really stand around while Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi drive the likes of Gago and Lass or Carrick and Anderson insane? Well, yeah. Because we force them to and even if they go to help that just means they left an open Barca player ready to receive a pass. Let’s look at what our guys do to isolate the pivots:
- Forwards (except for the False 9) – The opposing FB’s were kept at bay because Samu and Henry were lurking on the wings near their own goal. You don’t let guys like that go unmarked. If one of the fullbacks went to help out the pivots then they would have a wide open Barca forward on the wing near their own goal in space, possibly marked by a ponderous CB and something like this would happen [note- check out our formation ;)]
Thus, our forwards were partly decoys whose task was to occupy the opposing FB’s when we played this formation. I say partly because another of the virtues of this look is that if Messi ran at the CB’s with the ball and then passed to one of the other two forwards then they would get frequent one on ones against the fullbacks. This is how Henry frequently skinned Sergio Ramos in that second RM game. Furthermore, this look has the added bonus of preventing attacking fullbacks from bombing forward, a vital part of the double pivot attack, by forcing them to stay back and mark the forwards. If they go forward then you get something like the Samu goal from the UCL Final posted above.
- Fullbacks: What about the two opposing wingers? How are they kept at bay? Well, our fullbacks take care of that by advancing themselves. Similar to our forwards they play decoy by forcing the opposing wingers to mark them or else leave a wide open space down the wing for them to bomb down through. Again, just like the opposing fullbacks, if they leave their man (our FB) to go help out their tormented pivots then our center-mids will see a wide open FB with acres of open grass in front of him and simply pass him the ball. Thus, the opposing wingers are also kept out of the way. Its also even easier when you consider that there are plenty of wingers who are naturally less than inclined to defend.
- Yaya and the CB’s: The CB’s would assume their usual position, pushing the team up the field as doubling the opposing striker. Meanwhile, Yaya functions as both an outlet and a marker for the opposing “in the hole” or supporting striker. If he backtracks to help out the pivots, Yaya becomes an instant open outlet and moves up the field to form a diamond around the three opposing players and we resume our pass them to death game.
– Okay. So we can now pass them to death. What about an end product? Well, the idea of Messi dropping deep has to do with the common centerback. Said player is usually big and strong but not very comfortable venturing too far out from his box (the opposite of Barca CB’s). Thus, he is usually very reluctant to come out and help the pivots. Furthermore, this look from us will frequently get the ball to Messi an allow him to face and run at the CB’s in space. This is one of the worst nightmare’s any defender can have so their instinct is to play off of Messi so as to have more time to react when he takes off. Messi can either take them on, use the space they give him to let off some medium range shots, give the ball to the other two forwards for one on one looks versus the opposing FB’s, or wait for the other two forwards to make diagonal runs into the box and slip them some throughballs.
– Extra note: This is a very basic explanation of what goes on. Things usually get very fluid during the actual game. Messi, Iniesta, and Xavi rotate, and the ball does get played to the wing as opposing wingers and fullbacks try to help the pivots but end up leaving an open Barca FB or winger. However, this is the basic shell and rationale behind our strategy.
How Ibra Makes It Better
Remember how I said that of our forward line last year, Messi was the only one really truly able to play as a False 9? Not anymore. This is a role that Zlatan routinely filled in at Inter and Juventus and did so admirably. Although certainly not as fast as Messi, he has the vision, technique, and passing to play in midfield despite his size and natural position. How does this affect us besides the obvious “we can now play False 9 even when Messi is not playing”.
- Zlatan does not have the speed or destabilizing ability of Messi. However, he is still one of the best dribblers in the world with the ball at his feet and can still run at the CB’s. The other thing to remember is that he has a great medium range shot (better than Messi’s at this point) which will provoke the CB’s to come out to close him out in part to take away space for a shot and in part because they may not respect his dribbling as much as they do Messi’s. However, this would leave two forwards one on one behind the centerbacks and Zlatan has the vision and the quality to get them the ball in position to do some damage. Think of it as yet something different to drive the defenders even crazier.
- Remember how I said that the other two forwards were positioned partly as decoys but also to get one on one versus the FB’s? Now with another player to play as False 9, Messi can occasionally stay ar right forward when we go to the False 9. With all due respect to Henry and Samu but it’s not the same thing for them to get one on ones than it is for Messi to get a one on one with the FB. When Zlatan runs at the CB’s and draws them in, the fullback marking Messi will be shitting his pants worried that Zlatan will get the ball to Messi in space and a one on one situation. If the opposing left winger tracks back to help out the fullback then Alves can simply make one of his trademark overlapping runs and be played into the box by Messi. Its an awesome situation for us.
Zlatan is also an improvement over Samu on the right wing in this formation. Why? I love Samu but a Samu on the wing is not the same thing as a Samu in the box. He is a player that loves it when his teammates put the ball into an open space and he can run towards said open space and shoot or possess the ball. He was never at this best with the ball at his feet and a defender in his grill. It’s not necessarily bad; it’s just not his style. He is a master of seeking out spaces and running into them for his teammates to get him the ball.
On the other hand, Zlatan, although not his Ajax or Juventus self anymore still has enough explosion and a large enough repertoire of tricks to break down a defender one on one on the wing and, if that’s not available, he has superior vision and passing to get the ball to a teammate. I truly don’t get why people said that Samu was good on the wing and Zlatan is not. Samu selflessly assumed the thankless decoy role and did it as well as he could without complaining. Hell, being himself he even popped up to score the winning goal in the UCL Final when Evra over committed and left him open. However, look at the games when we used this option and you will see a largely anonymous Samu especially in relation to Henry who was playing the same role on the other wing. Look at the second leg vs. RM or the UCL Final before and after the goal. He took on the role because it helped the team but it was not optimal for him and it showed. Like I said, its just not his style. I’d be lying if I said it was optimal for Zlatan either but I do think he is a relatively much better fit for it than Samu.
That’s Part I folks.