“¡Corred, cabrones, corred!” (Run, you bastards, run!) a.k.a Ball Pressure Part I

Pep-Guardiola 2

That’s a great quote. It’s also slightly contradictory in a sense which you will see in a little bit. Who said it is pretty obvious given the photo.

This last June, persons outside of the Barcelona staff got their best glimpse yet at Guardiola the coach. The setting was the arid-but-beautiful island of Lazarote, in the Canary Islands. The occasion was an annual coaching clinic organized by legendary ex-Barcelona handball player and coach, Valero Rivera. Our man Pep stole the show with a charismatic presentation that was officially titled “Pressuring the Ball”. However, the title given by Sport to their recap of it was in my opinion much more fitting. Thus, I stole it: “¡Corred, cabrones, corred!”. The Spanish language coverage of this presentation provided numerous quotes from Pep that combine to form an accurate picture from the man himself of how he approaches and views ball pressure from a coaching and management standpoint. Consider those quotes from his presentation (which hardly got any English language coverage) as the inspiration for this post.

That’s where I want to start. This week will be all about Ibra and his debut, and an Ibra post is certainly in the works. But this, the first of a two-parter on the intricacies of ball pressure, will give us an idea of what awaits, and will be expected of our BAS (Big Ass Swede) as well as insight into one of the tenets of our style. Something that at first glance seems like a simple thing (e.g. “just all go after the guy with the ball”) but in reality is much more complicated from the tactical and intangible or motivational aspects.

Pep spreading the gospel at Lazarotre
Pep spreading the gospel at Lazarote

Why?

Pep is a gazillion times more eloquent and concise than me so I’ll let his quotes explain this part in only a few sentences. (*note: all of his quotes shown here are from Sport.

“In the world of football, there is only one secret. Do I have the ball or do I not have the ball? Barcelona chooses to have the ball. Consequently, implicit in this choice is that the other team must not have the ball. Thus, when we lose the ball, then we have to recover it because we need the ball.”

And, that, ladies and gentlemen, is that…or maybe not. Let’s look at why Barca “needs” the ball and has to recover it, besides the obvious “OMG we love possession.” They all stem from the same theme: We love offense and love not conceding even more.

1)      If you pressure an opponent near his own area, chances are good that they may very well lose it in a compromising position near their goal, making it easier for you to score. We love scoring.

2)      The more we have the ball, the more chances we will create and the less chances an opponent will create. Thus, we want the ball back ASAP.

3)      Our system usually leaves at most 3 players back when we have the ball near the opponents’ goal (because we love offense). This means we have to counter potential counterattacks (hah!).

4)      We want our players to be creative and fearless on offense.

5)      A less-tired player is a more effective player (you’ll see soon).

How:

Now we get to the fun part.

Ball pressuring is right up there with the most important tenets of our footballing philosophy. I remember Johan Cruyff writing on his blog that the three fundamentals of Barca are possession, movement, and ball pressure.

However, it is not as simple as “everybody go immediately get the ball after you lose it”. It is much more complicated than that. If all our players simply chase after the ball like dogs after a piece of steak, eventually the opponent will find big wide open spaces and make us pay. Our offensive system which frequently leaves only three men in the back is too risky for this. However, before we go into the details of how the pressure itself is applied, we have to cover the one thing has to take place before the ball is even lost, for the pressure to be applied effectively– lest we be made to pay for our audacity. That thing is:

High Lines and Tightening Up (the importance of Centerbacks in pressuring)

The center back (CB) position at Barca is the most underrated position on our team in terms of importance. It’s right up there with the 4 (e.g. Xavi, Guardiola, etc.), and the triangles.  For our whole system to work, it is imperative that the CB’s push the whole team forward and set up their line at around the centerline. This is called a high defensive line. A lot of teams consider this suicide, but we consider it necessary and even up the ante by frequently playing only 3 men there.The idea is to tighten the distance between our lines, and compress the game into the opponent’s half. Why? I’ll let the Johan himself take it away.

“Pass, pass, pass is useless if you don’t finish the play. Pass, pass, pass is downright dangerous if you do it with big distances between lines. If you do it like that, your defenders look worse than they are and your goalkeeper becomes the protagonist. The way to avoid this is to stretch the field. It is vital that your CB’s drag the whole team forward. If you can only play on half a field, the opponent’s, the distances that he must cover to get to Valdés will be out of this world. “

His logic is simple. On one hand we want to reduce turnovers, and a long pass has a much higher chance of being picked off than a short one because of the time the ball is in movement. If we reduce the space between the lines, the opponent will have less time to read passes and pick them off. On the other hand if we are to suffer a counterattack, we make that counterattack have to cover as much ground as possible, giving our guys time to pressure and recover the ball or get back and organize. How many times have we seen a counterattack stifled by backtracking forwards or fullbacks (this is where Abidal is at his best)? It’s about spacing. We want to compress the field vertically but at the same time stretch it horizontally (this is why our fullbacks and wingers are so important). The idea is to open up spaces near the opponent’s goal while minimizing the spaces that the opponent may use against us if we lose the ball. If you religiously read the highlights of Guardiola press conferences, this is something he frequently cites as something we did wrong to explain bad games. It is very important for our system to be effective both in the offensive and defensive sense, and worth paying attention to when watching the games.

Why is this vital to pressuring the ball? The less space the opponent has to pass and launch a proper counter, then the more effective our pressure will be in causing turnovers. Also, by compressing the field vertically, we have more Barca players near the ball, making it easier to overwhelm and dispossess opponents in their own half, or giving us more time to recover in case they get out. Ball pressure is all about the space and options the opponent has. Reduce those two things and ball pressure becomes more effective. If the opponent has no readily available options, and has Xavi and Messi pressuring them from two sides at once, the the odds that he holds the ball too long or makes a foolish pass increase. Let’s look at diagrams. Note the yellow circles which denote the significant pockets of space left by our formation.

Defensive Line Too Low (Too much space between lines)

Defensive Line Too LowHigh Defensive Line (Nice Compressed Lines)

High Defensive Line

Our players shift all the time, but for our purposes these diagrams will do. Notice the difference in where spaces appear once the defensive line moves up. The ones that appear on offense are the ones in which we see the forwards making their runs into or Alves and Messi overlapping and playing each other into space. Our goal is simple: to keep a compact midfield, keep the field spread with two players that function as “extremos” on the wings (Alves and Henry in this case), and not give up space that makes us vulnerable to counterattack. Check out the difference. With the defensive line not high enough, Henry and Alves have to be ready to run themselves ragged up and down while Yaya has to cover acres of space between the CB’s and the attack. Sure, we open up space near the opposing goal but we also open up acres into which attackers may be played into. This makes it much easier for opponents to escape our ball pressure thus drastically decreasing its effectiveness With the high defensive line, we:

1)      Cut the distance of our passes making it less likely that they will be intercepted.

2)      Make the midfield more compact, increasing passing efficiency, and having more players near the ball in case it is lost.

3)      Reduce the space into which opposing players may be played into during a counterattack thus reducing our risk and making our midfield and attackers’ ball pressure more effective.

This approach, however, is not without inherent risks. One quick thinking midfielder with good accuracy can quickly flip a long ball over the defense after a lucky takeaway, and if the defenders are asleep a good fast striker can break onside and have a one on one with Valdés. Its vital to have good communications among the defensive line to keep the opposing striker offside. The other risk is that the nature of our version of the 4-3-3 leaves a gap on the wings, especially with Alves bombing forward and Messi cutting inside. That gap means that at least a few times a game, one of our two lateral defenders will get tested on one on ones. Our defender doesn’t have to necessarily win as much as slow the attacker down because we are playing so far away from our own goal, we have more time to recover from a mistake even if the attacker quickly gets away from the first man.

Risks of the High Line

Now, let’s see this in action. The following video is just a taste of the awesomeness that is Paradigma Guardiola which is run by Guardiola devotee Matías Manna. Go over there and give him some love, because he deserves it. The following is sequences from an average game for us (Mallorca in the first leg). Just skip to 3:14 for this one and watch that segment. It demonstrates both the virtues and the risks of the high line. Look at how the high line buys us time to slow down counterattacks, or break them up with back-tracking forwards and midfielders, while the defensive line gets re-organized. Conversely, look how close we are to having one of the attackers break loose and how Marquez gets tested one on one near the wing. Although, even if the attacker did break loose, he so far from Valdés that we would have a chance of catching him and his support.

My main goal with these posts is to explain and discuss Barca tactics in a clear, concise manner such that everybody can understand them and appreciate them. All of us are here to learn so have at it with the comments. Also, I want to point out things that may at first glance seem unimportant but are in reality vital to the beautiful football we enjoy from Barcelona therefore increasing our appreciation of the players, the staff, and the philosphy. I hope this post was a good start because there is much still to come. In the next post, I’ll discuss how the actual pressuring takes place as well as the seemingly intangible benefits of its correct application.

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A diehard culé since the Rivaldo/Figo Judas days, I am also a rabid Argentina and Boca Juniors fan despite definitely not being Argentine. Read more articles by me by clicking on the name-link.

83 Comments

  1. Mher
    August 17, 2009

    Maximus, you say great things but for your own safety never type Busi>The Yaya in your life. Im saying it for you man, The Yaya demands respect or hell banish you from the Milkyway with his eyes.

  2. Anna
    August 18, 2009

    I third or fourth or fifth (whatever number we’ve reached) the question of who is in the banner.

  3. Anna
    August 18, 2009

    Can I get a link for Pep’s Place? I can’t seem to find it…

  4. Jnice
    August 18, 2009

    Mher, that is great advice. People need to watch how they are talking about The Yaya, even if they don’t mean any harm.

  5. Ramzi
    August 18, 2009

    Not much to comment about this issue, as Hector covered it in details.

    Yet, there are some upgrades needed on the system to overcome some of the risks we cant afford living with. Its the story of total Football, when it wins its perfection, when it lose its too romantic to be executed.

    In our case, Barcelona, some slight modifications can make a huge difference. For instance, pulling one midfielder to play a holding midfielder role beside Yaya (Xavi for example) when we lose the ball while Iniesta,Messi, Alves, Ibra and henry keep pressing but with more trapping distribution (Tempting the opponent to move the ball to their fullback and squeeze them there?) will keep the quality of the pressing method but overcome the consequences if the initial attempt to win back the ball fails. If the opponent plays only one roaming forward then moving one of the defensive trio to play as a DM beside Yaya is another option as well.

    The most dangerous touch the opponent makes is the second touch after winning the ball and doing the clearance. Usually the cleared ball goes behind our pressing machine in an area only monitored by Yaya, an opponent receiving the ball there can lob a pass behind our defence exactly where the roaming forward want it, and you are almost in a One-on-one threat. Even if you foul the guy meters away of Valdes box you are still the last defender. Not all teams can excute this kind of quality counters but its this kind of teams that we need to worry most about and to upgrade our system to contain. Because if a weeked opponent score we can score back easier than how it would have been if Robbin scored in el-classico at Camp nou, or drogba scored one of the zillions he got, or Ronaldo scored that first attempt for Man Utd.

    Beside, creating a second static line of two between defence line and pressing machine avoid forcing the pressing machine members from doing lot of deep transitions after the first Pressing attempt fails. We suffered a lot from the calories we burned during the season and for a fitness-demanding style like ours its important to save as many calories as possible if the job could be done with less effort and no risk.

  6. Tutomate
    August 18, 2009

    Great article, nuff said.

  7. ElShowDeJason
    August 18, 2009

    Hector, Kxevin.

    Can you revoke Isaiah’s publishing powers until he gives us an answer to who the hell the guy in the banner is?

    by the way Isaiah, did you manage to catch Venture Bros.? good luck on that eye exam. 🙂

  8. August 18, 2009

    Hi, i have a question completely irrelevant to the post. Wonder if anyone can shed some light on it…

    Is there a reason why barcelona are choosing to overlook players like sneider and robben to solve our slight lack of depth in midfield and on the left flank respectively?

    I understand if we open that gate, there’s no knowing what kind of money Real might throw at our players next year. Still think Sneider is a class act and equally mobile as xavi and iniesta and would fit in very nicely in Barcelona’s plan. Robben too is a world beater and if he can get his act together, he’ll be deadly on the left flank.

    is it solely politics that keeps us away from really good players at madrid even though they don’t see the talent in them?

  9. OhYes
    August 18, 2009

    Robben’s no good. He’s too selfish. He’d be a black hole on the left flank, sucking in balls and losing them. He’d do some nice things, sure, but overall he just wont fit into the team.

    Sneijder..not sure about him.

  10. Helge
    August 18, 2009

    Wow, a GREAT and very insightful article, Hector. Your first contribution gets a 9 out of 10 from me (people always need to have space for improvement to keep up motivation, that’s why I don’t give a 10 yet).

    As far as I am concerned, you have succeeded in explaining complicated tactical aspects with simple words AND helpful diagrams. Have you ever worked as a coach for a local football team?

    There’s just one thing about the high defensive line which is a real danger to me: As long as our defensive line is completely in the opponent’s half, the offside rule does not apply, right? So wouldn’t it be an option for the opponent to have 9 players defending and one counter-forward waiting up front? Even if the field is compressed there’s always a possibility of an intercepted pass…
    But maybe your diagram’s just a little bit exaggerated, because a too high defensive line would be devil-may-care.

  11. eklavya
    August 18, 2009

    Maximus: Yaya is taller than Busquets.

  12. August 18, 2009

    It is a very insightful article although one must question whether the tactics can be used again for another season.

    We all know that we were saved on more than one occasion by Valdes ( remember Drenthe one-on-one with Valdes in the first game, Drogba was one-on-one on atleast 3 occasions over the two legs). I wouldn’t say it was luck but brilliant saves by Valdes. It’s comforting to note that the system has assisted in the coming back from goals down though. The fullbacks are crucial here because only alves can handle the workload that he bears in his role.

  13. August 18, 2009

    Helge- Exactly. Its a verey oversimplified diagram whose goal it is to get the point across about the spaces in a clear way. In reality, players are shifting all over the place and even though the defensive line is near the center, they’ll be in our side of the field for the very reason you mentioned. We usually have the three man line or a sort of libero in front of the two CB’s who can quickly integrate themselves back into the line in case of a turnover.

    Ramzi- Your first paragraph is covered in the second part. I wont spoil it but it does involve what you propose (pushing the opponent to the side, pressing and trapping the FB’s against the touchline, with some overloading included as well). Regarding your worse case scenario (which I agree with 100% BTW), if you look at the video, its close to exactly what happens at 3:24.

    I also think we are susceptible to cross field passes due to our tendency to slightly overload a side when trapping (again, Part II) but few teams have players of the quality to execute that consistently well. I do agree that a midfielder slotting next to Yaya would add much more solidity to our structure. The problem is that if we are in the process of breaking a bus, there’s a good chance our two other mids will be farther away from Yaya either crashing the box or around its edge, playmaking.Will they have time to get back?

    I gotta keep working on this second part though, it’ll make some of the worries here clear up a bit. Remember, keeping the lines “tight” is a requisite to set up the pressure but not the pressure itself.

    I’m glad you folks liked it though.

  14. August 18, 2009

    Zlatan may actually be able to help with this. Will Guardiola use him how I’m thinking is another question though (teaser for next week) 😉

  15. Jnice
    August 18, 2009

    Thiago and Gai trained with the first team today along with the other youths who have been with the first team.

  16. Kxevin
    August 18, 2009

    The Yaya is not only taller than Busquets, but significantly better than Busquets.

    Of course, in my worldview they play different positions. Busquets will have to eat his Wheaties if he wants to be a true DM when he grows up. 😀

  17. eklavya
    August 18, 2009

    Pedro is naturally left-footed but can strike the ball equally well with his right.
    I thought It was the inverse.
    So now we know that he can play both wings + mid(?)

  18. eklavya
    August 18, 2009

    Green light for Ibrahimovic and Messi! YAY! 😀

    Gamper!Gamper!Gamper!

  19. OhYes
    August 18, 2009

    Yeah can’t wait til tomorrow. Any word on Iniesta?

  20. eklavya
    August 18, 2009

    Not yet…I guess we’re gonna play like this:

    ———————-VV
    —alves–pique–puyol–abidal–
    ——Keita—YAYA—Busi——-
    —–Messi——-Ibra—-Henry–

    I dunno about Xavi…pep said he might be rested….

  21. eklavya
    August 18, 2009

    -LIga
    -Copa
    -Champions League
    -Spanish Super Cup (Atletic Bilbao)
    -European Super Cup (Shaktar)
    -World Club Cup (Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates)
    -Gamper Cup (Man City)
    -Copa Cataluynia

    That makes it 8 not 6 😛
    Not sure about the last one though…

  22. eklavya
    August 18, 2009

    *Liga

  23. Maximus
    August 18, 2009

    2000 apologies, I always thought busi was 6’2 and The Yaya was 6’1. So I regret typing anything was more than The Yaya and making that mistake!

  24. Kxevin
    August 18, 2009

    You’re forgiven, Maximus. Now the earthquake can stop….

  25. Han
    August 18, 2009

    Very impressive work this article.

    What I maybe enjoy even more is the absence of utter ignorance, sheer stupidity, blasphemy and other irritating comments from people who have either have never heard of “the overriding power of better arguments” or just plainly refuse to hear/read other peoples arguments.

  26. Colin
    August 18, 2009

    Thanks for the knowledge Hector. This is going to improve my positioning in Pro Ev 2009 big time.

  27. Alexinho
    August 20, 2009

    Hector, The Brain!

  28. Alexinho
    August 20, 2009

    Yes. Can’t wait for more of this. It’s one of the main things I loved about coming to the old site.

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