Champions League Preview: Barça – Atlético Madrid Leg Two at the Calderón

After a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou in the first leg of their Champions League (CL) tie, Barça and Atlético Madrid meet at the Calderón to determine who advances to the CL semi-finals.  As a preview for the match I did an interview with Outside of the Boot that we’re cross-posting both here at Barcelona Football Blog and at their site (http://outsideoftheboot.com/).  Outside of the Boot is a terrific general football site that covers the game broadly.  Highly recommend a visit if you don’t read it already.

 

OOB:  – Firstly, what are your thoughts on Barcelona’s Champions League campaign so far?

 Barça’s CL campaign this year has been an experiment of sorts with Tata Martino exploring how to balance the significant continuing strengths of the team while minimizing their growing vulnerabilities.  The team’s performance this year in the CL has been a clear improvement from how they played in the competition last season (particularly after the season was thrown into complete disarray by Tito Vilanova’s very sad recurrence of cancer).

Broadly the team has improved versus top competition this season, both in the CL and in the league.  And I think much of that has to do with Martino coming to understand and admit to what the team’s weaknesses are rather than trying to continue as if the team were still the same as it was back at its high point.

Perhaps key match for Barça in the CL this season was the first match versus Ajax in the group stage of the competition.  By key here I mean the most telling – I think that match marked a kind of turning point in Martino’s early thinking.  The first match vs Ajax was noteworthy as Xavi didn’t play.  Instead Martino looked to rotate his midfield.  Over the past several years Xavi has rarely been rested in any CL match so resting him was an important change.  Barça went on to win that match 4-0. But what was so striking about the game was how it was played.  The match was extremely open with Barça often looking unstable even while leading by multiple goals.

At the time Martino was still looking to implement a style of play incorporating more verticality.  But even when leading by multiple goals Barça struggled to retain match control in their usual fashion.  This has proven a major problem for this team.  Without match control Barça’s defensive limitations come to the fore.  Without control the limitations in the backline and the team’s reduced capacity to press, particularly in the midfield zone, are exposed.  In that first match vs Ajax leading by 3 goals Martino felt the need to bring on Xavi for stability.  Since then Martino has rotated players and experimented with different styles of play – but he has been extremely reticent to rest Xavi.  While Xavi is older now and suffers from chronic Achilles tendinitis, he remains fundamental with respect to control and it’s been difficult for three managers now to change the systems in ways that allow Barcelona to function without Xavi on the pitch.

This balance-control vs verticality-has been one of the major stories of Martino’s first season.  How to balance diversification of a template by adding verticality to a team whose goal prevention is extremely dependent on match control with the ball.  And that’s played out most directly in the CL.

Ultimately, Martino reduced the additional verticality he was looking to play with early on in order to augment match control, particularly in the CL and in matches versus top competition.  Without control there wasn’t enough stability to minimize the deficits in the backline and the pressing game – these were the problems that were exposed in the CL for Barca last year.

This came to the fore in the tie versus Manchester City where Martino elected to utilize four midfielders and remove a forward.  This was an acknowledgement that the team’s positional play and ability to enact control in the midfield zone was now dependent on explicit numerical superiority – a major break from its abilities in the recent past.  But acknowledging this limitation has been important to Barça’s success in the CL and versus top sides this season.  It also shows tremendous pragmatism by Martino has it wasn’t how he set out to play when he initially took over.

 

OOB: – With only two senior centre-backs in the squad, could the rest of the champions League campaign be defined by Pique’s injury?

 Pique’s injury is very problematic for Barça – both in the CL and in the league. No other player has his profile, particularly his comparative ability in the air.  In addition, just by sheer numbers the injury is very difficult.  Puyol is trying once more to rush back from injury but he hasn’t played in quite some time.  Another injury to a CB will likely mean Adriano will be forced into makeshift CB duty.  The loss of quality will be felt – Pique while perhaps not fully back to his top level of play has had a strong season overall – much improved from his form from last year.

Fortunately, the latest reports are that Pique hip fracture may not be as bad as it initially looked and that he may return within two weeks rather than four.  That helps with the league trophy race but still creates problems in this next CL match vs Atlético Madrid.

Marc Bartra came on for Pique in the first leg and played extremely well.  Barça will need a similar performance this match in order to advance.  Bartra has overall played well this season – particularly in 1 v 1 situations in space. But the areas where his game is less developed – aerially and in terms of strength- were precisely the ones that Pique provided to this Barça side.  The loss of Diego Costa’s presence will reduce the risks of using Bartra but it’s still a major challenge for a young and still inexperienced player.

 

OOB: – Atletico Madrid set up strongly as Simeone has embedded a clear tactical identity onto the club. What do Barcelona need to do to break them down at the Calderon?

 For me, Atleti execute what their template more consistently and at a higher level than perhaps any other side in Europe.  That’s not saying they are the “best” side – but in terms of pure system execution they are remarkable.  Almost machine like in the precision of their shape, pressure, and coordination across zones.

We often consider tactical dimensions of pressing and staying compact along the vertical axis of the pitch. What Simeone has done so remarkably-perhaps his most interesting innovation- is the way Atleti press horizontally and stay compact through dynamic coordination of their block and shape along the horizontal axis of the pitch.

Atleti play very narrow looking to overload the central zone of midfield.  Most sides that do this suffer from conceding space wide along the flanks.  But Atleti rarely suffer from the space they initially concede.  This is due to how dynamically they press horizontally.  Their ability to pressure from the narrow initial shape when the ball is played to either flank is extremely impressive.  It’s also a particular testament to how hard their players will work for Simeone-the strikers in particular.

Despite the movement and speed required to close down the ball wide, they still retain highly efficient shapes.  For example, when you watch them play notice how often they’re able to create defensive triangles wide. This allows them to create cover for two advanced defenders while only using three players.  The player at the deep apex of the triangle (usually the FB) is often able to provide cover for both defenders at the base of the triangle.  Just wonderful stuff.

Barça have struggled to break down due to this balance.  Atleti overload the central zones while still compressing space wide.  That’s their game.  Simeone isn’t simply overloading the middle as a reactionary defensive tactics.  He wants to overload the middle numerically to goad you into using the open zones wide where the two attacking FBs are generally stationed.  But once the ball is distributed wide his team closes down very rapidly and utilized the touchline as an “extra defender” very efficiently.  They make the pitch very small in that zone and are very effective at dispossessing the ball and starting their positional attack in turn.

I think the way to counteract this strategy is to try to break their shape in the middle by overloading that zone through diagonals runs from the FBs. Those runs should be directed at Atleti’s two deep midfielders.  Force those deeper midfielders to provide cover/support for “extra men” in midfield. At the same time, keep the two lateral forwards wide to create 1 v 1’s with the FBs. Drop them deep into the open space & then swing the ball wide to allow them to run at the FBs without the extra cover from the Atleti midfielders.  This can be augmented by having the striker draw wide as well to create 2 v 1’s.

 

OOB: – Under Tata Martino, Barcelona have adopted a more direct game at times, especially in the Champions League. Does this worry Barca fans in terms of their progress in the competition?

 Martino experimented with greater verticality and direct play earlier in the season e.g. first CL match vs Ajax.  But since then he’s adjusted and understood the vulnerabilities the team has when they lose match control.  Barça do play more directly but it’s less than earlier in the season when Martino was experimenting initially.

I think the major change Martino has made that he’s retained more consistently is in the positioning of the forward line.  Rather than having Messi drop deep to support Barca’s positional play in midfield he’s instructed him to play higher to act as a vertical outlet – either stationing himself on the shoulder of the CBs or in finding space between the lines.  Martino’s done something similar with the other forwards.  Instructed them to stay higher rather than drop to support midfield.  He’s also changed the dynamics of play and this is were the verticality remains most consistent.  Barça will break faster when Messi and Iniesta initiate play (Iniesta has augmented his role in the transition phase very effectively this season).  Both players can do so comparatively safely as both lose the ball so infrequently even at speed.

But in order to keep the forwards playing higher while still enacting match control through the ball Martino has been forced to play four midfielders and only two forwards.  This is the concession he felt he had to make.

He’s consistently used Messi and Neymar upfront along with the four midfielders in nearly all of the “big” matches Barça have played. In the first league match vs Real Madrid he used Cesc as a false 9 and Messi on the right (though that was influenced by Messi’s injury problems & fitness).

But since the CL tie with Manchester City he’s implemented a set up with Messi as the false 9, Neymar on the right and Iniesta as a hybrid LW/midfielder along with Xavi, Busquets and Cesc.  This configuration maximizes match control but also diminishes the vertical outlets Barça has available to it (and particularly places enormous burdens on Messi to create penetration and score) But it has obtained results.

With the reconfiguration of the team’s template for the Manchester City tie, a number of observers applauded this move.  Martino was purportedly re-implementing the “true” Barça model.  But it was anything but.  This Barça’s project at its best was based on a system of positional play that enacted a breathtaking level of precision in midfield.  This allowed the side to create a level of match control far exceeding its numerical presence in the midfield zone.  It allowed the team to dominate teams that were far more athletic and physical.

Much of this was based on the overwhelming impact Xavi had on matches – especially on the “biggest” matches.  In addition, Xavi along with Busquets were perhaps key players in Barca’s pressing game.  But with the chronic Achilles tendinitis Xavi has been significantly affected by since the middle of the ’11-’12 season and his aging, Barça’s positional play and pressing have diminished.

Xavi’s physical limitations aren’t the entire story of course.  Barca’s pressing game has also diminished due to Messi’s reduced work rate and the opposition altering the way it attacks Barça’s left channel.  But Xavi was the foundation of that team and system and his influence was staggering.  His positional play and pressing were the crystallization of what that side was. The influence is what allowed Barça to enact match control at that level.

Barça’s initial response to Xavi’s diminished play was to have Messi drop into midfield more and more to support the positional play.  But that was very problematic as it meant Barça had no true vertical outlet.  In turn the opposition could press out of a mid-block and “squeeze” Barça back into midfield.  These limitations were very evident and problematic in the CL last season.

Martino has tried to work between these two poles – how does he enhance goal prevention through match control while still enacting enough vertical outlets to create the penetration required for Barcelona to stretch the opposition block, open space and ultimately promote goal scoring.  This has been the central strategic issue Barça have tried to grapple with this entire season.

 

OOB: – What would your starting XI for the second leg against Atletico Madrid be?

 Barça need to score to advance after Alteti gained the advantage of the away goal in the 1-1 first leg at Camp Nou. But Barça also can’t afford to concede first away at the Calderon.  Conceding will allow Atleti to focus on retaining shape & pressing.  They will be extremely difficult to break down.

This second leg is very different due to Diego Costa and potentially Arda Turan’s absences.  Atelti are extremely dependent on Costa in the transition phase – there may be no player a team is more dependent on for a function than Atleti is on Costa in transition.  When he left the first leg of the tie Atleti’s ability to counter diminished significantly.  This will be even more amplified if Turan is unable to play.

Given this, I think Barça should take the risk of playing three forwards with Alexis on the right and Neymar returning to the left, where he’s more dangerous as a scorer.  Barça should be able tor enact enough control with three midfielders given Atleti’s diminished ability in the transition phase due to injury.  Cesc Fabregas’s recent run of poor form also plays into this decision. The rest of the line up picks itself. Pinto/ Alves/  Bartra /Mascherano /Alba/ Busquets/Xavi /Iniesta/Sanchez /Messi/Neymar.

All this said-I expect Tata to continue to elect for enhanced control and play Cesc rather than the third forward.  I think he’ll stay with the changes and the template that have worked for him, though he could rearrange the shape e.g. play Cesc as a false 9 rather than in midfield as has been rumored.

 

OOB: – We attempt to track the progress of the best young players as much as time allows under our Scout Reports and #TalentRadar feature. Which youngster coming through from Barcelona  are you most excited about?

 There’s a tremendous wealth of talent in the youth system for Barça right now, particularly at the wide forward and central attacking midfield positions. A few players have really rapidly accelerated their development this season.  Adama Traoré is a phenomenal talent.  His combination of technical skill and physical explosiveness is something to watch.  Though technically registered with Barcelona’s Juvenil A (u19) side he’s played most of the season with Barcelona’s B team in the 2nd division in Spain this year though he was only 17 at the start of the season.  He’s had a great season and has continued to improve rapidly.  He’s commanded double marking wide for much of the season.  By profile he’s been more of a wide creator in the past but it’s been a real positive to see his finishing developing this season.  Munir El Haddadi, one of the most promising players at La Masia coming into this season, has also continued his rapid ascent.  He too while registered to the Juvenil A side is now playing with the B team.  He’s the current top scorer in the UEFA u19 tournament.  Lee Seung Woo is another enormous talent.  He’s unfortunately been prohibited from playing in league competition due to prior FIFA regulatory rulings but has played in international youth tournaments for Barcelona and been brilliant.

While those three are enormously gifted, it’s a disservice in many ways to leave so many other players out.  On the B team Denis Suarez (who you’ve profiled prior while at Manchester City) has been terrific in his first season with Barcelona as has Sergi Samper.  Alejandro Grimaldo returning from an ACL injury last year remains a very gifted LFB.  All three of those players have a real chance to play for the Barcelona 1st team.  Edgar Ie a CB/RFB is a lesser known player but promising, though often injured.

The Juvenil A team is simply filled with talent-more so than even the B team-and have had an outstanding season.  Wilfred Kaptoum is a player I particularly like on that squad.

 

OOB: – Finally, if you were to make a prediction for the tie, who do you see going through? Any particular scoreline for the second leg?

This will be an extremely close match.  The two teams have played to one draw after another this season.  Either could advance.  I do think Atleti’s injuries will be particularly difficult for them to absorb if Costa and possibly Turan can’t play.  Both are so integral to their positional attack and defense.  But playing at home Atleti will be extremely difficult to score against.  It’s going to be a fascinating battle from two teams that play such different systems.  And I hope that’s what we’ll take away from this match – how wonderful the game is and how it can be played at such a high level in such divergent ways.

 

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Tactical Preview: Barcelona vs AC Milan Champions League Leg 2

The key to figuring out what changes Barça needs to make today starts with understanding how AC Milan defended in leg 1.  And in my judgement that analysis begins with the following:  AC Milan did not “park the bus” in leg 1.  Unless Allegri takes a much more conservative approach, if you go about planning for this match believing the problem was that we couldn’t break a parked bus you’ll come up with the wrong solution.
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Barcelona vs Betis-Match Thread: Pep’s Goodbye to La Liga

Barcelona play their final match of the Liga season. More than the result the match is noteworthy for being Pep’s last La Liga match as manager.

Enjoy the way this brilliant side play. It’s been a treasure to be able to see them grow under Pep.

 

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The Barcelona System: Re-Inverting the Pyramid vs. Getafe

At the individual level, football contains within it dazzling variety.  Nothing repeats-every match is unique in its own patterned ways.  At the team level, however, systems are more constrained.  While there are many different interpretations and implementations of tactical systems, there are only so many different baseline ways to set up a side.  As such, in any particular time, many of the most radical ways of making the game new can emerge by drawing directly or indirectly on football’s rich history.  Innovation can emerge by repeating a pattern long forgotten or relegated to a dark crevice of memory.

2-6 at the Bernabeu.  The 2009 Champions League final.  5-0 Villareal.  There are certain matches this Barcelona project play that establish tactical benchmarks for the system and Guardiola’s thinking.  They are matches – often subtle and ostensibly un-noteworthy at face value, which will go on to act as touchstones for Guardiola’s Barcelona.  The home match against Getafe was one of these.

Pep and Tito: Tactics

In defeating Getafe 4-0, Pep Guardiola utilized a tactical approach that incorporated certain elements of play not regularly seen in the game for almost a century.  What was so noteworthy and at times, breathtaking (even lovely), about how Barcelona played in this match was how old and antiquated it was in so many ways and how at the same time it was completely pragmatic and devoid of nostalgia.  The past returned due to necessity and circumstance.  If history is indeed a dustbin, this match was a kind of polished gem made from the weight, from the pressure that can be applied now to the carbon ash of the past.

Inverting the Pyramid

Football in the 19th century was a game that would be difficult for us to recognize now in comparison to the modern sport we are accustomed to.  At the time, football was still in the process of formalizing itself.  There were few set it’s rules.  There was a stringent debate over whether it should be legal to intentionally kick an opposing player in the shins.  Professionalism was still something not part of the sport.  Outside of these issues of standardization and business, the approach adopted by teams was radically different.  The standard formation had 7-8 players on the front line acting as forwards.  All out attack was the focal point of competition.  The primary thrust of how the game was played was  largely oriented through dribbling in direct lines to the opponents goals.  In fact it was only in the 1860’s that it became legal to pass the ball forward.  Prior, according to one existing rule, Law Six, it was illegal for any player to be positioned ahead of the ball.  The very notion of passing was considered an inferior way of playing. (1)

All of this would change however.  This history is brilliantly recounted in Jonathan Wilson’s seminal study of tactics and their evolution, Inverting the Pyramid.  But the transition to a more interlinked way of playing was slow.  As Wilson describes, when the Law Six was altered making the forward pass legal the game initially changed little. Teams didn’t take advantage of passing even after it was legalized.  Innovation came from outside of England, which was then both the home and dominant center of the game.  Passing was first leveraged as a means of playing in Scotland.

In order to pass the ball better a new kind of formation was developed. One of the seven forwards was drawn back and the 2-2-6 was developed.

Soon however it became clear that the 2-2-6 wasn’t the optimal way to set up a side that was oriented around the pass.  Another forward was drawn back and the forerunner of the modern center half was born in the 2-3-5 formation.

The 2-3-5 would go on to be the predominant system played in much of the world until the 1925 when further changes in the offside rule were made. This in turn led to the emergence of the “W-M” formation (3-2-2-3).

Wilson deftly summarizes the history of the game after the dominance of the 2-3-5 as a process of he describes “Inverting the Pyramid.”  Managers became progressively more and more concerned about creating defensive solidity over the course of the 20th century.  As such, they continued to drop forwards from the 2-3-5 back deeper to create additional defensive positions.

In the mid-1980’s Carlos Bilardo, manager of Argentina, developed the 3-5-2 as a system to play in the 1986 World Cup.  Part of the purpose of Bilardo’s 3-5-2 was to provide a defensive platform for Maradona to play in front of, a structure that would allow his genius to shine and not burden him with the need to defend.  The 3-5-2 would quickly go on to become one of the most favored systems in the world.  Part of it’s widespread adoption was related to its flexibility – how it was implemented could vary widely.  While the 3-5-2 can seem like a highly attack oriented system latent within it is an extremely defensive variant.  Play the defensive block deep and focus the wing backs on solidity and the 3-5-2 quickly turns into a 5-3-2.  And this is what many sides did in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  The original pyramid formed in the 19th century – the 2-3-5 oriented around attack – had undergone complete inversion turning into a 5-3-2 oriented around defending.

Re-Inverting the Pyramid

Line Up:

Coming into the Getafe match, Guardiola’s options for how to set up his side were severely constrained due to injuries, particularly at the back.  Pique, Alves, and Abidal were all unavailable leaving only three first team defenders available.  Further complicating this issue was that one of these three defenders was Adriano, who generally plays as an attacking full back and whose usual style of play isn’t ideally suited to act as a lateral center half in a three man backline.

Heading into the match it was widely thought that Guardiola would thus play a four man backline of Adriano, Mascherano, Puyol and youngster Martin Montoya at RB.  This however did not prove to be the case.  Despite the absence of a true left center half, Guardiola chose to utilize Puyol, Mascherano, and Adriano as his nominal backline.  I say nominal here because in fact these three players didn’t truly function as a backline in the usual sense (more on this later).

The other issue of note in the line up was the number and variety of attacking players.  With Cesc Fabregas unavailable due to suspension, Guardiola chose to utilize both Pedro and Cuenca in addition to line up stalwarts Messi, Sanchez, Xavi, and Iniesta along with Busquets at holding midfield.

This season Guardiola has often opted to play Iniesta at LW and Fabregas in midfield.  With the line up against Getafe, Barça was functionally playing with an additional wide forward rather than midfielder as even on the LW Iniesta often pinches into midfield.

Formation:

While the line up was set, how Barça would play was very unclear given the range of different formations the team has utilized this season.  To immediately open the match, Barcelona came out in a 3-4-3.  Puyol, Mascherano, and Adriano formed a back three with Sanchez at the 9 and Pedro and Cuenca on the wings.  Messi played behind Sanchez as he has in a few matches this season (most notably at the Bernabeu). Xavi and Iniesta opened in midfield.

However, Barça quickly morphed out of this opening 3-4-3 alignment.  This is well illustrated by the average positioning of the players:

Barcelona: Average Positions (via whoscored.com)

Positional diagrams can be very difficult to interpret for Barça because the system involves so much movement and position switching.  However, there are few points that are well illustrated by the visual above.

What sticks out most perhaps is how relatively deep Mascherano stationed himself compared to other players.  Functionally, he acted as a sweeper in a last line of defense.  That said, what the diagram doesn’t accurately portray is that while Mascherano consistently stayed deep to defend he really didn’t act as a one man backline (more on this later).

The second interesting point from average positioning is how high Puyol played.  Puyol didn’t truly play as a backline “defender” for much of this match.  Instead he almost functioned as a right sided holding midfielder. To this point-Puyol actually played higher this match than not only Adriano did at LB but also Busquets.

Notice how leftwards Busquets played. He shaded that way because it was often Adriano who would rotate to a deeper position to defend alongside Mascherano.  Busquets would then fill in that left flank space in defense.  In a sense there was an overlap in role and positioning between what Busquets was doing on the center left of the pitch and what Puyol was doing on the right.

One of the key tactical features the positional diagrams demonstrates is the significant gap in space between inner four Barcelona players (Xavi, Iniesta, Sanchez and Messi) and the outer two (Pedro and Cuenca).  The wingers clearly provided tactical width that almost created a kind of wide boundary for the inner four to play within.

Finally, Sanchez and Messi’s positioning are worth noting. In the initial Barça formation, Sanchez was ostensibly acting as the striker playing in front of Messi.  However, those terms are relative.  And over the course of the match it was Messi who in fact wound up playing higher up the pitch on average than Sanchez.  Again, this isn’t a rigid positioning – as I’ll show later with still images – Sanchez was generally slightly advanced of Messi. But Sanchez would drop behind Messi to play the ball.  And perhaps even more importantly, Sanchez would often occupy the CBs freeing Messi to make darting runs towards goal from a slightly deeper starting position.

In a sense, it’s very difficult to state who the “10” was and who the “9” was.  And perhaps what is most important is that both Sanchez and Messi played very advanced, almost as if Barça were playing with two strikers or two mobile false 9s.  While they would move back on occasions for the ball they didn’t frequently drop deep into midfield to collect the ball. Instead they stayed pressed closer to goal.

How did Getafe respond to this complexity?  Below is the average positional diagram for their side:

Getafe: Average Positions (via whoscored.Com)

This positional diagram also has to be  interpreted in context as Getafe players moved quite a bit in to close down Barça and looked to attack largely on long counters.  In general Getafe played in a 4-5-1/5-4-1 defensive block which doesn’t come across clearly in the diagram (will be evident in the still shots presented later).

A few things to note above.  First, as is often done vs. Barça, Getafe tried to stay extremely narrow through midfield.

Second, significant gaps in space existed between the Getafe CBs and their full backs.  Even with playing five at the back Getafe developed gaps in the channels of their block.

In essence, while Getafe played very narrow across midfield, they did not stay as narrow across the backline.  This was one of the primary impacts of the tactical width Pedro and Cuenca created.  This tactical width was critical in two of Barcelona’s four goals.

To make up for this problem they had Rios act as a hybrid CB/holding midfielder and dropped both wingers into midfield.  This essentially isolated Miku as the lone striker in space, as seen in the diagram (note the positioning of the winger Rios #16 is somewhat misleading by average position as he was the one who would often try to make long runs to support Miku when Getafe had a chance to counter).

Getafe’s defensive system was predicated on having nine outfield players behind the ball.  Guardiola anticipated this and in response took the bold step of playing 9 players in the opposition half (or more accurately 8 ½ as will be explained later).

Structure and Dynamics

Every system has to balance structure and function.  Too much structure and systems become suffocating and rigid.  Orient a system too much towards dynamics and organization deteriorates and a kind of chaos can emerge.  Vibrant systems in nature such as a colony of leaf-cutter ants or a coral reef maintain the balance between the two forces of structure and dynamics.

Football is much the same from a systems perspective.  Traditionally, for attacking sides such as Barcelona, developing an appropriate level of structure is a recurring challenge.  The tendency is to often go too far in the way of dynamics.  One of the great examples of this was the brilliant Brazil 1982 World Cup squad.

Barça itself is constantly challenged with this balance and at times the club falls into too heavily into dynamics with too little structure.  For example, Barça can often at times lose width by fielding too many players who seek to move dynamically through midfield.

In this match Guardiola balanced these competing demands by distributing the pitch with players who fell into three kinds of roles:

Provide structure: Three players in the Barça system provided clear structural roles:

  • Mascherano: formed the system base
  • Pedro: outer wide boundary left
  • Cuenca: outer wide boundary right

Provide dynamic force:  Three players played free to relatively free roles in the system.

  • Messi: free role
  • Iniesta: shifting from frontal attack to space between the lines
  • Xavi:  moving across midfield band to orchestrate as needed

Provide a mixture structure and dynamics (semi-structured role):  Four players could be considered in this category.

  • Sanchez:  point of reference while also dropping back to play ball
  • Busquets: holding midfield to circulate ball while also staying positioned to move to backline cover as needed
  • Puyol:  outlet for ball on right while assisting defensive base.
  • Adriano: defensive base deep while also making surging runs forward if space

As with all categorizations there are areas of overlap.  It would be reasonable for example to shift Sanchez to the Dynamics category or Xavi to the Mixed.  This schematic is intended to be illustrative rather than definitive.

This framework provides a model for understanding both how Barça plays overall but how they played differently vs. Getafe than they usually do.

Against Getafe Barcelona had much more defined wide structure than they usually do.  Fielding two player who acted in the roles of true wingers, Barça had well defined outer boundaries that stretched the pitch horizontally and vertically.  They had increased structure on the right side of the pitch as they had two players stationed in advanced to relatively advanced positions there – Cuenca and Puyol – rather than one in Dani Alves as they often do.  Additional structure was provided by Sanchez playing in the middle as a point of reference.

Structural differences also developed not only from the roles the players assumed but also how they played with respect to each other.  Barcelona played three in midfield for much of the match but they did so in a very different shape than they usually do – the three players in midfield often played along the same line rather than in a triangle (more on this later).

The main source of different dynamics primarily rested in Adriano and Puyol’s roles.  Mascherano was the base of the defense.  But Adriano consistently dropped  back to make sure that Barça always had two markers versus the Getafe lone striker.

At the same time, when Barça was controlling possession and space opened on the left, Adriano would surge forward, especially with the ball.  One the opposite side, Puyol played an analogous role, one that was contingent on reading Adriano’s play.  When Adriano went forward Puyol would track back to form a back two with Mascherano.  Busquets would also key off of Adriano’s positioning and drop back for cover – however this is the kind of role he usually plays within the Barça system.

System Structure:

Because the system structure was different in this match for Barça let’s focus on those elements.  Below is a partial diagram of key structural elements.  This diagram is intentionally filled in only in partial for the sake of simplification and highlighting key features.

Partial System Structure Diagram

While by average position it seemed that Barcelona played only one at the back they nearly always had two defenders deep.  Mascherano played deepest.  However, he was neither alone nor was his role to mark the striker.  Instead, for most of the match, there was a second defender there whose job it was to mark the striker.

In the diagram above rather than a name I’ve marked it with and X.  The reason for this is that more than a specific player functioning alongside Mascherano, it was really a tactical role that paired with him. This tactical role was shared by the team.  While it was most often Adriano who filled that role, Puyol, Busquets and even Xavi and Iniesta filled it at others.

It was very clear that Guardiola not only wanted two defenders deep but wanted them to play different roles – one to “cover” and one to “pressure.” Mascherano was to cover deep while the second defender was to mark more closely to pressure him when he got the ball.  These two different roles are important for the Barça system.

The problem with playing defenders deep for Barça is that the team can lose its compact shape.  Part of the role of the second defender was to ensure this doesn’t happen by asserting pressure.  In this regard, while Guardiola fielded two at the back he did so in a very different fashion than teams often do against a lone striker.  Miku wasn’t truly double marked by having two defenders in equal proximity to him at all times.

At the same time, because Getafe was defending deep and looked to get nine outfield players behind the ball, Guardiola didn’t want to create a two man defensive set that was overly structured.  Instead, he gave Adriano license to go forward and move as the game unfolded.  However, when Adriano did this another player generally moved back to cover in his place.  In a sense Barça almost played 1 ½ defenders at the back in order to balance structure and dynamics.

Because Mascherano was playing deep and the Getafe striker was marked, Mascherano was also nearly always open as a deep point of reference and outlet to retain possession.

The other structural elements shown in the diagram relates to the wingers.  Both stayed very wide and up the pitch.  The main purpose here was to create tactical width in order to stretch the two full backs as wide as possible.

As is suggested by the diagram – Barcelona utilized a structure which would make the pitch as big as possible given that the match unfolded in only one half and limited space was present behind a 4-5 man defensive line sitting deep.

Formation

While it’s always difficult to exactly describe Barça’s formation because of how dynamic and fluid the team plays, patterns do emerge.  Those patterns speak to the structure that Guardiola looks to create as a foundation for the team’s movement, position switching and other dynamics.

In this regard, while there are several different numerical designations one can use to describe the Barça system there are certain themes that anchored how Guardiola set up his side for this match.

As described above, Barça played with two at the back to ensure that there would be a spare man at the back against Getafe’s lone striker.

Two players roughly played in the same line across midfield-Busquets and Puyol.

Xavi shuttled in a free orchestration role but was often playing along the same region/line as Busquets and Puyol in midfield.

Two wingers pressed wide and up the pitch against the Getafe backline.

Three attackers played free or semi-structured roles:  Messi, Iniesta and Sanchez.  These players generally pressed agains the Getafe backline or dropped into the space between the lines while also moving into midfield as needed dynamically.

At the same time, because Getafe was defending deep and extremely compact, these three attackers in free/semi-structured roles generally played very high up the pitch.

Pulling these themes together the best way to describe the Barcelona formation is as a 2-3-5.  In essence, Guardiola “re-inverted the pyramid” Wilson described.

Again at times in the match Barça could be thought of as playing a 3-4-3 or a 2-2-2-4 or even a 1-2-2-5.  But overall, balancing accuracy with parsimony, a 2-3-5 is likely the single best summarization.

If the dominant tactical trend of the 20th century was the inversion of the 2-3-5 pyramid towards a 5-3-2, in this match, Guardiola was almost reverting that pyramid back in time. Back to two at the back, three in midfield and five in attack.  Or more accurately, driven by necessity and his philosophy of football, Guardiola reinterpreted the past to enact a system that was both very old and entirely new at the same time.

The 2-3-5

The image below summarizes the general positioning of the Barcelona system, particularly when the team was building out of the back.  Because the Barça system was so well spaced it was actually somewhat challenging to find a shots where all ten outfield players were present.  I bring this up because Barça so dominated possession and retained so much possession in the Getafe half play in the middle region of the pitch wasn’t necessarily indicative of much of the match.  Nonetheless the image shows the basic formation well:

Barcelona Base 2 3 5 Formation

At the base of Barcelona’s “re-inverted pyramid,” Mascherno is deep along with Adriano who is slightly advanced in the back two as he bring the ball out.

Notice how Puyol is both wide right and relatively advanced already.  He is playing on nearly the same line as Xavi and Busquets.

Cuenca and Pedro are both very wide and high up the pitch.  Sanchez is in the center occupying the CB.  Both Iniesta and Messi are in advanced positions between the lines but very close to the front line.

In essence, one could describe this formation as a 2-3-2-3.  But as we’ll see in subsequent images for much of the match this kind of formation was more a variant on a base 2-3-5.

On this point, one thing to note in this image is how many triangles Messi and Iniesta create in the formation by dropping even slightly into the space between the lines.  This kind of positioning to create triangles is particularly important during buildup play which is why both players are between the lines on opposite sides of the pitch.  This is another good example of how Guardiola enacts structure within the “carousel” of Barcelona’s passing game.

Another point to note on this image is the problem that tactical width creates for the defense.  Pedro and Cuenca are both equally wide on opposite flanks.  However, look at how radically different Getafe’s defense reacts to that width.  This image summarizes much of what happened in the match.

The L FB of Getafe is forced to pull in centrally in order to mark Messi.  Sanchez, in his point of reference role up top, is already occupying the L CB.  In general teams look to double mark Messi.  At minimal they must have at least one marker on him at all times.  As such the L FB narrows.

This means that Cuenca winds up alone in space completely unmarked.  Amplifying this effect on the that flank is the positioning of the LW.  Because Messi is preferably double marked the LW also narrows and is dropping back to support the L FB.  This is why attackers positioning themselves between the lines can create such problems.  There’s often no direct defender to account for them.

Critical to this flank in addition is Puyol’s intelligent positioning.  Notice how Puyol reads the position of the LW.  The Barça captain moves wide right – nearly as wide as Cuenca but intentionally stays deep also to maximize his space.

Barça have two players on the right flank who are essentially unmarked.  This happened over and over in this match.  Additionally, Puyol consistently read the match to position himself free from the defense.  He was the player who had the most time and space on the ball throughout.

This defensive problem caused by tactical width would create the context for how Barcelona scored its first and third goals (more later).

On the opposite flank notice how differently Getafe is defending Pedro.  The full back is closely marking him along the touchline.  Unlike Cuenca he is not free in space.

However, this creates an entirely different problem for Getafe.  Their backline along the right is unable to stay narrow.  Because the R FB is marking Pedro wide a significant gap in the channel between the R FB and R CB has developed.  The R CB doesn’t want to adjust his position because he is looking to support defense through the middle on Sanchez and Messi.  Leaving these kinds of gaps in the channel against Barcelona is disastrous.

This defensive response to width would help lead to Barcelona’s second goal.

The primary adjustment Getafe made to these problems as the match went on was to drop another player to the back line to act as a fifth defender.  This allowed them to better mark Pedro and Cuenca wide while lessening the risk of gaps in the channels.  However, this in turn meant that they lost a player in midfield which made it even more difficult for them retain any possession and attack.  Guardiola functionally turned tactical width into attack into another form of defense.

Finally, notice how Iniesta between the lines, like Messi, if is being double marked.  This creates open space for Adriano to run into with the ball.  This happened throughout the match and was part of why playing a fixed back two rather than Mascherano and a player rotating into the other back two spot would have been highly inefficient on Guardiola’s part.

Here is a different view of that basic 2-3-5 structure from a different angle:

Barcelona's 2-3-5 Foramtion

The Base:  Two at the Back

In the prior images we saw the arrangement at the back Barça played most often – Mascherano deep as a sweeper and Adriano partnered with him.

However, that second defensive role varied as different player occupied it at different times depending on match dynamics.

Puyol Drops Deep to Form 2 Man Backline with Mascherano

In the image above Adriano is positioned towards the left and advanced when Getafe recover the ball.  In this transition situation, because Adriano isn’t in position to double mark the Getafe striker with Mascherano Puyol drops back.

This was a general tactical principle Guardiola implemented in this match.  He always looked to have a spare man at the back.

Puyol and Adriano Up Pitch: Iniesta Drops Deep to Form Back Two with Mascherano

Above Puyol Adriano is along the flank pressuring the ball.  Busquets is supporting him.  At the same time Puyol who had prior made a run forward isn’t in position to defend at the back.

Given that the two lateral center of the “backline three” halves are out of central, deep position one would expect Mascherano to be in a 1 vs 1 situation with Miku.  However, he’s not.  Instead, Iniesta has read the situation and dropped to deep to assume that open defensive role alongside Mascherno.  In addition notice their positioning.  Iniesta is most immediately marking the striker while Mascherano is deeper for cover.  The structure and relationship of that back two base doesn’t change – even when it’s an attacking central midfielder filling one of roles.  This is a great example of who Barça defends as a unit.

Again, while Barça generally played two at the back the general tactical approach Guardiola looked to implement was to have a spare man at the back.  This is exemplified in the image below where Getafe gets 4 attackers forward on goal kick.

Barcelona Look to Retain a Spare Man at the Back 4 vs 3

Getafe has sent central striker and two wingers forward.  Barcelona’s response is to drop Busquets back while Adriano and Puyol also move deep.  The full back has also gone up field but Pedro has tracked his run. Getage have sent four players upfield – but Barça still retains a spare man at the back.

Part of the idea of having a spare man at the back is that this player’s primary role should be cover rather than marking.  As such, in the two man defensive formation Guardiola instructed one player to pressure the lone striker while Mascherano swept behind.

Adriano Pressures Getafe's Striker Across Pitch as Mascherano Stays Deep to Cover

Notice how Adriano isn’t simply marking Miku in the center of the pitch or when the striker is on the left.  Adriano has tracked him to pressure all the way to the opposite flank.  Also, notice how Barça aren’t immediately double marking Miku.  Adriano is marking and pressuring him 1 vs 1.  Mascherano stays deeper to provide cover.

Midfield Three and Attacking Five

In this match Guardiola, by playing most of the match with a back two, took one player and turned him into an additional wide forward compared to how Barcelona usually play.  The other defender taken out of the backline was turned into an additional midfielder of sorts.  This was essentially the position and role Puyol occupied.

Puyol Moves in Same Midfield Line as Xavi and Busquets; Five Attackers on Frontline

The image above typifies how Barcelona played in midfield for much of the match.  Notice how high up Puyol is playing.  He, Busquets and Xavi are effectively playing on the same line (as was evidenced on the average positional diagram as well).

The basic structure of three attackers is also visible with Pedro and Cuenca keeping tactical width close to the touchlines with Sanchez in the middle.  Iniesta and Messi are technically between the lines but they are so far upfield and Getafe was so compact that they are close to playing on the same line as Pedro, Sanchez and Cuenca.  All match long Messi and Iniesta would station themselves in very advanced position and fall off that line front line to support possession.  In the image above Iniesta is running back towards Xavi to make himself available.

In addition to Puyol joining midfield, the other thing which was different about how Barça organized this region was it’s shape and orientation.  Barça usually play a three man midfield with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets.  Those three are arranged in a triangle.  Against Getafe, the midfield orientation was very different. It was much more linear and flat.  It almost had a geometry similar to the midfield of a 4-4-2.

In this match triangles were created dynamically through the movement of Messi, Iniesta and Sanchez dropping back off the front line while Pedro and Cuenca stayed wide.  Those five players operated as a synchronized five man unit balancing the need to attack in numbers while still supporting midfield to retain possession.  This can be seen in the image above as Iniesta is dropping back off a five man front line to support midfield play.  If Iniesta continues his run above into space multiple triangles are formed:  Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets; Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro. Iniesta, Busquets, Sanchez; Iniesta Sanchez, Messi.

Barcelona used this strategy to strong effect throughout the match.  Arrange both the front five  and midfield in relatively linear arrangement.  Move players back off that front five to create triangles dynamically.  This allowed them to create geometry on the pitch in response to Getafe trying to control space through shape.

The reason for this unusual, linear midfield three was that even in this region Guardiola was looking to create width.  Puyol generally stayed wide in open space.

Puyol Free in Space Despite Getafe Defending with 9 Oufield Players Behind the Ball

Notice how upfield and wide Puyol is playing with the ball.  He is advanced of Busquets and Xavi.  This was due to the fact that Getafe prioritized defending very narrow – especially in midfield around the Barça right flank.  The reason why they did so was due to concerns about having multiple defenders around Messi at all times.

In the image above notice who Getafe are now playing five at the back.  This allows them to extend their L FB laterally to mark Cuenca.  However, there is now no natural defender to mark Puyol.  As such he was open as an outlet all match long – as long as he stayed wide.  If Puyol were to pinch into the middle of the pitch it would have been far easier for Getafe’s narrow midfield line to mark him while still marking Messi.

Five Man Attack

While certain players would drop off the front line into midfield to support possession and combination play, Barça consistently attacked with five players pushed high against the Getafe backline throughout the match.

Barcelona's Five Man Attacking Frontline

In the image above, Barça have five attackers in a line pushed against Getafe defense.  By flooding forward deep into the box, Barça have caused the defense to lose shape (compare this image to prior images where Getafe were arranged in two clear banks).  To further augment the confusion, Iniesta and Cuenca have switched positions.

Even with the apparent chaos created through all of this movement, notice Barcelona’s utilization of structure here.  Pedro remains wide left.  Iniesta has switched positions with Cuenca but even so he remains wide of the most lateral Getafe defender on the Barça right flank (this points out how width has important relative dimensions).  Sanchez, almost back to goal, watches the play and acts as a point of reference.

In midfield this same discipline is retained.  Puyol remains wide of the most lateral defender and Busquets stays deep acting as a pivot.  They are both unmarked and Puyol forms a direct outlet for Xavi to swing play to the other flank through.

Notice that by staying even a few steps deep of the line Xavi and Puyol are playing on, Busquets forms a triangle in midfield.  This is necessary because Barça are relatively linear along that front line.  Geometry can’t come from Iniesta, Messi or Sanchez as they are moving aggressively towards goal as a unit.

Creating Opportunities:  The Balance of Structure and Dynamics in Barça’s 2-3-5

Two of the primary purposes of defending deep is that it facilitates defending in numbers and controlling space in front of goal.  Guardiola’s priority in this match was to diminish the numerical advantage Getafe would normally enjoy by defending in this way.

To accomplish this Guardiola was willing to send players forward by utilizing only a sweeper and support defender at the back.  By doing this, Guardiola always had at least eight outfield players in the Getafe half to combat the nine defenders they utilized.  In addition, because the support defender next to Mascherano was a flexible role players would rotate in and out of, Guardiola in fact often had nine outfield players involved in the attack within the Getafe half.  Despite looking to defend deep, Getafe didn’t necessarily enjoy numerical superiority even close to their eighteen yard box.

This however only minimized the issue of Getafe having numerical superiority deep.  Getafe could also maintain shape to control space.  To address this problem, Guardiola balanced structural elements in the Barça system with dynamics to great effect.  We’ve covered a number of those points in this review already. Now we’ll take a more detailed look at how this combination of numbers forward coupled with structure and dynamics led to opportunities.

Blocks of Both Teams Shifted to Toucline

In the image above play has shifted close to the touchline on Barça’s left flank.  Because Mascherano has shifted and stepped up to close down the ball Puyol has dropped deep into the sweeper position.  Even though the blocks of both teams have shifted leftwards Cuenca remains wide right of the most lateral full back.

Pedro controls Mascherano’s header sending the ball to Iniesta who passes the ball to Messi.  Messi deftly chest passes the ball to Sanchez.  The action is all taking place on the left side of the pitch.  However, the key movement is occurring on the right.

Gap in Space Develops Between CB and L FB Due to Cuenca's Run and Tactical Width

In the image above Sanchez has received the ball from Messi and both are not attacking aggressively.  What’s critical however is to look at what Cuenca is doing.  Specifically, compare Cuenca’s positioning in the last two images.

What is Cuenca’s reaction to Barcelona controlling possession at the extreme left flank?  He makes a run wide right.  In other words, rather than running to the ball or closer to the play, Cuenca runs away from it.  This is the embodiment of tactical width.

And in the second image where Sanchez has the ball we see the impact that Cuenca’s intelligent movement has.  Notice how he’s dragged the Getage L FB out of position.  This is very evident by the large gap in space between the L FB and the Getafe CB.  The CB is holding position to close down the ball.  The L FB is caught in between because he’s tracked Cuenca’s run away from the ball.  This creates a large channel  (This space is similar to the one we saw earlier in this review that was created when the full back edged towards Pedro.)

Sanchez Scores from Gap in Space Developed by Cuenca's Tactical Width

In the image above, Sanchez is about to uncurl the shot that would score Barça’s first goal.  Notice how he’s dribbled into the exact gap in space between the CB and FB that was created by Cuenca’s run away from the ball.  The L FB is late to cover due to the room he had to make up.  Interestingly, in the image you can see that even at this late moment the L FB is still concerned about Cuenca – he’s still trying to hedge his bets that Sanchez may pass the ball to Cuenca (he isn’t directly facing Sanchez -he’s trying to maintain visual contact with Cuenca while moving over to support defense on Sanchez).  It is only a moment later – when the shot is off – that the FB fully commits to Sanchez.  By then it is too late.

Sanchez Moves Wide and Iniesta Fills in Space to Create Opportunity for Messi to Score

Above Barcelona are again attacking as a five man front line.  Here Sanchez has come wide to receive a throw in.   When he does Pedro loops inwards.  Sanchez plays the ball to Iniesta who dribbles to the middle and sends the ball to Messi.  With both Iniesta and Pedro towards the middle Sanchez reads the play and assumes the role of tactical width.

However, this movement has unsettled Getafe and caused them to lose shape.  As usual, defenses react to Messi receiving the ball by immediately allocating multiple defenders to stop him.  Two midfielder look to fence him off.  The L CB has shifted over behind the midfield to create a second line of defense.  Because Sanchez has vacated central space, the other CB looks to drop deeper to cover.

Notice how Pedro also stays relatively wide rather than running into the center.  Pedro is also providing a form of tactical width here as he’s making sure that the FB doesn’t have the chance to pull into the middle and that the other CB has to keep an eye on a player on his left side.

As seen in the prior image, Iniesta reads all of this and runs into the exact space vacated by Sanchez and kept open by Pedro.  With the nominal central striker pulled wide, Iniesta moves to fill that space. He now acts as a point of reference for the attack.  Messi slides an intelligent ball to Iniesta who executes a brilliant back heel return to Messi to set up Barcelona’s second goal.

Getafe Overplay Middle in Defense Cuenca Free in Space Wide

Above Getafe are defending narrow.  Messi receives the ball in midfield and the L FB pulls in further to the middle to help defend.  Cuenca however continues providing tactical width out right.  Even when Messi is pressured by multiple defenders he knows he has an outlet open on that flank.  He passes the ball to Cuenca who is now completely open in space.  There isn’t a defender remotely close to him.  Cuenca drives the ball forward and delivers a fantastic cross to Sanchez who heads home Barça’s third score.  Delivering accurate crosses isn’t an easy piece of skill.  Cuenca’s job was made much easier because he is so free in space.

How Does Guardiola Make This Work?

What I’ve tried to do in this review is both provide an analysis of how Barcelona played vs. Getafe while also placing some of the innovations Guardiola implemented in some historical context.  Barça functioned dynamically out of a 2-3-5 formation, a system that was last regularly played prior to the 1920’s.  This is not to say in any way that Barça is reproducing those older systems.  Formations are neutral.  How they are implemented are what largely matters.  And the 2-3-5 Barça played likely has limited similarities to the 2-3-5 formation that once formed the norm for football.

But there are touchpoints.  Guardiola utilized this formation to minimize the numerical advantage Getafe could create around goal by defending deep.  He did this by taking positions off the backline and shifting them forward.

Guardiola then added elements of structure and dynamics into that base 2-3-5 to increase Barcelona’s ability to break Getafe’s shape.  I’ve tried to demonstrate some of this through images of key moments throughout the match.  To see how some of these dynamics unfolded from a different perspective, see this excellent video from Allas on Barça’s formation.

The 2-3-5 was a formation that grew out of a period of time when the game was structured around attack.  As the game modernized, this intent became less and less pragmatic.  How is it possible for Guardiola to utilize key features from such an antiquated way of playing?

Ultimately, what makes this feasible now, what likely makes the Barça 2-3-5 very different from it’s ancestor formation, is the way Barcelona defends as a complete team unit and the multi-dimensional skill sets of the players on the team.

Guardiola shifted players off the backline to implement a two man unit.  But he never reduced the number of defenders.  The team still defended with ten outfield players.  Guardiola just shifted where they were positioned on average.  This involved real risk as the last line of defense was only two men.  But Guardiola was willing to absorb those risks in order to gain other advantages.

How can Barça play this way?  The sequence below summarizes for me how they can do so.

Barcelona in Defence: Balanced in Zones Without the Ball-All Getafe Players Marked

Barça lose the ball.  But look at how well organized they immediately become out of possession.  They are arranged in three clear banks and arranged in zones that cover the pitch.  Every Getafe player is marked.  Busquets pressures the ball.  Another midfielder makes a run to provide a passing option but Xavi is tracking him.

Another important feature to this image is Sanchez and Messi’s positioning.  They can see that even though Busquets is pressuring alone, Getafe are having difficulty advancing the ball.  Rather than retreating to hunt for the ball both stay on their players and wait.  Take note of where Sanchez is positioned in particular.

Messi Joins Busquets to Pressure Ball; Sanchez Adjusts Position to Anticipate Back Pass to Keeper

When Busquets hounds the man with the ball deep enough Messi springs to press the ball as well.  Since every outlet is marked the midfielder is forced into a back pass to the CB that Messi had been marking.  Once he does that Messi then attacks in defense to try to dispossess the ball.

Consider what has just happened.  While Barcelona haven’t recovered the ball they’ve not only forced it backwards but even more importantly taken it away from a midfielder and forced it to a CB, a player who is likely mush less skilled on the ball.  The defensive attack then starts on the CB.  In essence, Barça have systematically decreased Getafe’s ability to retain possession despite playing a very conservative back pass.

Notice how the rest of the defense, sensing Getafe is in danger, stay on their marks.  Barça usually defend by hunting in packs.  In this instance it’s not necessary.

Finally, notice how Sanchez has changed his positioning on his marker.  Reading the play develop Sanchez gets behind his marker slightly and at an angle towards goal.  In essence, Sanchez can already see what’s going to happen next before it does.

Under Pressure Getafe CB Turns to Make Safe Back Pass but Sanchez Already Making Run to Intercept Pass

Uncomfortable on the ball with Messi pressing him, the Getafe CB turns back towards goal. But Sanchez, having already read the probability of a back pass to the keeper is already started a dead sprint aimed at the passing lane.  This is the kind of intelligent, insight into the game that Barça possesses throughout its squad and it’s critical to how they can defend so efficiently through anticipation and reading the game.

Sanchez Nearly Intercepts Pass via Anticipation; Coordinated Team Pressure Forces Getafe in a Turnover

The ball is played back to the keeper but due to Sanchez’s read of the back pass before it happened the keeper is under great duress.  Sanchez uses his pace to close space and just misses the ball.  Getafe’s L CB – the player Sanchez had been marking – is now open for a pass.  But the keeper is under so much pressure that he doesn’t have time to find the open man.  In addition, Barça have systematically forced players with poorer ball skills to retain possession for Getafe.  The keeper’s only interest now is to boot the ball away so Sanchez doesn’t strip him of the ball so close to goal.  Ultimately this leads to a turnover.  Barça get the regain possession.

Barça may have been utilizing a 2-3-5 formation.  But doesn’t mean they are playing with only two defenders.  So many players can be sent into attack in the context of the modern game and the way it’s played because all of those attackers also read the game and defend vigorously the second possession is lost.

The End

High performance systems integrate their structure and dynamics cohesively so that their components add up to be more than the “sum of their parts.” Structure and dynamics feed into the other.  This is central to the Barcelona system as well.  How Guardiola implements these features varies from match to match depending on requirements.  Against Getafe he expanded his level of innovation by drawing on something very old:  “reverting the pyramid” back to a 2-3-5 formation that hasn’t been played in decades.  But rather than simply mimicking the past he reinterpreted it and made it new and relevant to the modern game.

We often believe that tradition and innovation are in opposition.  But often they aren’t.  Or at least they don’t need to be.  Many of the same needs and goals that drove the past echo today.  We can re-appropriate those yearning to make things new.  That’s what imagination can do when it’s coupled with deep understanding.

Experimentation isn’t an aside for Barcelona.  It’s at the core of how they function.  The system is set up on principles but how those principles are implemented can vary widely.  Guardiola learns and improves the team through an evolutionary series of trial and error.  Not all experiments work – but they form lessons.  Getafe was one of those experiments, one that was successful in particularly interesting ways.

It’s interesting to see this level of experimentation happen at this time of year.  Certainly it was in part driven by need (injury and suspensions).  But Guardiola often looks to push creativity when Barça is going to face it’s most difficult challenges.  Often he does this with the Clásico in mind.

The last time he undertook this level of experimentation was probably the match vs. Rayo Vallecano in the first half of the season where Barça moved through three different formations without making any substitutes.  That match formed the template for how the team would play against  Real Madrid at the Bernabeu shortly after.  We may very well see Guardiola implement elements he experimented with in the Getafe match against Chelsea and the next Clásico.

(1)  Wilson, Jonathan.  Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics.  Orion Books.  London.  2009.

 

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Barcelona-Milan Champions League Tactical Preview: The Midfield Battle

Barcelona is a side that seeks to control midfield by dominating the ball and wants to play through the center.  One of Milan’s great strengths is their defensive solidity in midfield and the resistance they offer through the spine of their side.  It is this direct contrast that is one of the major factors that makes the Barcelona-Milan Champions League tie particularly interesting.  Whoever wins this battle in midfield will likely be the side that progresses.

Milan’s Midfield In Defense

Since taking over Massimiliano Allegri has changed the structure and orientation of the Milan midfield, particularly this season.  The holding midfield role was radically changed with the departure of Andrea Pirlo.  In general, Allegri looks to play a defensive minded midfielder in the deep position now.  Allegri also changed the orientation of the 10 position in very interesting ways.  Milan plays a 4-4-2 diamond formation.  This formation is well demonstrated in the two images below from the second leg of Milan’s Champion’s League tie with Arsenal:

Milan's 4-4-2 Diamond Formation

In this structure the player at the tip of the diamond is often required to be the most creative player on the pitch.  In fact, in this formation that player at the tip of the diamond often carries an enormous proportion of the burden to create.

In Allegri’s formation however, he has reimagined how this player can function depending on the opponent.  Rather than being the quintessential trequarista linking midfield to the attack, the Milan 10 is now often a defensively oriented player with a high work rate who will look to pressure the ball in defense and utilize athleticism in attack.  Against certain opponents Allegri will utilize Seedorf or Robinho at the 10.  But often Allegri’s first choice player at the tip of his diamond has often been Kevin Prince Boateng.  (It was Boateng who played this position against Barca during the CL qualifying round.) Until very recently Boateng was out for an extended time due to injury.  In his place  Urby Emanuelson often assumed the 10.  While a more attacking player than Boateng, Emanuelson is far from the kind of creative force the 10 position has been conceptualized as being.

How does Milan afford to play a 4-4-2 diamond without necessarily fielding a true creative trequarista?  This is where Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s versatility and diverse skill set is so vital to Milan.  It is often Ibrahimovic how will take on the responsibility of either developing scoring opportunities for himself out of little (e.g. his second goal vs. Roma this past weekend) or takes on the responsibility of creating for his teammates.  Though he has the build of a classic target man, Ibrahimovic often drops deep for Milan and plays away from goal, creating danger from between the lines.

In Allegri’s system, midfield often becomes a zone oriented around work rate, industry, steel and defense while the creativity largely comes from the front line attackers.  In turn, the front line attackers have fewer defensive responsibilities.  It’s this symbiosis which helps make Milan function organically.  Now this isn’t always the case – Milan certainly have options and flexibility and can add creativity when needed.  But they do regularly play in defensively structured fashion through midfield.

Creating the ability to play this way makes a great deal of sense for Allegri.  Sides in Serie often play relatively narrowly.  And Milan’s system reflects a response to this tendency.  Most sides today play in four bands (e.g. 4-2-3-1 forms four distinct lines).  Milan’s system often segregates into five bands in defense.  Their 4-2-4 diamond is more precisely a 4-1-2-1-2.  When coupled with Allegri’s reorientation of midfield towards work rate and defense this formation creates tremendous defensive activity and density through the middle across the entire pitch.

The holding midfield occupies the space between the defensive line and midfield.  The nominal 10 almost functions like a holding player between the forward line and midfield.  Importantly, the two lateral midfielders pinch in very centrally to play along the interior rather than on the flanks (this is the major difference between the 4-4-2 and the 4-4-2 diamond).

While this change may seem pedestrian it’s been critical to Milan’s success under Allegri.  Milan’s vitality in midfield allows it to create defensive solidity without needing to defend deep and maintain a rigid shape (compare how Milan are able to play tactically vs. Napoli for example).  At the same time it allows them to create pressure across the central column of play while not having to play their backline positioned very high.  In other words, they are well suited to defend against sides that utilize attacking formations that are narrow in orientation (e.g. The 4-3-2-1 “christmas tree” formation).

The Barcelona Connection

Milan concentrate players along a central column that extends vertically along the pitch from the midfield circle to goal.  That central column is exactly the space through the middle that Barcelona often feels most comfortably playing through.  This is the challenge in this tie that the blaugrana face.  They are up against an opponent that has developed a system designed to stop attacking thrusts through the very region of the pitch that Barca are strongest through.

For example, when Messi drops deep into midfield  Barcelona often develops a 4 vs 3 or even 4 vs 2 numerical advantage in midfield.  If the opposition has a fullback track Messi they can retain numerical balance-but they do so at the cost of their backline losing shape and developing gaps.

But against Milan the dynamic is completely different.  At baseline it is Milan that has numerical advantage in midfield 4 vs. 3.  When Messi drops Barca won’t achieve numerical advantage – they will only develop numerical equivalence.

All Formations Involve Trade Offs

Above I’ve detailed many of the strengths that Allegri’s system creates.  It can create significant advantages for Milan, particularly in Serie A, because it creates density down the spine helping them thwart attacks through the middle and do so without needing to defend deep.  By not needing to defend deep Milan is in turn able to augment their own  attack (e.g. Involvement of full backs; Thiago Silva’s long passing,etc)

However, all systems involve trade offs.  And Milan’s strength along the spine comes at the cost of relative vulnerabilities down the flanks.

The main natural source of width Milan have comes from their full backs.  This is not only the case in attack – but also in defense.  The lateral midfielders pinch in to the middle rather than play as true wingers on the flanks.  Allegri seeks to minimize this deficiency by utilizing players with very high work rates at the lateral midfield positions (one of the reasons why Nocerino has been such a vital player for them this season and why they focused on obtaining Emanuelson last season).  However, no player can be positioned in two places at once.  And Milan’s structure is vulnerable to leaving space open in wide positions both in front of and behind the full backs.

One of the most interesting stories in Serie A this season has been the way in which Antonio Conte has looked to create a system which will attack Milan along their weaker points.  Conte has emphasized width in his system (Ironically this is why Pirlo fits so wonderfully at Juve now – Pirlo’s long passes wide are an ideal way to attack Milan).  Juve has played a 4-1-4-1/4-2-4 type of formation often and against Milan has also utilized a 3-5-2 type formation.  The obective is to spread play wide to prevent Milan from concentrating their resources the way Allegri wants.  Barcelona can learn useful lessons from those kinds of models in this tie.

Breaking Milan’s Structure

In order to maximize their chances of beating Milan, Barca must look to exploit Milan along the flanks.  If they do this the following will happen.  Milan’s lateral midfielders will be forced to spread wide to defend lateral attacks.  When they spread wide Milan’s midfield diamond – a key shape to their structure and play – will break.  Rather than an organized diamond that clusters through the middle their midfield can be reduced to a linear formation, one that will have gaps in it.  This in turn will open up the middle for Barca to play through.

In other words Barca needs to start and focus their attacks first from wide positions rather than building up play through from the back through the middle.  Ultimately to play through the middle in dangerous positions Barca first needs to attack wide.  This is critical.  If Barca don’t do this Milan will be able to maintain a tightly packed midfield diamond, a shape that will be very difficult to play through, even if Barca elect themselves to play a 3-4-3.

The key in this tie is to drag the Milan lateral midfielders or the Milan holding midfielder wide.  Force them to the flanks and the middle will open.  If the the Milan lateral midfielders don’t move wide or are late doing so Barcelona need to continue to push their attack down the flanks as dangerous opportunities will develop because the Milan full backs will be isolated by themselves in space.

I mentioned Juventus’s approach prior.  Due to differences in systems Juve isn’t the ideal model for Barcelona.  Another extremely insightful match that Barca can learn from is the second leg of the tie Milan played vs Arsenal in the last round of the CL.  Milan won the first leg at the San Siro convincingly 4-0 only to see Arsenal nearly reverse the tie at the Emirates 3-0.  Wenger implemented an extremely intelligent plan for that second match.  He made sure Arsenal played “outside in” rather than trying to force their way through the middle to Robin van Persie.

Milan-Arsenal

Let’s take another look at an image I posted above:

Milan's 4-4-2 Diamond Formation

I showed this image prior because it well illustrated Milan’s formation, with the clustering of the midfield in relatively narrow midfield diamond.  This same image also shows the vulnerability Milan can have to balls played rapidly to wide positions.

In the image above notice how wide open in space Walcott is (lower edge of image).  The left sided midfielder in the diamond was pinching in centrally.  The L FB Mesbah is playing deep.  Walcott positions himself in the open space between them.  When Walcott gets the ball and attacks Emanuelson is forced to try to recover by running.  But he has so far to go that he can’t actively engage in defending wide.  This essentially means that Mesbah is isolated 1 vs. 1 with Walcott as the CB has to mark the striker.

Compare the space Walcott has to use to the Arsenal players in the center who are all tightly marked in compressed space.  Here’s a closer view of how much space Walcott finds wide and how far the midfielder needs to run to try to mark him:

Walcott Open in Space Wide

Because the midfielder is late to cover Walcott continues to press his advantage driving down the flank at the L FB who retreats deep as he knows he has no help along the flank.  This ultimately creates this situation:

Attack from Wide Force Milan to Lose Shape in Middle

Notice what has happened.  The L midfielder is unable to catch up with the play.  Instead van Bommel moves wide to try to double mark the ball.  This now leaves Rosicky alone in space in the middle. Silva drops deep so rather than driving to goal Rosicky stays in space and looks for the pull back.

Walcott puts in a mediocre ball into the box. However Silva puts a poor clearance on the ball and Rosicky, unmarked, is able to easily intercept it.

Rosicky Open in Middle Due to Attack from Wide

Rosicky, wide open in space with the ball, easily slots in Arsenal’s second goal of the match.  The goal was primarily due to Silva’s clearance.  But Arsenal’s manipulation of space is why Rosicky was even in the position to intercept the ball and score so easily.

This kind of “outside in” play is imperative against Milan.  Playing directly through the middle can be very difficult due to the narrow defensive formation.  Here’s an example of how narrow Milan can become in midfield:

Milan Extremely Narrow Centrally in Midfield

On the right, for Barcelona, Dani Alves and/or Sanchez will need to create similar havoc to open up space for Messi and Xavi centrally.

Arsenal utilized this strategy all match long and it was critical to why they were able to beat Milan so decisively in this match.  Here’s another example from the opposite flank:

Gervinho Open in Space Wide on Left Flank

Here the ball is played out to Gervinho on the left flank.  He is free in almost the same space Walcott was on the other flank.  Notice how centrally the R midfielder Noverino (#22) is positioned.  He is attempting to stay central because van Persie has dropped deep between the lines.  By dropping deep van Persie and Rosicky create a potential 2 vs. 2 against van Bommel.  Nocerino is trying to prevent this.  And if the ball was played through the middle he would be well positioned to stop an attack.  But when the ball is played wide he is forced to try to recover position and support Abate.

El Sharawy tries to track back but he has too much ground to cover from his attacking position.  The R FB Abate is again forced to concede space and retreat as he is functionally isolated against the ball because Nocerino isn’t in position to defend wide.  Ultimately this leads to a dangerous opportunity:

Attack from Left Flank Opens Space for Striker Centrally

Gervinho drives the ball at the Milan R FB. Gibbs intelligently overlaps from his L FB position.  This means that even when Nocerino comes over to close down the ball Milan only have a 2 vs. 2 on the flank.  Gervinho has the option to play the ball to the wide open Gibbs to further exploit open space on the flank.  Instead, however, he plays the ball into the middle.  Gervinho’s run forces Nocerino wide. Van Persie drifts into the space Nocerino had been marking wide of van Bommel.  Van Persie comes very close to scoring with the open look from middle.

Again, notice how playing the ball wide forces the Milan midfield diamond to lose shape which in turn opens up the middle – the very area the midfield diamond is designed to fortify in defense.  Iniesta can create tremendous problems off the left by running at defenders in a similar fashion.  He needs to play aggressively on that side of the pitch.

Milan can be particularly vulnerable to attacks from wide in transition situations:

Milan Vulnerable to Counter Attack from Wide

Above notice how Gervinho has stationed himself deep of both the Milan R FB and R lateral midfielder.  Arsenal win the ball in the middle and quickly play the ball wide.

Wide Attacker Open in Space

This attack led to an opportunity that nearly resulted in Arsenal scoring its 4th goal and leveling the tie.  While Barca is likely to dominate possession when they do press and win the ball back they should look to play the ball out wide quickly.

The End

This wasn’t intended to be a comprehensive preview.  There are obviously many other factors that will determine the outcome of the match.  But I wanted to highlight in detail the factor that I thought is particularly critical to Barcelona’s potential success.

Barca’s natural style of play is to build out from the back and through the middle.  The flanks are often used as outlets to relieve pressure.  Barcelona can’t fall into the trap of relying too much on what they feel most comfortable with.  Against most sides they can get away with that just due to sheer talent.  But Milan is particularly set up to stop that kind of play through the center.

Yes Barca beat Milan in the opening round of the CL and took the group.  But we know how quickly things can change in the later rounds of the CL.  Milan has grown.  They are a better team now than they were earlier this season.  They are missing key players due to injury – but as a unit they have coalesced.

They key here for Barcelona is to make the pitch large to break Milan’s midfield shape.  Midfield is the region where Milan seek to stay compact.  Breaking that shape will require the combination of wide play and rapid ball circulation to the flanks, coupled with direct runs with the ball in space.  If Alexis Sanchez drifts in off the right flank when Messi drops deep Alves will need to try to force two players to mark him by creating havoc down that flank.  On the left, with Puyol at LB, the left sided central midfielder for Barca will need to move wide to support the LW to generate potential 2 vs 1 against the Milan RB.

Posted in Tactics26 Comments

Match Review: Villareal 0 – 0 Barcelona: Missing Opportunities

Barcelona opened the current La Liga season in spectacular fashion defeating a then highly promising Villareal side 5-0. Utilizing a new formation and integrating new players, Barca produced football that was both remarkably fluid and effective. Even within the standards of the Guardiola-era Barcelona project, that match marked a noteworthy highlight of dynamic, attacking play.

Five months later, Barcelona was thwarted by a doggedly determined Villareal team, one that has itself been depleted by players lost to injury and sales since that first Liga match. Villareal deserves a great deal of praise for their disciplined, hard working performance, particularly given the recent context surrounding the club (the impending sale of Nilmar despite lack of depth at the striker position in particular the most recent difficulty). First and foremost, the story of this match was Villareal earning a favorable result.

Fabregas Sums Up the Mood (Photo: Courtesy FC Barcelona)

Barcelona, however, was clearly far from their best and not remotely close to operating at the level they achieved in the 5-0 match against the Yellow Submarine that opened the season. The 0-0 draw now sees Barcelona fall seven points back in the Liga race.

The debate for why Barcelona dropped points in this match and their recurring problems away from home will be one that will be vigorously debated from now all the way until the beginning of next season. However, one of the features of this match that I found particularly striking was the continuity in the quality of performance between this match the mid-week match against Real Madrid. Interestingly, this week demonstrated a Barcelona side exhibiting certain negative characteristics both home and away. We’ll examine a few of the factors which may have come in play in this review.

Context: Injuries and Lineup

As has been the story for much of this season for Barcelona, injuries set the context for how they would need to structure their play. With the injuries to Iniesta and Sanchez in the mid-week Clasico Barca entered this match with only twelve outfield player.

Unfortunately, in the morning it became known that Pedro has picked up a hamstring injury in training Friday and would be unavailable. In an emergency measure, Barcelona re-evaluated the Sanchez and determined that he could play with pain killers and was activated as “fit” to play.

As such, Barcelona entered this match with eleven healthy first team outfield players. That is an extraordinary figure, particularly given the importance of this match. Guardiola filled out his bench with newly promoted Isaac Cuenca and B team players. However, because the team had such little margin for error in the Liga race, using young players in a match on the road was going to be difficult.

Over the course of the season we’ve become almost acclimated, perhaps numbed, to the team playing short. But in this match the team literally came close to having the bare minimum number of experienced outfield players. The most experienced fully healthy player on the bench was Thiago, a young player himself newly promoted at the start of this season.

Mascherano's Goal Line Clearance (Courtesy: FC Barcelona)

What intensified this situation was the fact that Barca played a grueling mid-week match against their biggest rivals only three days prior, a match in which the team was already looking visibly fatigued.

Lineup

Given the lack of options, Guardiola’s initial line up almost wrote itself. He again elected to use the core group of players who were both healthiest and most experienced, a cohort which has been playing consistently every three days: Valdes/ Alves/ Puyol/ Pique/ Abidal/ Xavi/ Busquets/ Mascherano/Cesc Messi/ Adriano.

The only real surprise in the line up was Guardiola electing not to start Thiago. In the Madrid match, Barcelona looked fatigued in midfield, Fabregas in particular. Against Villareal, Guardiola elected to utilize that core midfield again, playing Fabregas, Xavi, and Busquets once more and adding Mascherano. Playing Busquets and Mascherano together rather than installing Thiago likely was motivated by playing away from home against a team that can be dangerous in possession.

The “Right” Tactics

The key to beating the Villareal system in terms of tactics is utilizing width. Villareal’s dynamic 4-4-2 requires the advanced midfielders, the interiores, to do double duty as wingers in a 4-4-2 when out of possession and as midfielders in a 4-2-2-2 when in possession. Attacking Villareal through width stretches the interiores and breaks the tight balance Villareal seeks to maintain. This is particularly true in transitions situations.

Guardiola utilized a 3-5-2/3-4-3 type of formation in this match with Alves and Adriano opening as modified wingers.

Tactically, this was the right formation in many regards. Adriano and Alves were both available as outlets for the ball. Adriano was the player who had the most time and space on the ball, often finding himself largely free on the pitch.

Unfortunately Tactics Alone Aren’t Enough

While the system Guardiola chose was fundamentally sound, his team lacked the dynamism needed to implement it successfully.

Again, as in the mid-week match against Madrid, Barcelona’s off the ball movement, ball circulation and pressing were severely lacking. At their best Barcelona play with a precision and crispness that are underpinned by dynami movement. It is that dynamic movement which allows a team with limited physicality to thrive and produce breath taking football. But when the movement is missing the Barcelona system breaks down.

Still Making Runs (Courtesy: FC Barcelona)

Against Villareal this breakdown was best exemplified by the way the defense operated in the first half. Barcelona utilized a three man backline for most of the first half. While there is nothing “new” about using a three man backline and other teams do so now, the way Barcelona has implemented its three man backline is very innovative.

Rather than clustering the three center backs together towards the center of the pitch, Barca spread their lateral center backs wide and actively incorporate the entire backline into the possession game and “attack.” For example, in this match against Villareal, Puyol, the nominal R lateral CB, not only played close to the touchline but also got up field high almost as an attacking full back. Without these innovations, the three man backline can create significant inefficiencies.

There are of course trades offs in the way Barca structures its back three. Most important of these is the following. By spreading the lateral CBs so wide, large channels are opened up between the CB and the lateral defenders. The three backs aren’t able to defend as a tightly knit “wall” as other three man backlines do.

This large channels mean that the Barca three man backline can only provide solidity through energetic movement, pace and flawless positional reading of the game at the back. Even more importantly the backline can only remain intact if the entire team defends as a highly coordinated unit, pressuring the ball and winning it back.

Over and over in the first half, Barcelona lacked the dynamism to defend as it does when it is at its best. The advanced defenders didn’t pressure the ball aggressively enough. This left the back three exposed. This was made worse by a lack of sharpness at the back.

In turn Villareal was able to generate multiple dangerous chances in the first half that were stopped only by a very last minute intervention. Eric Abidal repeatedly made critical defensive plays to thwart dangerous attacks, often as the last defender.

If there was one play that captured the match in microcosm for me it was on in which Villareal attacked on a counter and Puyol had to close space to defend. Villareal’s attack stalled for a moment from a poor touch and Puyol had the opportunity to break up the attack. It wasn’t the easiest of chances but one he makes consistently. But in this game Puyol made a meal of the clearance and the Villareal regained its counter. It was only through a last minute intervention from a Abidal that a clear goal scoring chance was thwarted.

I bring this instance up not as a criticism of Puyol. To the contrary I bring it up for what it says about the state of the team as a whole. There’s no question about the Captain’s heart or his desire to to compete. There is no question that Puyol wanted to get to the ball and suffocate the developing danger. But he was simply a step slow in closing down the play – a step he usually has when he’s playing as we expect him to. Against Villareal, that step simply wasn’t there.

And again, this wasn’t only an issue of the backline or playing three at the back. Barcelona played three at the back against Villareal in their first encounter this season and dominated. When the team is right and playing at a high level, they are able to play three at the back and maintain solidity, as was well demonstrated by the first Clasico of this season at the Bernabeu.

In this second match against Villreal, however, the team’s advanced pressure defense was slow as well and not nearly as dynamic as it should be. The net result of this was that the backline had to absorb more responsibility then they usually need to. In this regard many of the problems at the back were more symptoms than cause.

Guardiola adjusted for these difficulties by converting from three at the back to four at the back in the second half. This decreased the space between the channels in the backline. The extra defender provided more cover and Barca defended much more solidly in the second half. Interestingly, when Guardiola elected to sub on Sanchez to augment the attack he removed Pique from the match and moved Mascherano to CB alongside Puyol.

Playing three at the back has been a controversial and much focused on tactic from Guardiola, one that is still in evolution. But on the whole what we’ve seen can be summarized as follows. Playing three at the back gives Barcelona tremendous flexibility and adds significant richness to how they can organize possession and orchestrate the attack. However, the formation entails certain risks as well. On the whole the team can afford to take those risks when it is playing at its best. Under those circumstances the team is able to maintain defensive solidity against the best of sides. However, if the team isn’t operating at its highest level, three at the back leaves open vulnerabilities . In a sense, the team operates with less margin for error and less robustness with three at the back.

Villareal Simplify their Gameplan and Defend Solidly

Villareal can struggle in transition situations because their formation has to switch between a 4-2-2-2 in possession to a 4-4-2 in defense. If the opposition can play the ball out widely with speed after dispossessing Villareal then the only defender the Yellow Submarine may have is the full back, who himself is required to push up field in attack (this is a reason why Villareal often seems to struggle with Real Madrid-transition defense along the flanks).

Against Barcelona, the Yellow Submarine enjoy less possession then they are accustomed to. That hurts their style of play, but one of the side effects to this is that is also reduces the number of transition situations they find themselves in.

In this last match, Villareal stayed more organized in a 4-4-2 block and playing on the counter. The interiores stayed wide to defend and pulled centrally in mostly to counter.

This meant that Barcelona’s attack was faced with the task of breaking down Villreal’s organized block. Maintaining shape generally isn’t a real strength of Villareal’s, but in this match they did it well and worked extremely hard. They stayed compact and clotted the middle while also making sure to track Dani Alves on the right flank.

Barcelona Doesn’t Respond Adequately

Barcelona simply lacked the rapid ball circulation and off the ball movement needed to break this shape. As in the Real Madrid match, the Barca attack operated at too low a tempo and was too static.

Watching this match the recurring words that kept coming to mind was, “faster, faster, faster.” But they were never able to play the ball with the velocity they usually do. The extra energy and sharpness were missing.

These problems were compounded by a lack of precision. Barcelona’s pass accuracy in this match was only 84%. For comparison, in the first match against Villareal this season the team’s pass accuracy was 91%.

The Left Flank a Lost Opportunity

When teams focus on defending Barcelona it’s nearly impossible for them to defend all of the players that need to be marked while also controlling space. Trade offs have to be made. In this match Villareal made sure to keep shape in the center while also tracking Alves and then Sanchez on the right.

This approach worked well as those areas were heavily defended. But in doing so Villareal had to concede space along the left flank. This is a strategy we see teams take recurrently against Barcelona, particularly in the wake of Villa’s injury.

And in many ways it makes sense. Abidal is a great defensive LB – but he’s not going to make too many aggressive forward runs. With Villa injured long term, Pedro lost form and Iniesta being more comfortable in the center than on the flank, it’s the left flank that makes the most sense to concede.

However, this means that it is imperative for Barcelona to create damage out of that area. The left flank players are often the only ones on the entire Barcelona team who have time and space on the ball. This match was no different.

Adriano was the Barcelona player with the most time and space on the ball in an advanced position. Barcelona’s best chance to create danger and score was through him. Adriano’s shown that he’s more than capable of doing this with his runs and crosses. Unfortunately, Adriano didn’t read the match well and isolated himself. He stationed himself high up the pitch. This is his tactical role. However, in this match, Barcelona was never able to fully exert control of midfield through its precision passing game. As such, Adriano isolated himself and the game was determined behind him. And by staying high up the pitch and wide, he was unable to support the quality of the possession game.

In addition, Barcelona fell into a pattern they will revert to when they aren’t playing well – they tried to force the ball through the middle via Messi (and Fabregas too often).

But it was that left flank where the goal needed to come from. And this became all the more apparent when Tello entered the match. Substituted on with roughly fifteen minutes to play, B team winger Cristian Tello had an immediate impact on the match. With his pace and explosiveness he was able to beat the Villareal RB at will. In the brief period of time he was in the match, he generated a number of strong scoring opportunities and was the most dangerous player on the pitch. Unfortunately, Barcelona couldn’t convert those opportuities into an end product.

The left flank was open all game long. If there was one thing I hoped Pep would have done sooner was make adjustments to how the team was going to utilize the space in that area as that was the region where Barcelona could have found oxygen.

The Future? Tello An Electric Wire of a Player (Courtesy: FC Barcelona)

A Handful of Opportunities that Weren’t Finished

In the end, Barcelona had three to four terrific goal scoring opportunities – one to Messi and two to Fabregas in particular stand out– none of which were converted.

Messi’s chip was indicative of the entire match. That’s a shot we’ve seen him make over and over. This wasn’t a case where he forced the chip and the keeper was in position to anticipate it or defend it. The keeper was perfectly set up for a chip. Messi just missed – but not by much. That play was just emblematic of the lack of cutting edge the team demonstrated all night long.

Fabregas’s miss at the end of the game was a golden opportunity for the team to salvage three points from a poor performance. But Fabregas scuffed his shot on what was close to an open goal and sailed the ball well over the cross bar. It was the culmination of what was Fabregas’s worse game in the colors.

It’s easy to lament and say that the game was lost because of poor finishing. However, most matches can be chalked up to a team “not taking its chances.” Football however isn’t a game characterized by efficiency in scoring. Even players considered to be great finishers don’t come close to scoring on the vast majority of their opportunities. The primary factor that drives scoring isn’t necessarily high precision scoring – it’s generating a large number of high quality chances. Eventually a few will go in.

This game wasn’t simply decided by the team not finishing a handful of high quality opportunities. It was decided by the fact that they generated so few strong opportunities to score in the first place. When you do that every miss seems cataclysmic. But when Barca is playing well – we wouldn’t necessarily have paid so much attention to those three to four great chances not being finished because others would have been created and they would have scored on some of them.

Evaluation

Team: A very disappointing performance in what was a match they couldn’t afford to drop points in. The squad was off in most phases the match: defending, possession, transition and attack. These are matches that happen to most sides during the season. But given the context of La Liga, it was an off match which the team couldn’t afford to have.

Guardiola: Set out to play with the team’s preferred system of aggressive attacking on a night where his players just didn’t have it. Pep’s preference is to stick with his players and let them save close games. He’s been through so much with them and they’ve produced so many remarkable moments this makes sense. But it also means that he tends to leave changes for late. And this was a match in which earlier changes were probably warranted given the team’s lack of tempo and rhythm.

Valdes: Was strong when called upon, making several excellent saves when needed, particularly one off of a shot from Senna.

Alves: An off day to say the least for Dani. He played high up the pitch for much of the first half but simply didn’t contribute a great deal in possession. His passing and touch were curiously off. Just a bad match.

Puyol: Showed great heart and determination. And he didn’t play poorly in any way. But he was just playing a step slower then he usually does. At the same time a great deal was asked of him in this match – especially the amount of space he was responsible for defending in the first half. At the end of the Madrid match Puyol looked like he’d completely emptied the tank. It was surprising to see him start again today. But once Barca converted to a back four and he moved to CB from RB, he was solid again. Not a bad match from the Captain – more one that was strange to see in some moments.

Pique: Not his worst match of the season. But not nearly his best. This continues a concerning trend in Pique’s play this season. What makes this particularly disappointing that at 24 it is Pique who really needs to be shouldering more and more of the burden of the backline from Puyol and Abidal. Instead, it too often continues to be those two older defenders who have to support Pique. In a match of this importance the team needed much more from Pique. He needs to turn things around.

Abidal: A draw was very disappointing. The team couldn’t afford to drop two points. But perhaps the primary reason the match was a draw rather than a loss was Abidal’s play in the first half. He shut down multiple dangerous counters covering for other defenders either being in poor position or getting beat. At his age it feels like he’s getting better. Man of the match for making sure Barca escaped with at least one point.

Mascherano: Defended well and his flexibility allowed Guardiola to make needed changes and convert to four at the back to stabilize the defense. Started the game in the holding midfield spot where he played deep – deeper than Busquets usually does (which may have been due to the dangerous counters Villareal was generating). Was fine in possession playing a relatively conservative game (completed 85% of his passes). Brilliant goal line clearance off of a Villareal set piece saved a goal and potentially a loss.

Busquets: An ambiguous match. Generally did the things he always does well at a quality level: maintain ball possession, act as an outlet, circulate the ball. However, he wasn’t playing as a pure holding midfielder today. The team could have used some attacking thrust from Busquets. At this point, the opposition defense almost assumes Busquets will do little of direct danger. Xavi needed more help to shoulder the load of the attack.

Xavi: A strained performance. Frankly, he looked taxed and fatigued. That he was subbed off with 15 minutes remaining in a 0-0 match spoke volumes to where Xavi was physically. We often talk about Dani Alves’s remarkable work rate and stamina. But in many matches it is Xavi who runs the most on the team. It’s difficult to notice because Xavi doesn’t go on direct vertical runs. Instead he’s the player who is in near constant motion. As the central midfielder he constantly has to run and find space within the interior of the pitch both to control possession and to make himself available for the other players to pass to. Right now he looks like a tired player – much as he did in the second half against Madrid. One of the slight disappointments of this season has been the fact that despite bringing in Fabregas and promoting Thiago, Xavi isn’t receiving any more rest than he has in the past. Midfield was the area where Barca actually went out and built a significant amount of depth. But it hasn’t lessened the burden on Xavi.

Fabregas: What’s to say? A brilliant player who had one of those matches. He was just outright terrible in this match. It wasn’t even the missed shots on goal. Fabregas played a slow, lethargic game. And in some respects it’s difficult to blame him – he likely shouldn’t even have been out on the pitch as he looked exhausted against Madrid. It’s easy to forget, but Fabregas has played relatively little football over the past three seasons because he’s been recurrently injured. Right now it looks like he may be hitting a physical wall as he’s been playing every three days in multiple competition for an extended period of time. His touch and passing were errant in this match. And usually Fabregas is exemplary in his work rate. That too was absent. He just looked exhausted. Completed only 78% of his passes. While that wasn’t the lowest on the team (Messi-77%; Adriano 78%) one expects much more than a 78% pass accuracy rate from a Barcelona midfielder.

Messi: Not his match. With the line up Guardiola had to go with, the key question that was very evident was where would the goals come from? Ultimately, there were only two goal scoring threats on the pitch. This made it easy for Villareal to overplay the center – that was the region both Messi and Fabregas like to play through. Messi is used to this – but he also was a step off and didn’t have the dynamism in his play needed to break down a defense structured to make any player other than Messi beat them.

Adriano: Played too tactically if that makes sense. Stayed wide on the flank and high, but in doing so isolated himself from the game. His teammates should have gotten him the ball more. But he also needed to read what was going on and become more aggressive in making himself available. Instead he played a somewhat passive match. This is a difficult position for a player like Adriano to be in. He was the player with the most time and space on the ball. The attack needed to flow through him if only to start opening up other parts of the pitch. He needed to involve himself more directly. Instead he waited for his midfielders to find him and direct the ball to him. It never really happened.

Sanchez: Gamely tried to play despite a sprained shoulder which was ruling him out of the match prior to Pedro’s injury. Had limited influence on the match overall. He played a brilliantly 1-2 to Messi at the end of the match in space so tight it almost wasn’t there that almost won the team the match.

Thiago: Surprised to not see him start – which again shows that while Guardiola believes as much in young players as almost anyone in the world – he believes they have to be given responsibilities in controlled situations where they are in a position to thrive. Thiago started the first match Barca played against Villareal this season and played extremely well. But on the road, in late January, Guardiola elected to go with more experienced players. When he did come on in this match did well, adding movement to midfield.

Tello: While on the pitch Tello was perhaps the most dynamic attacking presence Barcelona had. Using his pace and skill on the ball, the winger was able to beat the Villareal defense repeatedly. It became apparent quickly that Villareal backline simply couldn’t cope with Tello physically. He added an element of explosiveness that Barelona have in limited supply and that quality significantly expanded the nature of the Barcelona attack. His entry marked the first time when Barcelona really started to exploit the open space Villareal was conceding on the left flank. While Adriano also has strong pace the difference on the left flank when Tello came on was that he used the ball to run at the defenders and make them defend in open space.

The End:

A lackluster display sees Barcelona dropping two very costly points sending them further behind the top of the table. Barcelona have now dropped more points away from home than they did all of last season. That’s a remarkable statistics. However, perhaps what’s even more concerning, is the echoes between this match and the midweek match against Madrid at home. Both home and away Barcelona played at a much lower pace, less precision and less cutting edge then we are accustomed to seeing them play with.

Watching the Madrid match mid-week, what really concerned me wasn’t even the result – it was the relatively lethargic way Barcelona played. It reminded me of the match last year the team played against Arsenal in the first leg of the CL and matches in the second half of the season where the team struggled to play with the verve and energy they did when they were at their best. It’s easy to forget after winning La Liga and the Champions League Trophy, but this Barca struggled at times in the second half of last season. And it was only after the players got a full two week break after wrapping up La Liga early that they returned to playing at their top form in the CL finals. That rest rejuvenated them and had them back to playing the dynamic football that no other team in the world can play.

Prior to this match against Villareal I wrote the following on twitter:

Cules aren’t going to want to hear this. But we are going to have to temper expectations over the next several weeks.

The fact is the schedule is going to be brutal and the team is down to 12 first team outfield players. That’s just an enormous difficulty.

If team drops points or doesn’t win – it’s likely going to be influenced by fatigue (physical & mental) more than lack of hunger & effort

Now, I thought this would be a difficult match after the gruelling mid-week match with Madrid, but I expected Barcelona to win this match against Villareal. I had no definitive idea that the team would drop points so soon. But the fact is, the team is in a very precarious situation right now in terms of depth and the risk was there for them to not be able to respond physically given the schedule. It just so happened that.

We’ll discuss Barcelona inconsistent form in detail for a long time. At their best, this Barcelona team is as good as any we’ve seen during Guardiola’s tenure. They are just not maintaining those lofty standards with the same regularity. And our inclination will be to find “the reason” for why the team hasn’t been as even as they have been the past three seasons. But with most complex occurrences, there likely isn’t any one reason. Injury, squad depth, lack of hunger, etc. are all possible and may all contribute. Reasons why the team was inconsistent in the beginning of the season may no longer hold now or may have changed in significance.

So in trying to understand what’s happening and why it is, there are three directions we need to follow. First, to figure out what the range of reasons are. Second, to try to determine the influence each of the factors have. Proportionality is critical to this kind of analysis because not all factors are likely to contribute equally. Third, how are these issues changing over time? As with many things, the entire picture will only be clarified with time.

For right now, to me, the issues which are most definitive just due to their factual nature is the sheer number of injuries and the number of available players. I’m not saying that is the only reason – but as far as I can say with any confidence – those seem to be significant drivers. As we know this team has struggled in February for form under Guardiola. The mid-week match against Madrid made me think that February may be coming early this season. And the most direct reason for this is likely the mounting injuries on a squad that is small at baseline.

The team has looked exhausted this week. Fabregas was subbed off against Madrid with the match hanging in the balance. Puyol looked a step slow against Villareal. Xavi looked tired against Madrid and was subbed off against Villreal. When was the last time Xavi was removed from a critical match which was tied? Guardiola doing so is remarkable.

Hopefully, this current stage of fatigue is only that – a stage the players are passing through. A temporary issue that will resolve. The team has dipped in form in the winter before only to return to its highest level of play. Unfortunately, in the recent past Barcelona played from the top of the table. The team didn’t drop so many points, particularly away, so early. That gave them a cushion they don’t have now.

Adding depth will be a challenge. The club has shown little desire to add players from the outside and the transfer window is more or less closed. As such we’ll have to hope for a rapid return to health, avoidance of future injuries and surprise contributions from the B team players.

Another factor which we’ll need to face and consider is a difficult one to deal with because there’s no way to “fix” it:  random chance.  What this Barcelona project has accomplished under Guardiola has been breathtaking.  And it’s breathtaking because it is so far out of the ordinary.  Watching this squad week in and out – it’s easy to forget that this simply isn’t normal.  No team is supposed to accomplish these things – never mind to do it for so long.  And part of what makes it so difficult to excel for this long is that football is a game that his influenced significantly by random chance.  To operate at the kind of level that this Barca has and to do so for so long means that you can’t be only slightly or even moderately better than the competition – you have to be significantly better.  If not then just by random chance something would interrupt your success.  This season – with the injuries – has that feeling.

To put this in perspective – the team that Barcelona is perhaps most often compared to is Sacchi’s brilliant Milan teams.  How many Serie titles did that side win?  One.  That’s it.  One domestic title.  People don’t realize that because what lasts in the football memory of the world is a combination of accomplishment and how a side plays.  But that a team as brilliant as that Milan side were to only win one Serie A title speaks so how difficult a task winning is at this level.

Many are already saying that the league is lost. This is simply not true. Until the math says otherwise – there is still a league to play for. This team will continue to push to win everything it can.  That is its history.

This is not to say that dropping points doesn’t hurt. It does. It hurts a great deal. But that doesn’t mean the table is set in concrete. All we can we can say definitively is that dropping those two points against Villareal decreases the teams probability of winning the league, perhaps significantly so. But that’s all we can discuss right now – probabilities. What makes sports so wonderful is that they aren’t predetermined. And remarkable things can happen. Especially with a group of individuals as remarkable as this Barcelona team is.
Visca Barca!

All Heart (Courtesy: FC Barcelona)

 

Posted in La Liga, Review156 Comments

Match Review Copa Del Rey: Barcelona 2 – 2 Madrid, 4 – 3 Aggregate: Simulation

Imagine if you could validly measure every dimension of football, every variable relevant to shaping the dynamics and outcomes of a match.  If so, you could build a model of the game and simulate matches in a computer with accuracy.

These kinds of computer simulators for football already exist in certain forms.  They are however very limited in utility and adoption because football is an extremely difficult sport to measure and quantify.  However, such simulations are commonplace in many different sectors of society, including other sports, such as American baseball.

So for a moment imagine that we could build this simulator and feed into it comprehensive, valid data.  This could be, in theory, all of the data from all matches each of the players on the teams of interest has played in his career.  You could then ask the simulator to predict what the results would be when the two teams play again.

When utilizing this simulator it would be meaningless to just run the simulation once, however.  Too many variables can change and too many different combinations are possible for one simulation to matter.  For example, a range of scores would be possible, some of them more likely to happen than others.  Just one trial would only give you a small slice of what was probable.

Instead what you do is to run the simulation many times. You would simulate the game at least 10,000 times.  Preferably you would simulate the game 100,000 times.  When you did that you wouldn’t get a single answer for what the score of the next match would be or which team would win.  Instead, you would get a distribution of possible scores for the next game.  You would get a distribution of probabilities for winning the next match and by how much.

Running this type of simulator 100,000 times you’d see a number of fascinating patterns emerge.  On the whole the best team would tend to win the majority of the time.  But the best team wouldn’t win all the time. At the extremes of the distributions, you’d see all sorts of strange scores and unlikely patterns of play.  Those strange games and scores would be low probability events – but they would still occur some of the time.  For example, in some of the matches you’d find that Xavi might complete 200 out of 200 passes.  In others Xavi might only complete 50 out of 100 passes.

And here we break from simulations and reenter life.  Ultimately, while you can simulate 100,000 games in a computer to see how the next game would unfold, what the scores of the next match would likely be and how often they would occur, in the real world you only play a match once.  The one game you play is only one instance of those 100,000 possible trials.  In a sense, this is what history is.  Our lives are the one trial that actually takes place out of all the ones that were possible.

And that’s the beauty of sports.  How games transpire, the nature of their play, the score, who wins – all of that is unknown and unwritten beforehand.  While we may be able to describe what’s probably going to happen – probability doesn’t tell you a great deal about any specific game in particular before its played. You can describe the overall distribution of possible games.  But you can’t locate where any one game is going to fall on that distribution. One of those unlikely games in the distribution may be the one that occurs next in the real world.  Getafe beating Barcelona 1-0 is a very low probability to occur if you simulate the game 100,000 times.  But in certain seasons in the real world, that’s exactly what you’ll get.

Here We Go Again

When you play a team over and over in a relatively short period of time you start moving away from single matches to a series of matches.  The nature of the competition changes.  Larger patterns start to emerge as the sample of matches grow.  At the same time, exceptions will also invariably pop up.  If you took the worst team in Europe and played them against the best team in Europe enough, eventually the worst team will obtain a result.  It’s just part of the distribution of possible outcomes.  Eventually it will happen if you play enough.  All sorts of things will happen if you play enough, in fact.

Given a 2 vs. 1 break, Fabregas and Messi will put the ball in the back of the net the overwhelming majority of chances.  But not every time.  Eventually an instance will occur when Fabregas will inexplicably pass the ball clumsily behind Messi to ruin the chance.  That too is part of the distribution of possible events in a match when you play a team over and over.

Barcelona and Madrid have now played ten Clasico matches over the past season and a half.  Barcelona has only lost once.  And that one match was a 1-0 defeat that was 0-0 at 90 minutes.  Barcelona have now not lost in the last seven Clasicos – that is a Barca club record.  And over this period of time, Barca have, overall, played football of tremendous quality.  It is difficult for a team to dominate any ten matches against another side to that degree.  It is truly extraordinary to do so when the other team is likely the second best team in the world.

In the face of that kind of substantive, prolonged success, the result of one match isn’t going to change that underlying dominance.  Success has to be earned on the pitch over a significant period of time. That means that Madrid have to show that they can beat Barcelona multiple times over a series of matches.

This was the mistake people made in interpreting the results of last years Copa Del Rey finals and this seasons Spanish Super Cup.  Those isolated results – those parts of the distribution of possible events – were over interpreted.  Rather than seeing them as possible events in a distribution of potential outcomes, they were interpreted through a narrative in which giving which Madrid had improves so much that they had “closed the gap” while Barcelona was purportedly taking a step back.

But those matches didn’t prove lasting.  They proved to be more the kinds of matches that will occur if two teams play enough.  No team – not even the best team in the world – can play at top form all of the time in every encounter.  There is going to be some kind of distribution of performance.

And for the most part, that’s likely what we saw in the second leg match of the Copa Del Rey quarter finals.  Overall, it was an extremely strange match, one that went through multiple phases and had little structure or coherence.

Madrid played an outstanding match.  Credit to them.  This was the best Clasico they’ve played under Mourinho. They played at the upper end of their distribution of best possible performances.  Indeed, this may have been the best match Madrid have played under Mourinho.  They forced much of the play, especially in the second half.

At the same time, Barcelona played towards the lower end of their distribution of possible performances.  Now much of this is due to the quality of competition Madrid provided.  But Barcelona’s odd performance went past the issue of the external competition alone.  There were significant internal issues.  For example, to open a match, when Dani Alves is making an extremely poor back passes under minimal pressure that Pique doesn’t bother to run for as it goes astray and the mishap provides Madrid with a clear shot on goal – that’s most directly related to an issue of Barcelona’s internal performance.

I’m going to focus first on those internal issues just to describe them briefly.  Please note, I’m not saying in any way that the match simply came down to Barcelona not playing well.  Madrid played an excellent match and pressed the initiative of play.  The point I’m trying to make is that the overall nature of the match and its odd form was the result of Madrid playing very well and Barca playing relatively poorly.  Both happened at the same time.  Both teams operated towards different ends of their distributions of possible performances.

Barca – Poor Dynamics:  Off the Ball Movement, Rapid Circulation and Pressing all Limited

Regardless of what formation Barcelona plays, the entire system is highly dependent on the players performing dynamically.  The keys to Barcelona being able to play their game are decisive off the ball movement, rapid ball circulation and high tempo pressing.  None of these qualities were present yesterday.

The lack of off the ball movement yesterday was perhaps the most telling and influential issue in the entire match.  Barcelona played an extremely static, lethargic match in which there simply wasn’t enough dynamism and tempo.

Barcelona had 66% possession in the first half.  But even on rewatching the match – it never felt like Barcelona controlled the ball to that degree.  That difference was due to a lack of coherence in possession.  Madrid did a wonderful job of pressing and doing so with great energy.  Barcelona however has faced many teams that press aggressively.

There’s a clear route to address this issue – dynamic off the ball movement to open space and recreate triangles in new areas as pressure develops.  The team has done this many times against different teams in the past – including against Madrid in the first Clasico played this season.

Barcelona simply didn’t do this at nearly the rate or with the effort they usually do it at, especially in midfield.  They were far more static than they usually are.  And off the ball movement is something that a team can control itself – it isn’t up to the opposition – it’s about workrate, energy and speed.

One of the major impacts this had was that Barcelona wasn’t able to build out play from the back.  While the defenders had poor to mediocre games with their passing, the midfielders didn’t move dynamically enough to provide outlets.

A moment that crystallized this for me was on when Puyol played the ball to Abidal on the left.  The backline was being pressed.  Abidal tries to send the ball back to Puyol and Puyol rushes his touch and is forced to kick the ball up field wildly. (It was remarkable how many times Barca broke with their system and tried to pay the ball long.)  The main problem in that situation was that Fabregas was simply standing in space watching the play.  Rather than running to the ball to provide a new triangle and outlet, Fabregas tried to stay in “open space.”  The problem was that the backline players couldn’t orchestrate build up to get players in open space the ball with consistency or quality (more on this later).  This isn’t an indictment of Fabregas, Puyol or Abidal.  It’s just an example.  Similar dynamics were in play with Xavi, Alves and Pique.

Without crisp off the ball movement, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to circulate the ball effectively.  At the same time, slow ball movement limits off the ball movement.  They are different parts to the same subsystem in the possession game.

What made this even worse was that Barcelona’s press also lacked dynamism.  A disproportionate amount of the defending was done by the back line.  And that was due to the fact that the more advanced players didn’t pressure the ball nearly as aggressively as they usually do.  Again – credit to Madrid as they moved the ball very quickly and used their pace to make the field large.  That said – there was something off with Barcelona on the night.  They played a relatively lethargic, static match in both phases.

Tactical Analysis

Barcelona Too Focused on Static Space

Ironically, part of this static play stemmed from how Barcelona set up tactically.  Madrid came out pressing high while also leaving their back line relatively deep.  They took a similar approach in the first Clasico of this season – only in that match the Madrid match was even more intense in the opening phase of the match.  As such, there was space available on the interior of Madrid’s defensive block.

Average Positions (Sourse: Opta)

What Xavi and Fabregas were doing was to station themselves inside of the open spaces in midfield behind Madrid’s forward waves of pressure.  A significant difference between this match and the Clasico in December at the Bernabeu was that Xavi and Fabregas didn’t drop back as deep or as frequently to help relieve pressure and build play.  Instead they prioritized finding space in midfield.

In some ways this made sense – if the back line and Busquets could get the ball forward Barcelona would find significant space and be able to attack rapidly behind the waves of advanced Madrid pressure.

The problem was that the passing of the backline was very poor all night long.  From that very first terrible pass Alves made – the defenders just didn’t circulate the ball well in the face of the very effective Madrid press.

What Barca needed to do was to drop the ball playing midfielders much more deeply and do so much more often to support build up in play.  This would have created more coherence in possession.  Instead, Barca prioritized keeping Xavi and Cesc in open space furhter up the pitch.

All of this was exacerbated by the loss of Iniesta.  In the last two Clasicos the left flank has been the one in which Barcelona was able to find the most time and space on the ball.  As such, the left flank served as an open outlet to relieve pressure as needed.  This is part of why Guardiola wanted to play Iniesta wide.

The same dynamics developed in this match.  Unfortunately, Iniesta getting hurt greatly altered how Barca could use the left flanks as an outlet to relieve pressure.  Pedro is still playing in very poor form.  And at baseline, retention of possession isn’t nearly as much part of his game as Iniesta’s.

Impatience

On the whole, Barcelona wound up getting caught up in a vicious cycle.  The prioritized having their central midfielders find space while the holding player and backline build up play.  When the ball did get to those midfielders they looked to attack the space in front of them.  Barcelona was extremely focused on trying to attack the space behind the Madrid defense.  Repeatedly they attempted to play the ball forward or long to Sanchez very quickly.

While this made sense from the standpoint of attacking space, one of the things that resulted was that Barca uncharacteristically played without enough patience.  In a sense, the team played too directly.  That is, the balance between direct and indirect play was thrown off.

This was damaging because it added a kind of openness to the game which clearly favored the tempo and style Madrid wanted to play through.  This is part of why Barca couldn’t control of tempo in the match like they usually do.

Shots on Goal (Source: Opta)

Part of this issue has to do with Cesc Fabregas.  Fabregas has been brilliant this season in the final third.  He’s thrived there.  But as a midfielder in deeper positions he’s had challenges playing the Barca possession game.  He often looks to play very direct passes.  At times that works well.  At other times though it leads to careless giveaways and even more importantly – slows ball circulation.  Cesc seems to be looking to pick out the most direct pass rather than the most fluid one touch pass and this slows down how fast he moves the ball.  He doesn’t “dwell” on the ball.  It’s just different from how Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and Thiago circulate the ball.

In a game like this one, what Barcelona needed in midfield – especially to protect the two goal lead – they needed more composure in midfield rather than forcing direct play to take advantage of space behind the Madrid line.

Madrid Changes Systems and Barca Doesn’t Adjust

Much will be made of the results of this match.  We’ll again hear refrains of Madrid “closing the gap,” etc.  This isn’t what makes this match noteworthy, however, from the Madrid perspective.

What makes this match notable for Madrid is that this is perhaps the first time they’ve played a game in which their system is built around the talents of Mesut Oezil.

This is a major transition for Madrid.  Even more than C.Ronaldo, in this Clasico, Madrid’s system was structured around Oezil.

What I mean by this is that this is the first match in which Mourinho has been willing to realign his team in ways which prioritize maximizing Oezil’s strengths while minimizing/ hiding his weaknesses by providing him protection through the roles of other players.

In the past, C. Ronaldo and Xabi Alonso were the ones around whom the Madrid system was structured.  Oezil was required to adjust his game to accommodate their strengths and weaknesses.

C.Ronaldo has improved significant in his areas of prior weakness.  His defending and work rate – especially against Barca – are significantly better.  This allows Mourinho different freedoms with his system.

Xabi Alonso is often described as Madrid’s “metronome.”  While Alonso has been a fine player for a long time, it’s simply not true for him to be considered the primary orchestrator of the Madrid attack.  Madrid are at their best when play is being run through Oezil – not Alonso.  It’s Oezil who plays in the style and in the space that provide a fulcrum for their attacking play.  Alonso’s skill sets are more supportive.  In addition, Alonso has had a relatively poor season so far.

Indeed, while many of the tactical challenges Mourinho has faced at Madrid have related to defense, what to do with Oezil has been a fundamental issue that he’s needed to address.  Oezils’ role was always going to be a defining factor.  For sometime Mourinho’s put the issue off.  Madrid were dominant enough against most sides to do so.  However, the challenges of beating Barcelona and an inconsistent season to date from Oezil pushed the issue to the forefront headed into this Clasico.

In this match – rather than trying to make Oezil into another player he isn’t or trying to make him cover for the limitations of other players – Mourinho – accepted Oezil for the player he is and created a system around him which would cover for his weaknesses.

Oezil is a fascinating player.  He does certain things at a truly world class level.  His vision, final pass and intelligent movement in the advanced third are tremendous.  But while he has good touch he doesn’t have great touch.  His dribbling is fair.  In addition, shielding the ball and holding it to retain possession aren’t strengths.  He really is a 10 rather, one who is at his best in advanced positions, rather than a central midfielder.

The lifeblood of Oezils’s game is finding space.  He’s brilliant at finding the interstices of a defense.  However, he is limited in his ability to create space for himself.  He needs other player to create space for him to enter.  And Barcelona have exploited this weakness to press Oezil out of matches over and over.

In this match Mourinho did two things to radically change Oezils’s role and the Madrid system.  First, he had Oezil start wide and gave him a highly free role from that right flank position.  Second, he played Kaka alongside him centrally.  Kaka’s role was very interesting.  One of his main functions in this match was to draw pressure away from Oezil.  In the past, when Oezil has played centrally against Barca, he’s had to play against Busquets and the Barca holding player has completely neutralized Oezil by preventing him from finding space.

Moving to the flank in a free role alongside another creator transformed how Oezil can operate against Barca.  Facing a defender who has to retain shape, Oezil was able to utilize his intelligent movement to find space.  Abidal as a LB cannot track Oezil across the pitch.  This meant that Oezil was free to come off the flank and move across multiple zones without a defender necessarily marking him.  In a sense, he turned the Barca LB position into one that wasn’t consistently facing an opposition attacker.  This turned that LB position into a redundant position (this is somewhat analagous to what Messi does to CB when playing as a false 9- they often wind up guarding no one).

In addition, when directly facing Oezil, Abidal was somewhat uncertain on how to play a wide creator whose game is built around subtle movement and vision in passing.  He looked surprised to be facing Oezil for through much of the first half and the unpredictability of his movement heightened this.

Oezil moved in a horizontal band from the left flank to the right in that free role.  Essentially he went where he could find space, dragging defenders with him or settling in open areas of the pitch.  He was Madrid’s most dangerous player for most of the match.

Madrid’s first goal exemplified this.  Pinto sends a poor clearance long to Xabi Alonso.  Xavi goes to pressure him.   Busquets is marking Granero centrally.  Abidal and Puyol are double marking C.Ronaldo.  Oezil subtly moves off the right touchline staying advanced of Fabregas and Pedro but deep of Busquets.  He’s found open space in the advanced third which has been created for him by Alonso, Granero and C. Ronaldo.

Because the Barca pressure is late to come, Alonso sends a simple ball to an open Oezil.  Free in space he Oezil has ample opportunity to send a perfectly waited through ball between Abidal and Puyol for C. Ronaldo to run onto.  The movement is very small.  It seems simple.  But it’s decisive when coupled with his vision.

In prior Clasicos, Oezil rarely had that kind of space.  He was the player being pressed and marked, most often by Busquets.

Unfortunately, Barca didn’t make effective adjustments to this new role for Oezil.  The thing that was needed was an extra holding midfielder.  That would have neutralized Oezil’s ability to find space.  Barca could have done this in several ways.  They could have had Xavi or Fabregas play deeper more consistently alongside Busquets.  This would have allowed them to better mark Oezil as he moved across midfield. Alternatively they could have taken off an advanced midfielder and played Mascherano.  Finally, they could have changed to three at the back withdrawing Alves deeper, shifting Abidal to L CB and taking off an ineffective Pique for Mascherano.

Playing Oezil as the nominal right winger also had the effect of having Oezil defend Barcelona’s most conservative player in attack.  This was a major benefit as Oezil is a limited defender who has been badly exposed by Barca in the past.  In addition, Oezil has fatigued quickly.  Defending Abidal helped him mask both of these limitations as the LB rarely got forward.  An interesting approach Guardiola could have taken would have been to move Abidal to CB and put Adriano in at LB.  This would have given Barcelona another ball playing outlet on the left flank to try to make up for Iniesta and would have forced Oezil to defend much more than he did.

It will be interesting to see if this match marks a turning point for Madrid where Oezil becomes the focus for how they structure their system against Barca or its only a temporary change Mourinho makes.  He’s had hesitancy committing to Oezil fully this season so this is something that will require time to clarify.  For example, when Di Maria returns how will he use Oezil?  Would he consider using Di Maria centrally in order to allow Oezil to retain his free flank role?  These are the kinds of issues that I’m referring to when I talk about the Madrid system being “built” around Oezil.  It entails major changes like moving Di Maria from his strongest position to accommodate Oezil.

Madrid in a 4-4-2

In the second half, Mourinho essentially played a 4-4-2 with the substitutions of Granero and Callejon.  C.Ronaldo and Benzema served as the strikers and Oezil retained his free, wide creator role.  This is a formation RM have never utilized against Barca under Mourinho.

In theory, it should have allowed Barca to dominate possession and control the flow of the match.  Barca had significant numerical advantage in midfield vs a 4-4-2.  Potentially 4 vs. 2.  But because of the problems Barca had with their passing from the backline and the overall team dynamics, this advantage didn’t materialize.

Fatigue?

This was a match in which Barcelona played without needed energy despite it being a Clasico.  In some ways it reminded me of the second La Liga match the two teams played last season. Barca went ahead in that match only to see Madrid equalize.  Barca was going through a bad stretch then suffering from injuries to the backline.   It was clear the team was fatigued and looking to simply get through the match without losing.

Part of what we saw may have simply been due to the team losing concentration during the second leg of a tie they felt comfortable they would take, especially after going up 2-0.  However, this team looked fatigued – similar to how they looked in the second half of last season and I do wonder if that may have been a factor as well in this match.  With the extremely small squad and accumulation of injuries the players are putting in a lot of minutes.  Just something to watch out for.  It’s almost February, a month when the team has frequently struggled for form.

Messi in Space

Madrid’s pressure defending worked very well this match.  And many are saying this match and set up represent a major tactical victory for Mourinho.  And as I’ve recounted, the system he developed produced a number of positive effects, ones that Guardiola will need to design a response to.

However, there still remains a major tactical issue that Madrid have not addressed – there was still significant room on the interior of their defensive block.  In fact, Messi was frequently able to find significant space to work within – as the first Barcelona goal demonstrated.

The fundamental issue still remains.  When Madrid press high they do not stay very compact.  That means there is space open within their defensive block.

In the first Clasico Barcelona exploited that space very well.  Tonight their off the ball movement and circulation weren’t adequate to use the space they were afforded.  In addition, the midfield didn’t provide quality service to the front line, Messi in particular.  It seems unlikely that Barca will consistently make these same mistake.

Ultimately, Messi was able to find room.  How you feel about the way Madrid played tonight as a long term solution partly depends on whether you think it’s a viable strategy long term to allow Messi to have space to operate.  To date, Mourinho has not devised a system in which Madrid press high and also cut off the interior spaces in which Messi thrives.  This is not a minor issue.

Player Evaluations

Team:  Inconsistent performance.  A few moments of pure brilliance put them into the position to win.  But they squandered a lead at home and didn’t play well overall.  In the end they saw through the needed result and did so under great distress.  That’s a credit to their experience and mental toughness.

Guardiola:  Kept his first team line up from the prior two Clasicos, slightly altering his formation compared to last match.  Probably should have made additional changes to counter Oezil’s new role and Madrid’s switch to a 4-4-2.  That said, he had very few options to change the match with his small bench, especially with the injuries to Iniesta and Sanchez.  Ultimately, he shepherded his team to the next round of the CdR against their biggest rivals.  And that was his job.

Pinto:  His shot stopping was phenomenal at times.  In many ways, saved the draw with his critical stops.  His distribution, while better than prior years, still can be problematic.  And in this match he put the team in danger several times and generally didn’t promote possession, often playing inaccurate balls long.

Alves:  Wildly inconsistent match.  Overall Alves was off – his passing was especially problematic.  Scored an absolute wonder goal that will be remembered for years.  Not Dani’s best day by a long shot.  But he provided brilliance when it was needed.

Pique:  Very poor match.  Poor passing and lapses in concentration.  Pique’s form this season is concerning.  He’s not as consistent as he was in the past.  And that’s a major problem for Barca as he should be in the process of taking over the mantle at the back from Puyol at this time.

Puyol:  As usual, the heart of the defense.  Gave his all on the pitch.  Defended nonstop making one critical intervention after another.  His passing wasn’t particularly strong however and that made building play difficult.  Tired in the second half significantly.  That showed on both of Madrid’s goals – especially the second. Had to dig deep to get through the match but as usual he led the team to the result they needed.  52 matches without a loss I believe.

Abidal:  Played both a solid and somewhat confused match.  When required to directly defend was generally fine.  But he wasn’t exactly sure how to approach defending Oezil wide. Could have done better tracking C. Ronaldo’s run on the goal.  Next match against Oezil he’ll be much more ready and prepared.

Busquets:  He was often left as the primary midfielder to build play.  This was a situation where he couldn’t only circulate the ball short as he was often closest to the backline.  Played well.  Him not marking Oezil was a significant problem.

Xavi:  The team didn’t run its play through Xavi enough.  They became too direct and impatient rather than working it through him as a central control point.  Part of this had to do with the team often building play from the back on the left via Fabregas.

Fabregas:  Not a good match.  He didn’t spend as much time in the final third as he usually gets to due to Barca’s issues in possession.  His play in central midfield to support possession hasn’t been of the quality anticipated or needed.  Often he looks to play the most direct pass.  This has certain advantages.  But in deeper positions the benefits are often more limited and it leads him to play “slow.”  He keeps looking for that direct outlet rather than circulating rapidly.  It’s just something he’s going to need to keep working on.  As good as he’s been – he’s still integrating.

Iniesta:  Played a key tactical role as a wide outlet to relieve pressure.  Without him filling that role the team tried to play through the middle too much.  The loss of his possession skills proved to a crucial, especially in the second half.  His loss to another hamstring injury – for whatever time it will be – is a significant blow.  He’s fundamental.  And the team cannot drop any points if they hope to take La Liga.

Sanchez:  Made some nice runs that came close to producing scores.  Not quite as good as he’s been over the past two months or so.  This may in part have been do to him moving to a wider right position.  Given how Alves was playing – the advanced right position had limited support.  His loss is also very problematic.  The team simply is running out of forwards and Alexis has been growing into a critical goal scorer and all around force.  He will be missed.

Messi:  In a poor match for the team overall, Messi was the team’s best player.  Created the decisive first goal out of nothing.  Brilliant pass after a brilliant run.  Only player in the world that could have created that score.  Earned the free kick that set up the second goal.  Made numerous dangerous runs.  Worked hard defensively.  Man of the match.

Pedro:  Came on for Iniesta on the left wing.  Finished his chance off Messi’s brilliant pass very calmly which was very good to see.  We got a glimpse of Pedro the natural goal scorer again.  However, outside of that shot, he had very little influence on the match which was disappointing.  Given Madrid’s pressure this wasn’t a match Barca could afford to have a player function in a relatively anonymous role.

Thiago:  Very difficult match for a young player to come into given its intensity and pressure.  Overall he played well.  With the injuries to Iniesta and Alexis Thiago is going to need to step up and play an expanded role.

Mascherano:  Not on for long but did very well while playing.  Made a few strong interventions.  Bringing him in earlier was probably a move Pep should have made.

The End:

Two legged ties are really one match of 180 minutes divided into two parts and locations.  And while this second leg didn’t see Barca at its best – they didn’t need to be.  Over the 180 minutes of the tie there was no question who the better team was.  And that team was the one that progressed.

Madrid played an excellent match. But that’s not enough. And given the level these two teams occupy moral victories really don’t amount to much.  For the second straight season Mourinho has used extremely conservative tactics in the home leg of a two match tie and it has been a tactical failure, putting his team in poor position to advance.  Rather than learn from last season, he reverted to what he’s most comfortable with in that first leg.

Overall, much will likely be made from this portion of the tie.  We’ll likely hear another swing in pronouncements about Madrid “cutting the gap,” etc. Too much is made from each one of these Clasicos.  Prior to the first meeting of the season Madrid was seen as an overwhelming favorite.  Two matches later Madrid were seen as completely overmatched.  This was never true.  This was just an overreaction and swing in opinion that wasn’t warranted.

This latest individual match was not one where any kind of new, definitive conclusions can be drawn from.  It was an strange match in many ways, one that doesn’t provide any clear indication of a fundamental change between these two sides.  The second leg of a tie often turns out differently than anticipated.  It’s just a very different dynamic from a Liga match or the first leg of the tie.

The real story between these two teams isn’t being told any longer on a match by match basis.  The story is contained in the larger set of encounters that’s taken place over the past season and a half.  It’s that larger sample of matches that gives the most clear account of what these teams are.

Barcelona’s objective in this match was to make sure they advance.  It wasn’t simple – Madrid played very well and showed great strength.  But ultimately Barcelona overcame the challenges Madrid posed and achieved that objective.  And to continue to produce needed results against the world’s second best side even when you aren’t playing at your best is quite a testament to how good this team is.   Over a long season producing these kinds of results in difficult matches, in matches where you aren’t at your best, is what grows into overall success.

Posted in Copa del Rey, Review158 Comments

Match Review – Madrid 1 – 2 Barcelona: False Equivalence

Matches between rivals are layered affairs.  Individual encounters add strata to the competitions preceding them.  Each match has an individual importance but there’s an additive effect that creates a larger history between them.

The life cycle of a rivalry is usually measured in years.  But Barcelona and Real Madrid no longer have the luxury of time.  The rivalry has taken on a frenetic quality with one match coming after another after another.  In this regard it’s difficult to interpret the result of any single match because it exists in a larger trajectory.  At the same time that trajectory itself is difficult to fully interpret because its individual episodes pass through at such a rapid rate obscuring the “larger story” developing.

In addition, while Barceolona has had a longer period of continuity, Madrid is still a team in growing into an identity.  Two narratives in particular inform this growth.

First the general notion that it’s “year two” which is the key for a Mourinho team, that it’s only in the second year under his command that a squad is fully imprinted with his tactical acumen.  Second, is a narrative that has been in development since the Copa Del Rey final last season, one which was accelerated greatly this summer headed into the Spanish Super Cup and then again headed into the first Clásico of the Liga season – Madrid are a team undergoing rapid improvement, a team that is “cutting the gap” with a Barcelona team that is taking a step back.

Indeed, if Madrid are in a rapid phase of ascension and progress within the larger trajectory linking these sides then interpreting any one match is particularly difficult.

Given these factors, what’s required is understanding each match on its own merits and connecting it with the ongoing trajectory between the sides.

The Copa Del Rey is the third most important competition of the season, one that many see as being of limited importance.  And unlike last season when Barça and Madrid met in the CDR finals, this years encounter takes place at the much earlier, less dramatic, quarterfinal stage.  Additionally, this match was only the first leg of the tie.  Given Madrid’s talent they are more than capable of recovering the advantage in the second leg and advancing.

As such, it’s possible to consider this latest Clásico as a relatively minor affair.  The series of encounters to come in La Liga and potentially in the Champions League still loom.

However, none of these matches exist in a truly independent form nor can they be wholly isolated from the series of encounters taking place both this season and in the recent past.  There’s an additive effect that each match has that interconnect them regardless of the competition they happen to transpire within.

We’ll have to wait until the second leg of the tie to fully assess where these teams are within the Copa Del Rey itself.  However, what made this match particularly interesting is that it added another data point to evaluate what these two teams are capable of and where they are in their respective evolutions.  Importantly, they provide a lens to better interpret the results of earlier encounters this season, particularly of the first Liga match at the Bernabeu, a match that was difficult to fully asses as it was the first true season meeting of these two sides.

Given the tactical advantage Guardiola created in the last meeting between these two sides, the focus of this match would be how Mourinho would respond.  For this reason, the changes Mourinho made will be a point of focus for this review.

Context:  The Last Clásico

In order to fully appreciate the scope of this particular Barcelona victory and where these two teams are with respect to each other it’s important to situate the match in context.  Coming into this much anticipated “year 2” under Mourinho, a narrative was constructed about how Madrid would focus its system and team identity around a muscular, direct game meticulously focused on high pressure and lightning fast transitions.  This system would not only be a pathway to victory, it would be a method that would meld the best of Mourinho tactical acumen with Madrid’s own rich history of confident, attacking football in which they are the side that proactively defines the match.

This new model was unveiled with much fanfare this summer in the Spanish Super Cup, a preseason competition in which Madrid indeed played well.  However, ultimately this model could not produce a result in that competition despite Barcelona lacking significant fitness.  As time has passed, this initial burst of attention and confidence in a Madrid that had “closed the gap” seems particularly strange because in the first Super Cup match Barça were playing without their central axis of plan as neither Xavi nor Busquets played.

Nonetheless, while Barcelona was victorious a second narrative emerged from that contest which roughly asserted that in fact despite losing Madrid had in fact “cut the gap” and was more or less even with Barcelona.  And as the season progressed this narrative gained support and credence.  Madrid played outstanding football in both La Liga and the Champions League, again building their play and perhaps even more importantly, their team identity under Mourinho around that system of intense high pressure and fast, direct attacks.

Mourinho himself seemed extremely confident of this new model of play as was evidenced by how Madrid approached the first Liga Clásico of this season.  Not only did Mourinho implement this aggressive, attack based system against Barça, he intensified it.  In the first Clásico Mourinho had Madrid press even higher and more aggressively than they have perhaps in any other match under his leadership.  Four Madrid players pressed the Barça backline and keeper.  The key player in this regard was Mesut Oezil who stepped forward from midfield to extremely high alongside the three forwards.

Unfortunately for Madrid, Pep Guardiola implemented tactical changes in that first Clásico that uncovered and amplified points of weakness in the Madrid system of high pressure.

As I’ve detailed here several times, Madrid high pressure is unusual because it is built around the pace of Madrid’s advanced players to close space through velocity.  In this system, Mourinho plays the backline more conservatively.  Rather than playing high up the pitch in proportion to the frontline, the backline stays comparatively deep to minimize the risk of getting beat in space behind them.  It’s still a “high” backline but just not as high as one would expect given how advanced the frontline pressure is.  What this means is that Madrid does not maximize how compact their defensive block plays.  This is unusual for a pressing team as pressure usually is very dependent on staying compact.

Against most teams this aggressive approach works very well and Madrid is able to steam roll over them.  However, against a team with the talent and technical skill on the ball that Barcelona have, this lack of compactness proved disastrous.  Barcelona pried open the Madrid defense by exploiting the interior space within the Madrid defensive block.

This problem was worsened by Mourinho’s specific tactics in the first Clásico.  Because Mourinho played so many players so high in defense, the Madrid block was even less compact than usual, with significant space open between the backline and midfield.  In addition, because Oezil was pressing so high Madrid effectively lost a defender in midfield.  In essence, if Barça could get by this first line of high pressure they would be able to find space inside the Madrid block and would have significant numerical superiority.

Guardiola implemented three tactical changes in that match which maximized the deficiencies in Mourinho’s tactics in that first Clásico.  First he deployed Messi as a true 10 rather than as a false 9.  This proved decisive in the first match.  It’s likely that Mourinho was planning on defending Messi in this match the way he has in the past – by having a CB step out high and follow him across the pitch.  By doing so Mourinho would be able to counteract Barça’s numerical superiority in midfield.  An extra defender would operate in the region drawn from the back.  This would help offset the loss of having a midfielder press very high up the pitch.

Mourinho’s strategy however only works if Messi is playing as a false 9.  It’s much less feasible if he’s playing as a 10.  This is why Guardiola changed Messi’s position.  Doing so seriously comprised Madrid’s ability to defend using the system they had developed since this past summer.  This touches on the second significant change Guardiola made in this match.  Guardiola played Alexis Sanchez as a lone striker up top in front of Messi.  Sanchez occupied two defenders and made it difficult for a CB to step out and mark Messi as Madrid has done in the past when pressing high.

The net result of these tactical changes was that Messi was positioned in the exact space where Madrid’s defensive block was most open and vulnerable.  The remarkable aspect of that first Clásico was that it was the match this season where Messi had perhaps the most space he’s enjoyed against any opponent.  This was exactly the kind of thing Mourinho was brought in to stop from happening.  And Madrid never made an appropriate defensive adjustment.  As such, though he didn’t score, Messi enjoyed significant freedom and became the hub of the Madrid attack.

Indeed, the net effect of Mourinho’s tactics in that first Clásico was the following.  Through high pressure he successfully forced Xavi, Busquets and Fabregas to have to drop deep to build play.  This drew them away from goal (or in Fabregas’s case forced him to run long distances to get to goal-which he ironically did to crushing effect on that third goal).  Getting Xavi away from goal is always a kind of tactical victory.  However, doing so came at an enormous price for Mourinho.  Because by adopting these tactics he left far too much interior room for Messi and Iniesta to exploit.  And it was ultimately those two players who dictated the match.

Against a lesser side this approach may have worked.  A lesser team may have had much more difficulty getting the ball out of their own third.  But that didn’t prove to be a too much of a problem for Barça outside of that initial early mistake from Valdes.  And once the ball was past that first wave of pressure Messi and Iniesta were free to create.  It was those two players more than Xavi who controlled the dynamics. (This speaks to what a devastating talent Messi is – his skill set is so rich that he can seamlessly step in and make up for one of the greatest central midfielders in the history of the game).  In some ways, that last Clásico was as impressive as the 5-0 Manita match from over a year before.

A remarkable aspect to that first match was how passive Mourinho was – he simply watched Messi and Iniesta freely dictate the match and made few substantive tactical changes to try to stop them.  It was as if he was almost stunned by what he was watching.  This wasn’t supposed to happen.  Not this year.  Not with this new Madrid system.

Madrid – Needed Adjustments

Given the problems Madrid had in defending Barça in that last Clásico, it was clear they needed to make adjustments.  Guardiola had taken the initiative in the prior match.  Now the onus was on Mourinho to respond tactically.

The key thing that clearly had to happen was that the Madrid block needed to become much more compact.  They could not afford to allow so much interior space to develop otherwise Messi would again dictate the match from an advanced position.

Mourinho had two primary choices to make his block more compact in this second Clásico.  First, he could elect to play his backline higher.  This would close the most open space Barça exploited in the prior contest.  This would however risk Madrid getting beat at the back, particularly with Sanchez’s pace.

Alternatively, Mourinho could pull back his high pressure, drawing his first line of defenders deeper to reduce the distance between them and the backline.  The problem with this approach is that it would make tactics based on high pressure impossible.  This would be a strategic concession to Guardiola.  After all, the Madrid system this season was focused on intense high pressure.  This was a major part of the team’s identity in “year 2” under Mourinho.  This was the major advancement and area of tactical progress and it was particularly geared to beating Barça.  Mourinho had implemented that system with vigor and commitment only a few weeks prior.

Ultimately, Mourinho elected to go the more conservative route, largely turning away from the system of high pressure that was underpinning the team Madrid were becoming.  He played the front line much deeper in defense and didn’t pressure nearly as high (despite Pinto being the keeper).  Madrid played a much more compact block stationed in the middle of the pitch.

A Return to the Trivote

Mourinho further buttressed these changes by altering personnel.  Part of the change in players was due to injury – but much of it was due to tactics, particularly in the key region of midfield.   This was interesting as well because the changes in how compact the block played could have allowed him to maintain.  It would have been reasonable to try to play Mesut Oezil again in a more conservative formation.  Staying more compact would have covered for many of Oezil’s defensive limitations.  However, Mourinho elected to go in almost the entirely opposite direction, returning Pepe to midfield and readopting the trivote formation he used last season as well.

Madrid’s three man defensive midfield was structured zonally with Pepe playing centrally, Alonso on the right of center and Diarra on the left.  Depending on where the ball was one of the three would look to pressure the Barça player in their respective zone.

Playing the trivote, however, involved a trade off.  While it provided more “steel” in midfield, it significantly worsened Madrid’s ability to maintain any kind of quality possession.  Pepe is a extremely poor passer and Diarra is very limited as well.  That meant that all possession had to run through Alonso and that isn’t his strength as his job is to spray passes quickly rather than control a match with the ball.  In turn, this left the Madrid front line starved of service.  C. Ronaldo did a good job of dropping deep to find the ball, but Higuain and Benzema had very little influence at all in the match, Higuain in particular.

Before and After

To get a sense for how dramatically different Madrid organized itself compare the first two pictures below taken from the first Clásico this season to the third image taken in this latest Clásico.

First Clasico: Madrid Pressuring High Not Compact In Middle

First Clasico: Madrid Leaving Space Between the Lines - Not Compact

In the first image, Madrid are pressing aggressively very high. In doing so however, they’ve left open significant space inside of their defensive block particularly between midfield and defense.  Once Abidal beats Oezil’s high pressure, Barça have enormous advantage. Additionally, Messi is unmarked. In the second image, we see how Madrid organized itself within its own half in the first match.  They are set up as a block – but notice again how much space is between their lines.  The midfielders are all sitting high to pressure the Barça midfielders.  But because Mourinho doesn’t want to leave too much space behind the backline is sitting relatively deep.  This opens up significant interior space.

In the third image below we see a radically different organization.  The Madrid block is much more compact.  The key is the positioning in midfield.  Pepe and Alonso are stationed between the lines while Diarra has advanced to pressure.  The LB Coentrao is carefully marking Messi, even if it means altering his position.  C. Ronaldo is playing much deeper than in the first match in order to more closely mark Alves.

Madrid in This Clasico: Defensive Block More Compact and Deeper

But all of this comes at a significant cost.  Playing more compact prevented Madrid from pressing high consistently.  By not focusing on high pressure Madrid allowed Barcelona to control the ball and build a rhythm.  Preventing the opposition in general and Barcelona in particular this kind of comfort was the entire focus of the system Madrid was implementing in “year 2” under Mourinho.  In this Clásico, Madrid regressed backwards, essentially adopting the same system they utilized last season in the Champions League semi-finals.

What makes this particularly ironic is that the system Mourinho changed trajectories to go back to didn’t work the first time.  And it produced no better result this season. In fact, if anything Barcelona looked even more comfortable than they did in that CL semi-final and the match was in many ways an easier one for the Blaugrana.

To force Madrid to change tactical directions in this dramatic a fashion is a major strategic victory for Guardiola.

Barcelona:  Makes Madrid Pick a Different Poison

It’s interesting to compare these two Clásico’s because in some ways the matches were extremely different.  But in the end they produced similar effects.

In the first match, Madrid pressured high and harried Barcelona’s deeper midfielder.  Anticipating this, Guardiola set up a system in which Barcelona’s more advanced attackers controlled the match by utilizing the space that opened due to Madrid pressing so high and not staying compact.   

In this second encounter, Madrid reverted from their new system.  They pulled their front line back to stay more compact and close off the interior space Messi and Iniesta dominated in the prior match.  However, this prevented them from pressuring high as effectively.  This in turn meant that Xavi and Busquets had more space and time to dictate the rhythm of the match.  This was exactly what Mourinho was focused on avoiding when Madrid continued to refashion its system this summer.

On net, together, these two contests were the “same” match in a way.  Barcelona was almost equivalently dominant in each Clásico.  They were just dominant through different means.  In this regard, these two Clásicos well demonstrated the richness of this Barcelona team and the myriad of ways they are able to exert match control and win.

Mourinho abandoned the system he focused on developing for this season.  And all it amounted to was picking a different poison to drink from.  And in doing so he ate away at a number of the substantive tactical changes that were purportedly underpinning Madrid “cutting the gap” with Barcelona this season.

All of this could very well change dramatically in the future given how many Clásico’s are remaining.  It could change dramatically next week – again this tie is far from over.  But as a measure of where these two teams are right now, when it comes to developing answers for how to beat Barça, Mourinho has proven to be tactically rudderless and has taken his squad backwards in times to approaches that were utilized last season despite not working.

The Numbers Game

Despite all of the changes Mourinho made in midfield through increased compact play and use of the trivote, there was a very simple tactical advantage that Guardiola continued to maintain in this match.  Barcelona had consistent numerical advantage in midfield throughout either 4 vs. 3 and at times 5 vs. 3.  This meant that Barcelona almost always had an extra outlet in midfield, most often Sergio Busquets.  This is part of why Barça dominated possession and the rhythm of the match even more than they did in the prior Clásico.

The shot below demonstrates this well:

Barca with a 4 vs. 3 Numerical Advantage in Midfield

In the shot above, Diarra has picked up Messi.  Pepe is goal of Fabregas and marking him while still staying deep to help Diarra with Messi.  Alons to the right of the circle is marking Xavi.  C. Ronaldo is marking Alves while Benzema and Higuain are nominally checking the two Barça CBs.

This means that Busquets goes unmarked in the center of the pitch.  This happened over and over and over.  Busquets was free in space and always open as an outlet.  When Madrid went to close him down it meant that a defender would have to stop marking Xavi or Fabregas leaving them free.

Marking Busquets has become a constant problem for Madrid.  In the last Clásico, they tried to have Oezil do this.  However, Mourinho also wanted Oezil to pressure high.  Through his positional intelligence Busquets would just drop station himself in the space in midfield behind Oezil.  If another midfielder picked him up Barça always had Xavi or Fabregas to build play and shunt the ball to Messi and Iniesta.

In this match, Barcelona almost always had extra players open in midfield, which not only made keeping possession relatively simple, it allowed the team to build a rhythm on the ball.

Barça was able to maintain this numerical advantage throughout often augmenting it through simple movement.

Numerical Advantage: Busquets Open as an Outlet in Midfield

In the image above, Iniesta has pulled centrally and Fabregas has drifted leftwards.  We often talk about the importance of width with Barça but width doesn’t mean “hugging the touchline” alone.  Width is relative to the oppositions defensive block and positioning.  In the image above Fabregas has intelligently pulled wide – but not too wide. As such he essentially forced two defenders to mark him – both Altintop and Oezil (entered match as a sub) change position in response to his movement.  This means that while Pepe has picked up Iniesta and Callejon (also a sub) picked up Xavi Messi and Busquets go unmarked.

In this match, Mourinho added the proverbial “hardman” to midfield in Pepe and removed the playmaker Oezil. However, he never made an adjustment to gain numerical equivalence in midfield.  And in a sense the addition of Pepe for Oezil was counteracted by utilizing Higuain in place of Di Maria.  Higuain, like Oezil, is a mediocre defender at best.  Without the ball Higuain is a player who contributes little – and his defensive limitations are a major reason why Busquets had so much time and space on the ball.  In essence, Mourinho removed a poor central defender in Oezil but then added another poor central defender in Higuain.

Now it’s obviously true that Di Maria was injured and this significantly hampered Madrid’s frontline defending.  But it’s a manager’s responsibility to put his squad in the best position to win.  Removing Oezil only to add Higuain centrally in a game where you were going to try to stay compact and deeper was a contrary decision.  A more tactically coherent choice would have been to play Callejon on the wing and Benzema in the center.

Conversely, it would at minimum have made more sense to play Benzema centrally and Higuain wide.  Benzema is the superior athlete and is a better defender.  It’s true that Benzema is probably more comfortable as a wide attacker but Mourinho was ceding possession as it was.  Regardless, it’s Mourinho’s responsibility to work out a system for marking Barcelona’s midfielders.  To date he’s been unable to do so.

Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas:  Expanding Barça’s Dimensions of Attack

In aggregate when you examine the large scale changes Mourinho made in this match, they first speak poorly for how he handled the last Clásico.  To make almost no significant tactical changes in one match and then only a few weeks later to install an entirely system suggests fundamental problems in the original approach.  In that first match, Messi playing as a 10 enjoyed significant space.  Little was done to counteract that.  Now only a few weeks later, Mourinho regresses back to a system based on that trivote that is primarily designed to prevent Messi from finding space.

While this does speak poorly for the prior match management, it does also make sense.  Changes were needed – they were just made late.

However, the problem with Mourinho reverting to the system played against Barça last year is that this isn’t the same Barcelona team.  In many ways it is better.

Last season overplaying the middle and crowding the space around Messi was a tactic that could find success against Barça.  It worked well for Madrid in the Copa Del Rey final for example.  Marked tightly, Messi continued to drop deeper and deeper until not only was he too far from goal, but Barça lost all of its attacking threat in the advanced central position.  But this season Barcelona has added weapons to counteract that kind of strategy, weapons that add a new directness to how the blaugrana can play in the final third.

Alexis Sanchez has now had two absolutely outstanding matches against Madrid.  In the first Clásico, in addition to his brilliant goal, Sanchez movement in a horizontal band across the Madrid front line created numerous problems.  In this match, Sanchez continued playing as a central striker up top but played in a very different style than the last match.  Rather than playing horizontally from touchline to touchline, he played much more vertically.  He worked the channels between the FBs and CBs, sitting on the shoulder of the defenders.  His explosive pace allowed him to simply run past the Madrid backline over and over.  You can see this more and more emerging as a new tactic for Barça.  This was how the winning goal was scored against Betis in the last Liga match.

While Sanchez didn’t score against Madrid, he generated numerous dangerous chances and hit the post on a sensational attempt on goal.  Sanchez was tactically instrumental to this match because while Madrid were attempting to stay compact in order to defend Messi, Sanchez was repeatedly stretching the defense vertically with his intelligent runs and pace.  When a defense is trying to play a compact, middle block stretching it vertically is one of the best ways to disrupt it.  Last season Barça didn’t have this capability.  This is part of why the matches last season in the CDR finals and CL semis were so difficult.  Madrid packed in around Messi.  This year Barcelona have more weapons to combat that.

In addition, Sanchez was excellent at holding up the ball.  Far from a traditional “target man,” Sanchez can still serve a number of those functions.  Rather than through his size he’s able to use his technical skill on the ball, low center of gravity and balance to retain possession when alone, even when marked by two defenders.

In the vein of direct play counteracting Madrid’s attempt to play compact, Fabregas was also instrumental. Cesc has had an interesting two games versus Madrid.  In the first match he wasn’t particularly good in possession – but then scored that brilliant goal to seal the result.  In this second match, he was improved in possession – though still far from perfect (it was his giving away the ball cheaply that led to the Madrid counter on which they ultimately scored). However, where he excelled this match was in delivering penetrating final passes into dangerous goal scoring positions.  He created 3-4 wonderful chances through his crosses and chips over the top of the Madrid backline in the final third.  Again, this kind of direct play to break a compact defensive block’s shape wasn’t as much a feature of Barça’s play last season when Mourinho utilized the trivote formation against them.

The sequence in which Sanchez hit the post on his headed shot well demonstrates the impact that Sanchez and Fabregas had in the final third:

Cesc with Ball Between Lines; Sanchez Stationary Wide of Coentrao

Above, Fabregas has the ball in a seemingly harmless space. Madrid are defending deep and are compact.  They have a 10 vs. 5 advantage in the final third and look to be in secure position.

Sanchez Start Curling Run Around Defender; Cesc Reads Run Immediately

Through his mobility Sanchez the “central striker” has isolated himself 1 vs. 1 with Coentrao.  From a stand still position he explodes into a curling run centrally around Coentrao who is surprised at the accelerated movement.  Remarkably Fabregas spots Sanchez initiation of the run instantly and immediately starts to execute a cross into the box.  For two teammates that haven’t played very many games with each other to have this kind of telepathic understanding is just phenomenal.  That only happens when both share a creative vision for the game and use of space that few players have.

Sanchez Beats Coentrao; Cesc Delivers Perfect Cross

From a dead stand still Sanchez has accelerated by Coentrao and beaten him for pace within only a few yards.  This kind of explosive quickness is what makes Sanchez so difficult to try to mark.  Its one thing to run past a player over 40 to 50 yards.  Its another skill to be able to flat beat a defender and gain separation over 4 to 5 steps.  Cesc in the meanwhile has already envisioned Sanchez’s run and delivered a perfect cross.  This is the kind of penetrating, direct play that these two players bring to the squad.  Ramos seeing the cross starts to run back towards goal.

Sanchez wins Aerial Battle 1 vs. 2

Sanchez is the shortest player on the field (yes he’s shorter than Messi).  He’s locked in an aerial duel with two much larger defenders who have been pulling at him and trying to muscle him on his run.  Despite being 1 vs. 2 Sanchez holds off both defenders and wins the aerial duel,  coming close to scoring a spectacular goal that glances off the cross bar.  This kind of dynamic athleticism is something Barcelona have not had in a very long time in the squad.

Guardiola Innovates through the Basics

Given the numerous changes he made in the first Clásico and Mourinho’s ineffective response, Guardiola didn’t need to push forward significant change.  He made adjustments to the changes Madrid made in defense and playing the first leg of a tie.  For example, Alves played a more conservative role in this match.  He moved off the defensive line but never roamed too far up field.  In part this was because Messi was often moving right to find space and to help defend.  Guardiola also surprisingly played Puyol as the L CB in the back four which made him the CB when the defense shifted towards a three man backline.  Usually Guardiola has elected to play Puyol on the same side as C. Ronaldo.  In this match he didn’t, which may have been a response to Madrid fielding Benzema wide on the right.

However, there was one area where Guardiola changed tactics radically and it’s a change that hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it should have.

A great deal of surprise took place when Barça equalized off a corner kick.  And in many ways this was unexpected.  But if you look at the match itself this was clearly a planned strategy.  Normally, Barça takes the majority of their corners short.  This is especially true against Madrid, a much taller team.

However, in this match Barcelona repeatedly took their corners long. Prior to the goal, Barça had six corners and over and over Xavi sent the ball into the box.  There was clearly something that Guardiola saw that triggered this change because on face it makes little sense for Barça to try corners into the box repeatedly against Madrid.  It wasn’t even as if the goal scored on a surprise because prior corners were taken short.  Xavi looked to find Puyol multiple times prior.

In addition, not only did this overall strategy pay off directly in a score but created another dangerous opportunity off of a free kick.  but Barcelona took a related approach on set pieces.  Barça got a second free header later on off a free kick   that Busquets should have buried.

Madrid has recently conceded several goals off corners in matches.  It’s likely that Guardiola found a weakness and decided to try to exploit it.

Taking corners long isn’t a small decision for Barça against Madrid either.  Drawing your CBs into the final third against a team that counter attacks as fast as Madrid is not something to take lightly.  As such, there must have been a tactical weakness Guardiola identified in how Madrid defend set pieces for Barça to change tactics in this fashion.

There was also something very fitting and ironic about Puyol’s goal.  The centerpiece of Mourinho’s revamped tactics for this match in many ways was Pepe, a player Mourinho would after the match describe as indispensable to Madrid.  It was Pepe who was responsible for marking delayed runners from deep within the Madrid corner kick defensive scheme.  It was Pepe who failed to mark Puyol’s run.  It was Pepe who was caught ball watching despite the fact that Barça tried to find Puyol on corner repeatedly throughout the game.

In addition, Barca also took a similar approach to other set pieces in this match.  Xavi played a free kick long into the box that Busquets went largely unmarked on and should have buried for a goal.

If there was a weakness in Madrid’s corner kick defense that Guardiola spotted, I’d guess it was related to Pepe’s awareness and positional intelligence.

In the End Messi is Decisive 

As I’ve detailed here, between these two Clásico’s Mourinho scrapped months of tactical changes to revert back to a system Madrid tried to use against Barça last season.  A system that didn’t work.  The focus on this change was to try to suffocate the space around Messi.  Focusing on Messi freed space up for other players however, – Xavi and Busquets in particular, so Messi had a significant indirectly tactical influence on the game.

However, what must drive Mourinho mad, is that despite all of the changes Mourinho both made and sacrificed in order to stop Messi, the world’s best player again created the decisive blow out of almost nothing against Madrid.  This must drive Mourinho to distraction.  No matter what he does and how many resources he deploys to stop Leo it makes little difference.

The image below is the moment prior to the goal:

Abidal's Run for Winning Goal - Messi Marked by 3 Defenders

Madrid have done what they were tactically instructed to do in many ways.  They’ve suffocated the space between the lines Messi operates in, closing him down with three defenders.  They’ve overplayed the middle, the region Barça as a team are naturally drawn to.  They’ve made trade offs which result in Barcelona’s least likely offensive threat having the most time and space on the pitch.  In theory that’s what you want.

This was a kind of broken play.  It developed off a throw in taken by Abidal.  Many have criticized Altintop’s central positioning. It’s true that he should have been wider.  But on that throw in it’s originally C. Ronaldo who looks like he’s going to pick up and mark Abidal.  All match long Altintop or a Madrid defender had marked Iniesta.  Altintop did the same here, though over exuberantly.

Mourinho made multiple substitutions in the second half, especially after Barça equalized.  He sent on attackers in hopes of scoring.

One of the changes he made that seemed relatively minor but proved to be decisive in the end was to switch C. Ronaldo from the left wing to the right wing.  This was likely done in part in order to relieve C. Ronaldo of some of his defensive duties.  All match long, C. Ronaldo played a disciplined defensive game against Alves. C. Ronaldo played very deep all game, almost acting as a defensive winger.  Moving him to the right against the conservative, much less threatening Abidal allowed C.Ronaldo to play much higher, to position himself to break quicker for the counter Madrid was so in need of.  By this time in the match scoring on the counter or a set piece were really Madrid’s only hope for winning.

And in the still shot above you see C. Ronaldo doing exactly all of those things.  He’s stationed as high as possible in the block.  If you re-watch this sequence you can actually see him leaning heavily forward towards his right waiting to spring towards the Barça goal at speed.  If you re-watch a few moments before the still shot above you’ll see C. Ronaldo actually glance back towards the byline and leftwards.  Originally he was the one who picked up Abidal after the throw in.  It was after that he pulled forward looking to break.  And when C.Ronaldo glances backwards he must have seen Abidal.  It would have been very hard for him to not have seen Abidal given how wide open in space the Barça player was.  His glance back looked like it was intended to locate where the Barça left back had gone.

What a strange moment of cognitive dissonance all of this must have been.

All match along C.Ronaldo had played an excellent defensive game.  His work rate and intensity were strong.  But in the moment he likely sees Abidal completely open in space wide and doesn’t mark him.  It’s plainly clear that Altintop has pulled centrally to track Iniesta. Perhaps he assumes Abidal is in an off side position, though that would be quite an assumption given his positioning.  Perhaps he sees the situation as a potential massive advantage.  Abidal playing that forward was a risk.  There is no defender in front of C. Ronaldo.  The winger has space to run into.

Perhaps it may have just seemed implausible to him that Abidal, a player with one career goal for Barça, could represent an authentic threat on goal, especially given where the ball was.  C. Ronaldo seemed to just be waiting by himself, waiting to spring with his voracious strides on the counter, waiting for the three Madrid defenders to dispossess Messi and set him free.

What makes witnessing genius so surprising after all is how unexpected it is, even when it has happened before.

The Ugly

I have something to say about the nasty, brutish nature of this match. I’ll save that for another post.  Make no mistake about it.  The Clásicos have become explicitly violent.  It must stop.  But unfortunately I don’t see a way that’s going to happen until a Barcelona player is seriously injured and then lamentations will be the order of the day.

One thing I will say now – it is a completely disingenuous, false equivalence to somehow argue that “diving” is somehow equivalent in nature to violence. It is completely repugnant to justify violence as a supposedly acceptable and just response to gamesmanship.

Barelona are in no way a perfect team.  No team is.  But violence belongs to another category of ills, one of much more serious consequence.

And if you feel different than you’d have to support the notion as a general principle.  You’d have to think that it would be ok for a team to risk breaking Angel Di Maria’s ankle or blowing out his knee with a cowardly scissor kick from behind just because gamesmanship is a fundamental part of his play.  You’d have to be ok with a team risking a fracture to Pepe’s hand or his clavicle because he’s constantly clutching some body part and rolling around.

In other words you would have to be ok with the game turning into a bloodbath.  Which is something it has been in the past and in certain areas.  The consequences have been awful.

Player Evaluation:

Guardiola:  The world’s best manager simply does it again.  Perhaps the best tactical mind in the game.  He has created changes and systems to completely thwart and negate almost everything Madrid tries to do – even under the much praised Mourinho.  He always keeps Barça a step ahead so Madrid is always reacting, even to the point where they’ve thrown overboard the system that was to be the central focus of their identity as a team.  Always adds an extra wrinkle that pays off because of his deep understanding of the game at large.  Today it was with corner kicks.  Unbelievable.

Pinto:  Madrid’s goal was almost entirely due to his egregious mistake.  Pique appropriately shunted C. Ronaldo to a wide angle where the attacker could really only manage to try to score along the near post or between the keepers leg.  In other words, in the two places that a goal from that distance should never score from.  After that however Pinto settled in.  Completed 25 passes – more than any other player on Madrid besides Alonso, who completed 34.  Interesting to see Madrid not try to pressure or harass Pinto, even after that terrible mistake.

Pique:  Solid game playing as the R CB in both the 4 and 3 man backline.  Often isolated against C. Ronaldo and overall did well.

Puyol:  Just when it seems that he’s done almost everything possible for the shirt. He does more.  51 straight matches undefeated.  Scored a goal off a sublimely timed run from deep.  Yes Pepe with his limited football intelligence should have picked up the run.  But Puyol is a master of that kind of delayed danger.  And watch the goal again – he sprung free – but it was still not an easy ball to get a solid header on as it was diving low.

Alves:  Played a sort of in between game in many ways.  Overall was fine – but occupied a very different role than the prior Clásico.  Not quite on the backline but not quite a winger.  Alves was more an outlet for the ball to relieve pressure.  Defended well when called upon though it was unusual to see him beaten for pace on C.Ronaldo’s score.  The one positive tactical change Mourinho did was to pinch C.Ronaldo inwards to create separation from Alves.

Abidal:  What a match.  What a player.  If Puyol represents the heart of the team, Messi its brilliance, and Xavi its intelligence, Abidal perfectly encompasses its professionalism.  Showed fantastic footballing intelligence to make that run behind the Madrid defense when he was functionally ignored.  And as good as the run was, the finish wasn’t easy given the angle.  In a game where Barça missed a number of quality opportunities on goal, Abidal finished off the match with the kind of poise that marks his game.  Defensively he was enormous.  Swallowed up Benzema and repeatedly covered for the team on the counter making several crucial intercepetions.

Busquets:  A flawless game.  Busquets plays with a machine like quality, like an engine where he just circulates, circulates, circulates.  Madrid has yet to come up with a way to stop his game.  Often the midfielder with the most time and space on the ball, Busquets used ball extremely efficiently.  Defensively was an anchor between the lines.  Would have been man of the match were it not for the sublime performance of his partner.

Xavi:  Sublime.  Make no mistake about it.  Given the tactical focus Madrid exerted on not allowing Messi to dictate play and on clogging the midfield, the challenge was thrown to Xavi to control the match.  And he was flawless.  Constantly marked and harried in midfield, Xavi as always rarely gave up possession.  When a team defends the way Madrid did, the pressure is squarely placed on the shoulders of the team’s central midfielder to exert match control. And Xavi did that masterfully again versus Madrid.

Fabregas:  Better this game versus Madrid than the last.  Still developing his way within the possession game.  That’s just going to take time.  In the final third however Fabregas is simply breathtaking.  In this game it was his passing on final balls rather than his runs to goal which were remarkable.  His scoop pass to Inesta over the Madrid defense – just brilliant.  And Fabregas also played a thankless role on the pitch doing a great deal of the dirty work for the team in his box to box role.  Ran all game long.

Iniesta:  The genius was on display on multiple occasions.  But this is was also a match where you just sit down with Iniesta, get him some much needed sun and Vitamin D and just ask him – why is it that you can pain the ball all over the pitch like a footballing DaVinci just not towards goal?  Even mediocre finishing from Don Andres would have made this match 4-1.  The hesitations in the box were particularly unfortunate.

Messi:  An entire defense was structured to stop him.  For much of the match it did.  He never truly got into the flow of the match.  But in the end when the team needed it – he didn’t only see an opportunity no one else could envision, he created it.  No matter what Madrid try to do they simply cannot stop this player from wounding them.

Alexis:  Another strong performance from a fiendishly gifted player who is getting better and better.  He add entirely new dimensions to how the team can play with his athleticism and technical play.  Often we compare his qualities to those of Henry.  And there are similarities.  But honestly, Sanchez is better on the ball.  Still not sure what his “position” will be for Barça.  But he looks outstanding in the central strikers role.

Team:  As a unit they are just scratching the surface.  Not only is Messi getting better but Alexis and Cesc expand this team’s capabilities.  They still are integrating and the team is still trying to understand how to play with them.  But it’s coming fast.  You can see it the way that the team is now starting to pick up Alexis’s runs at speed.

The End:

Barcelona falls behind in another match 1-0 within the opening fifteen minutes at the Bernabeu.  And once again, Madrid’s goal seems like only a temporary inconvenience.  This is a team that has seen almost everything.  That has been a bad situations and got out of them.  A few weeks ago after falling behind in the first 30 seconds it was Puyol who had to rally the team and exert leadership.  Madrid’s goal in this match – hardly required an exhortation.  Madrid scored but the goal was against the run of play – and you could just see then by their reaction and calmness that they felt that they were going to control the match.

Again, this is only the first leg of the tie.  In no way are Barça assured of advancing.  But this is a team that knows that.  They take very little for granted and fully understand that success doesn’t come from words but from actions on the pitch.

So the tie is still to be settled.  But within the context of the ongoing trajectory of matches between these two sides, this was a significant blow to Madrid.  Mourinho abandoned the core system Madrid were basing their team identity around and reverted back to a style the players and supporters never embraced.  This was a regressive move backwards by Mourinho as it took the team back to a style that they were to move away from in this second season.  And he made that backwards move after the first Clásico the team played this season.  Engineering that kind of radical change means that you must obtain a result.  Madrid did not.

And all of this is curious because the system Mourinho is reverting to did not produce the desired result last season either.  It’s unclear why it would this season, especially since Barcelona have seen Madrid play in this style before.  Playing in a deeper, confined block decreases Madrid’s ability to utilize the one area where they are clearly superior to Bara – their athleticism.

Though he wont’ admit it – much of this gets back to Guardiola.  The changes he put into place in that first Clásico precisely amplified vulnerabilities in the Madrid system that were there but latent.  Vulnerabilities lesser sides could not crack open and exploit.  To cause Madrid to give up that system even if it’s only one game is a significant strategic victory for Guardiola.  He forced Madrid back into a largely reactive mode in a year where they were supposed to exert their will on matches with Barcelona.

This very well may be a temporary retreat by Mourinho.  He may be using the CDR to experiment.  But if he is, that experimentation is not being conducted out of confidence nor is it within the spirit of the aggressive sporting project that Madrid were purportedly to grow into.  And his players will know that.  That’s not an easy knowledge.

It’s only one game.  It’s only the CDR.  Madrid could very well win the tie in the second leg.  But at this point in time, these first two Clásico’s were not only victories for Barcelona on the pitch but also strategically.

Posted in Copa del Rey, Review144 Comments

Match Review – Barcelona 9 – 0 L’Hospitalet (10-0 Aggregate): Full Circle

Barcelona’s match against L’Hospitalet proved to be a near perfect ending for the first half of this season.  It wasn’t the historic 9-0 score that made the match noteworthy.  Nor was it the fact that Barça fielded a team of ten outfield players and three substitutes all of whom played in La Masia.

What made this match the culmination of the first half of this season was the quality of play.  Or more specifically-the way in which the quality of play in this leg of the L’Hospi tie book ended the poor quality of play Barça exhibited in the first leg.  The team  came full circle in this second leg.  In this regard, the tie and this match demonstrated in microcosm the story of the first half of this season.

(Courtesy FC Barcelona)

Much has been made of Barça’s uneven play since the season started.  Dropping unexpected points.  Struggling more than expected.  The cycle was over.  The team had lost its hunger.  This was the narrative for much of the season to date.

And in some ways the nadir of Barça’s play in the first half of the season was the first leg of this tie.  Against Getafe, the team lost and dropped costly points in La Liga.  But against L’Hospi – a third division side – Barça played perhaps an even worse match in terms of quality.  Wasted possession.  Too much indirect play.  Little cutting edge.  They were only able to win based on a single moment of genius from Iniesta.  It was a disappointing struggle, particularly given the disparity in talent.

But the season changed shortly after.  The team engineered a rapid rise in quality of play starting with the brilliant match against Rayo Vallecano.  That surging quality of play continued to crest through the Clasico at the Bernabeu and the Club World Cup.           And in this second leg of a Copa Del Rey tie against a third division side they were leading 1-0 already, there was no let up by this Barcelona side.  Coming off an exhausting trip to Japan, the kind of trip they’ve often struggled to re-acclimate after and missing nearly half the first team there was no respite for the opposition.

The quality of play continued to swell, drowning the opponent in a kind of wondrous glitter that was reminiscent of the ocean at sunset.  Multi-hued, dancing with light at the surface but just beneath, dim and foreboding in its depth and scope and the various tentacled ways it can lead an opponent into losing itself inside a kind of dark wonder.

With time – clarity.  Where once the questions centered on the end of a cycle, lack of hunger and being surpassed in quality by other sides there are new questions coming into focus.  How much better can this team continue to get?  What levels will they reach this coming year?  How will Guardiola continue to drive them to expand how they can play?

(Courtesy FC Barcelona)

Because with time it has now become more clear that Guardiola structured this team’s preparations so that it would start to peak later than it usually does.  The goal since summer was likely to gain momentum and cutting edge for the Clasico at the Bernabeu and Club World Cup.  To build and sustain quality for the second half of the season.

Against L’Hospi we saw this Barça squad in some ways at its purest.  The drive and will to win – the sober, serious nature of its execution.  There was a job to do.  So they would do it.

And because they had started to gain momentum in the season – because they had come so far so quickly from the performance in the first leg of the tie – there was no reason to let up and acquiesce or go through the motions.  This was a Barça team that continued to tell the world:  the cycle is hardly over – in fact, it’s December the season is just truly starting now.  This was a perfectionist side driven not only by the players standing in opposition to them – but driven by a competition against itself.

The year was ending.  The first half of the season culminating.  And Barça continued to lay the foundation for the true season to come.

The Negatives

Before getting into the specifics of the Barça victory, there were two negatives of note that I want to get out of the way.  First, was Iniesta’s injury.  Yet another hamstring injury.  Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to be a serious tear.  Unfortunately, it may keep him out of the upcoming match against Espanyol.  That will be a difficult match and the team cannot drop points in La Liga.

The second negative was Isaac Cuenca’s horribly embarrassing dive that led to the penalty kick for the first goal.  There’s really not a great deal to say on this.  It was just embarrassing and stained the first portion of the match.  For a player as talented as Cuenca to flagrantly dive in that fashion in order to earn a PK against a third division club is awful.  Truly awful.  Let’s hope he gets a talking to and never does that again.  That dive unfortunately diminished an otherwise brilliant game by Cuenca – which in a way made it even worse.

(Courtesy FC Barcelona)

Line Up:  Inconsistently Consistent

Coming off the long trip to Japan, Guardiola gave an extended vacation to all of the South American players so that they could travel home and rest.  This heightened speculation that Barça would rest the veterans in this match and largely rely on the youth team players.

When the line up was announced however it was the exact opposite.  Guardiola not only went with what was the strongest possible CDR lineup he could field – he went as far as playing both Puyol and Xavi in the starting line up, fielding Pinto/ Puyol/ Pique/ Fontas/ Busquets/ Xavi/ Iniesta/ Thiago/ Pedro/ Cuenca.  Part of why this line up was selected was related to CDR requirements for first team players being utilized.  But there were other options Pep could have utilized to rest some players.

On face, this decision may seem very inconsistent – giving the extra time off to certain veteran players while having others start the match.  However, this line up was another example of Guardiola balancing pragmatism and principle to create the long term consistency needed to create a culture of winning in the organization.

Often supporters downplay the importance of competitions such as the Copa Del Rey or the Club World Cup.  This is simply not how Guardiola operates.  This project is not simply involved with play on the field.  Central to the project is instilling across the organization a culture of winning.

Excellence isn’t an option – it’s simply what is expected.  Guardiola expects it from himself.  He expects it from his players.  And he expects competitions to be respected.  And that respect comes from the intention to always win.  There’s little distinction made teasing out the relative importance or merit of any competition.  Consistency in expectations and purpose are critical. That’s the heart of this culture of excellence.

(Courtesy FC Barcelona)

And part of the purpose of taking the second leg of a tie against a third division side so seriously is to instill expectations in the players-especially the younger ones.  Watching Puyol relentlessly hunt the ball in the second half of a 7-0 match creates a stark example.  It teaches players like Cuenca and Fontas and Bartra and Muniesa how critical it is to defend relentlessly regardless of score.  You put the effort in because it’s the right thing to do.  That’s how a culture of winning is created.

In this regard, while Guardiola’s use of players may have been inconsistent in the short term (giving extended vacations to some veterans and starting others) he was being strategically consistent.  This was a good example of how Barcelona is transmitting values and expectations to these younger players while still acknowledging circumstances such as the travel time for the South American players.

Preparing for Life Without David Villa:  Thiago on the Left

The other interesting part of the opening was how the team was set up.  When the starters were announced it seemed likely that Fabregas would play up front as a false 9 with Thiago at the tip of the midfield diamond.  Those are positions both players have occupied prior this season.  This didn’t happen.  Instead, Pedro played as a false 9 with Fabregas at the tip of the diamond.  This was noteworthy because it allowed Guardiola to play Thiago on the left wing.

This is now the second straight game Pep has used Thiago in the advanced left position.  This may reflect part of his thinking on how to compensate the loss of David Villa through the resources he depth in – midfielders.  Given Thiago’s diverse skill set, this seems like a promising route to make the best of a terrible injury.

Barça Wins Outside In

Ultimately, this match was won largely through the difference in quality of the players involved.  Barça are the best team in the world and L’Hospi is a third division side.  However, given the scale of victory (it had been nearly fifty years since Barça last won a match by nine goals) and the recent level of play L’Hospi demonstrated in the first leg, other issues came into play to create the size of the result.

On the whole, this match became so lopsided because Barça played in a way that it infrequently does.  Barça’s play flowed down both flanks and attacks were generated from wide positions dynamically.  Usually a middle dominant team, Barça inverted the attack, shifting its points of focus wide.

The reason why this created such a particularly large advantage in this match was due to the way L’Hospi structured its defense. L’Hospi attempted to reproduce what they did in the first leg – defend narrow in order to overplay the center.

This was the central dynamic of the match.  L’Hospi looked to defend the middle of the pitch in numbers by staying narrow.  Rather than playing through the middle, however, Barça distributed the ball wide to players who were extremely dynamic all match long and created danger over and over because they received the ball in open space consistently and were left in 1 vs. 1 situations against full backs.  From that open space those wide attackers were able to utilize the ball to beat their defenders and cause L’Hospi’s defense to break the structure it was trying to keep.

(Courtesy FC Barcelona)

Barça of course dominated midfield – this was expected.  Barça dominated possession in midfield in the first leg at L’Hospi as well.  But in this match that dominance in midfield was coupled with danger from the flanks, the areas on the  the defense was allowing space to.  And it was that utilization of open space to generate danger that helped lead to this dramatically different result.

From those wide positions Thiago and Cuenca and then Tello and Cuenca were outstanding.   The central midfielders played them balls early.  Open in space, the wide attackers used the ball very intelligently.  Rather than simply passing the ball to circulate it, these wide players made dangerous runs at the defenders on the edge of the L’Hospi block to create destabilizing penetration.  Play off the flanks mixed skilled one touch play with direct play to create danger towards goal rather than only maintaining possession.  And in the process those three players put on a dazzling display.

What made these performances even more impressive was the age and experience of these three wide players.  In a match where Barça utilized its most senior players, it was these three young players – Thiago, Cuenca and Tello – who broke the opposition defense and allowed Barça to control the match.

Again, in these instances one sees a glimpse of the entire Barça project in full and a sense of Guardiola’s vision.  The systematic utilization of young players through their controlled incorporation alongside the veteran leaders of the team.  Placing players into different roles based on their rigorously developed skill sets rather than “positions.”  And at the same time, utilizing these new players to push the system by allowing themselves to express their games.

Think of Tello’s entry into the match.  Shortly after entering one of his first matches with the senior side, he had the confidence to make a near full pitch run with the ball and score a goal.  This wasn’t Tello being “selfish.”  It was him doing what was required by the game – utilize space efficiently.  He was never closed down on the flank on the counter as L’Hospi was clustered centrally and advanced.  Tello simply drove the ball until someone forced him to stop – and no one really did.

On this second goal he again drove the defense back with a run.  Tello had beaten the full back so often from the flank that the defender’s first reaction wasn’t to close down the ball – but to drop deeper and not get beat.  Tello sees this, knows he’s beaten the defender repeatedly before, and dummies the drive, instead using the defender to screen the keeper and ankle in a beautifully curling shot that was disguised so well it seemed to come from nowhere.  A brilliant combinations of physical skill, technique and intelligence.

Cuenca and Tello both scored braces.  But part of what made this so noteworthy was how they scored.  Both players scored with their right and left feet.  Their ability to use both feet to score again attests to their training.  But the direct nature of their play towards goal is their own sensibility.

The Model

We have an industrial model for La Masia at times.  Factory.  Conveyer belt.  These are the metaphors we think of it through.  But that really isn’t the case.  This isn’t commodity production.  It’s artisanship.  Yes the value of each new player is related to the standardized principles they’ve been trained in.  But that doesn’t limit the full universe of their possibilities.  Their individual expressivity defines the night time sky that one can see distant stars glimmering through.  The twinkle of the future.

And the more you see young players start to integrate into the first team under Guardiola the more apparent it becomes that the ones who will last, the ones who will stay are the ones who can enrich the “system” with their own individual qualities.

That was part of what made the L’Hospi match such a pleasure to watch.  There was Cuenca, Tello, Thiago and Sergi Roberto adding a directness in play that Barça at times can lack, that limits how they can shape a match.  But each of those players provides understands the game in that way.  That’s who they are.  That’s how they will add to the wonderful whole that is this project.

(Courtesy FC Barcelona)

Evaluation

Team:

Coming off of a long international trip in which they took home silver, the squad could have coasted and taken the game lightly.  Instead they did the opposite.  They continued to maintain the phenomenal level of play they executed at over the past several weeks.  They played with a stringent commitment to excellence and to themselves.  This is a squad poised to continue to grow, develop and get better over the remainder of this season.

Guardiola:

Knows this team so well and he understands the big picture they are trying to play for.  After some uneven moments in the first half of the season, he has the team playing devastating football – some of the best we’ve seen it play under his leadership.  The goal was to make sure this team would be ready for December and the second half of the season.  Goal accomplished.

Pinto:

Professional match – as is his usual when called on to play in the Copa.  Stopped the few moments of danger he faced and overall did a solid job of distributing the ball out of the back.

Puyol:

Simply made from a different substance.  It’s easy to think of him as something sturdy and hard – like iron.  But he’s really not elemental in that way.  He’s more like an alloy – a complex mixture of qualities that produces characteristics not seen in other materials.  Unfortunately, his will be a blend that will be difficult to reforge.

It’s so interesting to see him play this season again.  It has offered a different kind of perspective on his greatness.  After not seeing him play regularly due to injuries for so long – watching him now makes you appreciate him that much more.  His drive is relentless.  Their his team is up 7-0, 8-0, 9-0 and it simply doesn’t matter.  He’s working tirelessly to close down the ball, to sacrifice his body, to never stop running regardless of the score.  He never stops anticipating where danger may spring up from and was always positioning himself to suffocate fire before it could even turn into an ember.  There is not let up.  He only knows one thing.  Being on the pitch is a privledge.  You play the game the right way every moment you are out there.  How you play is a constant responsibility.

The example he provides to the rest of the squad is invaluable.  And for the younger players to be able to watch him play that way in one of the most one sided matches in team history will teach them things about what it means to wear the shirt that they will carry for the rest of their careers.

Pique:

Operated as the central sweeper again in the back three.  Played fine overall and didn’t face too many threats.  How Pique will adapt to this position in the three man back line will be interesting to continue to watch.  For much of his career at Barça he has had another center back behind him to cover – whether that was Mascherano or Puyol.  But in the three man backline he is not well suited for the lateral center back positions.  This means that he’ll now need to be the defender who covers for the other two.

Fontas:

Rarely challenged.  In a match where Barça dominated possession so much, like Pique, his skill on the ball was particularly valuable.  Pressed very high up the pitch on the left very often which was interesting to see given the limited defensive cover behind him.

Busquets:

The oil that lubricates the machine.  To L’Hospi’s great credit they came out to try to play their game.  And this involved frequently pressing high up the pitch, even when they fell behind.  Busquet’s distribution out of the back however was so deft that he negated any pressure and created numerical advantage for Barça in the more advanced areas of the pitch.  This was another key reason why the result was so lopsided.

(Courtesy FC Barcelona)

Xavi:

Like Puyol, played to a standard of excellence and intensity that was first and foremost about the what’s expected within a culture of winning.  Has scored goals in three straight matches!  Good to see him get some rest.

Iniesta:

There were two particularly frightening moments in this match.  The first was when Iniesta initially went down.  The second was when Ray Ray said on the broadcast, “Imagine how pale Iniesta is when he’s sitting in an ice bath.”

His injury is very unfortunate.  But again it speaks to the commitment to excellence this team adheres to.  Iniesta went in aggressively towards goal because the game still wasn’t won.

It’s extremely fortunate that the injury isn’t serious.  But again – it’s a hamstring injury and those are injuries that tend to heal slowly and can recur.  He’ll recuperate over the break so the timing isn’t as damaging as it could be.  Unfortunately, he will likely miss the coming match against Espanyol.

Fabergas:

Barça have had a number of players who exhibit great vision with the ball.  Fabregas is such a different player because he demonstrates great vision even without the ball.  The quality of his runs and use of space are extraordinary.  The second goal was a perfect example of what Fabregas adds to the team.  On that play, Xavi has the ball at the edge of the 18 yard box.  Fabregas is deep between the lines.  L’Hospi attempts to pull the back line forward to execute the offside trap.  As they do this, all of the Barça attackers are forced to come higher up the pitch.  Space starts to contract.  It’s only then – as all of the player are moving up the pitch that Fabregas starts his run going in the opposite direction.  In a sense, Fabregas is using coordination amongst the defenders as a weapon against them.  Xavi reads Cesc’s run and delivers a perfect pass which Cesc squares to Iniesta for an open net goal.  That was the first of several assists for Fabregas from his advanced position at the tip of the diamond.  Also, it was generous of him to allow Pedro and Thiago to take the penalty kicks despite him having more experience doing so.

Pedro:

Started out the match very brightly in his false 9 role.  Pedro continues to improve his form – and that’s very good to see as the team will need him in particular with Villa’s injury.  Faded from the match some as the score line exploded and could have scored from open play on a few occasions.  But overall, another step forward.  As with Cesc, it was generous of him to allow Thiago to take that penalty kick.

Cuenca:

Let’s get it out of the way – his dive was utterly embarrassing.  I touched on that before and will let is stand there.  Onto his play.

Even for Barcelona – a fiendishly skilled player.  His combination of close control, technique, fast feet, and vision are simply outstanding.  This range of skills allows him to both operate within the system seamlessly while also expanding its capacities.  Completely destabilized the left flank of the defense by himself.  Cuenca was able to beat his man at will with the ball 1 vs. 1 and then cross the ball not only with accuracy but with intelligence.  He’s not just firing the ball into the box from a wide position – he’s directing it to where it can create danger.

This may sound strange – but in some ways Cuenca is the player managers are hoping to get when they play Iniesta on the wing.  This isn’t in anyway to say that Cuenca is the player Iniesta is.  Instead, if one considers skill sets and styles as ranges, there’s a linkage between the way Iniesta structures his game and Cuenca’s.  Iniesta has the skill set to play in an advanced wide position – but his mental framework is that of a midfielder.  Cuenca’s has the mental framework of a winger with the skill set of a midfielder.  It’s an outstanding combination to have for this Barcelona team.

An area where Cuenca didn’t play as well was on defense.  Too often Cuenca didn’t track back to defend.  This left Puyol caught 1 vs. 2 on several occasions.  Now this didn’t lead to any direct damage.  But in a game in which players like Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta are playing on principle – Cuenca needs to also.  It was as if he felt that he had Puyol behind him and the lead was enormous, so he could decrease his work rate.

Thiago:

Barça has won significant trophies this season already.  Hopefully more silver will follow and another remarkable season will transpire.  That said, when this season is complete, one of its lasting impressions will be the emergence of Thiago Alacantara.

Thiago is rapidly becoming a near complete footballer.  The range of skills and roles he played in this match were tremendous.  Starting on the left, Thiago created danger repeatedly off the flank with his dribbling and direct play.  He then moved to central midfield when Xavi left the match and directed the team with a deft hand. His orchestration of the team was excellent – he continues to develop in this critical role.

The third goal, in some ways encompassed what Thiago’s game has grown into.  Through his individual initiative he dispossessed a L’Hospi defender high up the pitch.  The keeper was still in position to cut off the angle however.  Thiago dummied a shot with quick leg action, went around the keeper and finished smoothly.

It’s defensively where Thiago has developed his game tremendously.  And it’s this dimension of his play which is going to dramatically differentiate him from other world class attacking midfielders.  For example, once JDS came in for Busquets, Thiago started dropping deeper to support Barça’s transition defense as JDS was acclimating himself to game speed as the new DM.  In that role Thiago, made a several important interventions.

A complete game moving across different roles.  Thiago impacted the match is a tremendous variety of ways while maintaining a high work rate.  For these reasons – Thiago gets my man of the match.

Tello:

Barça B has had an uneven season in some regards, struggling more than they did last season.  It’s a younger squad with a new coach so that isn’t surprising.  However, it’s been interesting to see how B team players have improved their play when called up to the first team.   This was particularly acute in both the second Bate match and in this one.  Part of this may be related to the level of competition – Bate in some ways simply gave up and L’Hospi plays in a lower level than the B team plays in.  However, this isn’t the only reason.  For example, Cuenca has played better with the first team than he has with the B team – even when facing La Liga competition.

Against, L’Hospi, Tello was the prime example of this phenomenon.  This was the best game Tello has played this season.  He took the pitch with tremendous confidence and probed the game.  He quickly figured out that the L’Hospi full back simply could not defend him.  Over and over Tello exploded past the defense creating havoc across that flank.

It’s great to see La Masia now developing talented advanced flank players like Cuenca and Tello.

Sergi Roberto:

Came in for Iniesta.  A quiet game and he looked a bit nervous at times, missing two  relatively easy goal scoring changes.  But played well.  Some nice touches.  And his direct game and runs are reminiscent of Fabregas’s in some ways.

Jonathan Dos Santos:

Very poised in possession once he came in for Busquets.  A deep position on the pitch fits him well as he initiates play well.  Worked hard defensively and did a nice job in the holding role.

The End

Another outstanding performance from a Barça side that is only now starting to round into optimal form.  Yes the match was against a third division side and was the second leg of a Copa Del Rey tie.  But after a long trip to Japan, this easily could have been a trick match, one defined by let up and sluggishness.  Instead, we saw the exact opposite.  We saw continued continuity in the quality of play the club demonstrated against Rayo, Madrid, and Santos.

The new year is nearly upon us.  But the season only now appears to be truly starting.

(Courtesy FC Barcelona)

 

Posted in Copa del Rey, Review48 Comments

Tactical Preview – The Club World Cup: How Should Barcelona Attack the Santos System?

“Gentlemen, if you lose today you will continue to be the best in the world – but if you win today you will be eternal.”

– Pep Guardiola, prior to the Club World Cup finals in 2009

Think back to Pedro equalizing in the 89th minute.  Messi scoring off the club crest in the extra time.  Pep weeping with happiness and joy over the accomplishments of his players.  The team has travelled across time zone to Japan in the middle of a difficult season.  They’ve lost David Villa to injury for the season.  Winning the Club World Cup matters.

In this post I’ll briefly outline some of the tactical issues that may come into play.  Below I provide a brief summary of the Santos system.  For a more in depth review please see the excellent analyses of Santos and how they may play at Santapelota and from Tim Vickery

I’m not going to do a full tactical preview as the match is shortly upon us.  But I wanted to provide a quick summary of issues to watch for.

What it Means: Winning the Club World Cup 2009 (Photo Credit: Reuters)

The Santos System: 

Santos play with an attacking front three, a defensive base of four players who stay relatively deep, two players who shuttle in midfield to link together the attacking trident to the defensive base and a right back who gets forward aggressively, serving as a combination attacker and defender.

Santos’s is a possession oriented team whose attack is based on their front three of Borges, Neymar and Ganso.  The goal scoring predominantly runs through Borges, who acts as central striker, and Neymar who plays in a left-center free role.  Creativity is focused on the play of Ganso, Santos’s advanced central midfielder.

Santos plays with a structured defensive base.  Henrique he holding midfielder shields the back four with the two center backs Bruno Rodrigo and Edu Dracena playing conservatively.  Santos is missing one of their top defensive forces – Adriano, their usual holding midfielder. In their semi-final match vs. Kashiwa Reysol, Santos utilized Durval, a center back, at left back.  In this regard, Santos plays with a defensive base of 3-4 deep defenders depending on how the LB position is oriented.

Regardless of formation, it’s likely Santos will play with a base of four defenders playing relatively deep.

The Santos attacking three and defensive base are linked together in midfield by Elano and Arouca, who function as carrilleros shuttling in midfield.  Arouca, a very dynamic player, is the key defensive force of the two.

An additional source of link up is Neymar who holds the ball up effectively on the flank through his dribbling skills.

At RB Danilo, an excellent footballer, gets forward energetically.  His role at Santos echoes Dani Alves’s role with Barca.  Danilo is the key to providing width and is often responsible for playing the entire right flank.  As such, while he is part of the backline, Danilo plays a complex role positionally.

Santos’s dynamic thrust almost resembles a funnel.  The defensive base is the foundation which allows the advance attackers high degrees of freedom.  From the defensive base play narrows through the shuttlers with linking play through the central midfielders Arouca and Elano.  Creativity is then highly concentrated through Ganso as the 10.  Play to goal then develops and expands through the front two, with Neymar enjoying high degrees of freedom.

The lines of width at the sides of the funnel depend on Danilo and Neymar.   Width on the right is highly dependent on Danilo who is responsible for the flank.  On the the left, with a CB playing LB, width depends on Neymar (or a wing back if a formation such as a 3-5-2 is utilized).

How Should Barcelona Approach the Santos System?

A key tactical battle in this match will focus on Barcelona’s ability to break the Santos formation.  As a team that organizes its attack upon the foundation of a set defensive base, Santos is prone to turning into a broken formation.

In a broken formation, the attackers and base are isolated from each other both in space and dynamics.  (Barcelona did this very effectively in the 5-0 manita against Real Madrid last year.)

Barca’s best approach to break Santos’s formation is the following:

1.  Press Ganso out of the match and Break Santos’s Formation

Ganso is a very promising young footballer.  However, an enormous amount of responsibility runs through him in the Santos set up.  In addition, Ganso plays with a relatively languid style.  His close control of the ball is good – but it is not the focal point of his game.

In the past, Barcelona has done a wonderful job of neutralizing these kinds of advanced midfielders through their dogged pressing defense (e.g. Mesut Oezil).  Busquets has been masterful in neutralizing playmakers in the past.

If Barca can press Ganso in ways which disrupt his play, Santos will lose the key link between the base of their formation and their attacking goal scorers.  This will force the two shuttlers to take on the responsibility of creating play – and this is not the strength of either Elano or Arouca.

If Barca can create a break in the Santos formation – either Borges, Neymar and Ganso will need to play deeper – or  space will open up in midfield.  Either is a major advantage for Barca.  If the attacking trident is pushed back Santos’s ability to counter will be decreased significantly.  If space opens in midfield – Barcelona will dominate this region and be able to dictate the match.

2.  Force Danilo deep to turn Santos into a narrow formation and prevent him from running into open space

Danilo composes most of the Santos’s right flank.  As a combined defender and attacker, Barcelona should force him deep into his own end to defend.  To do this the Barcelona left flank player will need to stay wide and make himself dangerous.  When combined with dominance on the ball, this will likely keep Danilo from joining play.

Alternatively, when Danilo does make runs forward, the Barca left flank player should track him up the wing defensively.  This will prevent Danilo from enjoying the open space he usually does.

Pedro (or Sanchez if healthy) would be an ideal player to play this role.

If Santos’s right flank can be neutralized, Santos will lose a key outlet.  This will make it easier for Barca’s press and ball possession game to dominate the center of the pitch.

3.  Fatigue the legs of Santos, particularly Arouca and Elano

Elano and Arouca provide key linkages in the Santos formation. If Barca can control possession they will be able to fatigue Santos, a team used to controlling possession, significantly. In particular, Barca will be able to fatigue Elano and Arouca, which could prevent them from linking together the Santos formation.  This will promote Santos’s decay into a broken formation.

4.  Fluidity – off the ball movement, rapid ball circulation and changing formations

Organizing space is fundamental to defending.  Santos have never played a team with the kind of fluidity and dynamism Barca play with.

Santos isn’t a squad that focuses on maintaining shape (like Estudiantes has for decades).  In general, defending is primarily directed by the back seven players with the front three looking to attack.  It will be very difficult to defend Barca with seven players.

Through off the ball movement, rapid ball circulation and changing formations Barca will be able to further complicated Santos’s ability to control space.  Santos can be inconsistent in their defending – particularly along the back.  Dynamism in play can uncover and amplify this limitation.

5.  Develop width

When a team focuses its defense on a defensive base like Santos, making the pitch functionally large is particularly effective.  Width is key to this.

For example, in the semi-finals, the Kashiwa Reysol Sakai right back was able to make effective runs forward because Neymar didn’t track him and the LB played very deep (it was Sakai who also scored for Kashiwa off a set piece).  Alves can be very dangerous in this role.

On the left flank – Barca can be particularly dangerous in getting behind Danilo when he looks to get forward.

6.  Defend set pieces

Santos can be very effective at set pieces with Elano the key to this aspect of their game.  Barcelona will need to limit opportunities and focus their defense in these phases of the match.

7.  Press Neymar vigorously and in numbers

Neymar is prone to dwell on the ball and can over elaborate.  He is used to being able to operate in open space on the flank and use his dribbling skills to hold up play and move across the pitch.  Barca’s hunting in packs can significantly complicate his ability to do this if they defend intelligently.

Visca Barca!

Posted in Club World Cup9 Comments

Match Review Part 2: El Clásico Madrid 1 – 3 Barcelona: Tactical Analysis

People talk about tactics, but when you look at it, tactics are just players. You change things so that the team can get the most out of the skills they have to offer, but you don’t go any further than that. When it comes to tactics you have to think about what the opposition does and the players who can hurt you.

What I’ve done this season is a response to the game plans our rivals are now adopting against us.  As time goes by, people get to know you better. They pose problems for you and you have to come up with solutions.

-Pep Guardiola

We had to try. In life you have to choose to be brave, or very brave.

-Pep Guardiola,

on playing the system he chose this match at the Bernabeu

 

The first part of this review for the Clásico provided an overview of the match and its context.  In this part the focus will be a detailed breakdown of the systems issues and tactical issues that influnced the match.

Match Analysis

As previewed here there were three primary objectives that needed to be balanced in order for Barça to win this match:

1)  Establish control of midfield despite RM focusing their defense on this region of play.

Midfield has become the most contested space in the tactical battles between Guardiola and Mourinho.  Since the Manita, Mourinho has committed greater and greater defensive resources to this zone.  Conversely, Guardiola has always made it a must to have control of midfield as that’s the foundation of Barça

Given that both managers prioritized control of this zone – who would win this region?  How would Pep try to ensure this would happen?

2)  Create width in order to space the pitch while still maintaining control of midfield.

Controlling midfield is a key aspect to controlling possession.  However, it is not the only factor.  Nearly as important is spacing the pitch.  If controlling midfield requires so many players to be stationed there that spacing is lost it may be more difficult to create quality possession.  This has been a problem for Barça this season for example when they’ve used the 3-4-3.

3) Build solidity in defense – specifically transition defense.

Puyol Isolated With Oezil in Transition

Real Madrid are the most dangerous team in the world in attacking at speed.  Transition defense is fundamental to playing against them.  A key to transition defense against a team with the kind of pace Madrid have is to make sure the pitch is spaced.  If it’s not then there will be large spaces for the Madrid attackers to break into.

Once more, this relates to the central problem of control of midfield.  If you devote too many players to that region and lose spacing you will potentially compromise your transition defense.  This too has been a major problem for Barça at times this season, particularly when playing in the 3-4-3.

The Old Man Keeping Pace

Much of the entire debate about whether Barça could take the risk of playing three at the back at the Bernabeu specifically related to risk related to transition defense.  Madrid often break with four players.  Could you defend these breaks at speed with only three defenders?  On the flanks, it was very possible that with three at the back the Barça defenders would get caught 2 vs. 1. This was especially a concern on the right flank where the Barça defense would be facing C.Ronaldo and Marcelo.

In short, what made executing these three objectives so difficult was that improving one could damage another.  The key was developing a balance of these factors in a way that would maximize the whole.  This was the fundamental challenge Guardiola faced.

Oezil Changes Direction Puyol Right With Him

And he did this brilliantly by introducing a new structure for the team to play through, an innovative set up that allowed them to enhance their own strengths while countering those of Madrid.

Player Selection:

To start the match Guardiola selected: Valdes/ Alves / Puyol / Pique/ Abidal/ Busquets/ Xavi/ Fabregas/ Iniesta/ Sanchez/ Messi.   The major news in the player selection was the inclusion of Fabregas and Sanchez rather than Villa and the Puyol and Pique rather than Mascherano at CB.

Holding the Line: New Defensive Techniques Required to Play Oezil in Space

This season, with that selection of players, Guardiola has arranged them in a 4-3-3 with Fabregas as a false 9 and Messi on the right.  The concern with that line up has been transition defense along the right flank.  When Messi pulls in centrally off the right, Alves is left completely alone on the right flank.  Here he would be facing a potential 1 vs. 2 with Marcelo and C.Ronaldo.

Puyol Turned But Quickly Recovers

Guardiola however didn’t utilize that system.  Instead he went with an entirely new formation – one he hasn’t used before at Barça.  Why these selections were made will be discussed in more detail in subsequent sections.

Madrid countered with Casillas/ Coentrao/ Ramos/ Pepe/ Marcelo/ Diarra/ Alonso/ Oezil/ DiMaria/ Benzema/ C.Ronaldo.  The major notes in the Madrid line up were that Oezil would be playing rather than a three man defensive trivote.  The other major issues was Coentrao playing at RB despite usually being a LB.

Danger Over: The Captain Reads the Pass and Disposses Madrid of the Ball

Barcelona Formation(s)

Discussing Barcelona’s formations is often considered as a secondary issue.  Barça is so fluid at baseline with their movement and position switching that no formation really describes what they do.  Rather Barcelona plays an “amoeba” like arrangement.

And this is true in many ways.  Ultimately, Barcelona has evolved a system in which dynamics rather than structure are the focus.  However, all systems require structure otherwise they would become disorganized.  And for Barça this is a key point because so many of their players tend to drift to the middle.  Without an appropriate formation, Barça would wind up overly center focused  Also, because the Barcelona formation is often considered such a secondary issue, Guardiola’s work as a manager is often overlooked.

Average Positions Barcelona (via Opta)

In this Clásico, Guardiola implemented a new system, one that had a major impact on the outcome of the match.  Barcelona played a remarkably fluid game and the formations Barcelona based their play on contributed to this fluidity.   The system is difficult to picture as it moved through phases and was dynamic so rather than try to show it through pictures I’ll describe it now and illustrate it in subsequent sections through still shots.

What made the Barcelona system for this Clásico so interesting was that Guardiola implemented three different roles which have rarely if ever been part of how Barça play during his tenure:  1) lone central striker (played by Alexis Sanchez); 2) a true 10 playing in the hole (played Messi); 3) a “box to box” midfielder (played by Fabregas).  (Please note-in identifying these three aspects of the formation I’m referring to the role – not the skill set needed to play that role.  For example, Keita is well suited to play as a box to box midfielder – however that role has not been part of the Barça system under Guardiola so Keita hasn’t assumed that role).

What makes the utilization of these three roles together in this match particularly interesting is that each is a relatively orthodox role.  They are well described positions used widely by other squads.  However, Barça has not significantly relied on these roles in the recent past.  In fact, much of the innovation that Guardiola has brought to the team has been by moving away from these three roles to push the team to play in a more fluid, possession-based game.

But by moving back towards these three orthodox roles and doing so in the same match, Guardiola created a system that together was surprising.  In a sense, Guardiola innovated by becoming more traditional.  Madrid had considerable difficulty determining how to mark and handle the three players in these roles.  This was a great example of how tactical innovation in football can be created by adopting structures that have been used in other contexts.

The Barcelona system was intended to migrate through phases.  Barça opened up playing with four at the back.

Four Man Backline to Open

In the image above, Barcelona are playing their usual four man backline.  Notice how C.Ronaldo is clearly marking Dani Alves when Barça is playing four at the back.  This will be an important issue later on when Barça change formation.

In the image, note also how Fabregas has dropped deep in his box to box role to support build up of play and how Di Maria is forced to pick him up and mark him.  By having Fabregas play a box to box role he often acted as an “extra man” moving across different midfield zones.  Because he moved so far vertically and there was no box to box midfielder fro Madrid, Fabregas was difficult to pick and mark.  When he dropped to the Barça half, he often gave Barça numerical superiority.  This is why Angle DiMaria – a winger – has to pinch in and function as an extra midfielder himself to mark him.

During the first half Iniesta played as a left winger, though often interchanging positions and coming central.  Xavi played in central midfield – but played deeper than he usually does to facilitate build up of play in face of the Madrid pressure and due to the fact that Busquets was often playing deeper than usual.

In minute 17, however, Dani Alves moved up the pitch to a wingback position leaving three defenders on the backline.  Sergio Busquets soon dropped deeper and played as a libero, dropping to the backline CB when Barça lost possession with Puyol moving out to RB. In a sense, Barça played most of the match with 3 ½ defenders.

Overall, for most of the match the Barça formation could be considered to have migrated from a 4-3-3 to 3-1-2-3-1.

For much of the first half the Barça formation was also asymmetric, with the right side predominating.  What was interesting about the asymmetry of this formation was that it reversed the usual orientation of the Barcelona system.  Usually, Barcelona plays as a center-left squad do to the positioning of the midfield.  In their base 4-3-3, Iniesta plays on the left of center giving Barça an additional player on that side of the pitch – a player who a great deal of play is funneled through.

In this Clásico, however, Barça became a center-right team as Dani Alves became an extra midfielder on the right.  As the prior image showed, Alves was routinely open in space on the right as Madrid had difficulty marking him in that wing back position wide.  As such, more play ran through the right side of the pitch than Barcelona usually engages in.

This change in orientation to the right had important impacts on the match.  The extra attacking thrust on the right pinned back Marcelo significantly and forced the Madrid LW (C.Ronaldo in the first half) deep as well to defend (as noted in the prior image).  The left flanks is the primary focus of the Madrid attack.  Given how much of the Madrid attack is run through that left flank, forcing those two attack oriented players back by stationing Alves higher up and running the ball through that side was critical to both Barça maintaining possession and “defending with the ball” by pushing Madrid back.

These issues are all summarized in the following still shot.

Change in System: Three Defender Backline with Busquets as the Libero

In the image above, Barcelona has converted to a three man back line with Puyol moving out to the right center back, Abidal left center back, and Pique sweeping behind them centrally.  Busquets is slightly ahead of Pique in midfield in a libero role.

When in possession Busquets would step up into midfield to facilitate possession and ball circulation.

Dani Alves (red arrow in image) is now extremely high up the pitch.  Notice how Alves is completely unmarked in space.  This would happen again and again in the match after Barça moved to a three man backline.  Alves intelligently positioned himself between Marcelo and C.Ronaldo..  As will be discussed later, Madrid’s defensive system is based on zonal coverage with man marking.

In the image above, Alves has moved into a zone where there isn’t a defender free to mark him.  Sanchez has moved into the right channel occupying Ramos and Marcelo.  Compare this to the prior image when C.Ronaldo was actively marking him.  Alves has gotten behind C.Ronaldo who does not want to drop that deep as it would functionally position him as a LB.  Notice however, that C.Ronaldo tries to keep an eye on Alves and has dropped even deeper than Xabi Alonso to do so.  This is an example of how Barça changing attacking formations actually was a form of defense hindering the Madrid attack by driving players deep to defend.

Sanchez’s role as a striker is visible in the still shot above – he is occupying two defenders.   Messi’s is positioned as a 10, playing behind Sanchez, but free to drop deeper than a traditional 10 might.  Iniesta is playing so wide as a LW that he is not visible in the image.

Compare Fabregas’s position here to the first still shot.  Fabregas is now nearly as high up the pitch as Sanchez, the striker.  His positioning is completely different than it was in the first image where Fabregas was back in the Barça half, deeper than Xavi, and playing close to Busquets, the holding midfielder.  These two images demonstrate Fabregas’s box to box role.

Finally, in the image above, note Madrid’s defensive positioning.  Specifically, notice the large gap in space between Madrid’s lines.  Their five advance defenders are looking to pressure the ball higher up toward the half line.  Their defensive line however has dropped deep.

The only player between the lines is Diarra, but even he is in an odd position because Barça have skewed their formation rightwards.  As such there is a large gap in space between the lines where most of the Bara players are. This is an example of a critical issue in this match – Madrid was not playing as compact as they could have (more on this later in the section on the Madrid defensive system).  By not staying compact, room was open in the interior of their defensive block.

Here is a comparable shot of the backline when Busquets dropped deeper into the backline as a CB and Puyol wide as the RB.

Four at the Back Busquets Dropped Deep to CB

In the image above, notice how Madrid has difficulty marking Busquets when he drops deep.  Usually Busquets was Ozil’s responsibility with Benzema responsible for pressuring the CBs.  Busquets has moved into a zone where there are no available Madrid defenders.  Dropping back this way allowed Busquets to move away from the defensive pressure.  In essence, he became something of a free man at the back.

The requirement to play RB and be lined up against C.Ronaldo were likely major factors in Guardiola selecting Puyol over Mascherano.  This role was fundamental to the entire Barça system – the RB/CB spot was the focal point which allowed Barça to create numerical superiority in midfield while still maintaining width (more on this later].

Guardiola would further change the Barça formation in the second half – a change in tactics which would have a decisive effect on the match.  This will also be discussed on a later section of this piece.

The New Traditional Roles:  Sanchez and Fabregas

While Sanchez, Messi and Fabregas played more orthodox footballing roles, the way they interpreted those roles was critical.

First, while Sanchez was stationed as a lone striker, he played a highly mobile, highly tactical role.  He didn’t simply stay in the center of the pitch up against the two CB as the lone striker traditionally does.  His job was to occupy the defenders (more on this later) but to occupy them through movement and threaten the backline by using his pace and strength to get behind the Madrid backline.  Interestingly, Sanchez played in a band moving from touchline to touchline to facilitate the attack and defense.  Tactically, his function was to add horizontal force to the Barça system.

Sanchez as Lone Striker Tracks Marcelo Deep Right Flank to Defend

In the image above, Sanchez has moved all the way to the far right flank in order to mark Marcelo.  This was the 10th minute of the match – before Alves moved to right wing.  During this time, Marcelo was starting to get forward more effectively Alves was responsible for marking C.Ronaldo.  Without a true right winger at this time, Alves could have been caught 1 vs. 2 aginst C. Ronaldo and Marcelo.  Guardiola instructed Sanchez to move laterally and mark Marcelo to avoid this.  For a stretch of time in the first half, Sanchez often was positioned as a RW.

The other key role Sanchez played as a lone striker in front of Messi was to occupy defenders.  Sanchez was routinely marked by two of Madrid’s backline.  This made it difficult for them to step out and mark Messi – even between the lines.  As such, if Mourinho was planning on using a strategy such as the one he implemented in the Spanish Super Cup where the CB marked Messi, it would have been very difficult to do with Sanchez acting as a striker and Messi as a 10.

In the past, when Madrid has pressured Barça high up the pitch, it has forced Xavi and Messi to drop very deep to build play.  In order to help Messi stay higher up the pitch and maintain his free role while still giving support to Xavi, Guardiola had Fabregas drop deep in midfield.  However, Guardiola also wanted to utilize Fabregas’s goal scoring abilities and his direct runs from deep.  As such, Fabregas played a true “box to box” midfield role.  As was shown in the prior images, he routinely dropped deep when the all was in the Barça half but also regularly made runs forward, often moving to a very advanced position close or even further forward than Messi and Sanchez.

Unfortunately, this box to box role also created some confusion for Barça, particularly given that Fabregas is still integrating into a ball playing midfield role.  Because Barça do not usually play this type of role, Barça players were often unsure of where Fabregas would be positioned at any one time and where his runs were headed.  Additionally, Fabregas himself often seemed somewhat unsure.  As such, his impact on the game went missing for long stretches of time.  Nonetheless, the diverse deep and attacking qualities of box to box play were brilliantly on display during Fabregas’ run and header for the third goal.  Rarely has a Barça midfielder scored that kind of goal over the past 4 seasons.

The Madrid Defensive System:  Foundations

To fully understand Guardiola’s player selection and the system he implemented for the match, it’s important to consider the Madrid defensive system as that conditioned the context for Guardiola’s decision making.

The Madrid defensive system has evolved to focus on pressuring high up the pitch out of a system of zonal coverage with man marking.

While there was some thought that Madrid would sit back and defend deep, this was never likely.  Madrid has been evolving a pressure defensive scheme since last season, a movement which amplified over the second half of last season and came to the fore at in the Spanish Supercup to start off this season.  This is the defensive identity they have been moving towards for over the past year.  And it’s a system that was at least in part targeted to stop Barcelona.

Many teams have now chosen to press Barcelona higher up the pitch.  The purpose of doing so is to prevent Barça from systematically building up play out of the back and to clot midfield with numbers.

Madrid’s pressure defense is a two part system.  First, pressure high up the pitch with the front three players and two to three of the midfielders.  In pressing very high up, Madrid seeks to:  1) force Barcelona’s lesser skilled players on the ball – the keeper and backline – into making a mistake high up the pitch and

2) to prevent the highly skilled midfielders from getting the ball and critically developing a rhythm that will control match tempo.

The defense is structured to allocate defenders directly against the Barça backline and to overplay the midfield directly behind.  The objective is to clot the pitch and prevent Barça from playing through the middle if Barça get the ball through the initial defensive layer.

The Madrid defensive scheme is well illustrated by this image from the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup earlier this season:

Madrid Defensive Pressure System: Spanish Super Cup 2011

Notice how Madrid is pressing high – but doing so through zonal coverage and man marking.  Each Madrid defenders is marking one Barcelona player.  Benzema is applying pressure – but individually, not in a “pack.”  Behind the front three, Madrid is also matched up 3 vs. 3 with the Barça midfield.

Pressure is applied as a defender runs 1 v. 1 on the ball.  When a pass is made the next defender will start to close down the receiver of the ball (sometimes described as “through pressing.”)   The objective is to either force an error in the pass or a miscontrol in rececptin of a pass.

Madrid will seek to cluster defenders together when possible – e.g. towards the touchlines.  But the approach does not depend on this.

In this Clascio, Madrid implemented a similar defensive system, only playing their front five players even higher up the pitch.

Two Madrid Defenders Pressuring Valdes

Above, Madrid is vigorously pressing Valdes trying to force him into a second mistake.  While on the first goal of the game Valdes wasn’t being directly pressed and simply made an errant pass, he was frequently directly pressured – here with two defenders.  Benzema and Dimaria – two very athletic players are closing him down – this is an enormous challenge for any goal keeper.

Madrid not only pressed extremely high in this Clásico.  They pressed very high in numbers – even more than the Copa Del Rey and Spanish Super Cup.  As can be seen from the image above, Madrid played a four man defensive front of C.Ronaldo, Benzema, DiMaria and Ozil.

The goal was to force the Barça defenders or Valdes to turn the ball over.  And this strategy helped contribute to the Madrid goal.  However, by playing Ozil so high, Madrid functionally removed a defender from midfield.  Ozil, who has limited stamina and fatigues relatively quickly, struggled to drop back when the Barça attack got past this initial line of four advanced defenders.

The Madrid Defensive System:  Trade Offs – Interior Space

However, all systems require trade offs.  To press to maximum efficiency a team has to stay as compact as possible.  It can be difficult to man mark and stay compact because the defenders start to move in relationship to the attackers rather than in relationship to each other.  In the images above, notice the amount of space between the Madrid defenders both laterally and vertically.

Even more importantly, to stay compact a team has to play a high line.  This involves significant risk as so much space is left behind the backline.  Mourinho has sought to limit how high his backline plays to decrease this risk.  This is not to say that Madrid play a deep back line.  It’s that compared to how high up the advanced defenders are and how aggressively they pres, the backline player deep in comparison.  The backline does not prioritize squeezing space.  For example, in the Spanish Super Cup Madrid played roughly 50m between its front line and backline.  Barça in comparison had around 40m of space.

This issue is also noticeable when an attack breaks through the first two lines of defenders.  The reaction of the Madrid backline is often to move deeper to cover rather than moving aggressively forward to dispossess the ball.

As such, a major limitation to this system open is interior space.  Because Madrid try to limit how compact they need to be space can open up in the interior of their defense block.  This is particular true behind the more advanced lines that press higher up the pitch.

These issues are illustrated in the sequence below:

Oezil Pressure Abidal High Up the Pitch

Above, Madrid are pressuring out of their based zonal cover, man marking system.  All five defenders are directly marking a Barça player with Oezil running at Abidal to close him down.

Note however that there is one player with no marker – Messi.  As will be discussed later, due to Messi playing as a true 10 rather than as a false 9, Madrid had no direct player available to mark him when he dropped deep because all of the Madrid advanced defenders were already marking Barça players 1 vs. 1.  Over and over Messi was able to drop deep and find open space.  In fact, this match was one in which Messi was able to find more space than most he’s played in this season.  This would prove decisive in this match.

One of the most direct ways to beat this kind of defense is by using the ball.  The Madrid pressure defense is set up to shut down Barça’s short passing game.  If however a player can beat his marker with the dribble, this type of defensive system can collapse.  This is exactly what Abidal does.

Abidal Beats Oezila with Dribble Now Free in Open Space

Rather than passing to an open Busquets, Abidal holds the ball, allows Oezil to overrun the play and beats the defender with the dribble.  Once Abidal is past Oezil notice how much space he has to run into.  This is a good example of Madrid not staying compact and interior space opening up within their block.  Also notice how Iniesta has dropped deep off his LW position and is completely unmarked in this open space.

Abidal Free in Space; Madrid Not Compact

Abidal is still in open space and not closed down.  Alonso is trying to recover and close him down – but Alonso has very limited pace and doesn’t  hinder Abidal.  In the image above you can just see part of Marcelo’s arm.  Again, this demonstrates how much space there was between Madrid’s frontline and backline.

Tellingly, Diarra is signaling Abidal’s run to the backline.  Diarra doesn’t move to close down Abidal.  Instead his tactical role is to defend deep – in front of the back four.  Again, this leaves open interior space because it prevents compactness.  And the focus of the backline is to start to drop deeper – not to close space and press – even though the Barça run is being made by a defender who is not even to the midfield line.

Finally, notice how out of shape the Madrid backline is.  Sanchez has dropped deep and forced Coentrao, the right back, to track him into the middle of the pitch. Coentrao is unclear on whether he should track Sanchez or close down Abidal.  Diarra is signaling for him to mark Sanchez but Coentrao is edging towards Abidal.  Remarkably, Messi is still completely open in space – and intelligently making a vertical run directly into the space Coentrao has vacated.

Exploiting these internal open spaces through off the ball movement, rapid ball circulation and the dribbling were the central reasons why Barcelona was able to control midfield and control this match.  This was fundamental to Barcelona winning.  Again and again Barça was able to create and exploit space within the Madrid block by patiently playing the ball past the initial line of four defenders who were very high up the pitch.

Dribbling was critical to winning this match due to the reasons shown in the images above.  I wanted to show the images from Abidal’s run because they demonstrated how effective this tactics could be.  Abidal is a defender – he is very good on the ball for a backline player but hardly a force.  Despite that, making the front line defense miss ripped open the Madrid defense.

When the Barceona attackers used the ball to find that kind of space the effects where devastating.  Messi’s freedom to find space coupled with his ability to dribble and make defenders miss within that open space repeatedly forced the Madrid defense to break its shape.  In the second half, Iniesta functionally took over the match through his ability on the ball carving open interior space by ghosting past defenders.

One of Guardiola’s fundamental tactical accomplishments in this Clásico was to develop a structure that facilitated Barcelona exploiting these open interior spaces.

The Madrid Defensive System: Trade Offs – Fatigue

The key to Madrid’s press is their athleticism and pace.  This is why they can defend so effectively on the press without staying as compact as other pressing teams need to.  Each defender pressing high is assigned to cover a zone and man mark a defender in that zone.  Pressure doesn’t depend on “hunting in packs.”  Instead it’s primarily created through the work rate and pace of the defenders.  Advanced defender are responsible for marking opposition players 1 vs. 1 across much of the pitch.  Space is suffocated through velocity, allowing the backline and defensive midfielders to play deeper than they otherwise would.

This brings up another major limitation of this system however – fatigue.  Defenders are frequently required to chase the ball 1 vs. 1 over distance to close down space.  In general, it is difficult for teams to press aggressively for 90 minutes – especially when they face a Barça team that will control 60-75% of possession.  To press for 90 minues with the Madrid model is especially difficult.

And as the match wore on and Barça retained possession Madrid visibly fatigued.  This decreased the effectiveness of their pressure significantly in the second half.  This was another major structural advantage.

Battle for Midfield

Over the past series of Clásicos Guardiola and Mourinho have been locked in a battle over control of midfield.  Mourinho understands that this is the life blood of the Barcelona attack.  As such he’s focused defensive resources to this region by increasing defensive shape, including more defensively oriented players in the zone (e.g. trivote), and increasing the sheer number of players in the region (e.g. high pressure).

Guardiola has responded to these tactics by Mourinho by stationing more players in midfield in order to maintain numerical advantage.

For example, in the CL last season Guardiola had his full backs play in line with the holding midfielder to provide outlets in the middle third instead of sending them high up the pitch.  This gave Barça six players in midfield.

One of the key open questions headed into this match was how many players Guardiola would commit to midfield in order to maintain numerical advantage.  In turn, how many could he commit without having so many players in the center that Barça would lose spacing, become too narrow and become easier to defend.  This was particularly important because if Barça lost spacing of the pitch they could be exposed on the counter in their transition defense.

The Battle Over Midfield:  What to do with Messi?

Much of the crux of the midfield battle between Guardiola and Mourinho tactically has revolved around Messi.  As a false 9, Messi theoretically gives Barça an extra man in midfield.  He gives Barça direct numerical advantage if allowed to do so unencumbered.

In order to prevent this, Mourinho has used multiple strategies since the Manita.  He’s had Pepe play as a DM and man mark Messi.  This worked reasonably well –but requires Madrid to play deep and defend and also have surplus CB to utilize.

Mourinho had his center backs step out aggressively to mark Messi. This is partly why Mourinho can’t afford to play his whole backline too high – there’s too much risk doing that while CB are stepping out on Messi.

Madrid has gone so far as to use CB to step out and even man mark Messi across the pitch.  For example, in the Super Copa Clásico’s Carvalho was assigned to man mark Messi across his defensive zone -even following him laterally to the touchlines when needed.

This specific strategy however met with mixed success at best as Messi’s dragged Carvalho out of shape engineering key Barça scores.

Perhaps the match where Madrid handled Messi best was in the Copa Del Rey.  And in that match they defended him indirectly.  That was the first match where they tried to pressure Barça.  Madrid played in a block, pressured higher up, and overplayed the middle.  In order to retain possession under pressure, Messi had to drop extremely deep to search for the ball and support the midfield three.  He dropped so deep however that Barça essentially lost him as a goal threat.  And in addition, no other player to filled in the space he vacated.  So in essence, by pressuring high up, Madrid not only disrupted Barça’s possession – but also nullified Barça’s best threat on goal.  They turned Messi as a false 9 striker into a full time midfielder with no striker in front of him.

Making sure this didn’t happen again – Messi dropping so deep to support possession that Barça completely loses its focal point in attack – was a priority for Guardiola and a key driver for the formation he implemented.

Leo Messi Comes Full Circle at the Bernabeu

The first time Guardiola fielded Messi at the false 9 position was during the historic 2-6 Barcelona victory at the Bernabeu.  In that match, playing Messi centrally and having him drop deep created anarchy in the Madrid defense.  While the false 9 has since garnered significant attention – at the time it was largely a forgotten tactic and Madrid didn’t know how to respond (which happened again to Manchester United in the CL finals).

Since then, of course the competition has responded.  And as touched on prior, Mourinho has developed several defensive approaches geared towards dealing with Messi in the false 9 position.

So on this trip to the Bernabeu, Guardiola shuffled the deck once again – and once more the move had a major impact on the match.

Messi didn’t play as a false 9 in this match.  He played in the hole behind the striker – close to how one would expect a 10 to play (though dropping much deeper into midfield than the traditional 10).  This is the position in the hole is the one that is most revered in Argentina.  There the position is described as the “enganche” – which literally mean hook.  The notion is that the enganche should be the creative player who connects midfield to the striker.  This match was one in which Messi again came very close to occupying the same position Maradona made his own.

One of the great tactical ironies of this match is that Messi played one of the more orthodox roles he’s ever played at Barcelona – and by playing him in a more orthodox position, Guardiola again created confusion and difficulty for Madrid at the Bernabeu by utilizing a strategy from the “past.”

The image below demonstrates several of these factors:

Messi Finds Open Space Between the Lines

Messi has the ball in the space between the Madrid lines.  He has an frontline attacker in front of him – Sanchez – as a point of reference.  Because of Sanchez’s pace and ability to get behind the defense, it is not simple for the CB to aggressively step out on Messi as they have in the past when he was a false 9.

Xabi Alonso is forced to mark Alves – who is now playing as a winger.  Madrid never made a suitable adjustment to Alves playing higher up the pitch.  C.Ronaldo continues to mark Puyol as Puyol was the player in his zone he was assigned to mark and press.  Once the ball got past that line, C.Ronaldo did not want to track back that deeply as it would have limited his ability to attack on the counter.

This image above also shows how strong an effect Barça’s asymmetric formation had in the match tactically.  The entire defense has shifted to the Barça right flank.  Messi is 1 vs. 1 with Diarra.  Remarkably, both Iniesta and Fabregas are completely unmarked and making runs from deep into space.

The key here is the way Barcelona have spaced the pitch.  Unlike other matches where they’ve used extra midfielders – in this match Barça maintained width which spaced the pitch.

Iniesta in the first half did a wonderful job of staying disciplined and maintaining width.  The drawback to this was that he was often isolated and uninvolved.  But he stretched the pitch wide left.  Because Abidal doesn’t get forward, the Barça LW is often going to be isolated (a problem that Villa runs into over and over).  Nonetheless, stretching the pitch made it very large and hard for Madrid to defend.

On the right side, Alves did a wonderful job of staying wide and tirelessly ran up and down the flank to both attack and support Puyol in defense.

This width and spacing of the pitch, was fundamental to opening up the weaknesses in the Madrid defensive system.  They cracked open that internal space – especially for Messi and also forced the Madrid defense to have to run more and become fatigued.

Spacing the Pitch Pays Off

The plays I’ve focused on until now didn’t turn into scores or even necessarily into real opportunities.  I wanted to show them however to demonstrate the pattern that emerged once Barça stabilized themselves in the game and switched to a three man backline.

There is only so long you can continue to give Barça this much open space – especially to Messi.  And ultimately, this is what led to two of the three goals.

Messi Open in Midfield Receives Pass; Xavi Open in Space Also

In the image above Messi receives a pass in midfield.  Notice how neither Messi nor Xavi are being marked.  The reason for this is that Oezila and Benzema were marking the two CBs Pique and Busquets as they were supposed to be.  C.Ronaldo’s responsibility is the lateral zone so he does not want to collapse into the middle – doing so will break Madrid’s shape.  Diarra is again playing deep rather than compact and also needs to keep an track of Iniesta how has ghosted in behind him (not shown in this image).  Alonso has marked Fabregas who has run into the area in his box to box role.

In a sense – all of the Madrid defenders are doing exactly what they are supposed to do in their defensive system.  But it leads to catastrophe for them.

Messi Accelerates; Oezil Attempts to Tactical Foul

Ozil makes great effort not only to close down Messi – but to tactically foul him.  As Oezil pressures notice the response of the Madrid defense – Diarra, Alonso, and Marcelo’s reaction to Messi’s run is to start to drop deep.  Ramos decides to step up into space.

Messi Breaks Tackle

Messi’s balance and strength allow him to easily ride Oezil’s tackle.  Once he’s broken free of that front line defender with the dribble the Madrid defense collapses shape.  Alonso looks to close down Messi and Lass tries to retreat.  The problem is because Messi had space initially – he’s already accelerated.

Messi Splits Defenders

Messi splits the defenders and blows by Alonso.  Notice Marcelo’s positioning here.  Because Alves is staying so wide Marcelo marks him rather than collapsing into the middle to defend.  This would prove decisive in the goal.

Ramos Steps Up to Stop Run But Messi Releases Pass

In the image above, Ramos has stepped up strongly with Lass closing down from behind and trying to muscle Messi off the ball.

Prior when Messi was playing the false 9 – this type of defending may have been effective.  Messi received the ball so deep and has so many walls of deeper defenders to beat.  But in this game because he’s playing as a 10 rather than as a false 9 Messi has a point of reference in front of him in Sanchez.  And Sanchez is a point of reference striker who has explosive pace and can get behind CBs with relative ease.  As such above Messi only has to ride so many tackles – he releases the ball for the pass as he’s cut down by Diarra.

Pass Released to Sanchez as Messi Tackled to the Ground

Messi Threads Pass; Sanchez Runs Behind Defense with Pace

Sanchez is able to accelerate past Pepe and Coentrao and get behind them.  Then as Pepe tries to tackle him Sanchez still has the strength and balance needed to stay on his feet.

Sanchez With Ball Separates As Pepe Attempts Tackle

Sanchez Gets off Shot While Riding Challenge

The Second Half: Iniesta Leaves His Mark

While the first half ended level and Barça had turned the match – it was still not the usual composed Barcelona.  They had more possession but had to struggle for it and that possession wasn’t as coherent as it ideally should be.

The major reason for this of course as the Madrid pressure defense.

But another reason was the absence of Iniesta in midfield.  Pulling Iniesta out to the wing provided Barcelona with needed tactical width.  But it removed one of the world’s great players with the ball at his feet from the region where he’s most dangerous.

While Fabregas’s role was sound in terms of formations and structure – the way he executed it wasn’t.  Fabregas is still learning how to integrate himself into the Barça possession game.  Right now he still plays “too slowly” often trying to play direct balls that just aren’t available because that’s not the style of the surrounding players.  And in this match he struggled to enter the flow of midfield play.  This was complicated by his new box to box role – one he hadn’t played before this season and one his teammates weren’ t certain how to link up with.

Iniesta playing on the wing was directly related to being able to play Fabregas in the match.  Pep essentially decided that Iniesta is better wide than Fabregas would be.  This made Fabregas’s performance in terms of build up and possession particularly costly as it removed Iniesta’s presence and replaced it with lower level midfield play.  At the same time – Iniesta was isolated on LW and struggled to fully join the dynamics of the match as well.

Guardiola saw this and changed it at half time.  Iniesta pinched in to midfield and Barça played without a designated LW.  Instead, Fabregas would often swith out wide when play needed to be stretched.

Moving Iniesta back to midfield transformed the match as it redefined how Barça was able to control possession.  Iniesta in the second half was the best player on the pitch. He generated opportunity after opportunity.  And against a tiring Madrid defense was able to ghost through those open internal spaces within the Madrid defense over and over.

Iniesta Playing Centrally in Second Half Beats Coentrao

Iniesta receives the ball in the Barça half above from Fabregas.  Iniesta turns quickly at the onrushing Coentrao.  For most of the game Coentrao played very deeply.  But once Iniesta moved centreally Madrid had no one to directly mark him.  Ironically, the one thing Mourinho had tried to avoid since the Manita had happened – Barça had completely overrun the Madrid defensive midfield.  Barça now had a numerical advantage in midfield of up to 5-6 to 3.  At the same time because Alves stayed, Sanchez would pull horizontally between flanks, and Fabregas would move left when Iniesta came very central, Barça still had width.

In this regard, it was very curious that Mourinho didn’t substitute in more central midfielders or pull DiMaria permanently off the flank into midfield.  Instead he continued to have Madrid play their zonal cover man marking pressure system.  The problem was Barça had too much movement and interplay from multi-skilled players for this system of 1 vs. 1 marking to work-especially as the defenders tired.

This is well demonstrated in the image above.  Notice how Messi is once again completely open and unmarked in space.  Messi had as much space in this match as he’s had for quite some time.  It seems like the Madrid plan may have been similar to the Copa Del Rey.  Allow Messi to collect the ball deep to draw him away from goal and then defend him deep with the CBs if he breaks containment.  However, Messi was no longer playing as a false 9.  He was playing as a 10 with Sanchez in front of him and Alves always wide of him in the right.  Even if intentional the Copa Del Rey defensive strategy wasn’t going to work.

Iniesta Beats Second Defender; Coentrao Frustrated; Messi Open in Space

Iniesta beats Coentrao and then Alonso off the dribble in transition and once he does the whole pitch opens up.  Coentrao is so angry at getting beat, he stops and flails his arm in the middle of the pitch.

Again, note how remarkably wide open Messi is in space.  This is again one of those images that when you just see it – you know it is going to end badly for the opposition.  Iniesta with the ball.  Messi open with large space to run into.

Iniesta Plays Ball Wide to Messi

Khedira falls back to close down Messi.  Despite Khedira being so much larger than him, Messi rides out the tackle.

Messi Rides Khedira's Tackle from Behind; Marcelo Collapses Centrally

Messi Breaks Challenge

In the images above Messi has broke Khedira’s tackle.  This causes the entire defense to collapse on him.  Notice how open Alves is because he has maintained disciplined tactical width. These are the kinds of transition breaks at speed that Madrid themselves have become so known for.  Also notice that Fabregas has come into the image on the run along with Coentrao.

Alves fires in an amazing cross.  It’s a beautiful piece of skill especially given how complicated it is to time that cross when Fabregas is making such a long run.  But the key to Alves being able to make a cross of that quality is Messi.  Because Messi has forced the defense to collapse with his run Alves is completely unmarked and has no defenders even running towards him.  As shown below, Marcelo the LB actually has his back turned to Alves – that’s how open he is.

Alves Open in Space Wide

Alves Receives Pass; Fabregas Makes Run from Deep to Goal

Alves Perfectly Times and Places Cross for Fabregas's Run

Solidity in Transition Defense:  Carles Puyol – The Key to Guardiola’s Tactics

While I’ve discussed the Bardca formation and attack in detail – none of it would be possible without Carles Puyol.  He along with Busquets were the tactical foundations for Guardiola’s thinking.  And it was Puyol who had to absorb the greatest responsibility on the team.

Barça was simultaneously able to gain numerical advantage in midfield while also spacing the pitch through width primarily because they played three at the back with Busquets in support.  This is what Pep meant when he said that the team had the choice to be brave or very brave in the match at the Bernabeu.

The trade off one makes is that with three at the back the lateral center halves are extremely exposed down the flanks.  They are at risk for getting caught  1 vs. 2 against the oppositions winger and FB.  This is what happened to Mascherano again and again in the opening of the Valencia match.

To play three at the back meant trusting that the lateral CB could at minimum handle the Madrid wingers 1 vs. 1 in space.  While Busquets could join as a fourth defender – the problem would really occur in transition defense.  In those situations there would likely not be enough time for Busquets to drop and for the backline to spread wide.  Given that Madrid runs its offense down the flanks and is the best squad in the world at breaking at speed – this tactical approach was enormously risky.  To implement it meant that Guardiola had to have complete faith in his backline – but especially in the lateral center halves.

And the key player in making all of this work was the right center half who would have to double as a right FB.  Madrid’s offense is structure down its left flank.  The combination of Marcelo in support of C.Ronalso along with Ozil and Xabi spraying balls wide into space is the foundation of their offense.  In addition, with Benzema’s resurgence – he too often plays out on the left flank looking to link up with C.Ronaldo and create moves from wider positions.

And in a game where Coentrao, a left footed player, was acting as a make shift RB – the left flank was even more critical for Madrid.

Everything I’ve discussed – none of it would be possible or could work if Guardiola didn’t believe his right center back could carry this immense responsibility.  If he couldn’t – then no Fabregas in a box to box role.  No Alves on the wing.  No Sanchez as a lone striker playing in a horizontal band.  None of it worked unless Guardiola believed that a single player could neutralize C.Ronaldo 1 vs. 1 and stop breaks involving Marcelo and C.Ronaldo linking together.

Guardiola fortunately did have that player.  The Captain was just immense.  He had the most responsibility on the team this match.  He gave Pep the flexibility to balance the three objectives – control of midfield / width along with transition defense.  Abidal also had a terrific match playing well against DiMaria.

But as expected the Madrid attack was significantly weighted to their left flank during the crucial part of the match.  And Puyol completely shut down the Madrid attack time and time again.  Alves was critical because he occupied Marcelo and prevented him from getting forward.  But seeing that Benzema came left frequently to support C.Ronaldo.

So effective was Puyol in neutralizing C.Ronaldo pace based attacks on the left flank, that Mourinho moved C.Ronaldo to the right flank.  Not only is this C.Ronaldo’s weaker side but Coentrao wasn’t getting forward at all so C.Ronaldo as functionally on his own in wide positions.

It’s for these reasons that Puyol was man of the match.

The End

For much of this season Guardiola has been criticized for experimenting too much.  Too many line ups.  Too many formations.  To few defenders and far too many midfielders.

What made this Clásico so special – was that it was the culmination of all that experimentation, risk taking, hard work and complete belief in his players.

Without that prior experimentation – Barcelona could not have won this match the way they did.  In fact, without Guardiola continuing to push tactical boundaries with the Barça system and forcing it to evolve – it’s possible that Barça wouldn’t have won.

Mourinho set his team up to face a Barça team that played a fluid 4-3-3 with Messi dropping deep as the primary source of numerical advantage in midfield.  But that wasn’t’ the system Guardiola played at all.  And that just amplified how many shadows the Madrid team had to chase once Barcelona settled down from that disastrous start.

Ultimately, it was the team’s talent, mental strength, calm and championship experience that saw them through after that disastrous start where they conceded within thirty seconds of the match starting.  But it was the way the system was constructed that allowed the players to translate the inner resources they possessed into execution on the pitch and do so as a brilliant, collective whole.  That’s what tactics are always about.

This was a historic match in so many ways.  Tactically it was one of the most noteworthy in Barcelona’s history given how innovative Guardiola was and the circumstances.  He continues to develop approaches to the game that are breathtaking to watch and analyze.

In my preview to the match I wrote that given how talented these two sides are and how multi-dimensional the players are, the tactical battle would be won by the manager who put into place the structure that maximized the players flexibility and their ability to respond dynamically to the events that transpired within match play.

In this match and in the Rayo Vallecano match Guardiola is exporing the dimensions for how that kind of flexibility can be created.

At the start of this season many thought that incorporating the 3-4-3 into the base system was Guardiola’s next project for the team.  And many wondered if it was too radical a shift to work.

It turned out everyone was wrong.  Guardiola is trying to move in a far more visionary direction.

 

Posted in La Liga, Review68 Comments

Match Review Part 1: El Clásico Madrid 1 – 3 Barcelona: The Other 39 Seconds

There’s a curious attraction, almost an intoxication, which comes from spotting a trend.  We look for them everywhere.  It’s one of our foibles as humans.  So eager to project what’s to come, we read too much into the tealeaves of our times.  Small samples of evidence are transformed into forecasts and given weight they cannot possibly carry.  Housing prices have gone up and up for years.  They’ll continue to do so.  Let’s keep borrowing.  The Berlin Wall has fallen.  The Cold War is over.  Political economy has reached a final conclusion and democracy has won.

Finding trends allows us to believe that history has a direction, one that we can identify and shape.  On a more intimate level, it allows to believe that we can see the future that our own lives and circumstances are headed towards.  And if you can see your face tomorrow then you can sculpt your life in ways otherwise not possible.

 

We see patterns where none exist.  We place disproportionate emphasis on events that have taken place more recently.  We make conclusions about future events based on how something behaves at its peak performance thinking that this optimal state will define a new norm.

And so it was entering this Clásico.  The entire match became widely connected with this kind of thinking.  Almost everywhere one looked there was the general notion that Madrid would triumph because they had “closed the gap.”  There was frequent speculation about the Barcelona cycle closing.  This is a narrative we see a great deal in our culture of media and instant information.  A twin story of ascendance and decay.  Of a rise coupled to a fall.  A new cycle was opening with an old one closing.  That was the framing and in a sense the match itself turned into something of an afterthought.  The trends were clear after all.   The outcome apparent.

You Will Retire Me But Iniesta Will Retire Us Both

There’s no question that Madrid has improved as a squad over the past several seasons (a process that started under Pellegrini).  And they have been playing outstanding football this season.

But the consensus around what the outcome of this Clásico would be was based on a fundamental assumption.  That Madrid were improving while Barça were essentially standing still – even regressing.  Each squad was headed in different directions – this was taken as evidence of the Madrid’s perceived ascendance.  It was as if Madrid improving had to mean that Barcelona was regressing.

Illusionista

Madrid’s improvement seemed to preclude the possibility of Barça doing the same.  It seemed to eclipse the body of work that this Barcelona project has put together under Guardiola.  A new trend had emerged.  The cycle was over.

What we heard was that this team – it’s not the same Barcelona.  This Barça team is engaging in too much change.  There’s no lineup.  A different backline every game.  Trying out different formations and dropping points in the process.  They were growing complacent.

Madrid on the other hand were clearly on the rise.  Mourinho’s second season.  They have a system, a set selection of players.  This match would clearly demonstrate how far things had changed.  You could see it from the trends.

But teams don’t become champions in a world of abstract speculation.  Championships are designations that can only be earned on the pitch.  The narrative of ascension and decay voiced over and over placed a primacy on Madrid’s recent term results while discounting the accumulated accomplishments of this Barça team.  It placed a more vibrant value on recent results, on what could occur and placed a heavy discount rate on what’s been achieved.  That’s only the past after all.  And in our world of constant churn, even last May can seem a lifetime ago.

From this perspective, growth in performance is seen as equivalent, even more important, than level of achievement.  In this regard, Madrid’s improvement led observers to rethink this Barça team’s talent and fortitude.  Barça were after all not getting better at the same purportedly breathtaking rate as Madrid.

One of the things that makes trends difficult to discern with any validity is that they always call into question how far back in time one wants to target their start.  And with these two teams there are a few touch points that influence perception.  One is Mourinho’s hiring.  The other is the 5-0 Manita last season.  So Madrid has clear points of demarcation for people to think about.

And in these implicit comparisons of rates of growth and projections about talent and levels of actual play, one of the things that gets lost is that this Barcelona team under Guardiola is getting better.  It is just more difficult to see because of the recurring success.  The Barça team that beat Manchester United in 2011 was better than the one that beat United in 2009.  But the best you can do is win the European Cup.  There are no higher tangible milestones to point to.

And what we saw from this Clásico in fact wasn’t new.  We saw once again how this Barcelona project is never satisfied.  It always wants to win.  It isn’t complacent or interested in resting on the past or on a particular generation of talent.

We saw a team that is starting to evolve its core, a team that has been drastically turned over from 2008/09 yet still continues to achieve wondrous results.  We saw a new group of players emerging to contribute.  We saw a squad that is getting younger at key positions.

We saw a squad that Guardiola is constantly pushing to get better.  A squad organized by strategy and tactics that are always evolving playing a system that is constantly designed and redesigned.  If anything – this season we’ve seen these issues pushed even harder.

Surpassing Barcelona will not be an event because Barcelona will not sit still.  This is the challenge for the opposition.  Barcelona is a moving target – one that is competing not only against other teams – but against itself.  Surpassing this Barça project will require a process, a process that will only attain weight and meaning over sustained time.

The longer that process goes on for the opposition though, the more difficult it will become in some ways because with each achievement this Barça team learns more and more deeply how to execute at the highest level, how to stay composed and focused.  It explores new dimensions of how to win.

Winning builds a kind of knowledge that can only be learned from experience.  It’s a kind of tacit knowledge that can only be acquired through doing it, seeing it first hand, from being part of it.  Trends and linear projections about future accomplishments because another side is “improving” will not necessarily suffice.  Surpassing Barcelona will require a change of state – not simply an extension of a perceived direction or trend.

And Barça will not cede that territory easily.  They will do everything possible to retain their place.  In fact, they will continue to strive to increase the gap between themselves and others.  Let the competition improve.  We will too.  That’s the history of this group, of the institution.

Now let me be clear.  I am not saying this project will continue on at this level in perpetuity.   Barcelona will not win every trophy.  They very well may not win any more silver this season.  It is true that all teams, all epochs, have a cycle and eventually end.

What I am saying is that no one can say how long that cycle will last.  Success is contingent not fated.  Its end is not ordained.  To conclude that this project’s time is closing – or even beginning to close will require a large body of evidence.  One match, one result – even a season – will not prove that this team has burned through.

In fact, I’ll go further.  It’s very possible that this Barcelona project’s window has closed.  We can’t know.  We can never know in real time.  We can only know in retrospect.  We can only know after this team has been decisively beaten – after they’ve shown on the pitch that they can no longer compete at the highest level.  Trends, future projections, the rate of growth and improvement exhibited by other competitors – all of those are secondary.  What matters are the matches themselves – what they say.  Matches like the brilliant performance this squad once again executed in a Clásico at the Bernabeu, a competition with so much at stake.

It’s the matches that tell the story of a team and its cycle.  It’s success on the pitch that defines their opening chapter as a project – and their closing pages.

And to date there’s been very little empirical evidence to suggest that any cycle is closing.  A small series of matches to open a season does not provide any substantive evidence to those ends given the level of talent and achievement of this team.  There’s no evidence that Madrid improving means that Barça is somehow getting worse or deteriorating – even in a relative sense.  The two are not directly related.  Madrid can continue to improve.  That does not mean they will catch  Barcelona.  Only the matches will decide.  Not what people say, what’s projected, or what trends are discerned.

The situation between the teams is much more akin to competitive environments where each side pushes the other to get better.  There is constant pressure to improve.  And for me that’s been one of the recurring themes of this project under Pep.  There is no end – there’s only a process and that process is one that is constantly unsatisfied, that is always looking to get better, to play at a higher level.

Is the cycle ending?  One of my lasting memories of this match came after Barça scored its second goal.  The team celebrated with Xavi and the cameras panned to the group of five-hundred Barcelona supporters that had made their way to the Bernabeu.

What I’ll remember – what I love – about that picture is the supporter holding up a black jersey.  Number 27.  Deulofeu.  There’s something that’s hopelessly romantic about that image.  Bringing a Deulofeu jersey to the Clásico at the Bernabeu, a jersey that few spectators in the stadium will even see.  A jersey meant to be shared with the small band of cules present.

Obviously Deulofeu’s not even on the squad.  He’s a youth player and probability is stacked against him.  Chances are that he won’t make it as a contributor to the first team.  Those are just the odds for any 17 year old.

But there’s also a pragmatic aspect to the image. It acknowledges that the players we’re watching now – their time will end.  That there will always be other squads trying to surpass them and one eventually will.  It acknowledges that all of us face an enemy none of us can surpass – time.  It acknowledges all of that.  But it’s also saying that the institution understands this.  It understands that success isn’t an event, or a trend, or period of time.  Success is a process, one that is contingent, that constantly depends on improvement and regeneration.  That’s life.  That’s how we are able to breathe.

I’d guess that as he watched this Clasico, Deulofeu – and all of the players at La Masia – saw that image and opened their eyes in wonder. I’d guess they understood what the Clásico – what all of this means – even if only slightly better.  What’s expected of them.  What will depend on them.

I’d guess that they understood that the current cycle will end – and that one day it will be up to them.  It will be their responsibility to start their own cycle.  To renew this history – or at minimum – to try their very best to do so.  They will be given the resources required.  They’ll be educated and mentored on the pitch and off.  They’ll have a model.  They are watching it now.  Just like this current cohort had the opportunity to watch and learn from and admire a skinny number 4 who once wore blaugrana with elegance, who once had hair, who was once dismissed for being too small and too slow.  They have examples.  Which is just another way of saying that they are not alone.

But ultimately it will be up to them.  It doesn’t matter what’s projected.  Their potential success isn’t a foreordained result of some kind of “trend” simply because the past five seasons have brought so much success.  Barça is at a peak right now – but that’s just now.  What’s been accomplished, how this feels, isn’t a given.  It depends.  On hard work.  On patience.  On talent.  On teamwork and giving and belief.  It has to be re-learned and renewed all of the time.  I think those young boys sitting in La Masia watching their heroes learned that, know it a little more deeply and more securely in their hearts after watching the wonder of this last Clásico.

They know even better that one day they will have to walk into the Bernabeu needing to win.  They will walk into that monumental stadium hard pressed to produce a result, the world around them telling them that they are likely to fail.  And they’ll have to draw on every bit of talent and strength they have to win.  They’ll have to utilize every internal resource they can access.

And we’ll have to hope that they too will be able to develop the magical alchemy that mixes talent and determination with history.  The alchemy that understands the scope of what’s required to follow in the path being defined by this brilliant Barcelona project.  And maybe one day, under dire conditions at the Bernabeu, conditions such as being behind 1-0 within the first minute of a match, they’ll be able to access a kind of strength they weren’t sure they had.  A kind of strength that distills away the fear pounding in their hearts by mixing it with the memory of wonder:

 

Match Overview

This was an extraordinary match played by an extraordinary team.  Given the context of what was at stake, playing at the Bernabeu and the disastrous way the game opened – this performance was in many ways more impressive than the 5-0 manita at Camp Nou last season.

The most important moments of this match did take place in the opening minute.  But those critical moments weren’t the first 21 seconds in which Madrid scored.  The most important moments of the match were those that directly followed that score, that started once the ball was retrieved from the back of the net.

It was in those moments that the shape of the match was defined.  Barcelona easily could have collapsed under the weight of pressure.  This was after all part of the ascendancy so many expected from Madrid in this match.  The cycle had closed. It was now Madrid’s turn.  That was the narrative.  And the team was immediately staring into the possibility of falling behind nine points in La Liga with a loss.  Most squads would have come unhinged in that context at the Bernabeu.  But none of that happened.  Not for a moment.  Not to this Barcelona.

Instead the team simply kept their composure and got on with playing their game – just as planned.  They just had that much more work to do.  But they knew exactly what was needed – what had to be executed to regain control of the match and produce the vital outcome they needed.

That’s what you can do when you’ve been through this before and found the inner resources to prevail.  That’s what you can do when you’ve needed a goal in the dying moments at Stamford Bridge and found a way.  That’s what you can do when you’ve come from behind against Estudiantes in the Club World Cup through the efforts of Pedro – a little known player from the youth team – to equalize in the 89th minute and Messi willing the ball into the net with his chest in extra time.  That’s what you can do when you’ve gone down 1-0 at the Bernabeu and come back to win 2-6.  That’s the value of history.

And it was those moments of composure and patience in this Clásico – those other 39 seconds of the first minute of the match that were critical to driving the outcome.  It was there that the match was defined.  Where Barça found the will to see through a result that they had to have if they wanted to maximize their chances for winning La Liga.

[*Note: Part 2 of this review will cover the match analysis, tactics and player evaluation]

Posted in El Clasico, La Liga, Review178 Comments

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