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

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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)

 

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