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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Santos System: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Should Barcelona Approach the Santos System?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.  Develop width

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

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

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

6.  Defend set pieces

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

7.  Press Neymar vigorously and in numbers

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

Visca Barca!


  1. Think back to Pedro equalizing in the 89th minute. Messi scoring off the club crest in the extra time. Pep weeping with happiness and joy over the accomplishments of his players.


    Isaiah predicted 2-1, goals by Messi and Pedro, and boy he was right! what a mess in the liveblog, good ol’ memories!

    Let’s do this!

  2. Me again with the OT’s but I was hectored.

    Isn’t K9 in Neymar I mean Santos? I just saw him a few months ago still playing for them.

  3. I think it’s crucial for us to have Puyol in this match because of his ability to stop CR7 over and over again and considering that Neymar is one of the worlds best, we need him. sMasch can do the job but since everyone is hyping Neymar up so I guess he must be that good.

    I’ve seen Neymar over 200mins only for Santos but not impressed at all.

    Neymar is similar to CR7 right? Both hold the ball for too long and both are fast. I think Pep should use the same formula to stop CR7 to stop Neymar.

    Same goes for Ganso. Busi is the key like how he always shuts Ozil off.

  4. Oh and I think since Alexis is off too, we should play 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 with Messi & Cesc playing the false positions.

  5. Nice post, Euler. I think Santos will suffer due to all the possession we’re going to have. Neymar in particular will have to be more careful than usual in possession because they’re may be significant gaps between when Santos will touch the ball.

    As for our lineup… don’t know what formation it’ll be, but I think we’ll see Valdes, Alves, Puyi, Pique, Abi, Busi, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, and Cesc. Not sure about the last forward… for some reason I think it’ll be Cuenca, though Pedro would be a good bet.

    Should be fun.

    1. I want Messi & Cesc to interchange positions. They’re superb at it. Or try both of them at the top (2 attackers).

  6. According to this, busquets, pedro, abidal and alves really have to up their games this morning. It would be a good idea to have cuenca come off the bench in case things are tight. Affellay in the EE CL makes me appreciate the value of an impact sub.
    You know what Euler, simply submit this blueprint to Pep and which would win if followed to the later. Hahaha

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