Tuesday, 31 May 2011

What makes Barcelona such a formidable team? - Part 1

On Saturday night Barcelona beat Manchester United comfortably to secure their third Champions League victory in just 6 years, and their second under Pep Guardiola. The manner of the victory – against undoubtedly their biggest European rivals over the last 5 years – has left many in no doubt that this is a special team up there with the best in history. Even the traditionally insular English media had to hold their hands up and admit that Barcelona’s blueprint was the way forward, after seeing their nation’s top club humbled on home soil.

While Frank Rijkaard’s 2004-06 team was itself an excellent unit, Guardiola has taken dominance to a whole new level with a brand of suffocating possession football that has earned admirers around the world. Incredibly, his side has managed more than 50% possession in each of his 183 games in charge. You have to go all the way back to May 2008 to find a game where Barcelona were outpassed (a 1-4 loss away to Real Madrid in the league).

Barcelona have the ability to remain at the top for a few years yet, and in the meantime a lot of clubs must be wondering how they can catch up and compete toe-to-toe with the Spanish champions. With largely the same group of core players that existed during the Rijkaard era, Guardiola has transformed Barcelona into an almost-unbeatable side. Clearly, his impact on the team’s strategy and mentality has been a large contributing factor behind their success (contrary to claims that anyone could do a similar job managing such a group of talented players).

Aside from the obvious technical qualities such as touch, ball control, passing and awareness which are taught from a young age at La Masia, what makes Barcelona’s system such a force? Here are 10 points which I believe to be key:

1. Patience

One of the most fundamental aspects of Barcelona’s play is a calm, methodical approach to build-up play. By moving the ball around the pitch and changing the angle of attack, the ball is eventually worked into the space just outside the 18 yard box, and gaps will develop as impetuous opposition defenders attempt to close down.

It sounds simple but with 90,000 fans urging you on to get forward, especially when you’re chasing the game, it can be difficult to stick to your principles. However that’s what Barcelona do best, and here are two examples of their patience paying off:

2. Technical defenders

A common tactic used to prevent a team playing the ball out from the back is to close down the centre backs with through marking employed to cover the players immediately to the front and side. With no options and limited time on the ball, they are forced to hit it long, but not at Barcelona. Their holding midfielder, centre backs and even goalkeeper can dribble out of tight spots, enabling the team to stick to their building-from-the-back principle.

It’s not just enough that the defenders be able to break away from pressure, they also need to be able to take advantage of the resulting space. Gerard Pique in particular is adept at advancing into the midfield zone and playing accurate passes, including raking cross-field balls. See 0:44 in the following video:

3. Defensive pivots

One of the novel aspects of Barcelona’s play is the use of the keeper and holding midfielder as outlets for pressure. Victor Valdes is an excellent passer by goalkeeper standards, and takes advantage of his deep positioning to receive the ball from one fullback/centre back and switch it to the other:

Note his role in initiating Pedro’s goal in the following clip (skip to 10:30):

Sergio Busquets does a similar job in midfield, sitting behind the Xavi-Iniesta pairing and redirecting passes from one to the other. A tidy player, his one-touch play stands out in particular. Notice how often he redistributes play from left to right and vice versa in the following clip (starts at 0:59):

A great example of this one-touch play can be seen in his pass to Keita leading up to the following goal. It may seem a simple pass, but it gave Keita just a little bit more time and space to advance forward and link up with Messi:

4. Lack of crosses

Aside from the fact that the tallest member of the Barcelona frontline measures less than 6 feet, the fullbacks generally don’t look to play high balls into the box because it’s quite simply a highly inefficient strategy. Crossing is a low percentage game which relies on a fair amount of chance, and as such it doesn’t fit in with the Barcelona mantra of possession, possession, possession.

Instead, the width of the pitch is used intelligently to draw out opposition fullbacks and stretch the backline horizontally, with the ball then being circulated back into the middle to take advantage of the channels that have developed between the defenders – as can be seen here (1st goal):

...or indeed to set up a shot from the edge of the box:

And again here (1st goal):

5. Set pieces

For Barcelona, set pieces are usually an extension of their open play passing game. Of course, with the likes of Pique, Puyol and Busquets in their line-up they have aerial prowess and are not afraid to take advantage of it from time to time, but by and large they prefer to play it short and keep possession high up the pitch.

An interesting feature of Guardiola’s reign has been the increased usage of rehearsed set plays, with the side taking advantage of the 10 yard rule and often creating 3 vs 2 situations from corners.

Here are several examples of beautiful team moves and goals resulting from corners (you can ignore the Spain footage if you want...):

Free-kicks are also a source of innovation:

Credit to allas4 for the majority of the videos. Part 2 can be found here.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Cesc Fabregas 2010/2011, Part 1

Highlights of the captain's first 3 months of the season:

Monday, 9 May 2011

Stoke 3-1 Arsenal: Chalkboards

For the 3rd time in four visits to Stoke since 2008, Arsenal have ended up on the losing side and yet again after going behind to an early set piece goal. Here are a few interesting chalkboards courtesy of the Guardian.


Stoke were quicker to the second ball throughout, recovering possession with 27 of their 38 clearances (71%). The home team were constantly able to break out of danger zones, and consequently Arsenal were unable to exert extended pressure on Stoke's backline.

Arsenal on the other hand only managed 10 successful clearances out of 26 (38%). This proved costly when Walters scored Stoke's 3rd to kill the game off, pouncing on a poor clearance from Djourou before any Arsenal defender could react.


Stoke's interception chalkboard sums up their defensive strategy well. They were quick to get men back behind the ball (Arsenal's tempo also played a part), defending their 18 yard line well and looking to block Arsenal's passing lanes through the middle. Overall they made 20 interceptions to Arsenal's 12. Only 1 of them was in Arsenal's half, though it proved vital - Pennant latched onto Ramsey's lazy backpass and exploited the space in between the lines to fire in Stoke's second.

Stoke's passing

As with most opposition sides, Stoke targetted Arsenal's left flank, which was even weaker than usual due to Clichy's absence. Kieran Gibbs had an average game, and for Stoke's 3rd goal he failed to deal with a diagonal ball out wide, allowing Stoke to build an attack down that side and score.

See 0:45 in the following video: (credit to Arsenalist)

                      stok2131h68 by arsenalist

Laurent Koscielny

In general Koscielny has been a very good performer this season, forming a good understanding with Djourou and doing an excellent job in closing down opposition attackers early.

When playing a high line his value cannot be questioned, but when forced to defend inside his own 18 yard box he has displayed a certain level of vulnerability. His natural game is to win the ball early, getting tight and  nicking the ball away with an out-stretched leg, but inside the box this approach is something of a liability. Therefore, when defending deep he has at times been reckless, trying to win the ball at all costs and leaving gaps/conceding several penalties in the process. At other times he's been unsure of himself, wary of conceding fouls but not understanding some of the positional requirements of defending deep/soaking up opposition pressure.

This flaw to his game was evident again during Stoke's 3rd goal (skip to 0:50 in the above video), where he chased the ball out of the box and in the process ended up leaving a gap for Walters to exploit a couple of seconds later (granted it was a poor clearance from Djourou).

2nd half substitutions

At the start of the 2nd half, Wenger threw on Bendtner and Chamakh, giving Arsenal a very attacking 4-4-2 shape with Bendtner coming in off the left. Van Persie dropped deeper and Chamakh assumed the centre forward role, looking to play with his back to goal as usual. The Morroccan completed 26 out of 29 passes, and won 3 out of 4 tackles, adding a different dimension to Arsenal's attack.

This gave van Persie much more freedom than he had in the first half (where he only recorded 1 shot). After the break he managed to fire away 4 shots, 3 of them on target (including the goal) - all straight down the middle.

Chamakh was vital in creating space for van Persie. His tendency to drop deep, control it neatly (the Morroccan has a great touch, which is often overlooked) and lay the ball off quickly - drawing a marker towards him in the process - was very useful, and led to 2 great chances for the Dutchman, one of them a goal.

The first was on 73 minutes - Chamakh controlled the ball well from a goal kick, drew Stoke's right back out, and laid it off to Wilshere. Wilshere spotted the gap in behind Wilkinson and threaded the ball into the space for Bendtner, creating a golden chance for van Persie which was saved at point-blank range. See the following video:

                      stokrvpchance467 by arsenalist

The goal (see first video) was a culmination of the effect of the 3 Arsenal substitutes. Rosicky - twisting, turning and probing as usual - played a good forward pass between the lines. Chamakh, with his back to goal and drawing the attentions of Wilkinson, flicked the ball quickly to van Persie. Bendtner made a run to the left, dragging a centre back with him and giving van Persie enough room to fire away his 6th right-footed goal of the season.

Unfortunately the comeback was short-lived, but the one positive that can be taken out of this game (as with the 2-2 draw against West Brom and 2-1 win over Everton) is that a modified, attacking 4-4-2 is a decent plan B.