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:
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: