Thursday, 2 June 2011

What makes Barcelona such a formidable team? - Part 2

Continuing on from part 1...

6. Lack of counterattacks

A particularly interesting feature of Barcelona’s attacking play is how often they turn down quick counterattacking opportunities from within their own half. If possession is regained inside the opposition half they will of course look to exploit the space (which ties in to the pressing game as will be discussed later), but box-to-box counters are a rare sight.

Rather than speed up the play on such occasions, Barcelona look to use the opportunity to regain shape and restart their patient passing game. This gives the opposition time to get men back behind the ball, and perpetuates a constant state of Barcelona being camped in their opponent’s half. With so many men back, the opposition have no out-ball and this enables Barcelona to suffocate them inside their own half. In addition, it avoids the game descending into an open, end-to-end battle where Barcelona may be susceptible to counter-counterattacks. (As was the case when Barcelona tried to force a quick goal in the last 10 minutes of their away match vs Arsenal this season).

A potential problem with this strategy is that by compressing all the play into the final 3rd of the pitch, Barcelona are effectively also shutting off their own space too. Normally this would be a hindrance to a passing side – Arsenal fans know all too well how frustrating it is to see a team knocking the ball harmlessly from side to side in front of a 9-man defence. But Barcelona are perhaps the best side in the world at functioning in tight spaces. Notice how many of the following team goals are scored by cutting though 8/9-man defences, especially from 2:20 – 4:15):

7. Tactical flexibility

Barcelona are often accused of lacking a plan B, but this ignores the fact that the plan A itself is versatile and allows for several different formations which take advantage of different areas of the pitch.

4-3-3 – Barcelona’s standard formation features 3 midfielders to control possession, a false 9 in the shape of Messi and 2 wide forwards making out-to-in runs.

3-4-3 v.1 – With Busquets dropping back in between Pique and Puyol, this allows the team to break free of aggressive pressing of the centre backs by opposition forwards. The fullbacks can then push on and provide width higher up the pitch, allowing the three forwards to narrow and link up with each other at close quarters.

3-4-3 v.2 – When Alves pushes forward on the right flank, Pique and Puyol shuttle over to the right, with Abidal tucking in off the left to become in effect a third centre back. The front three can again narrow, with Iniesta providing a more cut-inside wide threat on the left.

Diamond 4-4-2 – Against teams that look to match Barcelona’s trio in midfield, Messi can drop off to play as a no.10 on a more full-time basis. The opposition can either pull a man back to deal with him (freeing up space for one of Xavi or Iniesta), or ignore him and allow him space in between the lines to wreak havoc.

This versatility gives them a great advantage – they can shift easily between different shapes at any stage of the game, without having to waste any substitutions.

8. Dual-function players

Perhaps one of the greatest difficulties in replicating Barcelona’s system is that they have a couple of phenomenal players in Lionel Messi and Dani Alves who can essentially play in two positions at once.

Dani Alves is on paper a full-back, yet his incredible pace and stamina allows him to patrol a whole right flank by himself. You could say that his presence is like having an extra man, allowing Barcelona to play a 4-4-3 formation. Note how much of the pitch he covers in the heatmap below – almost the entire length and half the width:

In the attacking phase he’s one of the most potent wingers in the world (recording 12 goals and 48 assists in his last 3 seasons), in the defensive phase an aggressive presser. During opposition transitions, he can be seen hurtling back towards his own goal, making some fantastic last ditch tackles in the process (granted he does also get caught out on occasions, such is the risk of the role he plays): 

Although he was already a brilliant individual artist and an intelligent teamplayer, Lionel Messi’s redeployment to the “false 9” role mid-way through the 2009/2010 season allowed him and Barcelona to reach even greater heights. It was a tactical masterstroke from Pep Guardiola, who managed to find a way to make his side even more possession-orientated without losing any of the attacking potency that they’d had the previous season with Eto’o in the centre forward role.

The value of a false 9 usually lies in their ability to drop deep and link-up with the midfield, utilising good passing and ball control skills to control the ball tidily and maintain the flow of the attack. The theory is that centre backs – not being comfortable marking empty space – will advance forward and close down the false 9, creating space in behind for one of the wide forwards to run into. (Good example here)

The problem with such a tactic is that it relies on intelligent movement by the wide forwards, and the assumption that the centre backs will close down. If this doesn’t happen, the team can be left with no presence inside the box and no penetration.

However, this isn’t a problem with Lionel Messi in the false 9 role. He has the complete skillset as an attacking player, combining superb dribbling, passing and shooting into one devastating package. He can drop back into midfield and help to build attacks from deep, but his ability to accelerate and to dribble past players with ease means he’s never too far away from goal to not be a threat. He can poach goals; he can slalom his way through to goal; he can score from range; and he can provide defence-splitting passes. In the last 2 seasons, he has scored 15 goals from outside the box in open play, and provided 36 assists for teammates - wherever he is in the opposition half, he’s a threat.

9. Pressing

As well as being the best attacking side in Europe, Barcelona are probably also the strongest defensively. What they lack in conventional 18 yard box defending, they more than make up for with their aggressive pressing game higher up the pitch, stifling opposition attacks before they have a chance to come to fruition.

Barcelona’s pressing game is aided by several factors:

(a) They dominate possession high up the pitch, forcing the opposition to get men back behind the ball. With their opponents penned back inside their own half and lacking an outlet for pressure, Barcelona can often close in for the kill and either win the ball back quickly or force an aimless long ball which the defenders can sweep up easily.

(b) The majority of their passes tend to be short, so Barcelona’s players are nearly always in a position to press once play breaks down, as Johan Cruijff explains:
"Do you know how Barcelona win the ball back so quickly? It's because they don't have to run back more than 10 metres as they never pass the ball more than 10 metres."
(c) They conserve energy while in possession, enabling them to expend more while pressing. It’s often thought that Barcelona work harder than the average team, but their distance covered figures from this year’s Champions League are quite revealing. On average they covered 110.465 km per game, compared to 110.644 km by 2nd-placed Man Utd. This was less than the 112.040 km average of all teams in the competition. Barcelona’s season-high distance covered was 116.624 km, which was dwarfed by the overall competition high of 124.503 km. Clearly, the long periods spent playing a relatively low-intensity passing game help to balance out the high-intensity pressing.

So how does the pressing game actually work? Work rate is obviously one factor, but intelligence and organisation are very important too. It’s telling that Barcelona’s defensive record has improved with each passing season under Guardiola, as players have gained more experience and take up better positions while pressing:
2008/2009 – 35 league goals conceded, 55 conceded in 62 games overall
2009/2010 – 24 league goals conceded, 40 conceded in 59 games overall
2010/2011 – 21 league goals conceded, 38 conceded in 62 games overall
Barcelona have several different systems of pressing which they employ depending on which area of the pitch the ball is at.

When an opposition keeper or defender has the ball, one player (usually Villa or Pedro) will sprint at him and force him into rushing a pass, while the players behind him employ a system of through marking to cover all the nearby passing options. If they do it correctly, then the player should have no choice but to punt it long, allowing Barcelona’s defenders to read the flight of the ball and move in to intercept.

At 0:57 in the following video you can see this type of pressing in action. Pause it at exactly 1:09 and you will see that all 6 white shirts are being marked by nearby Barcelona players – the ball is hit long and possession is regained:

If you also skip to 2:00 in the video above, you can see a different type of pressing in action. When an opposition player has the ball close to the flank, Barcelona players will attempt to surround and outnumber him, suffocating him and stealing the ball. At the exact moment possession is stolen (around 2:12), Barcelona have 3 players ganging up on just 1 Real player.

A more dynamic type of pressing can be seen in the opening 30 seconds of the following video. With Espanyol passing quickly from point to point, Barcelona players have to take it in turns to close down the man on the ball (usually the one nearest by), with players from behind coming in to replace the previous marking duties of the presser:

Immediately after losing possession in the final third, the Barcelona players in close vicinity – no matter whether they’re a defender or attacker – will attempt to close down and win it back quickly (as can be seen in this video of the Arsenal-Barcelona tie at the Emirates last year). This form of pressing is perhaps the most aggressive, and least organised. Opponents who can bypass this first wave of pressure stand a chance of launching a successful counter.

10. Universality

One of the key concepts that underpins Barcelona’s positional fluidity is that every player should be comfortable operating in any part of the pitch, and contributing to the 3 main aspects of Barcelona’s game – defence, possession, and attack.

It’s not uncommon for instance to see Xavi dropping back to become the deepest outfield player on the pitch, popping up on the right flank, or advancing to the centre forward role when Messi drops deep.

Here’s a clip of Javier Mascherano dribbling into the opposition area from centre back (while Xavi takes over his position):

Here’s Pique scoring a goal from a marauding run forward:

Dani Alves making a trademark poacher-like run to score a header:

And best of all, the forward trio of Messi-Villa-Pedro defending like rabid dogs:

In Summary

Barcelona’s playing style owes a lot to the above principles, but without long-term grassroots investment it’s not possible for any single club to build a collection of footballers with the required technical skills to implement such a gameplan.

Team chemistry plays a big part too, and Barcelona’s core group of players have that in abundance. The likes of Xavi-Iniesta, Messi-Alves, and Pique-Puyol have had years (helped by a lack of rotation) to build up their understanding of each other’s movement and passing patterns, such that it has become second nature.

It’s likely that we may not see another Barcelona in our lifetime, so we should savour every moment of the current one while they’re still around.

Credit to allas4 for majority of videos.