Tags: Analysis, Barcelona, Movement, Strikers, Tactics
Barcelona’s clever use of short, tricky forwards have made them an unpredictable force against defensive-minded teams and particularly have allowed Lionel Messi to revel. By Karthik (KV)
At Camp Nou, Barcelona fielded a forward line of Messi, Bojan and Pedro to battle it out against the determined defense of Arsenal. One similarity between these players that springs to our mind is their height – all three are 170cm or less. How then did these players, with their slight build and a hardly awe-inspiring physique wreak havoc to Arsenal’s backline?
Movement is to Barcelona what oil is to a machine. Barcelona, arguably the most attacking team in the world, encounters teams week in and week out which just park the bus in front of their goal to stop Barcelona from scoring and playing freely. They are a side who rely heavily on movement to breakdown defenses and score goals. They require a well drilled, fast and a quick thinking frontline for their team to function properly. Bojan, who is an out-and-out striker by trade, possesses all these qualities. He is technically brilliant, intelligent, blessed with great ball control, balance, vision and devastating acceleration. “There are only a few players who have a magical touch,” the Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola said, “and Bojan is one of them.” As the spearhead of the attack, his movement along with Messi’s is vital to opening up space elsewhere for other players to make the most of. This cannot be more critical as the relentless machine that is Barcelona function superlatively only if there is no one restricting the flow. They need to keep getting better and find better ways to disintegrate defenses.
The unorthodox forward
In the olden times of England, the centre-forward tended traditionally to be a big target-man figure – what Brian Glanville intelligently labels as “the brainless bull at the gate”. His job was, essentially, to meet crosses and hold up the ball with his imposing form. Elsewhere, though, where skill was prioritized over physicality, he soon became something rather more subtle, and there is evidence to suggest that by the 1920s it was not uncommon for centre-forwards in central Europe and in Latin America to drop deep and roam around the ground freely. Over time, we have seen hybrid strikers who can hold the ball up and also play as a false nine leading the attack for most of the big clubs. But Bojan is a different type of striker. He may not quite offer the flexibility of style but he moves about the pitch without restraint in search of open spaces. This enhances the fluency of movement which the likes of Xavi and Iniesta crave for. “People think we had these big strong players, but we had guys like Evani and Donadoni who were slight. No they became big strong players because of their positioning and movement. That’s what made them seem big” said Arrigo Sacchi. Similarly, the likes of Messi, Bojan and Pedro compensate for their slight physique with intelligent movement and by dropping between the lines. Bojan is capable of playing on the wings too, which adds to his versatility.
Basketball is a game which is all about movement the movement of players on court. Teams plan beforehand and devise intricate plays to attract double teams and isolate a player. As play is generally compressed into one half, it is extremely interesting how much impact a simple movement from the center to the wing makes enough space for the man on the ball to drive inside. The man off the ball is as important as the man with it. The same comparison can be made on attacking teams like Barcelona, Arsenal and Manchester United which rely heavily on movement of players to score goals. Lionel Messi, most certainly the best player in the world, is used as a decoy by Pep Guardiola. The goals in the first leg of the quarterfinal match against Arsenal, demonstrate this. Defenders are attracted to him and neglect the presence of other players, who are just as capable of inflicting damage. In the average position graph above, we can clearly see the amount of space available for Xavi (6) to thread in his passes. Messi (10) has the ability to attract the direction of play towards him. With their movement, they will be able to outwit bigger and brawny defenders, which may be why Silvestre was drafted in place of Sol Campbell.
The Arshavin experiment
Arsene Wenger’s love for short players with meteoric acceleration led to his brief experiment with Andrey Arshavin, a shrewd player, up top as a Center Forward was largely a failure. Arshavin, who is 172 cm high, relied on swift movement to create space for others. But, due to the injury crisis at that time, the right personnel weren’t there to take advantage of his movements. Lack of penetration and dynamism on the wings were major reasons for the failure. But pushing Fabregas higher up the pitch seemed to be the right solution but the return of Bendtner, a hybrid striker himself, ended the short-lived experiment.
Will we see more of the Bojans and the Messis leading the line? May be not on a regular basis as things may get one-dimensional and easy to defend against. What the hybrid striker offers is flexibility of styles and options for the manager when things are not going as per plan. Ibrahimovic is certainly not the ‘brainless bull in front of the gate’ type of player. They may present an alternative such as the long ball, but not quite the fluency of movement that the players like Bojan and Messi offer. But they too are versatile in their own way, which may see more being deployed up front in the near future.
Next up: Analysing Arsenal’s Pressing Game.
Tags: 4-3-3, Barcelona, Formation, Movement, possession, Pressing, Tactics
Just how does Pep Guardiola improve on the most successful club side in a calendar year? We detail the tactical changes the Barcelona coach has made to his side to make them even better.
After Barcelona’s 1-0 win over Estudiantes in the Club World Cup in which the Catalan side recorded a never before paralleled, six cup wins in a calendar year, manager Pep Guardiola turned to his assistant Tito Vilanova, with bleary eyed with tears of joy, seemingly asking “where do we go from here?” Just how does Pep Guardiola possibly improve upon perfection?
In truth, Guardiola has been planning his quest to create a footballing monster team since he served his apprenticeship as a rookie coach, among others paying a visit to Arsenal’s training ground to see just how Arsene Wenger grants his side the capacity to play with such a euphoric spontaneity and the audacity although he didn’t have to look further than the Dream Team he was an integral part of in the early nineties. He soon took over as Barcelona B coach in 2007 and not coincidentally in one of this season’s group stage matches his starting eleven featured seven La Masia graduates. And when he took over the senior squad a year later he made it the team mantra “diversity in counsel, unity in command,” and then proceeded to strip off the negative influences and shirkers such as Ronaldinho and Deco. That continued at the start of this season also, as he almost unthinkably got rid of a key component of his treble winning side in Samuel Eto’o in a gargantuan part exchange deal to bring in Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the opposite direction. That move people said was going to give Barcelona a Plan B, the option to play direct especially after the way Chelsea shackled them in last year’s Champions League semi-final first leg by playing an ultra-defensive game. And it worked, with Barcelona putting all three past Sporting Gijon in their first game of La Liga from headers but as each match wore on, Guardiola was indicating he had in mind, more than a Plan B, Plan C or even a Plan D. He was looking to add more variety to his Plan A than a Muttiah Muralitharan over, all at the seamless barking of instructions.
Against Stuttgart, in the Champions League Second Round First Leg, Barcelona became unstuck against the German side’s pressuring high up the pitch. Stuttgart, playing a 4-4-2 against the default Barcelona 4-3-3 was able to profit from attacking the wings with speed and the forwards dropping into space with movement – just as Athletico and Villarreal have done in previous season and indeed this season. For the return leg, however, Guardiola switched to what looked like a 4-2-4 and with Lionel Messi revelling behind the forward the Argentine hit a superb hat-trick (and also doing the same the following game against Real Zaragoza). Pep Guardiola is adamant though that this formation hasn’t a name and its asymmetry lends itself to the strengths of the team to cause unpredictability. “Our rivals have studied us a lot and we have to look for alternatives,” said the captain Carlos Puyol. “The important thing is the intensity [we play]; the tempo and that we want the ball.”
Indeed this maxim is what makes the layout and Guardiola’s men were able to cause havoc to Stuttgart’s planning in the way they were set-up. In the centre of midfield, Seergio Busquets and Yaya Toure played alongside each over though not in the same lines, with Toure slightly higher up and slanted towards the left. Iniesta was deployed as the half-winger out wide, used more for his intricacy and link up while Pedro was the more dynamic on the right, looking to engage the full back and pin him back. The result saw a collection of hard to mark individuals in attack and a system which was almost all about chain reactions in the defensive phase to make staying compact easier. “This new look was implemented so that Messi could connect into the game more often because it’s good for us when does,” explained Guardiola when using the same system earlier this season in a 2-1 win over Malaga – though the scoreline hardly reflected the complete domination Barcelona had on the match. “We found him more often than in other games. It also to puts him closer to Ibra. It’s as if Messi were an ‘interior.’ They (Xavi and Busquets) were never on the same line. We have never played with a double pivot. However, we did make a small adjustment with the wingers and their defensive roles.” So in essence the formation was a 4-1-1-1-1-1-1 but numbers will never portray what Guardiola wanted to outline. [Carlo Mazzone’s quote on between-the-lines players may help: “There are trends in football. This is a time of between-the-lines players. From a classic 4-4-2, we now have a 4-1-1-1-1-3-0 as we have at Roma.]
Barcelona’s formation as per the 4-0 win over Stuttgart in the Champions League Second Round Second Leg.
At varying moments in this season, Guardiola has also deployed a back three with either a defensive midfielder dropping back or in introducing another centre-back. The full-backs then become wing-backs and depending on his personnel at disposal, the formation resembles a 3-4-3 (used by Johan Cruyff when coach and was very confident in minimising the risks because of the team’s ability to keep the ball) or a 3-1-3-3.
The tinkering though doesn’t stop there because in the signing of Zlatan Ibrahmovic is a player who creates room for others by roaming around the pitch, doubling up or dropping deep to cause uncertainty in marking and pulling defenders out of position. That tactic enables players like Xavi and Keita to get in the box unmarked which the neither the system of zonal or man-marking has got to grips with yet. The biggest point argued in the loss of Samuel Eto’o, however, is said to be the ability for the forward to get behind the defense otherwise Barcelona may lead themselves to a trap of over-elaborateness. The stats do seem agree with Eto’o fans to some degree as according to OPTA Ibrahimovic has been caught offside the most this season in La Liga yet that stat also may highlight the fact that the Swede just needs to time his runs better. But as displayed in the Champions League win over Manchester United, does this switch indicate a move away from the false nine – the role Messi deployed in the final? Indeed, with Eto’o, the interchange of positions is seamless but with Ibrahimovic it can only be used in periods. Nevertheless, that hasn’t detracted Guardiola from doing so and in doing so presents another problem to the opposition which so far, no-one has been able to answer.
Tags: Arsenal, Barcelona, Defenders, Pressing, Tackling, Tactics
Karthik (KV) explains why and how Arsenal pressing game is to improve if they are to better guard themselves when possession is lost.
In an interesting article for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of how Vivek Ranadive coached a team of twelve year olds into the US nationals , this despite being a Basketball novice. Upon undertaking the role, he set about changing the way his girls played, because as he understood it was all very tentative playing a game where essentially both sides took turns to attack and this he felt, invited the opposition to attack. So using his tactical knowledge of football, Vivek encouraged his team to use a full-court press in order to get the ball back as quick as possible which helped elevate the team despite perceived limitations in their skills.
This season Arsenal has replicated the formation of the treble winning Barcelona side by shaping up in the 4-3-3. Playing stylish yet effective football seems to be the mantra of both these clubs but recent results against Manchester United and Chelsea show that imitating the formation has not led to similar successes for Arsenal. These encounters exposed the chinks in the armour and Arsenal’s Achilles heel seemed to be leaving space for the opponents to exploit when possession was lost. Since these defeats, fans have clamoured for the return of the early season team ethic where the side implemented high-intensity pressing to get the ball back and ward off the counter. Seemingly, the work-ethic hasn’t been there despite covering more or less similar distances to the opponents. What exactly has changed since?
In this article we will detail Arsenal’s pressing system and how they can more effectively compress space.
As Chelsea have displayed this season, they are a wonderful passing side and have shot to the top of the Premier League table playing attractive football but up against Arsenal, they were willing to forget all that happened before. They knew that battling for possession would be pointless - one will always be better than the other which would inevitably turn the game into one of thrust and counter-thrust – so they sacrificed some of the initiative and made sure they were better equipped in moments of transition. The result was that with Arsenal choosing to play an expansive style, Chelsea was able to exploit the Gunners on the break as shown in the second goal, with Didier Drogba taking full advantage of uncertainties with a powerful run and finish.
For Arsenal the problem comes in playing such an expansive style which often exerts a massive strain on the defense. The idea in the 4-3-3 is to stretch play therefore creating more angles in the pass but the flip side is that if Arsenal loses the ball they will be left unorganised and disoriented in the defensive phase making it easy for teams to take advantage of the space. So therefore, when they lose possession, they need to find a way to maintain the shape. This is the fundamental aim of pressing. Let us see why we need to press teams.
1. If you pressurize an opponent near his goal, the chances of him losing it in a compromising position are high and may result in a goal.
2. And the above helps in an attacking sense as the more you have the ball, the more you can create and score.
3. Our system leaves only 3-4 at the back and pressing helps counter potential counter attacks.
4. It allows for the side to remain compact so even if players are out of position, the space is closed up quickly.
It is widely known that for a team to press from the front, they need to push up from the back. Ball pressure is all about the space and options the opponent has. Reduce those two things and ball pressure becomes more effective. Therefore, compressing space and advancing high up the pitch results in a compact midfield which can play efficient passes and also less space for an opponent to start an attack. Even if they do so, the midfielders and the attackers are in a good position to retrieve the ball. To put it in better words, the team is in a position to play an attacking defence.
How to press effectively?
Due to the nature of stretching in the 4-3-3 system, there are huge packets of space left in between the wings and near the wingers. In the past few matches, Arsenal have let in counter attacking goals due to mistakes in defending, marking and not covering space. Let us analyse the different options we have to deal with counter attacking scenarios and how we can nullify it through intelligent pressing (below, the key zones as highlighted by the red areas). Remember that the main aim here is to slow down the opponents and force them to play a misplaced pass. The principal condition is that regardless of where the ball is lost the man closest to it will pressure.
Trapping the opponent by driving him towards the touchline is an effective tactic. This uses the touchline as an extra defender and it will lead to the opponent passing back or misplacing the pass. Two defenders take part in this and the third can join if feasible. To further add to the trapped attacker’s misery, Arsenal can overload to that side to further take away the opponent’s options. What does this mean? The whole team shifts slightly to that side to take away the player with the ball’s options. One midfield marks their midfielder closest to the trapped player while the forwards roam across their backline. This gives the feeling of asphyxiation to the trapped player, increasing the chance that he will make a bad choice and give away the ball in a bad (good for us) spot. This also helps in the sense that if the trapped player does manage to pass to one of his teammates, there will be an Arsenal player close by to fall on him quickly. However, the risk of executing this strategy is that one cross field ball to the other flank will almost automatically result in a goal. But not everyone has the vision of Cesc to do that sort of a thing! Anyway, the defenders should move into a position to intercept the ball.
Through the centre
Things are tougher now as the centre provides a 360 degrees field view as opposed to a 180 degrees view on the wings. This is why the likes of Arshavin cut in as they have wider options. How does Arsenal press in this situation? It depends on where the players are with reference to the ball. As soon as the side lose the ball in the centre, the advanced midfielders, attackers must press aggressively and isolate the opponent quickly, to slow them down. This will give the much needed time for the defenders to get back into shape and intercept the loose balls by their expert reading of the game. The central defenders’ role is interesting – push up too much and there is the threat of the opponent taking advantage of the space behind. Barcelona is essentially a freak case because as they are so good at keeping possession and movement, they force more players backwards therefore the threat is minimised. However, the most successful teams have shown, and recently USA against Spain, that keeping one up or even two, gives a greater chance of scoring and indeed such is the case of the direct nature of the Premier League.
What are we doing now? How to proceed?
The above tactics are basic pressing techniques used by teams to press effectively. Teams like Barcelona have numerous pressing techniques and they are the masters of compressing space. “Without the ball,” said Pep Guardiola, “we are a horrible team. We need the ball, so we pressed high up the pitch to win the ball back early.” What they do is they push back the opponents to let the defence read the game and push forward. The midfielders are quick to get on to any loose balls and the full backs get tight on the wingers. One of Guardiola’s newest ploys to perfect the perfect side of last season is in the defensive phase, push the defensive midfielder back into central defence thereby making it a 3-4-3, allowing greater organisation and the ability shift left and right more easily.
The 1-0 win over Liverpool displayed such improvements – Clichy and Eboue were quick to impose themselves on the wide men while the double pivot in front of the back four gave both a lateral and longitude organisation.
Our expansive game exposes huge spaces in between and the Gunners are probably the most vulnerable side in the transition. What Arsenal cannot do is reverse the previous results. But what they can is learn from their mistakes, compress space quickly and pressing efficiently will help concede lesser goals.
The excitement for the World Cup is building, and the guys at SoccerPro have just launched a “Jerseys for Life” Sweepstakes. They are celebrating the World Cup by giving away the chance to win replica shirts of all the participating nations. Just head head over to this website to find out more and what’s more all entries receive a $10 coupon.
Tags: Barcelona, Pressing, Tactics
“Pressure, pressure, pressure!” Pep Guradiola insists were it not for the suffocating pressuring of opponents caused by his team, his side would not have been as successful. Taking Johan Cruyff’s philosophies and adopting them with great effect, Guardiola has made Barcelona not just great with the ball but also without it.
The 4-3-3 has been made synonymous to the Catalan side ever since Johan Cruyff transcended on the club. He gave Barcelona an identity, a philosophy to continue for years to come. Frank Rijkaard and Louis Van Gaal tried to adapt the formation on the pitch to meet modern football but Guardiola has stuck to the ideal’s of Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ of the early 90′s.
The thinking was to make the pitch as big as possible; the 4-3-3 allows natural interchange, greater angles in the pass and creates high pressure in order to win the ball back early. It means energy is not wasted in needless tracking back.
Now, what is the actual reason for this article especially as there has been countless of Barcelona articles on this site already? Ever the coach, recently there has been an increasing demand from some Arsenal fans to implement a Barcelona 4-3-3. Arsene Wenger is fully aware of the history of the Barça and he is also aware that none of this would have been possible were it not for the youth system Cruyff remade. As Michael Robinson, Spain’s most famous football commentator, puts it: “put 20 kids in a park and I can tell you which two are at Barça.”
Wenger admits his most greatest influence was the “Total Football” Ajax team of the late 60s and early 70s. A team which was built up with a core of players from the academy and played revolutionary football, interchanging positions and keeping the ball. He is trying to implement his own style and right in doing so: “I want to have success by building a team with a style, a know-how, with a culture of play specific to the club and it’s fans and with young people,” said Wenger.
Just playing a 4-3-3 isn’t the be-it-end-all of Barcelona’s style. It works because they have created a DNA twenty years ago and have stuck to it. “Receive, pass, offer” is what they teach the young midfielders and you can see it in Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Arteta to name a few. Sir Alex Ferguson pin-pointed the central midfield as the heartbeat of Barcelona’s game but still failed to compete with it.
On the face of it Arsenal seem the best equipped to implement the same style on the pitch; they have Fabregas, Barça born and bred and play a similar brand of pass and move football. But in the Premiership is it as sustainable to pressurise opponents when teams just lump the ball forward and also play their forwards even higher up the pitch? As a result the gap will be huge in the centre and this in turn could place more work on the central midfielders. Xavi and Iniesta are fantastic at keeping the ball and there are not many players like them. Then there is Yaya Toure; great at keeping the play ticking, playing simple passes and has the required power to win the ball back. Reported interest in Mascherano seems perfect for Barça; he’s mobile, good in the tackle and an underrated passer too.
Arsenal played a 4-3-3 against Chelsea twice, in the FA Cup and in the League. Regarding the latter, the Gunners lost 4-1 and the high pressure back fired. A lack of organisation in the centre and also a poor willingness from the forward pairing except Van Persie to pressure the opponents. Song was found suspect positionally because of the amount of space he had to deal with and the fact Chelsea played a direct game disrupting the high pressure play. Previously however, a pressure game against Villarreal using Wenger’s 4-4-1-1 worked with greater effect but showed work must be done. Arsenal do press, you can hear at times, Pat Rice barking at the players to do so but that doesn’t necessarily mean a 4-3-3 is key.
The test for Barcelona will be to try and sustain the success; Rijkaard couldn’t continue for more than two years and the ‘Dream Team’ lasted about only four years. Increasingly it seems that the players make up the system and there should be a steady flow of players with the same identity to make it. Fitness is also a key issue; Guardiola worked vigorously in pre-season to make this work and halfway through the campaign ordered higher intensity training sessions. The short-term result saw a slight dip of form but ensured that Barcelona could continue their assault for the remainder of the season with such effect.
There is no reason to say that Arsenal couldn’t do it; there is just more deeper thinking to it than a no-thrills 4-3-3 like many are calling for. Their is a philosophy, an identity, a vision that Arsenal must strive towards, and in Arsene Wenger a manager working his way to building an Arsenal that will last years to come.
Tags: Barcelona, Cruyff
Pep Guardiola insists for it not for Johan Cruyff, as a player he would never had left the third division. Guardiola was a slow mover but excelled in his intelligence convincing Cruyff to make him the focal point of his team’s play. From the period between 1991-94 the club won four successive La Liga titles and the European Cup and with 11 trophies, Cruyff became the club’s most successful manager to date.
More than that Cruyff gave Barcelona’s it’s identity; it’s roots sprung from the philosophies of Dutch Total Football, from the academy to on the pitch, playing an elaborate and expansive game which gave his side the title of the ‘Dream Team’. However with the disastrous defeat to Fabio Capello’s AC Milan side 4-0 in the European Cup in 94 it marked the end of the road for Cruyff. Two trophy-less years later and the Dutchman was sacked. The club needed a new man to bring the philosophies on the pitch to the modern world.
In that defining game, it pitted the wits of two managers with principles stemming from the Holland ’74 side, but each going their own different ways. The side coached by Rinus Michels and had Johan Cruyff as captain, was all about self-expression and an almost twin-like understanding having played with each other so much. With rapid passing, interchanging of position, continuous pressing and playing with a high line, it was almost the perfect team. Cruyff took the aesthetic side and Capello, the organisation side, continuing on from Arrigo Sacchi’s ideals. For Capello it was all about controlling space in zones, in the form of systemised pressing and having players capable of creating chances.
Cruyff’s Barca played in what is now their synonymous 4-3-3 but which was adaptable, allowing for triangle passes (i.e. more options in the pass) and the changing of positions. The wingers were detailed never to engage in pointless tracking back, instead pressuring the opponents high up the field and looking to rob the defenders of the ball.
Pundits described A.C Milan’s performance against Barcelona in the final as the greatest ever by a team in European Cup/UEFA Champions League history and question marks were asked whether this type of tactic was unsustainable. Roy Hodgson didn’t think so explaining; “There is less high-intensity pressing from the front in advance areas (in top-level European football). This is partly because concern of the interpretation of the offside law has led to teams to play deeper. Sides are sill compact, but this is mainly in their own half of the pitch.”
Van Gaal tried to account for this by updating the system in order to accommodate it’s pace, skill and athleticism. Hence the now direct Dutch 4-3-3 with more emphasis on counter-attacks and slightly more orthodox.
Juan Laporta talked about identity and principles in his reason not to hire someone like Mourinho instead of Guardiola and now the rookie Spaniard manager has brought back those ideals once considered difficult to play.
The three pronged attacked of Messi, Henry and Eto’o have a 100 goals between them. Guardiola’s forwards are no longer protracted by unnecessary tacking back, which invites the opposition to come at them and at the same time, tiring their own players. Instead they look to force the issue and press the full back’s and the defenders as high as possible, looking to force a mistake and maybe nick the ball. “Barcelona make the pitch look bigger than it really is,” says the former Barcelona midfielder and current Getafe coach Víctor Muñoz. “Barcelona play very high up the pitch and if they get the ball off you there, they’re lethal.”
It helps however if you have super players and Barcelona have that. Messi is arguably the best in the world and Andres Iniesta can’t come too far behind. As much importance to the team success is the forwards, the central midfield are probably much more, combining balance, technique, intelligence and tactical coherence they engage their opponents into a gruelling challenge of concentration. Not that Guardiola will have it any other way for his own side. He’s imposed strict fines while his attention to detail is frighteningly accurate, implementing video analysis to training sessions and berating the tiniest loss of focus.
And now Guardiola and Barcelona are gearing up for their greatest challenge. A manager with only a years experience against a manager who has more than twenty, locking horns in a stadium befitting the art of the second coming of the Dream Team.