How Pep Guardiola is looking to improve on perfection

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.


34 thoughts on “How Pep Guardiola is looking to improve on perfection

    1. If Arsh is fit, he roast Alves for all day long but Arsh must track to avoid Messi and Alves doubling on Clichy though.

      Same tactics that we used against Porto at Home is needed for Barca in the home leg, play “combination players” [ala Arsh, Ros, Nas NOT Theo] on the flank & get them to play in-between the CB and Fullback [narrow] and as the fullback overlap them, it forces the the wingers [Henry, Messi] to do more defending like [Varela & Hulk] until the coach told them not to track back and subsequently had 15mins good spell.

      Away from home, let Theo open his legs on the counter-attack.

  1. A good analysis of Barça. They really miss Etoo´s ability to make runs in behind the defender. I believe that if we can limit the damage that Messi does we can get to the semis as Messi is the only really in form atacking Barça player. Easier said than done of course! A Consequently, as you mentioned, the main aim of their system is to find him space. Hence, I believe we should man mark Messi preventing our players losing track of him. The best man for the job, I believe is Denilson and not Song. Song might have to cover for Gallas and Campbell. We cannot play Sylvestre against Barça, he will get exposed. Even if Soong doesn´t have to cover, I´d still choose Denilson though he isn´t the greatest tackler. Firstly, Messi is almost untacklable and secondly the best way to contatin Messi is to deny him the ball and Denilsomn´s greatest strength as a defensive midfielder is intercepting the ball. Clichy isolated would be playing with fire especially with Alves running down the wing.

    This means that Fabregas and Diaby would have to win the midfield which I believe can be done but our forwards will have to track back. Also, Diaby will have to cover a lot of ground defensively but those long legs can do it.

    Also, I´d start Walcott to prevent Barça pouring forward without fear of getting burned on the counter. Finally, I´d start Sagna as he is more reliable defensively and you need to respect their attack. Eboue can be brought on if we are chasing the game. Thus ends the analysis of a tactical amature.

    It will be interesting to see what tactics Arsene does actually make.

    Come on you Gunners!

    1. Certainly there is no place for Walcot in this match unless it is late in the game and we are winning or loosing. Reason no. 1 is, he cannot keep ball (poor first touch, poor ball skills and cannot shield the ball), cannot defend, runs into blind alleys, rarely makes a good pass, what will he be doing that early in the game? He has his strengths, and that is for him to come when the opposition is slightly off guard. Having Walcot and Arshavin at the same time means defending with only eight men as both Walcot and Arshavin do very little defending. In fact the russian is much better than Walcot in this regard. Leave it to Wenger, he knows best.

      1. Agree with you, I don`t think it`s wise to start with Walcott, I think Eboue will be more dangerous as he`s a good dribbler, I re-watched the 2006 final, and i noticed that Barcelona players were not comfortable everytime Eboue had the ball , our goal came from a free-kick on…Eboue. But in the last 15 mins, we should bring on Walcott, his pace is very important, remember the Liverpool CL game, he got the ball in his half and ran to the other end of the pitch in a few seconds, we could use him better that way. Arshavin definitely needs to defend or track the ball back whenever we lose it. If we play like we played against Milan (Hleb, Fabregas, Flamini, Roskicy tracking the Milan midfielders), we will win this game, we need to be close to each other, because Barca can punish you everytime you lose the ball in midfield.But first we have to win the Birmingham game, Barcelona will come after, let`s focus on Birmingham, I want Eduardo to score and who knows, it might be a psyhological boost that will help him regaining his scoring form !

  2. Well I never! Great analysis! However is the barca formation simply not 4231, the same formation we essentially use? With Sergio playing the Song role and Toure the Diaby role, whilst Iniesta is link Cesc is a playmaker he causes our damage whilst iniesta has to get the ball to Messi, Ibra then by default becomes the RVP.

    Additionally Ibra and Messi don’t defend as well as the previous front three which means teams can move from the defensive phase to the middle much quicker, the point I’m making is that every system has its imbalances whether its the personnel, the application or the system itself. There are chinks in the Barca armor, Wenger’s job is to look at the holes in ours as I’m pretty sure they are reflected in Barca’s.

    1. Well, it is semantics. I would have argued also like you, that the variation Guardiola uses where Messi plays behind is a 4-2-3-1, with Messi lossely defined and although Toure and Busquets don’t play in the same line, for simple sakes that would have been the best description.

      However, Pep is adamant that there is no name. He gave the interview where he explained so as the players are assymetrically placed.
      I will do an match preview article closer to the match.

  3. Genius,pure genius!i have watched barca alot too and have noted that when alves is able to control the right flank,messi is able to drift inwards where can run towards the cbs directly.the lb doesn’t move as much as the rb leaving a 3 man defence.sergio b holds giving toure licence to make runs into the box.iniesta ensures the attack ticks from the left the same way rosicky the porto game,AA was more central hence why he caused alot of damage and i’m sure AW is looking for a way to integrate him more to hurt barca’s cbs too.Nice writeup.

  4. Tremendous analysis.

    I feel our player either side of bendtner will have to do a fair bit of tracking back. I would use walcott on the right for this game.

    Pace could be the threat. We can be more compact in defence than barca and this will be the key to winning the tie.

    Destroy them on the counter as the likes of alves and maxwell will pour forward with wild abandon and are not good defenders.

    We can really win this game both offensively and defensively on the flanks. It won’t be easy but its more than possible.

    I believe barca are out of their comfort zone when behind.

    We’ll get the first goal and pick them off at will at the grove

    1. You do not seem to have absorbed Brain’s analysis or watched Barca recently. First of all, during the Stuttgart match at Camp Nou, Alves hardly ventured forward. He concentrated at keeping the Stuttgart left winger quiet. It is only Maxwell who foraged forward, and he was reserved. So, the defensive line was slanted to the right with the left side a little up the field during attacks. I remember this tactic being used by Wenger during the invincible years (2001/02, 2002/03, 03/04). During the Porto game, Clichy and Sagna attacked alternately, with Clichy being more adventurous than Sagna. Yes, we can be compact defensively than them if we play our cards right, particularly when Diaby plays, as while he forages forward, Song holds the line. The good thing with Diaby is that, his long legs and speed allow him to move up and down more quickly than all our other midfielders (Song / Denilson / Cesc) who do not have much in terms of pace. We may have seen a prelude to a compact Arsenal defense unit during the West Ham match when TV5 was red carded. The defense was quite compact without affecting the attack too much. Secondly, for what I commented above (see under Goodkindagoon), Walcot will not be of much use early in the game. If you want to win against Barca, you will need to deny them use of the ball as much as you can and defend resolutely. You cannot achieve both of these aspects with Walcot in early on.

      1. I confess to not watching Barca religiously. Saying that in general terms it was a fair comment to say both Alves and Maxwell are attacking full backs and I can pick one game in isolation where that is the case to try and disprove your point as you did mine by picking stuttgart.

        I take on board your comment re Walcott being not much use early on. My opinion on using Walcott was to try and pin the full backs into a corner, make them weary to attack or exploit the space in behind when they do attack.

        Kind Regards

  5. Great analysis, although with Pep’s ingenuity you’ll never know what he has in his bag specifically for us. We definitely have to be at our best, and AW better have the tactics to fully nullify their best player Messi along with the rest of the world’s best team. Last time we played them, Rijkaard cleverly switched Ronaldinho’s and Eto’o’s positions and we got burnt badly. I don’t think we can just play the game “our style” as if we’re playing a smaller team.

  6. Thanks for full and detailed analysis of Barca’s game plans this season. =) Although against Arsenal at the Emirates I would expect them to play a little bit more defensively and perhaps use Ibrahimovic as a pivot for their counterattacks. I’m Swedish and a big fan of “Ibra”, but his confidence has been low lately so his lack of precision in timing his runs and finishing could really be to our benefit. Messi can only be stopped by several defenders in tandem and I believe man-marking would be a serious mistake!

    How should Arsenal play? We need to keep Barca from controlling the ball so I would like to have Denilson, Diaby, Fabregas and Nasri all quite centrally placed to break up play and start our play. Nasri as a winger but almost a midfielder, and use Bendtner and Arshavin almost as a two striker team to hurt Barca on the counter. Defensively we need to be 100% and the only possible starters for me are Clichy, Vermaelen, Song and Sagna.

    1. Good point. The combo you suggest in midfield (Denilson /Diaby /Fabregas /Nasri) is good for keeping ball and fast break forward but that will depend on whether Gallas does not recover in time. The speed of Nasri and Diaby going forward or coming back (with Denilson anchoring) could be a good weapon. The best way to minimise Messi’s danger is (i) to deny him the ball as much as possible, and (ii) not to allow him to run at defenders like he did during their recent encounter with Stuttgart. In the first case is to cut his supplies i.e. deny Xavi and co space and time to make a good pass, and secondly, interceptions become vital, here Denilson or Diaby positioning will be vital. The work that Clichy does of quick interceptions will be more needed this time than ever before. However, while Clichy intercepts balls to Messi he can be exposed, so it would be very important to have Denilson or Diaby (whoever plays) to be alert (actually not too far from Clichy) to the danger should Clichy slip up (cue what happened at Man City or at Emirates against Man U). In both cases Clichy was left exposed with no cover (at Man City due to the withdrawal of Denilson, and at the Emirates against Man U, Denilson was slow and inept closing down) and it all ended with the opposition getting easy goals. More importantly, Messi likes to come infield to find his range, the more important for our midfielders to ensure that he does not venture too much infield by pushing him further to the corner flag (in essence away from company).

      1. You are right in your comments I think! We will have to adjust our normal game plan and play more compact in our defensive play with our midfield to deny Barca. The game against Atletico Madrid was interesting and I’m sure Wenger has studied it well: if I remember it Atletico played extremely aggressive high up the pitch and often won the ball before it even crossed the middle of the pitch. When attacking we will naturally try to spread out to our normal wide attacking shape, but all in all I think we will have less width and get fewer chances. The accuracy of our front men will be crucial, but I think Arshavin and Fabregas relish a game like this and they have the mental character to perform at the highest level when needed.

  7. Yeah well good analysis, but you’re missing 1 small player who is possibly the best passer in the World — XAVI!!!!!!!!

    Only one of Toure/Busquets will play, as XAVI will be fit for the game.

  8. Good stuff as always, well done.

    I don’t get to see Barcelona loads because they are nearly always consistent in how they play, I see nothing new with them when they play, it is always brilliant as they know exactly what they aim to achieve (not a knock, but I like to see some variety, gets repetitive see the insanity of Messi and co.).

    What I have identified is their defensive line is very very very high, in the early exchanges with VFB, both sides pushed up so much that most the the game was being played on 10m on either side of the halfway line, crazy!

    As for our encounter with them, Wenger needs to grow some balls and go and attack Barcelona. Barcelona are at their best when they are in charge, and most teams get scared and try defend, teams that actually come out and play give them troubles and they have to then put in an extra effort to combat that.

    I’d start Eboué at RB, and use two strikers because using one like Bendtner will play right into the hands of Puyol and Pique or Milito who are wily enough to dominate one striker, and it also allows one of them to step into midfield and play the ball, outnumbering us.

    I’ll be very very upset if Wenger tries to use his 4-3-3 against the masters, we need to find a solid solution to the problems Barcelona will bring. We need to keep the ball as well, and not the timid 4-5-1 keeping the ball where Nasri and Rosicky out wide don’t penetrate, so why not a variant of a 4-3-1-2:


    I don’t buy the argument that we need someone the pin Alves back, he will always come forward knowing he has an extra defender and the holding player to cover whilst Maxwell can shift inside too. We will have to rely on Clichy raiding on the break than pressing constantly on the right. That midfield can retain the ball and break whilst also being tactically disciplined, Rosicky can connect with the strikers and pick holes in their midfield of playmakers and the strikers are both direct, so lets go for it!

    1. Fully agree that if we attack them they will be vulnerable. Sitting back and countering only is not an option in my opinion.

      I like the formation you have there, we need someone between the lines of their defence and midfield to hurt them most.

      Teams that have attacked Barca this year have given them the most problems, we have the players to do this, it just depends on whether the coach is prepared to go down fighting

  9. I think Barca is a better draw for us than, say, Inter.

    I have seen Arsenal outrunning Chelsea, a muscular pragmatic side, in midfield for long spells at the Bridge. If they could not retain the ball from us I don’t see how Barca can. Basically, the name of the game will be who hold on to possessions longer and thus not only threatening the other side’s defenders more but also relieving pressure for your own guards. We’ll be chasing shadows when they get the ball so we’ll have to make sure they’ll be chasing shadows when it’s our turn.

    Of course, in the Chelsea game we got effectively killed by that perfect, I’m pained to admit, counter attack that ended up with Drogba’s second goal. To reduce the chance of such counter attack not only we will have to play with 100% focus the whole two games, a right mix in midfield will be vital. Arsene could go for a string of ball-keepers: Arshavin-Diaby-Cesc-Song-Nasri. Or he could go for Theo and put Denilson in place of Diaby to buffer defensive coverage. I’m leaning toward the latter: Theo’s ability to run into space provides outlets for passers, which is vital in a fast game. Fans tend to underestimate his technical ability as we often compare him with more agile dribblers in the squad. We fail to acknowledge that he rarely gives the ball away in dangerous positions. Theo will do a good job pinning back Barca’s left back.

    As for Messi – you can’t talk Barca these days without talking about this guy – we should not overestimate him over his teammates, especially Henry, someone we know so well. Two goals of Messi’s hat trick against Valencia came from Titi’s super assists. The second of those reminds me of Bergkamp: with the ball flicked in the air and no-one knowing what he’d do next, he simply poked it onto the runner’s path without looking (of course he had seen where Messi was moments before even receiving the ball).

    We all should also look at the quality of defense faced by Barca in the last couple of games: Messi literally outmuscled a midfielder twice his size before running through a couple hopelessly out-positioned defenders. In the same weekend, West Ham would rather foul Eboue than let him dribble three times in a row.

    To play Barca, we should focus on what we do best: keep possession obsessively and create. At the very least, in my crude arithmetic, we’ll reduce the time that they have the ball to do anything with it.

    1. Oh how can I forget to mention Bendtner? The boy has been up to it in the air with the most brutish defenders in the PL. I’ll be interested in seeing us exploring the good ole English game to see if Puyol can cope. Laugh?

  10. Hi, awesome article!
    I think Barca’s formation has flaws which can be exposed. Their right side is quite vulnerable and Toure is the only one to provide cover there and even he plays slightly inclined towards the left. Sergio Busquetes plays almost like a third CB, so Yaya has loads of space to cover. Assuming Xavi plays in Yaya’s position, we can exploit the weakness as Xavi is not as quick and does not have Yaya’s stamina. This formation will leave lot more space on either side of the second midfielder.

  11. My lineup would be the following
    Eboue Diaby
    Fabregas Nasri

    Eboue on the right wing should be able to trouble Maxwell with his dribbling while also being able to make a capable 4 man midfield with Song Diaby and Fabregas when defending. I’d like to see a double defensive shield of Eboue and Sagna on the right a la 07/08. Nasri on the left is also capable of dropping deeper and defending and his ball retention should enable him to link up with Fabregas, Diaby, and Bendtner to cause problems around Barcelona’s box.
    Song will play the holding role and try to stifle either Messi or Xavi as central playmakers, where many of Barcelona’s goals originate. Diaby’s pace and stamina will enable him to get involved in the attack and track back to double the right sided attacker and help song and fabregas with the midfield battle. I believe Diaby’s strength and elegance on the ball will be crucial now that he is coming into good form once again.

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