How do short, on the move strikers at Barcelona help break the bus?

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.

The Decoy

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.

What next?

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.

20 thoughts on “How do short, on the move strikers at Barcelona help break the bus?

  1. Good post.
    Could we see a return, as tactics, seemingly go full circle, of teams playing more goalscoring forwards. Granted they need to0 expand their skill-set but United have signed Hernandez, Barcelona did sign Kerrison and Villarreal, Nilmar. Higuain has been fantastic also.
    Indeed, with Messi’s form, sometimes Guardiola has been reluctant to play someone slightly more functional as Ibrahimovic as in the recent El Classico.

    1. Thanks!
      May be, but the goalscoring forwards of those days were hugely reliant on mistakes by opposing defences and their jobs were just to feed on the service of the creators of the ream. We may not see purely goalscoring forwards, but a more versatile version of them. Nilmar, Bojan, both can play on the wings…
      So again, we may see hybrids!

      1. It may not even work in the La Liga, that’s why Pep bought Ibrahimovic. Sometimes, when the movement is not that fluid and your passing is off-colour, you need someone who brings a better dimension, offers different options. Thats why even Bendtner is useful.

  2. When we had Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez together that was exactly the kind of game we played! Nani’s resurgence and the youngsters give me hope for the next season!

  3. Great article.I believe we will see a forward line of chamackh and rvp with AA slightly behind if he stays.we know rvp and chamack will dominate defences;chamackh will shield and hold up play while rvp will disorient cbs with his clever movement.i think AA&cesc will share the no.10 role wrecking havoc in the spaces created by front two.i believe AW is going to free AA more since if rvp and chamack dominate defenders,the mf will also be sucked in hence fewer defensive responsibilities for AA.Cesc will have to drop deep in big games since diaby and song lose out on mf battle then,let AA take the no.10 role and you’ll see.if only rvp stays fit…

    1. Thanks.
      I would like to see Arshavin play more centrally next season. He may not track back, but Arshavin and RVP as forwards would be good. I think Chamakh is quite good. His link up play is great and his aerial abilities are amazing, he gets most of his goals through headers.

      Do you all think Arsene will abandon the 4-3-3? More than a change of system, I think a change of mentality is required.

  4. You are spot on mate,teams like baca make football worth watching. Lets wait and see how this system works against highly organised teams like Inter Milan.Arsenal have come close to replicating this but they lack a masive finisher, a dependeable goalie and a few other areas like the ability working as a team. Don’t get me wrong but you get wonderful players like Ashavin who are brilliant but act as if they are not interested at times.In this modern game every player on the pitch is a defender, It starts with strikers learning to track back to help.Then you get players like Walcot saying we’re goal to run baca raggard, then they don’t turn up.

    1. Is everyone already forgetting how they already beat Inter Milan? Convincingly too and the game they drew they were dominant.

  5. This is a good article, however, my take is that this type of forwards, is alright and very good in technical leagues like La Liga and in the Champions League where skilled players are protected. May be, just may be also in Serie A. In the EPL, it would not be as profitable as it is in la Liga that I am certain, unless the FA and referees change their attitude and start protecting players i.e. putting players safety first. Just see how Arsenal players are battered by the raging rams of English football. Whatever the reasons for the increasing amount of injuries at Arsenal for the past three seasons, intentional (I do not care whatever anyone else says), reckless and cynical fouls that always go unpunished, have plaid a large role. Of course if they are very good and highly skilled like Pedro, Bojan and Messi, they would have better chances. Still, I bet you they would struggle in the EPL.

    On the other hand, I agree with K-TR7, that combination will have a better chance than the current combination, in this case AA23 will need to up his efforts. However Arsenal midfield of Diaby and Song, and the forwards (here I include Cesc, RvP11, Chamackh (I am not certain of his first touch and skills on the ball, which is essential for a mobile striker) will have to treble their work rate (cue Barca) and tactical nous, this is the Achilles hill for Arsenal at the moment. The work rate is on the low side, it needs to improve, and not by a little, quite substantially actually.

    Tactically, the Arsenal’s midfield leaves a lot to be desired. With Barca, movement is not the limited to the forwards / strikers alone, the midfield too, and the wing-backs. Such movements are, however, only useful if players also are intelligent and have a good first touch i.e. generally know how to use the ball intelligently like Cesc. If Cesc drops deep, then you could have AA23 in the no. 10 hole, I just wish he had a higher work rate ala Messi, Pedro and Bojan. I believe he can be phenomenal if he keeps his interest focused. Too many times he seems disinterested, perhaps he is not keen where Wenger plays him (so Myles Palmer of ANR says) on the pitch.

    What Man U used to do with Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez in the past couple of seasons is what Elvido noted above, and is what Barca forwards are doing very well now. These three Winger/strikers, however, were suitable in the EPL as they are not so smallish like the Barca combo referred to in the article. That is why they were so successful even though Rooney was not scoring so much as he is doing now but I believe he would have caught up eventually. Actually, come to think of it, SAF was using Rooney more like Bojan / Pedro is being used at Barca, and Ronaldo was Man U’s Messi of today in Barca.

    Witness how many fouls Ronaldo attracted and actually suffered (cue Messi). A lesser player particularly one of slight built and character, would have come short (cue Jose Antonio Reyes, the predecessor to Eduardo’s number 9 jersey). Actually, I believe, the fouling, lack of protection and the hatred of the English fans, might be part of the mystery why he left the EPL. People in the British Isles will point to “his cheating” (notice the inverted comas, I do not believe he was always cheating), that is only in the eyes of people whose football is based on the “British attitude” where physicality, brute force and insalubrious tactics are highly rated over skill and flair. No wonder skilled and flair footballers are a threatened species in the British Isles! Else where the game has moved on, witness La Liga where the short on the move strikers are thriving.

    I would tend to agree with the comments of The Brain, that we could see the coming back of “Goal scoring forwards” but not necessarily short (not in the British Isles for sometime anyway). What Brain is suggesting, I believe, is what Arsene Wenger is already doing at Arsenal. Yes Brain, they will have to expand their skill-set. Just watch Arsenal forwards in full swing particularly with Cesc just behind them, RvP11, AA23 and B52 (or Nasri) who I believe could be displaced by Chamackh (if he arrives) or somebody more skillful, mobile and fast like the Brazilian kid Wellington coming in January 2011. Wellington’s arrival (and if he prospers), will be very ideal for what is being discussed by the article.

    Also, I think Arsenal’s midfield is also too slow (Song, Cesc and Denilson, not quite a good combo with respect to speed), only Diaby can move faster, and he is yet to master the defensive game, both in terms of tackling and positions (yes I know his stats are good but he is not quite there yet), he will get there may be, but one more or two of his kind and perhaps better are needed. Why do I touch on the midfield? Because, midfield intelligence, speed (of thought and movement) and mobility (i.e. midfield performance); are key to the performance of the forwards (cue Barca midfield anchored by Xavi). I am sorry for a long story.

    1. I completely agree with the above. There really should be a talent drain from the EPL, due to how the refs call the games. In the NBA (American Basketball) they protect their stars far too much. If you brush them, they call a foul. This is not good either. But in the EPL, it is completely backwards. There is absolutely no protection for anyone, and physicality takes over skill.

      If you have a league with refs that call the game tight, then the skilled players will THRIVE. The more you allow fouling, then the more the skill will become less important. If there is a huge difference in skill between 2 players, and the refs allow harsh fouls as they do in the EPL, then the difference between the players disappears. The less skilled player simply hacks to death the skilled one, and the less skilled but more physical player becomes the dominant force.

      This is the main reason i do not like the EPL at all. I really think talented individuals should move to different leagues. Someone like Torres would do much better playing in La Liga, where defenders aren’t allowed to injur you at will.

  6. Barcelona’s youth system seems to be geared at producing these kind of short, quick, technically excellent forwards. Pedro has been excellent the past 12 months or so but without much fanfare. He is ahead of Bojan, who was supposed to be the next great thing but no one is really talking about Pedro is potentially world class. He has quietly performed in all the big games and is versatile, two footed and understands his role in the team.

    The Arshavin thing didnt work because Arsenal have no dribblers in the team. Barcelona have several of these players who collapse defenses and create space for the through ball. Arsenal just kept lumping balls into the penalty area while Arshavin was marked by two centerbacks. He had no chance.

  7. Fantastic article and comments.

    Brain, just wondered what you think of this site, I only just discovered it:

    Two interesting Arsenal-related articles and discussion:

    “Thomas Vermaelen’s poor positioning keeps costing Arsenal goals”


    “The reason why Arsene Wenger loves Denilson”

    1. Hi. Actually I have known about it since it was under a different domain. Very good site, covering the top teams (but you know the place to go for Arsenal analysis!)

      1. “but you know the place to go for Arsenal analysis!)”

        😀 I certainly do! No one does Arsenal analysis better than you.

  8. 4 an arsenal blog u tlk about barcelona ALOT didnt mind b4 but after gettin knocked out the champions league by them and the continuous tappin up of or captain i wud rather hav negative critics as lng as its jus ARSENAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  9. Wow, fantastic weblog format! How lengthy have you been running a blog
    for? you made blogging look easy. The total glance
    of your website is wonderful, let alone the content material!

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