New season, new faces, yet similar philosophy by the Catalans in the early stages of the season. After a substandard season by their very high standards, there was a need for changes in the Barcelona team.
In the managerial dugout, former Barcelona player and B team coach Luis Enrique replaced Tata Martino as Barcelona head coach. Luis Enrique’s coaching staff is made up of former Barcelona goalkeeper Juan Carlos Unzué, Roberto Moreno, Joan Barbarà and psychologist Joaquín Valdés who worked with Lucho at the B team, and goalkeeper trainer José Ramón de la Fuente.
In terms of players, Barca have been banned from strengthening the squad in the transfer market after breaching certain FIFA codes of conduct and as a result it was expected Lucho will make signings not only for this current season but also in preparation for the 2015/16 season.
In came Ter Stegen and Claudio Bravo for a combined twenty-three million euros to replace the out-going Victor Valdes and back-up goalkeeper Pinto. Vermaelen, Mathieu and Douglas were the other defensive signings.
In midfield Rakitic was bought to fill the gaping hole Xavi leaves in the Barcelona midfield, while Rafinha Alcantara who was key in Celta’s campaign under Luis Enrique was promoted to the first team. Suarez was the marquee signing, completing a move from Liverpool. Munir and Sandro along with many B team players were promoted to the senior team. Enrique has made his intentions to use youth players clear.
Apart from their obvious quality, one noticeably trait evident in some of Barca’s new signings is their leadership qualities – Rakitic, Vermaelen and Bravo were captains at their previous clubs and this could help the Catalan club off the field particularly with the losses of Valdes and Puyol. Another noticeable thing is the physique of the Barcelona signings which would improve them when defending set pieces. Fabregas, Valdes and Alexis were the major summer exits.
Formation and system
In terms of style, Luis Enrique was a part of the famous Barcelona team in the 90’s and is very familiar with the philosophy and ethos of the club. Barcelona’s style through the years has always been to entertain the crowd with attacking football and that is what Lucho promised the fans at his unveiling.
“I want a team that is faithful to everything that has won it so much before, a team that scores goals, that defends well, that has playing resources, that plays the same at home and away … I don’t just want results, I also want to win playing nice football”.
“A coach has to design a template based on the players he has. My job, and the job of my staff, is to search for a system that suits us. Everyone studies us and we try to be unpredictable, and use the individual qualities of each player.”
Luis Enrique also promised the crowd an aggressive and hardworking team which chases every ball and always gives their all. Pep endorsed Luis Enrique’s appointment and in a recent interview was quoted by Sport saying; “It is important for Barcelona to have its own identity again, a philosophy that we all recognize, I think we will see just that under Luis Enrique”
Barcelona have started the season with a 442diamond formation with a lot of changes and different adaptations depending on the game situation.Considering their system comprises of several movements and interchanging to find space, such positional maps can be interpreted differently. But this visual from Barcelona’s game against Elche gives a clear view of how Barcelona’s 433 morphs into a 343 in construction phase and circulation of possession.
In the construction phase, Barcelona build play with their centerbacks splitting laterally, the pivote, often Busquets would drop into the defensive line or the line just ahead to give more options for the circulation while the fullbacks move forward into the midfield line forming a 343 shape.Their high block gives them a compact shape in the opposition half which allows more passing options, and also the chance to counterpress effectively by limiting space for opponents. “We will have possession, and if it’s in our rival’s half of the pitch, even better.” the Barcelona boss noted in an interview.
Barca’s only two games this season have been against low block teams and as a result Alves and Alba spent a lot of time in the opposition to provide width while the inside forwards have occupied more central positions.
In midfield, Lucho’s preferred trio seems to be Busquets, Rakitic and Iniesta with Xavi being moved to a more withdrawn role on the bench. The addition of Rakitic in place of the legendary Xavi from a tactical point of view will give Barca more diversity, particularly in the defensive phase where the former’s energy will help when pressing. Rakitic’s presence in a slightly withdrawn midfield role allows Busquets the chance to press opposition high up the pitch and also gives Barca solidity in case of a counter by filling in wide positions as Dani Alves attacks, something FCB struggled with last season. Take this photo for example. Villarreal intercept a Barcelona pass on the left flank and attempt to hit them on the counter. Alves is already out of position but Rakitic who is already stationed in a wide position covers the right flank and is able to win the ball. The above photo is another example of Rakitic’s importance to Barcelona in the defensive phase. Part of Enrique’s philosophy is to always have control of the ball and dictate the game and as a result, Barcelona press intensely to regain possession from opposition. Rakitic’s energy and workrate is crucial in this system, particularly in covering wide roles. Villarreal attempt to build through the left flank but Rakitic who is a very good reader of the game is able to rush across to cut out the pass and regain possession for Barca.
In attack, Barcelona play with three narrow forwards. The inside forwards have been given a more central role this season to stay more central and move into the channels. “The three forwards play ‘inside’, and there is a series of movements, but we change depending on the rival. We will do different things.” Lucho said. Messi looks good physically and has already been crucial to the Barcelona system both in attack and defense. Messi is Barca’s joint-most tackler along with Busquets and his intelligent movement in a free role up front is something Enrique has touched on recently. “He’s such a good reader of the game so we mustn’t close off any opening that he sees on the pitch. He has complete liberty of movement in attack”
Barca are yet to concede a competitive goal this season and credit should be giving to their positional play and organized pressing. In addition to their impressive clean sheet record, the Catalans have conceded only 15 shots, 5 per game which is 7 less than the next team. From preseason it was evident to see Lucho had been putting much work into Barcelona’s defensive transitions. They have played a very energetic high pressing game and try to regain possession immediately after losing the ball “We can’t press by decree – you have to be organized and targeted. It’s important to have the ball but it’s also important to win it back as soon as possible”.
Their pressing has been beneficial not only in a defensive sense, but in offense as well. The high press is a feature synanymous between FCB’s most recent coaches. Pep spoke on it: “Pressuring high limits the amount of running players must do. When you win back the ball, there are 30 metres to goal rather than 80″
In the above screenshot from Barca’s game vs Athletic, Iniesta applies pressure to the man in possession and is able to nick the ball to Neymar. Neymar thereby has passed most of Athletic’s lines and is closer to goal which easily could have resulted in a Barca chance with better judgement.
Barca’s first goal of the season highlighted the effort Luis Enrique had put into Barca’s system in preseason. The Catalans had just lost possession high up in the attacking third and immediately set out to pressurize the player in possession who was forced into playing a quick pass to his teammate.Munir and Alba press Elche’s right-sided players and force a heavy pass into the central zone. Busquets on the blind side of the Elche midfielders presses the ball and his perfectly timed interceptions turns into a through ball for Lionel Messi who scores.
Barca’s winner away at Villarreal also materialized as a result of their intelligent counter-pressing just in front of the Villarreal penalty area. Messi and Dani Alves pressed the ball in the right channel soon after losing possession. Messi toe pokes the ball away from the player in possession to the opposition player. Dani Alves keeps up the pressure in that particular zone and his perseverance sees him regain possession for Barcelona in a very dangerous area. The ball breaks to Neymar, who passes to Messi, resulting in Sandro’s late winner.
Barcelona have had a really good start to the season, just as they did the previous season. Two clean sheets in two games along with six points makes good reading particularly for a side who struggled in some stages last season to find the right balance. Barca’s positional play, pressing and transitions are looking good along with a few new faces.