First, they were criticized for passing for the sake of it. The following season they were criticized for losing certain Cruyffian principles and being too direct. After six months under Lucho, it seems Barca have found the right balance. Pep described them as the best team in possession of the ball, and now the best counterattacking team. If you aren’t organized, they will punish you.
Barcelona had a great season under Luis Enrique following two not-so-great seasons immediately after the departure of Pep Guardiola. I mean can you imagine Barcelona winning only one major trophy after fourteen in four years under Pep? Pfft.
I start this piece with a quote of Pep, not necessarily of his Barcelona team but of his football philosophy. Associate Tiki Taka with any Pep team in his presence and the brilliant bald headed tactician will go mad. He dismisses the term tiki taka often associated with his brand of football. Why? He explained. The term tiki taka was actually a derogatory term used to described teams who moved the ball around without any intention to attack.
“I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition’s goal. It’s not about passing for the sake of it.”
Barcelona always passed the ball with intent to move the opposition. The idea was to use the ball as a carrot to lure opposition out their shape with their passing to exploit spaces, which makes it wrong to say their possession was without purpose.
He further explains “What matters is neither possession nor the one-touch passes, but the intention that there is behind. The percentage of ownership of a team or the number of successful passes has no meaning in itself. What is crucial, which is why we did this, we are trying to achieve and what is the plan the team with the ball. That’s what counts! Having the ball is important when performing a sequence of 15 consecutive passes to maintain its organization while that of destabilizing the opponent. How? For short passes, quick and supported. And while you do these 15 assists, your team is organized and the opponent chasing the ball, trying to get it back. During this process, the opponent loses its entire organization without realizing it” Tito Vilanova
Towards the end of 2013, Barca were criticized for not being purposeful in possession. In a season in which the 7-0 defeat against Bayern and Tito and Abidal’s health overshadowed Barca’s best point tally, they were criticized for keeping possession for the sake of it. Actual tiki-taka if you like.
Teams were adapting to Barcelona’s style of play. They were playing very deep in their own halves and restricted space in the final third for Barca. Barcelona have a lot of needle players. Players who are good in tight spaces and can make many decisions in minimum time and with tiny space so this wasn’t that much of a problem. However in some games, the lack of space being given to them in the opposition half meant they kept circulating the ball in search of openings. Barca were averaging fewer shots under Tito than in any recent season.
Due to health reasons Tito Vilanova left. The players at the beginning of the following season concurred with claims of Barca needing evolution in terms of tactics.
“We played the last few years with homegrown coaches, first Pep and then Tito, and maybe we ended up exasperating our style of play to the extent that we found ourselves slaves to that system, that style,”
“Now that Tata, who comes from outside the club, has arrived, and who shares the same ideas of football, which are based on possession, he is, however, showing us different options.”
“After many years, our opponents obviously knew how we attacked, how we moved. Look at Alves and Alba, for example. They push a lot and some opponents would give them space down the wing, but not let them move inside. It became difficult to get in. We needed to find alternative solutions and Tata’s doing that without ruining our style – we still have the same possession. We needed variations like this.”- Pique
Barcelona went for Tata Martino and then In 2014, they were criticized for being too direct. Barcelona knew who they were going for with Tata. He was Paraguay’s coach when they reached the Copa America final playing a very low block and hitting teams with a direct vertical approach.
Tata’s biggest inspiration Bielsa is identified for his brand of vertical football. Perhaps the appointment of the Argentine signaled a different approach in terms of style. Result-wise, Gerardo Martino had a great start to his European adventure. However, there were questions raised on his approach.
There was the famous mini-crises at Barcelona after their game against Paco Jemez’s Rayo away from home. Tata was criticized heavily by some of the Spanish press. You may think this is a a game Barca lost, right? No. It was deeper than that to some of the journalists. Barca actually won the game 4-0, away from home which is a great thing. However, they lost the more important possession battle. FOR FUCK SAKE TATA!! Yes, for the first time since 07/08 they had lost the possession battle.
Barca’s inability to control possession was typified by Valdes’ passing. At Barca, the goalkeeper is the first playmaker. Aside from keeping his goal guarded, he is responsible for starting attacks. Valdes in that dreaded game had a pass completion of 26% many of which were ‘hopeful’ long balls. There were many reasons to this, Barca’s positional play on the day wasn’t good but significantly Rayo were great tactically, at least that is what their coach implied.
”It was more a merit of Rayo than a failing of Barca. Last season in their ground we were very close to achieving it. When people talk about Barcelona giving up possession of the ball, I do not believe it. The proof is that before they played us they were still monopolizing the ball.”- Paco Jemez said. Tata Martino backed Jemez’s claims when defending his tactics; “Rayo pressed us and they made it difficult to play short passes. We had the alternative to play long and at times you have to do this in these types of matches in order to reach other parts of the field.”
This dreaded day was followed up by another. Barca won 4-0 against Dutch champions Ajax but that didn’t matter to some as their possession was low. They didn’t have more than 60% possession in that game, the worst thing to happen to the club since Bartomeu. No, really. Articles were written on how Tata Martino’s Barcelona Have Lost the Essence of Cruyff, Rijkaard and Guardiola.
“So what you’re getting is a Barcelona playing too direct, unable to press high up the pitch, with too many long balls and without the players to hold the ball up and win the 50-50 challenges. And as the team becomes more stretched, the opposition create more chances, and the effort required by the team, more accustomed to defending with the ball, becomes greater.” – Balague
Messi explained “As the games pass we will adapt further. There are games when it is better to have the ball and others in which the rival presses and you need to get out on the counter. We have the good players and the super-fast players to do so. The more variations we have, the better, There will be days when it’s better to have the ball and move it around the park, and others when it will be better to park the bus and play for the counter-attack.”
Tata’s idea was to make use of the counter attack and to be more direct with the ball. Teams coming up against Barca often played a very low block and tried to compress space in their defensive third by remaining vertically and horizontally compact, this affected Messi’s influence centrally. The advantage of counterattacking football is simple. Football is a game of space, managing, controlling and exploiting space. When a team is in possession of the ball they break from their natural defensive structures to attack. Fullbacks begin to move forward, midfielders moving into space et al. The moment the ball is won by the other team, the team previously in possession becomes vulnerable. Top coaches work on their teams positioning in possession such that they are not vulnerable to counters, some coaches don’t. At the instant the ball is lost, their structure is open and they could be punished.
Barcelona had a front line of Messi, Sanchez, Pedro and Neymar very pacy players who are suited to a direct style. As teams had limited space in possession, the idea was to make use of space in transition. Barcelona’s added counter attacking option was evident, such that at New years 2014, they had scored the most counters in Europe. In the past three seasons, Barca scored the most goals through counter attacks under Gerardo Martino. A chart of Barcelona’s counterattack goals in the league:
Tata’s attempt to evolve their style left many pressing issues however, literally. Barcelona’s pressing become poor. Barca weren’t compact enough in and out of possession of the ball which affected their ability to press and counterpress. He had lost a lot of key elements in Barca’s play that made them great. “Xavi was the one that went to Martino and said that ‘some of what you’re doing, we understand. But we’re losing our positional play and the elements that make us special. We need to retrench to what makes us good and differentiates us from other sides” – Graham Hunter said.
Barcelona’s passing play and interchanging made us watch in awe but all of that wouldn’t have been effective had it not been for their pressing.
“Provoke the proximity of the maximum number of opposition players around the ball. Recuperate the ball imminently when lost in spaces where we are united. Divide the play of rival team while not dissociating ours. All with the idea of having awareness of, during the prices of attacking, I am generating the futures conditions defensively or vise versa.” – Oscar Moreno in Juego de posicion.
This quote relates to Guardiola’s playing style at Barca focusing on both defensive and attacking interactions. Juego de posicion, or positional play focuses on numerical superiority on the pitch. Pep Guardiola has previously said that all phases of the game are interconnected, such that if the offensive phase isn’t good it affect defense and vice versa. By being compact in possession, Barca are able to have numerical advantages around the ball in certain zones.
The players are well connected through ‘triangles’. Their compactness in possession also affects their defending greatly. Lets say Barcelona have a 4v3 advantage it’s rare they would lose the ball. But shit happens. Should there be a turnover in possession, their numerical advantage allows them to quickly cut off passing options for the player in possession and reduce his time on the ball.
Under Tata, their roles changed a bit. Xavi and Iniesta were positioned higher to receive vertical pass from deep. Barca were looking for a quick route to attack which stifled their possession play. Out of possession, their midfielders pushed high to press but there was no compactness in their pressing. Their positional play under Tata didn’t allow them to press as effectively, as a result teams made advantage of time on the ball to launch successful counter attacks. Busquets in particular suffered. In some games he single-handedly had to cover over 30 meters of space. Look at the picture below. Should Madrid pass the initial wave of pressure Barcelona would be all kinds of fucked.
Martino was heavily criticized after losing at Anoeta, like every Barca coach after playing Sociedad away then. “I didn’t read the game correctly.” Martino explained after his 3-1. “having three forwards implies that we wouldn’t be playing with four midfielders. I thought that it was better to line up a double pivot, with Song.” Yep, Barcelona being out-numbered in midfield actually became a possibility. A numerical advantage against Barcelona. How on earth?! So the Argentine went with a double pivot of Song and Busquets.
“The problem with two holding midfielders is quite simple, but somehow many coaches don’t see it. The build up happens too slow – holding midfielders always need that extra touch, always need to have a look when they have the ball already. That takes time away. The opponent can position themselves to stop the killer pass and the forwards are all marked. Plus, having two holding midfielders means there is one less creative playmaker. It’s a double edged sword…we need one good controller in midfield and two creative players on the wide midfield spots, like Barcelona does…if our build up is slow, the effectiveness of our creative forwards will decrease significantly.” – This is Cruyff’s words on the double pivot.
Cruyff wasn’t wrong. Barcelona struggled to circulate the ball in that game, La Real’s diamond midfield was very compact and narrow given Barca no room centrally. Martino didn’t last and was quickly replaced by Enrique.
Luis Enrique is a former Barcelona player and successfully coached the youth team. He is highly educated on the philosophy and ethos that has made them arguably the best successful club side in the last 25 years. After a poor start to his career in Rome, the young coach quickly enhanced his reputation at Celta Vigo in Spain who played arguably the best football outside the top sides. Rakitic, Ter Stegen and Suarez were the significant signings.
Enrique initially struggled at Barca with his tactics. Barcelona’s pressing wasn’t as intense as Luis Enrique would have wanted it to be. There were times Barcelona sat deep in their own half instead of pressing high which led to some critics in the beginning.
He tinkered his formation a lot in the beginning as well. Barca 433 became more of a 4-3-1-2. The inside forwards were playing a lot more centrally with Messi used deeper than usual. Enrique also used a 3-3-1-3 formation. Messi behind Neymar, Suarez and Pedro, Mascherano as single pivot. He also tried a double pivot of Mascherano and Busquets in some games. Valencia most recently. I heard Cruyff had sleepless nights during these dark double pivot moments.
After new years’, Enrique switched his system and some player roles. Suarez became the focal point in attack with Messi and Neymar playing wider roles. Dani Alves’ role too changed a bit this season. In order to have full control, Barcelona’s style is based on numerical superiority. Alves often made inside movements into midfield when circulating. Rakitic also had more freedom in attack to make forward runs and position in attack. The rotational movements of the right axis was crucial in Barcelona’s attacking transitions. Last season Tata tried to incorporate Messi wide in the game vs Manchester City, and again against Atleti using Cesc as false nine. Considering Atletico last season were so drilled tactically and looked to compress central space to the point of suffocation the shuffle was to ‘isolate’ Messi wide. Tata got abuse as it didn’t work out. Following Suarez’s return from suspension, Enrique went down a similar route. Naturally Suarez is a 9, and Messi started his career as a winger when Luis Enrique was still around circa 2004, until Pep came in.
Pep Guardiola’s decision to move Messi centrally came towards the end of the 08/09 campaign. Something had hit him watching his team in El Classico.
“I became a coach to find out what the opponent does, to find the answers… Football is like chess. You need to know what the opponent does, their movements, to make adjustments.” – Pep Guardiola.
The decision to play Messi centrally came in Barca’s historic 6-2 thrashing of Real Madrid. In a presentation, Pep showed videos of the game and explained his decision. He had noticed Madrid’s midfielders applying pressure to Toure, Xavi and Iniesta in midfield. It was almost as if they were man-marking them. Pep noticed this very early on and tried to counteract Madrid’s actions. Barcelona resulted to circulating the ball deep early on. Xavi and Yaya Toure were dropping very deep just ahead of the defense and at times on the same line. Barca’s midfielders circulated the ball in deep areas meaning Madrid who were man-marking pushed very high to press. Cannavaro and Metzelder were the two centerbacks in that game. The defensive duo stayed deep as the midfielders pushed forward to press. Pep said the reason for the centerbacks remaining deep was because they were scared of leaving space in behind for Messi and Henry running into from the flanks. The result was a very large space in between defense and midfield.Henry started the game and on the left, with Messi wide and Eto’o central. As the game wore on, he swapped Eto’o and Messi’s position. He thrived in the space between the lines and would soon make it his own. Pep also said he wanted his most creative players in the middle of the park. Messi was isolated out wide so moving him centrally was to see him contribute more to the various phases of play and create midfield overloads. In some games though, Guardiola still played Messi wide depending on opposition tactics. Against Getafe in 2011 he played wide with Villa central.
Initially defenses were confused with Messi’s unorthodox role. They didn’t know whether to push high and press him which would leave themselves vulnerable to diagonals in behind for the wide attackers. The midfielders were also lost. To mark him they had to drop a few yards deeper, but then that would allow Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets more time and space in possession. It was nightmare stuff for defenses. But as time wore on teams adapted to his role and Messi was having to use individual brilliance to engineer space in danger areas. Most teams sat very deep and tried to compress as much space as possible between the lines. Barca’s attacking play was not as collective as it was between 2009-2012. It was much more individual brilliance to create space.
Suarez had struggled playing wide pre-2015, Luis Enrique swapped he and Messi in a decision which transformed Barca’s attack. Suarez is arguably the best 9 in the world right now, Messi is the best footballer in the world and Neymar could potentially be the best player in the world. So what happens when you find a coherent system to bring the best out of them collectively? The most goals ever by an attacking trio. Damn, they scored more goals
“He’s always available. He’s always looking to go behind and they now have a proper No 9. In my Barca team we had that with me and Samuel Eto’o, They knew we would always ask for the ball in behind, and therefore Leo could encounter space in that false nine role. They’ve gone back into that. Why? Because they have one guy we’ve been talking about all night, and that’s Suarez. Him being in that position will allow everybody to play better. They went to Leo on the right and Neymar on the left, but they have that No 9 they didn’t have for a long time.” – Henry Messi’s shift to the wide flank has created a more diverse attack for Barca, apart from defensive benefits. Messi has complete freedom in this new position as he did earlier but he takes him a natural wide starting position. “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”
Here, Bayern press Messi on the right flank with three players after he received a pass from Mascherano. Rakitic’s clever run wide takes Benatia’s focus and Suarez runs into the gap between Benatia and Boateng.
Should defenses collectively focus on Messi and look to mark him there going to be a great deal of space centrally for Suarez to feast on. (Sorry, not sorry), and for Neymar on the other flank.Messi is one of the best players at creating space for himself and for others. Coming in from the right flank away at City, Messi run into the heart of the City defense taking the attention of about five defenders. City’s focus on Messi makes them very narrow in defense allowing Jordi Alba space to run into leading to Suarez’s and Barcelona’s second goal at the Etihad. Suarez’s involvement as nine and clever movement takes the attention of defenders and also creates space for his other teammates and in particular Messi. Aside his attacking play, Messi is making significantly way more defensive actions than he was last year. His defensive stats this year has been so good. Showing why Pep called him the best defender in the world.
What Barcelona do without the ball is equally important as what they do on it. Luis Enrique is a coach who focuses very much on the defensive aspect of the game by being proactive. He demands that his team are very aggressive without the ball. He demands intensity. “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”.
I touched on how Barcelona’s compactness or lack of it had hindered their pressing and counterpressing under Martino. Their poor positional play had seen them become very vulnerable on the counter and ponderous in midfield. Under Enrique, they have been much much better defensively and their restored compactness in and out of possession has been a major reason.
Barcelona’s defensive statistics have been superb. Their aggressive and well coordinated pressing is a major reason behind this, as is their compactness which they lacked under Martino. Luis Enrique stressed on the importance of being compact after Barca’s 2-0 home win against Athletic earlier in the season. “If we want to do well, we are going to have to be consistent and compact both in attack and defence”
Barcelona’s improved compactness was evident in their game vs Bayern. In the high press, they gave little space to the German team. This was early in the game. Barcelona hunted down the ball like a pack of wolves. Notice how tight Iniesta is to his player, and Busquets is to Schweinsteiger. Messi also marks Rafinha, Neymar who swaps position with Suarez is also tight on Boateng with Suarez on Benatia. In this picture, Barcelona mark all passing options for Bernat in possession by being compact in the Bayern half. Alves presses the Bayern fullback and is able to win the ball.
Again Barcelona’s compactness in their pressing helped them against Rayo at Camp Nou. Not only in stabilizing the defense but also in creating chances which led to opening goal.It all begun with a Rayo throw in their defensive third. Look how many players Barcelona push up and are in that space on the flank. Each Rayo player is man-marked in that confined area. Barcelona have a 7v6 advantage and win the second ball after the throw in. The ball lands on Xavi’s feet who quickly plays a through ball in behind Rayo’s defense to Luis Suarez for the opener. In Barca’s opening two games of the season, they scored two goals directly from pressing high up the pitch as well. Not only has it stabilized their defense, it has added another dimension to their attack. Backing the famous Cruyff quote “Pressuring high limits the amount of running players must do. When you win back the ball, he explains, there are 30 meters to goal rather than 80.”
Another thing Luis Enrique did so well this season finding the right blend between direct football and possession football. What Tata failed to do. He has restored Barca’s effective possession football. Across Europe, only Bayern Munich had more possession(70.2%) than Barca (69.7%). Barcelona look so direct at times you wouldn’t think they were the team with the second most possession after Bayern. Basically 1st as Pep doesn’t play with his possession, he doesn’t count. Barcelona have still prioritized keeping the ball and circulating to find space as was the case under Tito and since the days of Cruyff. They recorded their highest average possession since Pep left. They are now playing with much more speed in their attacking movements and passing. Barcelona pass the ball quickly in the opposition area which is useful in destabilizing them. They have also shown how useful dribbling in the opposition area can be to create space and chances. No team completed more dribbles in La Liga.
Tata’s attempt to make Barca direct failed as Barca lost key elements in their play that made had made them so good. Luis Enrique found the right balance. Pep Guardiola called Barca the best team in possession and now the best counterattacking team in the world. “Barça have become the best counter-attacking team in the world. If you aren’t organised, they will punish you.” he said before the CL semifinal second leg.
The main aspect of Barca’s play is to circulate to create chances as Lucho has said. The counter attack is just another trick up their sleeve. Atletico Madrid under Simeone are about the most organized defensive team you’d see. Knowing how much space they’d prevent Barca from having, Luis Enrique targetted the counterattack as a more potent option. They won and scored two great counter-attacking goals with 3-4 passes. A brilliant new dimension to their attack. Lucho has addressed many of Barca’s previous problems and did so impressively. The signing of Rakitic is arguably the best signing made in the summer because of what he brings to Barca. Rakitic replaced Xavi in the starting XI and showed just why in the opening liga games. Rakitic is a player who offers a lot to a team. His vision and passing range helps Barca to control games and circulate the ball. In the opening game he set up Munir with an incredible pass given the Nou Camp a glimpse of his magic. Defensively, Rakitic is as good as any in midfield. Rakitic added more physicality and intensity to Barca’s press, in comparison with the ageing Xavi. I mentioned earlier that Barca struggled defensively on the flanks as teams targeted the spaces left by Alves and Alba. Rakitic stabilized the right flank with his impressive workrate and intelligence. Alves later on in the season had instructions to move centrally to combine with the midfielders. No matter his attacking movements, Rakitic’s intelligence maintained balance on the right. His role is very physically demanding, so demanding that he sat out a few liga games before/after CL games.
What more can I say, their treble success backs the remarkable work Luis Enrique has done in evolving Barcelona’s play and finding the blend between direct and possession football.