Paulo Sousa’s Fiorentina; Back four to back three

Embedded image permalinkFiorentina’s expansive football style caught the eye during the Montella era where the club combined free flowing football with positive results. After parting ways with the former AS Roma player, Fiorentina appointed Paulo Sousa as his successor; a man whose philosophy is in line with Fiorentina’s proactive style. So far, Fiorentina are first in Serie A and playing some of the best football in Europe. Football so good, Fiorentina’s director said: “It is a joy to watch this team at work. It plays total football and in all my years of working in the sport I’d never seen anything like it.”

Sousa in his own words describes his philosophy;

“The foremost consideration for any coach or manager in professional football is to win matches – but we must entertain and play attractive, passing football, with a high tempo, pressing the opposition back and forcing mistakes. This is the approach I adopted as a player and is the approach I will continue to use during my time in the game.

I create teams with the balance between flair and aggression and I want my teams to reflect my own personality – honest, hard-working and with the desire to win.”avg

Fiorentina’s football is based on quick circulation of the ball into attacking areas and relentless off-the-ball pressing. Their average possession so far this season is the highest in Serie A since the 05-06 season, stressing their reliance to monopolize the ball. Sousa often plays with the 3-4-2-1 starting formation and did so against Frosinone with a back three system which had a lot of very interesting dynamics and orientations over the 90 minutes. Fiorentina are very flexible in their shape and one of the most interesting thing about them is their ability to switch to a different shape depending on the game phase and position of the ball. They started in a 3-4-2-1 shape in possession with Gonzalo, Roncaglia and Tomovic in the back three. Tomovic had an interesting role as the right half back, moving wider and creating a back four with Pasquale dropping deep in the wider left wing back role when Frosinone entered their defensive third.

The midfield consisting of Badelj who is one of the best players in terms of recycling possession in Italy, and Mario Suarez played very deep and often in the same line when Fiorentina had the ball in the deeper phases of build up to offer a direct vertical pass option to the defenders. Their positioning gave the centerbacks great vertical coverage and allowed them to move the ball at a quicker speed. Pasquale and Rebic played as the wide midfielders/wingbacks with Rebic taking up a very offensive attacking position. Both wide players were positioned very wide to stretch their opponents and create space in the middle for Fiorentina’s 3-2 block. Matias and Borja had very interesting roles as offensive midfielders playing behind Babacar.

Frisonone were very passive in their shape and allowed Fiorentina a lot of time and space on the ball in their own half. When they pressed, they pressed with two forwards in a 4-4-2 shape but Fiorentina’s three man line gave them the numerical edge in deeper build up.fio
The halfbacks were very proactive and would often carry the ball into the midfield zone. Fiorentina’s positional play gives many passing options over the field with quickens their passing and allows for effective circulation of the ball. Understanding and intelligence in positioning allows them to form many triangles and as a result keep possession at the expense of their opponents.

Matias Fernandez and Borja the offensive midfielders had very interesting movements and positioning in offense. The two playmakers would drop deep into the halfspaces to allow a vertical or diagonal passing option for the centerbacks when Frosinone pushed up a bit(very rare), but on the whole the two playmakers were generally positioned in the halfspaces and in between the opposition midfield and defensive line majority of the time. btn linesThe two offensive midfielders moved intelligently in the space between fullback and centerback throughout the game and in between the lines in positions which were difficult for the opposition to track. Babacar played very intelligently often running in behind and distracting the defenders to create space ahead of them. Sousa’ men overloaded the halfspaces very well whenever they attacked, particularly on the right and had very nice moments of getting in behind through their overloading of the halfspace.ovld hsWithout the ball, Fiorentina’s shape will switch to a 4-3-2-1/4-4-1-1. Pasquale will drop to make a back four with Tomovic moving wider. Matias who played as a 10 in between the lines in possession dropped deeper into midfield to create a midfield three with Rebic on the wide right moving into Matias role as the pressed Frosinone in their deep build up phase. El4RINFiorentina look to press very high, they maintain a compact shape and control the center forcing their opponents to play out from the wider positions. They then switch quickly to press them there where the space is restricted.


Fiorentina find themselves among the top and are among the most attractive teams to watch in Europe this seasons, the question now is, can they go all the way under Sousa?


Athletic performance from Bilbao: Valverde’s pressing

“The hardest thing about an easy match is making a weak opponent play poor. A poor player isn’t poor because he tends to kick the ball in his own goal. It’s because when you put intense pressure on him, he loses control. So you have to increase the tempo of the game and he’ll automatically give the ball away.”- Cruyff 

“It will be a nice and hard-fought tie. San Mames is a tough ground, we’ll have to be 100% or they’ll walk over us.” This was Busquets’ words before the game. He knew. Barcelona’s hopes of claiming a second ever sextuple took a massive hit at San Mames in a 4-0 win to the home ernesto-valverde-cropped_1qj4qx8himvxp1dwdrx24w2xx3side.After a physically demanding 120 minutes against a very good Sevilla side on Tuesday, Barcelona again had to go again, against Valverde’s Athletic Bilbao side. Barcelona had one of their best performances in recent years vs Sevilla at 4-1 before it all went downhill. A mixture of complacency, poor substitutions and most significantly Sevilla’s switch to a high press and quick long balls down the flanks led to Barcelona’s demise.

Athletic were lined up in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation. Iraizoz started in goal. A back four of De Marcos, Etxeita, Laporte and Balenziaga. San Jose and Benat formed the double pivot, with Eraso in a more attacking position ahead of them. Sabin and Susaeta played the wide positions with 26-goal striker from last season Aduriz leading the line.

Luis Enique had to make a lot of changes to the squad due to that exhausting game just a few days ago. The Barcelona manager made five changes from the team that emerged victorious in the UEFA Super Cup. Ter Stegen kept his place in goal but was guarded by Bartra who hasn’t been good lately and the myth that is Vermaelen, who made only his second Barca start. Pique had a Messi-like sort of impact in the most impressive defense in Europe last season so his departure from the starting eleven was a huge blow to Lucho. Alves who has had an interesting role over the past eight months kept his place on the right with Adriano replacing Mathieu in left back. Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta has been Barca’s foundation in the club’s most successful spell, unfortunately for the Catalans neither started. Xavi of course has left. Iniesta and Busquets rotated. Mascherano played in Busquets’ position as single pivot with Sergi Roberto and Rafinha as interiors. Pedro took Neymar’s position on the left with Suarez and Messi playing in their usual position.

There were two distinct forms of pressing used by Athletic in the Supercup. There was full pressing which begun right from the beginning of the game. They looked to win the ball high up the pitch and prevent Barcelona from entering their rhythm. There was also some sort of partial pressing or shadow pressing. This mainly occurred when Barcelona bypassed Athletic’s first wave of pressure. Athletic were sat in their defensive shape and looked to control and cover spaces.

Right from the first whistle Athletic looked to take advantage of Barca’s sluggishness. Barcelona without Busquets, Pique and Iniesta struggled to control the center of the pitch. Rafinha and Sergi Roberto’s skill-set differ vastly from what Iniesta and Rakitic offer. Where as the two veterans like to control possession and circulate, Roberto and Rafinha are more vertical in their movements and passing.

In the opening stages you see Athletic pressing in twos and threes trying to disrupt Barcelona’s circulation very high. Athletic played with a mid-high block and looked to squeeze the pitch as much as possible. The idea was to allow Barcelona minimum time on the ball right from the off to prevent them from entering their rhythm. “If you don’t have the ball you must make it as small as possible”. Pressing has become a major tactical trend in recent times because of it’s many defensive and offensive benefits. From a defensive point of view, a team that presses high tries to keep the ball as far away as possible from their goal by cutting the threat earlier, while offensively winning the ball high can lead to a quick route to goal as we saw with the third Athletic goal.
high press begThis scene is right from kick off. Barcelona pass back and are quickly pressed aggressively by Athletic. Susaeta immediately applies pressure on Adriano who’s forced back to play to Vermaelen. When the ball was shifted to a wider area in Barcelona’s build-up, Eraso who was deployed behind Aduriz was quick to prevent an open passing lane to Mascherano by staying close to him. San Jose man-marks Sergi Roberto, the near side midfielder while Benat on the other side remain tight to maintain horizontal compactness.2Athletic applied pressure right to the goalkeeper Ter Stegen. This is a continuation of previous scene. Aduriz presses MatS who has just received a pass from Vermaelen. The German goalkeeper is one of the best with the ball on his feet so pressing him was effective in reducing his accurate long balls to the forwards. Aduriz blocks a passing lane back to Vermaelen while putting pressure on the goalkeeper. Susaeta also watched Adriano closely behind him on Barca’s left side. Eraso was tight on Mascherano as well preventing a pass option to the Argentine. One common theme was Eraso staying tight on Mascherano as Barca’s lone six creating a 4-4-1-1 shape with two banks of four behind remaining very high and compact.

The opening stages was characterized by intense Bilbao pressing. Barcelona’s midfield control and circulation suffered a lot without the legendary Busquets and Iniesta. Barcelona’s positional game in midfield was very poor and Athletic capitalized. 442 (1)
n this scene, Bilbao allow a passing lane for Vermaelen to Roberto. As soon as the pass is made, Benat quickly closes the youngster down from behind. Susaeta is in position to press both Vermaelen and Adriano. Oscar de Marcos is also tight on the Barcelona left back while Eraso is in position to intercept a pass back to Ter Stegen. Four Athletic players are tight and very oriented towards the ball.5Barcelona were able to play through Athletic’s pressure in the beginning though. The Catalans maintained their composure and continued to circulate the ball in deeper areas despite Bilbao’s intensity. After Barcelona passed their wave of pressure, the Basque club quickly dropped into position in a very compact 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 shape3Bilbao kept a very compact block both vertical and horizontally. The front two looked to control central space by shadowing Mascherano and blocking a pass to him. The four midfielders largely remain tight and compact in a bid to prevent Athletic from finding space in their defensive block. Benat and San Jose largely stayed tight to Rafinha and Roberto in the middle of the park.

The last thing you’d want to do after a demanding game just a couple of days ago is to face Athletic who have been one of the best pressing sides in Spain over the last few years under Bielsa and now Valverde. In Athletic’s brilliant season two years ago, their pressing and intensity was crucial. Valverde led a very intense team to victory against Tata Martino’s Barcelona with a very impressive tactical display typified by their aggressive pressing. They topped that victory last night with another masterclass. A very athletic performance from Bilbao destroyed a lethargic Barcelona side who succumbed to their heaviest defeat in the Luis Enrique era.

BVB in preseason with Thomas Tuchel

1650305-35004035-2560-1440“Something is ending now, which I, as a human, never wanted to end, but I absolutely have the feeling that I am doing the right thing. I have had no contact with other clubs, I have nothing up my sleeve, but I also do not intend to take a sabbatical.” Watzke added : “We have together taken the decision, that our way, which has brought us seven years of incredible success, will be ending at the end of this season.” Zorc added: “In the past seven years, we have written a modern football fairy-tale with you, Jürgen, as the main actor. You have given this club so much energy and enthusiasm.”

After seven years of heavy metal football, Klopp departed the Signal Iduna and was replaced by Thomas Tuchel, one of the most sought after coaches in Germany. Tuchel left Mainz as their most successful coach after the 2013/14 season and took a one year sabbatical. The interest in his services was so high that during his break he was linked to the German NT before the world cup, Sociedad, Hamburg and other Bundesliga teams.

Like his predecessor, Tuchel became a nation household while managing FC Mainz. Under his tenure, he took the club to new heights and guided them to Europe – twice. His tactical flexibility shown and was evident in his two wins against Van Gaal and Juup Heynckes’ Bavarian machine which led Juup Heynckes to saying he could one day manage Bayern. Tuchel agreed. “I am absolutely certain I’m capable of coaching Bayern München or any other big clubs, but taking such a job at the right time is important.”

Tuchel made the most of a hardworking Mainz side and finished in very high positions. His Mainz team were known for their supreme tactical understanding and flexibility to switch to different formations throughout the season and also in games. In his time at Mainz, tuchel used many systems; 4-4-2, 4-3-1-2, 4-3-2-1, 4-2-3-1.

Mainz shape was mainly ball-oriented and depended on the opposition strength. They successfully defended with a high and mid-low block. With the low defensive block, they maintained a compact and narrow shape making it difficult to attack them from central areas. Statistically, there’s a more than 100% increase in chance creation attacking central space than wide, explaining Tuchel’s aim of controlling the center. 

With the high defensive block, Tuchel’s Mainz defended from the front by pressing opponents in the first phase. They made it difficult for opponents to build play from central areas by cutting off passing lanes in a well coordinated manner, forcing them wide and intensifying their pressure in wide areas, particularly on fullbacks. “I think attack should be the first line of defence, I rely on uncompromising, quick switch play, a great willingness to run and aggression when it comes to tackling. I trust my players and really get them on board. If they are ready to devote themselves to our common goal,”

In the 2010-11 season- when they finished 5th! no Bundesliga team made more tackles and interceptions than Mainz, summing up their industry in defensive phases.Screenshot 2015-07-19 00

Preseason is generally a time to work on strategic plans for the up and coming season as well as focusing on fitness and conditioning players for the hectic season. Teams use this period to work on systems and formations from a tactical point of view and also to regain high fitness levels. Player interactions on and off the field is also a main priority. The evolution of the game has mean’t preparation nowadays is more focused on than ever, and Tuchel concurs. According to kicker, he surprised the Dortmund team with an in-depth tactical scouting report of Kawasaki Frontale before the friendly. That is the kind of man Tuchel is.

Tuchel studied sports science, and is referred to as a Sportwissenschaftler- Sport scientist. He is one of the modern football coach who likes to integrate football with maths and advanced statistics.

“The scientific view of the game is an interesting input, mathematics combined with football. Sitting together with scientists and program a mathematical calculation model on the basis of the analyzed games and it results in future probabilities. Benham(Statistician) himself says of himself that he could never coach a football team, but he can tell from which position it statistically is most likely that the striker to score because its system has analyzed countless shots on goal and constantly analyzed further.”

His analytical team have been doing extensive research on their sessions. Analyzing minute detail such as the players’ positioning when receiving the ball among other details.

“Tuchel started with the simple things: Which foot do I control the ball with? Which foot does my team-mate like to receive the ball with? These details seem small but can make our game a bit faster; I think our progress is clear. Defending so bravely and being so brave in possession feels good.” – Gundogan said

One of the first things Tuchel did when taking over was to bring in his own fitness staff, with Klopp’s coach Andreas Schlumberger switching to Bayern. According to Bild, he discussed fitness with his team and players and after a performance test set out individual fitness plans. Majority of Dortmund’s training sessions have been with the ball with Tuchel often overheard stressing on ‘control’.  “It’s a balancing act between athleticism, running and stamina on the one hand and ball possession and defensive play – both individually and as a unit – on the other hand.”

In-depth match preparation is something you can expect to see from Tuchel, however his choice of formations isn’t as regular. During his time at Mainz he often altered and switched formations based on the opposition.

In Dortmund’s preseason, Tuchel has shown similar levels of tactical flexibility by playing different systems, the idea remains the same however, to control possession in the center of field and use quick passing combinations to probe the final third.

“Dortmund are synonymous with attacking football,” Tuchel said. “I am very comfortable with that. We will press the ball a lot and play lots of attacking football. This is something I enjoy and so do the fans.” Tuchel when asked about his ideas for Dortmund showed great level of adaptability with his response. “My schematic idea doesn’t matter, we need to do what’s comfortable for the players.”

Against Kawasaki, Dortmund were lined up in 414/4231 variant with Weigl the youngest captain ever of 1860 Munich as single pivot and Castro in a more advanced starting position. The coach has told me how he rates me what he has seen of me and what plans he has with me. His analysis was very aptly. That what he’s up to me, convinced me enormously. He gave me made ​​it clear that he wants to work with me. I think our cooperation has great potential for me.” 

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Goalimpact measures the extent that a player contributes to the goal difference per minute of a team. If a player has a high GI value, then his team has a good goal difference when he plays compared to matches where he doesn’t play. An average player in my database has a value of 100. The best player in the world approximately 190.

Dortmund XI to face Frontale: Bürki; Piszczek, Subotic, Sokratis, Durm; Weigl; Hofmann, Kagawa, Castro, Maruoka; Reus. They won 6-0. Dortmund had a more controlled approach looking to build attacks through the center. Gung-ho vertical passes were less and there was a more positional game to control the tempo. Apparently Tuchel particularly works on this by training with a rhombus shape. Tuchel never used a football field entirely for players to practice instead formed fields of different shapes and sizes: diamonds, circles, rectangles so that players saw their space reduced to an almost negligible space where responsiveness is paramount. Tuchel was visibly disappointed whenever the team played a failed long ballScreenshot 2015-07-29 00tBurki, the new signing to take over as number one had an interesting role. Burki was proactive in possession and often positioned himself as a tool for circulating in the deeper areas of the field. He looked to bring the ball forward by moving out his box and at times positioned between the centerbacks as a pass option. Screenshot 2015-07-29 12This allowed Weigl to remain high, often positioning himself to receive a pass ahead of the centerbacks and control the center of midfield with short and simple distribution. His positioning was very good, often making himself available to a teammate. When in possession, he had a calm head and wasn’t really fazed when pressed. Tuchel has already said “It’s fun to work with him.” The fullbacks were generally positioned high to provide width in the attacking areas in deep build up. BVB looked to concentrate play on a zone with strong overloads forcing opposition to switch to ball side and quickly play to the underloaded area. Through Kagawa and Weigl’s clever positioning. Reus, who played up front had freedom to drop deeper, move into the channels and interact with the midfielders.Screenshot 2015-07-20 21Tuchel has been stressing on compactness and defensive organization in training. Two areas Dortmund really need to work on after last season. One fundamental of Tuchel’s playing philosophy is counterpressing. Tuchel urges his team to try to press immediately after losing possession. Against Kawasaki, Dortmund as we have come to know them immediately put pressure on the ball when there was a turnover. Here Dortmund have all their players in their opponents half, after losing the ball they quickly push on to win possession back. Their pressing in the shot below led to a goal after regaining the ball very high.Pressing high has it’s offensive benefits.bvbIn the second half, Dortmund made 10 changes. Wiedenfeller; Stenzel, Hummels, Stankovic, Schmelzer; Gundogan, Bender, Mkhitaryan, Sauerland and Aubameyang came on and they switched to a 4231. Gundogan who played in the double pivot played higher than the other six and controlled positioned in the higher areas of the field creating some sort of 4141 variant.

Against Bochum, Dortmund started in a 4312/442 diamond shape, this time Bender was used at the base of the midfield. diamondAgain Burki was used in circulating the ball in the initial stages of build up moving to the same line of the centerbacks at times. With the centerbacks being man-marked in some instances vs Bochum, Burki gives Dortmund a numerical advantage by joining in build up making it a 3v2.

Bender didn’t quite position himself to ensure a clean progression of the ball however. It seems Tuchel would prefer Nuri Sahin to play at the base as he is much better technically and in positioning. Mkhitaryan who has spoken on how eager he is to learn from Tuchel (“It was important that Tuchel and I had an intense talk. I immediately felt that he has great potential as a coach. He understands and lives football. He knows how to build up a game and how to defend. Afterwards I thought to myself: ‘Maybe it is the best to stay and learn from him.’) and Gundogan played beside Bender with Kagawa playing as the 10. Reus and Aubameyang were the attacking duo. In the second half, Dortmund switched to a more familiar 4231 formation with Gundogan playing as a mobile partner to Bender in a double pivot, again Tuchel switched to a 4141/433.

He is technically top, very meticulous and flexible. Every coach has a different handwriting. Klopp was completely different. Just as well Tuchel is a different type than Klopp. That’s a good thing. We therefore do not need to reinvent the football in Dortmund again. – Watzke

Chile ; Less Bielsa, More Pep? “Graduating verticality with horizontality”

“Bielsa plays more direct and not so possession like I’m looking for. I pursue more positional attack and always start with the keeper, the pressure is high, low or intermediate.The background is the same, but my way is different now. Before it was more like him in my time at the U of Chile.”CI_LmrIWEAA4-9L


In 2007, El Loco was appointed as Chile’s manager. During his time, he revolutionized the brand of football being played in the country. Before the 2010 World Cup, there was as much hype about Chile as many ‘big’ footballing nations, albeit with a more tactical focus. Their attacking and relenting style was a nice change from the bland style of play ‘smaller’ nations were playing around that time.

Few people in football have had the influence Bielsa has had on coaches, such that the tag Bielsista is often associated with young progressive tacticians. Sampaoli, Guardiola and Pochettino are among a long list of coaches who are branded his disciples.

Who is Bielsa though? Marcelo Bielsa is a very ‘crazy’ man who believes if footballers were robots his team would never lose. “After having seen 50000 games of football, 28 different modules exist, and not one more”.  This quote typifies his obsessive and crazy mind. He is a fundamentalist that never alters his high intensity approach – I don’t even know if this is a good or bad thing.

“Football for me is movement. You have to be always running. In football there are no circumstances for a player to stand still on the pitch.”

“I am an obsessive attacker. I watch videos of games to attack, not to defend. You know what my method of defense is? “We all run.” And since running is a matter of willpower, it’s much easier to defend than to create, because creativity requires talent.”

Philosophically, few coaches in the history of football can match up to Bielsa. His ideas of football are unique, although strategically, he may lack on certain aspects such as game management. From a tactical point of view, Bielsa sides are known for;

  • quick off the ball running
  • Vertical football
  • Aggresive pressing
  • Man marking

“They all run up … and they all run down again. Up, down, up, down, up, down. They’re fascinating.” – Pep Guardiola describing Bielsa’s Athletic.


Guardiola is the most successful coach in the last decade. He’s already won 18 major trophies in his short career and more impressively, he achieved success by combining victories with a style.

His Barcelona side was arguably the greatest club side ever. Pep made a decision to become a coach after hanging his boots. Before taking over as Barca’s B team coach, he flew all the way to South America to meet Bielsa. In that meeting they talked about football and tactics for about twelve hours apparently.

Pep’s Juego de posicion philosophy is a football tactical concept based on numerical superiority. “Positional Play consists of generating superiorities out of the defensive line against those who are pressing you. Everything is much easier when the first progression of the ball is clean.” – Lillo. 

Pep is in love with possession of the ball. His teams circulate the ball as a tool to draw opponents out of their structure to exploit space. In order to do this, numerical advantages is necessary to create a passing connection between teammamtes and ensure clean progression of the ball. He believes the quicker the ball goes forward the quicker it comes back. At least 15 passes is vital in progressing ball into forward areas. Pep’s sides are known for;

  • Horizontal circulation of the ball to open up opponents
  • Verticality
  • pressing and counterpressing
  • Numerical superiority and overloads
  • Positional play
  • Zonal marking.


The term universatility in football is being discussed a lot now. Bilardo and Sacchi profesied the game will evolve with players constantly rotating positions and occupying the midfield area.

Bilardo says “For me, football will get better and better. But I also know that it will make more and more demands. I even believe that the difference between defenders and attackers will disappear. I see the teams of the twenty first century made up of a goalkeeper and ten players. Without fixed positions. Without specialists. Each one of them knowing everything.”

While it seems unlikely this would happen, Pep Guardiola’s teams are often associated with this. The closest national team you’ll find to this is Chile. Sampaoli’s Chile team is very fun. Their constant rotation and off-the-ball movement is exhilarating for us, a nightmare to opponents.

The Argentine coach has used a variety of formations during his time here, predominantly oscillating from a back three to a back four. Like Bielsa, Sampaoli managed Newells.The Argentine followed El Loco’s career path by taking over the Chilean National team. Among the many Bielsistas, Sampaoli is the one whose name is often synonymous with Bielsa. Sampaoli is a devout admirer of Marcelo Bielsa, and has often said he’s his biggest influence. “When I was younger I went jogging wearing headphones on, but not for music, but for his(Bielsa) press conferences” 

Like his mentor, Sampaoli is very obsessive. He does not allow journalists to see his training sessions as he believes it will be leaked to his opponents.

By half past eight in the morning, he is already on the training pitch and would not leave until 9pm, after which he goes home to study his team and the opponents on his computer according to football journalist Gab Marcotti.

The style of play of his team is often put in the same breath as Bielsa’s – Aggressive and relentless pressing, verticality, numerical superiority, a back three system with a classic 10 initially was used a lot.

In the just ended Copa America, there was a slight change in Chile’s style of play. Bielsa was the reference point, but now Sampaoli’s added a more positional game. There was less focus on vertical football as it was twelve months ago. Chile were still very aggressive, played a lot of vertical passes and run a lot, however they evolved their style of football to a blend between verticalidad and control.

Chile looked to control possession and often played vertically or diagonally when spaces had opened up in advanced areas. Depending on opposition they played with a back three or four, all with the aim of obtaining quantitative superiority.

Sampaoli explained; “I think it will be a little different, with the passage of time we have understood that beyond the vertical, the need for constant attack, there are different ways to approach each match, there will be mixture between possession and verticality, the team needs different situations, the group has matured and understands that the process of preparation of each party have done. We will choose the best, through the development of what happened after the World Cup, “Screenshot 2015-07-06 18Chile’s average possession pg has risen by over a quarter since the 2014 World Cup. In the past twelve months, Sampaoli has often spoken to Chilean radio about his plan to play more horizontally and control possession as opposed to previous gung-ho vertical football. They had the highest ball possession in the Copa America as well as the most short passes and the highest pass accuracy. There is more emphasis to control possession now and this is very evident in Chile’s statistics.  “The positional attack is more important than the direct attack.”okSampaoli and Chile’s training sessions are guarded by Policemen. He does not allow random people onto the scene of his sessions. “I am all the time seeing who’s going to find out. We do not want to inform the opponent. There are technicians who are not affected by it, but I do and it makes me watch. A detail or set piece can be significant to win or lose . This has become an obsession for me. “ Chilean journalist Diego Morini was however able to sneak in and according to him, Sampaoli divides his training field the same way Pep Guardiola does.The above picture is a shot of Bayern’s training field which has been divided into many portions. Withing each portion each player has instructions and specific duties to perform often with the ball as the reference point.

“When I was younger, I consumed up to 12 hours per day of pure Bielsa lectures and conferences, he was obsessive. Now I see football with other nuances and appeals more to me without so much vertical attack and more possession of the ball, as does Guardiola’s teams. “Sampaoli told Radio Universe

Bonini, Bielsa’s trusted assistant “Marcelo gave to Sampaoli a group of players with the idea of ​​being protagonists and conviction of not less than anyone. We were lucky that he bequeathed and we are now trying to add positional game, a continuous attack, graduating verticality with horizontality”

Enrique, tiki taka, tito-tata and the evolution of Barcelona’s football.

1238292-26696642-1600-900First, 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. pg passes

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.

Tata Martino

“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:ca

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.

iMartino 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. tumblr_inline_n1hbkvevAO1rs91qm

“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. 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.Screenshot 2015-06-21 16Henry 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 Unzué muestra una jugada a Luis Suárez durante un entrenamientoMessi’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. UntitledCity’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. messi + suarezAside 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. Screenshot 2015-06-22 22This 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.kmpctIt 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. compactThe 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.Screenshot 2015-06-19 18 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. Tactical Review: Barcelona 3-1 Athletic Bilbao