Barcelona (Total) Football Club
Barcelona is not just a football club, but the club of total football. Without ignoring the historical contribution of nations from the Danube landscapes and the Hungarian heathers, to the Coffee houses of Vienna till the birth of the methodology in Netherland and Ukraine, at the moment there is one and only one team where you can expect a living lecture about total football week in week out, written in the blau and grana colours, and seeking passion and perfection . That’s why I demand changing the club name from Barcelona FC, to Barcelona TFC.
Playing with this football style is easy to say. It is one of the most difficult football styles to structure tactically, as it almost releases all static positioning for the sake of increasing the performance dynamics. That more or less was labelled as organising disorder.
In this article, I will focus more on offense dynamics of the team for next season. It will be an endless analysis if we dare to try covering all the aspects and elements. So this will be more as a sample to inspire and tempt every reader’s creativity to do more predictions and draw their own concepts.
When a team plans a strategy, they split it on stages. I usually classify team strategy on four categories:
1) Defence status.
2) Transition phase from defence to offense.
3) Offense status.
4) Transition phase from offense to defence.
The transition stages are the most underrated but the most important stages. That’s where most of the time the brilliant ideas in theory collapse during execution. While its important to plan the offense flow and decide who does what, and while its also vital to specify the positioning and roles of your players to close spaces and mark key players while performing the defensive status. The transition from one stage to another is the deciding factor whether the plan is only theoretical or applicable. Because the transition stage is usually a variable mix of both defensive and offensive stages, with the doses changing in a well synchronized way while moving from one status to another. It also calculates accurately the time and effort needed to finalise the transition. The less it takes to make the transition, the more efficient and applicable the overall plan turns to be. That’s why, while planning offense, defence has to be in mind in an attempt to make the transition planning easier. And while deciding the best defence to apply, offense has to be in mind to make sure the team can bounce back to cause damage the moment you earn back the ball.
I will narrow my argument here and squeeze it to fit the offense status of the team strategy. Hopefully in another articles we tackle defence and transition stages. How do we react when we lose the ball while being in action offense wise? This is a very important question that needs to be considered. But first we start while having the ball, and making attempts to score while the opponents are completely focused on preventing us from netting goals, more than being ambitious to score against us. This may prove to be the story of the following season as well. What should we expect while stepping onto the field?
Defence general review
There are two methods of defending: Marking territories (Zone defence), and Man Marking.
In Zone defence, every player is responsible of a specific slice on the field, and he marks the player that patrol within his territory, it’s like a net, you pass through, you get trapped and get inactivated by an opponent.
Man marking means hiring a player to ride on a specific player’s shoulders, being sticky, an irritating joy spoiler.
There is no “right way” or “wrong way” in principle. Though personally I don’t like Man marking because you hand the control of one of your player’s movement to the opponent team (as the marker moves depending on the marked player movement) There is some scratching of ego in that situation, beside a loss in command. But in general, the two methods are interrelated. So there is no “either this or that” obligation.
In zonal defence you may end up applying an embedded man marking. Freezing any moment during the game, offers you an image of the defending team marking (or at least monitoring) the opponent key players almost one-on-one. At another moment, the defensive team structure will be identical, yet the one-on-one chart differs based on the opponent players repositioning. The main weakness of this system is that even though you can complicate the opponent’s offense flow, you will not be able to mark their key players out of the game, at least mentally. While marking tightly may irritate the opponent player, and damage his playing appetite, zone defence offers that player a chance to drop deep (away from the Zone) for a moment, exchange some clean passes, breathe, gain confidence before diving back into the operation area and trying to crack the restricted zone.
In man marking, it is never the kind of “Full court press” as we see it in basketball –If I understand the basketball terminology well. You will never have ten players marking ten opponent players one-on-one all over the field. The man marking is applied to mark out the key player(s) of the opponent. The rest of the defensive team players must arrange their lines in a way or another, basically forming a zone defence shield. The main weakness of this method is that it may work against a team that depends on one key player who can make the difference. Against a multi talented team (like Barcelona), you just can’t apply it. It will end up being like holding water in your palms, while it slips between your fingers. Dedicating many players of your team to mark tightly the opponent players create a positioning mess. Your own half will look like this for the opponent’s offense to drive safely into your net.
Barcelona needs to be ready for any defensive strategy. Last season we witnessed a notable upgrading that made the group dynamic less predictable and more flexible to overcome the challenges of breaking down defensive locks. The main change we witnessed was at the forwards department. Henry’s role became more as a second striker cutting in from the left rather than being a winger hugging the line as in his first year with the club. Messi’s role was modified, where he is no more a right wing, but closer to a “10” while Alves was actually our right midfielder. Eto’o’s movement dropping deep out-of-box and opening on the flanks created spaces to take advantage of. But there were still some issues that we need to resolve, mainly in the midfield.
Mark your marker out of the game.
The opponents will most probably create a mix of Zone defence and Man marking. Some of our players will be marked tightly while the opponent team structures a zone defence using the rest of their players, though risking their offense efficiency. Against a man-marking situation, the worst thing your players can do is to hold on positions. If the opponent marks Xavi tightly for instance and Xavi keeps on roaming near the box arc (The “D”), then he is obviously serving the opponent a favour. His marker will become a man-marker while dealing with him but at the same time a Zone-player planted on the edge of his own area and closing more space, as long as Xavi is roaming there. Against Bus-Parked defences that is exactly the spot where you need to pull players “out of” rather than “get them into”. Or else, you are offering the opponent the advantages of applying the Man marking where they freeze your key player, and at the same time help them to overcome the Man marking defect by not pulling the marker out of zone to create positioning chaos, but keeping him involved in his team strategy to shut down spaces in front of their keeper.
First, try to get rid of him, dribble him, earn him a yellow card creating a suspension threat, take him on the weak side, tease him and have fun torturing his lack of quality to prove he can stop you. But if all that didn’t work, and if he was admittedly a quality dude, who knows how to get glued, then glue him back! Take him from the neck and pull him out of position, even if that means paying Valdes a visit, with that guy walking beside you with a dumb smile.
If Xavi pulls his marker deep towards Yaya’s territory, Messi and Iniesta will have more space and one man less to worry about while orchestrating offense. If Yaya is free and jobless, then he has to move forward to the edge of the box, switching positions with Xavi. The one thing Yaya has an edge over Xavi is that he is uncontainable. His physical dominance coupled with his technique make him a hard player to mark. On the edge of the box, and being aware of his dribbling skills, dangerous runs to the box and long shots, the opponents will go crazy to contain him; he will attract them in numbers like a magnet, which will give more freedom for his teammates to cause damage.
The principle must be taken so seriously that even if the opponent marks Yaya as a DM, Yaya must pull his marker somewhere out of service, Pique must step in to do the holding midfielder role while the other two central backs (Puyol and Abidal) sandwich the opponent’s lone striker. We can not afford losing the holding midfielder involvement in the possession game we play. His role is underrated but crucial. He links defence with offense, and he creates an escape station for offense to rest the ball and reposition, if the opponent’s pressure on the players upfront created the threat of losing the ball. Besides, moving Yaya forward whenever possible is always welcomed. In principle, the holding midfielders’ role is usually to create a cement wall in front of the defence line. Or as Rinus Michels used to call it: “a Vacuum cleaner”. Yet, in a team like Barcelona that try to break down locked defence on a weekly basis, and sometimes twice a week. You may try the hammers of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi first to create holes. But you must not exclude the Bulldozer option.
The players need to continuously activate the marking-destruction wheel. It only happens by switching positions again and again. Offense in Football is two simple facts: 1) Create spaces. 2) Attack spaces created or presently existing. Our players’ versatility is an asset to benefit from. Receiving the ball in a static situation leaves you with an opponent marker staring on your face. Movement will always give you few moments of freedom while your original marker is following your trace. It’s a well known golden principle: You are faster without the ball than you are when you have it. So it’s better to move then receive rather than receive then move.
Barcelona possession and offense style is briefly described as: “Pass…move…pass…Move”, while actually it’s more efficient to consider it as: “1) Move, 2) Receive, 3) Pass, 1) Move, 2) Receive, 3) Pass…” Turning the game from being offense Vs defence to a hopeless attempt to chase and catch. The opponent will be more focused on chasing you than chasing the ball dance from one player to another.
What will help the team more to become uncontainable is the ability to create a play-making-Chain instead of counting on a single playmaker to run the show. In offense status, Alves, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Ibrahimovic and Even Yaya (plus Maxwell when he plays) have the quality to act as playmakers when they have the ball in an offence status. Our playmaker is the player who has the ball, which guarantees the offense flow continuity regardless of the opponent marking-targets.
Usually, it’s not recommended to change the team tactical structure as long as it is clicking. But Barcelona is an exception. Barcelona players’ positions and roles not only vary from one game to another, but also within the same game. So they are used to changing positions. Besides, being the team to beat makes your opponent analyse your game thoroughly in an attempt to stop you. The more surprises you have to pull out of your hat the less predictable you will be, and the less containable as well.
Tactical versatility will also help you to overcome the absence of any key player without compromising the quality of the selection. Instead of looking for a substitute to fill a key player’s absence by benchmarking the two players’ attributes, reshape the tactics to perfectly fit the new player’s attributes so that he can contribute with the rest of the selection in producing the same performance quality that matches the general standard.
Even playing one of these two unfamiliar tactics (Sample 1) - (Sample 2), for example, shows that we can walk through 80% of the season games without not only the African players who will serve their nations next January, but even if we also missed Messi, Iniesta, or Xavi (two of them is enough for the midfield) or even Ibra or Henry (Messi can play there). That’s without considering the young players who proved their worth during the preseason , beside any new player that may join, where even though we already spent more than publicly expected , we still need a midfielder. There are less “weird” tactical structures we can apply and it serves that mission as well.
Noting that I am not predicting what will happen, but more recognizing the potentials we have, to generate creative Ideas and tactics that other clubs may not have the luxury even to consider. Lot of things discussed last summer happened, including the three Central backs structure, moving Messi to act as a modern 10 after buying Alves, using iniesta on the left flank instead of buying expensive untested player, and the need to have a utility player like Keita in the midfield. Other points didn’t happen, like using two holding midfielders in some games where it is needed, and using Yaya in a more advanced position – though recently it seems Pep is started to notice this option may work. Beside, Pep exceeded my expectations when he modified Henry role from a pure wing hugging the line as last season to a second striker roaming on the left and cutting in all the time, creating a lethal offense troika, with Messi and Eto'o.
I leave you with this sample below. It only presents one slice of the options cake taking last season’s most selected players, with only Ibrahimovic present instead of departed Eto’o and only showing “some” of the picks and tricks linking the left flank with the centre. The same approach is expected to take place on the right involving Alves-Messi-Ibrahimovic instead of Henry-Iniesta-Ibrahimovic. While having Yaya or Keita beside Xavi in the centre with Iniesta on the left can deliver different dimensions as well.