Barcelona oscillate between verticality and ball-retention in a post-Xavi world

The Club World Cup has come to represent a watermark for Barcelona teams in different phases of their sporting shelf-lives.

In 2006, Ronaldinho was anonymous, as he had been since the team’s Champions’ League-and-Liga winning heights a few months previously, when Barcelona crashed to S.C. Internacional in Japan. That game seemed merely a portend of the decline that was to set in.

The Joan Laporta era is associated with such a spirit of renaissance and success; who now remembers that Barcelona under Frank Rijkaard enjoyed, at most, three good-to-excellent seasons and two mediocre-to-woeful ones? That surely must have weighed on Pep Guardiola’s mind as he watched his team cap an outstanding era by winning the 2011 edition of the Intercontinental gong against Santos.

Unlike 2006, Barça’s 2011 win represented a zenith for that footballing project and yet just a few months later the crunch games in La Liga and the Champions’ League saw Barça tamed, frustrated or even outclassed. Guardiola had seen the writing on the wall, but if his end-of-season resignation seems less surprising on reflection, many will be kicking themselves for not having recongised the on-pitch manifestations of the coach’s diagnosis whereby he tried to assuage his team’s deterioration.

The second half of the 2011-12 season saw Barcelona adopt some pretty leftfield or lobsided formations that many people put down to eccentric tinkering, or perhaps a desire on Guardiola’s part to shake things up and reinvigorate his team. But a closer look reveals a series of attempts by the coaching staff to address specific problems in the team’s play, problems they believed would cost them their hegemony, as would eventually prove to be the case. After all, few would deny that these past two years we’ve been witnessing the unravelling of the original Guardiola project.

The successive reigns of Tito Vilanova and Tata Martino have only reinforced this perception and might best be interpreted as an exercise in managing imperial decline as the club hierarchy grapples with the riddle of which direction to take in a post-Xavi world. Assuming they wish to perpetuate the tried-and-trusted Barça model of play, the answer ought to be simple: promote from within the ranks, or go out and sign, a younger version of Xavi. Alas, such heirs are thin on the ground. And although this writer believes that Barcelona missed a trick by not snapping up João Moutinho before Jorge Mendes landed him in Monaco (the 2010-2013 Porto side played within a Barça-esque structure), there simply isn’t available the specific profile of a possession-consuming, all-pitch covering interior midfielder suited to inciding upon the play in a triangle-based team that Barça is predicated upon.

When Barça move the ball quickly and efficiently, with Xavi at the heart of it, its players adopt better positions in the attack which ultimately aids them to defend better: passing angles are clearer and less likely to be interrupted; the entire team meshes closer together when exchanging passes and is therefore better placed to obstruct an opponent’s path to progressing when possession is handed over.

Throughout early 2012, Barcelona were haemorraging rival attacks as their pressing slackened off and opponents found time and space behind Xavi and Iniesta, and not even necessarily during counter-attacks. Never suited to desperately seeking recomposure whilst running back towards their own goal,  one device that Guardiola used to stem the bleeding was something that he had experimented during that World Club Cup final: soak up the ball by flooding the midfield and perpetuate possession. To many, this shape and its underlying attitude (fig.1) appeared to be Barcelona engaging in self-parody. A version thereof (fig.2) was used in away league games and in the Champions League, and to neutrals perhaps it whiffed of excessive caution, not that Guardiola would deny a streak of pragmatism as being necessary for competitivity.

Figure i)
Figure i) Barça’s lopsided and midfield-centric shape vs Santos, World Club Final, December 2011

Above (Fig 1): Guardiola finds a way to maximise possession; a dry-run for what was to come …

And below (Fig 2): with only Alexis Sánchez to push back the opposing defence, the overriding maxim versus big rivals was safety through possession and numbers in midfield.

Figure ii): Barça's line-up versus Chelsea, Champions League semi-final home leg, April 2012.

Figure ii) Barça’s line-up versus Chelsea, Champions League semi-final home leg, April 2012.

The other solution that Guardiola provided was Jekyll to the previous one’s Hyde: instead of ball-hogging, more like a spot of pinball. Forget inverted wingers and overlapping full-backs, now the maxim was for two quick, vertical forwards (from Pedro, Alexis, Cuenca and Tello) to taunt the laws of physics by pushing the opposing backline deeper (with their pace) as well as stretching it to breaking point. The desired effect: to thwart the centre-backs from stepping out to harry Messi and the Barça playmakers (lest they risk thinning an already stretched line and allow runners to dart throught the gaps). More central space opens up for Messi and Fàbregas to exchange passes and glide past opposing defensive midfielders on a vertical route towards goal.

Below (Fig 3): the crab formation with three defenders, a midfield pentagona and two aggressive forwards stationed out wide. Space for Messi and Fàbregas as Barça lurched from a possession game to pinball towards the end of 2011-12

Barça's crab-like formation for when Guardiola wanted to maximise verticality

Figure iii) Barça’s crab-like formation for when Guardiola wanted to maximise verticality

The net effect: with both Messi and Fàbregas inhabiting  and interchanging in a limbo between false-nine and No.10, Barcelona’s jinetes (named for the type of light, quick-raiding cavalry that characterised medieval Iberian warfare) who were stationed out wide were now the furthest players forward. A return diagonal pass from the wings meant that Messi received the ball whilst already facing goal – no need to turn and therefore a precious fraction of a second to weigh-up his options made him all the more lethal.

Tito Vilanova’s reign as head coach saw the same double-edged strategy: up until Christmas 2012, Barcelona racked up points utilising the maximum verticality approach: it was a considerably less precise game than that which they had practised from 2008-2011 during the height of Xavi’s effectiveness. Although Tito deployed the ‘double 10 + jinetes’ attack, he preferred to field a back four than to reprise the back three of Guardiola’s  ‘crab formation’  (fig 4).

Aggression trumping possession, this time with a back four.

Figure iv) urgency trumping possession, this time with a back four.

Above (Fig 4): under Tito as well as Tata, Barcelona spent the first halves of the past two seasons with the more direct style and the team assuming risks while spread out over greater distances, confident they’d rarely be outgunned.

Higher velocity passing over greater distances meant slightly diminished accuracy, but that was less frequently punished in the bread-and-butter encounters versus most league opponents. Sure, Barça might concede a handful of counters but they could always outscore the opponent through sheer volume of firepower. Vilanova, however, was hardly naïve; he knew the business end of the season was approaching and that this rushed-attack and its tendency  to concede more turnovers would surely be punished by more formidable foes.

And so the return to the ball-hogging, possession maximising shape as the crunch encounters of early 2013 ensued. One of the jinetes was sacrificed so that Iniesta and Fabregàs could coincide along the left; one less attacker, one extra midfielder and thus with Messi dropping back and Iniesta drifting, Barcelona congested the centre with ball-players (fig.5). If this was a premeditated attempt to premanently take the sting out of the game, surely Barcelona would lack incision against deeper defences? Again, Messidependency came into play. When the collective quality of the offense waned, Messi’s individual brilliance would redeem all.

By removing one direct forward and populating the midfield, and reducing distances between sectors, Barça hoped to minimise opponents' interceptions

Figure v) by removing one direct forward and populating the midfield, and reducing distances between sectors, Barça hoped to minimise opponents’ interceptions

   Above (Fig 5): both Vilanova and Martino have adapted this more possession approach at the business end of their respective seasons

But this didn’t make Barça any less vulnerable to quality teams. Real Madrid and Bayern Munich took almost sadistic delight in mixing clever ball-circulation and intimidatory athleticism to discomfort the blaugrana as the Vilanova season drew to a forlorn close. Barça pushed up as a team, tried to keep all sectors weaved together, but were simply conceding too much space behind them. Half-confused, they’d signal the retreat back towards their own goal which is an alien language to a team couched in early ball-recovery, but this only served to open up gaps between the lines. The opponents’ ball-circulation disected them and found space behind Xavi and Iniesta who offered scant protection for the full-backs.

Tata Martino has found much the same state of affairs during his first season at the helm. Starved (obtusely, some might say) of meaningful, paradigm-shifting signings, inheriting the much the same human material only a year older, and having to walk on eggshells around the delicate issue of the decline of symbolic players, Martino has not been in a position to offer us a view of what his Barcelona would truly be like. How he would love to have at his disposal a younger Xavi or a new imitation. Instead he has accepted the hand he was dealt and just come up with the only plausible solutions he can make work.

Interestingly, this has meant a continuation of the Jekyll-and-Hyde approach. Yes, there have been some innovations, such as the occassional fielding of a more physical interior (Alex Song or Sergi Roberto) to aid Busquets in the destructive arts – a sign that Martino recongises that Busquets can no longer be expected to cover for both Xavi and Iniesta’s permeability -or the instruction to both full-backs to stay narrow and behind the line of the ball – the forwards instead providing the width – but again, whenever the gameplan is to be varied either the jinetes are there or the extra ball-hogger is inserted.

In the weeks building up to the clash with Manchester City, Tata has been inclining ever more towards the cautious encarnation of this Barça. But if fate dictates another humilitation for the team, as suffered at the hands at Bayern, this measure will have been proven to be just another band-aid on a gunshot wound.

Three different coaches, same diagonoses and similar treatments, and all identified a deteri oration in the human material, which later became manifest in changes to undertaking and formation. The sun setting on Xavi’s imperium has meant that Barça no longer have that perfect balance from 2011 between serenity and aggression in attack which allowed them to spend 90 minutes camped on the edge of the opponent’s box. And so, thrown off course, they resort to two wildly different approaches: maximum verticality or maximum ball-retention. Neither can replace the heights of 2011, nor do their first-aid-like solutions appear a credible medium-term fix to a chronic problem.

But until the day a new Xavi is unearthed, both stop-gap measures are connected by one silken thread to which they can nearly always cling.

Give the ball to Messi.

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12 Responses to Barcelona oscillate between verticality and ball-retention in a post-Xavi world

  1. BA says:

    beautiful, outstanding exploration of the continuous evolution in tactics to deal with the same overarching problem. i supposed the question is: can Barça play as well as their ’11 peak without Xavi? he can’t be there forever, after all.

    in my mind a possible answer to that question is why it was such a mistake to sell Thiago last season; not a direct Xavi clone, of course, but a player with whom Iniesta and Busquets might form a similarly effective triumvirate. is Fabregas capable of doing that? i’m not so sure.

    another question i have: Guardiola started the 11/12 season against Villarreal playing a straight 3-1-3-3, albeit with different players (notably, Keita and Abidal, both of whom seemed to solve tactical problems for the team but both of whom were let go, IMO mistakenly) than those currently available. it was fast, fluid, and free-scoring: Barcelona won 5-0. was it just a 1-off to counter Villarreal’s lopsided formation or is there a future for Barça with such a system?

    • santapelota says:

      Replacement for Xavi?

      - Cesc: no (not his game, besides: he can contribute in other ways). Would love to see him eventually ‘own’ that right-interior spot (and he interpreted it very well vs City, IMO; adhered to the Barça script but without losing his directness).
      - Thiago: possibly (but still so hard to know; just look at how Guardiola is shifting him around three different heights in Bayern’s midfield – hardly a sign that he’s being prepared to be a Xavi clone. And Thiago’s best performances in recent weeks have been as a mediapunta, if I’m not mistaken).

      A return of the 3-diamond-3?

      In a way, I’d love to see it – but it’s just a caprice on my part. Fact is, Guardiola didn’t feel it was sound enough to employ more regularly throughout that season – so why should conditions be any more ripe now? Besides, everything about Tata from his earlier coaching spells tells me is a died-in-the-wall back-four man.

  2. Joel says:

    A brilliant read as always. Recently, Melbourne Victory have also been playing the ‘double 10 + jinetes’ system

  3. John says:

    You also have to take into account Messi’s decline, modern football systems can no longer afford to have a player who literally just walks about when his team isn’t in possession. I don’t care how good he is on it, you can’t press properly as a team with 9 players, there is always an out-ball, if you look out for it you will often see Xavi or another midfielder pushing up to pressure an opposing CB in possession, because Messi is standing 5 yards away, not doing anything like a primadonna. I firmly believe Barcelona would actually better if they replaced Messi with Sanchez or especially Neymar in the middle.

    Not only that, but when Messi isn’t in the team the team is more unpredictable in attack, because the ball doesn’t just go through him. Look at Bayern for example, they don’t have more talent than Barcelona but their best players like Robben and Ribery put the team ahead of themselves.

    I have watched every Barcelona game since 2009, and this laziness from Messi started in the 11 – 12 season. Go and watch compilations of him from youtube from the time prior to that, he was a better all round player now, more explosive and he didn’t let the opposing team breathe with his pressing. Unfortunately most people are idiotic sheep, who only judge players on goals and tabloid headlines.

    • santapelota says:

      Hi, John,

      you can’t press properly as a team with 9 players

      Agree with you fully on this, as does (more importantly) Fabio Capello.

      but here you say:

      modern football systems can no longer afford to have a player who literally just walks about when his team isn’t in possession. I don’t care how good he is on it,

      .. this is where I insert a slight caveat into your argument: you do need at least nine players behind the ball when out of possession – of course, it would be ideal to have all ten outfield players doing this, but let’s face it – most teams give one of their players (typically the striker, as he is the furthest forward) certain licence in defensive phase. Even as recently as the late-nineties, you could see teams getting away with a “two free” licence (normally the No.10 and the No.9), but not anymore; one free is the maximum tolerable in modern football. In the case of Barcelona, it’s always been Messi (well since Pep took over, anyway) who got that carte blanche. In other teams, say Real Madrid, it was Cristiano, which meant that the other forwards had to work behind the ball to keep the 9:1 equation. In Barça’s case, you’d see the wide forwards making up the numbers. In Madrid’s, it’d be Higuaín (and now Benzema) filling in the ranks – even when Higuaín was operating as a No.9. And look at the Argentina national team now – similar situation with Messi’s accompanying forwards, and yet curiously the albiceleste don’t appear to be lacking in defensive intensity as a result of this arrangement.

      More specifically about Barça, and if you want to talk about a lack of intensity and unpredictability, I’m not convinced that Messi is the cause, much less the main manifestation of this. I am yet to be convinced that the benefits to be accrued without Messi (less predictability) outweigh the demonstrable gains of when he plays – for all he has been predictable for the past two years. For Messi’s predictability means predictably goals will be scored (even when Barça collectively are playing poorly), his teammates clutching to this like a lifeline, and his opponents psychologically sunk, inhibited by the sheer relentlessness and predictability of his attacks like a shark in a lagoon. And it’d a bit rich for Barça’s collective to resent Messi for this predictability when it is the collective malfunctioning that has thrust him into this dynamic while at the same time demanding that it lives off his individualism.
      And I don’t think this is even a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum: “is Messi’s predictability inhibiting Barcelona or is Barcelona’s predictability affecting Messi?” – I’m firmly inclined towards the latter. Because unlike Messi – who is in a slump, not a decline – , Barça do have at least one player (Xavi, and possibly Iniesta) who is in definite physical decline. And recall Pep’s words after his opening defeat in charge of Barça versus Numancia back in ’08 “We defended poorly because we were attacking poorly”. THAT is what I am seeing out there these past two years: Barça’s positional play (their identity – the only way they can be themselves) is deteriorating in light of Xavi’s (and possibly Iniesta’s) deterioration (though I think Xavi’s case is chronic whereas with Iniesta it’s more a question of niggling injuries preventing him from building up consistent form). Bottom line – this is affecting everybody around them.

      You mention 2009-2011 … I’m convinced we’ll see the return of this Messi – and let’s remember that back then he was the still freest of the front three, and the entire team was defensively solid. When Barça seriously address their collective deficiencies (a whole other debate), the conditions can then be put in place so that everyone is confident enough to attack and defend as one.

      Thanks for bringing this up! Really enriches the debate.

      • John says:

        Thanks, great post too by the way. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect Messi to be like Pedro or Sanchez out there, it’s important he reserves some energy because he’s by far the best player in possession, but I simply can’t accept the other extreme. The thing is Messi can still physically play like he used to, he isn’t somebody like Riquelme who is slow and immobile with questionable stamina, Messi is still an excellant athlete himself. And when he tries he is actually one of the best players at dispossessing players in the world because his tackling technique is excellent. It’s obviously just pure laziness on his part not to try and close players down, my point weren’t really about him not tracking back into his own half and getting behind the ball, but my problem is he no longer bothers pressing opposition players ahead of him, as well as players around him. This means it’s pretty much impossible for Barca to press effectively, either both CB’s are free or gaps appear in midfield because a midfielder has to cover huge distances to pressure a CB.

        Now I understand that Messi’s laziness isn’t the only reason Barca don’t press like they used to, but it’s the biggest reason IMO. I don’t understand how somebody who gets paid so much can just stroll around while his teammates are working their arses off. I would be fine with a 09 – 11 Messi level of work-rate again (even though I know he could try harder than this).

      • santapelota says:

        Well, some people suspect he’s saving himself if not for the World Cup then at least for the title run-in and the World Cup. He was never really a run-into-space kind of guy, but now it’s palpable that he’s avoiding this option completely. When he does make himself available for a pass, it’s usually to feet and increasingly in deeper positions. With Argentina he’s a de facto enganche now – Higuaín and Agüero (when he plays) play ahead of him and I presume you’ve seen his comments in recent months in the Argentinian press to the effect that he is comfortable having a permanent decoy in front of him, haven’t you?

  4. Arjun says:

    How has Xavi detorated as a player? This is not an attacking question, but a sincere one. Is he no longer capable of running the large distances he used to in order to create space for himself and others? Has his passing technique dwindle? I didn’t realize he was so vital to the way the great incarnation of Pep’s Barcelona would attack, but also, more importantly, how they would defend. Shouldn’t one also take into account the dwindling powers of the guys behind Xavi such as Puyol and Piqué? Also the selling of a smart player in Abidal who would counter balance the recklessness of Dani Alves, whose form has also dwindle a great deal? All which, I assume and probably incorrectly, contribute to Xavi’s decline, but are factors beyond his control? Sorry if any of these questions are stupid and thank you for your great analyses. I hope you find time to do more of them since they are so great to read!

    • santapelota says:

      Hi, Arjun,

      People don’t like to discuss Xavi’s physical decline because, they reason, he was never an amazing athlete anyway and hence his physical ageing wouldn’t really detract from his game. Though without any sports science research to hand, I would wager that there is a correlation between physical decline and the execution of a footballer’s technical repetoire, of his mechanics. Each passing season, Xavi’s losing a split-second of his ability to pivot on the ball, pick out the pass and release it while opponents draw in on him – this in turn means Barça’s offensive movements off the ball slow down exponentially; runs either aren’t made (out of hesitancy, lest the pass be cut out), or are rushed (often into a zone where Xavi doesn’t wish the receiver to go) in order to receive it safely. It seems like a microscopic deviation from norm, but it really affects Barça more than most teams because of its being like a central nerve in their play.

      One could make the argument that Pirlo’s game hasn’t changed with his ageing, but teams built around Pirlo have given him so much positional freedom and compensation in terms of fielding athletes around him – Xavi, on the other hand, is totally encrusted in the play and his teammates need to move in unison with him and with one another. In fact, I’d say that even Pirlo’s ageing is beginning to impact negatively on the collective functioning around him. And I’m not even talking defense-wise; in Europe, Juve have allowed teams to reorganise themselves in defense, to get back into positions instead of being opportune and accelerating their attack because Pirlo is taking a fraction longer to initiate the move.

      Also, you make a very pertinent point about Abidal. That measure of a full-back as third-centre back was such a boon for Pep’s Barça; to resurrect this role, many are suggesting Bartra could fulfil it, albeit on the right in order to compensate for Jordi Alba. I can’t imagine Tata Martino would be unaware of this – he’d surely be curious – but probably feel that his options at centre-back are so thin on the ground anway. In the mean time, he probably reckons it’s best to just get the best he can out of the superb offensive full-backs at his disposal. Imminently sensible, if you ask me, because remember th for the Bartra-as-Abidal mechanism to thrive, Barça would need to have at least one more quality CB to partner Piqué.

      • Aerth says:

        Xavi has stated than he has been playing for a long time now in pain because of past injuries. He wanted to stop international football but was convinced to go on until Brasil by del Bosque. The detioration has been very visible in his Spain contribution at the Euro for instance where his performance has been very economical until the Final where he has been his own glorious self.

  5. BA says:

    re: Messi’s “laziness”

    it’s my understanding that, beginning in Pep’s reign, Messi was instructed by the coaching and medical staffs to not press as much as the other forward players, because his sudden acceleration and change of direction was deemed to be a serious contributing factor to the muscular injuries that had plagued him since he came into the team. granted pressing from the forward players was essential to Pep’s system and Barça’s success, but the benefits (healthy, energized Messi in possession) outweighed the costs to the collective of having 1 player not pressing as hard.

    while i’d agree it does seem that over the last couple of seasons he’s doing less closing down from forward positions (and i’d also agree Barça look more focused and dangerous when he does), my assumption was that he was instructed to not run as much, because the team was depending on his offensive firepower so heavily (a symptom of Xavidependencia).

    whether you agree with that assessment or not, over the last 2 seasons Messi DOES have 87 goals in 80 games, so it’s difficult to pick too much fault with his total contribution to the team. an interesting point regardless.

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