Barcelona 3 – Eibar 1, Nou Camp 25th November 2015.
Taking advantage of the October half-term school holiday, one half of the www.manutdtactics.com team decided to take the family away to Barcelona for a mini-break. The eldest son was insistent on a visit to the Nou Camp so we decided to take in a game and couldn’t resist the opportunity to review the game in question and take a look at the current Barcelona system to compare and contrast with our own methods. As things are not perhaps going as well for United as we would all wish right now there was a clear temptation to look for lessons and ways in which United might improve from Barcelona’s approach.
With Messi and Iniesta missing from their side Barcelona shuffled their pack. Barta featured in central defence alongside Pique. Javier Mascherano moved forward into the defensive midfield position as the single midfield pivot; this is a role that he is familiar with having played here for both West Ham United and Liverpool and it is also his usual position for Argentina.
Starting elevens and Barelona’s general movement
Barcelona’s shape was their usual 4-3-3 with a single pivot and two higher midfield players forming the central midfield triangle. Rakatic occupied the right hand midfield role and Luis Enrique chose to push Sergio Busquets, more usually the pivot forward to the left hand midfield role.
Eibar set up as a 4-2-3-1 awaiting the opportunity to counter-attack.
Eibar are a limited side who avoided relegation from La Liga last year by the skin of their teeth, although at the time of writing they are in 6th position in this year’s championship. Nevertheless this was unlikely to be a serious test for Barcelona, and Suarez hat-trick eventually helped to secure a 3-1 victory. Eibar did manage to give Barcelona a bit of a fright though, especially early in the game in fact taking the lead in the 10th minute. Thereafter Eibar had a couple of good chances to score again on the break, all of which came when they managed to beat the Barcelona press. In these moments Barcelona’s defence looked rather shaky and defended rather chaotically. Eventually Enrique replaced Barta with Mathieu.
Barcelona’s approach has changed from the days of Pep Guardiola, but it is a case of variations on a theme rather than a revolutionary change. Their general team shape is still the same (4-3-3), they still press (although not always as assiduously), and they still seek to move the ball quickly. There play though is not as compact and they tend to play far more longer raking cross field passes to switch play. Messi has for a long time been the focus of the team, with Barcelona’s strategy and movement being designed to put him in possession in positions where he could use his irresistible ability to hurt people. Even before his absence they have moved away from this with a more balanced approach aimed at exploiting the talents of Neymar and Suarez in addition to those of Messi. In this game then it was interesting to see that even without Messi they looked at their most potent as an attacking force when they reverted to tiki-taka type. That is when the play became compressed in and around the Eibar box with Barcelona then using one and two touch quick short passing moves to open Eibar up. Equally interestingly they only did this about three times in the match. These moments stood out as they contrasted with the general pattern of play. At other times Barcelona looked far less effective.
One aspect of Barcelona’s play which stood out though was the way they maintained width in their attacking play. Generally Neymar and Sandro ran square infield towards Suarez as Barcelona attacked. This left space behind these two into which the full-back Alba and Alves could advance. They did this to great effect but what was most noticeable was how wide the full-backs stayed, usually hugging the touchline.
This movement is not dissimilar to the way Mata moves inside as United attack leaving space behind for either Valencia or Darmian to attack. The difference though is that Barcelona do this on both sides of the pitch at the same time creating an overload in the central areas and ensuring that their single striker Suarez is not isolated whilst maintaining an attacking width across the pitch ensuring their opponent cannot comfortably defend on a narrow front.
Vertical passing and switching play
I have already alluded to Barcelona’s current game being more expansive. This is most obviously manifest in the number of diagonal balls played by the midfield players across the pitch to switch play to the advancing fullback on the opposite side, (Busquets to Alves or Rakatic to Alba), although Mascherano also played a good number of cross pitch diagonal passes.
The other noticeable feature was the number of early vertical passes played by midfield players or the two Barcelona central defenders. These were only made possible by the aforementioned lateral movement of the wide forwards Sandro and later El Haddidi on the right and Neymar on the left. Eibar’s full backs could not track these runs in view of the adventurous movement of the Barcelona fullbacks. What made this effective as a strategy was that the ball forward came early and the forward movement was adventurous and aggressive.
Lateral balance and making the pitch big
The other general feature of Barcelona’s play which was important to their strategy was its symmetry across the pitch. Look at the chalkboard describing Barcelona’s typical movement above which illustrates this symmetry. The consequence of this of course is that the threat can come from anywhere across the width of the pitch. We have already alluded to the fact that Barcelona make teams defend across the full width of the pitch and with the Barcelona fullbacks staying wide as they attacked this forced the Eibar’s fullbacks to move into an equally wide position resulting in an increased distance between their centre-backs and full-backs. This created space in the “half-spaces” inside the fullbacks into which other Barcelona players regularly looked to run.
Lessons for United
On the same weekend that Barcelona faced Eibar at the Nou Camp United faced City at Old Trafford. Now clearly these two opponents are in no way comparable but it is perhaps worth looking at some of the equivalent passing diagrams for the various players to identify similar or contrasting patterns. In their game, in contrast to Barcelona United set up in a 4-2-3-1 shape with a double pivot and Herrera further forward as a “number 10”.
United and Barcelona’s team shapes
In other words United’s midfield triangle had two players deep and one player high whilst with Barcelona the opposite was true. This meant that the deeper players in the United team had fewer options as target for a forward pass than the Barcelona central defenders or pivot. In the United system of course one of the pivots is supposed to push forward when we are in possession and most commonly that is Schweinsteiger on the left. He did this leaving Schneiderlin as the single pivot at that point.
A direct comparison between Mascherano and Schneiderlin then seems relevant and in fact their passing diagrams are very similar.
The other feature that comes from this approach however is that with Schweinsteiger moving forward on the left and Schneiderlin sitting deeper United’s attacking play has a tendency to become lob-sided. Whilst Schweinsteiger as an attacking force tends to deliver more forward passes than others this all means that United’s attack lacks the lateral balance that is the strength of Barcelona’s play.
The other lesson for United is in the need to pass early and critically to pass forward before your opponent becomes set in their defensive shape. Generally Barcelona did not allow Eibar time to form up in their defensive shape. But it is more significant than that because if we compare the passing diagrams of Rakatic and Busquets with Herrera and Mata, (remembering that Mata tends to move to the centre of the pitch and operate from there as an auxiliary central midfield player), we can see that even in high positions United players play far fewer forward passes than Barcelona’s.
In fact in the City game Herrera made almost no successful forward passes.
United tend to build up play slowly and so by the time the ball reaches the final third the opposition has set up in their preferred defensive shape in a compact formation. At that point there are fewer forward passing options.
Of course whilst this is a snapshot comparison based on one game for each side there is clearly a pattern here that United fans will recognise. If we compare the passing of United and Barcelona’s more commonly selected advanced midfield players there statistics are in fact very similar other than in the number of forward passes per 90 minutes and then we see that United’s players pass forward significantly less.
Louis van Gaal talks a lot about balance and it is no secret that his “philosophy” is based around a possession based strategy. That’s fair enough, possession is of value both in denying the opposition the opportunity to attack you but also and perhaps more importantly in that it provides you with an opportunity to attack them. Possession though in itself is not the end, but the means to the end of scoring goals to win matches.
At the moment at United it feels as if we haven’t got this balance right. Barcelona’s approach is also a possession based strategy and is no less structured than United’s something which is clear in the obvious patterns of play which are visible when you watch them live. But their approach is not overcautious and in this they seem to get the balance about right. For United to get the balance right it would appear that we need to be a little braver in the way we use possession. Barcelona do things quickly, players receive the ball and make almost instant decisions about what to do with it. This puts the opposition under pressure as they have to respond as quickly as Barcelona act. Any possession based strategy relies at least in part on a build-up of pressure on the opposition in this way. Van Gaal has talked about retaining the ball and waiting for the opposition to make mistakes, but currently it feels that United are being a little too cautious in waiting for these mistakes. Doing things more quickly increases the pressure and may force the mistakes earlier in a game; why wait?
Another lesson I would take from watching Barcelona is the need to ask questions of the opposition by passing forward earlier. Fewer square balls and more vertical or diagonal passes are likely to similarly put the opposition under pressure and also disturb their defensive shape. Too many square passes waiting for the opposition to lose concentration can actually give encouragement to our opponents, the longer a game remains scoreless the more conviction they devlop that their defensive methods are likely to yield success. Currently watching United not enough passes ask questions of our opponents who frequently look far too comfortable for periods when we have the ball.
The final lesson I would take from watching Barcelona is that our movement off the ball needs to be better. Player movement off the ball as much as possession of the ball creates pressure on opponents. Barcelona are brave and adventurous in their movement and this of course encourages brave passes. But they are also very co-ordinated in their movement with obvious key patterns. This ensures they retain a good team shape which serves them well when they lose the ball but also helps them to ensure they maintain good attacking width.
Louis van Gaal has made United a far more difficult team to beat over the last year and out current goals conceded total of eight goals is joint lowest in the premier league. Returning from Spain it is noticeable that in recent weeks the anxiety levels amongst fans about United’s current form has increased. Fans want more adventure and excitement and many are imploring a return to methods employed under previous United regimes. The assumption in this is that a possession based approach can’t deliver the entertainment levels United fans crave. I disagree, but the point is that the sort of co-ordinated, fast and adventurous possession game employed by a team like Barcelona cannot be achieved without a period of development and this may take longer than many would like; time is needed to not only develop or obtain the constituent parts required to make the patterns but also time is required for players to develop a co-ordinated understanding with each other.
The pertinent question currently is are United fans not prepared to make this time investment needed to develop this approach?