Barcelona overcame a battling Real Madrid side in the "El Classico" with goals from Eto’o and Messi and even though Casillas made a penalty save the Los Merengues were always second best.
There was a sense of defeatism in their approach to the game with the Catalan club in imperious form, having conceded just nine goals in 15 games, while themselves netting 46 goals, this game included. Arsenal Column examines why they are playing so well and what other clubs can learn from them.
Under Pep Guardiola the club still play 4-3-3 even though before the start of his reign many thought a diamond formation to accommodate Henry in attack will be his preferred system.
The formation is not a glorified 4-5-1; the wide men of Henry/Iniesta and Messi do not track back. This may seem a simple system; let the forwards attack while the midfielders create and defend. However football is a complex game made of simple things and Barca make football just that.
High and Early Pressure, Denying Space
By playing Henry, Messi, and Eto’o they can pressure early and high up the field starting at the defenders, making it hard for the opposition to pass. This will squeeze them of space and try and force a mistake. Getting the ball early is clearly part of their strategy and taking advantage of it is stressed.
As the wide men don’t track back, the opposition full backs are aware that if they get forward they will leave them unmarked. The doubts it causes are great and when Barca do get the ball, getting caught out of position and being hit on the counter especially against players with such pace and quality is too big a threat.
The opposition team is penned back and facing the countless Barca attacks is like contending with a team attacking in the last ten minutes of a match but with more efficiency.
The central midfielders cover if the opposition get passed the first wave in a three man interchangeable central midfield with Yaya Toure deepest and Xavi dictating. Abidal is unadventurous and almost acts as a left sided central defender hence why Henry says he "runs more" on the left wing as opposed to in attack at Arsenal.
On the other side Alves is more disciplined now and a very tough competitor. He will provide the secondary threat with such pace and stamina as Messi drifts inside. Puyol is one of those rare defenders who is equally adept on the deck as in the air.
The Barcelona team looks to suffocate the opposition of space and numbers when they attack. They try and force a one-on-one situation at the minimum. As with most of such situations it is not the dribbling skill that allows one to take best advantage; it is the support and movement that causes uncertainty in the defenders mind.
This situation is reversed when Barcelona attack; they get forward in great numbers and look to get men beyond the three forward men.
Support and Movement
It’s all about quick and constant movement, short, one-touch passing, intelligent positioning and making the correct runs at the right time. As mentioned getting beyond the striker, providing options and interchangeability are examples of this.
Balance, Close Control and Passing
Part of good ball retention other than great passing and awareness which Barceloona have is balance and close control. The ability to shield the ball and keep it close runs through the team and makes it hard for the opponent to get it. Coupled with these tactics and good organisation leads for a difficult team to beat.
Barcelona made 442 successful passes against Madrid to their 171, while only 44 bad passes to Madrid’s 33. A 90% pass accuracy to madrid 75% even though they made three times as much passes.
And let’s not forget the quality of players from the talismanic Messi, to Henry, Eto’o, Xavi, Iniesta, Alves, Puyol…
Pep Guardiola instilled motivation and hard work into the side and got rid of those that did not fall into this category. Out went Ronaldinho, Zambrotta, and Deco and in came Keita, Hleb, and Alves and a number of academy graduates to go along with the other fine players that they already had.
He successfully took advantage of transitions in play, implemented support and movement, and added to that dynamism (of course held together by organisation) which are crucial in the modern game.
How to Beat Barcelona
So how do you beat such a team? Well the obvious tactic is to put ten men behind the ball and counter. But as Barca suffocate the space out of the opposition and deny players to support, the danger is far greater in them counter attacking you.
Real Madrid tried to man mark Xavi out of the game and it worked especially in the first half but the Barcelona team is not that dependent on Xavi. Messi maybe, and the Argentnian was fouled on numerous occasions though the movement and high pressure make the pitch look bigger than it is.
Pressuring the Barcelona defence early was identified by Ramos but once again as Barcelona cause uncertainty in the marking by providing support in great numbers it is often hard to abandon your defensive work.
They also tried to play a high line to squeeze the space but where subsequently penned back. The key is to get passed the first wave of pressure and take advantage in the centre where there can be a lack of organisation as the wide men don’t track back, getting good support. Get the ball early and take adavntages of transitions and set plays. Pace and dynamism down the wings an obvious advantage.