“I will never forgive myself, I have failed,” mentions Guardiola to Manel Estiarte, his assistant, after Barcelona’s triumph over Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League final. Rewinding the events to the summer preceding the 2010/2011 season; Spain had just lifted their first World Cup ever boasting the most talented Spaniards their fans had witnessed in years. Back in Catalonia, Guardiola was put under spotlight; doubts were raised surrounding his ability to maintain his players’ winning mentality after achieving every trophy they could possibly win. With that being said, Pep focused on bringing in some fresh blood to the team: Mascherano from Liverpool, David Villa from Valencia, Adriano from Sevilla, and Ibrahim Afellay from PSV.
Barcelona started in a bad way, losing to Hercules at the Camp Nou and trailing behind Mourinho’s Real Madrid, who seemed set on breaking Barcelona’s dominance in Spain. But little did the Portuguese know what Guardiola had in store for the rest of the season. In this article, my aim is to provide a detailed explanation how Barça played under Guardiola in their peak 2011 season; a season where they produced one of the most exquisite styles of play the football world ever witnessed in recent time.
Pep Guardiola’s Positional Play “Juego de Posición”
Every masterpiece needs a canvas, and Guardiola’s canvas was Positional Play – a football philosophy assimilated by the Catalan during his football journey around the world. “The team that interpreted Positional Play in a most extraordinary way was the Barcelona of Pep Guardiola,” says Marti Perarnau, the author who wrote two books about Guardiola’s stint with Bayern Munich. Below are the guidelines that should be followed in order to fully adopt the Positional Play model:
A. Numerical Superiority
Pep doesn’t believe in numbers and formations, they all go up in the wind when the game starts. His players have been trained to use their head before every pass, before every action; for each action there’s a consequent reaction after it. That’s the reason we see the pivot becoming a center-back, full-back becoming a winger, winger becoming a striker, and the striker becoming an attacking midfielder. Those movements happen for a reason and not by coincidence as many think; they are carried out for the purpose of generating numerical superiority in areas proximate to the ball. When achieved, it provides the team with stable possession, improved scoring chances, and robust counter-pressing in case the ball is intercepted.
B. Qualitative Superiority
After achieving Numerical Superiority, it’s guaranteed that the team will gain a qualitative superiority in an under-loaded side of the pitch where the one of the team’s more talented player will be matched up against the opposition’s (weakest) player. It’s a result of deep analysis and opposition research, and that’s where Guardiola excels; in the minutest of details. The area targeted will be the furthest diagonal point away from the ball where a skillful winger would be waiting for the switch.
This is the exact reason why Guardiola hates the word “tiki-taka”; it means passing the ball for the sake of passing. His philosophy is the total opposite, it implies that possession acts as “means to an end” with the end being to move the opposition and disorganize their defensive shape for his team to attack the opposite side.
C. Positional Superiority
To achieve this, players must be positioned in a defined space according to four reference points: the ball, their teammates, the space, and the opponents. Adhering to those points will transform the team into being proactive with the events of the match being in their own control. Furthermore, achieving this will prove a “safety net” to protect against potential counter-attacks.
To get into how players learn this philosophy, Pep uses the now-famous field shown below:
At each club, Guardiola demands this field to be arranged, it’s the place where his ideas can reach his players in an understandable way. Zones 6-7-8-13-14-15 are the most important due to it being the center of the field and the place where players can play between the opposition’s lines. The creative midfield players are chosen by Pep to play in Zones 6 and 8, and, 13 and 15; the reasoning behind it being that they are the popular “half-spaces” that most opponents’ formations can’t cover.
The general recommendations to ensure the fluid flow of the game using this field can be categorized as the following: no more than 3 players can occupy the same horizontal line and no more than 2 players can occupy the same vertical line. For example, let’s take 3 players, Pedro has the ball and located in Zone 16, Xavi in Zone 7, and Dani Alves in Zone 8. If Pedro needs to cut inside to Zone 15, Dani Alves will provide an overlapping run and enters Zone 10 to reach Zone 16, whereas Xavi will provide support for both of them by shifting towards Zone 8, thus forming a triangle with him being its base point. As explained, everything happens in relation to the ball and teammates. This fluidity in changing positions is the key to unlocking defenses and scoring goals all while also taking into account the capacity of the opponent to hit the team on counters.
To ensure positional superiority and compact structure, the team must play a minimum of 15 passes and progress up the field along those passes. A direct long ball from defense to attack is not favorable as this will isolate the team’s center forward against the opposition’s defense. “The faster the ball goes further up the field, the faster it will come back at us,” says Guardiola when journalists doubted his style during a press conference. The team must always aim to provide support for the ball-carrier and avoid isolating a player if he is not in a favorable position to exploit such isolation. Isolation concept is extremely popular in basketball and this shows how Pep is universal in his methods and learning process. The section above gave a brief explanation about the Positional Play concept Guardiola uses as his coaching methodology. In the following sections, the application of this model to Barcelona’s style of play will be highlighted showing the team’s attacking and defending patterns.
Pep Guardiola and his 2010/11 Barcelona team
The team that went down in history books for managing to not only win titles but also change our view towards football as to how aesthetically pleasing the game can be, when played the ‘right’ way. 2010-2011 proved to be the season Barcelona reached its peak level in terms of perfecting the Positional Play model under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola.
The iconic 4-3-3 was used by Pep that changes to 3-4-3 and the 3-3-4 sometimes, depending on the phases of the game, yet bear in mind that for him, numbers are of least importance. The image below shows the team’s formation:
For each player in the lineup above there’s a specific role to be carried out on the field:
- Valdes as the sweeper keeper who acts as an extra player to aid in possession and sweeps out of goal to clear any long balls.
- Piqué and Mascherano/Puyol are the ball-playing center backs who stay behind and split wide during the first phase of the game to gain better passing angles.
- Alves is the attacking full back whereas Abidal is the full back that acts more as a third center back but also attacks the wing when needed.
- Busquets, the midfield pivot who fits Barcelona’s system perfectly with his composure and brilliance in possession and when without it, his interceptions and reading of the game.
- Xavi is the controller who sets the team’s tempo as required and recycles possession towards areas with less opposition pressure.
- Iniesta the needle player that acts more as the attacking midfielder who carries the ball forward into dangerous areas taking advantage of his outstanding individual capacity to dribble
- Pedro as the traditional winger who hugs the touchline and gets in behind the defense.
- Villa as the second striker who stays wide but performs curved runs to the penalty box and finish attacks for being one of the best strikers in Spanish history.
- Messi- the jewel to complete the Catalan’s masterpiece, best player above all who has the utmost freedom in dropping deep or moving to the wings, whichever Leo thinks, he does.
Barcelona’s engine is its midfield, and when such an awe-inspiring trio in Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta is in the team, it is hard not to depend on them. Add Messi to this trio, who drops into midfield, you get the diamond that managed to dominate European teams with their exquisite passing and intelligent positioning. The team’s main focus was to overload the center in order to free the two wingers by getting them isolated against the full back marking either one. Therefore, Pep’s team became famous for being “possession kings” but people understood it the wrong way therefore labelling the style as “Tiki-taka”. When I mentioned that “numbers are of least importance” for Pep, I meant that there is no way the team remains structured in a 4-3-3 in all phases of the game. Why is that? The reasoning behind it is that Guardiola thinks of a football match as a series of small-sided battles: 2 vs 2, 3 vs 3, 4 vs 4; meaning that freedom in movement is required in order to always guarantee numerical and positional superiority.
Messi & the False Nine
Often considered as the tactical tweak that revolutionized Barcelona’s playing style, shifting Messi to False Nine not only benefitted the team, but also brought huge success upon the Argentinian. Leo didn’t fit the typical profile of a striker who should be tall and muscular, Guardiola saw in him something else, something that made fans all over the world become amazed week in week out after watching the virtuosity of Leo. The ability of scoring, creating, dribbling, influencing the game without even touching the ball due to the intensive marking that is used on him, thus creating space for his teammates, a player with such ability shouldn’t be on the wings, he should be in the center of play, the main catalyst for the team’s style; that’s what Pep saw in Messi, and boy did Messi repay his coach’s faith in him.
Defenders fell into a dilemma when playing against Barcelona with Messi as a false nine:
- When Leo drops into midfield, shall he be followed by a central defender? If yes, then Villa, Pedro, Iniesta, or Xavi can exploit the space left behind and make a run towards goal. If no, Messi would get the ball in his favorite position and will either turn and run at the defenders or recycle possession with Xavi & Iniesta; both ways, big trouble.
- Shall he be marked by a holding midfielder to shield passes towards him? If yes, then that means the opposition is man-marking Leo; man-marking the player who dazzles anyone with his movement in and out of space; thus creating channels for others to move into and head towards goal.
Playing out from the back is the strategy followed by Barcelona in the first phase of the game, the build-up. For this to work, the defenders and goalkeeper must be at the highest technical level as well as being confident when in possession of the ball.
Two strikers press Piqué and Mascherano, as a result they split wide and Busquets drops deep; known as “Salida Lavolpiana”, a concept Guardiola learned from his days in Mexico. This will immediately create a 3 vs 2 advantage for Barcelona without considering Valdes as a potential outlet.
The opposition presses with 5 players, 2 covering Alves & Abidal, 2 covering Piqué & Mascherano, and 1 covering Busquets. Valdes will be utilized to escape the press as he is the spare man thus creating 6 vs 5 with the full-backs being the potential outlets after Valdes receives the pass from Busquets.
Here the opposition commits 6 players and decides to press Valdes. To counter it, the center backs split wide and two midfielders drop between them to open up passing lanes. Then Valdes passes to Pique who lays it off to Xavi and Xavi releases Alves into space. Notice the triangles that form on the wings creating a numerical superiority thereby aiding the team in escaping pressure.
The opposing team is closing down Valdes, Piqué, Mascherano, Alves, Abidal, and Busquets. The pivot pushes to the side to open up space for Xavi to drop deep and collect the ball from the keeper; acting as an extra man who isn’t marked. Another alternative that was seen here, depending on the opposition, was to push Alves higher up the pitch and create space for Xavi to drop beside Busquets.
After bypassing the first line of pressure, the team will push its lines forward and dominate the midfield by congesting as many players in that area as discussed before. Below are some plays used by the team to complete their movement into the final third:
Who’s better fit to lead Barcelona’s midfield line other than their own La Masia graduates? Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta formed the fulcrum of this Barcelona side that enabled them to control games that Pep Guardiola strove (and still strives) for. Their ability in keeping hold of the ball in small spaces and escaping pressure helped the team in reaching the opposition’s goal with fewer markers blocking their way.
One point worth noting is the diagonal positioning between each other. This is also an underrated point among coaches. Positioning players in a diagonal manner opens up different angles for passing and makes it hard for the opposition to properly mark them without disorganizing their lines. The common occurrence was Busquets in the defensive center of the circle, Xavi closer to him on the right, and Iniesta on the left but in an advanced position.
Triangle into Rhombus:
When faced with difficulty in circulating the ball, Messi joins into midfield and the triangle transforms into a Rhombus; Xavi & Busquets on the defensive side and Iniesta & Messi on the offensive side between the defense and midfield. To have two needle players such as Messi and Iniesta very close to the penalty box shifts the entire defensive focus towards them resulting in spaces for runs in behind by the wingers.
This tactic is used against defensively compact teams who congest the midfield, this leads to an increased need of technically excellent players who can control the ball under tight pressure from the midfielders and defenders.
Stretching Opposition’s Midfield:
At times, both Xavi & Iniesta position themselves in their respective half-space where they are facing the gap between the full-back and center back. This is done in the aim of either stretching the opposition’s midfield line thus creating gaps to pass into, or shift the opposition’s midfield towards one side and strike them with a switch of play to their under-loaded side.
The picture above shows us a scenario where the opposition shifted their midfield line towards one side which allowed Iniesta to easily exploit the big amount of space now available to him on the other side.
Overload on the wings:
Barcelona mostly came up against teams playing with a 4-4-2 defensive formation, when it happened, Dani Alves would push up on the wing along with Xavi shifting towards him also, creating a 2vs1 situation with the opposition’s ball-side winger; the fullback wouldn’t be able to help because Pedro would be pinning him wide and back.
This scenario allowed for dangerous chances to be created using the wings in case the midfield was having a bad day; that’s why Alves was such a vital piece in that period. His versatility in either tucking inside or staying wide made him a flexible player able to fit in all phases of the game.
ii. Xavi/Busquets diagonal to Alves:
Another signature move from Barcelona was the diagonal cross from Busquets/Xavi to Alves who’s running behind the opposition’s defense. This move was followed by a one-touch cross from Alves to either Messi or Villa for an easy tap-in.
iii. Villa and Pedro’s wide positioning:
The benefit of the wingers staying wide is the following:
- Isolating each winger with his respective marker, gaining an advantage in terms of quality
- Allowing Messi to drop deep without the defense line pushing up since they’ll leave spaces behind for Villa and Pedro.
- Preventing the opposition’s defense from being horizontally compact which would affect the fluidity of Barcelona’s midfield.
After reaching the final third, players have the utmost freedom in finishing the attacking play. Guardiola’s job is to facilitate his team to enter the final third and establish a platform for them to best exploit their individual qualities. This was even explained very well by Thierry Henry in one of his Sky Sports interviews, wherein he explained Guardiola’s system. Basically the moves carried out in the middle third enable the attackers to get a clear chance on goal, so that’s where the extended buildup happens. However, below I have mentioned some plays or excerpts from famous matches that resulted in goals for the Catalan team:
Pedro’s goal vs Manchester United (3-1) (UEFA Champions League Final 2011)
United’s lines were broken by Iniesta’s pass to Xavi. Xavi with a brilliant switch of body position confused the defence line, complemented by the brilliant movement of Villa and Pedro; starting wide then cutting inside then going back wide again to lose their markers.
Pedro’s Goal vs Real Madrid (5-0) (La Liga)
A brilliant switch of play as Xavi found Villa isolated on the opposite wing, Villa beats Ramos with a dribble and squares it to the rushing Pedro who scores the second goal of the match. This goal was scored in Barcelona’s 5-0 win over Real Madrid, with the match being described by Xavi as one of their best performances ever under Guardiola.
Messi’s goal vs Manchester United (3-1) (UEFA Champions League Final 2011)
The main key here that allowed Barcelona to score is the central overload that was created, a 3 vs 2 with Xavi-Iniesta-Messi having an edge over Park and Carrick.
After covering the team’s attacking aspect, the defensive side should be focused on as well. Looking at their system, one might think that Barcelona concedes goals easily due to the risky attacking positioning that the team carries out on the pitch. However, the way Guardiola’s team used to defend proved to be the foundation on which teams built their defensive strategy on. To clarify more, I’ll be splitting the defensive side into two sections that can be found below:
Defending with the ball
You read that right, with the ball. But wait, how can a team defend with the ball? Isn’t that attacking with the ball? Well, that’s the trick that Barcelona thrived in performing. Whenever the game was at the dying minutes and Barcelona would be 1-0 up, they would pass the ball along all their 11 players on the field; in the aim of circulating the ball and tiring out the opposition until the game finishes. Such a plan requires excellent technical skills along with nerves of steel to be able to pass the ball in the team’s own half facing fierce pressure from the opposition. The three superiority categories mentioned above are a main factor in being able to achieve a smooth ball circulation to kill the game. Furthermore, triangles and rhombuses all over the pitch are extremely necessary meaning that the players must be in their peak mental awareness to be able to connect with each other and ensure passing lanes are available at all times. Holding possession of the ball without actually attacking the opposition’s goal; that’s what “defending with the ball” means.
Defending without the ball using High Pressure Counterpressing
The tactic that made Barcelona look like packs of wolves chasing a prey, at first sight you’d think that the team consists of school students playing during their recess, giving it their all without a pinch of egoism.
As soon as Barça’s players lost the ball, they would swarm around the ball carrier and his potential options in what was named as the “6-second rule”. This rule, implemented by none other than Guardiola himself, states that pressure should be applied for a maximum of 6 seconds with the utmost intensity to win the ball back. In case the press failed, the team would fall back with the wingers tracking back leaving Messi as furthest player in the Catalan’s formation. In Pep’s mind, he despises the idea of being a “reactive” side; he always prefers his team to be “proactive” not only in attack, but also in defence.
There must be a guideline which the players base their decisions on regarding when to press and when to hold back. Some of the pressing triggers that Barcelona used, depending on the opposition, were:
- Opposition facing his own goal
- Opposition bad control of the ball, bad touch, or bad pass.
- Opposition facing the sidelines
- Opposition just won the ball
Pressing in the flanks:
The picture above shows that the team’s high pressure is passing-lane oriented. This means that the players will mark some but leave others open as bait for the opposition to pass to them, in case those specific players are weaker than others in terms of technical quality. As soon as the pass is made, the team attacks the passing lane and intercepts the ball. However, if such strategy doesn’t help in clearing the danger away from their goal, Barcelona’s players will cover all possible passing lanes to force the opposition into a long ball. What aids in this tactic is the positional superiority of the team during the attacking phase, compact and proximate to each other, that will help in performing the pressing scheme in a swift and effective way.
Pressing in the center:
Below is an illustration of how Barcelona presses the opposition in the middle of the field (i.e. goalkeeper):
Messi stays between the two centerbacks, Villa and Pedro each with the opposition’s full back, Xavi and Iniesta stepping up to protect passes into the half space, Busquets protects the area in front of the central defenders, Alves and Abidal with freedom to either press the opposition’s wingers or push forward to overload the midfield, finally Pique and Mascherano/Puyol stay back to sweep any long passes behind them, with an exception being Mascherano having the authority to venture into midfield to block any passes to the midfield line. We notice the use of cover shadows by the center forward and midfield players to intercept in case any passes were made towards the center.
The pinnacle of the 2010/11 season was the 2011 UEFA Champions League Final against Manchester United, a match which many considered a testimony of awe-inspiring display from a club at the highest footballing level featuring 8 players from the famous La Masia. It was the first time we ever saw Sir Alex Ferguson a bit of sorts, an image that’ll never fade from the Champion’s League history. In that game, Barcelona reached its peak as they dodged United’s high pressing and physicality with a swift footballing display that ensured its presence on the Juego de Posición’s Hall of Fame. Yet with all that being said, Guardiola still felt he “failed” that night; a perfect representation of how much of a perfectionist Pep is, the same trait that unleashed the monster of 2011, the team Catalans proudly told stories about, El Futbol Club Barcelona.
NOTE: All the animations and pictures that have been used in the article were made using TacticalPad
****- The field map has been taken from Spielverlagerung.com and the numbers for the zones have been added by me.