How Best to Play Barcelona

Chelsea isn’t known as a team that parks the bus. The prevailing images of the London side all involve swagger and aggression, with high energy in midfield and Didier Drogba bullying defenders. Many of the players in this year’s side set the Premiership scoring record in their last championship-winning season. Yet not even Chelsea, a team noted for their stubborn belief in themselves, dared playing how they usually did against Barcelona.

Such is the case with most teams that have been given the assignment of, well, basically frustrating the Catalans. 90% of teams show up to a game with Barcelona having already decided to give up on whatever methods have brought them success against other teams in favor of a one-dimensional approach of passive resistance. The general modus operandi is to defend narrow and deep, ensuring most balls played behind the defense can be swept up by the goalkeeper, keeping the defensive line across the width of the penalty box. Normally one striker is kept up field and a few midfielders are allowed to act as shuttlers in the hopes of starting a quick break but Barca’s opponents knows opportunities will be few and far between.

The theory behind this, of course, is that Barcelona’s playing style is so ingrained and defined that it’s pointless to try and disturb it. They use possession as a defensive and offensive tool. Keeping the ball means they don’t have to go get it, and so they remain fresher than their opponent. Should they lose the ball this extra energy will go into extreme pressing in order to win it back. Brendan Rogers has done something similar with Swansea City, saying “When we haven’t got the ball is the moment for intense pressure to get the ball back. But you can’t go for 90 minutes, so in order to recuperate and conserve energy, we’ll do that sometimes by building our way through the game — our tiki-taka football, our small lending games to keep the ball.”

Most teams have made peace with the fact that Barcelona will have the ball, but have decided that at least they can control where they have the ball. In front of the defense, and in the middle of the pitch, hoping eventually they’ll try something they shouldn’t out of frustration letting you hit the ball up to a hold up man.

Of course Barcelona hasn’t stopped winning almost everything in sight, so, obviously the strategy isn’t perfect. Teams have just convinced themselves that this is the best chance they have; they think that if they come out attacking they’ll be slaughtered by six or seven. So they try and play 90 minutes of perfect defensive football with their backs against the wall and very little respite. Just as Barcelona rest with the ball, the opposite is true. If the opponent keeps possession all the time, you get more fatigued and more likely to err. If you had told Pep Guardiola before the first leg at Stamford Bridge, “the only way you’ll lose this semifinal is if you hit the post five times and miss a penalty,” he probably would’ve taken it.

Therein lays the problem of playing this way, although the defensive-minded side minimizes clear scoring chances for Barcelona, they reduce their own chance of creating something to almost zero, and let Barcelona have all the possession in the world to try and break them down. A lot of the opportunities Barcelona creates will probably be difficult; however, they have genius players capable of turning the smallest opportunity into a potential goal. Then, a side set up only to defend, to be reactive instead of proactive, must chase the game without really knowing how.

The other thing that makes this plan unlikely to succeed is that Barcelona know it’s coming. One could argue that although the very thing that separated Guardiola from the rest, his need to constantly improve on what seemed like perfection, is ultimately what doomed him, it also ensured that his side was never at a loss to deal with how teams played them. Almost all of his tinkering was designed to combat teams defending deep. He brought in Zlatan Ibrahimovic for a more forceful penalty presence and focal point, so that when the ball was inevitably pushed wide a cross could be a viable strategy. Against Inter in 2010, although they lost that game, another way Barcelona dealt with a side packed deep was pushing Pique up as a central striker. Even the new style 3-4-3 was initially only supposed to be used when the opposition let Barcelona have total control, according to Guardiola. When Barcelona was monopolizing possession but unable to carve out real chances it allowed Dani Alves to be high up the pitch and a true winger to be played, ensuring width on both sides and freedom in the middle for Messi to work his magic.

So sitting deep and countering may not be the best way to play Barcelona, it lets them use their Plan A, and if that doesn’t necessarily work (and it’s debatable that it’s ever ‘failed’), lets them run through the gamut of alternative strategies, many designed for just such an occasion. Might not a better way be to take the fight to Barcelona, and exploit the fact that they do have defensive weaknesses?

There are cases of it having worked before, where sides that came out and pressed Barcelona may not have necessarily won, but did at least succeed in bossing the game for a while. Arguably having a period of dominance, wresting control of the match away from the opponent, even if briefly is what gives a side their best chance of victory. If that period of dominance can be taken advantage of and Barcelona suddenly have to chase the game, well then anything can happen.

In this season’s Copa Del Rey meeting Real Madrid tried this approach and for one of the first times under Mourinho, actually looked Barcelona’s superior for much of the game. Previously, Mourinho’s Madrid always sought to deny Barcelona, playing a reactive game. Messi was always man-marked and the only way Madrid looked like scoring was on the counter. However with nothing to lose in the second leg quarter-final los meringues pressed and harried and almost caused a memorable turnaround.

Normally against the Catalans sides give a token display of pressing in the opening minutes, before reverting to type and trying to absorb pressure. In this match Madrid sustained it, alongside an attacking lineup with both Kaka and Ozil included from the start. The most obvious effect of actually attacking Barcelona is that it gives them something else to think about. They can’t just play their natural game. Against Madrid the knock on effect was that Dani Alves had to play more conservatively. This meant one of the most lethal weapons in Barcelona’s armory, a Xavi diagonal ball out to Alves in space, hardly ever materialized.

The other effect of coming out of your shell and attacking Barcelona is that a side so focused on short passing and ball retention, from the goalkeeper onwards, will always be susceptible to giveaways in dangerous areas if the opponent presses hard enough. Madrid created several chances in their battles against Barcelona this season through that very method, Benzema’s opener at the Bernabeu and Higuain’s close miss at the Nou Camp being only some of the examples. Mourinho has also seemed to have gotten braver with his side’s positioning since his Inter Milan days when they seemingly defended right in front of Julio Cesar in 2010, a higher line ensuring that their pressing didn’t leave his side broken and disjointed.

Of course one might say that with the amount of talent Real Madrid have at any given time in their lineup; it’s easy for them to attack Barcelona. Teams with less spectacular attacking talent and smaller budgets probably have no chance. This isn’t true, while most memorable triumphs against Barcelona in recent years are heroic rearguards, (Chelsea, Inter, and Hercules); they were mainly the product of good fortune combined with poor finishing. There are teams that have attacked Barcelona and often made them look more uncomfortable, while arguably defending better, than those sides listed above.

Under Bielsa at the San Mames, Athletic Bilbao gave Barcelona one of their toughest games in recent years, a game where Barcelona needed a late goal just to equalize. There were similarities with Mourinho’s side in that Bilbao too pressed high. Disrupting Barcelona’s short passing game and forcing them to become more direct is one of the best ways to achieve a chance at victory, simply because of their lack of height. Bielsa was also offensive-minded in playing two wingers, Munain and Susaeta.  This gave Bilbao width and the heavy pressing kept them high up the pitch against Alves and Abidal. Again removing Alves as an offensive threat caused Barcelona to become predictable and narrow. After the game Guardiola sounded shaken when he said, “We’ve never played against a team who were so intense, so aggressive, and has denied us so much space”.

Another side without too many household names but that was determined to attack Barcelona was last season’s Villareal. Under Juan Carlos Guarrido Villareal played a superb brand of technical football using a 4-2-2-2 formation, with a possession based style very similar to Barcelona’s. Coming to the Nou Camp, although they lost 3-1, they weren’t cowed and attacked the Catalans, playing with two strikers and a high line. Like the other successful sides mentioned in this article they caused discomfort through pressing, but their use of two strikers was key. Rossi and Nilmar often drifted wide and swapped places with the wide players Santi Cazorla and Cani. Like both Bilbao and Madrid, Villareal took advantage of the fact that Barcelona’s fullbacks are often too advanced to be in good defensive positions and Pique and Puyol were often stretched with only Busquets dropping back to help out. The game could have been very different had Villareal finished better.

These sides all generally looked to attack Barcelona in the same way, taking advantage of certain weaknesses that come about due to the way that the Spanish side plays. They all pressed, which either forced Barcelona to kick the ball long and made it difficult for them to build attacks, or increased the risk of giveaways in Barcelona’s final third which could lead to chances. Playing with width also meant that Alves and Abidal might play more conservatively which makes Barcelona narrower and more predictable. Sometimes, notably against Villareal, the fullbacks still rampage forward but that leaves space behind to exploit Barcelona’s high line.

The other thing attacking Barcelona does is that it helps to keep the opposing side cohesive. Playing like Chelsea did, with 10 men behind the ball and an isolated striker often means the side is disjointed. Chelsea were fortunate in that Didier Drogba is one of the best at holding the ball up and that Ramires has the stamina to cover great distances but they still created quite few opportunities. Pressing and playing a decently high line means that the striker can act as a proper reference point for somewhat fluid attacking play.

Last season’s Copa Del Rey final typified everything listed in this article. Real Madrid played a mobile striker in Cristiano Ronaldo, pressed hard, and used Xabi Alonso to hit long diagonals behind the fullbacks. Barcelona was kept scoreless and the game’s lone goal came from Di Maria getting behind Dani Alves and crossing for Ronaldo.

That’s not to say that it’s a perfect strategy, few teams can press strongly for 90 minutes at a time and Barcelona’s creativity means that playing a high line can often lead to many chances. However, at least this way the side facing Barcelona gives themselves the best chance of creating opportunities of their own, and at the very least ensures that Barcelona have to focus on something other than their offensive game plan.

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