How Pep Guardiola perfected the art of players using space on the soccer pitch

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Until recently, soccer punditry was seen as a joke by many, a last paycheck given to big-name players who contributed nothing someone who had never played the game in their life wouldn’t have known. What viewers really wanted, tactical analysis, anecdotes of having been there and done that, and a clear viewpoint on what the optimal course of action would be in a given situation were all lacking until the arrival of Gary Neville and then Jamie Carragher.

Thierry Henry has disappointed as a pundit in terms of his tactical analysis and opinions thus far, but as someone who played for Juventus, Arsenal, and Barcelona, and under luminaries such as Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola, he has no shortage of interesting stories.

One such was about how Pep Guardiola meticulously worked on his Barcelona side’s spacing in the first two thirds of the pitch, only allowing players of the calibre of Henry, Samuel Eto’o, and Lionel Messi freedom once the ball had been worked into the final third.

The wide forwards in a 4-3-3, even those such as Henry and later David Villa, who were running central all their careers, had to hug the touchline until the final third. This meant that fullbacks could never collapse narrow to support their center-half, who in turn could never advance up the pitch to get tight to Lionel Messi or Samuel Eto’o when they dropped deep to support Iniesta and Xavi. This gave Barcelona basically four men in midfield and complete dominance of the game.

During the above video, the perfect spacing is shown twice in beautifully picked examples. First, Iniesta is able to receive the ball on the halfway line from his defender because Henry has stayed on the left wing occupying the opposition right-back. If this was not the case and Henry congested the center, he would have been picked up by the spare central defender (remember Eto’o is ostensibly 1 vs. 2 up top) and the full-back would have pressured Iniesta into coming closer to his defense. Basically the forward pass would have been useless and possession rendered sterile.

Secondly, on the goal that Eto’o scores off Henry’s saved shot, when Henry talks about making his outside in runs in the final third, he only does so when Eto’o has dropped below the penalty area, pulling the defensive line up slightly above the 18 yard line and making space for a run behind. Henry also only vacates that space when Messi comes to fill it, the play has moved on from the middle third and Messi can now move wide from central and the ‘strikers’ can go to the box.

SEE MORE: Examining the genius of Pep Guardiola and his greatest tactical legacy

Good managers are obviously very useful. They have an eye for players that can improve the team, have contacts and a reputation within the game that perhaps help their team get players they otherwise wouldn’t be able to, and pick formations and a style of play that align to the strengths of their squad. However they cannot play the game for their team. They can only send 11 men out with a plan that gives them the best possible chance of success.

Their real contribution to the plan offensively is not their chosen formation. Formations are very fluid in soccer and really offer just a quick guide as to the general shape a side should be in with the ball and without. Set-piece strategies too are just useful a few occasions a game. Spacing is the key offensive weapon and Guardiola’s Barcelona are the finest exponent of perfect spacing in recent times.

Space doesn’t score goals, true, but every successful defensive side (especially the Italian ones down the years) has focused on congesting areas that their opposition likes to play through the most. How often have we seen a possession based side loaded with midfielders stymied when the opposition clogs the center and they can’t work the ball wide to where the space is (like through a Xavi-Dani Alves 50 yarder).

Furthermore, how often do we see offensive off the ball runs that aren’t congruent with each other, each run tracking another defensive player into the penalty area so ensuring that there are eight or nine bodies there and nobody can force the ball in, often hitting their own teammate with a deflected shot?

More up-tempo games such as basketball have already caught on to the fact that spacing is the key for a smooth offensive flow. Players now spend entire phases of possession without touching the ball, but rather making space for teammates by blocking off opponents or otherwise occupying them by standing in the corner. In soccer too, sometimes just occupying a defender and waiting for him to make the wrong decision before making a move can be extremely effective.

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