What exactly is failing in Barcelona’s defense?

After the 0-4 drubbing at the hands of Bayern Munich, many asserted that this is the end of an era for Barcelona. This was not unlike similar assertions after the 0-2 in Milan (which was sandwiched by losses to Real Madrid). The side’s back line has looked terribly exposed on several occasions this season leading to questions about the form and health of the respective back liners and fueling talks of eras and endless transfer speculations. But one needs to ask a different question when considering the future of Barcelona’s defense: Are the problems due to personnel or tactics? Is it about who defends or how they do so?

The Personnel

The failure to meet the expectation of signing a new high-profile center back is arguably one of the main factors in the back line being looked at with a microscope this season. Here are simplified echoes of common criticisms currently thrown at Barcelona’s defensive players.

Alves – going through a rough patch, poor form.

Pique – poor form.

Puyol – too old.

Mascherano and Song – not defenders.

Bartra and Montoya – inexperience.

The idea is that a summer signing of a big name central defender will stop the line from leaking goals. While I agree that it is a good idea to bolster the options for the position, I don’t think it can be looked at without a rigorous tactical analysis.

The tactics

Barcelona's high-line defense

Barcelona’s high-line defense

What Pep achieved in his final season as Barcelona’s coach was the purest form of his attacking and defending philosophy. By playing a defensive midfielder in the back line, Barcelona admitted that they want to defend in that part of the pitch. As in Total Football everyone attacks and everyone defends, but most of the defending is done high up the pitch, smothering the opponents midfield creativity and chances to play dangerously close to your goal. The result was, for the third straight season, Barcelona had the best defensive record in La Liga.

This season, Tito Vilanova’s first, has seen them fall to third best defensively with largely the same personnel. Barcelona have already given up more goals than they did last season, but despite still giving up only a goal per game in the league (and being on the verge of winning it), it has been the manner of their defending and the concession of embarrassing goals that has led to the soul-searching we currently see.

The main problem has been the relaxation of the relentless high pressure defense we saw under Pep. The first main consequence of this is that the defensive line has a whole pitch, as opposed to a half pitch, to cover. This essentially means that the side are more frequently counterattacked, leading to the kind of last-gasp defending that leaves them looking exposed. Busquets, who debuted and came to prominence under Pep, is a genius at reading plays and intercepting passes in the compressed spaces of the opponents half, but lacks the pace to cover the added ground he has to make up when his defense retreats and the ball is often simply played around him. The same can be said of Pique and increasingly Puyol’s lack of pace.

Barcelona deep-sitting defense

Barcelona deep-sitting defense

The second consequence of not defending high up the pitch, is that it quite simply leads to their having to defend in their half more often. This exposes Barcelona’s weakness in the air, their difficulty defending set-pieces, and the limitations of using defensive midfielders in the back line. Mascherano’s skills at reading, tracking, and intercepting attacking plays are all but lost here and the Argentine often looks nervous as the last line of defense in front of Victor Valdes.

The Solution?

Tito Vilanova basically needs to make up his mind tactically.  He is playing a side built to defend high that is failing to do so. The brilliant performance in the second leg against Milan, where he played a nominally three-man defensive line, worked because the players defended high up the pitch with a tenacity we have not seen enough of this season. The intangible statistic of who is “controlling the game” when Barcelona plays comes from who is defending better. When Barcelona are out-defended by their opponents, their possession is rendered all but useless and their opponents control the game without the ball. When they out-defend their opponents, they keep the ball and their opponents on the back foot and control the game with the ball.

Tito must get Barcelona to once again defend high up the pitch, to defend at the first-gasp rather than the last one. Or he should build a defense more suited to transitional and deep-lying defensive play. A tall center back, and arguably a tall attacker that can come off the bench and defend corners and set pieces, may help the side deal with being pressured in their box. Moving Mascherano back into the midfield to play a double pivot with Busquets, the latter winning the ball high, and the former covering transitions is another option. As is going for a three-man defense, to force his players to win the ball back quickly.

If I could suggest the winning formula, I wouldn’t be here, but I will say that Vilanova has the players to succeed right now. And while new personnel may help, how Vilanova uses them is the most important factor in deciding who Barcelona should buy. This hardly seems the end of an era, but whether this defensive nightmare is a half-season hiccup, or a long-term liability is in the balance next season, starting with the summer transfer window.

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How to ironically avoid an all-Spanish final in the Champions League

Photo by cuttlefish via Flickr

Photo by cuttlefish via Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we begin the highly anticipated semifinal round of the Champions League, we see one of the great ironies afforded to us by the beautiful game. The best strategy to beat both Real Madrid and Barcelona is exactly the same. How can it be that the two sides, despite playing such contrasting styles, are essentially interchangeable for their German opponents?

Let’s go over how to beat each team, starting with Real Madrid. Under Mourinho, Real Madrid play a counterattacking game. They absorb pressure very well and transition from defense to attack as quickly as any side in the history of the game. But, for all their strength going forward, their weakness is that they are uncomfortable on the ball and can be effectively countered with their own strategy. In their meetings in the first round late last year, Dortmund, a side otherwise known for keeping possession and applying sustained pressure in their opponents half, outmaneuvered Mourinho by giving his side the ball. The results of being handily out-possessed over two matches was that they won 2-1 in Dortmund, and due to a last-minute game-tying goal were unlucky not to win in Madrid.

In the knockout stages of the Champions League, Manchester United were nearly successful while playing this way, while Galatasaray gave Madrid too much space in the first leg and squandered what could have been a great home win in Istanbul. The strategy of giving Madrid the ball has been applied domestically by several teams in La Liga in this campaign, and has led to Madrid only winning about two-thirds of their games, losing pace very early in the season to their bitter rivals Barcelona.

Barcelona are the tactical opposites of Mourinho’s Madrid. They are almost too comfortable on the ball, and will seek to attack and dominate possession even when they are winning and whether or not they are playing well. One of the fascinating tactical battles of the season was seen in the second leg of the quarterfinals between Barcelona and PSG. Ancelotti’s men needed a goal from the first minute of the match, so they sat back and let Barcelona attack, hoping to open up space on the counter. It worked as they were by far the more dangerous side and eventually went up 1-0. Amazingly, after Barcelona scored the 1-1 that would put them through, PSG once again sat back and Barcelona still attacked despite not needing a goal and risking the tie if they conceded. In the end they went through very uncomfortably against a tough team that gave them the ball.

The difference with Madrid is that virtually every side plays Barcelona this way, so they rely on their prodigious offensive talents to win games. Bayern are actually a team that can counter Barcelona’s midfield possession game, but if Heynckes has been observing the last few rounds he’ll go for the counterattacking strategy despite playing the first leg at home after seeing PSG go home on away goals.

So there it is. Two sides that could not play more different football, but need to be played with exactly the same strategy. With each of the first legs being played on German soil, the home teams have the chance to impose their strategy, but neither will want to go into Spain needing a win after having conceded away goals. The odds point to an all-Spanish final, but whether it happens, and in particular how easy it is for it to happen will depend on how the German sides approach the matches.

The German Spanish rivalry that many missed in Euro 2012 has a chance of being played out here as well, albeit with interesting caveats like the Germans who are key players for Madrid, and the Spanish tinge Bayern will likely get next season through Pep Guardiola. How would Bayern play if Pep were already at the helm?

Video

1974 World Cup Final

In one of the greatest plays in the history of the World Cup Final, Holland score before West Germany touch the the ball. Notice Johan Cruyff start the play as Holland’s deepest player and try to lip read Franz Beckenbauer who was rumored to have subtly influenced English referee Jack Taylor by calling him out for being English. Amazing start, legendary game, mythical players.

Is the three-man defense coming back?

Introducing 3manDefense: The name of this blog comes from my favorite formation and personal conviction that the best football is played in the midfield possession game. As a formation that takes a man from defense and adds one to the midfield, the three-man defense makes a lot of sense. Yet given recent trends that have seen the three-man defense decline in popularity, as well as the difficulty of its reintroduction by ambitious tacticians like Mancini, it is quite rare to see the managers of top sides field this formation.

A decade ago, Marcelo Bielsa used two wing-backs in the midfield for Argentina in Zanetti and Sorín, who would dutifully drop back depending on which side was being attacked. More recently, the current Athletic Bilbao coach has switched to a back four but uses midfielders in the back line, a move mimicked by Barcelona under Guardiola and currently under Tito. Van Gaal’s storied Ajax from the mid 90s used no wingbacks, but rather played Frank Rijkaard as an advanced central defender. The flexibility of the three-man defensive formation is adjustable to the personnel and takes advantage of dynamic players.

One recent example was seen in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 between hosts Barcelona and AC Milan. It was one of the most compelling matches in this edition of the tournament because Barcelona had played predictably in the first leg and lost 0-2 in Milan. With their backs against the wall after an elimination at the hands of Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey as well as a league loss at the Bernabeu, many asked if Barcelona’s season was unravelling incredibly after an undefeated first half. Barcelona have been less tactically ambitious under Tito Vilanova/Roura (more on that in a future post) but fielded a formation nearly identical to the three-man defense Pep Guardiola played against the same team last year and won emphatically with a one-sided score of 4-0.

Barcelona’s recent 3-4-3 against Milan

It’s debatable whether this is actually a three-man defense or just an admission that Alves is not a defender, but either case supports my point that more sides can play it, and many already do. Moving a wing-back forward in a tactical drawing is one way to start, but the idea that the wing-back is a flexible position that already spends most of his time attacking and defending in his opponents half shows that sides in need of goals can opt for the three-man defensive line if they can utilize the talents of wide or central defenders that feel comfortable in multiple positions on the pitch.

Barcelona’s victory last month was not directly due to the back line of the formation, but rather to the inclusion of the criminally underused David Villa and the phenomenal high pressure Barcelona applied in Milan’s half after losing the ball. Yet, it’s nice to see the good old three-man defense in action.

My idea with this blog is not to solely cover my favorite formation, but rather to pay tribute to the beautiful game and its protagonists. I closely follow several domestic leagues, continental leagues, and international tournaments and will use this site as an outlet for my thoughts. I am also a big fan of football history and will on occasion blog about great players, coaches, and plays from the history of the game. I hope you enjoy.