Genetically testing Barcelona: the Dutch and Argentine DNA of the Blaugrana

As Gerardo ‘El Tata’ Martino is set to debut as coach of Barcelona, two wonderful and mutually beneficial traditions of world football are tied together. On the European side, the legacy of the Dutch Total Football legend Johan Cruyff as player, founder of La Masia, and later as a highly successful coach. On the South American side, the greatest Barcelona set up by Pep Guardiola was a stylistic mimicry of the Argentine tactical genius Marcelo Bielsa, who has for two decades as a coach espoused a modern variant of Total Football known for its relentless attacking play.

The last few years have undeniably seen a Bielsa-fication of world football, as the European establishment increasingly recognizes that his high-octane style fits in with the increasingly athletic game. No side typifies Bielsa’s style more than Barcelona, and the appointment of his understudy and legendary captain Martino brings the influence full circle. Here’s an analysis of how it all works.

Historic Dutch roots: Total football

English: Johan Cruijff and Roberto Perfumo, be...

English: Johan Cruijff and Roberto Perfumo, before Netherlands x Argentina in 1974 FIFA WC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Books have been written and movies have been made about Total Football, but most choose to concentrate on the positional interchangeability of the versatile players. While this aspect of the side lends theoretical weight, it was in practice a standard 4-3-3 with occasional positional shifts not unlike those we see today. The real meat and potatoes of Total Football’s revolution came in the tactical innovations that made the Dutch unplayable for antiquated sides like the three South American giants, all of whom fell in one-sided contests to the Dutch side in the World Cup held in West Germany in 1974.

Holland in 1974. They did not switch positions as often as they say, but they did defend in the attacking half and introduced modern tactics quickly copied the world over.

The most important tenets of Total Football were that the team both attacked and defended with ten players, placed emphasis on winning the ball back while still in the attacking half, used a high-line defense that exploited the offside trap rule, and managed space on the pitch through use of cross-field balls and crowding strategic areas. Up until the World Cup Mexico 1970, football was played as a much more back and forth game, with attacks ending in a cross or shot followed by a retreat to defensive positions, allowing the opposing side to build an attack. The Dutch, through superior tactics, suffocated their opponents and usually won easily by dictating the play and monopolizing the offensive chances.

Dutch legacy: La Masía

The idea of bringing Holland coach Rinus Michels and his talisman Johan Cruyff to Barcelona was to bring Total Football to the Camp Nou. At risk of oversimplifying: it did not work. But upon leaving, Cruyff himself suggested that in order for Barcelona to ensure long term success, that they should start a youth system modeled after that of Ajax. This way a crop of homegrown players could be brought up together to play with the style that the club was looking for, but was too difficult to implement in the short term. This was how La Masía came to be. Cruyff would return a decade later and reign over the first great Barcelona “Dream Team” but only one of his star players came from the side’s fledgeling academy: Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola.

Recent Argentine roots: Guardiola invokes Marcelo Bielsa

Gracias Bielsa

Gracias Bielsa (Photo credit: javier_araneda_v)

Before taking on the job of Barcelona coach, Pep Guardiola famously flew to Rosario to talk shop with the man he calls his greatest inspiration as a coach. Marcelo Bielsa is an obsessive tactician and an intellectual philosopher of the sport. Though most choose to define ‘El Loco’ by his eccentric methods and mannerisms. The main gist of Bielsa’s game lies in the relentless attacking attitudes of his sides, which are built for constant fluid movement both on and off the ball. His time at the helm of Argentina saw him build a similarly unplayable side to the Dutch in the 1970s; one that comprehensively dominated possession while playing every side they faced in the same fashion, as did Pep’s Barcelona a decade later.

Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 for Argentina. A side built to seamlessly transition between attack and defense.

Bielsa’s as of yet unnamed style of football can be considered a modern variant on Total Football through its use of all-out attacking and defending, high-pressure in the attacking half, and the use of versatile players to fill attacking and defensive roles in an extraordinarily fast, vertical, and physically demanding style. The three-man defense he played at the turn of the century gave this blog its name, and the influence he had on Guardiola’s Barcelona can largely be seen as the student becoming the master. Before coming to prominence as the inspiration for Guardiola’s record setting Barcelona and his incredible debut season at Athletic Bilbao, Marcelo Bielsa was a cult hero in Argentina, Chile, and for students of the tactical game. He is now gaining the recognition he deserves as a luminary of football.

Present day

Barcelona are what they are today because of their commitment to a long-term plan for success. The creation of La Masía 35 years ago came to fruition when its first great product coached a team full of its products and won every trophy they competed for. This is what prompts what can be thought of as hubris or pomposity by members in insisting for in-house management, but they are not ready for that and credit must be given to the board for recognizing that they needed to bring in someone from the Bielsa school.

If Guardiola was Cruyff’s disciple, Barcelona have appointed Bielsa’s disciple in Tata Martino, and it couldn’t make more sense in terms of continuity of style and continued commitment to long-term success. Martino’s debut on the bench is today, and there should be no doubts that the world will be watching to see how he does this season.

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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.