Barcelona Foundations: The Midfield

7 08 2009

Rumors of Javier Mascherano’s move to Camp Nou caused me to pause and reflect on the dynamism of FC Barcelona’s midfield: how does it function? how is it influenced by the players on the field? by the defensive shape? how would Mascherano – or any other midfielder – fit in to such a system? The answers to these questions are the cornerstones of my thinking about the club. My future work will stem largely from my perception of the influence the midfield has on Barcelona’s overall approach to the game. With this in mind, and with the hope of answering some questions about Mascherano’s viability in the treble-winning side, I have changed my plans. As the first installment of Competing Perspectives, I give you… Foundations: The Midfield.

First, some disclosure: while many characterize the Barcelona system as a 4-3-3, I strongly disagree in principle. Not only does the name inadequately describe the depth with which Barca plays, it also conjures up memories of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea side in which the 3 midfielders played primarily defensive roles as a cohesive line. Rather, I generally emphasis the central triangle which defines Barcelona’s tactics. The best, albeit approximate, title I can give to this fluid system is the 4-2-3-1, pictured below in its most basic form.

4-2-3-1

The 4-2-3-1

Center Mids: Toure, Keita, Xavi/Iniesta/Hleb

The 4-2-3-1 formation, despite appearances on paper, is really a very aggressive formation. The front four players shut down the simple passing lanes to force the other team to play forward, where the midfield is packed with two holders and the high-pressing full backs. Balls over the top are swept up by the centerbacks – a cross between the dedicated flat centerbacks and the liberos of late Italian fame. Used properly, as Barcelona does, it is a hyper-modern adaptation of the 4-5-1 in which the midfield is not clogged in the attack and the team operates up and down the pitch as a cohesive unit. For this reason, it’s execution requires extreme discipline.

Extreme Fluidity

However, this discipline does not mean that players are constrained. In fact, it takes very little time to see that FC Barcelona regularly swap positions, make creative runs, and dominate possession. Note, however, that the means in which they accomplish these goals are very consistent and maintain the balance of the whole. This dynamic discipline places Barca on a different tactical level than even Manchester United; and it is all dictated by variations on the shape of the midfield.

Variation 1: Dual Playmakers

Center Mids: Toure/Keita, Xavi, Iniesta

Var1

The first variation which Barca often plays simply moves one of the holders into an attacking midfield role. Using two central playmakers allowed both Xavi and Iniesta to play effectively at the same time, holding possession high up the pitch. This strong possession allowed the fullbacks, especially Dani Alves, to create enormous width up the wings to overload the opposing midfielders. A vicious cycle ensues, in which the defending outside players will run, run, run, get pulled out of position, then have to defend crosses facing their own goal. Wide play – either corner balls or out to the fullbacks – is the emphasis of this strategy, since forcing the central mids to mark the dual-playmakers limits the support they can provide to their own wingmen.

Notice, however, the enormous holes between the holding midfielder and the fullbacks as the fullbacks push up the pitch. In order to fill those dangerous passing lanes, the center backs must also push farther up the field, leaving only a very shallow arc between the holding mid and center backs. Vulnerability to corner balls is the result, and the Barca midfield are forced to pressure and possess high up the pitch to protect their own goal.

Overall, because it requires such skillful possession in the front, Barca may be the only major European club able to successfully pull off the dual playmaker variation. Exposure in the back necessitates that attacks end with an opportunity at goal, or else counter attacks will cost Barca dearly.

Variation 2: Central Libero

Center Mids: Toure/Keita, Iniesta/Gudjohnson, Xavi/Hleb

Var2

In my opinion, the use of a psuedo-libero in the center of your formation is the future of attacking football. Barca’s greatest successes last season came when they were comfortable enough defensively to let Iniesta move all around the park. In the above image, that is represented by the center midfielder off to the left of the other two. By working the horizontal lane between Toure and Xavi, Iniesta easily shook his markers and was able to pick up free opponent’s defensively. Complete domination of the central game – divorced from forcing two mids to play back-to-goal – ensued.

However, creative runs must come from the free man to preserve defensive integrity. If, say, Dani Alves pushes into the midfield, the impetus is on the free man and the holder to immediately rotate toward the hole and maintain balance. Barca’s discipline shines here, but more than once during the season they were punished for reacting too slowly when Alves chose a poor time to advance.

Variation 3: Alves Advances (a.k.a. Is this a formation?)

Var3
Regardless of who is playing in the midfield, Dani Alves’ (and, in the Champion’s League final, Puyol’s) forrays out of the defense create an awkward tactical situation for both the attacking and defending teams. Above, in the Central Libero variation, I explained my prefered method of adapting offensively. However, Barca also sometimes employed a hyper-aggressive alternative which defies conventional definitions. Loosely, it can be described as a lopsided 3-4-3, where Iniesta suddenly becomes almost a left winger.

Bizarre as the tactic is, spontaneous adjustment into its style for a few minutes in the late game appears to have some method to it. As best I can figure, the reasoning is that, being tired from chasing passes, the other team will not be able to overload the three defenders plus the holding mid with runs out of midfield. That out of the way, we simply trust to Pique or Puyol to win 1v1’s in the back and give the defense a heart attack by having four different attackers dribble at them in succession. Defensively unbalanced yet alarminingly controlled, I can only borrow a British term for the idea: cheeky.

Mascherano

Individual skills mastered by Javier Mascherano thus fit well into the overall FCB strategy in the midfield – by being a strong physical presence, a hard tackler, a reliable passer and holder of the ball, and a superb improvisationalist, he fills almost perfectly either the holding or the libero midfield roles. I can very easily see him playing next to or in front of Toure, or even far up the wings to balance the infield runs of Dani Alves. Were Mascherano to join the club, his contribution to the existing framework would have enormous potential.

Conclusion

Admittedly, during the course of a game, the midfield of FC Barcelona assumes far too many forms to count or describe; however, by analyzing the simplest, most common executions we can glimpse the underlying principles of how the midfield players and shape influence the game. Through a concious understanding of Barca’s fluid midfield game, we might better understand what makes our team the most sophisticated in the world.

RC

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