Barcelona Foundations : Ball Pressure

17 08 2009

Pep-Guardiola 2

“Corred, cabrones, corred !”. That’s a great quote. It’s also slightly contradictory in a sense which you will see in a little bit. Who said it is pretty obvious given the photo.

This last June, persons outside of the Barcelona staff got their best glimpse yet at Guardiola the coach. The setting was the arid-but-beautiful island of Lazarote, in the Canary Islands. The occasion was an annual coaching clinic organized by legendary ex-Barcelona handball player and coach, Valero Rivera. Our man Pep stole the show with a charismatic presentation that was officially titled “Pressuring the Ball”. However, the title given by Sport to their recap of it was in my opinion much more fitting. Thus, I stole it: “¡Corred, cabrones, corred!”. The Spanish language coverage of this presentation provided numerous quotes from Pep that combine to form an accurate picture from the man himself of how he approaches and views ball pressure from a coaching and management standpoint. Consider those quotes from his presentation (which hardly got any English language coverage) as the inspiration for this post.

That’s where I want to start. This week will be all about Ibra and his debut, and an Ibra post is certainly in the works. But this, the first of a two-parter on the intricacies of ball pressure, will give us an idea of what awaits, and will be expected of our BAS (Big Ass Swede) as well as insight into one of the tenets of our style. Something that at first glance seems like a simple thing (e.g. “just all go after the guy with the ball”) but in reality is much more complicated from the tactical and intangible or motivational aspects.

Pep spreading the gospel at LazarotrePep spreading the gospel at Lazarote

Why?

Pep is a gazillion times more eloquent and concise than me so I’ll let his quotes explain this part in only a few sentences. (*note: all of his quotes shown here are from Sport.

“In the world of football, there is only one secret. Do I have the ball or do I not have the ball? Barcelona chooses to have the ball. Consequently, implicit in this choice is that the other team must not have the ball. Thus, when we lose the ball, then we have to recover it because we need the ball.”

And, that, ladies and gentlemen, is that…or maybe not. Let’s look at why Barca “needs” the ball and has to recover it, besides the obvious “OMG we love possession.” They all stem from the same theme: We love offense and love not conceding even more.

1)      If you pressure an opponent near his own area, chances are good that they may very well lose it in a compromising position near their goal, making it easier for you to score. We love scoring.

2)      The more we have the ball, the more chances we will create and the less chances an opponent will create. Thus, we want the ball back ASAP.

3)      Our system usually leaves at most 3 players back when we have the ball near the opponents’ goal (because we love offense). This means we have to counter potential counterattacks (hah!).

4)      We want our players to be creative and fearless on offense.

5)      A less-tired player is a more effective player (you’ll see soon).

How:

Now we get to the fun part.

Ball pressuring is right up there with the most important tenets of our footballing philosophy. I remember Johan Cruyff writing on his blog that the three fundamentals of Barca are possession, movement, and ball pressure.

However, it is not as simple as “everybody go immediately get the ball after you lose it”. It is much more complicated than that. If all our players simply chase after the ball like dogs after a piece of steak, eventually the opponent will find big wide open spaces and make us pay. Our offensive system which frequently leaves only three men in the back is too risky for this. However, before we go into the details of how the pressure itself is applied, we have to cover the one thing has to take place before the ball is even lost, for the pressure to be applied effectively– lest we be made to pay for our audacity. That thing is:

High Lines and Tightening Up (the importance of Centerbacks in pressuring)

The center back (CB) position at Barca is the most underrated position on our team in terms of importance. It’s right up there with the 4 (e.g. Xavi, Guardiola, etc.), and the triangles.  For our whole system to work, it is imperative that the CB’s push the whole team forward and set up their line at around the centerline. This is called a high defensive line. A lot of teams consider this suicide, but we consider it necessary and even up the ante by frequently playing only 3 men there.The idea is to tighten the distance between our lines, and compress the game into the opponent’s half. Why? I’ll let the Johan himself take it away.

“Pass, pass, pass is useless if you don’t finish the play. Pass, pass, pass is downright dangerous if you do it with big distances between lines. If you do it like that, your defenders look worse than they are and your goalkeeper becomes the protagonist. The way to avoid this is to stretch the field. It is vital that your CB’s drag the whole team forward. If you can only play on half a field, the opponent’s, the distances that he must cover to get to Valdés will be out of this world. “

His logic is simple. On one hand we want to reduce turnovers, and a long pass has a much higher chance of being picked off than a short one because of the time the ball is in movement. If we reduce the space between the lines, the opponent will have less time to read passes and pick them off. On the other hand if we are to suffer a counterattack, we make that counterattack have to cover as much ground as possible, giving our guys time to pressure and recover the ball or get back and organize. How many times have we seen a counterattack stifled by backtracking forwards or fullbacks (this is where Abidal is at his best)? It’s about spacing. We want to compress the field vertically but at the same time stretch it horizontally (this is why our fullbacks and wingers are so important). The idea is to open up spaces near the opponent’s goal while minimizing the spaces that the opponent may use against us if we lose the ball. If you religiously read the highlights of Guardiola press conferences, this is something he frequently cites as something we did wrong to explain bad games. It is very important for our system to be effective both in the offensive and defensive sense, and worth paying attention to when watching the games.

Why is this vital to pressuring the ball? The less space the opponent has to pass and launch a proper counter, then the more effective our pressure will be in causing turnovers. Also, by compressing the field vertically, we have more Barca players near the ball, making it easier to overwhelm and dispossess opponents in their own half, or giving us more time to recover in case they get out. Ball pressure is all about the space and options the opponent has. Reduce those two things and ball pressure becomes more effective. If the opponent has no readily available options, and has Xavi and Messi pressuring them from two sides at once, the the odds that he holds the ball too long or makes a foolish pass increase. Let’s look at diagrams. Note the yellow circles which denote the significant pockets of space left by our formation.

Defensive Line Too Low (Too much space between lines)

Defensive Line Too Low

High Defensive Line (Nice Compressed Lines)

High Defensive Line

Our players shift all the time, but for our purposes these diagrams will do. Notice the difference in where spaces appear once the defensive line moves up. The ones that appear on offense are the ones in which we see the forwards making their runs into or Alves and Messi overlapping and playing each other into space. Our goal is simple: to keep a compact midfield, keep the field spread with two players that function as “extremos” on the wings (Alves and Henry in this case), and not give up space that makes us vulnerable to counterattack. Check out the difference. With the defensive line not high enough, Henry and Alves have to be ready to run themselves ragged up and down while Yaya has to cover acres of space between the CB’s and the attack. Sure, we open up space near the opposing goal but we also open up acres into which attackers may be played into. This makes it much easier for opponents to escape our ball pressure thus drastically decreasing its effectiveness With the high defensive line, we:

1)      Cut the distance of our passes making it less likely that they will be intercepted.

2)      Make the midfield more compact, increasing passing efficiency, and having more players near the ball in case it is lost.

3)      Reduce the space into which opposing players may be played into during a counterattack thus reducing our risk and making our midfield and attackers’ ball pressure more effective.

This approach, however, is not without inherent risks. One quick thinking midfielder with good accuracy can quickly flip a long ball over the defense after a lucky takeaway, and if the defenders are asleep a good fast striker can break onside and have a one on one with Valdés. Its vital to have good communications among the defensive line to keep the opposing striker offside. The other risk is that the nature of our version of the 4-3-3 leaves a gap on the wings, especially with Alves bombing forward and Messi cutting inside. That gap means that at least a few times a game, one of our two lateral defenders will get tested on one on ones. Our defender doesn’t have to necessarily win as much as slow the attacker down because we are playing so far away from our own goal, we have more time to recover from a mistake even if the attacker quickly gets away from the first man.

Risks of the High Line

Now, let’s see this in action. The following video is just a taste of the awesomeness that is Paradigma Guardiola which is run by Guardiola devotee Matías Manna. Go over there and give him some love, because he deserves it. The following is sequences from an average game for us (Mallorca in the first leg). Just skip to 3:14 for this one and watch that segment. It demonstrates both the virtues and the risks of the high line. Look at how the high line buys us time to slow down counterattacks, or break them up with back-tracking forwards and midfielders, while the defensive line gets re-organized. Conversely, look how close we are to having one of the attackers break loose and how Marquez gets tested one on one near the wing. Although, even if the attacker did break loose, he so far from Valdés that we would have a chance of catching him and his support.

My main goal with these posts is to explain and discuss Barca tactics in a clear, concise manner such that everybody can understand them and appreciate them. All of us are here to learn so have at it with the comments. Also, I want to point out things that may at first glance seem unimportant but are in reality vital to the beautiful football we enjoy from Barcelona therefore increasing our appreciation of the players, the staff, and the philosphy. I hope this post was a good start because there is much still to come. In the next post, I’ll discuss how the actual pressuring takes place as well as the seemingly intangible benefits of its correct application.

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