In a profound analysis since the arrival of Johan Cruyff in 1988 to today, we take a deep look at the transformation of the tactics in defence from Barcelona over the years.
Barcelona have always been a dominant and brilliant team. But the possession dominance and brilliant attacking football are a product of relatively recent events. Over the years, Barça fans have seen a monumental change in the philosophy of the club. In the same manner, the defence too has grown and adapted to the new ideologies. As managers changed, each made his own changes to the way the blaugranas defended.
One characteristic of the Barcelona defence has been charismatic centre-backs such as Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué and Ronald Koeman. They lead the backline and marshal the defence. Here, we analyse the team and how the defence evolved over the past 32 years.
The Dream Team
When Johan Cruyff took over in 1988, he changed the course of Barça’s history. He gave the club an identity that the fans were proud of. His principles were adopted from the Dutch style of play, Total Football, under which he himself had thrived.
Cruyff was well known for his lack of interest towards defence. He was entirely focused at scoring goals rather than defending them. With his arrival, he introduced the 3–4–3 system of football, which gave his players more freedom to attack. At a time like this, it was players like Ronald Koeman who rose to glory under his fellow Dutchman.
“If you play on possession you don’t have to defend as there is only one ball”
His 3–4–3 system was based on trying to outnumber opposition teams, who preferred to play with only two forwards. With the three centre-backs, the defenders could mark opposition strikers whilst also being able to cope with any attempted pressing. With Pep Guardiola as a holding midfielder, the play would then transition forward through him. The key was to maintain possession.
This would prevent opposition players from creating attacks in the first place and allowed the team to dictate games. When possession was lost, though, the team would press immediately to recover the ball. His defenders were generally good in the air and were capable of taking the ball forward and keeping possession well.
The team would instantly press high up the pitch on losing possession | Image from Football Bloody Hell
The problem with the 3–4–3 was that it would be susceptible to wing play as the team would be stretched out, leaving gaps in the middle. This left the team susceptible to counter-attacks.
Louis Van Gaal
After the departure of Johan Cruyff came Louis Van Gaal, following a season under Bobby Robson. Van Gaal too would follow in Cruyff’s footsteps and he implemented the 3–4–3 system which sometimes transferred to the 4–3–3 as well with the number 4 dropping into defence to collect the ball.
Like Cruyff’s system, Van Gaal’s side was still exposed to counter-attacks. Despite fairing well in the league, his team was extremely prone to conceding goals. Sides like Valencia began to wait patiently despite the lack of possession and then would attack on the counter.
Van Gaal’s Barça was highly vulnerable in defence | Photo by Martin Rose / Bongarts via Getty Images
He managed to win the league twice in three years, but his teams suffered against the big guns, especially in the Champions League. An astonishing stat is the fact that his team conceded half the number of goals in the UEFA Champions League than in the league despite playing 22 less games in his final season at the club. After the Dutch had first introduced the system, it had now become easy to score against. Sides could no longer depend on scoring goals freely to win trophies.
With the team stretched out, lots of space would open up in the middle. As shown by Manchester United in the 1999 Champions League game, Barça was far too shaky in defence. Quick combinations and balls over the top of the defense were able to overcome the challenge offered by the high press of the team. When he departed, the team was in a bad shape defensively. But the introduction of club legends like Carles Puyol would prove handy for the future campaigns.
The 2000s: Entry of Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola
After the exit of Louis Van Gaal, several managers came and went. After one more stint by Van Gaal, however, came Frank Rijkaard. Under him the team usually played with a 4–3–3 in possession while transitioning to a 4–1–2–1–2 off the ball. This made the shape narrower and the opposition could not go through the middle. Thus the compact nature allowed the team to press the rivals into making mistakes and ultimately win the ball back.
When Pep Guardiola came to Barcelona in 2008, he built upon Johan Cruyff’s legacy and implemented a deep positional play system. He usually started the game with a 4–3–3 formation, but transitioned to three at the back while in position. High pressing was a decisive feature of Guardiola’s system. As highlighted by the 2–6 El Clásico win at the Santiago Bernabéu in 2009, everyone from Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta in the midfield to Lionel Messi up front put pressure on the opposition. His famous six second rule was at display then in counter-pressing.
When attacking, full-backs Dani Alves and Éric Abidal pushed up the field and provided support to the wingers, the defensive midfielder – either Yaya Touré or Sergio Busquets – would drop into defence between Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol. Busquets played as a pivot in midfield and would often help break counter-attacks. He might even commit the occasional tactical foul.
Pep Guardiola had a formidable backline, but the midfield and frontline had a high involvement in the pressing too | Photo by Denis Doyle via Getty Images
This system of defending was extremely effective in most games, but wasn’t without its flaws. It was heavily dependent on the positional awareness of the team. Every time the ball was given away during the build-up, Guardiola needed the centre-backs or the defensive midfielder to be ready to challenge the ball. While the entire team pressed on the ball, it left spaces in their positions. If the opponent somehow managed to get the ball out of the press, large parts of the field were now free and the defence had to be ready to cover up for the gaps.
This hybrid shape also meant that the youth in the players’ legs was more important than ever. One mistake made at the back, and it would mean that the opposition would immediately go on the counter. With the full-backs pushing high, the opposition could capitalise on the lack of full-backs by stretching the defence out using wingers or by playing the ball over the backline. With most of the players more technical than physical, the team was also vulnerable against set pieces.
The 4–3 loss away to Atlético de Madrid in March 2009 highlighted all of the side’s flaws. In the end, though, the squad’s talent prevailed and they successfully kept the errors to a minimum. The four years under Pep Guardiola were truly prodigious.
The 2010s: Luis Enrique, Tito Vilanova and Gerardo Martino
Former assistant Tito Vilanova took over from Pep Guardiola and managed to impress fans with his football. He, much like Guardiola, played attacking football. While he too started with a 4–3–3 in the game, he was more than willing to adapt to the situation. He would occasionally transform to the 3–4–3 formation with one of the full-backs falling into the three. But with Carles Puyol entering into the final years with Barcelona, the club had to find a replacement for him. Marc Bartra from La Masía was an option while Javier Mascherano continued to be used as a centre-back.
Unfortunately, Tito Vilonova’s reign was hampered due to his cancer and he missed several crucial games and it cost the team. While they were unstoppable in the league, they still showed the same cracks as Pep’s Barcelona. They too were prone to counter-attacks while runs into the box also got the better of them. But they were even worse in the air without Puyol. Sadly, at the end of the season in July, Vilanova resigned from the job due to health issues.
Replacing Carles Puyol was never going to be easy | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
His replacement, Gerardo Tata Martino endured a horrendous spell in charge of the club. He shifted to four in midfield and suffered in the process. While Neymar Júnior was brought into the squad, he wasn’t supportive defensively. Thus the team were exposed at the back. Both full-backs too were offensive and when given an attacking role made the defensive issues even worse. While he tried to adopt a possession philosophy, Barça was more suited to a direct 4–3–3 with Neymar on the wing.
Finally, in 2014 came Luis Enrique. He, much like Cruyff, believed in scoring more goals than the opposition and the culés‘ performances reflected the same. His direct form of football relied on a 4–3–3 with attacking full-backs. Just like the managers before him, Luis Enrique too preferred a high pressing game whilst in defence. He kept the ball well and tried quick transitions to get the ball up front.
While he was successful in his first season, he did suffer from the same issues as his predecessors. Not being experimental, his tactics were focused on attacking and rarely did his team ever fall back and defend. The tactic worked in his initial seasons, but the faults caught up in his final year at the club. When Dani Alves left for Juventus, there was a gaping hole at right-back that the midfielder Sergi Roberto had to fill. Moreover, the players were beginning to lose the ability to run and press high as age caught up with the squad. This meant that the defence progressively worsened and by the end of his tenure, the team’s leaky defence was beginning to show
The late 2010s: Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setién
With Ernesto Valverde in 2017 came the biggest change in defensive tactics. He had significantly improved the defence at his previous clubs and it was expected that he would do the same at Barcelona. Valverde departed majorly from the style of football the azulgranas were used to playing and under him the defence now shifted to a 4–4–2 formation. He tried to implement the high pressing tactic, but it was obvious by now that the players were too tired to maintain pressure over time.
While Busquets continued to win the ball back, Iván Rakitić was forced to do the dirty work along with him. He was now highly involved in defence as well whilst players like Paulinho and Arturo Vidal now added an element of physicality the team had not used before. The players weren’t afraid of putting in a more physical display or two. Even though he tried to crowd up the midfield in defence, Barcelona was now more prone to counter-attacks than ever. He was dependent on the individual players to put in the performances covering at the back.
Under Ernesto Valverde, especially in the 2017/18 season after Neymar’s departure, the coach put extra emphasis on defensive organisation and solidity | Photo by AFP7 / Zuma via Imago
The same goes for Quique Setién when he was brought in mid January with the sacking of Ernesto Valverde. Without proper time to work with the team, he too was reliant more on the individual quality at first. The lack of an out and out wing player translated to a poorer defence as well. The full-backs had to push higher than before to add creative output, meaning that the three of Gerard Piqué, Clément Lenglet and pivot Sergio Busquets had to cope with any incoming attacks.
But the biggest asset used by both Valverde and Setién after him was / is Marc-André Ter Stegen. He is the reason why Barcelona managed to retain the positions they have obtained in each of the last three seasons. Even though the defence was penetrated in much easier ways, the German international stepped up to the challenge and kept Barça in the game.
Nevertheless, after a three-month break, Quique Setién has shown that he can get better out of the team defensively than before. Unlike previous managers, Setién has been highly experimental trying out several new formations like the 3–5–2 and the 4–1–2–1–2. He has brought more stability in defence and has tried out several options like playing Sergi Roberto almost as a centre-back.
But perhaps the biggest change he could use is the ability to rotate and replace older players with new ones. It is too early to judge his new formations, but what he has shown is positive. The difference that can be seen is the players renewed hunger for getting back the ball.
Whilst Barça have gone through several managers, a similar trend can be observed. Ever since Johan Cruyff instilled the principals of Total Football at Barcelona, the emphasis on possession play grew. When it comes to possession play, a team is at more risk from counter attacks than from a strategic and slow breakdown of the defence. High balls and set pieces have remained a weakness for the Catalans while pressing remains an indisputable asset, despite the evident decline lately.
Yet Barça’s defensive record has been inconsistent over the years. This can be attributed to the fact that as a generation of players age, they can no longer play the role a Barcelona shirt requires. It is crucial to replace old legs with new ones, which is why Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona were so menacing. He knew what his squad needed and wasn’t afraid to make the bold decisions. While the tactics have remained the same, the use of full-backs in the modern game has brought out changes as well.
Going forward, Barcelona needs to be ready to cut out dead legs and bring in or promote young talents. A return to former glory is possible, but for that they need to work on renovating the defence. Along with that, though, Barça also needs to work on player mentality. For it doesn’t matter how good a tactic is until and unless the player decides ‘I need to get there first’.
Ronald Koeman starts to find the pieces to Barça’s jigsaw
While the whole Europe has started or is approaching to start their respective national campaigns, Ronald Koeman is trying to find the right system to display his force as soon as the La Liga season starts for Barça in about a week. But with the Nàstic and Girona friendlies already on the Dutch manager’s stomach, has he already found the right men to do the job?
As Barcelona’s start of the season finally approach, after the team had more rest days due to the late Champions League ending, it is fair to underline how its newest manager, new coach Ronald Koeman is still trying to find the right notes to complete the symphony. A symphony that is yet to be completed and to be refined, but certainly one that has been quickly asserting the right tracks under its belly.
This year’s preseason has been an unknown for all professional sports out there, with many having to occur in faster, soarer training sessions than usual. While the fitness aspect of it all will probably be the main cause of differences this season, as fitness coaches had to reduce the workloads and increase speed sessions to keep the players fresh and ready, the managers’ job will be much harder in terms of creating the right harmony and cohesion in a short period of time. There is no enough time to practice the desired movements, tactical systems and other structural aspects of a team’s in-pitch organisation.
Barça, apart from an athletic routine that hasn’t much been under scrutiny in recent history due to the club’s different values, had a few more problems to cope with. Lionel Messi‘s transfer saga, the motion of no confidence against president Josep Maria Bartomeu, a new manager, a strange signings strategy – both in and out of the club –, and more. In all the chaos that Barcelona is right now, Koeman’s job has been much harder than what it could have been under normal circumstances. Still, the Dutchman is slowly finding his rhythm with the team.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona is taking shape | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
One of the biggest tactical unknowns of Koeman’s appointment was whether he was going to keep Barça’s vintage 4–3–3 system, or if he was going to change it in a 4–2–3–1, due to his own preferences and the team’s characteristics. After very much debating between fans and pundits, the first two friendlies of Barça’s short preseason gave the environment the answer it was looking for: 4–2–3–1.
While the tactical system is different from the culés‘ traditional one, Koeman’s mentality and footballing ideas are far from being the opposite of Barça’s. Offensive, intense and vertical football are a must for Barcelona’s expectations as much as Koeman’s interpretations. There is a perfect binomial conduction between the club and its new employee.
Football in preseason is as much a test for all the players in a team’s roaster as a training to keep the legs rolling and the lungs filling the air. So were the recent friendlies against Nàstic de Tarragona and Girona. As expected, Koeman literally played eleven different players per half in both games, with a few changes in the last one. And as the coach was varying things and changing the pieces of the puzzle, you could already see the ideas, the movements, the principles that he wanted to give to the team.
As many distressed fans have already noticed, the defence that suffered eight goals against Bayern Munich has not changed a bit. While it may seem discouraging for some, having such individual qualities at the back paired with some solid and correct defensive training may end up being the best signing Barça could do to improve its backline.
With Marc-André ter Stegen on its way back to recovery after surgery, Neto will be the only difference in Barcelona’s defence this season, with lack of competition from the bench arising. At least, as long as Manchester City keeps its firm stand on the Eric García situation and Sergiño Dest doesn’t move to the Camp Nou.
With a proven-to-be two-man midfield in Barça’s new squad, a Koeman favourite will certainly find his place game in, game out: Frenkie de Jong. As the same manager told upon his arrival, it is a shame to watch players like De Jong – and Antoine Griezmann – in unusual positions, as they will not perform at the levels they are expected to.
“The plan is to start playing Frenkie de Jong in the position that he plays with the national team as well. I remember attending a Barcelona game and I saw him play a position where I wouldn’t play him as a coach. You’ve spent a lot of money on a young player. You should then play him in his own position, where he can perform in a way you’d expect from him. He has shown at Ajax and with the Dutch national team which position suits him best and that is where he will be playing at Barcelona as well”Ronald Koeman
With De Jong‘s place not being threatened by anyone else except himself, it is expected from Riqui Puig and Carles Aleñá to provide that support quality and solutions from the bench or, in some cases, to perform in an eventual three-man midfield, with Puig being hierarchically higher than the former Real Betis loanee.
Next to De Jong is a position that is going to be fought for the whole length of the season: Sergio Busquets’ intelligence or Miralem Pjanić‘s quality? With an ageing Busquets, it will be the first time in twelve years that his place will be under severe scrutiny by the club, as years go by and fresher legs come in place. But while the Bosnian’s quality will be very much needed throughout the entire season, Busquets’ tactical awareness is going to be a solid piece of refinery yet again.
Slowly approaching Barça’s biggest guns, it is no secret that the Catalan’s team offensive overbooking is going to keep several doors open throughout the whole season. Having the freedom of two players per position is a manager’s dream, but while it may be a benefit, it is also a challenge to keep the team balanced and the moods paced.
With the signings of two youngsters such as Francisco Trincão and Pedri, both incredibly bright against Nàstic and Girona, Barcelona’s wide game takes a big jump in terms of volume, youth and creativity. But with Luis Suárez’s mysterious future under supervision, the seniority of Barça’s main man upfront will take its advantage overall. At least initially.
“I liked Trincão positionally, sometimes coming inside and sometimes going outside. He has the quality and has to adapt to the speed and rhythm. He’s a great signing”Ronald Koeman, on Francisco Trincão after the 3–1 win over Nàstic last Saturday
Apart from Ansu Fati, who is already considered a senior throughout the whole footballing world, Messi and Antoine Griezmann seem to be Koeman’s main men for the central roles up top: as much as they will both exchange their positions, the Argentinian is destined to take the playmaking role, while the French World Cup winner will move around him and try to create spaces and finish chances for the team.
Besides Barça’s business, Philippe Coutinho is another player to have returned to the blaugrana headquarters. Full of determination, he will look to prove himself once and for all where he wanted to be ever since his Liverpool days. With similar motives to the Brazilian’s, but with different sources, Ousmane Dembélé is approaching the start of a defining season for him: either he proves to be world-class or he goes home. And with the explosion of Ansu Fati and the incredible talent he brings to the field, those three may feature in most of Barça’s games in this start of the season. Ansu Fati’s injury permitting, of course. However, Trincão and Pedri’s talents may change many’s minds, Koeman’s included.
“He [Pedri] is a great talent. He’s 17 and such an important signing for our future. He has trained with us and has the quality to play, so we’ll see how much he can take part”RONALD KOEMAN, AFTER beating NÀSTIC LAST SATURDAY
Ronald Koeman is slowly finding the pieces to solve this incredibly difficult puzzle that Barça appears to be. It is going to take more than just a few friendlies and a few good performances to overturn the season’s predictions around Barcelona’s offices. That is why players are tools for a team to perform. You can have better or worse ones. But the mentality and the identity of a team’s way of playing are principles much more important for a club’s success in the pitch.
It is no surprise that, perhaps, the most positive aspect of the new Barça’s performances over the course of the first two friendlies has not been a single player, a chance created or a defensive movement. Instead, it has been the intensity of the team’s ball movement mixed with those two, maximum three, touches per player.
The path to Barcelona’s native brilliance is long and hard, but having the right mindset to attack this jigsaw is the best strategy that the Dutch manager could employ. One idea, 4–2–3–1, eleven optimal choices and the highest intensity possible. Step by step, game after game, Koeman’s Barça will surface. With patience. And, as in microeconomics when supply meets demand, in football, when principles meet practicality, the puzzle is solved.