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’.