Although they lag behind Real Madrid by a full 10 points in the Primera Liga at this moment in time due to some uncharacteristically under-par performances (when compared to their own high standards), Barcelona continue to be one of the most difficult teams in the world to beat. Their total almost-suffocating control of possession, speed on and off the ball, intricacy in tight situations and ability to fashion something out of nothing mean that opposing teams are often left chasing shadows for the duration of the match without ever having felt as if they could influence the game in any way, shape or form.
However, there has never been a better time to really try to beat Barça than now. They’ve stuttered a couple of times in the season, drawing 6 games and losing 2, and it’s through these results – as well as their draws and losses in the Champions League in the past few seasons – that we can really examine what it takes to beat this team. Could there ever be a tactical plan that worked? I’ve decided to take on this challenge, and I will be using official statistics, and hand-drawn diagrams, to back up my arguments. Without further ado, I present my steps to beat Barcelona:
1) Play 4-2-3-1
Although 4-2-3-1 is a fairly common system to play nowadays, used by both club sides and International teams, I feel it would be far from sensible to dismiss the stats as pure coincidence. Of the 6 draws that Barça have endured so far this season, 5 of those teams fielded sides in the 4-2-3-1 formation, comprising a flat back four, 2 holding midfielders, 3 attack-minded midfielders and a lone striker. Barcelona also suffered a loss against a Getafe side utilising this very same formation. Is there a specific reason for this? It could possibly be because of the defensive nature of the formation, as there are for all intents and purposes 6 defensive-minded players and only 4 attack-minded ones. Any defensive formation such as this is likely to cause Barça difficulties, as opposed to more attack-orientated teams. Or it could have something to do with the fact that 4-2-3-1 can be quite a narrow formation. A large share of Barcelona’s play comes through Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, and all three generally play centrally. With such a mass of bodies all occupying the same space of the field, congestion is very likely, making it harder to get the ball through and therefore harder to score.
Either way, it seems to work in many respects.
2) Cut off the triangles
The triangle must be some kind of sacred symbol to the Catalans as it seems to hold such importance in their style of play. Everything happens in triangles. It all goes back to the rondos (that’s piggy in the middle to you and me) that they are made to practice every day on the training ground. Barcelona players are constantly drilled on receiving, controlling and offloading the ball quickly, all without losing possession to the man in the middle. By creating these triangles on the pitch, each player is then given (at least) two passing options and possession of the ball is made much, much easier.
Cutting off the triangles is vital to the success of your team, but how do you go about doing it?
3) Lower Xavi’s percentages and stifle Busquets
While Messi rightly gets the majority of the plaudits, everything Barcelona do goes through Xavi. Xavi is the key to breaking the triangles and gaining possession because his contribution, although not overtly evident at first glance, is enormous. The number of times Xavi passes the ball each league game, on average, is 101. In the Champions League this figure rises to 129.8. His pass success rate in the league stands at 92.7%, 94.4% in the Champions League. Xavi is by far and away the Pass Master, the Pass King. In last season’s Champions League Final match against Manchester United, he completed 148 passes (a competition high), with a pass success rate of 95%. He only missed 7 passes in the whole game. Last year, on average, Barça clocked up over 200 more passes per game than any other team in the world – and Xavi is at the heart of everything. But how do you combat this?
The simple solution, if we presume that you’ve taken my advice and employed a 4-2-3-1 system, is to have one of your defensive midfielders man-mark Xavi. Their sole task in the match should be to get to the ball before he does, or at least to severely disrupt his passing. By breaking down their passing you break down their rhythm. One positive point for your defensive midfielder; Xavi rarely deviates from his favoured central position.
The second task to set one of your players, preferably your central attacking midfielder, is not to man mark Busquets but simply to stifle him. While Xavi is the hub around which all Barcelona activity revolves, Busquets’s role is just as important – and it once again goes back to the idea of the triangles.
Now let me get this out of the way first. I hate Sergio Busquets with a passion. I think he’s one of the most despicable characters in world football who brings embarrassment on the game with his gamesmanship and continual feigning of injury. Phew, now at least I’ve got that off my chest. Nevertheless, Busquets’s perception of the space around him and of where to place the next pass is impressive. His main objective comprises finding himself some space close to the ball-carrier in order to offer them an option to pass, to receive the ball and to play it off to another player in space. It sounds simple and most of the time looks simple, but it is in fact a difficult skill to pull off with the same calm that Busquets possesses. His pass success rate in the league is only slightly below Xavi’s at 91.4%. It’s not for nothing that Guardiola referred to him as “the best central midfielder in the world” and “an invaluable player”.
My suggestion, therefore, is to order your central attacking midfielder to put Busquets under pressure whenever possible. Do not foul him, he will go to ground and, with no shame, make out as if it’s the greatest pain he’s ever felt in the whole of his loathsome little life. He is, unsurprisingly, Barça’s most fouled player in the league with an average of 2.6 fouls received per game. There is also a large probability that Xavi will feel himself obliged to intervene and try to convince the referee to show a yellow card. After passing, it’s the second thing he does best. No, no, don’t foul Busquets, just spook him. Do enough to make him lose that composure that he displays and in doing so you could create counter-attacking chances for your team in Barcelona’s third of the pitch.
4) Anger Alves
Dani Alves is statistically Barça’s most aggressive player. He has committed the highest number of fouls in both the league (1.7 average per game) and the Champions League (1.4). He has so far amassed 6 yellow cards along with Piqué, the highest number in the team. He also makes the second most tackles in the league (3.1 per game, behind Mascherano with 3.7) and the Champions League (3, behind Piqué with 5).
What this data suggests to me is that Alves is the easiest player in the Barcelona first team to rile up, the first who will react. He represents your best chance of getting a man sent off. That may sound callous but, against Barça, you need all the help you can get. Furthermore, as well as being the most fiery character on the team, Alves is the creator of a large number of goal-scoring chances for the blaugrana. 37% of Barcelona’s attacks come from the right-hand side of the pitch, a side that Alves dominates with his boundless energy. Although a Barcelona player being sent off is something that only happens once in a blue moon (put that down to whatever reason you like), frustrating Alves represents your best chance at making this happen.
So far I’ve concentrated on what to do in order to defend against and nullify Barça’s threats, but let’s now look at ways in which you can attack them. It might sound strange to say, but you also have to have an offensive plan in my opinion. Simply trying to beat Barcelona at their own game has yet to work for any team, so highlighting the areas of the pitch where success is most likely is essential.
5) Practice Set pieces
Barcelona are for the most part a small team. Only 3 of the outfield ten are over 6 foot tall – Piqué, Busquets and Abidal – and Busquets isn’t known for his heading ability. While Puyol does win his fair share of headers, this is more through sheer force of character than a gifted ability in the air. On average Barça only win 6 aerial duels per game, the lowest stat in the league. This is of course because their players lack height to effectively challenge aerially, but also because high balls/crosses are not a feature of their game. Don’t let that stop you from making them a feature of yours though.
Aerial balls represent a real weakness for Barça that is rarely exploited to its full potential. This is mostly due to the fact that getting any kind of corner or free-kick close to their box is extremely difficult, because you first have to get the ball off them. However, if you employ my advice on marking Xavi and stifling Busquets this should, theoretically, enforce more errors form these two players, thus giving your team more attacking chances. Furthermore, angering Dani Alves is likely to result in a free-kick or two (see earlier stats on his foul average).
It is therefore imperative that your team practice set piece routines in order to maximise their effectiveness. Simply hoofing the ball into the box hoping it bounces favourably will only squander one of the few good chances your team will have in the match. Use their lack of height to your advantage, order your tallest players/best headers of the ball up field to cause a bit of havoc. Just watch out for counter attacks…
6) Spreading the play: Smash and Grab
Going all-out attack against Barcelona screams disaster. Going all-out defence is an option many teams tend to take but, once you let in that important first goal, it’s exceedingly difficult to up the tempo and create attacking opportunities, because all you’ve prepped your players on is how to defend against this team. Realistically, I think you have to look at employing a counter-attacking system.
Barcelona are always going to dominate possession, it’s what they do. Asking your team to try and out-possess them is doomed to fail. I believe that you have to accept that you will be seeing less of the ball than your opponents and therefore should plan accordingly; what to do when you do get the ball?
Of all the Barcelona matches I’ve watched over these last few years, one continues to nestle itself comfortably in my memory – the first leg of their Champions League tie against Shakhtar Donetsk in April last year. Although the 5-1 scoreline suggests that Barcelona totally dismantled the Ukranians (which is true), I can’t help but think that things could have been very different. During the first 20 or so minutes I can remember Shakhtar having at least, if my memory serves me well, 5 guilt-edged chances to score. I think they hit the crossbar too. Barcelona’s defence looked genuinely panicked at times in the first half. Quoting Rob Bagchi from his match report for the Guardian, Barça looked “vulnerable down the right of their defence and when the ball’s hit over the top of their centre-halfs”. And why was this? Because of Shakhtar’s pace. The speed of players such as Willian and Luiz Adriano put the Barça defence under extreme pressure. This is due to 2 reasons:
1) The incredibly high line that Barça play leaves them vulnerable when they lose possession.
2) Piqué and Puyol, although no slouches, are not incredibly fast players – especially when they have to run on the turn initially to catch up with any attacker who’s bypassed them. Alves and Abidal on the flanks play so high up that if you can get a quick ball up to your strikers you’ve only got 2 players to beat, and lots of space in which to beat them.
My proposal then is to have your team sit deep soaking up pressure, but have your wingers/attacking midfielders sitting relatively close to Barça’s backline. When a member of your team manages to dispossess a Barcelona player they should be under orders to play direct long balls either to the flanks or behind the Barça back two. Speed is the essence here. The quicker your defence or midfield get the ball out to your wingers the more chance you have of creating a good goal-scoring opportunity, maybe even a few one-on-ones.
And now here are a few miscellaneous pieces of advice:
7) Play them at Home
The simple fact of the matter is that Barcelona don’t lose in Barcelona. If you look at the fixture list and see that the game is at the Camp Nou, you’ve probably already lost. This season they’re unbeaten at home. Sevilla are the only team to take any points off them in the league, valiantly battling to a 0-0 draw in October. Milan also managed to sneak a draw in the Champions League with a last minute equaliser from Thiago Silva. But that is it.
Of the 70 league goals that Barça have scored this season, 50 have come at home. They have only conceded 4. Away from home though, and it’s game on.
8) Have luck on your side
It might seem silly to place luck down in a list of steps to beat Barcelona, but I feel that it is such an important element that it needs to appear on the list. Even if your team performs to the best of its abilities, your players play out of their skin and your fans create a terrifyingly intimidating experience for the blaugrana players, you’re still going to need luck because you just cannot factor in one thing. Lionel Messi. On his worst day nearly still unplayable. You could do everything right for 90+ minutes and then Messi could pick up the ball, dance past a couple of players, jink around a few more, pirouette round the goalkeeper and backheel it into the gaping net. To achieve a famous victory you will need the footballing Gods on your side.
Follow all these steps and you might even stand a chance.
*Stats courtesy of whoscored.com and Opta, and all correct as of 27/2/12