After the 4-0 defeat against PSG for Champions League and the last-minute winning against Leganes for La Liga, Barcelona changed the tactical structure. The instable results and poor performances of some players provoked mainly by a lack of linking up play forced Luis Enrique and his technical staff to make a change to bring more passion and soul to the game.
In order to solve the problems about the linking up play Barcelona went back to their past to find the solution for it. A part of the solution was in Cruyff building up play style with 3 men at the back and with a holding midfielder linking the play between the defense and the midfield. In some of previous matches, they had problems building up from the back because of the poor space distribution, and width provided in some crucial moments of the game.
Inspired in Cruyff, Luis Enrique decided to play in a 3-4-3 diamond in the offensive phase in order to solve the problems explained above. With this formation, all the areas of the pitch were covered, so Barcelona started occupying better the space and making the life hard to the opponents to recover the ball. When on possession, the defensive space was occupied in all areas by 3 men, the defensive midfield by 1 man, the midfield by 2 men, both wings by 2 men, the attacking midfield by 1 man and the most advanced area by 1 man.
With this formation, the space distribution on the pitch improved a lot comparing with the past, so it is easy to understand that Barcelona dominated the ball possession in all games and controlled better some crucial moments of the game. We have talked about the positioning of the units in offensive transition but what about the defensive transition? Was it the same? No, nowadays it is not possible to defend with just 3 at the back like Cruyff did, at least at the highest-level football or in standard matches, you must do it when you live in the same circumstances that Barcelona had been through in the last season after a 4-0 defeat against PSG, in Paris.
In this particular situation, winning 3-0 at home is a defeat, that’s why Barcelona took more risks at home defending with just 3 at the back. Against PSG, at Camp Nou, it was clear to see the weaknesses of defending with just 3 at the back and with 2 wingers in the flanks not coming back often to help the defense. That is why Barcelona defended in a 4-4-2 formation capable of pressing high up of the pitch with 2 forwards complicating the opposite building up play from the back, with 4 midfielders dominating all this area, and with a traditional back four to prevent the overloads in wide areas.
Despite all this effort to build a compact team in the defensive transition, it is fair to say they had some limitations to defend the opponent game between the lines and that was paid in some goals coming from this mistake. Even though, this limitation was compensated upfront with goals and good results.
Shape and Mentality
In this system, Barcelona played a positive and proactive football, attacking and defending as a unit, with the defenders able to attack providing support in the midfield and the attackers able to defend. The players were encouraged to play a free-flowing football with fluidity of movements around the pitch and with high levels of creativity. It is fair to say the shape that replicates better this football is the fluid/very fluid. Notice that all these concepts were introduced into Barcelona by Cruyff, and now, after all these years, Barcelona is playing with the same concepts regardless the opponent. A pure legacy.
The main concept of Barcelona is the control of all phases of the game, playing a patience football, moving the ball around the park until find a space to exploit and at the same time holding the midfield to prevent some counter attacks. For this reason, the mentality that suits better this style in Football Manager is the control.
Real life vs replication in FM - analysis
These tactics were based on some La Liga games that Barcelona participated at the end of the season, against: Atletico de Madrid, Valencia and Sevilla. These two tactics are both managed to create a 3-4-3 narrow diamond but with some little differences that it will be explained later.
The match that impressed me most was the one against Valencia, on March 19, 2017. So, in order to test the realism of one of these tactics, I did a simulation of the match against Valencia, using the same starting eleven, approach and tactic. This simulated match will be used to compare stats, analyzing moves and players positioning using screenshots from both matches.
Some of these instructions were debated above, so it is not necessary to exploit them all, however there are some instructions that could be developed and analyzed based on screenshots and stats from both games against Valencia (real and simulated).
Defensive line and offside trap
Below we have two screenshots showing the high defensive line with the offside trap working against Valencia in real life, and a great replication in FM.
Width and Build-up
As we can see in the screenshots above, the replication was not so good as expected. Barcelona played wider in real life, even though the width problem is compensated with the individual instruction to both Rafinha and Neymar stay wider. In terms of build-up play, it is clear to see that Barcelona exploited more the Neymar flank in real life, however we cannot make our analysis just based in a single game because the penetration in the attack varies game by game in order to exploit the weaknesses of the opponent.
Passing directness and ball possession
It easy to understand that Barcelona privilege a short passing game, retaining the ball possession and working the ball into the box until create a space to create a chance. In the screenshots below we can see a decent replication in terms of number of passes made and a perfect replication in terms of the length of passes.
In terms of ball possession, the replication was awful. This simulated game was the second match for La Liga so I think this issue was influenced mainly because of the lack of familiarity with the tactic. Below we can see the two match overviews. Notice that the real-life overview is settled just until the half-time because Mangala was sent off at the end of first half, so it is not fair to add the second half to the comparison.
As explained above, Barcelona are not used to shoot on sight so often, they prefer to work the ball into the box, remaining patience until create a space to exploit it. This concept was well replicated as we can see in shot maps above. The first one shows what happened at the simulated match, 12 long shots in a total of 25 shots. It is not near to the 32% real mark but it is below the 50% mark so we have to consider the result decent.
Formation and players roles
Now it is time to explain the players roles using the starting eleven of the match against Valencia on March 19, 2017 (presented above). They played in this IWB system in many other matches, for example, against Atletico de Madrid, on February 26, 2017, the only change was the line-up: Mathieu (Left-Back), Umtiti (Central-Defender), Piqué (Ball-playing Defender) and Sergi Roberto (IWB), the other ones played in the same positions and roles.
Sweeper-Keeper (Attack) – We all know him, Ter Stegen is an adventurous goalkeeper with great ability to move out with the ball on both feet and able to initiate some counter attacks making accurate long passes. Without the ball, he plays like a libero paying attention to the huge area behind the defense, he is the responsible to dominate this area making quick rushing outs to solve problems in this area. When Barcelona are building from the back, he is a solution for a teammate in case of opposite pressure thanks to his composure, good passing and first touch. Below there are screenshots from the real match and the simulated one. We can see two accurate long passes done by ter Stegen. It shows the good replication made by FM in terms of sweeper-keeping.
Full Back (Defend) – Samuel Umtiti played a very conservative role in the left down side of the pitch. When on possession, he was part of the back three providing width in the left side. When the team was in the final third he kept his position not making overlaps and made simple possession passes down the flanks or into the central midfield. When out of possession, he did part of the back 4 defensive line at the left side. He was the responsible to deal with the runs and dribbles made by the opponents in this area.
Central Defender (Defend) – Gerard Piqué played at the central area of the defense. He was the leader of the defense, commanding the defensive positioning of his near teammates in the offside trap and also guiding the back line accordingly with the different moments of the game. When on possession, he settled in the central defensive area of the back three being the shortest option to ter Stegen initiate the attack. He played a simple passing game not making risky passes so often as he usually does.
Ball Playing Defender (Defend) – Mascherano was the Piqué’s partner at the back. When Barcelona were on possession he provided some width at the right down side. Piqué played more centrally in order to deal better with the aerial duels from counter attacks. With the ball on feet, Mascherano performed a more aggressive role compared with Piqué, he was able to make some risky passes from deep to generate counter attacking opportunities. Below, there are two screenshots from different matches able to show it.
Inverted Wing Back (Support) – It is not easy to replicate in FM what Ivan Rakitic did in that game because of his high mobility around the pitch, even though it is fair to say that this role is by far the most similar. When Barcelona were in defensive phase, Rakitic was part of the back 4 in the right side, and just like Umtiti in the other side, he was the responsible to deal with runs and dribbles made by the opponents in this wide area. When on possession, he left his position and he moved forward to central midfield areas, acting like a playmaker and dictating tempo with Iniesta. He was allowed to make impact in the final third and looking for good shot opportunities. Below, there are two screenshots from both matches (real and simulated) that show Rakitic getting into the box and prove the good replication made by this role in FM.
Deep-Lying Playmaker (Defend) - Sergio Busquets did a very similar role comparing with what he is used to do in the 4-3-3 formation. In the defensive phase, he made part of the 4 midfield men line, alongside with Iniesta. When Barcelona were in possession at the back, he operated in the space between the defense and the midfield in order to receive the ball and initiate attacking moves making passes to the teammates positioned higher up the pitch. In the screenshots below it is possible to see the good replication of this kind of move by FM.
Advanced Playmaker (Support) – Iniesta was a more aggressive version of Sergio Busquets in the midfield. He looked to pick the ball in central midfield areas, dictating tempo, and spraying passes to support forward players. He had tendency to hold position in the left area of the midfield, and in the final third, he looked more to try a killer ball rather than attempting to score from out the box.
Wide Midfielder (Support) – Rafinha had the responsibility to help Rakitic defending the right flank making part of the 4 men midfield line. When his team was in possession, he provided width at the right side of midfield, he was able to come deep to get the ball and not getting further forward so often like Neymar did in the opposite side. Despite of playing in the wing, he adopted a more conservative not making a lot of dribbles, runs and crosses as it is used to see in this kind of positions.
Wide Midfielder (Attack) – Neymar and midfielder are probably two words that do not combine so much, nevertheless he was impressive in that game (and many others) covering a big area of ground in the left side sacrificing himself for the team like it was not clear to see often in previous seasons. He had the same defensive responsibility as Rafinha in the other side. When Barcelona were in possession he was able to getting further forward and being more aggressive than Rafinha.
Attacking Midfielder (Attack) – Messi operated higher up of the pitch between the midfield and attack, roaming from position in order to create spaces for other teammates, moving into channels to create chances for himself and the others. He was very aggressive as usual, making a lot of runs and dribbles through the center and supplementing the attack getting into the box to score goals. Below there is a replication of a typical Messi movement off the ball to receive the ball.
Complete Forward (Attack) – Luis Suárez performed what he is used to do in all matches. Thanks to his complete abilities, he was able to move into channels, roaming from position, holding up the ball to bring other teammates to the game, dribbling, creating chances, and so on… we all know him. Thanks to his aggressiveness and high work rate he did an excellent job being the first one closing down and conditioning the building up play of the opponent. Just like Messi above, there are two screenshots replicating the same kind of move, but done by Suárez.
Here we can see the replication of the 3-4-3 narrow diamond
The average position of some players was not the exactly the same compared with the real match, even though we can have to consider the result decent. Notice that these results are variable game by game.
The wing back system
All the analysis done above were based on the match against Valencia, but now it is time to make a short analyzing at the match against Sevilla, on April 5, 2017. The approach to the game, the roles, the duties, the instructions were mostly the same. The only difference was the new Rakitic positioning and the getting in of Sergi Roberto to the right wing back.
Wide playmaker (Support) – When Barcelona were out of possession, Rakitic defended the right side of the midfield helping the right back to deal with opposite players in this area. When Barcelona were in possession, Rakitic had a similar role compared to the match against Valencia, even though he was able to bring something else to the game because of his new less defensive role. When in possession, he performed as playmaker like he is used to do.
Wing back (Support) – Sergi Roberto replaced Rafinha in the task to bring width to the right side. He is not a very talented player in the final third like Neymar in the other side, and because of it Barcelona had a lack of crossing and dribbling ability when the opportunities to do it show up. (it is easy to the understand why Barcelona are in the market to hire a proper right back, Sergi Roberto fits much better in the Rakitic role, for example). Due to his defensive tactical knowledge, he was able to defend well his area.
Below there are screenshots that show the positioning of these two players, with and without the ball possession.
All set pieces were based in what happened mostly in these games, feel free to adjust accordingly with the best takers and attributes.
IMPORTANT: this work was made exclusively with educational purpose, not to break the match engine of FM, even though I had decent results with Barcelona.