Barcelona vs. Manchester United: Tactical Analysis of Barca’s phases


Read SEA’s seven part Champions League preview here.

Champions League preview by @Santapelota

This piece trusts readers will already be aware, from a static perspective, of the teams’ respective shape and some of their characteristic movements. What follows is an attempt to examine how variations to these mechanisms, together with solutions to problems likely to be presented by the opponent, will develop during the four phases of play. These are: 1) static [Manchester United attack – Barcelona defend]; 2) transition [from from defense to offense for Barcelona]; 3) static [Barcelona attack – Manchester United defend]; 4) transition [from offense to defense for Barcelona]. Of course, these phases are intertwined and circular; one ends and leads to another, the breakdown of a Barcelona attack, for instance, opens way for a Manchester United counter-attack. Alternatively, a frustrated United attack might not necessarily lead to a counter-attack per se by Barcelona.

Barcelona vs. Man United: Champions League Final Match Preview

Diagram 1: Barcelona’s Probable Starting Line-up

Credit: This11

1) Barcelona static defensive phase:

High defensive line regardless of where they choose to initiate pressure

Barca vs. Manchester United: Champions League Final

Diagram 2:Barcelona Defensive phase

Credit: This11

The key to transitions is deciding where you want to win (or lose) the ball. Obviously most teams would prefer to win the ball as far from their own goal and as near to the opponent’s as possible.  Inevitably, this attitude will affect the shape in which the team sets out to defend and in turn will affect the disposition of the players for launching a counter-attack (in so far as Barcelona even bother to counter-attack)

As a rule of thumb, Barcelona try to rob the ball either within the opponent’s third or, failing that, in the midfield. The question then is where to establish their first defensive line (e.g. the most advanced midfield band in a 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1); either on the edge of the final third or in midfield around the halfway line. Equally, when Barcelona choose to pressure the ball at a later stage i.e. in the middle third, the compact lines ensure that the defense is still some 40 meters from its goal – ample space for the likes of Hernandez to counter-attack. This initiates the static phase of defense.

By aligning nine players in three bands distributed within 21 -25 meters from defence to the front (the 4-1-4-or 4-2-3- element) plus a forward who will periodically disconnect and stay ahead of the ball so as to offer an outlet, Barça will appear to be defending in a 4-1-4-1 shape. In this respect, their defensive set-up is more accommodating toward certain players than is the Sacchian norm of placing two banks of four behind the ball (as United might well adopt) but in a much reduced space. Of course this middle ‘block’ amounts to no more than the holding midfielder(s), likely in this case to be Busquets, and his presence allows the more creative midfielders (Xavi and Iniesta) to join the first bank of pressure behind the disconnected forward (Messi) and defend closer to the opponent’s goal. Man United’s lines of passing from Ferdinand to the deepest midfielder (likely to be Carrick, aided by Giggs according to Nik) and via the fullbacks spread wide, will be targeted.

In the case of United working the ball along their left flank, and sending Evra clear of Barcelona’s defending, Barca’s right-winger will give pursuit as far as the middle third whereupon Xavi is entrusted with intercepting in that zone. In truth, Xavi’s less than intimidating defensive expertise amounts to little more than constriction of space (ahead of Alves) such that Evra will be ‘encouraged’ into taking on Alves directly. The Xavi-Alves-Villa triangle will aim to pressure Evra into switching the direction of play back across his midfield or slightly behind towards defense, thus relieving the pressure in that sector. A similar situation occurs along the other flank where Iniesta provides cover for Puyol whenever Pedro is overtaken by Fabio (or O’Shea) or Valencia. Given Iniesta’s superior defensive game to that of Xavi, this flank looks relatively more secure.

Should United attempt to work the ball through the midfield, Xavi is likely to stay closer to Busquets while Iniesta, given his greater mobility, will venture forward to engage disrupt Carrick and Giggs.

Xavi will need to stay within distance of Busquets (and Barcelona’s shape may appear almost 4-2-3-1) so as not to leave him isolated with Rooney or to at least prevent Rooney from receiving a short pass. Former United manager Ron Atkinson called this effect ‘staggering the midfield’ and it was one of his maxims that no two midfield players should ever be truly aligned with one another so as not to leave open an obvious passing angle either to an opponent looking to come short or to another seeking to advance into space. At times Busquets himself may rush forward should Rooney seek to drop very deeply in front of him and in such a scenario Xavi will be at hand to cover behind Busquets.

Should the midfield be overcome, it is likely that Mascherano will be expected to step out and intercept with Pique and/or Puyol covering behind him. In such a scenario, Chicharito’s positioning will be a potential hazard, particularly if he chooses to drift out towards the left flank from where he can ghost through on a diagonal run to force Piqué into engaging him one-on-one (whilst Puyol is occupied in midfield) or else make for Valdes’ right post and test Daniel Alves’ poor positional nous (and sometimes negligence).

2) Barcelona’s Transition from defense to attack:

Rather than staging a rapid counter, Barça seek to re-establish the static phase in the opponent’s half

Barca vs. Man United: Champions League Final

Diagram 3:Barcelona Transition from Defense to Offense

Credit: This11

This is where Busquets shines. His rapid distribution and proximity to Xavi, with the addition of a third player ensures that the first wave of United pressure can practically be by-passed. Having disrupted an opponent’s counter-attack, most teams would be content to ease the pressure and thus recompose themselves by either passing back to a defender or else hitting a speculative long ball into space. Busquets conversely speeds up Barcelona’s recovery from counter-attack; by ushering the opponents back deeply into entrenched positions near their defensive third, the blaugranas’ counter to the opponents counter is to deny them the chance of staging another; or at least to force them into staging an attack from deep within their own half.

This of course, is a measure of how exhausting it can be to face Barcelona’s style of play; the opponent has more yards to eat up. Review the Arsenal-Barcelona clashes of this year and last and note how, even if Busquets himself fails to rob the ball, when it breaks down elsewhere he is always at hand to then display his ease of turning an Arsenal counter-attack into a frantic transition back into defense for the Gunners. Barcelona do not appear to counter-attack in an effusive way, but rather seek to shift the game back to a siege, long and drawn out or short and incisive as necessary.

3) Barcelona’s Static Offensive Phase:

Forming triangles so as to help a player from a deep join a more advanced line

Barca vs. Man United: Champions League Final

Diagram 4:Barcelona Attacking Phase

Credit: This11

In the build-up, the aim is to move the ball from the first line (2-3-2-3 or 3-3-2-2) to the second (2-3-2-3 or 3-3-2-2 and so forth ) or to progressively incorporate the player in possession of the ball into the next line as quickly as possible. The first pattern (2-3-2-3) will not be possible if, as expected, the more offensive full-backs (Adriano, Maxwell) fail to make the starting line-up. Therefore the second shape is more likely, whereby Barça will seek to move from 3-3-2-2 to 3-1-3-3 depending on the progression of Alves and also that of Xavi and Messi rejoining the penultimate and final lines respectively.

First ball out from defence: two patterns to achieve this. The first is triangulation between Valdés, Piqué, Mascherano and Busquets, with a view to enabling Piqué to overcome the first wave of United pressure by advancing with the ball. The second involves both full-backs advancing beyond the holding midfielder, who triangulates with the two centre-backs and/or Valdés. If a fifth participant joins this exchange (including the ‘keeper), it is testimony to the effectiveness of United’s pressing. Once play has been established in the second line, Xavi can choose to play wide to Alves or else activate Messi-Iniesta-Busquets to his left. Villa and Pedro look to hug the chalk as wide and as high up as possible, at least until Alves overlaps (in Villa’s case) or Iniesta drifts further left from centre.

Obviously Messi dropping off was the crucial tactical element to the 2009 Final, but given that Ferguson will not allow him to repeat this unhindered, it is likely that when dropping off Messi will seek to drift rightwards towards an inside-right channel. The purpose of this will be to drag one from Giggs-Carrick wider and open up space for Iniesta to launch a diagonal run into that central space and ahead of Xavi, thereby clearing the field for the later to switch the attack over to Pedro’s flank should he choose to.

The typical diagonal runs from Villa and Pedro we are accustomed to viewing week-in week-out will be an ever-present danger, but maybe there will be a variant concerning Villa’s movement in this game. Given that he is likely to be stationed wide and on his stronger right foot, the Asturian striker will likely aim to exchange positions with Messi on the edge of United’s 18-yard area so as to vary the angle at which he might filtrate into the box. To do so, Villa will need Messi, Xavi and Alves in close proximity whereas Pedro can make a much more punctual, sudden drive to get behind the United defense.  To summarise, Pedro can ask for the ball to be played to space, whilst Villa will need it played short to feet. Another tendency is for Iniesta to loft an angled pass from left to right for Alves to run onto and behind the United defense.

4) Barcelona’s Transition from offense to defense

Pressing may not be as intensive as usual but the defense will push up and Busquets remains a liability for United to exploit

Barca vs. Man United: Champions League Final

Diagram 5:Barcelona Transition from Offense to Defense

Credit: This11

The common denominator is that all the lines remain intact; so that if Messi, Villa and Pedro press aggressively and early, the midfielders and defenders are not so far behind them, and so the entire team is compressed into the opponent’s half from about five meters inside the halfway line and set-up according to the Van Gaalian PCB lines (Pressure – Cover -Balance). Besides an attempt to rob the ball, this is as much a stalling tactic designed to hold up the opponent  and buy Barcelona sufficient time to establish their ‘beach head’ of defensive banks, that is to say, to make way for the static phase of defending.

Busquets is Barcelona’s weakness in transitions to defense. This is when he moves forward to intecept and his slow-turning circle condemns him to be by-passed (in contrast to Mascherano’s vulture-like ability to swoop in and invariably win the ball or at least force the opponent to turn his body away from a favourable passing-angle). If United can play as quickly and as vertically as possible during these counters a player like Rooney may find himself able to stride past Busquets and bearing down along with Hernandez as an accomplice to create a 2 v 2 situation with the Barcelona centre-backs.

The question for United to address then is whether to bother pressing Busquets during these transitions (and incur his “creative” reactions to contact) or instead to focus on picking up Xavi and Iniesta and coaxing the player into an out ball towards Alves, the lesser evil in such a scenario. The lesser evil, since the greatest damage the Brazilian can do with the ball is to carry it towards a position from where he will inevitably choose an inward pass that may or may not be the final ball; on the other hand, if Busquets succeeds in arming Xavi or Iniesta through the centre, a multiple of attacking options opens up for the Catalans. That is without mentioning that every surge by Alves leaves open a channel to exploit in the event of a counter-attack, space into which Hernandez can drift laterally. United may be better off coaxing Barcelona into making a certain movement as opposed to trying to rob the ball at every instance.

Register with the Stretford End Arising forum.

Subscribe via Email

Subscribe to our free email newsletter and never miss a post!

I agree to have my personal information transfered to MailChimp ( more information )

I will never give away, trade or sell your email address. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Leave A Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.