After Setien’s arrival to his ‘dream club’, most fans and football pundits alike have been waiting to see the improvement in the possessional phase of the game, which we will see in this article. (For off the ball tactics, visit part I of the article).
Possessional Tactics (ON the ball)
After Setien took over, build-up play at Barcelona has gone a long way.
“Your opening moves are much more than the trivial mobilization of your troops. They establish the kind of battle it’s going to be and is your first and best opportunity to take it in the direction you want it to go, where you’ll be best placed to beat your opponent. The start of your game is the most difficult and subtle phase of all.”
As Kasparov rightly points out, the build-up phase of a team that banks on positional domination is very significant and involves meticulous research to ascertain type of pressure by the opponent and loopholes keeping your team’s strengths in mind. We’ll go in-depth of the type of movement and position that Setien has expected at this phase of the game.
Before we talk about the positions occupied by the players, we’ll have to signify the importance of the goalkeeper in such a system.
The goalkeeper in most positional systems, like Setien’s, is an integral part of the build-up phase as he gives the initial superiority, begins most openings while also helping in organizing most attacks. This not only requires quick thinking, cheeky passing and brave ball control but also an audacious spirit, high levels of concentration and an expert ability to read the game. All these skills are independent of the usual goalkeeping attributes of shot-stopping and defensive organization.
The usual build-up is formed with a rhomboidal structure between the pivot, the GK and the two CBs. The advantage of this form is the fact that only one player faces his own goal, while two players on the horizontal line can be angled which enables them to play diagonal balls inside. Another significant advantage is that the player at the furthest tip has two passing options in 3 man combinations. Thus synonymously to Pep Guardiola’s triangles, Setien’s teams try to form such structures throughout the pitch especially during the build-up.
The main idea in most build-up strategies is to evade opposition pressure (or lines of pressure) while maintaining the structure and move forward as a team, which is to improve counter-pressing opportunity in case of turnovers (especially as in build-up the pitch is made as wide as possible and losing the ball in a crucial position might be difficult to regain as large space has to be covered).
The usual structure under Setien involves FBs pushing high and wide, this is to give the CBs lots of space to dribble and pin opponents higher up the pitch and prevent them from pressing the CBs. The CMs also move higher than the pivot for the similar reason.
The move is begun usually by Ter stegen playing a simple pass to the pivot who further plays a wall pass to a CB who moves vertically to receive in a 3 man combination. Though this exercise varies depending on the number and intensity of pressing, most teams under the Cantabrian involve the CBs pushing higher up with the ball and bringing the ball out of defence. To aid this vertical movement, the ball sided FB moves even higher up to make space.
Unlike what the general public think, the purpose of playing short passes while building up from the back is to invite the opposition to press the goalkeeper, as this causes him to leave his marker free to move. This allows the free man to receive without pressure. So in the case, the opponent doesn’t press the keeper himself brings the ball higher inviting the opponent to press. Sometimes from dead-ball situations, the CB takes the goal kick to invite the pressure of the opponent and give a more central pick for Ter stegen to work with.
However, in case the pivot is heavily man-marked, a CM (like De Jong) performs the same function as the former. Or alternately, can pull his marker in a dummy run to free up the passing lane into a forward.
Other than the usual short options, Ter stegen is proficient at playing long balls into the opposition half ( has 0.43 passes into the final 3rd per match (only behind Ederson) and 2 assists this season). Though this is not the typical hoick to clear the ball, it must be done with meticulous planning and precision as oppositely, the opposition can win the ball and attack in numbers. (this is also because they are already facing towards the goal and have most of the team in advantageous positions).
Usually, this variation is performed when the interiors pull the opponents deep into their own half (causing a significant gap between the defensive and midfield lines) leaving an equal number of attacking and defensive players for a quick counter. Other than the GK, usually the right-sided CB plays a long diagonal ball (Pique for Barca and Mandi for Betis) to the left winger in space.
The basic build-up variations are clearly shown in the video below.
In the opposition half
The usual structure in the build-up phase is 3-4-3 (though it usually depends on the number of forwards of the opposition). This involves one of the midfielders dropping into the backline, while the players on the sides occupy the half-spaces while the other continues to stay up in a 3+1 form to bring the ball out. Though in the beginning one of the full-backs would remain behind, this was counterproductive due to the lack of width on that side. Towards the end of the season, we noticed better stability to the team, when a CM (usually Rakitic/Roberto) dropped into the backline instead of Busquets. This is because with Busquets playing higher, he has better access to Messi while being well versed in quick one-touch passes to evade press. He is also adept at lofting balls over the defensive line for runs in behind. The choice of CBs is also very important- Umtiti is adept at driving with the ball while Lenglet is good at picking passes under pressure.
Griezmann’s ineffectivity to maintain width despite playing as an LW in the la Real system. (Setien probably was expecting to replicate a form similar to Henry 2008/09 or Villa 2010/11) The Frenchman constantly drops to receive the ball, sacrificing the width, which led Setien to use high full-backs like his time at Real Betis. This allows the forward to indent, between the CB and the FB into the half-spaces (more comfortably), with the centre forward to pin the CBs.
Like in most positional systems, Barcelona use two forms of progression
This principle involves overloading one side of the pitch to free up the other side for a quick switch and attack. With a three at the back, one of the CB pushes up with the ball, in the half-space while the full-back pushes high up to indent the ball sided forward. The attacking side tries to create numerical superiority on this side of the pitch in a staged progression (i.e. in a manner to prevent the defending team from regaining numerical advantage but not all at once).
This is usually in the form a 5v3 or 4v2 imbalance, where the situation is very similar to the rondos that are regularly practised. Here the team tries to manipulate the position of the opposition to create advantageous positions either on the same side or on the other flank.
Not only is the positioning of players in the underloaded zone important, but it’s also important to reach players in advantageous positions before the defensive team shifts.
2. In-out/Out-in movements and it’s combinations
This principle is mainly used in the final third to exploit narrow teams. Here a player makes a run from very wide on the flank into a more interior position, usually the half-space, where he will receive the ball for a cut-back or cross. Although sometimes, the player (if a forward like Sterling at man city) can go ahead and score in a diagonal run. This move requires coordination and timing to prevent offside while also good positioning to deceive the opposition between the player (usually in a central position) who’s playing the pass and the wide player who receives the pass. While alternately, a wide player can also play a diagonal pass to an interior player who is close to goal.
In such positions, the usage of diagonal passes is of utmost significance as it helps in the receiver in maintaining his body shape while running into space (as seen in the video below).
In a team where the full-backs help keep the width on the pitch, their positioning is of utmost importance. Though Alba is comparatively better, Semedo is more often than not found in positions that don’t help the team.
In situations where he does find himself in 1v1 positions, he always seems to take the sub optimal final pass, which puts a damper on the structural advantage. Though he’s a fantastic player, he lacks positional sense.
The lack of mobility and poor positioning has hurt Barcelona the most this term. Especially against teams that don’t offer much space, the team has overall suffered.
As seen in the picture above, most of the midfield is in front of the second Valencia line, offering no depth between the lines and lack of connection to the forward line.
Another common criticism has been the slow movement from one flank to another in an overload-underload situation (as this allows the defensive team to shift and nullify the advantage) and poor creative passing to pick out passes behind. Riqui Puig seems to fix some of these problems by his impressive progressive ball progression and between the lines passes. Though he doesn’t seem to occupy high position, though he drops deep to pick players in behind. Against Celta Vigo, he single handedly take the ball from one flank to another. This has also helped Messi to stay high up the field.
The forwards are usually left isolated in the final third especially against a low block. One of the problems seems to be a total lack in understanding and initiating runs in behind. In the Pep era, the wingers would make a horizontal run before running in behind to indicate to the player passing the ball, that the receiver is in space. The runs are not only to receive the ball but also to push the defensive line a few meters back or to confuse them.
Predictability has been one of the biggest banes for this Barcelona team. One of the most revered partnerships for the Blaugrana has been the Messi-Alba switch, especially in case the defending team employs a narrow defensive block. This has made teams to employ a man-marking scheme on Alba as soon as Messi receives the ball in the middle. This has left them toothless in attack as the defending team creates 5 or even a 6 man backline (eg. Correa for Atletico Madrid, Valverde for Real Madrid or Callejon for Napoli (though it was Firpo and not Alba)), allowing the CBs to move higher and man mark their opposition without worrying about gaps in the defensive line.
‘It’s easy to reject and deride anything unfamiliar and difficult especially if it appears intellectually beyond us. So if a team’s positional play doesn’t get results immediately, they’re condemned and mocked because people don’t understand what they’re doing right.’
Though I’m not trying to say the team is flawless,they have done admirably well on most occasions, while the odd mistakes have proven costly (sometimes even costing the match) and cannot be forgiven at a club of this magnitude.This might be one of the hardest challenges in Setien’s career, where he has to implement his style while convincing the dressing room to adapt to his training methods.