Those were the days when Barcelona were the best in the world. The last time they have won the UEFA Champions League was 2015 – the first season playing with the “MSN” as the trident. Also, with Ivan Rakitić as the replacement of Xavi, this Barça looked unbeatable. In this tactical analysis, I dissect the tactics and individuals that helped Barcelona to secure the Copa del Rey in the 2014/15 campaign. This was a final that played at Camp Nou, which Luis Enrique’s men put three past Athletic Bilbao.
Ernesto Valverde’s team lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, with Iñaki Williams playing as a partner of Aritz Aduriz. The main man at the defence was Aymeric Laporte, who was still young and gradually improving.
Barcelona were playing in a 4-3-3, Enrique has sent his strongest team to the field. This included the “MSN” – Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, and Neymar. The front three were supported by Rakitić, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.
Since Barcelona were the dominating side who controlled the ball, what they were trying to do was to break the defence and score goals. So, I am using this tactical analysis to analyse their tasks – how the Athletic set their defensive scheme in this final.
Sticking to the team shape, Valverde’s men were defending in a 4-4-2. The first line was taking a turn to shadow Busquets, while one of the strikers could press the ball. The second line was man-marking the corresponding Barça midfielders, the wingers were staying narrowly to maintain the compactness and tried to overload the midfield.
The defence was illustrated below. I highlighted the man-marking on Iniesta and Rakitić, also Williams was shadowing Busquets. Consequently, the midfielders – Beñat Etxebarria and Mikel San José could be far away from each other, as their positionings were manipulated by the targets.
The Athletics were not pushing every man forward and press, as the backline tended to stay slightly deeper and a midblock was formed. The man-marking scheme helped Valverde’s men to apply instant pressure on the receivers, ideally, from their back. This should be able to deny the progression or even force some errors, maybe Athletic could start a counter-attack in the central third.
Here, Javier Mascherano found Busquets with a difficult pass by using a body feint. Beñat was quick to pressure the pivot but failed to access him. Under pressure, Busquets tried to be clever and played a difficult chipped ball to Rakitić, who had no rooms as the marker was right behind him.
The shifting of defence – Mikel Rico was marking the Croatian when Beñat stepped out. This limited passing quality and instant pressure from the Rakitić’s blindside helped the Los Leones to regain possession.
The Build-up play
After understanding the defensive scheme of the opponent, now we are showing the strategies of Enrique’s troops that facilitated a very stable build-up phase. Barça seldom lost possession in the first phase because of mastering some basic principles of the positional plays.
When searching for superiority, a numerical overload was guaranteed against two strikers. Barcelona exploited the man-marking system, manipulated the opposition midfielders by the relatively high positionings of Rakitić and Iniesta. This kept the second line away from the first line, hence, the opponents were loose vertically. Below, Rakitić occupied Beñat as I circled.
Therefore, it was an easy task to find a free player. The Los Leones were conservative in the first 45, paying more attention to the pivot instead of the centre-backs. A shifting was in the process here – Williams was shadowing the passing lane to Busquets when Aduriz was pressuring Gerard Piqué. So, the other centre-back – Mascherano became the free player to progress plays.
Credits should be given to Rakitić as well, who relentless making the off-the-ball movements that created spaces for the team. To further exploit the man-marking system, the Croatian midfielder continued to make forward movements. This often brought away the marker and free up spaces for Messi and Dani Alves, allowing the attack to progress through the halfway line.
Here, notice Rakitić’s high positioning which took Rico, huge spaces were generated as highlighted. As a result, Alves could progress play and pick his option without pressure.
Apart from using off-the-ball forward runs and the numerical superiority to progress, Barcelona also used a wide rotation to create a free player. The combination was more notable on the left (Messi dominated on the opposite flank already). Roughly speaking, the main idea was to free Neymar at the centre and opening the outer zone for Alba.
Here, two passing options were generated for Iniesta as drawn. Neymar utilized positional superiority by staying between players. The Brazilian winger was capable of dribbling into the block to create the dynamics and combine with Suárez or Messi.
Freeing Alba at the wide zone was okay, but the pass should be a through pass ideally since the left-back. Escaping a marker with skills was not the strength of Alba, but the crossing was, so this was an effective combination if the timing to release the player was right.
In the second half, the opponents were pressing tighter and resulted in the loss of shape more often. Also, Alves took a more advanced role to support the attack while Rakitić was staying deeper. What made the difference after Xavi came on as Barcelona’s ability to move the opponents to exploit the weak zone.
In this example, Barcelona invited pressure to the highlighted red zone by Xavi and Busquets only. Consequently, Enrique’s men overloaded the right flank and all they needed was to switch the play – a simple task which was done by Xavi. Afterwards, Alves was released during his supportive run, which was a common scene in the second half.
Direct and simple
However, the build-up plays were not the main strategy that Barça used to enter the final third. Instead, the man-marking system of Valverde has some effects, denied the progression of the receiver in closed body orientation. Even Neymar would drop to help, Barcelona were not progressing in these positional plays. Instead, the opportunities were mainly attributed to the transitions or progressive runs.
Since the midfield was not breaking the lines effectively, Barça would not hesitate when there were direct opportunities. On some occasions, the opponents were pressing and holding a higher defensive line, which triggered Barcelona to go long.
As an example, Alves tried to release Suárez, who was running forward and attacked spaces behind the defence. Playing these long balls were sub-optimal as sometimes the runner was being caught offside, or the defenders were having too much time to read the pass and track players.
Barça were unstoppable because of this man – Messi, undoubtedly the best in the world. Apart from his solo goal that scored the opener given Barça were not creating too many chances, the Argentine star was playing as a false-winger that disrupted the defence a lot. Of course, no teams would allow Messi receiving the ball freely, hence, his movements must absorb the pressure nearby and the oppositions were likely to lose the shape.
Messi was vital as his diagonal passes were the best tool of Barça to enter the penalty box. The passes were extremely well-controlled and because Messi was the passer, all eyes were on him and the receiver could make some blindside movements.
Here, Neymar was the receiver and the pinpoint pass would arrive his feet. This time the control of the Brazilian winger was below par, but the delivery always made things dangerous.
Suárez: the excellent false-9
In this game, Suárez also demonstrated that he was the best false-9 in the world. As an individual, he played very well, and the performance was a massive boost to the team’s attack. Even watching back these days, the positionings and movements of the Uruguayan were still a textbook.
As a false-9, Suárez tended to drop and left the defence, mostly operating between the lines initially. This kept him away from the markers. Here, the striker was between the lines and is unmarked. It was a decisional crisis of the defender if the centre-back stepped out, a gap was left at the backline and horizontal distances of players enlarged.
Since Suárez was free, he could time his run to run behind the defence, got an opportunity because of this blindside run and from Rakitić’s pass.
These wicked positionings and movements were not only beneficial to himself. As mentioned, the playing style of Suárez also made an impact on a collective point of view. His teammates were having more spaces as the Uruguayan striker’s positional superiority to occupy the defenders.
Below was a rare occasion as Barcelona were attacking with spaces. Jordi Alba used a quick one-two and an underlapping run to support Neymar, bypassed the defence and received the ball in the offensive third.
Credits should be given to Suárez for all these progressions, who stayed between the centre-backs and kept them at the centre. Of course, Xabier Etxeita could jump to press Alba, but this would leave Laporte to deal with Suárez alone with so many spaces – an extremely dangerous situation. Etxeita opted the safer option and remained close with his partner, allowed Barcelona to progress with Alba.
Another example was extracted below. This time, the deep runs of Suárez have helped Neymar. By going between the centre-backs and ran into a forward passing lane of the carrier, Suárez has drawn the attention of defenders and forced the markers to follow.
As a result, spaces pre-occupied by Suárez as highlighted below increased as Suárez manipulated the defence. This opened the spaces and route for Neymar to dribble inward and shoot with his stronger right foot.
Final remarks on this Tactical analysis
From the above analysis, I observed the “MSN” Barça at prime. From an individual perspective, they were phenomenal and inarguably the best in the world. However, the build-up plays of the team were not the level as Pep’s era, the performance of individuals was the key to access the final third. And, Messi is unstoppable and what a goal that was.