The four secrets of Barcelona’s system

Yes, we’re talking football. And although Barcelona’s star has, for the moment, been partially eclipsed by Bayern Munich, it’s always intriguing to understand the methods that underpin the type of dominance in Europe that Barcelona has enjoyed for the past few years. In the latest edition of The Blizzard, Simon Kuper takes a forensic look. The modern Barcelona was built by Johann Cruyff, but he concentrated on attack. What Pep Guardiola brought to the team when he became manager was equal concentration on defence and transition. 

  • Pressure on the ball. “Barcelona start pressing the instant they lose possession.” There’s a reason for this: the player on the other team who has won possession has taken his eye off the game to make the tackle or interception, and has expended some energy. He needs a few seconds to reposition himself in relationship to the game. In other words, the moment at which you win the ball is also when you’re most vulnerable to losing it again.
  • The five second rule. If at first you don’t succeed in winning the ball back, if you haven’t done this in five seconds, don’t chase it. Retreat to form a ten-man barrier across the pitch with your team mates, waiting for the right moment to start pressing again. The moments? When a player miscontrols the ball, or when he reduces his options by turning back towards his own goal.
  • The “3-1 rule”. When an attacker does bear down on the Barcelona penalty area, one defender will go towards him. Another three will provide a shield just behind, something Guardiola picked up in Italy. But the other half of this – see “pressure on the ball” above – is that when they win the ball back, they don’t try to do something clever with it. The tackler is in the worst place to read the game; their job is to deliver the newly recovered ball to the feet of a teammate who has time and space to start the attack.
  • The one second rule. Barcelona believes that the success of a move on the pitch is decided in less than a second. If a player needs more time than this, because they don’t read their team-mates’ game properly, then the other team will have time to reorganise, the move will break down. It’s a reason why fine players from elsewhere (Thierry Henry, for example) never quite fitted in, while less gifted players who have come through Barcelona’s youth scheme (Pedro) continue to flourish. And the reason that the club was so keen to bring Fabregas home again.
How much of this will Guardiola be able to transplant to his new role at Bayern? That’s not clear. But there’s a telling quote from Fabregas in the article which suggests the answer might be less rather than more: 

“Everything [at Barcelona] has been studied down to the last millimetre. In my first matches I really had to adjust. I was so used to Arsenal, where I could roam around the whole pitch without worrying about anything. Here it’s really very different. Everyone has his own position and you can never lose it from sight. I had to go back to my youth days at Barça to master the basic principles again.”

And at only £3 for a digital download (less if you’re skint) The Blizzard remains terrific value if you want more to your football coverage than the sports pages offer.

The photograph at the top of this post is by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

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