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Barcelona 2010/2011: The Beast Unraveled

One of my favorite hobbies is studying and understanding how some of the great teams play/played, and today I get to talk about the Barcelona team of 2010/2011; One of the greatest sides I have ever seen play football.

What made this team great? How were they able to blow opponents away so easily? What was their football system composed of? How did they attack? How did they defend? So many questions, but I will try to touch on all by the end of this write up. Enjoy the ride..

The first thing I'd like to say is that the success of this team was because of 2 reasons; the quality of players, and the quality of the coach. Pep Guardiola had an amazing group of players at his disposal, but he made the team even more super because of the system he taught them.

I went back and watched many of their games for 90 minutes in order to properly analyze their system, but the standout results (and the 2 examples I will refer to here) for this team were the 5-0 annihilation of Real Madrid ( Jose Mourinho ) in La Liga, and the 3-1 demolition of Manchester Utd ( Sir Alex Ferguson ) in the European Cup Final. 2 formidable teams coached by 2 legends, both blown away by Pep and his brand of football; amazing stuff. Let's delve into the Barca system shall we?

Attacking Organization

I wrote a previous article on football systems (it's also on this blog), going in depth for Attacking Organization;

But a quick recap: A football system has 4 components (Attacking Organization, Attacking transition, Defensive Organization, Defensive Transition ).

Attacking Organization is further divided into 4 components ( Initial Build Up, Ball Circulation and Movement, Chance Creation, and Chance Finishing ).

Barcelona usually lined up in a 4-3-3 as shown below. Puyol or Mascherano occupied the right sided Centre Back position. Pedro was usually on the right, and Villa on the left.

The overriding principle of their attacking organization is summed up by Pep himself;

"The secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defense to cope. You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak. And when we've done all that, we attack and score from the other side"

Very simplistic, and still the broad principle behind every Pep team, but incredibly hard to stop when they start flowing. The key players in the attacking set up were Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Villa, Messi, and Alves. Messi played a false 9 role( very crucial to the set up ), Pedro and Villa were the wide forwards, Xavi was the conductor, Iniesta was the co-conductor, and Alves was the outside space invader (for lack of a better description).

The pitch was divided into 18 zones as shown below; zones 10/13, 11/14, and 12/15 were the "overload zones" and were used to draw the attention of the opponent like Pep described above.

The initial build up from Puyol, Pique, Busquets, and Abidal was geared towards by-passing the opponent's first line of defense and getting the ball to the overload zone. Once in the overload zone, it was time for the ball circulation and movement part. Lets analyze from here on for the different zones..

Overload in Zone 12/15 ( Upper right 3rd )

Participants were Pedro, Alves, Messi, Iniesta, and Xavi. Alves was pushed high up the pitch from his right back position, Messi as the false 9 drifted into that zone, Xavi and Iniesta drift into the zone ( *sometimes Iniesta did something else ), already occupied by Pedro. Imagine these 5 players convoluting in this zone, having moved from their original positions, and dragging their markers with them.

The goal was to create passing triangles between those 5 or 4 players in that zone, sort of like a "middle man pass and move game" of 1-2 touches while the opponents try to get the ball. Incredibly hard to do in that space with all the attention from the opposition, but these were special players, and they made sure to focus the passing in the zone.

After enough passes in the zone to bamboozle the opponent and make sure their defense has tilted towards it, comes the switch. David Villa ( remember him ? ) has remained out wide in the left all through this.

He is now in so much space. The switch most times came from Xavi but in all honesty it could come from anyone who was participating in the zone overload.

Messi usually dropped back to participate in the overload passing, but someone among the participants (e.g * Iniesta stayed centrally to still keep the attention of the opposition CB's and have Villa open). Iniesta makes a run into the box, drags them, and Villa is free.

In the image below, notice the participants in this moment for the build up to the goal. Alves, Xavi, Messi, and Pedro are heavily involved, while Iniesta occupies the 2 RM defenders in the centre, he will be crucial here. Notice how the RM defense has tilted both in positioning and attention.. Look at where Villa is positioned far out on the left.

Once the switch happens and Villa gets the ball in space on the left, the attention of the whole opposition defense starts to tilt towards there, then Pedro makes a run into the box from the right side, Messi makes a run into the box from the centre, Iniesta makes a run to the edge of the box. Villa beats his man, sends a cross in the box(chance creation), Messi or Pedro finish it and scores ( Finishing The Chance ). The 2nd goal in the 5-0 thrashing of Real Madrid scored by Pedro is the perfect example of this.

In the picture below, notice the attention of the RM defense is fully on Villa now, this allows Pedro to sneak in from the other side and finish the chance. Messi occupies the CB's.

Couple of things to notice;

-once Villa has the ball, he can dribble and beat his man and send a cross(which is what he does in the move pictured above), cut back, or hold up play and get an overlap from Abidal ( he can then lay it off to Abidal who would then cross or cut back ).

- If Abidal overlaps, Alves retracts a bit to provide cover, and in all of this, Busquets remains in the centre of the pitch and is ready to drop in the centre [as Puyol( to the right ) and Pique ( to the left ) are split and covering defensive zones], or recycle possession ( if overload plan doesn't work, ball goes back to Busquets, then he passes into another zone so that the team can then try again ). Busquets always made himself available for this and was super important to the system.

- Xavi conducted which zone to overload from. If the ball found it's way to Pedro in zone 12/15, Xavi drifted there and made himself available and then conducted, if ball found its way to zone 10/13, Xavi drifted there and conducted, if it was zone 11/14 in the middle, Xavi conducted. He was the conductor of the pass and move orchestra, and he was Mozart personified.

- They could also try and create chances through the same zone they are overloading if openings happen as a result of their 1-2 pass and move combos.

Overload in Zone 11/14 ( Upper middle 3rd )

Participants were Messi, Pedro, Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets. 5 players again. Messi drops back, Pedro drifts infield and adds more bodies centrally. Villa stays as wide as possible on the left too. In the picture below, notice Pedro has drifted infield, with Villa and Alves staying out wide.

Villa stays as wide as possible on the left too. Same idea as before, 1-2 pass and move combos in that zone( ball circulation and movement), opponent's defense focuses, and then Alves takes advantage of the space on the right that opens as a result of Pedro drifting infield. The quick switch to Alves occurs, and the opposition defense is now reacting to that and trying to focus on Alves. Pedro makes a run into the box, Messi too, and Villa coming in from the left. Iniesta stays on the edge of the box with Xavi. Alves sends a cross in the box (chance creation).

The goal (finishing the chance) can come from any of these after the cross or pull back from Alves. Once again, they could also try and create chances through the same zone they are overloading if openings happen as a result of their 1-2 pass and move combos. In the 1st goal vs RM, this is what happens. Di Maria had dropped back to cover Alves therefore they just focused on finding space through the middle.

In the picture below, notice the participants and how the RM defenders are focused on the carrot( ball ), leaving Xavi free. Iniesta finds him and he scores.

The 1st goal vs Man Utd in the CL final scored by Pedro was also a perfect example of this.

Overload in Zone 10/13 ( Upper left 3rd )

Participants were Villa, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, and Abidal. 5 players again. I'm sure by now you already get the drift, Pedro remains out wide in space on the right, supported by Alves behind him. Quick switch to Pedro, who can then cross or cut back, or use Alves overlapping.

5 players overloading a small zone, opposition defense tilting both in position and attention, wide forward on the opposite wing is then in space, quick switch to him, opposition defense is then trying to switch attention and position to compensate for this, chance is created, chance is finished, and the opposition team is left bamboozled.

Within those 3 approaches of zones overload, there are 2 broad chance creation dynamics for each ( 1-the switch to the opposite zone, 2- or exploit space in same zone as overload ), totaling 6 overall.

At least two more chance creation dynamics were used by this Barcelona team;

1) By-passing the heavy ball circulation and movement phase. One of the wide forwards( Pedro or Villa) drifts into the centre taking an opposition fullback with him, then Abidal ( if it was Villa that drifted ) or Alves( if it was Pedro that drifted ) overlaps and gets a direct ball from Sergio Busquets into that space. The cross or cut back is the chance creation.

2) Messi ( or Iniesta ) taking possession of the ball in the centre towards the right, going on a dribbling run and attracting attention of opposition players; David Villa makes a diagonal run behind the opposition right sided centre back, and Messi( or Iniesta ) sends a through pass between both opposition CB"s( chance creation). The ball meets Villa behind the defense, and he finishes. The 4th goal scored by Villa in the 5-0 thrashing of RM was a perfect example of this.

In all, there were at least 8 broad chance creation dynamics for this team's attacking organization, a very high number which gave them different options and made them difficult to stop. Messi as a false 9 was super intelligent in his movement and clinical with his passes and finishes, Pedro and Villa as wide forwards were super intelligent with their movements and clinical with their passes and finishes, Busquets was super intelligent with his positioning and recycling ability, Xavi was super intelligent with his conductor duty, and Iniesta was super in helping to keep the ball within the Barca team.

In every game of the season, this was their approach, and they tried to create chances from these dynamics, multiple times in each game, and often succeeded. The bulk of the scoring was of course from Messi but the 3 forwards were lethal, with Villa and Pedro also popping up in many important moments.

Defensive Organization and Defensive Transition

Without the ball, the Barca team did what I call "hunting in packs" in whatever zone the opponent had the ball. Super intense group press that rattled the opponent. This Barca team was not without the ball for too long.

Once the ball was won, they mostly didn't go on a fast attacking transition/counter attack (because the participants in the pressing were also attacking players who needed time to get back in their important attacking positions. e.g Pedro and Villa); instead, they re-organized patiently, and picked a zone to go on their overload attacking ways described earlier.

Position wise, only one of the full backs attacked high up at once, the other remained and sort of formed a 3 man defense; e.g. Abidal, Pique, and Puyol ( when Alves was pushed high ). Busquets was always in the centre of the pitch to drop in and help defend when there was a defensive transition.

In summary; Hunt in packs depending on zone ( each zone had its own pressing participants just like in the attacking system where each zone had it's passing participants ), win the ball, patiently reorganize, and pick a zone to start of another round of trying to overload that zone. Always leave Pique, Puyol, and one fullback in their half, with Busquets always in the centre ready to drop back.

Overall Summary

Barcelona won the double of League and European Cup at the end of the 2010/2011 season. For me, this type of double is football utopia, and any team that does it in any given season has my utmost respect. Salute to all the League and European Cup double winning teams in history.

I hope you enjoyed reading this, both for your understanding, and maybe something for you to learn from if you ever have to coach a team. Thanks for reading.

P.S: Not like it certainly could have made much difference ( because this Barca team was so good ) , but both Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson made cardinal errors in how they started against this team. Jose played a 4-2-3-1, while SAF played a 4-4-2. Both formations have 2 CM's vs Barca's 3. In my book, you cannot do this against a quality opponent, especially one like Barca. You must at least equal the central midfield numbers. Jose and SAF depended on Ozil and Rooney to drop back and help, but this wasn't ideal. It needed an actual 3rd central midfielder.

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