Barcelona’s attacking evolution
Throughout the season, Barça’s positional attack has had its good times and its bad times. The bad lasted for a long time, until halfway through January. Until then, Leo Messi had basically been the only solution to facing a low, block defense. The team preferred transitional attacks. 2015 brought the defeat at Anoeta and the tactical reorganization that led to Messi playing as a right winger. The team looked as if it had found the formula: with the Argentine on the right and Neymar on the left, it found the way to impose itself in the long, positional attacks too. The dribbling of the two stars – placed far away from each other so that the rival players’ defensive solutions couldn’t stop both at the same time – the space that Leo created by making the defenders focus on the right side, his Ronaldinhoesque diagonal pass and a new mechanism in building from the back with Alves as a protagonist, allowed the team to take off in terms of playing, to have a series of 11 wins in a row and to gain confidence and self-esteem.
Slowly, Messi started to leave the wing – or to not occupy it with the same frequency – either due to a coaching decision or to his own wish, and even though the ascending trajectory of the team’s play went through a pothole at first, when we reached the decisive part of the season we could say that it was no longer needed for Messi to start wide so that the team could work and Barça’s positional attack was much richer than in any previous moment of the season regardless of where Messi was positioned. We have to mention the obvious thing: individually the players are in great shape. Technically exuberant and full of confidence, they think they can do anything and everything works for them. And when Messi, Iniesta, Neymar and Suárez are like that, all you need to do is enjoy them. But, aside from that, there are other explanations for the current moment of the team, or even the explanation for why everyone is looking great.
First, the midfield has gained presence and importance. With phases of positional play like in Sevilla, but in general with less-fixed positions, Iniesta, Busquets and Rakitic – or Rafinha and Xavi when they’re played – have been given a greater role in the team’s game. Especially in the case of Andrés who is required to control the rhythm of the game, intervening more times than he has during the season and playing more of a central role than his previous one of playing toward the outside. Against Espanyol he surprised us with a version of him as an organizing midfielder that we didn’t know he could be. Against Getafe, Xavi Hernández played the same role, as was expected. Next to this orchestra director’s role, Busquets, Rafinha and Rakitic have also found the context they needed to show their best qualities. The case of the pivot is especially notorious, given that, due to his agility and speed in touching the ball, playing in the opposition’s half and with the lines close together he can show off his great dispossession skills, using his feet like hockey sticks. Messi sometimes plays in this midfield space too, and Alves almost always does. Ever since Barça altered the disposition of its forwards and Leo moved to the right wing, the job of the fullback changed; he is no longer required to go up to the wing, not even when the winger goes inside – it’s usually the right midfielder or the striker who compensates for that move – but to go infield and join the midfielders. In this area of the pitch his touch and ability are those of a pure midfielder, he allows the team to have numerical superiority and he has an almost-perfect combination play with Leo Messi.
Secondly, the harmony and the complementation between the three forwards have reached exquisite levels. Neymar, Messi and Luis Suárez understand each other as a trio or as pairs, they have fun playing together and for each one of them, his own football encounters an easy way to express itself alongside that of his two buddies. Playing at different heights, the alleviation of the rival’s marking on them and the fluid occupation of the flanks are some of the causes and consequences of this great understanding. Luis Suárez’s definitive integration into the team’s mechanism has been the key for this. The Uruguayan is always working, with generosity and of plenty of different fronts, so that the task of fitting the three stars together didn’t show any apparent difficulties. He breaks into space so that his teammates can find the edge of the box free or, in order to enable the pass into that space, he complements their movements to the inside with moving to the wing and he provides an excellent pass option for a one-two while playing with his back to the goal. His presence in front of the opponent’s defensive line has also had a decisive contribution to the new role of the central area of the blaugrana attack.
The third aspect is the defensive one. Not only the obvious favorable scenario for Barça to press high when it already has its attack there and the lines are close together, but also the importance of Dani Alves’ new role. In the low part of the season, when Leo Messi was forced to play next to the defensive midfielder to solve the team’s problems while Dani was playing high up the right wing, practically any loss of possession, at any stage, made it possible for the opponent to get close to Bravo or Ter Stegen’s box without a lot of opposition. The structure couldn’t survive this defensive transition. With Messi playing on the right, this was fixed, because the attack worked better and also because when the ball was lost, Dani Alves was behind the line of play and could recover it. Without the space he left behind him and with his mere presence in midfield, this made the opponent’s counterattacks slower. Dani’s defensive technique in recovering the ball and his instinct for winning the rebound almost like a second defensive midfielder, gave the team a boost in defensive solidity. Even though Leo doesn’t always play on the wing now, Dani’s function remains the same. It’s either the right interior or Luis Suárez moving into the the wing to compensate for Messi going inside. Or, as it happened at times against Espanyol or against Getafe, no one occupies that space. Alves remains the stopper and, for the team, liberating Messi from the wing is another option in attack.
Translator: Diana Uzum