Football is in an era where live television, Internet and, most recently, social media coverage mean that virtually everything is covered from all angles. There is a school of thought that there are no more surprises in the world of football, especially when it comes to tactics. The World Cup used to be place where managers pitted wits against each other and displayed tactical “evolutions” which would go on to trickle down towards club football until the next show-and-tell four years later. Each country brought a bit of what they’d been undertaking domestically over recent years and displayed it in front of world cameras. Had there been similar coverage to what we have today then the impact of the “Mighty Magyars” tactical performance against England at Wembley in 1953 would’ve been diminished as it would have been noted earlier. The WM, the Ajax model, the libero, the 4-2-3-1, the “Makelele role” and the “false 9″ provide a range of tactical cornerstones and innovations in the history of football. Now, we’ve been introduced to what can, and very well should, be another cornerstone. We’re going to call it “the Busquets role”.
In 2009, Jonathan Wilson, author of Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics, spoke about the potential return of the sweeper in modern football. Whilst taking that argument as a basis, renowned tactical expert Michael Cox, of Zonalmarking, stated that due to the popularity of one-striker formations, the modern “sweeper” may not be the spare man pushing up into midfield leaving a 1 vs 1 situation, but rather a defensive midfielder dropping into defence. This would effectively split the central defenders as the said player slots into the middle, whilst the “full backs” already starting a little further ahead than their central defensive colleagues, would have further license to bombard forward. At the time, Cox theorized that a crucial aspect of Pep Guardiola’s tactical success in overloading the midfield, pressing his opponents and keeping possession, had seen Sergio Busquets, the defensive midfielder, drop into defence, pushing up Eric Abidal and especially Dani Alves into extremely advanced positions. This allowed Busquets to drop into space, dictate possession and spray the ball across from the back. His performances and role for Barcelona are often overlooked by people with less of an eye for the smallest details defining success. Cox labelled Busquets role as a traditional “center half”, a term used to describe a player dropping into central defence from midfield, before it was falsely mirrored, largely by British “pundits”, to reflect a center back.
Whilst on paper Barcelona may line up 4-3-3, in practice it has become much harder to decipher their formation. However, by using an analysis of average positions, it is safer to call their formation a 3-4-3 (if not a 2-1-4-3) system with Busquets as the traditional center half between two central defenders. As a consequence, both full backs are able to play the role of wide midfielders and sometimes even wingers. Sometimes, if Guardiola picks Puyol, Pique and Mascherano as 3 members of the “back four” in defence, the remaining full back, likely to be Dani Alves, pushes up to a winger’s role, whilst Busquets holds his ground next to a more disciplined midfielder such as Seydou Keita, effectively forming a belt of three as a second line in front of the back three. Barcelona used this shape against Milan in the Champions League Quarter Final First Leg, where they virtually lined up as a 3-3-3-1. In this instance, Busquets continues to provide cover but not necessarily as the “center half” which he usually does. Incidentally, its the presence of Javier Mascherano, a natural defensive midfielder, in central defence, which frees up Busquets and gives the tactical flexibility to Barcelona. In either shape, Barcelona are able to free up their wide players and provide adequate cover in defence too. Only Xavi and Dani Alves pass the ball more per game than Sergio Busquets does from his center half position.
Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao has played some of the best football in Europe this season. Even though they are on the verge of making it two cup final appearances for the season, the lack of depth in the squad has meant Athletic has not been able to fight on three fronts, without hampering their league form. Nevertheless, one of the cornerstones of their play has been the placement of Javi Martinez, arguably a world class central midfielder, in central defence, probably more a la Mascherano than Busquets, but still worth a mention. Can we classify him as a center half?
Interestingly, whilst, on paper, Athletic have largely set up as 4-3-3 this season, in reality, they play a 3-4-3 (or 2-1-4-3 to be precise) similar to Barcelona in many ways. Javi Martinez plays at center back but the “center half” role is largely filled by Ander Iturraspe, who drops in from central midfield. Javi Martinez plays as more of a conventional center back with passing ability, an added bonus. His reading of the game and athleticism like Mascherano’s has allowed him to fit in at the back rather effortlessly. The end result is the same, as Iturraspe’s presence allows Aurtenexte and Iraola to bombard forward with the “right back” effectively playing as a winger. However, the consequence of playing someone with Javi Martinez’s passing ability in defence is that he is able to dictate play from deep. He averages over 50 passes a match and touches the ball more than any other Athletic player. Furthermore, the space and time that he has on the ball helps him to confirm his accuracy, where once again he leads his teammates. Just to illustrate the difference it has made to his game as opposed to the past when he has played in central midfield, his passing accuracy is up by 10% whilst he is averaging 20 more passes a game compared to his performances last season. It must be stated that Bielsa’s Bilbao side implement a much more passing game as opposed to the more direct approach of last season, however, Javi Martinez’s coming of age as an individual in his new role must not be downplayed either.
For Mascherano, whilst he can’t expect to be the biggest passer of the ball at Barcelona, he does average 20 and 25 passes a game higher than Pique and Puyol, the other regular center backs, respectively, and that is another significant statistic. He may have been labelled as someone who can’t “pass the Barcelona way” after joining them from Liverpool, but the faith that Guardiola has kept in him is reciprocated by his performances, even from a passing perspective. One positive of playing players such as Javi Martinez and Mascherano in orthodox central defensive roles is that their reading of the game and intelligence from midfield is translated to higher interceptions and successful tackles than anyone else in their respective squads, hence winning the ball back and getting on it far more than other counterparts. The bottom line is their passing statistic. But as its clear, there is a whole chain of thought, by their managers, and events that lead one there.
The Busquets experimented has been exported abroad too. In Serie A, Roma’s Luis Enrique, with obvious strong influences from Barcelona, has sought to play an attacking 4-3-3 formation. Pressured to include Francesco Totti, Luis Enrique has varied his 4-3-3 somewhat resembling a diamond-shape in the middle with Totti or at times Erik Lamela, dropping behind two strikers at the top end. At the other end, Danielle De Rossi has played in the Busquets role dropping in between the two center backs, Juan and Simon Kjaer, and dictated play from deep. His reading of the game has been vital in allowing further risks to be taken by Roma’s players in advancing forward. Whilst results have been mixed, the same cannot be said of De Rossi’s performances. Arguably, Roma’s best and most consistent performer this season, he also leads them in passes, interceptions and is amongst their best tacklers. He also plays 1 key pass per game (WhoScored), which is impressive for someone who is playing so deep. According to James Horncastle, a leading European football writer and expert in Italian football, the Busquets role is labelled the “Parachute” in Italy. Horncastle states that, according to De Rossi himself, Luis Enrique gave him tapes of Oriel Romeu and not Busquets when explaining the role to the Italian. Horncastle added “De Rossi plays this role. Its the keystone of Roma’s play under Luis Enrique. Without it, they are a different side”.
Interestingly, De Rossi has also played as a center back on a couple of occasions, against Juventus in December, as well as Novara this past weekend. Whilst he performed admirably against Juventus and scored a goal, he was less influential in terms of dictating play. Nevertheless, Roma looked more solid and drew 1-1 at home. He averaged between 25 and 35 fewer passes compared to his season average on both occasions of playing in central defence. Nevertheless, it allows Roma to take extra attacking liberties. They virtually played as a 2-3-3-1-1 against Novara. However, the inability of Fernando Gago to provide better defensive cover a la Busquets or even Iturraspe means that Roma will not benefit by playing Danielle De Rossi in central defence as much as they potentially could. This is further confirmed by the influence that he holds by playing in the Parachute for Roma. As much as Luis Enrique has tried to bring in the Barcelona-system (2-1-4-3), he has been let down largely due to the parts (players) not fitting the system as quickly as he would have hoped.
When you implement the Busquets role, you will need two attacking full backs who are able to provide width as well as undertake their fair share of defending as a prerequisite. Adriano, Dani Alves and Andoni Iraola fulfill those duties for their respective clubs. Luis Enrique has been unable to nail down the right players for those roles. Jose Angel and Aleandro Rosi, whilst talented, have needed time to adapt to their roles, whilst Rodrigo Taddei has been converted to a full back this season and has not been able to produce an acceptable transition back to defence yet. Nevertheless, De Rossi’s role and performances has never been in question. When in full flow and everything falling into place, De Rossi’s performances in between the two central defenders provides both cover as well as passing tempo, setting every attack into motion. One such example was when Roma played Inter Milan in February and came out 4-0 winners. De Rossi dominated the game on both fronts, whilst the Roma shape and flow was as disciplined as it was beautiful. De Rossi made 99 passes, the most on the pitch, and the team kept the right width, shape and positions on the field, perfectly illustrating a 3-4-3 (2-1-4-3) formation, as it should be.
In the forum of tactical “innovation”, managers are always looking for ways to gain an advantage over the opposition. This has led to the reincarnation of the center half. The benefits of having a center half in front of the defence instead of a traditional destroyer, anchor or even an Andrea Pirlo-esque deep-lying playmaker is that in many ways it blends facets of those roles into one. This allows more attacking full backs (and in some ways requires them more than allows for them), as well as the ability to flood the midfield and dominate possession with up to seven players (usually in a 2-1-4-3 shape) outnumbering the opposition. Spain has been the setting for the most experiments when it comes to the re-emergence of the role, as well as other variants of the re-inventing traditional midfielders. We’ve talked about Busquets and Iturraspe as well as Mascherano and Javi Martinez who have been turned into ball-playing center backs. It is no coincidence that Guardiola and Bielsa share similar values and visions on football. In Italy, Luis Enrique has done the same with Danielle De Rossi. He has played in both the Busquets role, or Parachute as it is referred to in Italy, as well as at times in the Mascherano one. His influence and performances have never been better throughout his career. Roberto Guana of Cesena has also played as the Parachute this season. However, as we’ve found out in order to get the best out of playing a center half, the set up, shape, and movement must follow suit too. Otherwise, one man may shine more than the team does, which would be, ultimately, fruitless in the pursuit of success. The English Premier League, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 have yet to delve into experimenting with such a role but if one had to pick a player who the role would fit like a glove then Rennes Yann M’Vila would be that player. His intelligence, reading of the game and passing ability provide him with all the necessary ingredients to benefit his next club side. Food for thought for a club like Arsenal.
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I would like to thank ESPN Soccernet’s GAMECAST services for providing key in-game diagrams that were used during the analysis above. With special thanks to work previously done by Jonathan Wilson and Michael Cox of Zonal Marking as well as conversations held with James Horncastle.
As we draw towards the tail end of the Spanish Primera División, Real Madrid continue to set the pace with what could be a record-breaking season. Leading their bitter rivals, Barcelona, by 8 points, they are on course to win their first title since 2007/8, and go on to record the most points ever made in a single La Liga season, as well as most away wins and overall goals. Looking at those stats, it is all the most impressive considering that Jose Mourinho’s Los Merengues are trailblazing at a time when experts are debating whether the current Barcelona side, under Pep Guardiola, is worthy of being considered the greatest club side ever on the back of their recent achievements.
If anyone claims to have the definitive answer as to why Barcelona trail Real Madrid by such a significant gap, they’re lying. With the smallest of margins deciding who wins what, it would be useful to look at a number of the “small marginal changes” that have occurred this season, in order to draw certain factual conclusions, without leaving room to speculation.
Possession and Tiki-Taka
That’s the name of the game for Barcelona. Its been a cornerstone of their success under Guardiola. They averaged just over 72% of the ball last season, but are currently averaging “only” 70% this time around. Yes, you read that right, only 70%! Whilst it may not seem like much, at the summit of the game the difference between great and perfect is slim, especially if it’s a backwards step. They’re currently averaging 68% possession away from home, which is 3.5% less than last season. In terms of pass success ratio, they’ve slightly dropped off to 89% from an incredible 90% success ratio.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, have increased their possession of the ball by 5% to 61%. Their pass accuracy has also increased to 85% from 83%. Whilst Barcelona’s slight drop-off may not seem significant, as they are having a “relatively” successful season in the league by most standards other than their own, in a league where “draws are the new defeats” the margins are tight. Real Madrid’s improvement is a sure sign towards becoming more dominant and ruthless.
Score Goals When They Matter
Last season, La Liga ended with Real Madrid losing the race by 4 points. They scored more goals than Barcelona to no avail. They even drew one less match than Barcelona had. However, the key statistic that cost Mourinho’s side was their failure to score goals in key moments. Simply put, Real Madrid failed to score in 6 out of their 38 matches. They drew 3 of those games and lost the other 3. In the tightest of leagues, the slightest margin counts big and despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s record-breaking 40 goals as well as the side scoring an amazing 102 goals, it proved costly. Barcelona only failed to score twice.
This season has seen Real Madrid become more ruthless in front of goal. After 26 rounds of games, they have only failed to score twice. In theory, they may fail to score in a number of games till the end of the season and that could very well cost them a title. Barcelona have failed to score in 3 matches, effectively 1 more time in 11 less matches. So it may not be as much about Barcelona’s failings as much as it is about Real Madrid rectifying one of their few “failings”.
A Game of Two Halves, or at least the Second Half
Barcelona are notoriously strong starters to matches. Turn on the TV 15 minutes late and its likely you have missed a goal or two. Last season, they were 8-0 (goals scored-goals conceded) during the first 15 minutes of matches, and they are just as dominant again this season with a 14-4 record in the early stages of games. In fact, Barcelona usually have matches sewn up by the end of the first half. They had a 42-8 record last season. This season, they have an identical first half record even though there are still 11 matches to go. That’s quite significantly different to Real Madrid who have been poor starters to matches, especially this season. They have an 8-6 record in the opening 15 minutes of games, even though, strikingly, they get stronger as the half goes on. Away from home, they’ve only conceded two goals in the first half of games all season long.
It’s in the second half of games where Barcelona have found trouble and Real Madrid have found extra gears. Barcelona have a relatively poor first 15 minutes of the second half with a 12-5 record, already conceding more goals during that period compared to the whole of last season. However, it’s the final 15 minutes of the game, away from home, when Barcelona are at their most vulnerable. They have an 11-8 record during that period. It may still be a “winning” record, but as stated numerous times before, in a league of fine margins the smallest elements can sway a title race. Last season, for instance, the champions had a 21-5 record away from home during the last 15 minutes. Real Madrid, on the other hand, perform even better in second halves of games. They have scored an amazing 53 goals in the second half, conceding only 13. Last season, they “only” scored 56 goals, whilst conceding 26. Even more impressive is the way Mourinho’s side close out matches. They have a 17-3 record in the last 15 minutes of matches, as opposed to the 21-9 accumulated through the whole of the previous campaign. Conceding so late against Malaga at home cost Real Madrid 2 valuable points, and the side will rue giving away a free-kick in a dangerous position in stoppage time.
Much credit must go to the mental strength that Mourinho has instilled into his players to keep on pushing until the final whistle. The levels of concentration they’ve kept has minimized individual errors late in games too. The hunger is also there to want more goals even when the game is won, a criticism which is sometimes, possibly unjustly, aimed at Barcelona.
Speaking about mental strength and concentration, Mourinho has instilled a “never say die” attitude in his players giving them the belief that they can come back from any deficit. Guardiola’s side have been relatively lax at times this season. They have twice lost half-time leads to end up drawing. Real Madrid almost always win when leading at half time, with Malaga being the only side in 2 years to avoid defeat at full time, after trailing at half time. Going back to last season, Barcelona, drew once and lost once after leading at half time, winning the other 21 occasions. Real Madrid, once again in resilience in the image of their manager, converted all 21 half-time leads to victories.
Even more surprisingly is how a team reacts to going a goal down. In Barcelona’s case, not too well. They have only won twice after conceding the first goal, drawing two and losing a further two. Real Madrid, on the other hand, lost only once after conceding the first goal as they recovered to win 7 times. They have also won by a one-goal margin on 6 occasions this season. Winning by one-goal is their most common type of victory. This is not say that they Real Madrid do not go on to romp opponents too. They have won by a margin of 3 goals or more in 13 matches, virtually half of their current La Liga games.
Every Barcelona and Real Madrid comparison has a Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo comparison at some point. Its pointless. There is nothing to add to what has already been said. Both players post incredible numbers and performances match after match. When everything is so tight between the two clubs, it may come down to one or two other players standing out more or less than they have before. But when we’re talking about almost 30 international players, consistency is usually a key constant. But not always.
Last season, Karim Benzema was on the verge of being let go of. He was even compared to a cat by his manager. Mourinho said he was overweight. He said he didn’t work hard enough. Nevertheless, he did end up scoring 15 goals, but at a key point of the season, Mourinho preferred to not play with Benzema even in an injury crisis. Gonzalo Higuain had an injury hit season too. It was largely hit and miss, but he ended up scoring 10 league goals. Between them, they started 36 matches in La Liga, and scored “only” 25 goals. Its a goal scoring record good enough at almost every club but not at Real Madrid and not when the margins are so close.
This season, Benzema, having shed a few pounds, and Higuain have had a healthy competition. What is more striking is that Mourinho has gotten both of them motivated and willing to rotate, largely irrespective of performance, as they’ve both been in fine form. They have started 29 league games between each other and have scored more than a goal a game, with a total of 31, a record, had it been owned by only one of them, on par with Messrs Messi and Ronaldo. Whenever one has tailed off the other has been ready to come on and make an impact.
Similarly, Angel Di Maria, has had an excellent season, even though he has virtually missed half of it. Despite starting only 12 matches, he’s already matched his goal/assist record from last year. He’d scored 5 and laid off another 13 before his injury, compared to 6 goals and 11 assists in 29 starts last year. Once again, Mourinho has managed to get an extra something from a player who had been criticized for his diving, play-acting and inability to perform consistently. His injury has meant that Kaka has gotten an unexpected opportunity and even though he isn’t the same player he was at his peak, he’s looked very useful for Real Madrid. In fact, Mourinho has said he’s never seen Kaka work harder for any team. He’s pitched in with 5 goals and 6 assists in only 14 starts this season.
On the other side of the spectrum, Barcelona have suffered with numerous injuries this season. Long-term victims include David Villa, Ibrahim Afellay and now, most worryingly, Eric Abidal requires a liver transplant. Carles Puyol has not been fully fit either and that has pressured Guardiola into selectively picking him for games, a fact which has not helped the captain gain consistency or hit top form. Alexis Sanchez, one of the club’s big summer signings, has only started 13 times, pitching in with 8 goals and 3 assists. Had he been fit throughout the season, he would’ve made Villa’s injury feel less influential. Going back to Puyol’s injury problems, even though they are nothing new, the main difference compared to last season was that Gerard Pique had been largely playing at the top of his game.
This season, though, Pique, has found himself at the center of huge criticism, due to his dip in form. A pre-season which was hampered by injury as well as questions about his concentration on the pitch have meant that Pique, more than anyone, has missed Puyol. Pique has started only 13 times this season (29 starts last season), less than half of all of Barcelona’s matches. Most of the time he has been out injured but on a few occasions, mostly recently, he has been kept out of the side, even when Puyol has not been available. His tackle, interception and clearance figures have all dropped compared to last season by 0.3, 0.7 and 1.2 per game respectively to stand at 1.4, 1.2 and 2.4 per game (WhoScored). Most strikingly he has made 24 less passes per game this season than last. Guardiola has been lucky to have Javier Mascherano step into central defence and perform so admirably. On performance, Mascherano is, arguably, in the La Liga Team of the Season. His figures, in contrast to Piques, stand at a 3.7 tackles (a league high for center backs), 3.7 interceptions and 2.2 clearances per game. Nevertheless, “losing” both Pique and Puyol this season has hurt Barcelona, and they have conceded more goals as a result. A further dip in form for Pedro has only been compensated by recent emergences of Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello, both ahead of schedule, as well as the goals which Cesc Fabregas has been scoring.
All in all, while Real Madrid have had players like Kaka and Callejon ready to step in for the likes of Di Maria without hampering the team’s performance, Barcelona have not been lucky through a series of injuries, as well as, what must be said, an over-rotation of some players by Guardiola for the first time. Burn-out after playing over 60 matches for 3 consecutive seasons may have finally caught up with them.
It is difficult to pin-point exactly what has been the catalyst for the relative shift in the fortunes of both clubs domestically and one must be wary when drawing conclusions. Despite the so-called “crisis” for Guardiola’s side, they convincingly beat Real Madrid in La Liga, after going behind with an early goal, picked up the Supercopa de España over Real Madrid in August 2011, won the European Supercup, the World Club Cup and knocked Mourinho’s side out of the Copa del Rey, with what included another away win in Madrid. Whilst Real Madrid have looked “better” against Barcelona this season than previously, the end result has largely been the same. Other than a nervous final 15 minutes at Camp Nou in the return leg of the Copa del Rey, where Real Madrid looked the more likelier side to net a winner, Barcelona have enjoyed another season with the upper hand in head-to-head meetings. Nevertheless, the capital club have been the more consistent side in the league due to some of the reasons highlighted above.
We’ve looked at what has changed more than why it’s changed because that would require deeper analysis over a longer period of time, possibly in the post-Mourinho and post-Guardiola periods. Nevertheless, two of the key themes of this article have been words like “relative” and “margin”. In what is an historic period for La Liga, the smallest of margins can be the difference between success and failure as Real Madrid found out last season, whilst Barcelona are finding out, to their dismay, now.
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