September 16, 2017

Barcelona: Messi’s return to false nine, and what it means

How Valverde is tweaking Enrique's team to bring about evolution


Ernesto Valverde, the former Athletic Bilbao manager who took over the reins from Luis Enrique has deployed Barcelona’s perennial and orthodox 4-3-3 formation, whilst using Pep Guardiola’s 2008-2012 Barca set-up as the template. Lionel Messi is casting the false #9 role (reaping rewards) as opposed to playing right-wing and Luis Suarez, predominantly an archetypal #9 is emulating the David Villa/Thierry Henry role, manoeuvring and operating on the left-hand-side, tasked with differentiating his game from more central zones to a more wing orientated approach. On the right-hand-side Ousmane Dembélé is emulating Pedro’s role, roaming and utilising the wing with his speed and 1v1 ability.

To find that equilibrium which made the Guardiola 08-12 front trident (Villa-Messi-Pedro) go down in the history books, the impetus is on the two wide forwards (Suárez/Dembélé) to act as wide outlets, and make runs in behind the opposition’s defence leaving Messi to control central areas. Messi’s occupation of zone 14 enables the opposition’s backline to push up, which will fabricate space for the off the ball runners to exploit. Thus, the opposing team have a conundrum; do they press Messi, breaking their defensive line and risk opening channels for the wide forwards to attack, or, step off and let him have time in central zones (where he is most dangerous) which will undoubtedly lead to chances created.

Although the opening games have shown promise, the front three aren’t working in total harmony due to Suárez’s unorthodox role. Due to his natural propensity, Suárez is vacating his wing and operating more in central zones in closer proximity to Messi. This leaves Alba accountable to provide width in both offensive and defensive phases, leaving him isolated down the left-hand side. Under the new dynamics, Suarez must accustom to the task and become conservative in his positional role as the left forward and operate more within the left channel. During build-up; if Suarez roams centrally, as does Messi, the left-hand-side becomes somewhat defunct, thus the former staying grounded helps balance the side and supports Alba.

It is natural that Suárez’s adaption will be time consuming, adjusting to his new a la Villa role, with the forward still coming inside during build which was typified against Juventus. Alba was left alone in isolation to dominate the entire left-hand side as Juventus gained 2v1 numerical superiority. Suárez’s profile is very different to David Villa, granted, thus the issues with positioning is expected, but it is paramount the Uruguayan learns the role and adapts to his new position in the wider areas to cater for Messi as the false #9 and provide an outlet on the left.

First phase build

In Enrique’s time in charge, the approach was very direct from build-up, plan (A) was getting the ball to the final third as quickly as possible, bypassing midfield and rushing through phases to do so. In Valverde’s short tenure, the approach has alternated back to a possession based style, as opposed to the gung-ho direct approach, with Barça playing centrally towards Messi. In possession; the players are stagnated correctly, occupying all central zones and the sole focus is on the midfield trident (Iniesta-Busquets-Rakitić) in build, culminating for more fluid, quick interchanges and aiding better vertical progression. With Busquets deep (architect) and Rakitić more conservative centrally, this frees Iniesta to combine down the left-half-space with Alba, ultimately perpetually feeding Messi in zone 14 (danger zone). This manifests the more coherent structure in place during build as opposed to bypassing midfield, playing more wing orientated and pushing Rakitić wide.

In the first phase; Barcelona are shifting their two centre-backs wide which in theory pulls opposition attackers away from central areas as they follow both Piqué and Umtiti. This allows the midfield trident to drop deep and gain central control, with Busquets slotting alongside the two CB’s to receive and keeping good central occupation/numbers to build from. With the midfield dropping, the opposing midfield inherently follow their markers which creates space for Messi to exploit with dropping movements to receive. The fullbacks (Alba/Semedo) are the sole providers of width given their very offensive demeanours and the two wide forwards occupy the opposition defensive line staying relatively high.

With a good structure in the build-up phase, If the press is bypassed and the ball is fed into Messi; the opposition CB’s will either push up to man-mark him which fabricates space in behind for the wide forwards to attack, whom will feed from Messi’s diagonals. Alternatively, he can attack vertically himself or feed the fullback’s out wide, who can either attack the channels or use the wide forwards to create overloads vs opposition.

Defensive transitions

Numerous times last season Barça manifested their positional foibles out of possession and poor configuration in defensive transitions, which was their ultimate Achilles heel. The set-up out of possession under Enrique had Iniesta and Busquets in the midfield pivot with Rakitić (the more defensively able) pushed out wide in a 4-4-2 off the ball structure. In attack, Barça tasked the CM’s to push up and support the front three which, in theory is fine if the defensive line shifts accordingly to minimise the space between midfield and defence. But in a recurring theme, space between Barça’s midfield and defensive lines were too large and once a turnover occurred they were left very light in defensive transition. This was evident against Villarreal (a) and Real Madrid (h) especially.

At the Estadio de la Cerámica, when the initial press was bypassed, and a turnover occurred, Villarreal looked to transition quickly in central areas which created a direct 3v3 against the defenders in this case (Piqué, Alba and Mascherano) with the CM’s chasing back leaving the home side a plethora of space to attack and exploit.

Villarreal bypass Barcelona’s flat and parallel midfield line with a vertical pass which fabricates a 3v3 against the defence with the midfield all chasing back behind play. End result? A goal for Sansone despite efforts from Neymar tracking back but this typifies their vulnerability in transition.

Another example of Barcelona at sixes and sevens defensively was against Real Madrid in the Super Cup, early in Valverde’s reign. With the score line at 1-1, Barça pushed offensively and somewhat over committed which resulted in them being left vulnerable (again) and light in transition:

Once again, the midfield line are all behind the ball carrier in transition akin to the Villarreal match. No defensive shape in transition, the flanks very exposed, there’s no cohesion and the opposition attack vertically with ease.

Valverde, although using the same orthodox 4-3-3 that Enrique used, has made tweaks to the personnel roles to counteract Barça’s defensive deficiencies to ensure they are better equipped. It is notable that (Busquets-Rakitić) is now the midfield pivot out of possession when Barça adopt to a 4-4-2 shape in defensive phases, as opposed to Iniesta and Busquets whom did not have the athleticism to cover so much later ground in in the set-up last season, which left them heavily exposed.

With Valverde interchanging Iniesta and Rakitić, the latter is coming inside and utilising his strong defensive capabilities which has reduced the vulnerability vertically. Also, having Semedo’s recovery pace somewhat compensates for pushing fullback’s high and wide, thus he can support quickly in defensive transition.

Under these new dynamics, Barça are more defensively stable. They remain vertically compact, command better coverage of the defensive third and protect central areas while pressing high.

The evolution of Barcelona under Valverde is well under way and has evolved to be a perfect start to his tenure in charge of the Catalans, taking maximum points from the opening three La Liga fixtures against Real Betis 2-0, Alaves 2-0, and Espanyol 5-0 respectively; scoring nine goals and conceding zero. Defensively they look stronger out of possession (although not perfect) they are still slowly improving with midfield alterations and reverting to a 4-3-3 with Messi as the false #9 has maximised his freedom to work his magic. The Argentinian is back in his most dangerous position, thus this Barça side could be a joyous watch this season.

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