Sunday, August 15, 2010

Game Changer: the moment Rijkaard's Barcelona came to life

Real Madrid 1-2 Barcelona, April 2004, Estadio Santiago Bernabeu

For Madrid, the result was merely confirmation of what had been a deflating title run-in and the first in a series of chastenings for the hitherto Midas-like touch of Florentino Pérez. For Barcelona, the victory was not enough to propel them past a Valencia who were on their way to collect the second La Liga title of Rafa Benitez' reign.

Recall that the merengues had started the 2003-04 season with the discarding of Claude Makélélé which, whatever the financial merits of the deal, was rendered all the more crass for the depreciative and exaggerated comments made by Perez surrounding the future Chelsea player's footballing ability. What proved to be even more debilitating was the dismissal of Vicente Del Bosque when the party celebrating his landing of the 2002-03 title had nary turned cold.

Of the Del Bosque affair , one can say that Valdano and Pérez's justifications - the cited need for a more "modern" and "scientific" coach who would administer an aristocratic dressing-room with personal dettachment- were unconvincing to say the least. That the appointee should be Carlos Queiroz, who had a proven track record of developing young players, was not necessarily inconsistent with the Perez regime's raison d'etre; "Zidanes and Pavones". Queiroz would fabricate a generation of superlative tyros, so the thinking went. His technocracy need not have been an impediment either; witness his role in honing Manchester United's all-conquering 'strikerless' system later in the decade - an oeuvre borne out of the innovative approach displayed by his Portugal youth sides of the early 90s.

No, what was disconcerting about the direction which the Madrid project was taking was that they had dismissed Del Bosque as a 'yes man' for the bootroom and, even more patronisingly, as a tactical naïf; notions which Sid Lowe has pointedly dynamited in the wake of the Salamantine coach's lifting of the World Cup in South Africa. The Real Madrid of the Florentinatum between 2000 and 2003 should have been, by rights, a dysfunctioning circus. And yet Del Bosque managed to foster tactical cohesion on a squad that was never even remotely his in design and no matter the imbalance in superstar-plus-rookie player acquisitions the board would hoist upon him during each transfer window, Madrid did not implode; they won titles.

All of which brings us to the matter at hand; a retrospective of a game, primarily from a tactical viewpoint, which was sapphism for the doomed Queiroz project and a declaration of intent for the Barcelona of Rijkaard and Ronaldinho who would soon initiate a renaissance for the blaugrana club. It was the signalling of the end of a hegemony in Spain, the end to an inferiority complex and the opening-up of a marriage between style and success.

As to the individuals: who to hail as protagonists?
For Barcelona the obvious candidate is Ronaldinho whose scooped pass to set up the winner was symptomatic of the club's new-found confidence. Edgar Davids, acquired on loan from Juventus during mid-season, would offer tenacity and positional nous to the central midfield and take up the slack for his more artistically inclined teammates. What to say about the then 34-year old Phillip Cocu, versatility incarnate, who would switch back to central defence as the second half wore on.

Most tangible, above all, is the appreciation one can hold for Xavi given his presence on today's global stage. I recall the moment of disbelieving marvel, watching in a bar in Alicante mostly populated by Madridistas, when Xavi uncharacterisically ghosted into the box to flick, Matrix-style, an looping volley over the head of Casillas in defiance of a Madrid defence which had gone to sleep trying to execute the offside trap. Butterfly from a cocoon moment? Remember that Xavi up until December 2003 had always played as a holding midfielder, having been groomed to inherit the No.4 shirt from Guardiola. Now he was playmaking but across a greater expanse of the turf.

Madrid? That Esteban Cambiasso, still boasting a hairline, would be shipped out to Internazionale at the season's end was perhaps the ultimate proof of what Steve McManaman would alude to when identifying Florentino's inconsideration of that 'middle-class' of players. Indeed, Cambiasso would go on to demonstrate to all and sundry that a so-called middle-class player, with some support and guidance, can later become a very, very upper-middle class player and exactly the kind of stabilising presence that Real Madrid have been lacking in midfield over recent seasons.

Overall, it was hard to avoid the impression that Queiroz was, by this stage, scrambling for solutions in an improvised midfield pairing. Granted, Cambiasso was not yet the finished article, but his midfield partner Beckham was postionally horrible. Effectively, Beckham was entrusted with playing as fetcher and bulldog to Cambiasso's orchestrator which meant that the England man had to be everywhere and one place at the same time. This is a role better suited for players with the ferocity of Genaro Gattuso or Owen Hargreaves and even then they are effectively playing as appendages for other more tempered holding players. Makelele and Mascherano naturally are two examples of how game-reading and positional discipline is an artform in a situation where most players struggle to adjudicate the right balance between contrasting prerequisites of energetic combativeness and serene concentration.

Figure 2)

In the absence of such an enforcer, and revelling in his slightly more advanced role (though not quite stationed between the lines), Xavi had the freedom of the park to exchange short passes with Ronaldinho and Overmars and even to work his way into the box (See figure 2 above).

So now for the numbers part, the splitting of the hairs. Were Barcelona playing a 4-2-3-1, a 4-3-3 or something in between?

Figure 3) Barcelona's closely operating midfield triangle.

My own impressions are that though Xavi was playing slightly ahead of Davids and Cocu, he was not starting from a seperate band; this was still a tight three-man midfield (see Figure 3) and one which seemed to avoid the potential problems diagnosed in such scenarios by Jonathan Wilson in his recent meditations on the related subjects of 4-2-1-3 and 'broken teams'. To summarise: Cocu held the deepest position just ahead of the centre-backs whilst Davids, barely ahead of him married energy to criteria in shuttling around to shore up various sectors with his harassing and pressing. Xavi started from the same latitude as per his current Barcelona position, namely that of an interior something of a 'box-to-box' playmaker (as confusing as that may sound). The Argentine term No.8 seems the best description of a position which, in terms of positioning and movement if not necessarily style, lies somewhere between the No.5 (deep-lying) and No.10 role.

In purely static terms, this meant that Barcelona left a gulf of space in central areas between the midfield and the front trio of Saviola (later Kluivert) flanked by Ronaldinho and Overmars but this turned out to offer something of an advantage. To paraphrase Roy Hodgson, Ronaldinho would "sag" back from Michel Salgado on the left flank, almost level with Xavi, and draw Salgado towards him. This in turn would create a vacuum between the inside- and outside-left channels towards which centre-forward Saviola would drag either one of the centre-backs (Helguera and the erstwhile full-back Raul Bravo). Concommitantly, Ronaldinho had two options; he could bear down diagonally on goal through the space between the Madrid right-full-back and centre-backs, or could also shift laterally into the centre, right on the verge of the final third so that he would temporarily occupy the unassigned 3/4 role which then Xavi, in turn would either opt not to clutter or else move forward in support of the Brazilian (see Figure 5 further below).

Cambiasso and, primarily Beckham, were left in a dilemna. Either one of them should drop deep to fill the vacated space in Madrid's back line (in light of Saviola's distraction of a centre-back) and yet leave the Ronaldinho-Xavi duet in a 2 v1 situation (against the man who stayed) and with ample time to orchestrate an attack some 40-50 yards from goal. Alternatively, they left the back line exposed to an infiltration from Ronaldinho himself or an out-to-in returning Saviola.

Even Madrid's capacity to shift their back-line across the width of the box as per the classic mechanism of a functioning back-four was compromised by Roberto Carlos' situation on the opposite flank. With Marc Overmars stationed high and wide, and on his stronger right-foot, it was less likely that the Dutchman would cut inside, at least not until reaching close to the byline, and this left the Madrid full-back isolated from his fellow defenders. To what extent Overmars was fulfilling a defensive as well as offensive role in keeping Roberto Carlos pinned back relatively subdued is open to debate; certainly the Brazilian persisted in advancing but this generated an abundance of space for Overmars and even his full-back Reiziger to launch forward into. With Cambiasso finding himself having to come to the aid of Madrid's vacant left-flank, the spaces for Xavi to dictate the game were amplified.

Offence-wise, Madrid were none too shabby. In a recogniseable 4-2-3-1, Raul fulfilled much the same brief as Saviola did for the opposition. Twenty-six years old and already a veteran, the Madrid idol was expected to perform his striking duties without the aid of an injured Ronaldo, and considering he was never really a pure centre-forward, he acquitted himself quite well, demonstrating intelligence through his economical movement and generating linking up well with the advanced midifeld trio of Zidane (left) Solari (centre) and Figo (right). The assigning of these positions is perhaps unsatisfactory since Zidane always tended to move infield whereas Solari was at ease in wide areas (as per Figure 4 below)

Only Figo stayed relatively wide, out on the right, and even then he often lauched diagonal runs. In praise of Figo, he avoided predictability by alternating extremely well with Michel Salgado; one minute the Portuguese would stretch the play to allow the full-back to storm diagonally run through the inside-right channel, the next he himself would move infield to facilitate the overlap for Salgado (see Figure 5 below)

The result was that Madrid often found themselves about 30 yards out from Barcelona's goal and with any four from Zidane, Solari, Figo and Salgado converging within a central area. Given the positional diligence of Phillip Cocu, not to mention the tirelessness of Edgar Davids, Madrid would constantly run into a forest of bodies, which they themselves would further populate and to the point where they invariably took shots from distance. This may paid have dividends in generating the the opening goal; which in truth was as much due to Barcelona's failure to clear a rebounded shot, but this breakthrough only came in the second-half when Queiroz's men were patently running out of ideas for attacking alternatives. Three minutes later, Barcelona would equalise with a goal which cruelly exposed Madrid's lack of defensive synchronisation; Roberto Carlos dawdling on-side whilst the defensive line pushed out, thereby allowing Van Bronkhurst to burst through and lift a ball for Kluivert (who had subbed Saviola) to head home virtually unopposed.

From there on out, the match settled into a pattern so familiar to us now; Barcelona patiently probing in possession - albeit punctuated by the incisiveness of Ronaldinho and Overmars' dribbling - and Madrid chasing shadows.

The Battle for Midfield

Figure 6) In terms of shape, Barcelona's midfield takes on a squared Brazilianesque appearance. Here we witness the benefits of no one Barça player permanently occupying the hole: Xavi moving forward, Ronaldinho drifting infield and Madrid do not know who to pick-up and how.

In Figure 6 we notice how Davids has stolen the ball from Figo in the inside-left channel just inside Barcelona's half. Instead of laying off the ball to whichever one of his centre-backs was not being marked, or even making a lateral pass to Van Bronckurst to his left, the Dutchman chose to exploit Figo's stranded status by advancing into midfield thus creating an overload. Solari has opted to sit very deep to keep tabs on Xavi, whose influence on the game had been growing, instead of trying to join Zidane and Figo in engaging the opponents earlier inside the Barcelona half. With Figo scrambling to get back behind the ball, Raúl dutifully tracks back so that Zidane would not be completely outnumbered in trying to stem Cocu and Davids from progressing. Yet for all Figo and Raúl's willingness, there was a palpable lack of intensity to Madrid's pressing game; uncoordinated, perhaps unrehearsed to the point where Puyol and Oleguer, not to mention Reiziger and Van Bronckhurst found themselves at times with no Madrid player available to close them down. Thus Barcelona were able to carry the ball out with relative ease either centrally (by passing their way in triangles through the outnumbered white shirts) or laterally through their advancing full-backs.

Another tell-tale sign of how improvised was Madrid's pressing tactic is the distance left between defensive lives, namely the first and second lines of pressure in midfield. Seperating the advanced trio (in this moment Figo, Raul and Zidane) from the central duo (Beckham and Cambiasso - who is just out of picture about 5 yards behind Ronaldinho) is a distance of some 20 yards which is remarkable when you consider the following...

Arrigo Sacchi's Milan tried to defend in two banks of four and no further than 12 metres apart. Jose Mourinho prefers his teams, regardless of formation, to defend in three banks, which he feels permits them to cover a greater expanse of the pitch. With roughly 7 metres seperating each line that amounts to 21 metres but this feat is only possible thanks to the midway presence of the holding midfielders. In the case of this particular match incident, the advanced-midfield line and the back four are so far apart (some 25 metres) that not even the endeavour of Beckham (seen here rushing to close down Davids) can bridge this chasm; Madrid have allowed themselves to be stretched, at a time when the liberalisation of the offside law had yet to be introduced, to the point where their advanced midfielders are as distant from the back four as were the strikers in Sacchi's two-band system! At any rate, Beckham's lot here is unenviable; his interception has left space behind for Ronaldinho (again, having sagged and drifted infield) to receive the ball and yet he must do something to reduce the gap since Cambiasso, clearly dreading Ronaldinho's capacity to turn and accelerate (does this not make anyone nostalgic?) has opted to drop off almost as deep as his central defenders.


This was the embryonic version of the present-day Barcelona set-up. Over the next two seasons, two league titles and the Champions League would follow whilst Rijkaard's team would go about consolidating their 4-3-3 set-up, all with significant variations on the template offered here. Cocu moved back to the Netherlands and would be be replaced by Edmilson from Lyon. The front three would preserve the same structure with Ronaldinho featuring on the left and Ludovic Giuly offering a like-for-like swap for Marc Overmars. Of course, Samuel Etoo would provide a degree of physical intensity and application which were not the repetoire of Saviola nor Kluivert and thus Barcelona could escalate their pressing game. The all-action role of Davids was replicated by the arrival of Mark Van Bommel, but an greater element of creativity was to be added in the form of Deco and Andrés Iniesta competing for the other midfield berth alongside Xavi. Now Rijkaard would be able to configure his midfield trio according to whether steel or art was required by the situation.


  1. Excellent write up.

    It's a common assumption that Barca have always (or at least since the early 90s) been the excellent possession-retaining, pressing side that they are now. It was only really following Rijkaard's arrival that the philosophy of Cruijff was rekindled and Barcelona truly became the "team" that they are now (although Rijkaard did let it slip but that's beside the point).

    I don't know if this is intentional but Barcelona's attack has always seemed to feature a playmaking/goalscorer pairing in the wide forward positions. Henry/Giuly/Overmars as the direct runners who make striker-like runs in behind defences, and Messi/Rivaldo/Ronaldinho as the creative players who like to drift centrally and probe with their passing.

    It'll be interesting to see which one of those moulds David Villa fits if he continues to play wide as he did tonight, he has potential for both, although his goalscoring movement is obviously stronger.

  2. Not related to the post but maybe you could look at installing a comment system which enables replies? I use Intensedebate on my blog, it's self-installing and looks very nice.

    Keep up the great work.

  3. Awesome. Very well written, thanks a lot!

  4. Barcelona, after Van Gaal left, were in limbo and searching for themselves. I remember watching them play some kind of 4-4-2 under Antic in 2003, against Juve and La Real. Bad old days!

    Excellent analysis as usual! Great to bring back one of the most important games for Barca over the past 10 years. Incidentally, a couple of days later Aznar left office too. Those were the days..

  5. @ Backwards Gunner

    That's exactly what I wish to install.
    Any idea as to how I might go about doing that?



    You need to sign up, then add your blog to your account. You can then install the intensedebate commenting system and optional "recent comments" and "most commented articles" widgets if you wish.

    Message me if you need any help: naflanesra at hotmail dot co dot uk

  7. What struck me most about the Frankie/Dinho Barca were two distinct variations from the current version:

    1) Lack of pressing. Neither Dinho no Guily really inked up with E'too to try and force the issue very far down the pitch.

    2) The slick and laser like first touch passing - the current version, and Spain, rely on spreading the ball and getting favorable one vs. one matchups. However, with Deco and Xavi and Dinho, I recall moments where I was a cat to the feather, my eyes not knowing where to look next and amazed by the understanding.

    Great stuff!

  8. Fantastic post, I think I have this game in my archives, will definitely watch it soon after reading this.

  9. @ Elliot;

    you're right about the lack of pressing. Against a better organised side than the Madrid Galacticos, surely this Barca would have been unsustainable. I'm in two minds about whether it was a 4-3-3 or a fully-blown 4-2-1-3 (with Xavi as a trequartista).
    One season later and the side had definitely upped their intensity.

  10. @ Backwards Gooner

    Thanks for your generous offer; I'll get cracking on that right away!

  11. @ Jon,

    thank you; glad you enjoyed it.

  12. @ Mahdi

    Yeah, Antic basically threw the kitchen sink with that formation. Sometimes it even turned into a 4-2-4 (with Saviola and Overmars as outside forwards).

  13. @ Steve

    Yeah, it's well worth having a look at again.

  14. I should warn you though that you won't be able to see the current comments once you install intensedebate's commenting system. They won't be permanently deleted (if you ever remove intensedebate then the comments will return), they're just incompatible.

  15. @ Backwards Gooner:

    In that case, I'll only install it for the next article.

    Ta very much.

  16. Roberticus:

    on a topical note and in furtherance of this (excellent) post perhaps you could discuss the implications of Barcelona lately losing Ibrahimovic and gaining Mascherano on their tactical possibilities? it seems to me as though the 4-3-3 they've found so successful over the past few seasons (and in their B team setup) is going to have to be changed to the increasingly popular 4-2-3-1, with Mascherano partnering Busquets in the double pivot and Villa in the center? i'd be interested in your thoughts on how this might affect their play.



  17. BA,

    I think that Mascherano will be useful for breaking-up play from teams who are on the break. Busquets is technically superior, especially in terms of his passing, but he might fill-in other positions in midfield or even in defence.

    With Ibrahimovic gone, Barcelona's attack will at last be more fluid. That is not to say that a player of Ibra's characteristics wouldn't come in useful for decongesting blocked defences in certain games. But surely such a player should be a plan B, not a player of Ibra's self-opinion and cost.

  18. there are rumors about some deal with Sevilla, probably Fabiano. he has only 1 year left on the contract and Rosell always wanted to sign him. Now, I'm completely against buying off league rivals and making an already not that much competitive league even more uncompetitive, but if they have to buy a Sevilla striker, why not Kanouté, who would grant them the plan B options and wouldn't mind with a bench role? Hope there are some senses left.

  19. Mahdi,

    are you really so sure that Luis Fabiano would accept a secondary role?

    PLus another problem; he would make it FOUR Brazilians in Barcelona. Don't get me wrong; I live in Brazil and I'm married to a Brazilian. Just wonder whether it would bring out the worst in the others.

  20. Mahdi,

    thing is, Luis Fabiano is/should be considered an ideal Plan B for a team that is aiming to sweep all elite competitions, unlike Ibra whose status and salary demand a starting place.

    I don't know; from a strictly technical viewpoint it makes sense, but the human factor...and we all know by now how particular Guardiola is when it comes to this factor.

  21. Well we can be sure Fabiano won't be going to Barcelona now with him signing a contract extension at Sevilla, and I agree with Roberticus I don't think he's got the mentality to settle for being a back-up, he's had some issues in the past. Don't think he'd have been of much use to Barcelona either with him thriving off teams that counter-attack regularly and as such he regularly drifts out of the game, with him excelling for Brazil in an effective but ultimately limited role and never replicating that level of success at club level.

    On topic, I don't think I've ever watched this game before, it is interesting to see the moment at which the philosophy and system that marry together to give an indication of the maturation of a generation and the start of an era.

  22. I must say I find the Mascherano deal strange in the context of the current Barca setup, it made a lot of sense to me last year when it was suggested as Toure was never a defensive midfielder in a conventional sense, and Mascherano's pressing and quick-release possession game would blend in perfectly in the team...but then Busquets came along and surprised us all, maybe even Guardiola. The maturity in his game was instantly impressive from the season before, but it seemed a bit foolish to be relying on such an inexperienced player in such an important position. He did though, he put his faith in him and he flourished, and now it seems like he's about to take away some of that responsibility and make him something of a bit part player again. That seems to go against much of what Guardiola has done at the club since he's came in, especially in highlighting the lack of height in the Barcelona team and how Busquets is hugely beneficial in that sense, so it implies we're going to witness a very notable tactical change with Barca this year. (Obviously Busquets has more to his game than being a simple holding midfielder - as shown in an excellent performance in the Xavi role against Zaragoza last season - but I can't see him playing a role other than that very often. At least not at this early stage in his development.)

    A move to a slanted 4222 could be on the cards, with Villa now showing how he can flourish from the left and exploit that bit of space in between right back and centre back, and Messi likewise on the opposite side, but it'll be interesting to see whether either of them can play the role of a Torres(as a simple example) in playing up against both centre backs and drawing their attentions away from their wing-striker partner, as Villa seemed to struggle with this role in the WC when asked to and it doesn't seem to be something that Messi would revel in - although the danger alone of his mere presence in central areas might be distraction enough to perform the role without having to be right up against the two centre backs. There have been some suggestions that the game is moving towards a (possibly temporary) phase of having four central midfielders in the team all at the same time - as shown by Spain in the WC and Manchester United v Milan as two examples - and if Barcelona do this and do it successfully it wouldn't surprise me to see it become a regular trend in the not too distant future. I've still to really watch the Barcelona-Santander game, I was just casually watching, but it seemed to me Messi and Villa were both playing quite centrally and the only players to occupy the wide positions regularly in attack were the two fullbacks, and the average position stats further imply that it was a sign of things to come in that sense.
    One thing this will certainly mean is that Busquets if he does play will be asked to express himself in attack more often and I think he'll surprise many with his range of skills and quality of play in the attacking phase too, as he genuinely was very impressive as the stand-in playmaker against Zaragoza(alongside Keita and Toure) and it seems many have pinned him down to being a limited - but effective - footballer. I think he's more than that.

  23. Conor,
    I definitely think the 4-2-2-2 will be taken up by the more imaginative coaches out there (then again, how sheeplike is it to just copy tactics from the most recent World Cup?); providing the two holding midfielders are not Silva-Melo type brutes it can be an effective system.

    Also agree that Busquets could adapt to a slightly looser or even more advanced role.

  24. I'm sure the screen shots you have used are from the same fixture the season after the one you are referring to. In the April 2004 fixture, the first goal was scored in the 54th minute. In your screen shots, Real Madrid have the lead in under 10 minutes. The season after, April 2005, Zidane scored on 7 minutes, so it seems something doesn't tally up. Unless I've completely misunderstood something.....

  25. @Anonymous

    The channel that broadcast those games (I can't remember its name) had an annoying habit of using a 45 min clock which was reset at the start of the 2nd half, rather than a 90 min clock as is common in most broadcasts. Usually there was a number 1 or 2 indicating whether the game was in the 1st half or 2nd half, but that seems to be missing from the screens above.

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