How Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona Reinvented Total Football


Arrigo Sachi, the mastermind of the Milan side of the 80′s, had once staked a claim that the next tactical revolution in the game, would be the conversion of the whole pitch into a midfield area. What does it imply? The teams in the forefront of this revolution would have the luxury of having defensive midfielders playing as defenders, and attacking midfielders playing as strikers. Having said this, they would still function as midfielders  i.e – passing the ball around quickly, closing down spaces and playing a high tempo game.

“It’s become all about specialists. Is football a collective and harmonious game? Or is it a question of putting x amount of talented players in and balancing them out with y amount of specialists?” – Arrigo Sachi.
By this, Sacchi primarily pointed out the ‘cost’ incurred in having the ‘luxury’ of an attacker. For instance, a classic Trequartista like Kaka needs an enforcer like Makelele.
Further, Sacchi hoped for the elimination of specialists, in order to uphold the motto that – ”Football is a team game.”
Well, two decades on, and Sacchi may have finally seen his saying come true. Pep Guardiola has certainly upheld Sacchi’s sayings and put his words into practice.
Till last season, we all were aware of the prototype Barcelona which would pass their way to victory. A four Man defence, and a three man midfield – which was led by a three man attack.
With the acquisition of Cesc Fabregas, Guardiola has ushered in a new era, a new beginning at the Nou Camp. So, without much ado, let us divulge into the details of this revolution.

With the signing of Cesc Fabregas, many were of the assumption that Fabregas would soon replace Xavi in the starting XI. But, Guardiola had other plans. The signing of Cesc Fabregas signaled the start of the Guardiola revolution.
The ageing of Carles Puyol meant that Pep could not rely on him week in, week out. Many quarters of the press thus linked Barcelona to an array of Center Backs, but Pep instead chose Mascherano. This signing was first met with contempt, but instead of playing the Argentinian as a holding midfielder, Guardiola  has successfully re-invented Mascherano in the Center Back role, and he has definitely made a good fist out of it!
This season, with the arrival of Fabregas, there were presumptions that he would initially benched since Xavi is an immovable figure in the XI. But , Guardiola, pulled off yet another rabbit out of the hat. Who would have thought!
Fabregas was consequently transformed into the ‘False 9′ role.
 “We wanted to try Cesc in that position because he gets into good positions in and around the area. He did well and it gives us another option,  cited Guardiola, for making a No. 4 into a No. 9.
Mascherano’s heat map.
Fabregas’ heat map.
The above heat maps shows us the positions taken up by Mascherano and Fabregas, respectively. For starters, it is worth mentioning their respective starting positions in the respective games. Whereas, Mascherano started as the Center back in the SuperCopa  against Madrid, Fabregas started up front alongside Messi and Sanchez in the ‘False 9′ role.
Notice the Starting and the Average position of the No 4 – Cesc Fabregas.
Putting under the microscope, Cesc Fabregas’ off the ball movements and on it, we come to the conclusion that though Cesc Fabregas started off up front, he  ended up playing in midfield. Eventually, this created a 4 vs 2 in the middle of the park, and consequently, Barcelona gained control of the game. Also, Fabregas popped up to score the 3rd goal for his side in the 77th minute.
The Center Forward role at the Nou Camp has been subject to much scrutiny and debate over the past three seasons. In his first season, Guardiola had Eto’o at his disposal. In the summer transfer market, the Catalan club made it’s most expensive buy in history in the form of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But for the towering Swede, his Camp Nou spell was nothing short of a nightmare.
Consequently, he was shipped to AC Milan, and Laporta brought Villa to the Nou Camp. After playing centrally for the first  few weeks, Villa was moved to the left flank to accommodate Messi in the ‘False 9′ role.
A unconventional lone striker, who drops deep into midfield. 
This tactical tinkering by Pep ultimately paid dividends as Barcelona won the double in that season – a season which saw Lionel Messi gather a record 53 goals.
The heat map below of Lionel Messi(given below) shows us the function and the movements of a False 9.
Lio Messi – genius redefined.
The long term injury to David Villa and the arrival of Sanchez signaled the beginning of a revolution. Sanchez, an attacking midfielder was deployed as the forward on the left flank. Messi was stationed on the right wing, with Fabregas now playing as the False 9. In fact, Messi and Fabregas interchange positions during the course of the 90 minutes in a game.
Barcelona, with the false 9(right) and without the False 9(left)
3) 3-4-3 with a Twist
Until the last season, the wall of Barcelona remained untouched – the back four picked themselves.  Alves, Pique, Puyol and Abidal laid the cornerstone of the success of the Blaugrana. 
But due to the health problems concerning  Abidal and the frequent injury problems to Puyol,  the wall of this team had to be re-constructed. It was surely not an easy job to replace one of the most consistent yet the most non-prolific of left-backs, and to find an alternative to the Caveman.
Many expected Pep to take a dip into the inflated market and go all guns blazing for a top notch center back. Thiago Silva’s comments on his apparent desire to play in the Blue and Red added much needed fuel to the fire. But instead of using his transfer kitty for a defender, Pep decided to tinker with the system and he consequently moved to the 3-4-3, with a twist!
In this, the Holding midfielder in Sergio Busquets drops back and functions like a libero, and the center backs radiate to the flanks from their positions. It is probably one of the most complicated defensive structures, which makes able use of each defender’s forte. As the commentator pointed out in one of the El Clasicos:
“Just when Mourinho thought he had all the answers, Guardiola changed the questions!” 
Putting the Holding Midfielder – Sergio Busquets under the microscope :
Left – Starting formation of FCB. Right – Heatmap showing the positions taken up by Busquets.
The heatmap reveals to us, that though Sergio Busquets started as a central midfielder, he dropped back during the course of the 90, with the Center Backs moving wide, thereby becoming full backs. To simplify matters, I shall use the following formation diagram :
On Left – The starting position of the Barcelona team. On right – Formation after player interchange.
Thus, we notice that as Busquets drops back, Barcelona revert to the 4-3-3 and the default system is restored.
Though, such is the fluidity of this team that, if the opposition seem to have found a way through, Guardiola can easily tinker the system and revert back to the 3-4-3 in a jiffy.
(The above team lined up in the 2-0 victory against Mallorca.)

The roots of Total Football are ingrained deep within the setup at La Masia. The golden generation of Barcelona and arguably, the Golden Team of world football has its logistics based on the codecs of this simple yet so confusing style of play, and it is fitting that the mastermind – Pep Guardiola – is making apt use of the ‘user-friendly- and ‘use how you want’ nature of these players!

-Dhruv Saraf

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