By Jimmy Shan
Barcelona are renowned for playing mesmerising, tantalising football. I have no doubt that they are and have been for a number of years the in team in terms of their attacking brand of football and their possession dominance. Every aspiring youth coach will dissect the way they play, the individual brilliance of Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and co…. but is their dominance purely down to what they do with the ball?
The answer is no… Pep Guardiola has publicly stated that he does not rate his team without the ball, when you think deeper how many naturally defensive minded players does he have at his disposal?
The biggest challenge Pep Guardiola faced was to improve the work rate of his players, there mentality without the ball and the introduction of the 6 second rule. This was the tactical masterstroke that put the final piece in the Barcelona DNA jigsaw.
If Barcelona weaknesses were to be without the ball what better tactics to assist their ability to retain the ball for long periods of time than to implement a strategy to regain the ball back as early as possible in transition.
This in turn saw Guardiola implementing the 6 second rule, demanding a regain of possession within 6 seconds. In training Guardiola religiously times how long a team is without the ball, the 6 second count down encourages the team to regain the ball quickly.
Barcelona’s in possession game is based around short fast passes and interchanges which lends itself nicely to the 6 second rule due to the team’s natural compact shape.
The 6 second rule is based around quick transition, the ability to smother the ball and act positively to react to attempt to crowd out spaces and passing options. The nearest 2-3 players are key to the success of this process, an ability to press aggressively with no fear, with the knowledge that back up is close to hand. These players press with an intensity and a predictably which enables supporting players to take up positions that are relevant to this. With 2-3 players affecting the ball the remaining 7-8 ensure compactness and often will see all players well with inside an area the size of quarter of a pitch. Key roles for these players will be to position themselves into dare positions, tempting a pass to enter their zone so that they can press and harass. Players furthest from the ball will ensure there is a balance to the team compactness / shape, this is of paramount importance.
Often pressing this aggressively (harassing) will see / force an opposition into making mistakes, forcing passes, making hurried decisions, miss placing passes etc. These mistakes will often see the return of possession to Barcelona. In situations where there is a regain of the ball, the tactical thought process seems to be geared around stealing possession and moving it on quickly. Of course the ability to manage the ball in a tight area and have technical excellence is a big benefactor in playing / utilising this defensive strategy.
The Barcelona transition master class is not all about the 6 second rule, if the team fail to win the ball back in this time frame they will fall back into a very English like 4 4 2. Once this shape has been established from this base the pressing phase can restart – typically responding to traditional pressing triggers (square pass, long travelling pass etc.) Again the ability to steal it and move it on quickly is a key factor and often executed with such elegance, speed and finesse.
So the next time you watch a Barcelona game, be sure to be wowed by the vision of Xavi the dribbling skills of Messi. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for the brilliant way they regain possession so quickly.
Jimmy Shan: West Bromwich Albion FC U18 Head Coach