Tactical Incompetence. The word one would rarely use for a club like Barcelona, a few years ago. The club whose success was laid upon by tactical geniuses like Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola. The club whose “positional play” philosophy inspired a complete generation of football.
Tactical Incompetence. It’s a strong word. Yet, Barcelona, the club which changed football by their tactics, is a shadow of their former self. Why? Let’s first understand what Positional play or Juego de posición really is.
(This article does not focus on the solutions (leave it for the manager), Instead tries to diagnose the most important of the tactical problems faced by the club.)
Juego de posicion. Another name for Tiki Taka?
Pep Guardiola wrote in his book:
“I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition’s goal. It’s not about passing for the sake of it .”
Positional play is a philosophy that has various principles, but the main is searching for superiorities. It doesn’t mean passing the ball horizontally, it is much more than that. Its main goal i.e. searching for superiorities behind each line of pressure, can be achieved quickly/slowly, more or less vertically. To simplify the concept of superiority, it’s mostly about creating a 3rd (free) man between each line of pressure.
Positional play has various interpretations, according to the interpreter. It is like a piece of music, One can make various interpretations-faster, slower,refined, but the core has to be the same.. Naturally, there are good and bad interpretations. The team which interpreted it the best was Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
A pitch is divided into specific zones and a player has his roles/tasks defined within these zones. The unique thing is, the options are predetermined by the position of the ball.
But the main takeaway here is: Possession is a tool, not a philosophy. The reason for high possession in “Positiespiel” is the usage of the rotation of the ball to outplay and tear apart the opposition. “Keeping Possession” isn’t the Barcelona philosophy (as many would say), but a tool of the main philosophy.
Now, Not every possession sequence can result in an attack(naturally), so keeping the possession without retrying to attack is an option (while you regroup and attack again). However, the wrong focus on this has caused a LOT of confusion.
“What? So, ‘Tiki Taka’ isn’t our philosophy but the part of the problem?”
You read it right, the sole intent of your system to be tiki taka is a problem and not positional play. Tiki Taka does not reflect the basic/core intent of Juego de Posicion, and can be practised without it.
Teams practising tiki taka are susceptible to a LOT of ineffective possession (or Sterile possession as Twitter says). This should not be a tactical method, but a consequence of getting your basics about positional play wrong.
Ineffective possession eventually leads to a sluggish, slow and boring way of football. It makes it difficult to generate attacks, which leads to repeated attempts to start your attack all over again (yet keeping the ball), which leads to gigantic possession numbers, but with no result. Mix this with the increasing defensive fragility of your team and you instead concede two goals.
Sounds familiar? This is exactly what has gone wrong for the team. After Guardiola left, the team continued to play the same game but eventually lost focus and intensity in the fundamentals. Which mixed with the different interpretations of coaches and foreign ideas, made the game a very flat and predictable version of the game (tiki taka), which focused on being more horizontal and sluggish in general.
Individual brilliance (Let’s just call it Messidependencia for Barcelona) rescued the team countless times. The best example is the 2018/2019 season. But individual brilliance doesn’t work every time. You ought to misfire for once, even if you are Leo Messi. This led to the dismal exits by Atletico, Juventus and the notorious trio of Roma, Anfield and the 8-2 thrashing by Bayern. Only one UEFA Champions League trophy in a decade for the club which won three in six years.
“I want the ball for 90 minutes. When I don’t have the ball, I go high pressing because I want the ball.” – Pep Guardiola.
The idea of possession as a tool in Juego de Posicion, which led the team to use the ball as the tool to disorganise and attack is key. Remember I talked about different interpretations of any tactical system? This is just a wrong (yet the most common) misinterpretation of Guardiola’s system ( or the Barca system). The idea of possession as a philosophy is created by people who don’t understand the fundamentals behind it.
Barcelona has tried to play their own game in the past decade with forgetting the fundamentals themselves. Possession for the sake of it, is a primitive idea that doesn’t get you much far in the modern game.
Out of the mountain of issues in Futbol Club Barcelona, I elaborated on the issue of misinterpreting their own philosophy.
Yes, Possession of the ball psychologically torments the opponents because they don’t have a control. Continuity and flow of the possession makes you in control. But what is important is that possession is merely the consequence of Juego de Posicion.
Scoring goals, Letting less goals in and keeping possession are the consequences of the philosophy, not the objective.The objective is to play good football and win by using it.
Remember, keeping possession is never bad. But the usage of it as a potent tool is the key to success, not taking it for granted.