Atletico Madrid 1-2 Barcelona: Busquets takes ‘modern centre-half’ role a little further

September 20, 2010

The starting line-ups

Barcelona claim a narrow victory in a fixture they’ve found difficult in recent years – but Lionel Messi was injured late on.

Quique Sanchez Flores chose a 4-4-2ish system with few surprises, similar to the team which reached the Europa League final last season. Sergio Aguero passed a late fitness test, but didn’t look 100% and had little influence on the game. Simao Sabrosa and Jose Antonio Reyes were deployed as inverted wingers.

Barcelona (playing in a brand new, pale green shirt) made only one change from the side that thrashed Panathinaikos 5-1 in midweek, with Eric Abidal making way for Maxwell. Messi continued to play a false nine role, with David Villa cutting in from the left.

Hercules showed that defending very deep is probably the best way to defeat Barcelona, but with Atletico at home and having won this fixture in each of the last three seasons, they weren’t about to sit back and play exclusively on the counter-attack. Instead, they tried to take the game to Barcelona – pressing high up the pitch, getting their wingers into advanced positions, and consequently playing with a very high defensive line.


It didn’t take long before this defensive line was breached. First David Villa went through one-on-one and forced David De Gea into a superb save to his left, but seconds later Messi had ghosted past the Atletico centre-backs and casually flicked the ball into the far corner to make it 1-0.

The game was played at a high tempo, with Atletico getting the ball forward quickly to their wingers, whilst Barcelona enjoyed the fact the home side left space in behind, and played more direct game than usual. Pressing from both teams meant few players got much time on the ball, although Xavi, as ever, was the man who dictated play more than anyone else.

The game’s other two goals came from corners. Atletico equalised when Raul Garcia beat Victor Valdes to a left-wing corner and headed in, whilst Gerard Pique got what turned out to be the winner when he chested down a Messi corner at the far post, and fired low across goal into corner.


The real point of interest in tactical terms, however, was the role of Sergio Busquets. He played extremely deep, dropping between Pique and Carles Puyol to form a back three, allowing the Barcelona full-backs to push on extremely high up the pitch.

A three-man defence with the ball...

There’s nothing particularly new about this, of course. Barcelona have seen a defensive midfielder drop in at centre-back when in possession for much of the past two years. Yaya Toure did it frequently on the way to Barcelona’s Champions League win in 2008/09, and Busquets himself showcased in many times last season too. Indeed, with the Pique-Puyol-Busquets trio also featuring together for Spain, Busquets’ deep role was one of the key features of the World Cup final.

More permanent three

So what was so different about this game? Well, the basic reason is that Busquets’ position as a centre-back was far more permanent than we are used to. It is frequently used when Barcelona are in possession, to get out of the natural press of opposing formations using two strikers, or 4-2-3-1s when the central player in the ‘3′ closes down a centre-back. Dropping a central midfielder in to make a three-man defence results in Barcelona being able to build up play from the back more easily, widening the active playing area, and allowing the full-backs to become wing-backs.

...and without

Today, however, Busquets frequently took up that position both with and without the ball. He was stationed between Puyol and Pique so often that rather than this being a 4-3-3 that became a 3-4-3, it was more like the reverse – a 3-4-3 that became a 4-3-3. It was most similar to the fascinating system Mexico used leading up to (and at) the World Cup, where they effectively had two separate ‘bands’ of defence – two centre-backs who stayed in position, then a forward-playing centre-half and two wing-backs, who would move up and down the pitch in turn, according to the situation Mexico found themselves in.

Spare man when defending

The three-man defence worked well at the back, creating a spare man against the Aguero-Forlan partnership. Coaches like Marcelo Bielsa and Otto Rehhagel are so keen to keep a spare man in the centre of the defence that they will switch their systems (and therefore make necessary substitutions) within games, but having a player like Busquets means Barcelona are able to seamlessly move between a three- and four- man system at will. Of course, as this would have been 4-3-3 v 4-4-2, it means Barcelona lose their midfield numerical advantage, but Xavi and Andres Iniesta are such good passers that this was no problem considering the other pros of the system.

Attacking benefits

Barcelona's three-man attack narrows...

Although the central midfield moving backwards happens a long way from the opponents’ goal, it’s actually a very good attacking tactic. As the animated diagram in ZM’s article on the modern sweeper / centre-half shows, switching to a back three means that the full-backs can become wing-backs and motor on forward. In turn, this means that the forward trio no longer have to provide width high up the pitch, and the wingers can instead come inside and play very close together. Naturally, this narrows the opposition defence and opens up space on the flanks for the wing-backs, and means the opposition wide midfield players (generally attackers) are forced into extremely defencsive positions.

If that’s a bit theory-heavy, the basic point is that this is exactly what happened in this game. Messi and Villa were so close together that they often resembled a traditional front two, whilst arguably the biggest threats in open play were Maxwell and Dani Alves, who frequently got into good crossing positions and constantly caught out Simao and Reyes, neither of whom are particularly keen defenders. Pedro’s role also changed slightly – rather than playing on the shoulder of the full-back, he instead moved deeper into an advanced midfield role, which helped compensate for Barcelona’s loss of a spare man in the centre of midfield.

...which makes the Atletico defence extremely narrow, creating acres of space for the Barcelona wing-backs (here, Maxwell at the bottom of the photo) on the flanks

Barcelona defended their lead well both with and without the ball – they retained possession but they also pressed very well. Atletico tried to shut down the three-man defence through pressing, but this often meant one of their central midfielders was drawn out of position (by closing down Busquets) and Barcelona were able to keep the ball even more easily.


How often will Barcelona use this tactic on a permanent basis? It only really makes sense against teams who play with two strikers (that is the problem with three-man defences in general), and considering how many sides face Barcelona with 4-5-1s and look to put nine outfield players behind the ball, it might be rather rare.

Atletico were too rigid and rarely looked like creating chances in open play. Keeping Forlan and Aguero high up and central against the Barcelona defence didn’t test them enough – Busquets playing deep meant there was space ‘in the hole’ that neither of the forwards tried to exploit.

But Barcelona were dominant, and the score was only 2-1 largely thanks to a man-of-the-match display from De Gea, who made at least four superb saves.

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