Coming to Barcelona from AEK for the 2021/22 season would turn out to be a bit of an eye-opener for me. Having seldom managed in the higher echelons of world football, it was a shock when my first signing commanded a signing-on fee equal to the annual transfer budget Dimitris Melissanidis would have generally afforded me at AEK Athens. As it transpired, the Spanish wing-back Grimaldo would be my only signing of the summer.
When the Barcelona job was awarded to me, it proposed an interesting challenge. Barcelona had finished outside the top two for the past three seasons. Despite winning the Champions League under Klopp’s stewardship, failure to improve on their league position over previous seasons cost him his job.
An ageing Messi and Luis Suarez will force me to be mindful of the roles they can perform and the minutes they can offer on the pitch, given both turn 35 this season. That said, they both have a vital role to play in any success we might have.
The task has been made even more intriguing by my decision to get the team playing a 3-5-2 system. It is a system I have wanted to create in Football Manager 2017 for a while now. Notwithstanding our initial issues in getting the right balance across the pitch, and trying to shoehorn Messi into the system, I think I have come up with something that works quite well. There are frailties, as always with many systems, but the system allows us to make the most of our strengths, and guard against our weaknesses.
This article aims to break down the system and explain my thought process for selecting the roles and duties to compliment the team instructions given the players. With the initial shape figured out, it was time to think about how we might undertake creating a blueprint for the three areas I like to think about when creating a tactic: the defence, the build-up and the offence.
On paper, it’s a simple 3-5-2 system. Sweeper keeper behind three central defenders who are flanked by supporting wing-backs. Ahead of them through the centre are two midfielders, a Roaming Playmaker on the left and a Central Midfielder on the right, given an attack duty. The strikers are a False 9 on the left and Trequartista on the right.
- Control mentality
- Very fluid shape
- Much lower tempo
- Width fairly wide
Barcelona defensive organisation
After a little bit of research, and a lot of discussion with FM Pressure, I opted to start with a Central Defender Cover flanked by two defenders playing as Central Defender Defend. Having never actually used a three-man defence before it took some tweaking to ensure they play as the tough-tackling, solid block I need them to be. The flanking central defenders are given the instruction to tackle harder and to mark tighter. This leaves the more central defender free to sweep. I later removed the cover duty from the Central Defender due to the ineffectiveness of his movement in a low block with our instructions.
- Slightly deeper defensive line
When facing an opposition attack, the defensive players’ position themselves in a low block with a slightly deeper defensive line. There is no urgency to win the ball back immediately, rather we maintain our shape and tease the opposition into making a mistake. Invariably the result of which is a long shot or a high floating ball into the box which is easily cleared, most of the time.
The job of the wide defenders who both play as a Wing-Back Support is to win the ball back at the first time of trying. They sit narrower, close down more and tackle harder. We have a Deep Lying Playmaker on defend duty in the DM strata with no particular defensive instructions and two energetic central midfielders, a Roaming Playmaker and Central Midfielder Attack who are happy to drop back and help with any cleanup.
Barcelona defensive organisation in action
To display our defensive qualities, I have picked a recent Champions League match against Manchester United, whose front 4 consists of Rashford, Griezmann, Isco (Replaced by Andre following injury) and Mkhitaryan. Not to mention the supporting midfielders of Pogba and Mata. During the game, Manchester United had 10 shots on goal, with nine of them being from outside the area. A testament to our solid foundation and the frustration we cause the opposition when they come up against us.
[note: White markings are used for Barcelona players, red for the opposition. A red or white dotted line signifies a player’s next movement. A green dotted line means future ball movement]
To begin, Griezmann (on the ball) intercepts a poor pass by Hendrix to Roberto (our wing-back, the right most highlighted player) and looks to immediately play the ball to Pogba (highlighted red). Our defence will quickly look to get back into a low block to frustrate the opposition, while the midfield harasses the opposition for the ball back. Roberto will stay with his man to cut off a passing option until it is safe to drop back into line.
We have the numerical advantage in the middle of the pitch, so that is where we try to force the ball. We use instructions on the opposition wide players to show them onto their inside foot, e.g., a right midfielder would be shown on his left foot. We then instigate the press through the midfield on the central players as they encroach our area.
Once Pogba is in possession of the ball, Roberto sticks tight to Griezmann to ensure a pass cannot come back to him. Hendrix looks to engage Pogba, who has plenty of passing options deep and away from our goal. He spreads the ball out wide to Mkhitaryan. We are happy for teams to play in this area, but we do close down from the midfield. Our defence, meanwhile, will sit deep and wait for any balls coming into players within their zones.
Now it is Alba’s turn to engage Mkhitaryan. However, with his quick feet, Mkhitaryan is able to manoeuvre the ball back infield to Andre (circled red) who moves to meet the ball. The decision not to play the ball down the right wing probably saved us some trouble, as Vrsaljko is in a lot of space on that flank. Alba will look to drop back into formation once the ball is played back infield where Can will move across to cover the central area in front of the defence.
With our low block back into their structure, Rashford, the lone striker, is isolated in the middle. Can is covering Mkhitaryan and Roberto has Griezmann covered, Andre only has a couple of safe options, and again opts to pass back to Pogba to try and create an opening. A recurring theme throughout our games where teams will become frustrated with a lack of safe, forward options.
This frustration often leads to long shots or more explorative long passes which we can intercept.
Subsequently, Pogba opts to feed Griezmann. Our numerical advantage in defence ensures our marking is making it very difficult for Manchester United to make any sort of penetrative balls forward into their attackers. The lack of runners out wide limit the options to break us down. Shaw is still very deep at this moment. We are happy for the ball to go out wide, as there is no immediate danger, however, should Shaw make a run, the defence will shift to cover the extra man, which we are equipped to do.
We are comfortable enough to let the ball to go out wide, as there is no immediate danger, however, should Shaw make a run, the defence will shift to cover the extra man, which we are equipped to do.
As our players move to the right to cover the action, Griezmann has a limited number of options. He can have another wild shot, pass it back to Pogba or play it out wide to Shaw, who this time finally makes the run forward to support.
Roberto will look to close down Shaw, with Hendrix moving over to cover Griezmann to ensure he is not left in space. This fluid movement in defence allows us to cover rushing players, without leaving opposition players in space in the danger zones.
With Shaw now running with the ball, our defence all shift over to cover the space and limit the room United have to move the ball on. Roberto is able to quickly dispossess Shaw, and regain possession of the ball for us. This shifting from left to right and back again, maintaining shape and not breaking ahead to engage the ball carrier is an essential characteristic of our defensive organisation. With the five-man defence, we are able to cover lateral passes with relative ease, and our compact midfield makes vertical passes tricky for the opposition to execute.
To conclude our defensive organisation I have shown how our low block maintains its shape across the back line, with our wing-backs given licence to engage the ball carrier and force him inside, and then mark him when the ball is played on to reduce the passing options.
Our strict adherence to maintaining shape standing off and allowing play to happen around us often frustrates the opposition into making a mistake. In this example, that error was Shaw running into a crowded area and losing possession. Often, it can result in long shots or interceptions where the space for penetrative passes is reduced.
Barcelona transition from defence to attack
The highly sought-after goalkeeper, Donnarumma, signed for the Catalans this summer before I had joined for £30m, in a deal agreed by my predecessor. His current ability is not as I would have expected for his great potential, and despite his passing and first touch being below average, he is integral to our play from the back. It is a risk, but one I need to take for us to control the first phase, which starts with him playing short passes out to my central defenders. He is asked to slow the pace and to calmly distribute the ball to Khalifa, the most central of my back three.
- Play out of defence
- Pass into space
An essential characteristic of playing three at the back is the ability to bring the ball out of the defence with relative ease via the extra defender. The back three with wing-backs opens up multiple passing lanes as the ball moves forwards. Lavolpista is a term used to describe the movement of a midfielder dropping into defence to spread the central defenders wider to create more lateral passing opportunities. With a back three, Lavolpista is achieved naturally with the introduction of a third man. This movement allows us to retain possession deep within our half during the build-up phase. The defenders will split wide, making passes out from the back simple.
This pivotal movement, coupled with a lower tempo and slightly deeper defensive line enables our build up play to be gradual and controlled. Working the ball sideways, we move the opponent and disrupt their shape; using the full width of the pitch to create an opening for us to surge into.
The wing-backs sit relatively deep, but wide. In possession they move inside with the ball and look to play infield or recycle play via the goalkeeper; seldom running down the line with the ball from deep. The idea is for them to become part of the attacking midfield and support in overloading the opposition in the half-spaces.
The presence of Busquets in the defensive midfield strata playing in the Deep Lying Playmaker role occupies the opposition attack on goal kicks, giving Khalifa time and space on the ball. From his central position, he has time to look around at all options ahead and pick out a simple short pass. Invariably, the ball will find it’s way to Messi or one of the more advanced central midfielders relatively unopposed through a series of short lateral passes and fluid movement.
Barcelona transition to attack in action
The next set of screenshots will show how we use our possession orientated system and numerical advantage in the defensive strata to outmanoeuvre the opposition and work the ball into the advanced areas of the pitch to begin our attack.
A little bit of research ahead of a Champions League clash with Celtic unearths Derek Adams’ preference for a 4-2-3-1 attacking system with high-pressing and man marking (this can all be viewed by the opposition manager profile). This tight marking works to our advantage as we stretch play and move the ball quickly into unmarked players.
The build-up begins after a turnover of possession and the ball working its way back to Donnarumma, as it often does with our approach. The lateral movement of Umtiti and Lemos within the half-spaces opens up an easy passing option for our central most defender, Khalifa. Whose instructions are basic. Hold position and keep it simple. Our wing-backs at this stage are just out of the shot.
With a two-man defence, it is easier for the opposition to press high and mark the central defenders. While they will have passing options in the full-backs, the back-three simplifies this possession play.
Once Khalifa is in possession of the ball, his decision is to shift the ball to Umtiti who is positioned in the left half-space out wide. The five-man midfield moves across to the left slightly and prepares for the transition into attack. Messi drops deeper to offer up a passing option. When in receipt of the ball, Umtiti will look to move infield to enable a short, simple pass to progress.
Note: Messi played as a Deep Lying Playmaker in this match
Umtiti receiving the ball has triggered Celtic to press the ball carrier. You can see here the man marking has also taken effect, with Messi (very deep at this point) and Busquets being marked tightly. However, Can has managed to unmark himself (highlighted in white) and moves away from his man ready to receive the ball. When he does, he will move and turn to spread the ball out to the right.
Once in possession of the ball, Can quickly passes the ball to Lemos, our right sided central defender. The Celtic man-marking system is reducing passing options, and so we’re forced to look for another route forwards. Lowering the tempo and using a control mentality affords the players time on the ball to patiently work the ball and find suitable openings. Seldom launching the ball forward in the hope of finding the head of a striker.
This is a key instruction, as it enables our play to be controlled, possession to be maintained, and the build-up to be meticulously worked.
With the man-marking system reducing our options, and the efficient use of the cover shadow while pressing our defenders, Lemos decides the safest route is to go back to Donnarumma and start again. This is exactly what we want. I do not want us giving the ball away and inviting pressure by searching for an attacking player with a direct pass. I want us to start again, get the ball moving from side-to-side to move Celtic out of their shape so we can start our quick vertical passing into an attack when it is appropriate to do so.
Donnarumma, playing as a sweeper keeper is already on the edge of his box when he plays a first time ball to Khalifa. He does have other passing options, but I’ve specifically asked the distribution, where possible, to go to Khalifa.
Khalifa plays a first time pass out wide to Umtiti and this time our movement is more purposeful. The gaps are opening, and our defenders, who are excellent on the ball and possess good composure and decision making have spotted the gaps created by our wide players stretching the play. Busquets anticipates the action that is about to unfold and drops in quickly to offer the passing option infield needed to navigate the marauding right sided attacking midfielder (marked in red), who is trying to close down Umtiti.
Umtiti is in no mood to patiently pass the ball now. We have escaped the man-marking attempts, and our wide play makes it impossible for the Celtic front line to continue their pressing as they cannot cover the full width of the pitch. The right sided attacking midfielder has now left a large space for us to exploit and create an attack.
This is a great tactic against high-pressing, man marking systems. Playing narrow plays right into their hands, and is not what you want to be doing. By stretching the play and moving the ball from side-to-side, you open up spaces in the channels, enabling you to move the ball quickly between the lines.
When Busquets receives the ball from Umtiti, he instantly passes it out to Alba who makes a darting run forwards, drawing the opposition defender to him. In this particular piece of play, the movement of Alba opens up space for Neymar to move into.
To conclude our build-up example, I have shown how the flow of the central defenders and the numerical advantage through the centre is key to utilising possession as a tool to create space to exploit the opposition. To enable us to work the ball forwards with relative ease after our quick, lateral passing has opened up space.
It is a system that encourages the opposition to press high up the pitch while we play in deeper areas of the pitch. With our low block and defensively positioned players, we can move the ball about before utilising the speedy and creative players in midfield and the final third of the pitch to break at pace. This exploitative football is simple to create if you give yourself the numerical advantage in the areas where you want to build your play; be that on the wings or through the central areas.
Barcelona offensive organisation
The 3-5-2 system affords us plenty of options to keep possession of the ball in the offence. Our system creates interesting overloads in the central spaces and half-spaces with the inside wing-backs supporting the attack. Our instructions are set to very much to exploit the areas where we are at an advantage numerically. The success of the system is underpinned by the ball-playing abilities through the spine of the team.
Once my defence has passed the ball to the midfield, our quality in offence shows. We might not have a team of Galacticos like our fierce rivals in Madrid, but we have a team working towards a common objective. Work the ball across all areas of the pitch to distort the opposition shape, intending to open up spaces in the channels to exploit. We have the creative ability of Messi, Suarez, and Neymar in the attack, which should be enough to open up the sternest of defences.
Typically, the offence begins through the middle, with whoever is playing as our Deep Lying Playmaker, feeding the ball forwards towards the midfield. The playmaking abilities of our attacking players dictate the offensive strategy. Our wing-backs, while high and wide offering depth is merely a muse for occupying the opposition full-backs. However, when used, they are effective at cutting inside and offering us numerical advantages in advanced areas of the pitch. Neymar will archetypally drop deep as a receiving striker. This action pulls the opposition out of shape and with the vertical movement of Messi creates space to work the ball into the more advanced striker, Luis Suarez.
Barcelona offensive organisation in action
The next set of screenshots will show how in the offensive phase we possess a two-pronged approach, depending on the situation as the play unfolds. The two goals I’ve selected to demonstrate these two very different approaches come from the same game; a recent league game against Atletico Madrid, who are one of the hardest teams to play against regarding their defensive organisation and offensive counter-attacking abilities. In this particular match, we restricted them to 15 long-shots during the game, and while they scored from two set pieces, we were able to come away with a 3-2 victory.
- Low crosses
- Dribble less
- Stick to positions
I will demonstrate how I utilise the technical players at my disposal to work the ball into goal-scoring opportunities against one of the meanest defences in the league, and how we also combine excellent decision making and vision to play long range passes with precision, splitting defences for quick, counter-attacking goals.
To enable a wide variety of offensive play, the players have a reasonable amount of freedom with which to chose the right way to attack; either the slow and methodical build up or the quick counter-attack.
The counter attack
Atletico’s Traore receives the ball from a throw-in. As alluded to in our defensive organisation section, we are deep and compact. We quickly win the ball from the player and the decision is to launch a counter attack.
Lemos, when in possession of the ball will play a quick ball forward into Suarez who, playing as a Trequartista in the striker role, has dropped back to receive the pass. Both Suarez and Neymar look to move into the channels to free up space to receive a pass in the advanced areas.
Immediately, Suarez looks to attack the channels and exploit the gaps between the Atletico defence, who are stretched across the pitch. The Trequartista is a great role for linking the midfield and the attack due to his inclination to drop deep, receive the ball and then either pass or run with it.
Similarly, Neymar, our False 9, makes the same movement as Suarez to offer more of a link between the midfield and the attack. He anticipates the counter attack and looks to break through in parallel to Suarez.
With the gap for Suarez to break into narrowing between the central defender and full-back, he makes the decision to launch a ball through the defence for Neymar to latch onto. The Atletico midfield is struggling to keep up with the pace of the counter attack.
Neymar continues his run forward between the two central defenders and quickly breaks the lines.
Neymar now collects the perfectly weighted pass from Suarez and has a clear route through to goal. The wide Atletico defence and quick thinking of our attackers to launch the counter attack has put Neymar 1-on-1 with the keeper.
These through-ball situations are more naturally occurring against teams who play a high-line against us. With our players looking to break through when the opportunity presents itself. We have the ability to pass through the lines, with the central midfielders encouraged to play more risky passes.
Neymar doesn’t miss from there, and it’s a beautiful goal scored by quick thinking and excellent positioning of the attacking players to receive the ball and work it around the defenders, despite being outnumbered.
The slow worked build-up
I’ve spoken about our build-up from the back already, but this is an excellent goal from the opposite end of the spectrum as it is worked from a goal kick. Using positional superiority and quick play through the lines, we’re able to exploit the defensive positioning of the opposition through our quick movement, lateral passing and movement of the strikers when joining in the transition.
Our defenders, as previously discussed, fan out wide from goal-kicks to create multiple passing options for the goalkeeper.
When Khalifa receives the ball, he has options to the left and right. The wing-backs now push on, occupying the Atletico wide players. Our Deep Lying Playmaker sits between the opposition strikers, who don’t really seem to know what to do or who to mark.
The ball is moved infield to Can, playing as a Central Midfield Attack. From his position, Can has quite a few options available as Atletico sit deep. Our numerical advantage through the middle encourages play through the central areas.
Roberto now moves infield as instructed and collects the ball from Can. The wide-midfielder doesn’t anticipate this movement, making this a simple transition from the defensive lines.
Roberto now moves the ball back infield again to Messi who is roaming around the middle, unmarked by Atletico. He is a real danger as a Roaming Playmaker in this position with his great anticipation and composure on the ball. His vision assists him in picking out the right pass to progress the play forwards.
When in receipt of the ball, Messi will surge forwards before picking out a pass to more advanced players.
This is where the creative genius of our attack begins to tell. Messi easily beats the onrushing midfielders, Neymar drops into the half-space which drags the right back with him allowing Alba to surge into space.
This fluid movement has opened up the defence in an instant, and the attack is straightforward and efficient through fluid movement and positional awareness.
The Atletico players circle in on Neymar as they sense the danger unfolding. However, by this point, Alba has already made his run forwards into space which Neymar spots and pics out another pinpoint forward pass.
With the Atletico players in no-mans land and Neymar and Alba exploiting the half-space relatively unopposed, the ball is swept through to Alba for a simple 1v1 chance. This area of the pitch (marked by yellow lines) is a critical area to exploit.
Controlling the half-spaces with the wing-backs cutting inside allow us to manoeuvre around the opposition central defender and nearside full-back and work into goal scoring opportunities.
The end result is an excellently worked goal from a goal kick.
To conclude our offensive organisation, I have shown how the movement of the central midfielders and wing-backs allows us to stretch the opposition out of shape, creating unique gaps through the lines that our quick and creative players can exploit. Whether that be through lightening quick counter attacks, or through calm and collected build-up play from the back.
The formation and Instructions
I know some will be interested to see the formation and instructions in one place, so here they are. Bear in mind these are the instructions given to my players who possess a specific set of attributes. Moreover, these are slightly adjusted depending on the opposition and how the game is playing out.
The formation and player instructions
The team Instructions
The 3-5-2 system is a tough one to get right. To balance the defence, transitions, and offence to ensure we’re both defensively sturdy and offensively potent has taken the best part of five months of the season to perfect. Only now am I happy with the roles and instructions I have given to the players. I still make adjustments in game, e.g., I’ll adjust the width against narrow formations, or the position and movement instructions of my wing-backs against deeper defences. However, overall I think the right balance is achieved to allow us to go on and have a successful season, without having to break the bank for superstars.
They key roles to get right, for me, are the five players across the midfield. If you can get these players supporting each other, the defence and the attack equally, then you can achieve a nice tactical balance, and that will leave you in good stead to build on the system and create a winning formula.
We are joint top of the league in January and through to the next phase of the Champions League. It promises to be an exciting end to the season.