Below is an excerpt from the excellent book ‘Play Like Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona: A Coach’s Guide’ written by Agustín Peraita (FCBEscola Project Director at Sao Paulo FC Barcelona). The book is available on Amazon and is designed to understand and implement Pep Guardiola’s tactical approach and coaching methodology for that 2009-2010 Barça side. Containing more than 50 illustrations, detailing on-field drills, Principles/Subprinciples/Sub-SubPrinciples, tactical diagrams and weekly planning schedules, the book focuses explicitly on the preseason period as it lays the foundation for how a team will train, play, and perform over the season. Indeed, regular season training is simply a continuation of everything a team learns and implements during this phase, based on the playing schedule and other resources at a coach’s disposal. The playing philosophy, model of play, associated drills, and weekly training schedule are implemented from day one that the squad assembles.
The Spanish version of his book “I want my team to play as Guardiola´s FCBarcelona” was published in Spain in July 2015. It is already into its second edition. He is a frequent contributor to Marti Perarnau’s (Guardiola’s authorized biographer) tactical magazine The Tactical Room. This book has been translated from the original Spanish title Quiero que mi equipo juegue como el F.C.Barcelona de Guardiola, and therefore uses some terms that would not form the everyday language of football in the English-speaking world. As the book progresses and becomes more technical, greater focus is required to truly absorb the gems and inside knowledge concerning Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
The model of play captures the details of how a team plays across specific contexts, in the five moments of the game plus all of their sub-phases and beyond:
- organized attack
- organized defense
- the transition from attack to defence
- the transition from defence to attack
- set pieces
The model established by Cruyff, developed by Van Gaal, used by Juan Manuel Lillo to innovate, and improved by Guardiola, came to be called “El Juego de Posición” or “Positional Play.” Each of these managers developed it with their own idiosyncrasies, with modifications year after year, and influence from the club environments where they coached. A core idea was maintained throughout, however: organization through the use of the ball.
Many supporters, as well as coaches, think that the priority of positional play is to keep possession. They confuse the means with the aim. Possession is, in fact, just the tool. The objective is to dominate space; hence the name “positional play” and not “possession play”.
“Space is our compass and the Ball is our Oxygen”
The main idea behind positional play is to generate spatio-temporal advantages (i.e. advantages in a team’s space on the pitch or their time on the ball) through the use of the ball. The opposition, ultimately, becomes disorganised as the ball is moved around – but it also becomes very easy to recover the ball if you lose it. In turn, being successfully counter-attacked by the opposition becomes very difficult. This is the truly revolutionary idea, the real identity of the idea that culminated in Barça’s aims of 70% possession, 5-0 at half time, and 6 seconds of pressure.
Guardiola’s model of play structure for set pieces was also revolutionary but maybe not as obvious. For instance, he sought to defend wide-angle free kicks from outside the box, to assist the goalkeeper and make finishing difficult. It was also characteristic for his teams to play short corners so they could attack through open play that did not necessarily require a conventional cross into the box.
Where did we lose the ball?
Can I press?
How many passes did we make in the lost possession zone?
A – More than 3, press in that zone
B – Less than 3, pressing retreat in next zone back
Defensive Tactical Intensity
Tito Ramallo, one of the most prolific coaches of the Galician school, suggests a classification that can help to differentiate each of the ways a team may defend. Under the concept of Defensive Tactical Intensity, he establishes the following table, referring to how a team defends.
The two variables that the classification establishes are: defensive positioning (compact, expanded, spread out), and the attitude of defenders towards players with the ball (passive, actively marking opponents, getting tackles in). The number refers to the intensity of the defensive collective action with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest.
There is a third (unseen) variable, too. It’s the variable that takes a team from a defensive tactical intensity (DTI) of 9 to 10, and it’s the number of covering players behind the line of the ball in the attacking phase. If a team leaves fewer than four men behind the ball and defends with an attitude that seeks to recover the ball, that team is defending with DTI 10.
The Barça of Guardiola was a team of DTI 10, probably the first I have seen which pressed across the whole pitch, over 90 minutes. They worked to prevent the opposition’s first line from receiving the ball or playing. They generated defensive positioning with no fear of players abandoning the zone they were supposed to cover if it was necessary to create defensive numerical superiority in another zone where the ball was.
It is difficult to simplify, in a static zonal diagram, the distribution of the defensive responsibilities of Guardiola’s team. It is also important to highlight that there was no retreat zone but an ambition to defend forwards. The team would press high up the pitch until they recovered the ball or, if their position was overrun, they had to run backwards to balance space and defend the box. Finally, we cannot forget that defensive operations would vary depending on the players lined up and their positions on the field. However, at the risk of losing credibility, allow me the audacity to simplify such a complex phenomenon into the following zonal diagram.
The height (up the pitch) of this pressing retreat could be even higher, putting the defensive line in the opposition’s half and the first pressing line all the way to the penalty area. Of course, the height up the pitch to start the press depends on the position of the opposition’s defenders and their attitude towards starting the play.
We establish seven pressing zones at the maximum convenient height up the pitch. Six field players will have a preferential defending zone and four will have the following complementary behaviors. The zones will set pressing responsibilities and collective behavioral patterns.
– The two center backs have a common area assigned; when one of them presses, the other one must cover and, in certain circumstances, both can go for the ball. Additionally, one of the center backs will be in charge of covering any space that gets generated behind full backs who have left their zone to create an offensive or defensive numerical superiority.
– The defensive midfielder has no assigned zone; instead, he will cover the opposition player on the pressing line in front of him. Also, at the risk of the opponent playing long, he can prioritize defending the area guarded by the center backs when facing teams who do not play on the inside.
– The striker presses freely, without thinking about things too much, covering mainly the passing lines to the central midfielder and remaining alert for a possible offensive transition when the ball is won back.
Another main feature of this diagram is with how much frequency and aggression the full-backs press up the pitch; they may press right up behind the midfielders.
Play Like Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona: A Soccer Coach’s Guide is a title that aims to provoke the reader; taking aim at the ingenious attempts of many to imitate or copy the genius that is Pep, often without understanding the complexity of the tactical revolution that is involved. This book intends to thoroughly analyze the model of play of Pep’s Team, and to present a methodological training framework that can be put into practice with a grassroots, amateur, or semi-professional team.