Hey, Luis Enrique used those very same words. He was referring, of course, to being able to withstand other teams’s pressure. It’s no secret, of course, that teams have been using this strategy for a while, knowing how the Barcelona style of play depends on ball control and possession. Teams that have had success against Barcelona have implemented that very same strategy time and time again with Luis Enrique teams (Celta beat them 4-3, Athletic Bilbao took a 2-0 lead in Copa, Valencia almost snatched a victory earlier this season). Oftentimes, Barcelona’s superior talent is enough to see them through, but the opposition can make life difficult for them. Despite this, with the match against Atlético Madrid that saw Barça advance to their fourth straight Copa final we learned that maybe Luis Enrique’s side has learned how to suffer.
This begins from the back. Barcelona have two keepers with wonderful instincts that can play out from the back. Marc-André ter Stegen has never been shy (we all know that) and at times he can have no shame, but most times his bold dribble attempts in the box and his brazen little dinked passes to a defender, as opposed to firing the ball downfield, opens up everything for Barcelona. A perfect example of this was the match against Bilbao (a team that absolutely loves pressure because of their speedy players up front). With passing like what he pulled off in this game, he can jump formations. When four player from Bilbao are up front, and he can loft it accurately over their heads with poise and polish, Barcelona can and often do go on the break. With the MSN up front, it makes some games much less complicated than they have to be.
Since Claudio Bravo left, ter Stegen has been the first-choice keeper. With the addition of Jasper Cillessen, Barcelona now have another keeper comfortable with playing out from the back. Remember what I said about Atlético? Cillessen hasn’t had much run time, it’s true, but he showed what he’s capable of against them. Against a team like Atleti, (again, with speedy front players) Cillessen produced a masterclass MOTM performance. With Diego Simeone having conniptions on the sideline – that guy lives and breathes football, by the way – Cillessen was unfazed. He pulled off several key stops, including a point-blank save against Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco. His ability to play like a pseudo-ter Stegen that takes less risks but is still shameless is amazing. In my humble opinion, Cillessen saved that tie and led us to the final against Deportivo Alavés.
Following Luis Enrique’s comments that he doesn’t just select keepers based on “being blond and good-looking”, praise has deservedly been heaped upon these two. Barcelona’s ability to withstand pressure begins right here, as far from the forwards as you can be (can you tell I really like these goalies??).
The defense of Barcelona has always been one to control the flow of a game and retain possession. Since the days of Pep Guardiola, having the ball more than the opposition has had made sense. After all, if the other team can’t have the ball, they can’t score. For years, it was Gerard Piqué, Carles Puyol, and Yaya Touré, then Piqué and Javier Mascherano, and now it is Piqué and Mascherano/Samuel Umtiti. All these defenders have had one thing in common; fluidity and confidence on the ball. Piqué is often responsible for moving the ball from sideline to sideline to open up play.
The left and right backs have also pushed up more often than on other teams. Dani Alves and Éric Abidal were masters at that under Guardiola, and under Luis Enrique that role falls to Jordi Alba/Lukas Digne and Sergi Roberto/Aleix Vidal. The system allows them to act as wingers almost. It becomes more and more apparent that Barcelona depend heavily on these players.
Luis Enrique has changed this up, though. When the keepers need an option, Piqué and Umtiti/Mascherano move almost to the sideline. The backs move up to spread out the field. When whoever is playing CDM (Sergio Busquets or André Gomes) moves down to become a third center back and the formation basically goes into a 3-4-3 with the backs as midfielders. This spreads out the field and when the keepers consistently make the right pass, good things happen.
(Also, Barcelona have never lost a game when Umtiti has played. Just gonna leave this here.)