Barcelona’s win against Villarreal was a big one. It was the first time all season Barça have won back-to-back games in La Liga and it extended the unbeaten start of Xavi Hernández as manager. It was also a match that exposed a very worrying aspect of Xavi’s tactics that must be corrected very soon.
To make it as clear as possible: Xavi should drop his man-marking defensive system. Like, right now.
There is still a place in football for man-marking. It is not a defensive tactic of the past. Several of the top teams use today it in the buildup phase, because it’s the best way to shut down passing options and force opponents to either go long or try to dribble their way out of trouble, which can cause mistakes and lead to easy chances.
Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea goes man-to-man on the buildup. So does Julian Nagelsmann’s Bayern Munich. So does Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. It is still very effective. But all of those three teams have a simple rule: if man-marking doesn’t result in us winning the ball back or the other team crosses a certain spot on the pitch (usually the midfield line), revert back to our shape (Chelsea’s 5-4-1, Bayern’s 4-4-2, City’s 4-1-4-1) and defend in a zone.
That type of system that uses both man and zone depending on the situation or where the ball is certainly feels like the best current defensive strategy at the highest level. You can’t really defend the buildup in a zone; top teams will find the gaps and pass through you too easily. But defending man-to-man all across the pitch is quite simply suicidal. Assigning every player on the team a specific matchup and asking him to track his man no matter where he goes is the simplest way to destroy your shape, and top teams will easily figure out how to attack the massive spaces you’re leaving in behind.
Of all the problems with Ronald Koeman’s system at Barça, man-marking was without a doubt the worst. We covered this in our tactical analysis of the loss to Bayern at Camp Nou in the Champions League opener, where Nagelsmann and his players quickly figured out that moving around and changing positions would quickly expose the Barça defense.
Against Villarreal last Saturday, we saw the exact same problems. Barça started well and could have scored twice within the first 10 minutes, and after the first 20 it looked like they would destroy the Yellow Submarine. But Unai Emery quickly realized that right-back Eric García was man-marking left winger Moi Gómez, and asked Gómez to not play on the wing and instead move centrally whenever Villarreal had the ball.
He wanted García to vacate the right-back spot, follow Gómez whenever he went even if Gómez never touched the ball, and open up a giant space for left-back Alfonso Pedraza to explore. With Barça B winger Ez Abde making his first start for Barça and being new to such an aggressive a man-marking system, Emery got what he wanted. Time and time again.
That’s bad. Really bad. Abde lost Pedraza every single time, and Eric continued to follow Gómez around even after it was made clear that his man was never going to get the ball and was simply a decoy. The most concerning part about all of this was that Xavi did not adjust at halftime. The same thing kept happening, again and again and again.
There are two teams in Europe’s Top 5 leagues who defend man-to-man as aggressively as Xavi’s Barça have so far: Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta and Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United. Both of those teams have something in common: they are wildly entertaining and brilliant offensive sides, but are both horrible at the back which stops them from being truly competitive. Atalanta should be a serious Serie A contender every year, but they simply concede too many goals to be the best team in the league.
Leeds flirted with the Top 6 in the Premier League last season, but their defense let them down too many times. They are too injured to be fairly judged this season, but they’re still bad at the back.
After three games Xavi’s Barça seem to be going in the same direction: every game is going to be a lot of fun with plenty of chances for both sides, and if Barça score theirs and get some luck at the back they will win. Considering their attacking talent once the injured players return, they might win a lot more than they lose. But can they be truly competitive if they continue to allow so many big chances to teams with better attacking talent than Espanyol and Villarreal?
Xavi has already made tremendous improvement in the attacking side, and Barça will no doubt be a better team than they were under Koeman for that reason. But the defense will not improve if Xavi maintains the man-marking system. The reason it didn’t work under Koeman was not because Koeman was a bad coach: it’s because the players are not good enough to execute what is already a very risky system to begin with.
Ronald Koeman was too stubborn to admit his tactics did not fit his squad and refused to adjust. That was his biggest mistake.
Xavi cannot repeat it. For the team’s sake — and his own.