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Barcelona’s Evolution: The beauty of the build-up phase

Hamoudi Fayad looks at the evolution of Barcelona, paying particular attention to the build-up play.

Nowadays, arguably the most important phase in football is the build-up. Whether a team uses long balls to reach the final third or plays swift ground passes to breach the opponent’s stronghold, the build up plays a pivotal role in determining the outcome of a football match regardless. Like a movie, there needs to be a build-up towards the climax or the final product. In football, it is a continuous and seamless process, interchanging between both building, finishing and defending phases at all times.

Barca Build Up

Modern football has helped us look at variations of the way in which teams progress throughout the football pitch. There are a range of differences in the way goalkeepers, centre backs, full backs, defensive midfielders and even forwards act in the build-up between a decade ago and today’s football.

Barcelona are one of, if not the best team in the world and much of the praise towards this team is due to the on-ball qualities the players possess and the La Masia which produced those types of players. What is underrated about the team is the build-up play, specifically that of Sergio Busquets, who is the pioneering defensive midfielder in football today.

For all the flair Neymar possesses, the quality Suarez offers and the sheer talent on hand with Messi, this is enough to classify Barcelona as the best team in the world according to millions. But looking at the nuances of this team, a significant portion of their dominance can be attributed to the infrastructure of the team.

However, looking back at their Champions League-winning team in 2006 there were differences in the way Barcelona progressed up the pitch to defeat their opponents Arsenal, who played with 10 men for a large portion of the game, compared to their current Champions League-winning squad. The first 17 minutes of the match gave a good indication of how Barcelona attempted to break the London-based team’s lines, specifically looking at the infrastructure or the basic organizational structures: the build-up.

2006: Edmilson and co

Barcelona started in a traditional 4-3-3 according to Sky Sports, but in truth they were playing without a recognised striker in what looked like a fluid front 3. Samuel Eto’o and Ludovic Giuly were found on the left and right wings respectively, with Ronaldinho hovering around the vacated 10 space and looking to bring the wingers into the fray – that is, from halfspace to halfspace.


According to the match plan and the opposition themselves, Barcelona’s build-up largely circulated around Edmilson. While Puyol was the vocal presence in the backline, Edmilson was the unheralded magician moving in and out of defensive pockets, shifting from side to side and using his body position and intuition to predict the next move in the first half. In the photo above, Edmilson is on the ball and he has moved into Barcelona’s defensive line to keep an overload of 3v2.

Edmilson dropping into defence would only occur during situations of underload in their own half. While it would have seemed unorthodox a decade ago, today this is a very common move done by defensive midfielders against two-striker systems. In this match, Henry would usually be alone up front therefore it was common to see Edmilson stationed in between the lines rather than alongside the central defenders.

However due to Henry’s lone presence up front this meant that Arsenal would have an extra man in midfield, leading to one of Barcelona’s central midfielders creating a staggering that ensured support towards the build-up. This was essentially a domino effect, a result of reactive play towards Arsenal’s forwards’ movements.

This allowed for more situational possibilities, with Edmilson able to move into a free zone and receive the ball under minimal pressure due to Deco’s positional awareness in that scenario. Edmilson, like Busquets today, used his body positioning to allow a seamless transition between different phases of the game. Yet unlike the Barcelona of today, Edmilson was bypassed on many occasions via a long, high and diagonal pass to a winger – a high risk option.

35 seconds into the start of the game, Edmilson was away from any threat should he have received the ball. But Rafael Marquez played a long – predictably unsuccessful – ball into the space in front of Samuel Eto’o instead of allowing Edmilson the option to dictate play from deep.

After the red card, Deco’s presence just below the halfway line became more significant, and to an extent – easier. Arsenal’s first line of defence, the attack, disappeared. Thierry Henry was a man lost in between 5 blue and red shirts. This allowed Barcelona to do the following:

  • Use Edmilson’s comfort on the ball to a greater extent, allow him to get past the Arsenal line
  • The ball-playing defender: lack of Arsenal pressure and presence in Barcelona half allowed Marquez to push into the Arsenal half with the ball
  • Calculate the next step without pressure, having more time on the ball
  • Deco had little trouble in finding Ronaldinho via line-breaking passes
  • All in all, a greater vertical presence across the pitch

As with many tactical elements in football, especially ones that come with fluid and vibrant teams, many of the phases are interlinked. Barcelona’s build-up play was geared towards their strengths and the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. The lack of a recognised striker meant that they would have to find some form of attacking presence.

As it was previously mentioned, they did this via their fluid front 3. The build-up from the centre backs and Edmilson himself was directed at the wingers. Both Eto’o and Giuly had tasks to bring the ball into the halfspaces and create central overloads alongside Ronaldinho. This wasn’t coupled with marauding full back runs from Gio van Bronckhorst or Oleguer, thus limiting Barcelona’s presence in the wide areas. In the first half, the only situations in which Barcelona seemed to threaten on the flanks were with Eto’o’s late entrances into the box. While both Giuly and Eto’o focused on coming into the center, Eto’o often dragged Eboue all the way up to the byline before moving towards the centre.


  • Puyol (on the ball – the black dot) examining his options. Edmilson is right in front of Puyol, with the former’s back semi-towards Arsenal’s midfield, a body position that will allow him to make a smart decision in due time


  • Edmilson received the ball and held it for 5 seconds, altering his body position a few times before finally seeing Eto’o in space on the left
  • Eto’o pulled Eboue out wide and destroyed the structure of the Arsenal back line opening up a huge space in the left half space
  • Edmilson could have played a long ball early, but in what is another build-up trait, he used possession as a tool to shift the opposition’s movements rather than to simply draw them onto him (playing to a strength in the process as Barcelona lack a midfielder who can drive, and Deco is marked by 2-3 players)

2006: Iniesta and the full backs

Before he found himself weaving past world stars in midfield and becoming one of the best players in the world, Andres Iniesta replaced Edmilson and played the rest of the game against Arsenal operating in the pivot; a position he rarely plays in today.

Always looking forward and vibrant accompanied with a smooth, diagonal pass into a teammate, Iniesta’s introduction to the game was a smart decision. His proactive style of play and knack of making brilliant – aesthetically and strategically – passes into the forwards was a tactical weapon.

This depicts the vitality of the build-up. Iniesta played a big role in creating the first goal, and it was all a result of a pattern found in the build-up phase of Barcelona on the day. Gio van Bronckhorst and Oleguer (at this point, replaced by Belleti) did not involve themselves in the build-up to a large extent, acting as a platform instead of a progress tool. The full backs’ most important job was to provide a safe option away from the chaos in the centre of the pitch.


Barcelona’s first goal came via work on the left hand side from Gio, Iniesta and Eto’o. They all displayed the traits needed and that coupled with Larsson’s intervention, Barcelona had equalised. Gio’s platform on the left, Iniesta’s through ball and Eto’o’s run were the ingredients of Barcelona’s first goal.

The second goal happened in a complete transition phase from the build-up to the final product. Belleti received the ball in midfield, choosing to progress vertically on the field and played it out to the right wing stretching the Arsenal in the process, ruining the compactness in the centre of the field.

Belleti waited for the perfect moment – that is, when Ljungberg’s body position shifted towards the right touchline – entered the box and scored the winner, entering the history books in the process. All of this harks back to Barcelona’s plan from 70 minutes earlier, to find width on the flanks and use that to break Arsenal’s lines and access central, pivotal locations on the pitch. Eto’o’s first goal was a result of him being found on the left flank and cutting in as he reaches the byline, while Belleti’s goal occurred after Larsson dragged Arsenal’s defenders out wide, before playing it into the halfspace where Belleti accessed a strategically important zone and scored.

2015: Busquets and co

Barcelona’s Champions League Winners in 2015 progressed through the pitch in a completely different way albeit playing under the same “possession” strategy. I say possession with a double apostrophe because you cannot, anymore, attribute a team’s style of play to just a single term such as “possession”, “attacking”, “counter attacking” or “defensive”.

Barcelona faced a centrally strong team in Juventus, who played with a narrow diamond featuring the likes of Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio – a quartet that possessed energy, technical ability and experience amongst other traits.

Busquets 2016

Firstly, the role that Iniesta played in differed between both finals. As it was previously mentioned, “before he found himself weaving past world stars in midfield and becoming one of the best players in the world, Andres Iniesta replaced Edmilson and played the rest of the game against Arsenal operating in the pivot; a position he rarely plays in today.”

Iniesta’s role during the match against Juventus, and in general with Barcelona, was to dominate the left half space; the location he would most often operate in. A key cog in the build-up phase of Barcelona, Iniesta added the drive and his ability to play as a needle player in the Barcelona midfield.

This Barcelona team however were much more versatile than the version under Rijkaard. A number of routes to goal were created by the full backs, interiores, inside forwards, and also central players in Busquets and Suarez. This showcased the Blaugrana’s ability to bypass whatever Juventus had to battle them in terms of resolute individuals or a host of players to mark one man.

Barcelona’s route(s) to goal

Usually, I would break each route into different points. The reason why I am grouping them under one sub-heading is due to the fluidity and seamless transition between each phase. Barcelona would use all of the full backs, the interiores, the forwards and Busquets to create an attack. This was most obvious in the early goal they scored against Juventus.

The art of Juego de Posicion was also on show from Barcelona. When both full backs occupied the half spaces, Iniesta and Rakitic would position themselves centrally while Messi and Neymar hugged the touchline. Busquets made sure he was the focal point, finding himself in pockets of spaces in, around and between the Juventus strikers trying to make them as narrow as possible.

The understanding and coordination between the players to help this build-up proceed was of a high level. Another aspect that this Barcelona team improved in over the course of the decade after their Champions League win in 2006 was the positional sense and how this complemented the whole unit. In 2006, Eto’o’s wide positioning was often a ploy to draw Eboue out of the defensive line although to no avail as the whole Barcelona unit failed to follow up on the space opened by Eto’o’s movements.

The Barcelona players in 2015 had set tasks by the manager, tasks that would ensure the utilization of their individual abilities to complement the whole system. This in turn supports the Juego de Posicion philosophy. The players had to be in specific zones at specific moments.

This was demonstrated on the right flank most efficiently, with the trio of Alves-Rakitic-Messi. When Messi hugged the touchline, Rakitic moved central and Dani Alves stayed deeper in the half space between them. Once Messi moved inside on the ball, Alves would overlap and Rakitic would push forward or drop deeper based on the situation. Should Dani Alves have deemed the situation risky to push up, Rakitic would move out wide to offset Messi’s inside movements.

Rakitic 2016

Returning to Barcelona’s opener, it included all of these facets in their play. One thing Lionel Messi has vastly improved on over the years is his creative abilities, with his cross-pitch diagonal direct ball to Neymar a key characteristic of his style of play during the 2015-16 season. Since Suarez’s arrival, Messi had been shifted out to the right wing. Instead of acting solely like a direct goalscoring inside forward, Messi played as his selfless best and dropped into the right halfspace to get a better view.

With all the attention on Messi – 6 players had their focus on Messi as he cut inside – Jordi Alba was left 1v1 with Lichsteiner after a cross-field pass from the former. Neymar’s movement outside of the box to draw Juventus defenders out of their positions allowed Iniesta to enter the box onside and square it to Rakitic, scoring the opener in the process.

As opposed to what we saw with van Bronckhorst and Oleguer in 2005, Barcelona’s full backs were heavily involved in the build-up under both Guardiola and Enrique. They positioned themselves in the halfspaces alongside Busquets to increase horizontal coverage of the pitch, but did so by situating themselves slightly higher up the pitch to receive a diagonal pass instead of a horizontal pass. This allowed the full backs to proceed without having to make a turn or a half-turn. They received the ball on the move and formed triangles with their respective winger and interiore to bypass the Juventus midfield.


The Barcelona of 2005 had Victor Valdes in goal, but unlike today, his interactions with the ball were very rare especially with his feet. Despite not being under a large amount of pressure, he would catch the ball and roll it into his centre backs or clear the ball with no intention for a fellow teammate to receive.

However, with Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Barcelona encouraged returning the ball to the goalkeeper. Ter Stegen himself asked for the ball and would position himself in an ideal body position to release the ball cleanly, as if he were a defensive midfielder.


Ter Stegen’s ability to play as an outfielder under pressure is an indicator of the leaps and bounds build-up play (and Barcelona) has come through over the years. No longer is it the task of centre backs to pass it into the central midfielders to do the rest of the work, but it is a result of calculated tactical decisions aiming to promote spatial dominance across all sectors of the pitch.

This is where Juego de Posicion comes into play. Nowadays, coaches are informing their players where they are supposed to be on the pitch at all times during all phases of play. Coaches want to maximise their ability to control what happens in the 4 phases of play, which is a vital part of Juego de Posicion.

Written by Hamoudi Fayad

Hamoudi Fayad

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