Life of the Barça winger

March 27, 2013

Barcelona are likely to buy a winger this summer, but their specific requirements are different from those of other clubs. 

Pedro Cesc SportReview

The life of the Barça winger is an unusual one. Just as Pep Guardiola’s 4-3-3 system is in many ways unconventional, so does it include unconventional roles. As we know, its collective strategy centres on serving Lionel Messi. Inevitably, this means that the roles around him must be tweaked and adapted accordingly. For no one is this more true than the two wingers.

In general terms, two ‘classic wingers’ could never work alongside Messi. Not even one. Messi is the individualist: he needs the ball, all the time. If you compare Barça’s possession play to the art of channelling water, the aim is to direct every drop towards the feet of Messi. You want to maximise his influence. Play a winger à la Arjen Robben, and you split the flow of possession, diminishing Messi’s opportunity to create.

As such, Barça’s wingers are not there to create, but to support. Think about David Villa, Pedro and Alexis Sánchez: they rarely run with the ball. They rarely make key passes. They produce a limited number of crosses. In fact, they are more often seen playing simple cut-backs. In the Barça team, the two players given the most creative freedom after Messi are arguably Andrés Iniesta and Dani Alves. Which begs the question: what do the wingers actually do?

Phase I

As with Sergio Busquets, the answer lies in their importance to the Barça collective. (After all, it is only logical that if Messi is allowed complete freedom, others must conform; even those further upfield.) As we will see, their real quality – as exemplified by Pedro – centres not on dribbling and crossing, but on movement, acceleration and tactical intelligence.

Let’s break it down. We start with Phase I, in which Barça build from the back: the ball may be at the feet of the goalkeeper or a defender. Here, the wingers stay wide for two reasons: It makes them easily available for a pass; and it creates space centrally for the ‘attacking diamond’ – Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi – to establish a foothold in terms of possession.

Barca phase 1 (2) jpg

In this phase, Pedro and Sánchez form a mechanism for transferring the ball past the opposition’s first wave of pressure. With Jordi Alba or Alves in possession, they drop deep, holding off the opposition full-back, then lay it off first-time to the creative players centrally. They work as ‘walls’ on which the ball bounces off. Once Xavi or Iniesta is on the ball, the Barça possession ‘carousel’ can start spinning.

Phase II

Once this has happened, it usually means the opponent’s initial pressure has been broken. Most teams here choose to drop off, and concentrate on defending deeper and condense space. For their part, Barça enter a more fluent mode: the full-backs storm upfield; the wingers cut inside. More specifically, Alves pushes up as a virtual winger, while Iniesta tends to drift towards the left wing.

Barca phase 2 (1) jpg

As a result of these movements, Iniesta and Alves are often the two players that retain Barça’s width. (Alba can also do this job, allowing Iniesta to wander inside.) The only time the two wingers drift wide are during transitions, or rare, direct attacks. However, the fact that they operate centrally does not make them classic ‘inside forwards’ either – because there is no room for them between the lines. That belongs exclusively to Messi. And so in which space are they actually left to work?

Barca phase 2 right jpg

The answer is a strange vacuum between the wide player and Messi. On the right, with Alves on the ball, the opposition left-winger has usually tracked back, effectively creating a back-five. Here, Sanchez is caught centrally in a pocket of space, marked by the left-back. Realistically, he has two options: he can drop down and provide a support outlet for Alves, thus continuing Barça’s passing cycle. Or he can accelerate into the space behind. If that happens, the task befalls Pedro to meet the impending cross.

Barca phase 2 left jpg

On the left, Pedro’s choices are also limited. Depending on the space available, Iniesta can either dribble himself, or pass through to Pedro, whose acceleration is excellent. These exact situations are why quick feet are so important at Barça: the spaces opponents gift them will always be minimal, and the players need to build up speed over short distances. A physically larger winger with longer, heavier legs could struggle to be effective in these scenarios.

(Concluding this phase, it must be mentioned that when Barça are not attacking down the flanks, the two wingers are also extremely effective as runners for Messi to find with incisive passes. Yet even here the required quality is the same: movement off the ball, tactical understanding, and an ability to accelerate over short distances. Which is very much unlike the classic qualities of dribbling and crossing.)

Phase III

This phase is common for Barça: the opponent have been played low, and are stationed inside 25 or 30 yards. There is no space behind the defence; limited space between the lines. Enter Messi. As mentioned before on this site, Messi will often pick up the ball not only between the lines, but also in front of the opponent’s midfield. (Quite often, this is the only way to get him on the ball.) The way Messi creates from here is to either play a one-two to get past the midfield, or to shake off a midfielder himself and play a one-two to bypass the defence.

Barca phase 3 jpg

We must remember that for all of Messi’s individual brilliance, these one-two combinations form a huge part of his game; especially for his ability to slice-open compact defences. He is the maestro, the conductor, but he needs the orchestra to play its part. As well as Xavi and Iniesta, the two wingers are fundamental to this: they occupy the full-backs, and are available for quick one-twos. To do this accurately at Messi’s incredible pace requires a finely-weighted touch, quick feet – and an even quicker mind. Again, the metaphor comes up: the wingers are ‘walls’ to aid the more creative players. (A classic example can be watched here.)

The conventional winger 

Finally, a quick comparison with the more traditional winger. An obvious contrast to Barça is Bayern München, whose wide players are behind most of what is created. They occupy the Messi role: that of coming deep and getting the ball to feet. The only difference is: they are positioned out wide. To maintain a collective ‘creative balance’, the lone striker hardly ever dribbles. Neither does the attacking midfielder – Toni Kroos. And so, just as Barça, Bayern have understood that too many dribblers can make the team ineffective.

Bayern line-up jpg


Ever since Guardiola took charge at the Camp Nou, Barcelona have struggled to integrate foreign players. (Two obvious examples are Zlatan Ibrahimović and Dmytro Chygrynskiy.) Part of that may centre on the unshakable values Guardiola insisted on, to which some players have failed to conform. That prerequisite must of course be accounted for when Barça consider new players this summer, with a backdrop of uncertainty hanging over Sánchez and Villa.

Yet when it comes to wingers, the real challenges will be of a tactical nature. As we have seen, Barça must forget the typically flamboyant forward, and instead attempt to unearth another Pedro: someone with quick legs, acceleration, excellent one-touch play, and spacial awareness. That will not be easy. It may be best to turn to La Masia. Whatever they do, one thing is certain: a ‘star player’ is the last thing they need.

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And yet Barca went for the epitome of the flamboyant, eccentric, superstar foward who takes one too many touches. I guess business decisions are more of a priority then footballing decisions. We will see how Neymar adapts to the Barca system.

by Angel on May 28, 2013 at 3:04 pm. #

[…] explained by Barcelona’s tendency to maximise Messi’s effectiveness in his false-nine position (Thore Haugstad has written about this and what Barcelona expect from their wide players), but although this perhaps explains the lack of […]

by How to Beat the Best Team in the World? | Playing a High Line on May 7, 2013 at 9:54 pm. #

I loved your article :) I agree with everything you said but it makes you think, as much as we hate to think about it, in the future when Messi eventually retires, then won’t barca suffer? After becoming so dependent on one player, I think it will have a huge impact. We’ve seen the impact an injured Messi had against PSG so as much as it might be fine for now, it’s not the way to go for the far future. But I guess people would argue we will deal with that situation when we get there and why complain if it works. Still I feel some players aren’t able to showcase their full potential when they come to a barca because they are now not their own player, but rather just a supporting one to Messi.

by aculestudent on April 20, 2013 at 10:42 pm. #

Good argument. I would say that, when you have perhaps the best player of all time, you have to maximise his potential. If you had 10 passes to spray, how many would you give to MessI? My answer would always be 10/10, as opposed to giving two or three to Alexis or Villa. As for the dependence, Messi is very robust, and I think people are overreacting a bit when criticising a model that has been so successful. Being 25, at the time when Messi leaves, the situation will probably be very different from now anyway.

by Thore Haugstad on April 21, 2013 at 9:16 am. #

Well I agree with your comment about Messi, he is the best player in the world right now. However, a few hours ago I think it can be argued that we saw what happens when they do not have Messi to operate around. It was clear that he was still injured and so he was nowhere near his normal form. Arguable he barely gets injured so Barca never have to worry about it, yet he did get injured recently and I just feel they don’t know at times how to deal with it because they never really had to. At the same time, the game against Bayern had a lot to do with Barca’s lack of defense more than anything but just an observation :)
I agree though in 5-7 years times, I’m sure things will be different at Barca, I hope the difference will be that we will have a decent defense :p

by aculestudent on April 24, 2013 at 1:05 am. #

Yes, Bayern game was grim from a Barça perspective. But I think the problem was more about getting the ball to Messi rather than Messi’s form itself. Let’s be honest; he only had two or three chances to create something. They need some reinvention; some new ways of getting him to influence games.

by Thore Haugstad on April 24, 2013 at 8:00 am. #

Can’t agree more!

by Anonymous on April 20, 2013 at 12:19 pm. #

Very nice article as usual.

What is really the point of Barcelona buying super talented wingers if all they have to do if create space for Messi? Of course as you have mentioned there are other important qualities to play in Barca’s system but the prime example is Sanchez. Amazing player at Udinese but would have benefitted from moving to Manchester United or Juventus where he would have been allowed to showcase his individual talent more. This points to Neymar being a terrible signing for Barcelona as he will not release the ball every time as soon as Messi wants it, creating friction in the same way that Villa and Tello do because they actually take a chance and do something themselves. I also fear Tello who is a fantastic prospect will be held back from reaching his full potential if he stays with Barcelona. RM supporter here :)

by Seamus Duff on April 4, 2013 at 11:46 pm. #

Yeah agreed. I actually forgot to mention Neymar, but I think the mistake of signing him is pretty much implied. I reckon Sánchez is actually doing a decent job as a supporter to Messi – he’s quick, mobile and intelligent. But you’re right: he’d have showcased more of his talent at another club.

by Thore Haugstad on April 5, 2013 at 8:59 am. #

El nuevo Michael Cox

by Pedro Miguel Medina on April 1, 2013 at 9:54 pm. #

Excellent article Thore (as always). Question, even though you say foreign wingers haven’t had any real impact at Barcelona, how would you feel about Viktor Fischer playing on the left? He does from time to time move inside instead of sticking to the wing, a bit like Robben.

by DanishFooty on April 1, 2013 at 8:13 am. #

I have never watched Fischer play (not even a single minute), so it’s difficult to comment. I guess it depends on the manner in which he cuts inside. If he likes to use to use the typical ‘space between the lines’, he could risk invading the space Messi uses, and even that of Iniesta, as Fàbregas has done in recent months.

by Thore Haugstad on April 1, 2013 at 9:52 pm. #

Great article.

You do a good job of explaining how unique Barça’s 4-3-3 really is. I would perhaps take the idea even further. I think that the wide players in this type of 4-3-3 are so unconventional that they shouldn’t be considered wingers at all! In Spanish we call them “extremos”, an entirely different position than “interiores”, the more conventional winger in a 4-4-2. After all, when in possession, Alexis/Pedro/Villa aren’t even the widest players, with Alba/Iniesta and Alves constantly overlapping them, as you mentioned.

What do you think of Tello? He is definitely more of a conventional winger and is a great alternative so Barcelona doesn’t become predictable. I’m sure Pep realized this and that is why he didn’t hesitate to use him as a sub in big games. I think a classic winger like Tello, when balanced out with Pedro, Alexis, or Villa on the other side, could work, though Tello still has some ways to go of course. A different approach on each wing could leave opposing defenses guessing.

I don’t think Barcelona needs any more wingers/forwards, especially with Villa returning to top form and plenty of players coming back after being on loan (though it will be very difficult for them to secure a spot in the starting 11). Should be interesting to see what happens with Deulofeu, who will also want plenty of time on the ball, and whether he will make it. As for Neymar, I agree that he isn’t necessary, but it is easy to get caught up in the hype.

by Aldo on March 30, 2013 at 2:18 am. #

Yes, you’re right – they’re not really wingers at all. But I didn’t quite have an alternative word, so something like ‘unconventional wingers’ had to suffice.

It’s interesting that you mention Tello. As you say, he is a more classic winger. This can add a dimension in its own way, but perhaps more importantly, it can leave Messi frustrated – he doesn’t want others to dribble all the time, especially when he is free. There have been several examples of Leo being frustrated with Tello over this. As long as Messi plays, you’d think Tello will have to develop a more selfless approach to fit in as a regular starter.

by Thore Haugstad on April 1, 2013 at 9:49 pm. #

Do you think Pep will try to establish a tiki-taka type of football at Bayern or do you think he’ll be more direct and aggressive? I personally can’t wait till he becomes the manager there because I want to see what kind of players he’ll buy and how his tactics will be overall!

by Loop on March 29, 2013 at 7:26 am. #

That’s an interesting question. He never went for tiki-taka at Barça just because it was pretty, but because it was pragmatic (= effective). The same degree of short-passing play will not have quite the same effect at Bayern. I think he’ll go with possession as the main theme, but with direct variations too.

by Thore Haugstad on April 1, 2013 at 9:45 pm. #

As usual excellent article.

It will be very interesting to see what Pep will do next season in Bayern.
As he can not duplicate another Messi, it seems like he will need to adapt
His 4-3-3 system to the given wingers Bayern has.

What do you think?
How will Pep deploy his system to Bayern?

I think it is worth entire article… :-)

by Lior on March 28, 2013 at 1:53 pm. #

Good question. The 4-3-3 was pretty much obligatory at Barça. I reckon Pep is more flexible in terms of formations than people think, and he could well stick to the 4-2-3-1 of Heynckes to accommodate the wingers and Kroos.

As for the personnel, that’s a huge issue which, as you say, deserves an article on its own. Will be interesting to see who they buy this summer.

by Thore Haugstad on March 28, 2013 at 3:56 pm. #