Barça tactics: How Iniesta creates space

April 21, 2013

Each week, Iniesta picks up possession on the left, then dribbles past helpless defenders. What is the movement behind it?

Marc Puig Perez

When watching Iniesta play, we often need several replays to fully grasp what he just did. His trickery can fool our eyes, let alone the opponent’s. The same level of scrutiny should apply to his off-the-ball movement. Because for all of Iniesta’s genius, similar situations seem to appear in every game: He drifts towards the left, gets the ball, then dribbles past people. The pockets of space are the same. But no one is able to stop it.

Iniesta 1

Barcelona’s line-up against Levante, Saturday 20 April, 2013

In a 4-3-3 system, there are two types of attacking midfielders. One typically runs into the box, à la Frank Lampard. The other overloads the flanks. There are quite few of the latter, but one interesting example was Fernando Belluschi at Porto under André Villas-Boas. He would accelerate away from the central midfielders and overlap on the outside of Hulk, who would cut inside. This either created space for Hulk, or allowed Belluschi to cross. Iniesta’s role in different in that he starts out wide, then dribbles towards the centre. But their purpose is the same: Find space outside the opposition’s remit, then use it to create chances.

Dropping deep: Conflict with Fàbregas

But first, a problem. As has been thoroughly highlighted elsewhere, Cesc Fàbregas’s presence tends to create dilemmas for Iniesta. Previous examples have centred on when Fàbregas partners Lionel Messi up front, with Iniesta on the left wing: Iniesta would cut inside, colliding with Fàbregas who likes to drop off towards the left. But judging from the game against Levante, the problem remains, even with Fàbregas alone up front and Iniesta in central midfield. They still prefer the same zone. At the weekend, Iniesta always had to decide whether to stay deep or run forward, based on Fàbregas’s movement.

Iniesta 2

As seen above, Iniesta can still make dangerous combinations with Fàbregas, but the situation limits his influence. The problem is non-existent when Messi plays: He is left-footed, and operates in the right-sided zone. That area is free because Xavi plays a more withdrawn role. As such, when the Xavi – Messi – Iniesta trio is playing, every attacking zone is occupied in a remarkably efficient manner. That is credit to Pep Guardiola’s system.

Carving out space

Whenever Fàbregas stays passive, Iniesta finds space via two types of movement. The first is the run into the zone between the right winger and the right-sided central midfielder. In fact it is not a run, but more a matter of Iniesta back-pedalling into it whenever he sees the chance. An incisive pass usually arrives from Sergio Busquets or Xavi (though Alex Song and Thiago filled the roles on this occasion).

Iniesta 3

This is his most frequent move. Since the winger and the full-back are marking their opposite numbers, it forces the central midfielder out of position to confront him. In some aspects, the principle is similar to Real Madrid’s use of their attacking midfielder, in that it drags slow central players out of their comfort zone. Given space out wide, technical players usually succeed. What can you do about it? One option is to eliminate space between the lines. However, Iniesta’s movement usually starts in the build-up phase, during which withdrawing the midfield would surrender the entire pitch to Barça.

Iniesta’s second movement centres on a rapid switch of play. When facing Barça, every team are desperate to stay compact to limit the space centrally where Messi or Fàbregas operates. This means that when the ball is on the flanks – in this instance with Dani Alves – both central midfielders shuffle heavily towards it.

Iniesta 4

When Alves switches play to Martín Montoya, there are acres of space on the left. When the ball arrives, the opposition right winger naturally confronts Montoya. The right-back marks Christian Tello. While the ball was in the air, Iniesta had already attacked the space behind the winger, knowing it will open up. The central midfielders, who are supposed to mark Iniesta, have no chance of tracking this quick interchange. And so Iniesta is allowed the time to build up speed and run at a team that has just re-organised after Alves’s switch of play.

The final third: Recycling possession

Whenever Barça keep possession in the final third, the space between the lines is very limited. Like Xavi, Iniesta’s solution to this is to stay outside the penalty area. Here he recycles possession and launches the next ‘wave’ of the attack, often after picking up loose balls following Alves’s far-post crosses. His contribution varies between incisive passes, Messi-style one-twos, or square passes to Xavi (here Thiago).

Iniesta 5

But there is another twist to his final-third movement. Whenever the left-back bombs forward, Iniesta realises that the opposition winger is likely to be dragged with him into the penalty area. Quite often, the same happens to the central midfielders, who are keen to double up.

Iniesta 6

Typically clever, Iniesta will casually jog into a position where he can receive the support pass; either from Montoya, or from the left winger – here Tello. With his markers sucked into the maelstrom, Iniesta has again carved out time and space. And how many times have we not seen him assist a goal from here?


All in all, there is an amazing continuity to Iniesta’s movement: The opposition manager knows what will happen, but is unable to deal with it. The credit must go to Guardiola for designing this role when working out his 4-3-3 formation. Analysing the system, it is remarkable how efficiently every attacking player fills the various zones of the pitch; how nobody clashes with each other, and how well the roles match each player’s strengths. Watching it on TV, the whole symphony of flowing attacking football can look quite natural, but the level of thinking behind it is extraordinary.

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Photo: Marc Puig Perez


But no one is able to stop it.

Javi Martinez did so quite well yesterday.

by Angel on April 24, 2013 at 5:14 pm. #


by hosam on April 23, 2013 at 11:31 pm. #

In the second to last diagram, it shows Montoya making a run “without the ball” and then making a pass to Tello. Was the dotted arrow supposed to be a solid arrow instead?

by loop on April 22, 2013 at 12:29 am. #

Well spotted. It certainly was. Have updated it now.

by Thore Haugstad on April 22, 2013 at 5:55 am. #

Break his legs. It’s the only logical solution.

by Misael on April 21, 2013 at 9:59 pm. #