Despite being recognised as the best club side in world football, Barcelona showed they were mortal in the defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League this week, and today there are strong rumours that Pep Guardiola is to step down as coach. Regardless of this, the intelligent way in which Barça play the game has led to several studies of their strategy and tactics which offer insights into what has made them the most admired football team for many years. Amidst the passion and energy of football, what business lessons can we take from Barça, in terms of their approach to building a successful team, competing with intensity, and ultimately winning? After all, it’s more than 90 minutes. Here are some thoughts.
Pressure on the ball
Before Barcelona played Manchester United in the Champions League final at Wembley last May, Alex Ferguson said that the way Barça pressured their opponents to win the ball back was breath-taking. That, he said, was Pep Guardiola’s innovation. Barcelona start pressing (hunting for the ball) the instant they lose possession. That is the perfect time to press because the opposing player who has just won the ball is vulnerable.
He has had to take his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception, and he has expended energy. That means he is unsighted, probably tired. He usually needs two or three seconds to regain his vision of the field. So Barcelona try to dispossess him before he can give the ball to a better-placed teammate. The Barcelona player who lost the ball leads the hunt to regain it. But he never hunts alone. His teammates near the ball join him. If only one or two Barça players are pressing, it’s too easy for the opponent to pass around them.
From a business perspective, when one prospect is lost, get your head back up immediately and focus on the next opportunity. Don’t spend time licking your wounds or trying to find excuses, simply react and respond and fight back. Refocus, keep pressing yourself to achieve, and get everyone around you to do the same.
The five-second rule
If Barça haven’t won the ball back within five seconds of losing it, they then retreat and build a compact ten-man wall. The distance between the front man in the wall (typically Messi) and their last defender (say, Puyol) is only 25 to 30 metres. It’s hard for any opponent to pass their way through such a small space. The players stand there and say, in effect Try and get through this.
It’s easy for Barça to be compact, both when pressing and when drawing up their wall, because their players spend most of the game very near each other. Xavi and Iniesta in particular seldom stray far from the ball. Barça win the ball back so quickly because they don’t have to run back more than 10 metres, as they never pass the ball more than 10 metres.
In business it’s all about being agile, both in your thinking and doing. If stuff isn’t working, don’t carry on doing the same thing on the hope that it will work. Be reflective and proactive, do something different that enables you to regroup, but with a focus on moving forward again soon.
More rules of pressing Once Barcelona have built their compact wall they wait for the right moment to start pressing again. They don’t choose the moment on instinct. Rather, there are very precise prompts that tell them when to press. One is if an opponent controls the ball badly. If the ball bounces off his foot, he will need to look downwards to locate it, and at that moment he loses his overview of the pitch. That’s when the nearest Barcelona players start hounding him.
Successful businesses are hungry, alert and attentive to their market and customers, seizing the opportunities and want to make a difference. Fresh thinking, fresh perspectives puts them in a place to spot opportunities to grow and win new customers. Keeping on your toes and being on your mettle at all times is a winning mindset.
The 3-1 rule If an opposing player gets the ball anywhere near Barcelona’s penalty area, then Barça apply what they call the 3-1 rule: one of Barcelona’s four defenders will advance to tackle the man with the ball, and the other three defenders will assemble in a ring about two or three metres behind the tackler. That provides a double layer of protection.
Simple! Work as a team, look out for each other, and have a plan – and work it. Working together precedes winning together, building a cohesive team is an essential part of a winning strategy.
No surprise When Barcelona win the ball, they do something unusual. At that moment, the opponents are usually out of position, and so if you can counterattack quickly, you have an excellent chance of scoring. But when a Barcelona player wins the ball, he doesn’t try for a splitting pass. The club’s attitude is: he has won the ball, that’s a wonderful achievement, and he doesn’t need to do anything else special. All he should do is slot the ball simply to the nearest teammate. Barcelona’s logic is that in winning the ball, the guy has typically forfeited his vision of the field. So he is the worst placed player to hit a telling ball.
This means that Barcelona don’t rely on the element of surprise. They take a few moments to get into formation, and then pretty much tell their opponents, OK, here we come. The opposition knows exactly what Barça are going to do. The difficulty is stopping it. The only exception to this rule is if the Barça player wins the ball near the opposition’s penalty area. Then he goes straight for goal.
In business, it’s about having a plan and then executing it consistently, with flair and ingenuity tactically, as each circumstance is different. Go with passion to achieve your goal, but keep hold of the advantage once you have it, once you’ve crafted an opening, why throw it away by being rash?
Possession is nine-tenths of the game Keeping the ball has been Barcelona’s key tactic. Most teams don’t worry about possession. They know you can have oodles of possession and lose. But Barcelona aim to have 65% of possession in a game. Last season in Spain, they averaged more than 72%; so far this year, they are at about 70%.
The logic of possession is twofold. Firstly, while you have the ball, the other team can’t score. Secondly, if Barça have the ball, the other team has to chase it, and that is exhausting. When the opponents win it back, they are often so tired that they surrender it again immediately. Possession gets Barcelona into a virtuous cycle.
Be different. Operating in a market with a different set of values and ways to engage with customers gives you the opportunity to create your own market space. Stand out from the crowd, and craft your own strategy.
The one-second rule No other football team plays the Barcelona way. That’s strength, but it’s also a weakness. It makes it very hard for Barca to integrate outsiders into the team, because the outsiders struggle to learn the system. Barcelona had a policy of buying only Top Ten players – men who arguably rank among the ten best footballers on earth – yet many of them have failed in the Nou Camp.
Guardiola explains the risk of transfers by what he called the one-second rule. The success of a move on the pitch is decided in less than a second. If a player needs a few extra fractions of a second to work out where his teammate is going, because he doesn’t know the other guy’s game well, the move will usually break down. A new player can therefore lose you a match in under a second.
Barça has an all-star team as opposed to a team of stars. You cannot necessarily achieve success in football by waving a cheque book and Barcelona, realising this, prefers to develop talent in-house and promote from within. Barça has no prima donnas and the club plays as a genuinely collective unit – a team in name and truly in practice.
Management Style Barça’s management style is consistent with an admired theorists, Boris Groysberg, an Associate Professor in the organisational behaviour unit at Harvard Business School, a strong supporter of growing stars as opposed to buying them.
He conducted an interesting study of over 1,000 Wall Street star analysts who switched firms. Published in his book, Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and The Portability of Performance, the study revealed that company-switching analysts saw an immediate and lasting deterioration in their performance. The results prove that the success of star analysts was as dependent on teammates and co-workers as on their own talents. Most stars who switch firms turn out to be meteors, quickly losing their lustre.
Barça believes in developing its own, home grown talent and this leads to effective succession planning for the club. Eight of the team’s leading players are graduates of its football school, La Masia, founded in 1979. This list includes the Argentinean Lionel Messi, the best player in the world, as well as Iniesta, Pique, Xabi, Puyol and coach Pep Guardiola.
Developing a clear, consistent management style and evolving your own talent strategy are proven to be key elements of successful businesses. Taking a long-term, investment perspective in building your human resources, delivers sustainable success.
The current season may end up disappointingly for Barcelona, and even conclude with the exit of Guardiola, unable to bear the frustration of set-backs in the final months of the season, in the games that mattered. Any philosophy contains its risks, but recent years have shown that Barcelona’s can work. Brilliantly, too. Being a Barcelona fan is the best thing there is, they are not going to turn their backs on it now.