“Can you show me all the off-the-ball movements behind the defensive line Ousmane Dembele has done for us in the last year?”
That was the question Mateu Alemany, Barcelona’s sporting director at the time, asked Maurici A. Lopez-Felip, the CEO of Kognia.
Alemany and Lopez-Felip held a meeting less than two years ago to get to know the Kognia software, an artificial intelligence-powered software created in 2019 that is designed to dissect — with an almost scientific approach — any situation, event or variable that can be spotted during a football game.
“We could provide Mateu with what he demanded of us within minutes,” says Lopez-Felip (above, flanked by Barcelona assistant Oscar Hernandez and Xavi) about that first meeting.
Xavi brought change when he arrived at the club in 2021, including seven new members from his trusted backroom staff who had to merge with the existing team. All the backroom staff had been working with Kognia since Xavi’s managerial career started in Qatar, and they brought the software with them to Barca. Xavi’s analysts, David Prats, Toni Lobo and Sergio Garcia, have leaned on it heavily through the years.
“I remember Barcelona’s Europa League tie against Manchester United last season. Five days before the first leg, the coaching staff asked us to analyse 12 of United’s games within the parameters they wanted,” Lopez-Felip adds. “Normally, this can be about 300 hours of manual work going game by game and paying attention to the details we were asked for. With the software, it took us four hours.”
Lopez-Felip’s journey suggests he might know a thing or two about the time needed to analyse football games.
His work in football is closely related to Joan Vila, a significant figure in the evolution of Barcelona’s philosophy through the years. Vila was one of the coordinators of La Masia when Johan Cruyff landed at the club as a manager. He has coached hundreds of youngsters within the youth ranks, including Xavi. In 2011, he was named as the director of Barcelona’s ‘methodology’ area, which deals with the club’s style of play and academy. In 2018, with Josep Maria Bartomeu in charge, he was fired due to disagreements over the direction the team was taking. Vila had been at the club for 40 years
“The best managers I’ve had on a professional level were Guardiola and Luis Aragones,” Xavi said in 2015. “But on an academy level, I also owe what I’ve been to Joan Vila.”
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Vila and Lopez-Felip also met through academy football in Catalonia and eventually started having discussions about how football should be approached.
During Pep Guardiola’s years in Camp Nou’s dugout, players such as Xavi and Carles Puyol asked Vila for advice on how they could improve their performances on the pitch.
Lopez-Felip was the man designated to complete most of the game analysis of Xavi and Puyol’s performances, assess it alongside Vila, and then provide feedback to both footballers.
Lopez-Felip says: “I realised how much time you need to invest to properly analyse a game. It was a lot. Too much. There was nothing to make the process more efficient, and that was a motivation for me to start Kognia.”
He was also one of the founding members of the Barcelona Innovation Hub, a branch of the club designed to spread knowledge and offer courses from coaches on the club’s methodology. After being unable to launch their business idea through the club itself, he was granted a scholarship at the University of Connecticut, where he could start developing the project.
In 2018, through Vila, Lopez-Felip presented his project to Xavi, who was about to start his career as a manager.
Xavi was so convinced about the idea that he decided to be an initial investor in Kognia, adding funds to launch the whole concept and convert it into a reality. Spanish World Cup winner Iker Casillas, Vila himself and Victor Font, a former candidate for Barcelona’s presidency, were three more of the initial investors in Kognia.
The company now defines Xavi’s role in the company as “an ambassador”. Another of Kognia’s most renowned customers is Unai Emery, who has used the software since his time at Villarreal. Aston Villa’s analysts are now using the software, too.
Kognia is also used at Watford, Swedish club AIK Solna and several European FAs, who hired the services to prepare for qualifiers for the 2024 European Championship and 2026 World Cup.
“What we’ve done over the years was accumulate knowledge, tactical concepts from the individual and collective perspective and put them all into our artificial intelligence system.
“Now the AI has the know-how, it’s easy to portion the game into all the detailed aspects you can think of. Do you want to see all the situations in which a defensive line was unbalanced during all the 380 matches of last season’s Premier League? You can have it within minutes.
“That’s not going to win games for a team by itself, or put the ball in the net. It only helps analysis and preparation and guarantees a better study. But for someone who’s been on the other side, I can tell you that’s useful.”
Barcelona’s backroom staff are always looking for different ways to improve their game and they use Kognia’s software to find the best way to do it. Kognia and Barcelona’s backroom staff have agreed to share with The Athletic two passages of play they usually try to produce. These in-game situations are patterns used to unbalance opponents.
The images are taken from footage from the Kognia software, using wide-angle cameras on two of the pre-season games in the United States against AC Milan and Real Madrid.
1) Build-up process attracting high-pressure with short passes to then switch the play
Playing out from the back is one of the most fundamental aspects of Barcelona’s methodology.
Neat and safe build-up from the defensive to the attacking positions often dictates the outcome of any Barca game. That’s why the club always searches for a certain type of player in the back line — defenders with the ability to progress with possession and who are good carriers.
However, things are not as simple as having two possession-oriented center-backs. Opposition teams tend to close the central channels, overloading them with players and making it tough for Barcelona to get the ball to the areas where they normally have their best players.
That’s why Xavi’s staff, against certain types of pressure, want to supercharge the build-up process through the flanks of the defence.
Here is an example of Barcelona against Milan. Ansu Fati receives the ball from Eric Garcia on the left side of the defence. He has Alejandro Balde close but Milan’s pressure is trying to block every simple short pass — and especially the links with Oriol Romeu and Frenkie de Jong, the midfield players.
Fati holds possession while players accumulate on one side. On the other flank, Raphinha reads the situation well and moves out to the right wing to open the pitch. He quickly instructs Ansu to switch the ball to the free space where he’s going to move.
As Milan defender Fikayo Tomori leaves Raphinha and closes in to mark Robert Lewandowski, Kognia’s system already spots the space to his back and points out where Raphinha should move.
Fati scans the whole situation and sends the ball to the right.
Now Barcelona have found a way out against a high-pressure team, taking advantage of Milan’s excessive focus on the central channels.
Raphinha forces defender Theo Hernandez to sprint back to the position he has vacated and has a one-on-one situation against his defender.
That’s a favourable situation for Barcelona to be in. Now it is up to the players’ talent to make the difference.
2) Timing of movements for attacking midfielders
Since last January, Xavi has changed his system and opted to play with four midfielders. One of them is used as a ‘false’ left-winger to gain control of games and make them less chaotic and end-to-end.
However, this also means more demands for the attacking midfielders: they are usually the ones who need to break the lines, make movements in behind the defence and read when the team needs them to step up to the opposition’s box.
Pedri admitted in pre-season that he needs to improve this aspect of his game. And at the same time, it’s the main reason behind Barcelona’s pursuit of Ilkay Gundogan — an expert in this style of play.
Here’s a wide-angle picture of the pre-season Clasico against Real Madrid, with Ancelotti’s defensive line being marked up.
Kognia’s AI-powered software uses a discontinuous line when identifying a space between two defenders big enough to be broken by one move in behind.
Here, we can see that the centre-backs, reasonably close, are paired up with a straight line.
Meanwhile, the lines between the centre-backs and full-backs are discontinuous and therefore ready to be attacked.
This is what Gundgoan knows how to read perfectly. As the game goes on, with Barcelona in possession on the right flank, Madrid’s defence balances its way to the ball and opens up a bigger space between the left centre-back and the left-back.
Gundogan, who was operating as the ‘false’ left-winger in that game, knew the team needed him to make that move.
There were two possible outcomes from this: either he receives a direct pass into the box, or his movement drags Madrid’s left-back out of his position and opens up free space for Barcelona’s left-winger (Balde here).
Ronald Araujo, the player on the ball, decides here to use possibly the safer, but still very useful, pass.
The ball goes from the right side to the left, where Balde receives it unmarked and has another one-on-one situation favourable to Barcelona. The pass also unbalances the opponent and forces Real Madrid’s defensive system to quickly move to the other side. That’s how Xavi wants his attacking midfielders to influence the game even when they don’t touch the ball.
And this is why Kognia — in doing this analysis through AI rather than hundreds of hours of work — can be so valuable to Barcelona.
(Top photo: Pol Ballus/The Athletic)
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Pol joined The Athletic in 2021, initially moving to Manchester to assist us with our Manchester City, Manchester United and Spanish reporting. Since 2015 he has been an English football correspondent for multiple Spanish media, such as Diario Sport and RAC1 radio station. He has also worked for The Times. In 2019, he co-wrote the book Pep’s City: The Making of a Superteam. He will now move back to Spain, covering FC Barcelona for The Athletic. Follow Pol on Twitter @polballus