As the world rushes to heap plaudits, me among them, for the mesmerizing quality of Barcelona’s play and in particular for their Champions League performance against Manchester United, where they essentially left the Premiership champions naked and numb after an 80 minute clinic (it took them ten minutes to get into gear at the start of the game) on how to keep the ball, put it where you want, create chances and score goals, it’s all too easy to say ‘this is how everyone should play.’
Yes it is how everyone who loves the game wishes it was always played. It’s much more rewarding to the senses and aside from the odd ADHD numpty who needs stimulation every five seconds there is going to be pressure from fans for more teams to play like this. But is it possible? What does it take to play like Barcelona? Many top clubs have youth academies that try to stamp a method of play into the players until it becomes part of their DNA but few are successful. I think it’s fair to say that in the modern game where top teams feel the need to buy talent rather than show patience and nurture players through academy settings into the first team, Barcelona’s ability to bring players to the first team and be monsterously successful is unheard of and perhaps the primary key to their success.
Valdes, Pique, Puyol, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro. All went through La Masia and all played in the Champions League final. Thiago and Bojan Krkic were on the bench and are also Barcelona youth products. Eight La Masia products on the field and two more on the bench for one of the most dominating performances in a Champions League final.
Why does it work and why isn’t everyone else doing the same thing? It’s not like Barcelona have a squad of physical dominant supermen who are too fast and too strong for the rest of the world to deal with. Of the outfield starters, only Abidal, Busquets and Pique are over six feet tall.
For Barcelona’s style of play to work several things beyond the obvious technical mastery of the ball have to fall into place.
1. Barcelona dominate possession in the middle third and the attacking third. To consistently maintain this hegemony you must have great ball support. It’s easy to pull players into the middle of the field to provide this support but unless you have others who can leg it up and down the flanks to stop opponents from overcommitting to defend in the middle of the field you will struggle. With Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta all in the middle of midfield they have a 3v2 advantage over opponents playing 4-4-2. United tried to counter this, somewhat bizarrely, with Carrick and Giggs playing in central midfield (although Giggs and the more mobile and tenacious Park, playing on the left, did switch a fair bit in the first half). Valencia was obviously confused by his role and was left committing fouls and looking annoyed most of the time. Every time the wide mids got sucked in to help defend against the
Bermuda Barcelona Triangle, Alves shot up the line to act as a winger. Abidal did this on the left as well though not as dangerously.
Dominating the middle of the field only works if you can still maintain a wide threat. For Barcelona that job falls to the outside backs and it’s quite common for Dani Alves to have covered more ground than any other player on the field when you look at the stats.
2. The risk for Barcelona is committing outside backs to the attack is mitigated by a couple of things.
- The first is their uncompromising tenacity in winning the ball immediately when they do lose possession. They seem angered that the other team has taken their ball and they close down and pressure in numbers like buzzing bees. Not only does this result in often winning the ball back quickly but the quality of this transition play really inhibits quick counter attacks. Even just a few seconds of delaying forward progress of the ball allows for those not pressuring to regain a decent defensive shape behind the ball and pick up attackers.
- Secondly, Carles Puyol and Sergio Busquets are the most underrated players on the team. Their decision making on when to step forward and challenge for the ball as opposed to deciding to drop and keep play in front of them is outstanding. When Puyol goes into a tackle, two things happen. It is going to be a physical, hard as granite challenge and he will very, very rarely not win that challenge. With Busquets, it’s a bit more based on positioning and guile. Like Rio Ferdinand the challenge is not so much bruising but very well timed. He breaks up so many attacks at their earliest stage and moves the ball to Xavi, seemingly without effort. Their defensive prowess is another aspect of the game that lets Barcelona take the chances they do in committing players to the attack.
3. Messi. He has too many strengths for teams to deal with. He can drop into midfield and play the one touch game with Xavi and Iniesta and teams are hesitant to have a centre back follow him into midfield because it opens space for the other two strikers. He can get the ball at his feet and run at defenders but with a tremendous shot, defenders have the dilemma of either stepping up to him once he’s in shooting range to block the shot or dropping to track his run into the box and denying space in behind them. If they don’t step up, he scores like he did in the Final. If they do step up, he does this sort of stuff.
It’s worth noting that not only did Messi score 53 goals in 55 competitive games for Barcelona this season but he also led La Liga in assists with 18. Alves was third.
4. The frustration of chasing the game mounts as it goes on. If you’ve ever played a game where you’ve been clearly outclassed and have spent most of the game defending you will know how tiring that is. When I was with the Canadian U19 team in 1985 we played in a tournament in Mexico and one of the games was against Brazil. That made the Barcelona v United final look like a back and forth affair. I watched most of it from the bench but got sent in for a twenty minute spanking at the end of the game. It felt like it was a keep away game in our 18 yard box. I was in the best shape of my life and was shattered by the final whistle. I imagine that’s what it’s like playing against Barcelona or even Arsenal (I’m sure there were loads of Premiership players smirking when Barcelona had Arsenal chasing in circles, thinking, “Now you know how it feels.”)
Goals are overwhelmingly generated by your opponents mistakes. Mistakes happen more when you are tired and distracted. Barcelona’s possession is tiring when you’re the one defending and their ball movement and constant change in the point of attack is distracting.
I’m sure there’s more that others can add to this in terms of reasons why Barcelona is so dominant but for me it’s easy to see what they do well. It’s more a matter of what enables those strengths to flourish. There was a quote from a security specialist shortly after 9/11 that went along the lines of when airports “fail”, security wise, they fail terribly and nearly absolutely. That’s a good way of looking at teams that commit far too much to the attack and don’t look at counteracting the flip side of the equation and worrying about what happens when you perhaps overcommit resources to scoring. Look at Blackpool. They got off to a flier in the Premiership despite everyone suggesting they were going straight back down to the Championship Division. They gave the experts the finger and set about attacking the big boys and pulling off some shock results. Gradually though managers figured out that Blackpool couldn’t back up their attacking prowess with defensive strategies and the results started to run against them. Blackpool ended up being the highest scoring team ever to be relegated from the Premiership. When they failed, they failed absolutely and when teams figured them out, they only won two of their last 18 league games. Attacking comes at a price and if you can’t afford it you will end up broke (and relegated).
So can the rest of the world do it? Can Canadian teams do it? I think anyone who tries has to recognize the qualities of Barcelona’s game that run as the ying to the attacking yang and put just as much effort into those if they want to come close to the complete package that Barcelona shows to the world week after week.