Monday, April 12, 2010

The Barcelona Way -- Pass, Press and Score

Repeat words over and over again -- Barcelona are the best footballing side on the planet playing the game like no other team!

Last week, they dismantled Arsenal with remarkable ease and this past Saturday they brushed off their bitter rivals Real Madrid without much difficulty. Messi scored another goal against Madrid but it has been his 4 brilliant goals against Arsenal that have taken the Messi debate to another level. Words cannot describe Messi anymore. Sid Lowe's previous column mentioned that the Spanish press have run out of words to describe him. In fact, they had run out of words even before the Arsenal game. But for whatever reason, the English media remained silent on Messi until after the 4-1 Arsenal win. And as Lowe mentions, it should not have taken this long:

They said he didn't do it in big games - although goodness knows how they had the cheek to say that; did the clasico and the cup final not count? - so he did it in the Champions League final. They said he had never scored against an English team, and after a game in Santander it had been noted that he could not head a ball. Guardiola replied: "I advise you not to question Leo. One day, he's going to score a great header and shut you all up." Everyone laughed. He scored with a towering header, outjumping Rio Ferdinand.

But still they wanted more, and more, and more. There seemed to be a strange, bloody-minded determination not to recognise him. So Messi provided it. He started racking up goal after goal but they said that anyone could score goals in Spain. So last night he became top scorer in the Champions League. For the second successive season. And, for those who had forgotten Rome, he obliterated Arsenal into the bargain. Now they're saying Messi is the best player in the world. It shouldn't have taken last night to realise it.

A Portrait of the Passer as an Artist

In modern football, it is mostly goal-scorers that get all the attention. But the goals have to be created by someone and it is puzzling why media and most fans treat this creator with indifference. There are exceptions of course, such as Zidane, who was a player that could not be ignored. Nor can one ignore Barcelona's Xavi. Sid Lowe has some stats to back up Xavi's achievements, although watching him in any Barcelona game is ample proof of his genius.

Last season, Xavi completed almost 100 passes at the Bernabéu. Last week, he completed more than all of Arsenal's midfielders put together. This season he has made over 400 passes more than any player in Spain; in the Champions League, he is 400 passes ahead of anyone from any other club. Even his own team-mates are 300 behind.

"I need team-mates, people to combine with," Xavi says. "Without team-mates football has no meaning. I am no one if they don't make themselves available." But it is not just that he sees the movement first, it is that he often sees the movement before it has happened, that rather than passing to the movement, he passes in such a way as to oblige the movement. He makes players' runs for them. "Xavi plays in the future," says Dani Alves. Coaches at Barcelona privately admit that sometimes he moves into areas that he should not – but that his technique is so good, his passing so precise, that ultimately it ends up looking like the right thing to do.

The Barcelona Press

Barcelona have won everything under the sun not only because of their pretty football but because they have married their passing game with some ruthless tactics. Jonathan Wilson illustrates their pressing game which reduced Arsenal to an amateur team in the two team's first leg meeting:

After 20 minutes last Wednesday, Barcelona had had 72% of the possession, a barely fathomable figure against anybody, never mind against a side so noted for their passing ability as Arsenal. Their domination in that area came not so much because they are better technically – although they probably are – but because they are better at pressing. In that opening spell, Barça snapped into tackles, swirled around Arsenal, pressured them even deep in their own half. It was a remorseless, bewildering assault; there was no respite anywhere on the pitch, not even when the ball was rolled by the goalkeeper to a full-back just outside the box.


For pressing to be effective the team must remain compact, which is why Rafael Benítez is so often to be seen on the touchline pushing his hands towards each other as though he were playing an invisible accordion. Arrigo Sacchi said the preferred distance from centre-forward to centre-back when out of possession was 25m, but the liberalisation of the offside trap (of which more next week) has made the calculation rather more complicated.

Again and again, Arsenal's forwards would press, and a huge gap would open up between that line and the line of the midfield. Or the midfield would press, and a gap would open in front of the back four. What that means is that the player in possession can simply step round the challenger into space, or play a simple pass to a player moving into the space; the purpose of the pressing is negated. Or, if you prefer, it was as though Arsenal were false-pressing, without having achieved the first stage of the hustle which is to persuade the opposition you are good at pressing.

lleig, Feo, Ugly

And a final word about the not so beautiful side of Barcelona. They do have some players who are capable of fouling an opponent or diving to gain an advantage. Sergio Busquets provided examples of both these points in the second leg. First he kicked out at Theo Walcott because Busquets could not match Walcott's pace; second, he took the biggest dive of this season's Champions league when he somersaulted over the slightest touch. And in both cases, Busquets got the benefit of the call and got away without even a booking. Now, Busquets isn't the only Barca known to exaggerate a push or a touch. Messi used to do it a lot more in the past but in recent years he has let his feet do more of the talking. Unfortunately last Tuesday he did resort to his old ways against Arsenal on one occasion. Around the 30 minute mark, Denilson went sliding in and clearly won the ball but caught Messi after the ball was pushed away. So Messi rolled around on the ground thereby fooling the ref into booking Denilson and awarding Barcelona a free-kick. And young Bojan clearly seems to be inspired by Messi as on three separate occasions he cried foul when there was none. Thankfully, Barcelona's beautiful football covers over these ugly bits, but it does raise the point that if the most beautiful football team in the world can demonstrate unsporting activities, what can one expect from teams with limited technical abilities?

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