Continuation of FC Barcelona: Football is Art – Part 2
We have been discussing about keeping possession of the ball in tight areas in midfield. How can this be executed successfully? What if the pressure is really high, and the opponent is willing to chase around and close down quickly?
The answer is by passing quicker. It’s a universal truth that the ball always travels faster than a man. It is virtually impossible to run behind the ball when one touch passing is in full effect. Of course, the technical ability of the player’s should also be of that level to be able to play that way. With Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Messi, Villa and Pedro, there is no deficiency in that department. But to successfully execute this, the players are supposed to constantly move to get into positions to receive a pass.
Player ‘A’ wants to pass the ball to ‘B’. The opponent ‘X’ looks to intercept the ball. X has more chances of intercepting the pass, if the distance between A and B is more. To put it in plain language, 5 to 10 yard passes are tougher to intercept than a 25 to 30 yard pass. Also, a short pass could be made with relative ease and accuracy than a long range pass.
Now it is easier to see why Barca wants a smaller space to interchange passes between themselves. Always, a safe pass is chosen between the options available to keep possession. Only when the goal scoring opportunity is clear, a more daring pass is made in behind the defenders or to a moving teammate.
Another quality that allows them to play in tight areas is the way they turn a marker. Barca players trust each other to keep the ball even in tight areas. Even if marked by two defenders, a player like Xavi can receive the ball, turn, skip and leave the defenders the wrong way coming out with the ball to make the pass. It is like they know their next move while the defenders react to the previous move.
Yes, Barcelona does all this just to keep the possession of the ball!
But how do they create goals?
Barca usually has a possession of more than 65%, on an average. This essentially means that the Catalan giants have more chances to create a scoring opportunity than their opponent. On an average, about 15 goal scoring opportunities are set up in a match, and they are not a counter-attacking team.
Do not rush things, keep the ball, be patient, build an attack, start again if there’s no way forward, keep it simple …
Keeping possession in opponent’s penalty area is nearly impossible, unlike in any other area of the pitch. Keeping possession and creating chances is a different art. Like the first objective of keeping possession, namely not allowing the opposition to score against you, having possession also enables them to create chances to score.
Barca is in a way blessed with some of the most creative players of this generation. Messi is a devastating force in the final third of the field; he can mesmerize any defence. Iniesta is a special talent who can leave any defender flat footed and can glide past tackles. Xavi is the general who conducts the whole show from a deeper position, directing and overseeing his soldiers and probing them all the time with his passes. When these three phases combine, there is always a goal scoring chance around the corner; not to forget the threat from wings, in the form of Villa and Pedro cutting in and Alves overlapping.
(This is a static picture with smaller space. Visualize this in a place such as Camp Nou where there is acres of space)
– – – > lines denotes the line of movement for attack from the players and possible off the ball movements. Straight lines denote a pass. There are so many options for triangles and diagonal runs.
Barca seems to have an obsession for scoring the perfect goal, looking to score with just another pass. The attack usually involves almost the whole team. Barca starts an attack really slowly, almost putting everyone to sleep, but when the ball reaches the opponent’s box, the pace of passing hits mesmerizing levels, with each pass taking not more than one or two touches. This pace is necessary to avoid the tackles from the opponent’s defenders.
Off the ball movement:
The term ‘Off the ball movement’ is so widely used when Barcelona plays. So what exactly is it anyway? Players without the ball continuously trying to move into positions by making themselves available for a pass, thereby dragging the opponents out of position and creating space for himself or his teammates.
When Xavi makes a pass to Alves, he will be immediately put under pressure and the return pass to Xavi will also be marked off by an opponent. Now Alves would have option to pass to Pique, and there is a high chance that Pique will also be under pressure. This is when the movement is very important to provide Alves with a safe outlet for his pass. Xavi, who made the initial pass, would never be stationary in his position; he usually moves to a space where he could receive the pass back from Alves. The space chosen by Xavi should also ensure that it is the safest outlet for Alves. Such movement off the ball ensures an option for a pass is created.
When the game is in full flow, it’s all about options to make a pass to a teammate. When Xavi and Iniesta have the ball, usually they are under pressure and they will be looking for a pass to turn out of that situation to find more space. Almost all teams have an organized defence with a strict policy of marking the man or the space, and restricted movement. A well organized defense would not lose its shape nor provide space to run into. To break down such a defence, a constant movement in the final third is necessary to drag defenders out of position and to create space for a teammate.
The defence can’t come in to mark Messi, as it would collapse their defensive shape, and if the defensive midfielders move in on Messi, a void is created between them and their defence. Also, the pace of passing is increased, which gives very less time for the defence to make a tackle and therby increasing the rate of successful passes.
Villa and Pedro add another dimension to the attack. These two normally play on the shoulders of the defenders. But they also come in to combine with the midfield, which makes that place a very congested one. When they stay hugging the touchline, they provide width which makes the pitch wider, as their defenders do while providing option for Valdes.
The constant movement and interchange between the front three benefits Barcelona in the following ways:
· It provides options for Xavi or Iniesta to find a pass.
· It unsettles the defence, as man marking becomes virtually impossible.
· Forces the opponents to commit more men behind the ball to tackle these movements.
Another important aspect is switching the play. When the ball is worked around on the right side of the pitch, the focus of play is concentrated on that part of the field. This means the area near the ball is more populated, which leaves spaces on other areas of the pitch. Villa, who is effective coming in from left, doesn’t come inside to participate in the possession game being played on the right side of the pitch. This allows a dangerous outlet for a player like Xavi, who can see a pass well in advance. If Xavi switches play with a cross field ball, the wide player on the left, usually Villa, receives the ball with acres of space, presenting a dangerous situation for the opposition’s defence to deal with.
Xavi switches the play by passing the ball to Villa who literally has half the field for himself.
“Receive, Pass, Offer and Move. Repeat this” is the heart beat of this system. The whole time there will have to be constant movement and safe one touch passing. It is difficult to hit a moving target; similarly it is difficult to mark a whole team which keeps on moving even if they don’t have the ball.
This below video from the recently concluded El Clasico will give a very clear picture of how this is done. Tiki-Taka at its best.
Does this all means that Barca is unbeatable? NO.
Football is an evolving game and provides a lot of different ways to counter one particular style. Tacticians are always trying to find a way to stop Barca in any way possible, and some have been successful. Unless Barca can claim 100% possession in every match, they can always be beaten. There will always be times when the passing can go wrong; players may not be in the position to receive the pass as anticipated by his teammate, or they also can become tired and can lose concentration, thereby committing mistakes. To put it simply, without a very discipline and highly concentrated effort, this system can’t be employed. This may look very simple on paper, but there are very few teams that could employ this effectively.
Every style has its own uniqueness. There is beauty in everything. Even though a more direct and physical England style game may lack the flair and technical quality, the pace in such games is exciting enough. One sad thing for a purist is that the ball is lost too many times by both teams in such type of game, and some moves depend more on probability than technical assurance – put ten balls into the box, and you can expect at least one to fall in your way. Nevertheless, the excitement is still there.
There is no secret in the way Barcelona play their football. Though their formation looks 4-3-3 on paper, it is very fluid and very unpredictable. But most teams play with ten men behind the ball against them. This shows the effectiveness of their game.
It is very hard to imagine this system working without the players of the caliber of the current FC Barcelona team. La Masia would definitely produce players who can fit into this system. But this current set of players is a privilege to watch. In these times when success is demanded instantly and where winning by any means is the first priority, there is no doubt that Barca has established themselves as a team where the way of playing football comes before success.
There is also a difference in being a successful team and a great team. No matter who the opponents are, Barca plays their way. They enforce their football over any opponent. It is the opponents who are always making the adjustments to counter the threats. This makes this team ‘Great’, and one that will be counted as among the best teams of all times.
Barca synchronizes passing and movement to create a symphony. This is when the art in football is fully expressed. The whole team needs to be in sync for this symphony to reach the crescendo.
Oh, by the way, we almost forgot the man who is doing all the choreographic work – Pep Guardiola, the man who had his football education under the man who changed the modern football, Johan Cruyff.