FC Barcelona: Football is Art – Part 1

“What makes daily life interesting is that we try to transform it to something that is close to art. And football is like that. When I watch Barcelona, it is art.”

Arsene Wenger made this quote to describe the beauty in football, and also as a testimony to Barcelona’s game.

The world of football is blessed with so many different styles which have evolved over a long period of time. Every style has its own unique way of entertaining the masses, but very few styles can bring joy while watching. Football is the game of the common man and has earned its rights not because of the trophies, but because of its simplicity and the joy it can bring.

Not everyone0 has the same view on this beautiful game. Ever since the game became a major commodity for marketing, “Winning at any cost” has taken over the minds of the tacticians. Finding a way of not getting beaten became more important than playing to win and playing beautifully; football was slowly losing the ‘Art’ in it. Players became more of an athlete, focusing on strength and speed. Technique and skills were given less preference than the athleticism.  Tactics became the important factor in determining the matches than the skills of the players on the ball. Of course, there were teams who wanted to play attacking football, but the results became more important, that playing an entertaining brand of football became a risk factor. Also,  not all players possessed the skills needed to keep the game simple.

The notion that only the successful teams, in terms of trophies, will be remembered by history seems to be misleading everyone.  History, on the other hand, seems to be praising the beautiful game for its beauty irrespective of the results. It’s the joy of the game that remains in the memory more than any trophies. The Golden Hungarian team of the 50’s, Total footballers of the 70’s, the Azzurri that played the “Game of the century” vs Germany, the Brazilian magicians of the 80’s created by Tele Santana and so on – all representatives of the beauty and art in football will never be forgotten.

The most important reason, that the Barca way of football stands out and looks different, is due to the fact that playing an offensive game is their identity, and their style puts a smile on people’s face when watching. Barcelona’s brand of football has not only entertained people but also has brought them enormous success in terms of trophies. The team which is built on the identity that Cruyff has brought in has been continuously producing great teams that thrill the viewers with its football. The early 90’s saw the Dream Team, led by Cruyff himself, playing the beautiful way; the new millennium saw some magical displays orchestrated by Ronaldinho, and the current team seems to be raising the bar much too higher under Guardiola, who is Cruyff’s student.

The Barca way of playing is pleasing to the eyes and looks very simple. In fact, keeping it simple is one of the main components of their play. Their game is made simple by a number of small complex and disciplined technical qualities. There are not many teams available that attack with ten men. It’s no secret to anyone that they play only one way. Possession is their all important bread for survival. Movement, pressing and passing are the building blocks for their game.

Barca’s tried and tested formation on paper is a 4-3-3 formation with Valdes on goal. Their backline has Dani Alves on the right, Abidal on the left, and Puyol and Pique at the centre. Busquets in the holding role, with Xavi and Iniesta near him, together form the midfield core. At front, they have may be the smallest possible strike force in world football in Villa, Messi and Pedro. But this formation on the paper can be very misleading, because on the field, their formation can become 3-3-4 or 4-6-0 or 3-7-0 as the game demands. There are many questions that would arise as to how this team has managed to play so beautifully and has managed to be successful. Let’s ask ourselves these questions: How do they defend? How do they keep possession? How do they create goals?

How do they defend?

Barca’s defense is not good”; “Barca’s weakness is their defense”; “Compared to XYZ team, Barca’s defense is not great so the advantage is with XYZ team”. These are some of the most frequently repeated thoughts during any big game previews by some analysts. But a closer look into this team shows how wrong some of the analysts are in evaluating this defense. In fact Barca has one of the best defenses in recent times. They simply redefine the general notion of defending.

Ever since Guardiola has taken over this team, he has brought in a much needed discipline that was previously missing. The team of Rjikaard played an attacking game with a philosophy of simply scoring more goals than the opponents can score; some of the forwards had absolutely no responsibility in defense. But the first task under Guardiola was to concentrate on defense; yes you heard it right, THE DEFENSE, which many may find it a little bit amusing to hear considering how his team plays. The philosophy for Barca’s defense is defending as a unit, including the forwards.

There are different ways to defend in football; the two obvious tactical choices are;

  • Defend your goal with men behind the ball
  • Defend the football from the opposition and deny them a chance to score against you.

A very simple fact – ‘if the opposition does not get the ball they can’t score’ – may make a lot of sense. This is how Barca redefines the common belief of defense, while most teams still see defending as to defend the goal. They defend the ball instead of the goal, which at a closer look is much safer that guarding a goal.

Barca implements that on the field by the way of possession football. Barca’s defense has a very strict policy of not to kick the ball high up the pitch to clear, unless it’s absolutely necessary. Valdes has clear instructions on not clearing the ball beyond the half way line, if not under heavy pressure.  He is not suppose to kick the ball high, aiming at the midfield or the final 3rd, since it becomes much more of a lottery and possession could be lost. They prefer to build attacks from their backline through Pique. This is where a central defender who is comfortable on the ball comes handy; and Pique, being a capable one, does this job really well. He has the ability to keep the ball short to his teammates with short and accurate passes, or can go cross field to the far corners with long balls to switch play depending on the pressure he is under.

When you have an opponent who doesn’t want to give you the opportunity to hold on to the ball, the situation becomes difficult. The opposition’s strikers starts pressing the backline, giving very less time to build an attack and less time on the ball to find a pass. This forces the man on the ball to turn back to his goal keeper or makes him play a clearance to avoid danger of losing the ball in dangerous positions. This is not a new situation for Barca and they do have the tactics to play around such situation.

This is where the usage of pitch comes into play. Space is a very important aspect in a football match, especially for Barca’s style of play. When Valdes has the ball, Pique and Puyol usually moves to the right back and left back positions and Dani Alves and Abidal moves forward. Busquets would come deeper. This automatically gives Valdes 3 options to make a pass instead of hoisting the ball near midfield and hoping it reaches his teammates; none of his midfielders are really capable of winning the ball in the air.

The lines denote the options for Valdes to pass the ball when he has the possession.

Pique’s option for building an attack from defense.

Another important aspect of Barca’s defense is their pressing when the opponent has the ball. As Pep Guardiola has pointed out, his team is horrible without the ball. They do not have the tools to defend like Inter did in UCL semifinals. So their only option is to play with the ball, and hence they scramble and hound the opponents to get back the ball. To help in this, they use the space in the field by employing a very high defensive line.

The high offside trap narrows the pitch and makes players closer, which makes pressing easier. Smaller playing area effectively means short distances to cover to reach an opponent with the ball. This also reduces tiredness.

Since the introduction of the offside rule, the game has become more interesting, as a team can create and manipulate space during a match. By playing this high line, the effective playing area is shirked to half the playing field and makes the players closer. There are many advantages for Barca, and of course a very big risk is also involved in playing this high line. When the opposition has the ball and the players are already closer because of high line, it is easier to press early, which will force the opponent to hit the ball high towards the back line or force them into a rash clearance. If the opposition managed to play a pass to his teammate, there will always be constant pressure from Barca’s midfield. So the first objective of not allowing the players time on the ball is obtained. The opposition has not managed to build an attack and the pass is rushed. A rushed pass or a rash clearance works on probability and has a higher chance of not reaching its destination. The possession can be easily won back.

An attack breaking the high offside trap needs longer distance to cover, and Valdes has higher chance of sweeping up if its in his zone(denoted by blue line)

But even with such high pressure, there are chances that some balls can find its way beyond the backline; in which case, there are other options to fall back. If the ball is played beyond the defense for the forward to run into and if it is slightly over hit, Valdes has the option of sweeping it up. If the ball is perfect for the player, he still has to cover almost half the pitch which gives a smaller chance for either Alves or Abidal to recover, since both Pique and Puyol can’t cope with the pace of a really quick forward. This risk is mandatory for Barca’s midfield maestros to work their tiki-taka.

[To be continued]

58 Responses to “FC Barcelona: Football is Art – Part 1”

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  1. prakhar says:

    Wonderful article. Kudos, mate.

  2. Asif Chowdhury says:

    Wonderful article yet again. I am really becoming a fan of your blog… :)

  3. Manu says:

    Just superb!!! Immaculate.. Waiting for the part2 😐