Barcelona versus Stoke City. A highly skilled and fluid team that plays its every move like a well choreographed ballet versus a team that has a very direct approach to goal with an intimidating physical presence. How would they fare against each other?
Every team has their reasons for choosing their particular style of football. Everyone has their own view on how football ought to be played. So diverse is this game that there are a number of styles, formations, tactics - each perceived differently. And so the debate over the preferred style, rages on. La Liga connoisseurs who love open, attacking game plans that involve a lot of passing, claim that theirs is the only true religion. Fans of the English game, on the other hand, yawn at the passing game and prefer tuning in to watch the direct, grab-each-others-throats-from-the-word-go style that is characteristic of English club football. This however is a generic view, that is unfair to teams that have nuances of both styles. There are teams in EPL that play with flair just as there are teams in La Liga that rely on strength and pace. That hasn’t helped knock the stereotype of the EPL being physical and direct and La Liga being free-flowing and open.
Football began as a sport of brutal strength and pace and yet, thanks to the Latin Americans, it is also known as the beautiful game. This paradox is central to the game! Though football needs strength and pace, the use of mind and flair is equally important. Can we, as observers, attempt to understand that beauty, flair and skill need not necessarily crumble in the face of brute pace and strength?
Recently Andy Gray, a Sky Sports football commentator raised a pertinent question about whether Barca and Messi could handle the physical nature of EPL. In his words,
“I don’t know if Barcelona have ever gone to a place like the Britannia Stadium and suffered the kind of onslaught from Tony Pulis’ team of long throws and free-kicks or been up to a place like Blackburn and been beaten up by their long ball into the box.”
So could Barca handle the likes of Stoke City?
Barcelona has played matches in Russia, in almost freezing conditions on white fields, and that is colder than it can get in the Britannia. You can beat only what is in front of you. So it’s certainly not Barca’s fault that Stoke couldn’t qualify to Europe to set up a possible meeting with the Spanish champions. More importantly, could Stoke City stand up to Barca’s attack? Stoke might be able to play against another side relying on long balls, but can they stop the constant movement and the technical quality that Barca provides at this moment in time?
Since the odds of Barcelona facing Stoke are long, the best we can do is hypothesize a scenario in which both sides faced each other.
The General System and Strategy:
- A fluid 4-3-3
- Possession based football with short passes, using the space on the pitch to create a clear goal scoring opportunity by building up play.
- Defend by denying the ball to opposition heavy pressure when not in possession denying time to build attack for the opponents.
- High line to deny space for opponents and provide men for high pressure near the ball and cutting down passing angles.
- The most fluid side in recent times.
- A more traditional 4-4-2
- Defending in numbers behind the ball and un-compromised hard tackling.
- Defending deep and breaking into attack by lumping long balls towards the forward line to hold up and men following up joining attack.
- Strong and pacey wingers delivering crosses into the box and strong in set plays.
Barca’s high line against Stoke’s deep defense
We own the ball:
Possession is something that is not valued much in the English game. Very less time is spent on the ball and the aim is to get the ball as soon as possible into the box. But Stoke will be up against a team who believe they own the ball. The moment the referee blows his whistle to start the match Stoke have little time on the ball. Barca’s defenders are technically speaking not Pique or Puyol, but it will be Messi, Villa and Pedro who will be doing the defending. When they don’t have the ball, the primary aim for the front 6 is to get the ball. To do that effectively, their back-line will push up and the playing area will effectively be halved with men positioned very close to each other.
Teams who rely on a more direct approach spend relatively very little time in possession. The challenge for Stoke will be to deny the ball to Barca and if they lose the ball to get it back. Both options are tough considering the difference in technical quality and Barca’s efficiency in keeping possession.
Opta Stat: Barcelona’s average possession this season is 72%.
Barca simply denies the ball to opponents and restricts their attacking chances. They also wear out the opponents by frustrating them with prolonged possession. With such low possession and less time on Barca’s territory, its hard to see how Delap’s long throws will affect a game. In another game with equal possession, they could hope to get in more than 20 throws or free kicks but not against a side like Barca. Barca allowed only 9 attacking chances against a massive total of 6 opponents put together during Oct – Nov 2010 in Laliga.
Stokes attack against Barca’s defense:
As a typical English side, Stoke City’s attack is very direct and is based on high balls aimed at the man positioned in the box. The attack is predictable and to counter the threat, a similar player at the heart of the defense is vital. If this current Barca’s defense is pitted against the current Stock City offense, there is only one winner. Against the likes of tall and strong forwards who are excellent in air, Puyol and Pique have very little chance of challenging them and winning the first ball into the box.
It however doesn’t mean that they are not capable of dealing with such threats occasionally. As much as this offensive strategy of lofting the ball from deep areas directing at the big striker seems effective, it is also equally ineffective in terms of accuracy. For any pass to reach its target successfully, the player providing that pass must have the quality to deliver such a pass. Moreover, they must be able to do that under heavy pressure. If the strategy is to just play the ball in the direction of the forwards, then it becomes a game of probability as opposed to one of accuracy. This is not to suggest that Stoke City’s midfielders are awfully poor in terms of quality. But it is a fact that there are very few players who can deliver such passes (deep lying playmakers) accurately from deep areas and Stoke are deficient in that category.
Stoke usually defends deep with 2 banks of 4 close to each other. This forces a sudden counter attack to be launched from deep which reduces the accuracy and gives more chances for the defense to sweep up the moves.
For those who still question Barca’s ability to survive long balls, they ought to have a look at their games against Athletico Bilbao who have a certain Fernando Llorente in their ranks and are not shy to bombard the box from the sky.
But it will not be a traditional defense or midfield covering the zones and marking men in their box. Stoke will be up against a very different defensive system altogether - one that they are unaccustomed to.
Stoke has their best chance of holding off Barca if they decide to defend deep and with the tactical discipline of what Inter managed in the UCL Semi’s in 2010 to keep Barca at arms length. But Stoke is no Inter and their ability to maintain the tactical discipline for the whole 90 minutes is questionable.
Stoke City would have two choices in playing a team like Barca. Sit deep and defend in numbers or pressure them and disrupt their flow.
- Sitting deep would mean less space behind the line for Barca’s attack but also very few chances for an attack against Barca.
- Pressuring Barca will draw Stoke’s defense out of the deep zone and will open gaps behind it and that is what they will be looking for.
Can hard tackling stop Barca?
It’s funny how many feel that tackling hard can stop a technical team. The general perception is that defenders don’t go in hard to stop Barca and they leave them have the ball.
It is almost impossible to put in a tackle when the ball is passed quickly around the field with minimal touches.In-fact Barca would want nothing more than Stoke’s defense to come out of its shell, so to speak, just so that they can find space behind them. If a set of defenders come out all-guns blazing to stop or dispossess the ball, a skilled player could easily dodge them and take them out of the defensive equation. That is one of the main reasons behind most of the 3 yard passes between Xavi and Busquets in the midfield. They want the defenders to come at them; they constantly shift the passing angles with the short passes; they look to draw out the second line of defense which creates space between the lines;
A technical attacking team can only be stopped completely by an equally technical defense which is both intelligent and physical like the famed Italian defenders.
Jonathan Wilson in his book “Inverting the Pyramid” quotes how the English thought about stopping the great Hungarian team with tough tackling.
“Hungary’s superb ball-juggler’s can be checked by firm tackling” – Frank Coles wrote on Daily Telegraph before the match in which Hungary beat England 7-1 in 1954.
Great defenders are respected not for their brutal force or challenges, but for their technical qualities in defense. To counter an attack that plays the game like chess trying to outwit the defense, the defensive organization should also be equally good enough to deal with such moves. Teams such as Barcelona, which try to unlock the defense, like picking a lock and don’t come directly at the opposition with force. With all respect to Andy Gray, it is clearly not that simple to stand up, put a strong challenge and physically intimidate a side like Barca.
There is no substantial stat to predict what might happen if Barca visits Stoke City. Everyone is entitled to have their own opinion. Football is a global game and it is a game where the under-dogs have a surprisingly high chance of success. But Andy Gray’s comment sounds an awful lot similar to what Frank Coles said in 1954 before England’s match against Hungary.
“Hungary’s superb ball-jugglers can be checked by firm tackling”