Buses and institutional arrogance, aka “Barça take planes, not buses”


This has been the Champions League and week in which football has taken it on the chin.

— Chelsea beat Liverpool.
— RM stomped Bayern

It has also been a week in which the phrase “parking the bus” has acquired a heretofore unseen malleability as counterattacking football has become “parking the bus,” for reasons that are certainly valid in the heads of the folks who misuse it.

“Parking the bus” is when an inferior team stacks 10 behind the ball, with no real interest, barring some fluke, in scoring. You see it in league matches sometimes, when a team has an unlikely lead in a knockout tie. You might also see it when a cynical coach tactically misplays the first leg of a Champions League knockout tie (cough! Mourinho. cough!) A parked bus doesn’t want anything to happen as differentiated from counterattacking football, which wants something to happen but waits for an opportunity.

Definitions of “parking a bus” are popping up that suit the arrogance of the “divine football” crowd. I can appreciate why people hold on to it. It helps console us as we watch the Champions League continue without Barça, and construct arguments for this player and that player as the answer to breaking a bus. “Well, they just parked the bus,” supporters snort in derision. “Let’s see them play football against us.” As senator Clay Davis would say on “The Wire,” “Sheeeeeeiiiiittttt!” Here’s a hammer. Hit yourself in the foot, pleasethankyou.

Nothing changes more than football. Players come and go, coaches change, tactics change. Today’s bete noire becomes tomorrow’s necessity. You don’t even have to go that far back in time to find a very different Barça than the tika taka as religion crew of today. Just look at some Ronaldinho goals and the track meet stuff that went on. People would be losing their minds if Barça scored goals like that today.

Eden Hazard said that Chelsea is built to counterattack, rather than play football. No shame in that, even as some construe that comment as him admitting that Chelsea park the bus. “Not playing football” doesn’t mean parking the bus, just as parking the bus isn’t anti-football. Parking the bus, true parking the bus in its most cynical form, is anti-everything. If the match was canceled, a team planning to park the bus would say “Great! Does this mean we get the draw?”

Counterattacking is defensive, but not parking the bus. We have even counterattacked this season, and scored goals from it. It was tragic when it happened, and an angel lost its wings every time we ran a counter. I know.

I reckon that culer derision and rapidity to label defending and playing the counter as parking the bus is rooted in Barça’s struggles against teams that defend in the low block, in a unified shape. That, too, is different than parking a bus. Atleti defend in the low block, pressing in the midfield, in a unified shape, with more traditional CBs. They also score goals from counters. Does Atleti park the bus? Nope. RM plays the same way. Do they park the bus? Nope.

“Mommy, why won’t they play football?”

The true bus has been rare against us this season, so much so that I can’t even recall the times it has happened. Defending in a low block? That is almost all we see, and all that we will see until we devise fool-proof ways to beat it, which will never happen. Even funnier is that more than 90% of the time, we do beat it. It’s only when we run up against a top-level opponent playing that way that the team is futile against it. Yet even then, there are chances. With the quality of players that we have on the attack, Barça will always create chances. It’s taking those chances that usually define how a match goes.

The ongoing myths that teams who defend and play off the counter are parking the bus or that Barça can’t break a bus need to die, even as they won’t because narratives need them to exist.

You know how to beat a bus? Take your chances.

The Inter and Chelsea CL semi ties were defined by not taking chances. Krkic pushed his header wide of an open net. Even aside from the incorrectly judged Toure Yaya handball, there were chances. And against Chelsea, take your chances and that tie is over at Stamford Bridge.

“Ah, but this year, look. Valladolid, Granada …”

Sure, go ahead … judge things from the mentally fried husk of a team if you like, but I’m going to take a pass on that.

Why can’t we defend like …

As people clamor for names in that traditional CB mold, coupled with our gazelle-like fowards (Messi, Neymar, Pedro, Sanchez) it’s easy to see those two colliding and Barça becoming a team that might play counterattacking football. There won’t always be a time that we have small, possession-minded wizards to control a match. We might even (shudder!) resort to counter-attacking as a tactic, as we did earlier this season from time to time, and people reacted as though the world had shifted on its axis. At that point, will Barça be considered a “bus parking” team? No, and people will vehemently defend this team against any accusations that it is.

“Our defense sucks.” Well okay, but let me try something out. In reading a wonderful Jonathan Wilson piece today, a statistic leapt out at me: in 2010-11, Messi averaged 2.1 recoveries from tackle per match. That number these days is .6. I would bet my house that statistic would show the same down trend among all of our attackers. The Treble team had Henry and Abidal. This year we have a Brazilian phenom still learning to spell defending, and a first-choice LB who believes he is an LW. Want to make a non-traditional defense better? Don’t force it to function as a traditional defense.

Want to know how to make our non-traditional defense better?

Do work.

This team is better than many give it credit for, both overall and at beating sides that defend. It is fried, dyed and laid to the side and still in the running for Liga, made the Copa final and the Champions League quarterfinals. Does it need changes? Absolutely. But most of what Barça needs can’t be bought in the transfer market. This team needs peace, quiet, and a break from the conga line of pitfalls.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. Great article Kxevin. I think a lot of the “Parking the Bus” arguments are really fruitless arguments about semantics. If we want to use the “official definition” of parking the bus (10 men around the box with no intention to launch a counter) ,then it is true that Barca rarely face it except late in La Liga games when the other team is looking to seal a tie or win or late in Champions League second legs when our opponent wants to run out the clock (Second half of Inter and Chelsea at Camp Nou in ’10 and ’12).

    Barcelona fans especially on this site have used the term “Parking the Bus” to refer to the opposition sitting deep and waiting for the opportunity to hit back on the counter which now almost all of our opponents do. If Barca fans want to also call this “Parking the Bus”, I have no problem with that too.

    Neither the strict or the loose definition is really anti-football since each has a purpose (protecting a lead or tie/ or defending and trying to score on the counter).

    Barca fans have the right to call both “Parking the Bus” as a way of putting the other team down just like anti-Barca fans like to call tiki-taka “boring” or selfishly “not letting the other team have a chance to have the ball so we can play football”.

  2. From what I read, ‘Parking the bus’ was a phrase invented by Mourinho and he alone can explain what he meant by that. The general view is that if a team spends the majority of 90mins sitting back in numbers in their own half, then its parking the bus. Doesn’t matter if there was intent to score or not. It is borne out of inferiority complex and people only defend the tactic cos of the ‘anti-football tag’. Am not against it either as there are many ways of playing football.

  3. In all of this recent debate, one important point seems to be forgotten by most (not Kxevin and Jonathan though), which is that the key to beating a team that plays in a defensive shape and attempts to counterattack is to press them incessantly, like a pack of hounds. When you look at the 5-0 against Madrid, we were pressing like mad. When we do that, then we get quick transition attacks, which is how we scored most of our most important goals. There were so many articles during that period describing Barcelona as a swarm of bees, or locusts.

    There is a common theory in economics called the theory of comparative advantage. Barcelona have a comparative advantage in having players who can pass the ball the best in a small area of the pitch. But if we never get space and other teams do, this comparative advantage is irrelevant. If this is to be an important skill, our players need some semblance of space. Since all teams are now playing us by trying to not give us any space, we have to get that space by pressing. Given almost no other team in the world is as good on the ball, as long as we press, we have a higher probability of getting a quick transition attack than any other team in the world.

    There seems to be an odd historical revision in the sense that most people now talk about how Barcelona were a great team because of the strength of our passing play. Barcelona of 2008-12 were the best team in the world because of our pressing and our passing game. Take one out and the other is just not enough.

    Hopefully, Messi will win his world cup and next season onwards, we can institute a proper pressing game. Without that, we are bound to become a team that is close to the best, but cannot get over the final hump.

    Finally, I don’t believe in this anti-pro football argument. To me, the terms are proactive and reactive football as Jonathan uses. I have no problems whatsoever with reactive football apart from the fact that if every team uses reactive football tactics, the global equilibrium is shit on a stick, which no football fan wants to see. As long as a majority of coaches do not follow Mou Mou, I am fine with teams picking different tactics to win.

    1. The problem with that as we found out is that to gain numerical advantage our full backs are close to the opposition box and when we lose possession due to lack of space, one long diagonal ball causes us to face one on one situations at our end of the pitch. 4 years ago, the opposition would still try and play the ball out which is when our pressing would give us the advantage. But they learnt to stop doing that. One long kick of the ball and bam, one on one…

      Then we said, well let Alves go forward and let Alba stay behind for defensive cover. Then we have somewhat lost the numerical advantage. I think this is where it was hoped Neymar would come in. Pedro who usually plays on the left doesn’t beat his markers but Neymar is perfectly capable of doing that. And we saw it happen, for the initial few games where Neymar played on the left, he would beat his marker and send crosses in. But our defense not being the “regular” defense was still vulnerable when facing a high quality opposition (EE, ManC etc) which is why we started playing the “control 11”. Moreover we also found out that Neymar while being capable of beating his marker, would also lose a lot of balls, which is completely natural btw (but doesn’t mean he cant improve there). Which is why I was a big fan of the way we played during the first half of the season. Some proper defenders and we have one problem solved.

      For me, even if high pressing returns, against highly effective counter attacking teams, we would still be vulnerable.

      Then again we would still want to modify our game depending on the opposition. A crucial factor as Kxevin pointed out is the tackles by Messi. I still believe this team is extremely strong but also recognize that it can be further improved.

    2. That is the point of the Henry video. It all comes from work. If Messi’s ball recovery from tackles stat is down, you’d better believe that everyone’s is down. Everyone has their own theories about what happened and why. For me it comes down to work. And concentration. The former isn’t happening enough for whatever reason. The latter is impossible when seemingly every week brings another tragedy or scandal.

      Through all of the crap that has gone on, this season has really come down to 6 or so goals. Close margins. Abundant chances were available to rectify all, but it just didn’t come off. It happens.

  4. Totally agree with you sandesh about the importance of pressing in our glory days. Unfortunately, I don’t think we can really rise to those heights anymore because this team no longer has the players to do that. Xavi and even Iniesta are older now and Fab doesn’t have the speed to press like we need him too. In addition, Messi and Neymar will never be consistent pressers since each has another role in the side. If Messi presses all game, then some really bad things happen: he gets really fatigued and won’t be able to muster the energy to make one of his lightning quick amazing runs that results in a goal. The other possibility is that Messi is likely to get injured if he runs around like a demon all game. So, he must pick his spots. I think the same is true for Neymar though for slightly different reasons. Both Messi and Ney need to press more in important games, but asking both to press really had each game is not realistic.

    Whether we like it or not, the future of the club now depends on our team coming up with a system that allows us to get the most out of Messi and Neymar while both are on the pitch. I think Tata had some good ideas about how to do this, but because of injuries to both during the season and our other troubles, we didn’t get a chance to see how he would fully implement his ideas.

    Now it us up to our next coach.

    1. Simple. The next coach (assuming the Martino rumors are true) tells them as Guardiola did, “You run, or you don’t play. Including you, No. 10.” And you go from there.

      Neymar should be able to press his ass off, just as Henry did. Pedro and Sanchez? Say no more. Fabregas knows what position to be in. Has Xavi lost some steps? You bet, but he was never fast, just always able to be where the press funneled attackers. Iniesta? Say no more.

      Run or sit. It’s that simple.

    2. This! Of course, that requires great physios, a strict physical (and nutritional?)regimen, and rotation, rotation, rotation.

    3. That is the problem with roster dead weight. Cuenca, Afellay, Dos Santos, Sergi Roberto. That’s four roster spots (five if you count the perpetually healing Puyol). So you have a 23-player roster that is effectively an 18-player roster. Difficult to have real rotation of the type that keeps legs fresh.

    4. I agree with the survival of the fittest argument for our team, but the problem is still what to do with Messi. I don’t want to sound intolerant, but Messi’s body is a freak of nature. I’m not his doctor, so I don’t know all about the current status of his body put he has reached a point that he will break if the team asks him to do too much.

      I think those in the know at Barcelona really considered selling him for this reason. For good or ill the team decided not to get rid of him for a huge pay day and I’m glad they did.

      Barca’s fortunes now are largely dependent on the state of his fitness. Having Neymar on the team is also essential because if Messi does break down for a few months we still have a dangerous scoring threat who can create his own chances.

    5. We’ve lost bite in midfield and up front.
      We used to have Deco or Keita who were physical. Henry & Eto’o who were both physical and incredibly hungry and we miss it.
      As you say Kxevin, we have too many roster spots taken by dead players who are not good enough.

      I’d rather have a squad of 20, all ready to play than a squad of 25 with no competition. That is what we really have. We have our XI and maybe 2 extra players who can affect results on the bench. You can argue who our strongest team is but there will be little doubt that only a couple of players will be different in everyone’s lineup.

      I’d love to add physicality to our first XI and quality to our bench. Tactical diversity is also something we don’t have. Is Pedro that different to Alexis? Sergi Roberto doesn’t play an entirely different game to Iniesta.

      The rumours linking us with a different style midfielder are the most positive thing for me. I don’t expect us to sign a genuine no.9 as is being called for. Even the striker being linked to us in Sport yesterday was Kun Aguero. Not exactly a target man. So the idea of adding a midfielder like Arturo Vidal at least gives us a different dimension.

    6. I obviously didn’t mean dead players. It would be an interesting concept of mixing zombies with football as a way of keeping things entertaining.

  5. I’m less concerned with buses and long balls over the top than with a ferocious midfield press. I’ve always thought we had a lot more problems with people pressing us to death than people sitting back and absorbing the pressure. In our worst matches – for example the Atletico QF – they outran us the whole match, having more people at the back and then as many in our half as we did. They were everywhere, running, hounding and pressurizing us, and we simply let them.

    For me, their press was what killed us. And the way we used to beat that press two-three years ago was by passing in quicker and more intricate patterns, and that has stopped because our team has stopped running, so they end up being static and marked out by the opposition.

    Pass and move, pass and move, pass and move. If we want to solve our crisis without replacing half the squad, we have to bring back the movement (and the press).

  6. Crazy finish in Valencia. They go 3-0 up after losing the first leg 2-0, then a 94th minute goal from Sevilla.

  7. Great comments above. If Athleti showed the world anything, it is that desire and the willingness to play hard is just as important as having a squad filled with world class players.
    I’d love to see the Barca of old as well, but the truth is that the team is now being pulled in too many directions, and we are not always doing what is best to win on the pitch. I know football, politics, infighting, and favoritism are inseparable at Barca, but for me as a fan these days the less I hear about it or see its results on the pitch the better.

    Barca must put all other considerations aside and make sure we are set up next season so we can remain a dominant force in world football. The way I see it is that over the last 5 years the team has been struggling to balance two demands. One is to develop our La Masia system and introduce young talented players to the side. The other competing demand is to bring in the best new players on transfers so the fans will be happy and think we have the best chance of winning in the immediate future.

    The obvious problem is that neither of these projects has worked out well because emphasizing one aim diminishes the other. You can’t ask a player to put his career on the line to tranfer to Barca and then in a year or two ask him to leave because he didn’t immediately work out. Alexis Sanchez has done everything to earn his right to wear a Barca shirt and for this reason deserves his place on the team as much as anyone else whether he started playing for Barca at 6 or 26. For that reason alone, and I know this isn’t going to happen, I would rather see Pedro or Fabergas go instead of him. All three players have been given their chances over the last three years, and I think Alexis has worked the hardest to earn a place on the team.

    At the same time, fans must come to terms that any player’s transfer to Barca is a risk that more likely than not will not meet our ideal expectations. Transfers should be essential for the team and not publicity to make the fans happy.

    So yes, Barca need a world class CB, and we need to be very careful about who we bring in. At the same time we have the other talented Alcantera brother joining the side, and we should do everything in our power to make sure he has a chance to make a successful transition into the first team. Where do you guys think he can make the most impact?

  8. Kxevin, thank you for tackling a prickly question. You are right, it is institutional arrogance, but what’s more frightening for me is that it is turning into institutional blindness.

    Tata began the season brightly, with lots of movement, lots of pressing(look at the games against Levante, against Valencia at Mestalla) and rotation(Messi was actually benched?), counters and goals – and he was crucified for playing badly and not following Barça style.

    I don’t want to sound critical because I am a culé, but it seems to me that Barcelona has changed. It changed from a total football team to a team that needs to possess the ball to prevent opposing strikers from exposing the overstretched defence.

    Total football is supposed to be the essence of how Barcelona play, but total football means that a defender can become an attacker, a midfielder can be the point or the last line of defence, and a striker can go back to defend. This is what made Barcelona great – the total determination, the willingness of the team to play together in defence, together overcome the midfield pressure and together overwhelm the opposition. The Barcelona we have today, for good or for bad, is a team that has most of the players needed to play total football, but not the fitness and just some of the desire. Instead this Barcelona has turned into a possession team that tries to tire the opponent and guard the defence by constant passing. The real problem is that the opponent needs to be participating as well – and as we have seen for quite a bit now, opponents want to win as well, so they refuse to participate in the chase, surrender the center in order to crowd the approaches and then look for a fast ball forward to strike at the defence.

    It pains me to admit it, but for me in this moment Atletico are the team that plays a type of total football. It’s football with a marked accent on defence, but it has the total participation that for me defines total football. Their hunger for trophies and glory, the determination to win at all costs, the singular focus, this is what has made Atletico the leaders in La Liga and finalists in the Champions League. They don’t argue about style, they don’t jeer and whistle their own players. They just come out play/support their hearts out and win. Cynically, dirty, brutally if needed – but win.

    And we come back to institutional arrogance and institutional blindness. Barcelona as an institution, not just the club but the culerada, the “Barcelona” press and the whole entorno, needs to take a long hard look in the mirror that has been this year. Forget about the tragedies and off-pitch scandals and problems. These could excuse the players, even though the players themselves have not looked for excuses. I am talking about the lack of faith, the lack of support, the handkerchiefs in the stands, the constant whining and criticism.
    Barcelona needs to take a long hard look, because to me it seems that the Barcelonismo has forgotten that the means are not the ends. In other words possession is a tool, not an objective. Counter-attacks are a tool. Defensive pressing is a tool. Counter-pressing is a tool. Set-piece training is a tool. The objective is winning.

    Barcelona needs to adapt. Adaptation and evolution are what drives this species. Teams adapted to Barcelona’s passing and movement by refusing to chase the ball and taking advantage of the increasingly lowered height and physicality of the team. Now the ball is in Barcelona’s side of the pitch. The question is whether Barcelona can adapt and overcome. If it doesn’t, the abundance of individual brilliance will be wasted and Barcelona will follow the footsteps of the tyrannosaurus.

    1. Nice ideas Peter! I think that Tata in the end may have been a great coach for Barca because he was an outsider, a pragmatist, and not wedded to the tiki-taka style as some core identity of Barca and Catalonian nationalism. It was be awesome if he could write a tell all book about all that did happen this season and outline what he would have done and which players he wanted in his side for his second year at the club.

      In the end, I think it came down to the club, the players, and the press saying: “you are not Pep, you are not Tito, you have not won 14 trophies, so why should we listen to you and what authority do you have to change our style?”.

      All that being said, the irony is that with all the turmoil, we had a good chance of winning all 3 trophies had not Valdes and Pique gone down with freak injuries before the most important games of the season.

      We can only hope for some sanity in the future and that we avoid switching places with Real–with us becoming the team that has a new coach each season and has no stability while Real enjoy the opposite.

    2. My personal belief and hope is that Tata will be a great coach for Barcelona.

      I still believe and hope that it wasn’t the players or the board, but the inevitability of having a squad that wasn’t prepared and was being hit mentally and physically at every turn.

      Dos Santos was injured long-term just when he was beginning to show he may be capable of providing a node for rotation. Puyol wasn’t able to recover sufficiently to play more than a handful of games. Valdes got injured just after the Clasico, and Pique in the game after that – And Bartra was knocked in the return leg. With the shallow Barcelona squad it couldn’t have gone any other way. Remember what happened in the two games vs Ajax and Athletic? There were eight players injured and unavailable. Adama played in the Champions League and Puyol had to be put as RB. That’s how f*cked up things were.

      Anyway, this team for me has the potential to win everything. Despite the injuries, despite the tragedies, all that was needed was for a couple of the myriad of opportunities against Granada or just one more of the dozen unluckies against Valencia – and this team would’ve been breathing down the neck of Atletico. That’s how close it was.

      As for the press talking that Tata is not Pep or Tito – neither are any of the countless reporters or know-it-all armchair coaches. The man was going back to the roots of the great Barcelona, with lots of pressing and passing, lots of movement and rotation, as well as the frequent counter which sucker-punched quite a few opponents.

      I will leave my ideas for what should be done for another post.

    3. Maybe it’s just my hope against nope, but I didn’t see him like that.

      The press are rooting for Luis Enrique and talking about his low price, but at the same time they are talking about Rafinha staying one more season in Celta and at the same time sending Denis Suarez to Celta. Oh, and apparently Courtois and Agger are coming to Barcelona(if we’re to believe the press), especially interesting since according to Sport Chelsea are waiting for the first minute of transfer season to announce they bagged him. How will Atletico agree on Courtois going to Barcelona while at the same time selling Diego Costa is beyond me.

      Sometimes I think a requirement for becoming a sport journalist in Spain to to have suffered frontal lobotomy.

    4. As I said on Twitter, I will become club president before Courtois comes to Barça. Not only that, but I don’t see him do much after he makes a save than hoof it up the pitch, the thing Valdes was lambasted for when he started doing it.

      So hmmm …

      The Suarez to Celta thing is funny. Rafinha defo coming back. Have even seen that from grownups. Suarez? Dunno. That is some real quality there, but I don’t know where you put him in a world of Fabregas, Iniesta, Xavi, Rafinha. A loan might be the most viable option until Xavi retires at the end of next season. Then he and Deulofeu are ready to come back.

    5. Simeone would sooner drag Courtois to the basement of the Calderon and cut off his tall keeper’s hands than have him go to Barcleona.

      “Now if you want him, he’s yours”

  9. Brilliant comments galore.

    This season, most of the cules don’t seem so devastated, compared to the last one.

    Back to the usual cheeky, witty selves.

  10. Nice observations.

    In the tiki taka years, we danced around the half-line.

    Opponents actually tried to follow the ball then.
    It was quite fun to watch our sprites humiliating them with a turn, a run and a pass.

    Now they refuse to play in our hands, they wait around their woodwork cuz they know that’s where the ball is going to come anywho.

    In that little crowded pocket of space, they have more chances to rob the ball off us.
    It’s that simple.

    Opponents are playing differently, so we too must play differently. No choice but to move on.

    Instead of another Masia coach, pragmatic Tata was a spot on choice.

    Hope he stays. If not, this change of guard will be a success I hope.

  11. I thought this would be a fairly short opinion on what to change on the pitch, but the more I thought about it, the more it seems that we must understand the underlying problems, which can be found off it first.

    I have to say I may be approaching this from a wrong perspective, which is not exactly the football one. Instead, I am looking at it from a mumbo-jumbo psychological, physics and military aspect. In plain words, I’m trying to adapt “The Art of War” to Barcelona. 
    Before we begin, the Art of War has this important principle: knowledge. Know yourself and know the enemy, and you won’t be defeated in a hundred battles. Know yourself, but not your enemy, and every victory will be matched by defeat. Know neither yourself nor your enemy, and you will never be victorious. Knowledge in this case means not just strengths and weaknesses, but also perceived strengths and weaknesses. It stresses the need to look at things with clear and pragmatic eyes, without resorting to hopes and wishes and beliefs that have no firm foundation in reality.
    Now, how this translates into football terms and Barcelona’s situation? Barcelona play attacking free-flowing football. If the opponents try to win possession and attack, Barcelona can lure them forward and then bypass them on its way to goal. If both teams try to attack and try to keep the ball in play, Barcelona’s better quality and experience will gain the upper hand, to the detriment of both opponent player stamina and willingness to challenge, due to an accumulation of yellow cards. Opponents know this and they accept it. It takes a great team and a permissive ref to defeat Barcelona at what it does or at least neutralize it. Opponents, by and large, know their limitations and know that they cannot sustain the passing pace of Barcelona. They also know that they play Barcelona around two times, once home and once away. So what do they do? They play their hearts out, especially at home. They refuse to be dragged into chasing the elusive ball and instead mount a great collective defensive effort that involves the whole team. They withdraw tactically; they surrender the center of the pitch in order to gain numerical superiority in the approaches to the penalty box in order to close down the channels through which a ball can be passed. By and large they forget about the offside trap, because what counts is the double- and triple-teaming the ball carrier, crowding him away where he can be dealt with more easily or blunting the edge of the attack, because Barcelona players don’t prefer to waste an opportunity than lose the ball. Center-forwards track back to pressure the Blaugrana midfield into sending the ball back to the defense/keeper, thus stopping the momentum and giving a few precious seconds for the rest of the team to rearrange itself and take a breather – and that breather is ever so important, because it focuses the mind, it brings up the confidence (you are in position and looking at the possibilities instead of just reacting). That microscopic rest allows the team to last longer and if not run more, then make the running more effective. Barcelona often relies on tiring the opponents in the first half and finding holes and exploiting the exhaustion in the second half. But teams that focus their defensive effort and don’t concede in the first half also gain the mental edge – their efforts pay off, they challenge the elusive Barcelona players instead of running after the ball and making late challenges. Once the ball is gained, the opponents don’t face the pressure they used to(with the 5-second rule) and can make more intelligent decisions which are more likely to pay off. In short, opponents know Barcelona and know themselves.
    In contrast, Barcelona’s “default mode” is to pass the ball around. Sure, it maintains possession, because by default the team without the ball cannot score, it also guards the defense, but what is also true is something else – this constant passing is tiring, even though it’s mostly mental and not physical tiring. It becomes easier to lose focus and it also forces agitation. You’d have to be superhuman not to be agitated if you can’t find a space for a forward pass and are forced to pass sideways instead, or try a forward pass and see it wasted. It feels wrong, because it’s a surrender of the initiative. It feels wrong, because the players don’t succeed even though they are doing what every instinct tells them to do – “don’t lose the ball”. It feels wrong and it breeds the early vestiges of concern and later desperation, because Barcelona must win. In order to maintain the breakneck race for La Liga, Barcelona must win. Relaxation is for the later part of the season if the team has managed to build some cushion.
    And there comes one inevitable truth, something which a lot of the entorno don’t like to admit: at some point the ball will be lost. The ball will be lost. What do you do then? Currently there’s a scramble, as wingbacks, who have been needed up front to provide some sort of numerical parity, have to sprint back to provide coverage and curtail the boulevards towards the Barcelona box. Pivotes also have to run back to cover their zones, creative midfielders who lack the speed are left back in midfield wondering and looking, trying to shake off the mental cobwebs, Pinto/Valdes tries to concentrate in order to predict which way the ball will go, and millions of culers around the world try to moisten their suddenly dry throats. The team is in total reaction mode and has totally lost the initiative. It’s down to individual skill and brilliance, which Barcelona possesses in heaps, but individual brilliance can be contained and neutralized by team tactics.
    When that neutralization happens, the howling begins. The unseemly, disgusting howling and shouting and tantrum galore to find a culprit. But what gags me is not the search itself, but its conclusions – the style is not at fault, it’s the lack of performance by players who are not worthy of wearing the shirt, coaches who don’t deserve to manage the team or transfer managers who didn’t sign a favourite player. Suddenly everybody is a prophet. In hindsight. This reminds me of the party line in the Soviet Union “the single man is at fault, The Party cannot be wrong”. And what it boils down to is “not knowing yourself”, or rather the refusal to see the real problems.
    If there is one grave mistaken belief that Pep told Barcelona, is that it’s possible to both play beautifully and win. The treason committed by every part of the entorno and the millions of fans, culers and supporters was to add the unsaid and probably un-thought “always and forever”. Maybe it wasn’t the mistaken belief, but the desire to achieve the perfection and transform it into art. Transforming sport into art is possible, as long as the other side, the one that is supposed to provide the background and be the villain in the scene, obliges and plays its part – which is to be ridiculed by the performance of the perfect artists. “If you can’t win fairly, just win.” Why? Because in two years nobody will remember the way it was lost – and you can’t show the audience your art if you don’t have a great stage.
    I thought I would’ve been over the tactics by now, but I think it’s vital to understand what the underlying problems – all of them, are. Sorry if I have been too wordy, and bear with me, for the question of what to do on the pitch, open to debate and discussion of course, is still to be explored, because what happens on the pitch depends a lot on what happens off it. Also, the ideas about what to do on the pitch, while probably self-evident to most of the posters, stem from what I have just posted.

    Part two will come as soon as humanly possible, but now it’s time to work. 😉

  12. Great Comments Peter! While we are getting speculative and philosophical, I would also like to introduce two other ideas about analyzing our team at this time. Both come from sports analytics that are used in American sports a lot and perhaps popularized most by Bill James and in the film Moneyball.

    One idea is the idea of a player’s value verses replacement. Unfortunately for us if we looked at our team last year we had three players whose value verses their replacements was huge. The first, of course is Messi. What happens to our team if Messi can’t play in a game or has to play injured because their is no alternative. Last year, we found out with Bayern that the consequences were not good. Putting in Fabergas for Messi made our team so inferior that it was painful, and no Barca fan should ever have to see that again.

    I would argue that that is why the team were so set on signing Neymar by any means necessary because the team knew that we had no answer for a long term Messi injury, particularly if it happened in the crucial part of the season.

    The other two players on our team last year with huge value vs. replacement were our centerbacks Pique and Puyol. The board and the fans mistakenly thought that Puyol would still be an influential player on the side, particularly to lead us in crucial matches. Now we know differently. Now with Pique out as well, their comparative replacements make us such an inferior team, and the same could be said for Pinto vs Valdes.

    You could argue that a similar fate could have happened to us under Pep and we would also have had no answer for it, but who knows-that’s counter-factual history.

    The other concept from sports analytics has to do with a team’s ability to score or keep the other team from scoring while a player is in the game and is becoming popular in basketball. I don’t have the head to compile these statistics, nor do I know if it can be found for Barcelona, but my guess is that Puyol ranked highest on our team in this category too. I know that for a time we had not lost for 30 or so games in a row with him on the pitch. The only player comparable was Xabi Alonso, who had a similar streak until he lost in the second classico.

    I think examining these ideas, though somewhat boring and not fun for fans to obsess about, are helpful in examining our current players and in looking at who is best to bring to the club and even to ask to leave. Past performance does not predict future performance but it is certainly indicative.

    It also let’s us ask some hard questions that may be taboo to talk about:

    Now that we also have Neymar, how much worse are we if we sold Messi?

    What is a healthy Adriano’s true value since he brings so much versatility to the team, can fill in well for several starting players, and can score from long range?

    Are we really such a worse team if Montoya plays instead of Alves?

    What is the real cost and benefit of having Barta on the pitch instead of our new “world class” CB?

    What is the true value of a traditional #9 to the team given his possible value in scoring scrappy goals and headers and in taking and defending set pieces?

    Is Simeone not only a heck of a coach, but also the master of Moneyball–the Billy Beane of European football?

    1. Significantly. I think the presence of one can greatly enhance the other. Plus Messi becomes a legit 10 when he’s done scoring goals. Replacement cost at either position absurdly high.

      — Not as high as some might think. Very useful squad player, however.

      — Depends on the opponent. Montoya is more defensive-minded than Alves, though he can get forward.

      — Valid question, particularly if Bartra continues to progress as a quality CB.

      — Not worth the potential expense, for me. Our midgets just have to get the hell in the box.

      — Simeone is an absurd anomaly.

    2. Selling Messi is terrible idea, not only for footballing reasons but economical reasons and tactically because we would significantly strengthen an opposing team assuming CL contender would be the only team he would go to.

      A healthy Adriano is a very useful player to have in our squad, able to cover both full back positions and for me, allows us to sell Dani Alves if we were to buy Cuadrado and still have adequate cover.

      Montoya has the potential to be a very consistent player but I don’t know if he will be truly world class. I would also argue that you don’t need to have a world class player in every position to be a world class team.

      Bartra has been very good this season and while I feel we do need to buy a player capable of starting the biggest matches we also need to ensure that we don’t stand in Bartra’s way in becoming a top class defender. All of the best teams have multiple top class central defenders and I feel we should have 4 who are capable of starting.

      A true number 9 is a difficult one as most don’t have the characteristics to be successful in our system. Ibra did but for non footballing reasons didn’t work out. With the quality (or lack of) of crosses that we put in I don’t think it matters who our striker is he wouldn’t score any headers. I would like a player who can play successfully with his back to goal more so that score towering headers. RVP for example has the ball control, strength and passing ability for this role while not being fantastic in the air.

      What Simeone has gotten out of his players has been amazing. He has still only done it with one group of players so it’s a little early to know but he is heading in the right direction.

  13. So 5 years ago today was the 6-2 Clasico. Looking at highlights again and man that was a lethal style that we had. Yes, we were a possession based team but we certainly didn’t shy away from quick attacks.
    1st goal, Henry on a break away
    2nd goal, Henry fouled on a break then Puyol scores from a header
    3rd goal, Xavi wins back possession & Messi scores
    4th goal, Henry scores on a break away
    5th goal, Xavi magic turn and pass to Messi before the defense had set
    6th goal, Pique on the break.

    Recent seasons we have allowed defenses to set themselves for our attacks and get back in numbers. We have allowed the opposing teams to transition into attack before trying to win possession back. Our lack of pressing gives the opposition time to create attacks when they win the ball back and because of our fear of defending we take less chances in possession.

    The results are that we have more possession but create less chances and we are giving up more chances to our opposition. How to remedy this? We either take more risks with our passing and have lower possession, press harder to win the ball back quicker or have more confidence in our defenders’ ability to defend.

    That season we had Puyol, Marquez, Pique, Caceres & Milito in central defense. We had Toure, Busquets, Keita, Xavi, Iniesta, Gudjohnsen & Hleb for midfield. We could rotate and press like demons. We could substitute and have freshness on the bench. We had players with different characteristics and abilities.

    This season we have JDS, Afellay, Cuenca, Tello & Sergi Roberto taking up spots. Some people would add Alex Song to that list too. If we use this summer to reduce our playing squad to maybe 20-21 players who can make a difference and have a manager that is willing to rotate and introduce youth team players to fill gaps rather than fully fledged squad players we will be set.

  14. “…possession is a tool, not an objective. Counter-attacks are a tool. Defensive pressing is a tool. Counter-pressing is a tool. Set-piece training is a tool. The objective is winning.”

    1) Peter for mod.

    2) This is my favorite website on the internet right now.

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