Archive | Analysis

The Argentina Primer: You’re a Hot Mess…

…but I’m still into you.

 

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Posted in Analysis, World Cup288 Comments

The World Cup Predictions Pool Game Thing

Waka, waka — oh wait.

So, I was thinking of what to do during the World Cup and settled on a kind of predictions game. It’ll be too complicated if it was done game by game so my twitter followers kindly narrowed it down to a couple of simple questions, or for those who find it easier and/or more familiar – a kind of March Madness style bracket. I’ll detail both ways below.

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Posted in Analysis, Contests55 Comments

The Brazil Primer: When All You Have is a Neymar…

…everything looks like magic.

H/T @Emenderk

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Posted in Analysis, Neymar163 Comments

Gracies, Equip, aka “Thank you so much for being superhuman”

atmbusi

These are tough times. Poor babies that we are, we have to suffer through a team that finished second in the Liga, in it until the final match, made the Copa final and Champions League quarterfinals. In a sport in which a two-year cycle is extraordinary, our team has been at or near the top since 2008. Six years.

The club has been, and is under assault from every direction from media to its own supporters and people who have been lined up, waiting for Barça to fall as “I told you so” rings throughout the halls of the Camp Nou, shrieks from the fronts of newspapers and websites, a conga line of people who are lining up to kick dirt on the face of the prom king.

So this post is going to start and end saying what I think every last culer needs to say, right here and right now: Gracies, equip. Thank you for the fun, the joy and tears, taking kicks and various fouls, scoring goals and making the effort to do the colors that we love proud. Thank you for everything.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Thoughts345 Comments

The malleability of absolution, aka “If one is responsible, then everyone is”

"D-oh!"

“D-oh!”

So. Barça ended a 3-match losing skid with something that wasn’t as much a comeback as a bit of common sense rearing its head.

“Hey, what say we stop hitting the ball directly AT the keeper.”

Messi scored a goal so all is right in the culer world again, but for me something more interesting happened — not for the first time, but for the first time a confluence of happy events conspired — two players who are objects of scorn had the temerity to have very good matches. Song and Mascherano.

For me yesterday’s match was different because I didn’t watch it live, instead choosing to take advantage of a picture-postcard Chicago day to log 60 miles on the bicycle. This gave me the rather extreme pleasure of being able to watch the match, and scroll through my social mad-ia timeline as things transpired and quite frankly, laugh.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts223 Comments

Goldilocks and the Camp Nou, aka “The case for Neymar”

clasney

Neymar has a problem.
Neymar IS a problem.

Whichever (or both) of those sentences you think true, there is one thing we can agree on: Neymar is a galvanizing figure on the world football stage. When he came to Barça at the beginning of this season for a pile of cash, nobody knew what to expect.

Cruijff said that Neymar and Messi were incompatible. Others cried luxury purchase, that the club needed a CB more than a Brazilian with malleable hair and an Instagram fetish.

Still others said that he was one of the best players in the world even at the tender age of 21, with associative play of the type that could fit in very effectively at Barça.

He came, and then came the contract, an ongoing legal wrangle that makes both of this piece’s opening sentences true.
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Posted in Analysis, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts49 Comments

FYI: Article 19 and FC Barcelona

My attempt at a disclaimer: While I am a barrister, Europe is not my home jurisdiction. I’ve spent limited time getting familiar with the applicable law and it’s entirely possible for me to have missed something. Corrections from those who know better are more than welcome.

A few resources to start us off:

What does Article 19 say?

Article 19 – Protection of minors

1. International transfers of players are only permitted if the player is over the age of 18.

2. The following three exceptions to this rule apply:

a) The player’s parents move to the country in which the new club is located for reasons not linked to football.

b) The transfer takes place within the territory of the European Union (EU) or European Economic Area (EEA) and the player is aged between 16 and 18. In this case, the new club must fulfil the following minimum obligations:

i. It shall provide the player with an adequate football education and/or training in line with the highest national standards.

ii. It shall guarantee the player an academic and/or school and/or vocational education and/or training, in addition to his football education and/or training, which will allow the player to pursue a career other than football should he cease playing professional football.

iii. It shall make all necessary arrangements to ensure that the player is looked after in the best possible way (optimum living standards with a host family or in club accommodation, appointment of a mentor at the club, etc.).

iv. It shall, on registration of such a player, provide the relevant association with proof that it is complying with the aforementioned obligations.

c) The player lives no further than 50km from a national border and the club with which the player wishes to be registered in the neighbouring association is also within 50km of that border. The maximum distance between the player’s domicile and the club’s headquarters shall be 100km. In such cases, the player must continue to live at home and the two associations concerned must give their explicit consent.

3. The conditions of this article shall also apply to any player who has never previously been registered with a club and is not a national of the country in which he wishes to be registered for the first time.

4. Every international transfer according to paragraph 2 and every first registration according to paragraph 3 is subject to the approval of the sub-committee appointed by the Players’ Status Committee for that purpose. The application for approval shall be submitted by the association that wishes to register the player. The former association shall be given the opportunity to submit its position. The sub-committee’s approval shall be obtained prior to any request from an association for an International Transfer Certificate and/or a first registration. Any violations of this provision will be sanctioned by the Disciplinary Committee in accordance with the FIFA Disciplinary Code. In addition to the association that failed to apply to the sub-committee, sanctions may also be imposed on the former association for issuing an International Transfer Certificate without the approval of the sub-committee, as well as on the clubs that reached an agreement for the transfer of a minor.

5. The procedures for applying to the sub-committee for a first registration and an international transfer of a minor are contained in Annexe 2 of these regulations.

So far, so straight-forward. International transfers of players under 18 are not permitted unless the player’s situation falls into one of three narrow exceptions. (As for how narrow those exceptions are, hold that thought.)

The process for any transfers that might fall under the exception seems to be the following:

1. The ‘destination’ FA (the FA of the club seeking to register the player) submits the proposed transfer for the approval of a FIFA sub-committee;

2. FIFA sub-committee examines the transfer and approves it under one of the exceptions;

3. ‘Destination’ FA requests an International Transfer Certificate (ITC) from the ‘home’ FA.

Any violations of this process could lead to sanctions not only for the club and the ‘destination’ FA, but also 1) the ‘home’ FA if they issue an ITC without sub-committee approval and 2) the transferring club.

Did Barca breach Article 19?

In short: yes. Undoubtedly. The Disciplinary Committee ruling implicates players signed between 2009 and 2013. Out of the players we know about, most are non-European, and quite a few moved to Barcelona without their parents. There’s simply no way they can fit within the exceptions.

However, Barca’s situation seems to be even more clear-cut than that.

We already covered how the approval process is supposed to work. This process became mandatory on 1 October 2009. One year after that, FIFA implemented the Transfer Matching System, and all applications for sub-committee approval went through the system.

From various bits and pieces in the Catalan press, it seems likely that Barca simply registered the players with the Catalan Federation, and the matter went no further. How this is possible, I’m not sure. But what we can infer from this is that Barca may have breached Article 19 as a result of not bothering with the process at all.

As for the defense put up by the club to the effect that Barca aren’t the intended target of Article 19 and are in fact an example for good youth development, forget it. Every club that gets pulled up for rule infringements says the same thing. We’re the good guys, you’re ruining kids’ lives, everybody else is doing it and you should go bother them instead, etc. This simply doesn’t fly.

Notably, in Midtjylland v FIFA, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) examined the question of whether the alleged inconsistent approach of FIFA in the application of Art 19 was a breach of the non-discrimination principle. It held that the Danish club could only assert its right to be treated in a way that was contrary to the Regulations where it could prove that FIFA had a constant practice of treating other clubs in a way contrary to the Regulations.

Without the legalese: Midtjylland can ask to be exempt from Article 19 if it can prove that FIFA makes constant exceptions for other clubs. Easy, right? We can all think of cases off the top of our heads.

Not so much. In that case, no such evidence was produced. FIFA’s response to the case of the Bayern player Midtjylland used as an example – as it would probably be if Barca complained about other clubs – was to shrug its shoulders and claim not to have examined the situation. If they don’t know about it, how could they have a constant practice of making exceptions?

Here we see Barca’s problem. The argument the club has to make is essentially this: ‘yes, we broke the rules, but everybody’s been doing it for years’. The necessary implication of such an argument is that Barca behaved the way it did in reliance on FIFA’s unspoken policy of letting infringements go, and for FIFA to suddenly change its policy of indulgence is unfair. But that’s just an unspoken expectation of not being disciplined – the expectation doesn’t trump the rule itself. And Barca broke the rule.

Finally: the club’s statement doesn’t even deny the breach.

What could we have done differently to avoid this outcome?

I have a certain amount of sympathy for those in charge of Barca, faced with this complex and difficult situation. Having said that, I don’t believe their response to this fiasco meets a minimal standard of executive competence, a pattern which has sadly manifested itself over and over in the past few years.

The Midtjylland decision tells us that the 3 exceptions provided for in Article 19 are not exhaustive. This was confirmed in Bordeaux v FIFA, which also tells us something else that is very important. It’s possibly the most important fact in this whole stupid situation, and I’ve not seen anybody bring it up.

Here it is: the CAS found that if a club believed special circumstances justified the making of an exception in a certain case for reasons beyond those defined in Article 19, it may engage its FA to make an application in writing on its behalf to the FIFA sub-committee for the transfer to be approved.

I don’t work in sports law. It took me five minutes of Googling and a bit of help from a few French speakers to find that out. This, to me, raises three questions: 1) did the club know about this avenue? 2) if so, why didn’t they take it up? 3) if not, what were the people in charge doing?

This failure is concrete. The second is a bit more arguable, but bear with me. In or around February 2013, FIFA ordered Barca to stop selecting six of their youth players for breaches of Article 19.

If, for some godforsaken reason, Barca hadn’t known that they were in breach of Article 19 before that, they had to know after February 2013. They must also have known that there was no plausible denial of their breach. The question then becomes: what’s to be done about that?

The club did one thing that’s absolutely beyond reproach – they stopped selecting the players in question for official matches, as they had been told to do.

But a past breach doesn’t disappear when the infringement stops in the present. Someone who stops polluting a river when charged with illegally discharging waste still illegally discharged the waste.

Barca responded to its prior breach in the following way:

“On March 1 2013, President Rosell sent a letter to the FIFA Secretary General to propose substantial modifications to Article 19 of the Protection of Underage Players to make it more effective.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is not the smartest approach. (If what I’ve read online is true, and the legal department weren’t even involved at this stage, that is simply inexcusable incompetence.) Quite aside from the dubious wisdom of lecturing FIFA on the greatness of La Masia, think of the best outcome from this letter – not just the best plausible outcome, but the best, period. That outcome is FIFA agreeing to maybe think about making some changes to its rules. Which, in fact, seems to have been the general gist of FIFA’s reply. Again: the damage was already done. A prospective amendment to the rules sometime in the future isn’t going to change that.

I can only hope that the club were in without prejudice communications with FIFA behind the scenes at the same time. By which I mean letters drafted by lawyers that took a more conciliatory tone and aimed to minimize the coming sanction. Because that’s what happens when you’re being investigated for a rule you broke – a sanction’s coming. Sensible commercial decision-makers manage risk. The best way to minimise the risk of a FIFA sanction would have been to reach some sort of compromise. Take a strong warning, a fine, something that won’t impact as heavily on the sporting project, and then figure out how to face the future.

Is the year long transfer ban an appropriate sanction?

Probably not. Here’s the ray of light Barca fans are looking for. It seems likely that Barca’s legal team will argue that the year-long transfer ban is a disproportionate sanction. And I’d say they’ve got a pretty good case.

The Midtjylland case is the only precedent I’m aware of. The Danish club were ‘issued with a strong warning’ for their infringement of Article 19, namely, registering 3 minor Nigerian players and applying for permits for a further 3. Yes, Barca’s breach was more severe, but there’s little justification for the punishment to be so much worse.

On the contrary, Barca could argue that there are mitigating circumstances in favour of a lesser sanction. Here’s where all the arguments about the merits of La Masia come in. The academy prides itself on an emphasis on welfare and personal development. If the rule is aimed at addressing exploitation, those arguments should have some weight.

What does all this mean in immediate, practical terms?

The reporting on this aspect of the case has been hilariously ineffectual and confusing. So let’s go back to the FIFA rules.

FIFA Disciplinary Code Art 124(2)

The appeal does not have a suspensive effect except with regard to orders to pay a sum of money.

The sanction will not be suspended when Barca lodges its appeal before the FIFA Appeal Committee. Let’s assume the hearing happens reasonably promptly. Here are the possibilities at this stage:

  1. Barca win at the Appeal Committee (where ‘win’ is defined as having the sanction reduced to a fine and/or a warning) and are able to sign players this summer. Predicting judgments is a fool’s game, but let’s just say I don’t think the odds are in our favour here.
  2. Barca lose at the Appeal Committee and immediately file an appeal before the CAS, along with an interim application to stay (delay) the sanction pending resolution of the appeal.

Here’s the relevant FIFA rule for appeals to CAS:

FIFA Statutes Art 67(4)

The appeal shall not have a suspensive effect. The appropriate FIFA body or, alternatively, CAS may order the appeal to have a suspensive effect.

Keep in mind that it takes about four months from the lodging of an appeal at CAS to the decision being handed down. If Barca fail at the FIFA Appeal Committee, the club probably needs to succeed in its application to CAS for stay if any transfers are going to be happening this summer.

In order to succeed in such an application, Barca need to demonstrate that 1) irreparable harm will be done to Barca if the ban is not stayed; 2) the ultimate appeal is likely to succeed and that 3) the interests of Barca in having the ban stayed outweigh the interests of FIFA in having the ban in place.

There are a few precedents for CAS granting such applications to clubs like Roma and Chelsea. On balance, looking at the criteria, I think Barca have a very good chance of having the ban stayed before the CAS appeal is decided. Which would at least solve the immediate problem and allow the crucial process of team rebuilding to begin.

What’s the likely outcome on appeal?

“The Panel stresses, first, that the task of the CAS is not to revise the content of the applicable rules but only to apply them. Second, it must be ascribed to the Appellants, especially the Club, the responsibility for not having taken into consideration the clear rules, however strict, set by FIFA with regard to the protection of minors…” – Cadiz v FIFA

As previously stated, I don’t see Barca winning the argument on breach. It will be very difficult for a judicial body to buy Barca’s argument, if Barca’s argument is that it broke the rules but should be exempt from them because it is an exemplary institution.

If you’re tempted to throw EU law at me at this point, hold your fire. I’ll address the point fully in the next section, but for now just note that CAS has consistently rejected arguments against Article 19 based on EU law.

On the other hand, I can easily see Barca winning the disproportionate punishment argument and having the sanction reduced to either a lesser ban or just a fine/warning.

What can we do to preserve the current youth system?

Even the best case scenario leaves Barca with problems for the future. If the rules don’t change, the club faces the prospect of changing its vision for La Masia. A system based on educating players from a very young age would necessarily have to exclude non-Spanish players under the current rules. (I assume this would also apply to other European clubs with similar practices, especially if Barca isn’t successful in getting the ban lifted.) Personally, I think that’s a shame for talented kids from countries with fewer resources for player development.

One of the suggestions I’ve seen in the past week is that a challenge could be mounted against Article 19 under EU law. Let’s go back to the FIFA rules for this one:

FIFA Statutes Art 68(2)

Recourse to ordinary courts of law is prohibited unless specifically provided for in the FIFA regulations. Recourse to ordinary courts of law for all types of provisional measures is also prohibited.

What this means is that Barca can’t go anywhere but CAS, and that body has been dismissive of any attempts to use international law against Article 19. For example, in the Cadiz case, CAS came to the conclusion that FIFA rules governing the transfer of youth players did not violate any mandatory principle of public policy under Swiss or international law, as the rules were in pursuit of a legitimate objective and proportionate to the objective sought. This ruling was endorsed in Midtjylland.

Without the legalese: Article 19 is fine because it exists to protect young players from exploitation, and the restrictions are tempered by providing reasonable exceptions to the rule. (For another example of how the legitimate/proportional test works, I wrote an article about the Bernard case that covers it.)

By the way, just in case you think this rule exists only to persecute Barca, regulation of the youth player market is actually pretty important. Read this and this and this.

The other possibility I’ve seen mentioned is one of the kids suing in the European courts, which takes the matter outside sporting justice entirely.

In 1995, the Bosman case before the European Court of Justice established that sport was subject to EU law only so far as it constituted an economic activity, including the activities of professional footballers in gainful employment. The right being invoked here and by the appellants in the Cadiz and Midtjylland cases is the right of freedom of movement for workers.

Keep in mind that Article 19 was drafted to comply with EU law. The second exception in Article 19 was actually added by FIFA pursuant to an agreement with the European Commission in 2001 so as to not run afoul of the right of freedom of movement. That exception only applies to players over the age of 16.

There’s an obvious problem with applying this right to very young players. They’re not workers. (Midtjyjlland touches on this.) La Masia players are not legally employed by Barcelona. In fact, they’re not allowed to sign professional contracts until they’re 16. So the right is an awkward fit at best.

Even if an European court ruled that the right of freedom of movement did apply to young players, it could still find Article 19 to be a valid restriction on the right because the rule exists in pursuit of a legitimate objective and is proportionate to the objective sought, just as CAS did.

So if legal avenues are unlikely to work, what can the club do?

Here are two ideas off the top of my head. One, in Midtjylland FIFA told CAS that a further limited exception to Article 19 existed for the purposes of development programs agreed between a national FA and a club. For example, Barca could sign an agreement with, say, the Korean FA to bring kids over. They would have to make guarantees as to education, but that shouldn’t be a problem at La Masia. I’m sure there would be pitfalls, but it’s a possibility worth exploring.

Two, Barca needs to get together with other clubs who run similar academy programs and lobby FIFA in an organised fashion. Maybe through the European Club Association, if there’s enough interest. It would be a lot more effective than being a lone voice in the wilderness, complaining about the dark hand of conspiracies.

Posted in Analysis88 Comments

Atletico 1, Barça 0 (2-1 agg.), aka “That fist to the face … who put that there?”

atmlead

Well doesn’t THIS feel weird, this feeling of coming home on a big match day from wherever you watched, with that empty feeling, that difficult-to-describe sensation of having watched your team lose.

Seems like just yesterday that we were capering about in glee through throats made hoarse from screaming as we swept the Classics, beating RM in their house.

But today, the best team from the capitol city, without two of its best players, beat us. And today, in another bit of empty-feeling weirdness, our team didn’t have any answers. Make no mistake, however … Barça didn’t lose today. It was beaten by an opponent with a better plan, its own naivete and institutional failure.
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Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Review, Thoughts68 Comments

We Need More Dakka : RM 3-4 Barça; A (Tactical) Battle of Firepower

So Kevin already summed up the majestic affair from yesterday quite nicely so you can read it here (if you haven’t already). This here will be a sort-of breakdown of the general tactics and other such things.

It went something like this:

1. Barcelona came to the Santiago Bernabeu in a decisive game.

2. Barcelona won at the Santiago Bernabeu.

3. HAHAHAHAHAHA.

Okay, okay. It was a tad more complex than that, I’ll give you that. Maybe it was a more like:

1. Ancelotti comes with a game plan that plays to his team’s strengths and the other’s weaknesses.

2. Martino comes with a game plan that plays to his team’s strength and the other’s weaknesses.

3. Neither really adjust to each other.

4. Quality of players proves to be the difference.

The last point is often debatable. The old football adage is when teams win it’s down to players; when teams lose it’s down to the coach. On the whole, that’s sadly true. But in the case of this specific game it was really down to the individual brilliance of the players and their ability to overcome system deficiencies through sheer force of will.

They came against a faster, stronger, taller team that was tailor made for their downfall and essentially said, nope. We’re winning this one no matter what. It’s a team of champions and the ability to compete at the highest level and come out on top is nothing short of extraordinary.

But enough of that. Let’s get down to game. :D

Overloading the right flank: Di Maria runs rampant

Ancelotti’s game plan was this: use Di Maria’s pace to flood Barca’s right flank – that’s traditionally been the most offensive-minded and thus the most vulnerable – and take advantage Mascherano’s short stature. Xavi lacks the speed to keep up with him, and mostly likely doesn’t want to get dragged too wide, and with Alves defending Cristiano Ronaldo (supported by Mascherano) he was left to run amok mostly through his dribbling and crosses. The idea to play an extra midfielder on the left (who was initially supposed to help track Di Maria in the first place) ended up playing into RM’s hands.

Tata largely didn’t have a response. Once it was clear Di Maria would be supplying crosses, it would have made more sense to switch Pique and Mascherano,  the former’s height an obvious asset in defending crosses. But perhaps Tata didn’t want Pique against CR – whose pace is often a problem for a slower Pique and  was often marked by Puyol (when fit)as a result, which was why Mascherano was suited up against him in the first place – and felt he was better suited to match up against Benzema. Perhaps he just had faith his players would take advantage in other areas and left it alone. Either way, it was a risky decision and almost cost Barça the game.

Let’s take see an example here:

RM 2-1 Barcelona; Lilliput Under Siege

It starts with Di Maria receiving the ball in space.

Di Maria crosses the ball

Di Maria crosses the ball. CR and Benzema make their runs.

Who’s marking him? Good question. In theory it should be Xavi, but with Di Maria that wide that goes to Alves. Meanwhile CR temporarily switches to the left and makes a run so Pique tracks him. That leaves Mascherano with Benzema, who is behind him, to defend the incoming cross. We know the result.

(courtesy of Twitter)

You could argue Pique just stopped, and many have, but it’s not actually Pique’s job to defend that. He’s marking CR and he can’t simply leave him to deal with it. It’s on Mascherano’s side (i.e. the ball side defender) and it’s on him to defend it. That said, RM know Masche is not the tallest so they purposefully go for crosses on the right side. It would be ridiculous to bash Masche for being short. If he could grow a couple of inches, he would. But it is a weakness, the exploitation of which became the basis of RM’s game plan.

Ancelotti leaves spaces between the lines uncontested: Arrivederci Xabi, from Messi with Love

But football is a chess match and while Barça did concede the right flank to Madrid, Barca were given acres of space on the left flank as well as between the lines;  areas where Barca process the two best players in which to take advantage: Messi and Iniesta.

Bale tracks Fabregas, leaving Iniesta open.

Bale tracks Fabregas, leaving Iniesta open.

Way open.

Waaaay open.

Coming in to match, RM expected to blitz Barcelona and it showed it the way they set up their team: none of the double pivots we were used to seeing nor any CBs moving to the midfield to deal with Messi.

And that’s the thing. This was the first game we’ve seen in a while where Madrid didn’t really do anything to stifle Messi (outside the usual). Ramos, Pepe, and Alonso were the usual culprits in trying to defend him but there was none of the narrow play that was commonplace in other Clasicos. I could almost hear Ancelotti thinking, “Leaving spaces for Messi to play in? Eh. We’ll just score 6 billion goals. Ain’t no thang.”

Underestimate Lionel Messi, will you? We’ll see how that goes for you.

In fact, let’s see that in action:

RM 0-1 Barcelona; Undone by Positional Play and Genius Passing

This goal came off a lovely 20+ pass move. (Just as an aside: when people wonder why Barca ‘pass the ball around’ so much it’s for reasons like below. They move things around so players are out of position, markers don’t know who to mark, and spaces open up.) I’ll start towards the end of the sequence with Pique stepping up from defense to play a pass into Xavi.

Pique passes to Xavi.

Pique passes to Xavi.

There are 4 things I want you to focus on and remember when Xavi receives the ball:

Xavi's got the ball.

Xavi’s got the ball.

Which I’ll highlight in next four screenshots.

(1) Ramos moves up to track Neymar.

Tis Ramos y Neymar. Check out that nifty arrow. Aww yeah.

Tis Ramos y Neymar. Check out that nifty arrow. Aww yeah.

(2) Messi makes a run across. Pepe tracks him.

Pepe stalks Messi.

Pepe stalks Messi.

(3) Marcelo keep an eye on Fabregas (underlined in red) supported by CR (underlined in yellow) who is also mindful of Alves (underlined in blue).

How do you like them primary colours? Eh? Eh?

How do you like them primary colours? Eh? Eh?

(4) Bale marks Iniesta.

Iniesta 'marked' by Bale

Alright. Now that that’s set up, in this next screenshot:

Just watch this magnificent trainwreck unfold.

Just watch this magnificent trainwreck unfold.

You’ll see Cristiano has committed to Fabregas so Alves prepares to make a run. Xavi sees the space between Carvajal and Pepe open up and starts a run as well. Carvajal, seeing this, moves to close down the space. Meanwhile Bale points to the space he’s supposed to defend.

What happens next:

¡Corred, cabrones, corred!

¡Corred, cabrones, corred!

Xavi continues to make his run. Newcomer Modric tracks him. Fabregas passes the ball to Messi with Alonso, Pepe, Ramos all in and around him. Meanwhile on the left Marcelo has to keep his position with Alves free in space. Iniesta makes his run. Bale stands ineffectual.

The madness (which clearly has a method only Barca understands) continues. The result is the RM defense collapse around Messi. We’ve seen this one before. Messi does what he does best and plays in Iniesta with a perfectly timed pass.

A familiar image....

A familiar image….

Iniestazo occurs.

...with a familiar result. You better be afraid, Ramos.

…with a familiar result.

(via Twitter)

RM 2-2 Barcelona: And Messi shall pass Ramos. Again.

So much to say but I’ll just leave it in video form (courtesy of HeilRj):

(Gets body checked by Ramos, still scores.)

Making Sense of Cesc

I spent some time keeping an eye on our #4 trying to understand what exactly he was doing most of the game. The consensus seems to be he was playing a free role, like he tends to do in these games, which I agree with. He was there for basically two reasons; to wit: for his skill in the counterattack and to be (essentially) an extra player in the zone he happened to be in and the zone largely depended on where the ball was.

(1) Cesc in offense: plays a beautiful ball from deep for Messi.

That's Neymar on the ground btw. Got poleaxed by Pepe lol

That’s Neymar on the ground btw. Got poleaxed by Pepe who runs from the scene of the crime lol

(2) Cesc intercepts a pass from Modric and plays a great ball for Neymar in a quick counter attack.

Cesc to Neymar

Cesc in defense: right place at the right time to receive Di Maria’s pass. (hehe)

Cesc Di Maria

no more screenshots after this

Cesc wasn’t actually marking a specific player. At times he was supporting Neymar and Messi (the only two forwards) up front, at others supporting Xavi and Iniesta (who often dropped back to add an outlet on the left side of midfield) as well as helping Busi help the defense. (A wise choice.) That has its pros and cons: if Cesc doesn’t really know who exactly he’s marking, the opposition has no idea either. But it also meant he wasn’t particularly dangerous offensively since he was just there as an extra man and he wasn’t decisive defensively since, again, he was just an extra body.

That’s not to say he wasn’t helpful (he dragged defenders away from our forwards quite well, as shown in the first goal) but it means that his impact was pretty minimal. Playing Alexis you would’ve had the same effort but with the bonus of having an offensive threat on the LW where there was so much space, particularly after the red card. (Then again with Andres scoring goals now….)

A free role work great for Liga sides where Cesc’s intelligent runs offsets his tendency to give away the ball, so it won’t be a glaring issue. But against top sides it’ll be more noticeable.

Neymar Negligible?

One of the talking points of the game was whether Neymar have enough of an impact to warrant his starting position in the game. I thought that while he didn’t have much power or accuracy in any of his shots, he was quite adept at getting behind the defense and Ramos was certainly concerned about him for most of the game, probably remembering how Neymar scored the opening goal and assisted the winning goal last time around, so it makes sense he solves that problem by getting sent off, eh….

So the verdict for me: not bad but not match fit, so his substitute should have came in earlier.

Don Andres Iniesta

I’ll be completely honest with you. I sat for a good ten minutes trying to write a short paragraph/eulogy in honour of him. I just couldn’t get anything down.  It didn’t seem like enough. I’m truly speechless.

Just a saying: an Iniesta that scores goals….

Xavi and Busquets

They didn’t get much notice in the post game but I thought they were fantastic when called upon. What semblance of control Barca had were largely down to these two. Xavi had more passes than most of the Madrid midfield combined and while some will dismiss that as common “sideways” passes, let me remind you what the lifeblood of the sport is. That is how you control a game.

Xavi had more passes (105) than Xabi Alonso, Modric and Di Maria put together (101). Maestro. [via Opta]

Piquenbauer and San Valdes

An excellent game from Pique who had to deal with RM taking advantage of our short squad. We expect our defenders to be able to handle Cristiano Ronaldo one-on-one (contrast that with Messi who we expect to be able to defeat 3-4 RM defenders). Just because CR or Di Maria get the better of them doesn’t mean they suddenly suck. It just means that the fact they had often had them under control  in the past should be praised.

On the same note, it was Valdes’ last game at the Bernabeu in Barça colours. I’m glad we could send him off if not with a clean sheet then with a thrilling victory.

A Bad Day for Arrogance

Madrid players were talking the other day to El Pais that they feared Iniesta or Eto’o more than Messi and that they would essentially destroy Barça.

(via @Emenderk)

The cycle continues. :D

(Although it could really use some help, stupid board)

Posted in Analysis, Barcelona, Classic Matches, Thoughts136 Comments

Believing in beliefs, aka “Welcome to the Barça house of mirrors”

mirrors

These are the times that try culers’ souls. The team is in turmoil, rumors are flying hither and yon and we don’t know who to believe.

Players coming and going, coaches coming and going. But thankfully, I am here to help you, with a handy guide to who you should believe:

Nobody.

The convenience of troubled times is that everyone is desperately looking for three things:
– A way out
– Blame
– Justification for why they were right in predicting that troubled times were a’comin’, even if they didn’t predict that troubled times were a’comin’.

It is also human nature to latch onto things that give us comfort, psychic security blankets that provide balm in stressful times. The team lost? Whose fault is it? End of a cycle? You bet. Let’s go with that piece I have ready. Unnamed sources say that X player is coming? I knew it! He will be just the thing.

My general transfer rumor rule is until the player is seen grinning, standing in front of the crest at the Camp Nou, he isn’t coming. Exceptions to that are if a player’s club or Barça say that an agreement has been reached and he is coming. Barring that, he isn’t because my general bias, as a journalist who is not a fan of any player, is to believe nothing because generally, that kind of stuff doesn’t matter in a situation such as Barça is in right now.

One player, even two players isn’t going to matter a whit until whatever is plaguing the team internally is sussed out. So anybody who comes at me with solutions, blame or balm really isn’t going to get my attention unless they start asking the right questions of more than the thing that supports their supposition.

– “Fin de siècle,” usually comes from the Sant Guardiolus of Catalunya contingent, who believe that the now-departed FCB coach hung the moon and there will never be another one like him.
– “Tata out,” usually comes from folks who say that results were a lie, that yes, the club is in line to make the Champions League quarterfinals, are in Liga with a shout still and in the Copa final, but that all happened thanks to magic elves and duct tape. Now we fully see that our coach is in over his head.
– “X player sucks,” usually comes from people who don’t like X or Y player, and think if that player were gone or had never come, everything would be completely different.

But for me, again, nobody is asking the right questions. The “Tata out” crowd should be asking themselves about the play that got the team to this competitive juncture, and if the players did it themselves, why aren’t they continuing to do it? Is Martino the one missing passes, or plopping tame shots at the keeper? I look at one stranded midfielder after another and ask myself if Martino is the one not dictating the pass with movement?

“They lack direction and guidance,” say the “Tata out” crowd. “There is no motivation.”

Then Alexis Sanchez says in an interview that Martino is a wonderful motivator, like Pep Guardiola was and again the situation is complicated. See, Sanchez said it, so it is suspect, since he isn’t Masia or Catalan and we were just baying to sell him, dammit. And look at the source! The club put him up to it. They want to make Martino look good right now. So based on what we “know,” Sanchez is lying. The team is a mess and Martino a clueless boob who is in over his head. “Tata OUT!”

The “fin de siècle” crowd needs to understand the definition of the term. Can’t be a cycle once the cycle is broken. So as soon as Barça didn’t repeat as Champions League winners or Liga winners, the cycle was broken. A run of good results or dominance is different from a cycle.

The “X player sucks” crowd needs to ask themselves about the full culpability of that offending player, and how much effect he had/has on the result of a match. Unless Barça has signed a Tasmanian devil who can be all places at once, the answer to that query is usually pretty interesting.

And yet, we believe what we want to believe because it supports what we want to believe.

Messi was tagged by the tax man for monies owed. The first reaction was, “They will do anything to unsettle our team.”

Once the stories were confirmed, it was “Well, it must have been a misunderstanding. Yeah, that’s it.”

Once they paid up, it was “Messi just wants to play football, cuddle his son and play PlayStation. He isn’t bothered with that stuff.”

Got it. Now compare that with the Rosell friendly match kickback allegations that reared their heads in Brazil. When they first came up it was, “See, I knew he was corrupt.”

More information came out and it was “Man, he is even more corrupt than we know,” even as he denied involvement and said he would be exonerated.

Later, when he was in fact exonerated, it was, “Naaah, I don’t believe it. Something is rotten in Denmark.”

Belief systems are malleable, based on what we believe. People want to believe that Messi just wants to play football and PlayStation, that he just signs over the multimillions to his father and capers away, to try on his new football boots. Understandable.

Of late, player rumors are flying hither and yon. “They want to sell Pedro,” “They are going to sell Rafinha.”

Then the club president said that Rafinha will be returning to the club in the summer, and will have to fight for a place, but he clearly has what it takes.

“Oh, so you believe Bartomeu now, eh?”

Without asking yourself why someone would lie about something like that, it’s easy to build a structure of narrative-based disbelief.

In the Pedro case, the club is working with the player on a renewal, but even then it is “They want to renew him so that they can sell him.” This has credence because Pedro’s contract is up in 2016, so if he goes on the market in the summer, the club won’t be able to get maximum value because he will be able to leave on a free in 2016. So the club has to sell in the summer to extract max value, but they have to renew him first, so that they can sell him when he is under a full contract.

Would someone get me some aspirin, please?

Now, you might think that you can trust the man whose decision it will ultimately be in the cases of Pedro and Rafinha to say what is most likely going to happen, right? “A-HA! He lied about the Neymar case, and continues to say that it is legal and above board, when we KNOW that it isn’t!” But do we really? We know that there is an ongoing tax row. We know that in the drive for Catalunyan independence, there is no brighter beacon than Barça, the true Catalan national team. So if you are going to take a tilt at the windmill being spun by those insurrectionists, why not start there? After all, the Spanish government would like nothing more than to find something amiss with the affair at Barça, who signed Neymar, a player that RM wanted. And because RM is the Spanish team, vs those Catalan upstarts, of course the government will support it, and make sure that even the slightest sniff of a case against Barça will proceed, thus tarring by implication.

Man! When do they start playing football again?

For the Pedro/Rafinha narrative to work you have to believe that the board is a pack of shiftless, lying weasels. Make no mistake, I want this board out, even as I understand that they are doing, in their own way, what they think is best for the club. I think they are weasels, rather than shiftless, lying ones, but I want them out because they don’t have a mandate to govern even as club law says that they have a legal right to hold office. I didn’t vote for them.

So I always have to watch how I view things that involve the board, because it’s too easy for me to see them through my prism of dislike. Bartomeu continues to insist that the club did everything right in the Neymar deal, even as the club has paid 13.5m and, some reports say, is looking to cut a deal with the tax man. Again, the reaction to those reports depends on one’s worldview. “A-HA! Guilty!” Or, “It’s probably worth it at this point to pay some money, not admit guilt and have all this crap go away.”

Further complicating matters are the Spain and Catalunya sports dailies. Are they for or against the board and team? Marca says that Martino has completely lost the locker room. Ah, but they would say that, two weeks before the Classic, wouldn’t they? Now that an influential FCB board member is rumored to be considering stepping down so that he can stand for president, does that change the way that the papers are aligning themselves? Can a club mouthpiece be against the board?

SportMundo Deportivo ran excerpts from a Hristo Stoichkov interview in which he said, among other things, it’s easy to blame Martino instead of looking at the players, and that ZubiZa asked for one thing and the club bought something else.

Ah! Wait a minute. But ZubiZa is the worst technical director in the history of football, to my understanding from the rants of so many. Send him out to buy a packet of crisps and he would come back with a donkey, or a chicken. If Stoichkov’s comments are true, does that change anything? Or does the slant of Sport, once you evaluate which way the wind is blowing, change things back? Or is the truth somewhere in the middle?

See, Sport is anti something or other, as MD is the club mouthpiece, so they want to support ZubiZa from the allegations of general crapitude so they would grab onto that thing with Stoichkov as proof that ZubiZa is wonderful. But they are also kind of against the board right now, so that also makes ZubiZa look good while making the board look bad, as they have clearly overruled their sporting director, who must know better. Or does he?

I’m confused. So I will trust former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to straighten it all out for me:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

There. Got it?

Posted in Analysis, Thoughts56 Comments

Barça mid-season statistical review

"We're halfway there! Focus!"

“We’re halfway there! Focus!”

Hi, this is lea_terzi, a BFB reader and occasional commenter who hopped on the Barcelona bandwagon to watch Ronaldinho and was never able to leave, mesmerized by a million things that make Barça more than a club.

Something else I’m passionate about is statistics, which I occasionally use to make bets, play Football Manager (and win Graham Hunter’s book in a BFB contest last year). One day, I put together this review of the 2013-14 stats so far. It’s rather long, number-heavy and humor-thin but if you get through it, you might find answers to some fascinating questions (Which direction is Tata taking the team? Is he changing “our style”? Why does the team look more dangerous and less vulnerable than last season? Do we need an elite defender? Or a striker? Or maybe a midfielder? What to look out for? And, of course, why the repeat of Bayern fiasco is very, very, very unlikely?) Or you might come up with more questions, which I’d love to see in the comments.

Half-season stats review – how Tata’s Barcelona is different from Tito’s team.

levtata

Let’s not forget that, before illness, injury and Bayern struck last season, Barca was on a tear after a record start, which it converted into a record finish in La Liga. So, it wasn’t a bad year by any means – just a very, very unlucky one. This one is showing all signs of being better.

The end of Messidependencia and new attacking weapons

levsanchez

In fact, Tito’s Barcelona scored more in La Liga – 3 goals to this season’s 2.7. That, however, was mostly due to Messi’s brilliance – La Pulga accounted for 39% of our 155 goals in all competitions, and bagged a staggering total of 60. Only four others got into double digit scoring that season (Cesc, Alexis, Pedro and Villa contributed 33% of team’s goals), while the rest of midfield and defense pitched in 28%.

This season, things couldn’t be more different. With Lionel playing only half the available minutes this season, he “only” scored 21% of our impressive team total of 87 goals in 34 games. Pedro, Alexis, Cesc and Neymar are all in double digits already, shouldering 57% of the scoring load. The rest of the team accounts for 22% of goals. There is visibly less scoring (and assisting) from Xavi, Iniesta and the fullbacks, but then, it isn’t as vital with the forwards flourishing.

More proof of our front line’s success are the fantastic goal+assist/90minutes numbers. Last season, Leo stood head and shoulders above everyone at 1.72, with only Villa (1.0), Cesc (0.81), Alexis (0.82, but we all remember his long slump and scoring for fun after La Liga was officially over) and Iniesta (0.74) contributing steadily. This season, Messi’s influence on games is more subtle, and he contributed “only” 1.47 goals+assists per 90 minutes. But the world hasn’t fallen apart, because Cesc added 1.14, Neymar 1.13, Pedro 1.11, Alexis 0.90. Iniesta was asked to play a more withdrawn role and seemed in a funk to start the season, but we were seeing some great football from him before his knock against Atletico.

Whoscored rates players based on their actions each game, and while the rating has significant weaknesses, this season it is reflecting what we are seeing on the pitch – improved marks for Cesc and Pedro, Alexis and Neymar catapulting into the footballing elite, and an unfortunate decline in both minutes and performance for Tello, who suddenly finds himself an odd man out.

So, what changed? We replaced Villa (my favourite player ever) with Neymar, a much more dynamic, versatile and creative attacker, and it paid off instantly.

Messi and Neymar missing time, and Tata’s seemingly magical effect on players’ confidence, brought the A game from our other strikers.

A trend towards “verticalidad” – slight decline in possession numbers, willingness to attack in transition (we scored 7 transition goals, more than Real and Atletico, in La Liga this season), take on defenders (Messi and Alexis doubled their successful dribbles per game from last year, Neymar and Iniesta have been predictably great), mix it up with diagonal balls and quick ball movement from flank to flank also helped bring out the best in players like Pedro and Alexis, who thrive in space.

The result is more shots, more shots on target, more fouls won around the box. The challenge remains to develop the Messi-Neymar pairing, which we have rarely seen this season, share minutes and keep confidence high when all our attackers are healthy. Who do you leave on the bench? Another challenge is finding a central forward for Martino to experiment with, while Messi takes a more creative role for another tactical wrinkle.

Midfield malaise

midfield

The signs in midfield are, at first sight, not so encouraging. Busquets has been an absolute beast (Whoscored agrees, rating him higher than last season), but Song, while immensely talented, is still hit and miss on the pitch. Xavi and Iniesta have been less influential than we are used to seeing them, their scoring, assisting and passing are down, they are no longer team leaders in player rating, and sometimes look overrun in games.

Part of it is Tata’s effort to fix last season’s issues, as misfiring forwards led to midfielders shouldering a heavier load and getting further upfield in attack, while pressing and transition defense suffered. This season, forwards are doing a smashing job, and midfielders are asked to focus on their primary responsibilities, control midfield, clean up when the forwards lose the ball, then feed it back into the mixer and change the direction of attack with an array of short, long, through and diagonal balls. Due to the addition of Neymar, development of Alexis and Pedro who all require defensive attention, spaces are opening up in attack, so Xavi, Iniesta and even Messi don’t need to be close to goal in order to influence a match.

The other side of this has been referred to as “Martino having a plan but not the players for it”. Our direct competitors and elite teams we could face at later stages of the CL, like Real, Atletico, ManCity, Chelsea, Juventus and Bayern, rely on midfielders who are both physically dominant and technically excellent. They can at times run right through our more slight midfielders on attack, while kicking them out of games on defense. While Xavi and Iniesta, who many thought couldn’t play together, proved naysayers wrong in spectacular fashion, there is a lot of mileage in those legs, and using them for the bulk of minutes in all competitions could unnecessarily speed up the decline.

Just like last season, Xavi has played 68% and Iniesta 65% of available minutes. Thiago left a hole that hasn’t been filled – Sergi Roberto is no replacement yet, and Tata is unfairly criticized whenever Song plays alongside Busquets. Besides, Xavi and Iniesta’s greatest strength lies in controlling midfield through possession and short passing, while Tata asks for more directness in attack (thus, fewer passes are exchanged in midfield, and completion rate is down) – and consecutively, more pressing and defending is required from midfielders. Xavi and Iniesta are living legends who can excel in virtually any system centered on possession and attacking football, but when midfield turns into a field of (physical) battle, they might need help from someone like Keita who could slot in alongside Busquets and shut it down. Song could be that player, or we could try bringing in reinforcements from the B team or from the outside, but that option, a sort of a double pivot to begin or close some games, needs to be on the roster.

Defensive improvement

defense

It has been visible to the naked eye. While set pieces are still a menace, and will continue to be, we are no longer as vulnerable to counters, with our wingers and mids pressing in concert and taking pressure off defenders. As everyone is more willing to tackle and dish out tactical fouls to stop dangerous breaks, the defenders are more comfortable. ALL EIGHT of our defensive players have better Whoscored rating this season, Pique, Adriano and Bartra looking downright spectacular at times, Alba showing improvement after return from injury, Alves and Mascherano returning to their vintage selves. All that considered, we still concede the exact same number of shots per game in La Liga as last season – 9. However, we only allow Liga teams to score 0.6 goals per game, in contrast to 1.1 last season.

Part of it could be lower quality of shots we give up (46% of shots against us are from outside the box), but Valdes has played a huge role, saving everything at the beginning of the season, when the team was still adjusting to Tata’s requirements. Valdes has been, hands down, THE best keeper in the world by all metrics (although it’s devilishly hard to evaluate keepers independently of the defense in front of them, he leads the way in %of shots saved and Whoscored ranking by a country mile) and to the naked eye. If anyone thinks he can be comfortably replaced, I have a bridge to sell you.

However, replace him we must, and a new center back, while no longer vitally important, is still, well, very important. I love Mascherano to pieces but you cannot teach height, and for some matches we simply need that in our toolkit. Also, wishing Bartra a long career with Barca, but he needs another year or two of comfortable development before he can be an undisputed starter. The question is, do we bring someone in to form a partnership with Pique (in which case Masche would probably leave), or another backup to compete with Bartra?

The glass, at the moment, is more than half full. Before the season began, I said Real Madrid, Chelsea, Bayern, PSG and Dortmund can boast arguably better individual defenders than us, and only Chelsea and Bayern have better depth. Well, if you trust Whoscored, Pique has been the best defender on these teams, Bartra – the second best (both ranking a few decimals above, you guessed it, Thiago Silva), Mascherano and Puyol are up there with the best, while Barca has the fewest goals conceded in La Liga and is competing with Bayern for the least shots on goal conceded in Europe. How’s that for exceeding expectations?

Tata-ctical changes

betmartino

To sum up, this season we have seen a marked improvement in individual play of our attackers, defenders and goalkeeper, a more even distribution of attacking and defensive workload, integration of young(er) players and (more) recent signings, and this group of players coming together as a team.

The attack is more direct, with a faster route to goal, fewer passes being exchanged, a slightly lower completion rate and possession stat, but more dribbles, long, diagonal, through and chip balls that confound defenses, better movement into the opening space, more shots and better finishing from attackers who are not called Messi. Due to Messi limited or not playing for large part of the season, scoring is more unpredictable and evenly distributed among the strikers, more chances are created but overall finishing rate is lower. Because, well, no one can finish chances like Messi. To get something, you need to give something up.

Transition defense is also not the impending heart-attack it used to be, due to more players staying back to clean up, willingness to press, tackle and foul, better awareness and communication on defense, and having the best goalkeeper in the world. Generally, Barcelona looked competent in both transition and positional defense, but set pieces remain a problem. Not a huge problem, if you look at Atletico match in particular and our stellar defensive numbers in general.

There was also talk of rotation, and, with everyone healthy, it was happening. But due to injuries and a thin squad, Pique, Masche, Alves, Busi, Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc are playing a lot of minutes, just like last season. Messi’s injury gave Alexis and Pedro a chance to shine, but the minutes will be tight when Neymar returns. Bartra, Montoya and Sergi Roberto are getting more time, mostly due to injuries, as the latter two have not been entirely convincing. Tello’s minutes and production nearly disappeared altogether.

The challenges remain as to managing minutes, getting the best out of Messi-Neymar and Xavi-Iniesta pairings, as well as finding a center forward, physical+technical midfielder and tall defender (oh, Javi Martinez) for Martino to experiment with without upsetting this great thing we have going.

(All data used is from transfermarkt.co.uk, whoscored.com and Opta, retrieved on December 28.)

Posted in Analysis, Statistics, Thoughts64 Comments

A sorta Nou Nou, aka “Charging forward into an uncertain future”

Image via fcbarcelona.cat

Image via fcbarcelona.cat

So here we go, people. The fun begins. At a press conference today, one that for me was akin to a medicine show from days of yore, we were being sold some tonic by a quartet of salesmen.

For anyone interested in a blow-by-blow, I liveTweeted the press conference, via @kevvwill on Twitter. This piece isn’t that, though it will deal with the gist of what is being offered up, along with my views and interpretation of what was offered up. The “medicine show” quip probably gave you a clue of what that view is but truth to tell, I am torn on the matter, as the culer and soci in me are having a fight.
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Posted in Analysis, Supposition, Team News, Thoughts71 Comments

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