Archive | Thoughts

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

Farewell, Sandro Rosell, aka “We knew ye all too well, yet not at all”

Photo by FC Barcelona

Photo by FC Barcelona

It is with, believe it or not, a heavy heart that I write this:

Sandro Rosell is no longer president of FC Barcelona. The man who has done so much to inspire so much scorn from so many culers, the man who ensured that the club’s unfortunate legacy of eating itself from within continues apace, is gone from the club boardroom, having resigned for the second time. (He also resigned from the Laporta board in 2005.)

Why a heavy heart, many wonder, since my dislike of him has dated back to before he won, when he was running on a “more Catalan than thou” platform, crabbing about “transparency” and saying that Joan Laporta was responsible for everything from club debt to trench mouth and bathtub ring.

Back then, it was a “feeling,” the notion that something wasn’t right. But I love this club more than I dislike any president, and the club that I love shouldn’t have to go through this, time and time again. Maybe our presidents need an iron hand so that any dissent is washed away in a blizzard of money. Maybe socis need to just be quiet when they have misgivings, and watch their Messi highlight reels.

But that just wouldn’t be Barça, nor should it be.
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Posted in Team News, Thoughts145 Comments

Developing: Sandro Rosell to resign today (Thursday)

nou board

This picture will look quite a bit different, potentially, by the end of day today.

Reports began to leak yesterday, that president of FC Barcelona, Sandro Rosell, was set to resign today. Mundo Deportivo, the club mouthpiece, said that he was considering the move to save the club a protracted and expensive legal battle. Over what, exactly, is uncertain, particularly as the Neymar contract is, by everyone’s representations, “legal and impeccable.”

Bartomeu and Faus have already been added to the original court action, that was accepted by the judge. No word on whether the action will continue after Rosell steps down, but there is as of right now, no reason not to presume that it would.

There will be a special board meeting today, to discuss the “future of the president.” It is expected that Rosell will resign, and that Bartomeu will take over as acting president until June, when elections will be held.

As noted yesterday, practice was canceled today. Coming shortly after the rumors about the resignation, it only lent credence to the speculation.

Obviously, this is a fluid situation, and as of now the plan is to update this post as things develop, so visit as you hear of things happening. There is, at this time, also speculation from some that Faus and Bartomeu might also step down. Again, everything is rumor and speculation. We don’t even definitively know that Rosell is stepping down, only that the extraordinary board meeting has been called for today.

More to follow, and thanks. These are crazy times, culers.

Posted in Team News, Thoughts79 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

Lost Ballons and departures, aka “Ain’t the vicarious life grand?”

messred

Football is us. It explains so much, really … the passion, the way we defend our teams and players, our views of those teams and players. It’s a game that we carry in our hearts and minds. It’s pure.

And because it is us, it makes us feel things that are in many ways, irrational. We take a player to heart so that when things happen, it feels like they happen to us, in a strange way. “How DARE they not give Messi the Ballon d’Or?! He is the best!”

It also makes us feel it more acutely when players we lionize are suddenly not those players any longer and sometimes stuff starts to make sense, even as you don’t really believe that it does, as you grasp for tenuous links to make seeming crazy talk make just a shard of sense.

What is the job of a football club? It depends on who you ask. To win? Okay. To make money? Sure. To provide a gentle place for its iconic players to be put out to pasture?

Hang on there, ace. Surely even the most devoted supporter of a player can see how that last isn’t even remotely compatible with that whole winning business.

On yet another level, a football club and the team that represents us, exists to meet a need that so many of us have — to feel something. We don the replica kit, find our way to a gathering place, or hunch over a laptop and a fuzzy stream that gets Whack-A-Moled by those pesky rights managers, and we are united in that one thing … Barça.
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Posted in Messi, Thoughts, Transfers/Transfer Rumors115 Comments

“Welcome back,” aka “Been longer than we know since we have seen That Messi”

getmessi

So. Lionel Messi has returned, after 59 days away from the lineup of FC Barcelona. He scored two goals, capered about like a colt unbound, and many people had similar reactions to the spectacle, to the tune of:

“I had forgotten how good he was in the time he was gone.”

For me, however, it was easy to forget because it’s been a long time since he HAS been that good.
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Posted in Analysis, Injuries, Thoughts218 Comments

Renewals, aka “Renewing vows and taking stock of a longtime love”

Photo: Miguel Ruiz, FC Barcelona

Photo: Miguel Ruiz, FC Barcelona

Every year when my new soci card arrives in the mail, it always feel like hitting the reset button for my love of this club. This year there is a particularly strong resonance, as a lot has happened recently to underscore notions of renewals and fresh starts. As I’m not all that fond of lengthy preambles, let’s dive right in.

Messi is back

It has been 58 days since the Best Player Alive™ has been stomping on the terra for Barça. In many ways it hasn’t seemed all that long as the club has cruised along, growing into a force that finds several players with double-digit goal totals and Alexis Sanchez the latest attacker to notch a hat trick. Messi is in the squad for the Copa match vs Getafe, and interestingly enough, his return poses a number of questions best explained by a journalist who, at the Tuesday presser, asked Martino whether Messi would upset the team’s balance.

Prima facie, it’s an absurd question, but if you look at the root of it, it’s pretty logical. These next few matches and the Messi re-integration are going to tell us exactly what kind of coach Tata Martino is, and what kind of a team he has fashioned.

We all recall the days when the team couldn’t even go to the loo without Messi, much less compete and win matches easily. The injuries began last season, and the club struggled mightily, needing his presence to turn the trick against PSG, getting poleaxed by Bayern as the offense, without a focus, just became a series of midfield passing drills. He returned, and it was business as usual, which wasn’t all that good, really, even as it was successful in the results column, because it reinforced Messidependencia. “I have to pee really bad. Is Messi around? Can’t go without him.”

When he reinjured himself, the club gradually began to learn. Different players stepped forward. Pedro’s confidence started coming back. Sanchez started playing as he did for Chile, all speed, guile and “Wheeee!” Fabregas became more of a force, and you could see the club growing. This season, Neymar was added, and under a new coach, the growth continued. Speculation was that Messi would benefit from the Second Superstar factor, but the first part of the season proved to be unsettled for the Little Giant.

Then came the new injury, 58 days, more than 8 weeks, without the offensive linchpin. I remember the dire predictions, hand wringing and rending of garments at the time. Some folks said that if there was ever a fixture list that could deal with him being knocked, this is it. And so it was, with the only two blemishes coming at Ajax, where the team was mentally unprepared to play a match that didn’t matter a lot; Athletic, where early dominance led to a loss of concentration and a 1-0 loss. And even those two matches taught the team something, judging by the Celtic hammering and the Liga performances after the Athletic loss. The focus is greater, the killer instinct growing.

And now, Messi is back. As many of us have said, it would be a 24-karat, stone cold bummer if the team returned to passing the ball to Messi and moving out of the way. It would also be a significant regression. So when the journalist asked whether Messi would upset that balance, that is what he meant. This team is rolling. Ideally, adding Messi to that mix should make it significantly more dangerous. If it does, then we will know that Martino rocked it. If it doesn’t, we will know that he isn’t working the system properly, that he hasn’t prepared his team for the return of its best player, because here’s the thing: It it still FC Barcelona, rather than FC Messi. Our titan plays for the team. Far too often, the team was playing for him, which hamstrung it when it mattered.

Martino is doing the right thing, planning to give Messi some minutes in a Copa tie. That is brilliant. Low-pressure match, (hopefully) don’t start him, establish that this is a team that doesn’t need him to rock and roll. “I’m back!” “Excellent! We missed you. Now go work in with those guys, and let’s add you to the mix.”

The player seems renewed, his teammates have already seemed renewed. Martino is more relaxed on and off the pitch, as journos note his more laid-back demeanor during pressers. He seems happier, even outside of that massive grin after the Sanchez free kick goal vs Elche. For me, I wonder if part of the reason for that improved demeanor is that it is his team now. Not Guardiola’s remnants, not Vilanova’s, but his. He is no longer a caretaker but the Mister, as the team has bought into what he is trying to do, and working hard at it.

We will learn a lot from how Messi returns, and it all starts Wednesday.

Second half of the season

Yeah, not technically, blablablabla. Barça is where it has been for seeming perpetuity — top of the table. But this time it is only on goal differential, as the club is in a points draw with second-place Atleti.

In many ways, we and Atleti are two clubs in very different situations. As Martino rightly said in a presser today, the work being done by Simeone with his squad is more impressive than what is being done by Martino and the squad that he has. In many ways, you almost wonder if Simeone would do as well with such a star-studded squad. That Atleti team is a mirror image of its black-clad boss. There is a massive chip is on their shoulder as they play with cohesion, like a fist ready to punch you in the face. I like that team a lot, and love that a third team is chomping at the bit. Here’s hoping that Valencia deal happens, and we can add a fourth team to the mix.

But our situation is that we are in need of a revamp, really, which makes us different from Atleti. Martino came in with a squad that he probably wouldn’t have picked were he starting from scratch. There are aging warriors, legacy promotions, squad players, geniuses, superstars and whatever Jonathan Dos Santos is. From that group that he had to get to know on the fly, decide how to deploy and then get them to work on those notions, he has made a remarkable team.

Some say we won’t know how they really are until deep into Champions League, but I call nonsense on that one. I already know. This team is absolutely wonderful to watch, an improved model from last season not just because of the addition of Neymar. I really do wonder if Tito Vilanova would not have evolved this group into something similar to what Martino has — a vibrant cadre of versatility that can score with two passes or 30, one that scoffs at purists as it goes about its merry way. And yes, I find it interesting that the essentially same squad under Vilanova was going every bit as vertical, and nobody was lecturing him about abandoning the team’s style, etc, etc, but that’s a notion for another day.

Martino and Simeone are both making a fist, but in their own way as each team capitalizes on adversity of a sort. Atleti is “no respect,” as people doubt they are going to be in for the long haul, just as they doubted that they would still be around at mid-season. At this point, the expectation was that it would be business as usual, but the wrong team from the capitol city is staring at a 5-point deficit and Atleti is chugging along. With every match, they want to prove the doubters wrong, want to rub faces in it. They are a nasty bunch, built exactly as needed.

Barça has its own adversity, its own “us against the world,” a world that also doubts. It doubts them, saying they are on the way out, that Bayern stamped the expiration date on some Catalan asses, that everybody is aging, not physical enough and have been found out. The coach is betraying The Way. Off the pitch, the crap has flown fast and furious, and it has all worked magic. The picture and videos from the training sessions show a mood not really seen since Guardiola, a lightness and confidence, a camaraderie that defines a team all pulling in the same direction. Our warriors have as much to prove as Atleti. Whether you are trying get to the top, or prove that you still deserve to be there, the chip on the shoulder is roughly the same size and weight.

Looka that board!

Everyone has the capacity to learn, even a set of moneygrubbing, bespectacled trolls. Our board, famous for saying the wrong thing with a steel-toed vigor that is almost admirable for its persistence, got a smack upside the dome from The Flea that Roared.

Cruijff, Guardiola, Abidal, Valdes have all left or will be leaving. Iniesta, during his negotiations, spoke of a missing “feeling.” Still, things went on, foot in mouth. Then Faus went a bit too far, and boom! Let him have it with all barrels, young squire, and a number of things happened: Faus went quiet; Rosell spoke out in support of Messi and his family; other board members did as well; the club stepped up with a renewal offer, unprompted; the Trolls have been silent.

Time will tell whether the silence is because they have been sharpening their pencils as they prepare to storm the ramparts of culer outrage with yet another assault. But the part of me that friends call Pollyanna likes to believe that they have learned something … how to manage a team of sensitive superstars that are NOT just employees, but culers and socis who love their club with the same passion, MORE passion, than any supporter could possibly muster.

Mes que un club. It is for the players at the core, the Masia graduates, the faces who, when anyone mentions modern-day Barça, come to mind almost as if part of the crest — from Xavi’s spiky, gelled dome to Iniesta’s translucent one, from Puyol’s craggy aerie to Pedro’s windmills. When Rosell was running for office, he proudly would have his soci number as part of his backdrop during pre-election presentations. But for a long time he didn’t act like a soci or culer. He acted like a nasty little man with a vendetta. Of late, he has been increasingly presidential, and it’s a good thing.

Yes, there is much going on that I do not like. That goes without saying. But in this prattle about renewal, I would be remiss in not giving full credit to the men who run our club. The gold star for “most improved board” is in the mail. Now don’t do anything to make me take it back.

November is just around the corner, sorta

There is a referendum coming that you might have heard just a little something about, as in 10 months, a people will get the chance to decide whether they are to become a nation again. At present, Catalunya has two national teams, Barça and the Catalunya NT. It used to be that really it only had one but the mood, the feeling, strikes me as different now.

A lot will happen between now and November, and I leave the speculation about that to the politicians and pundits. Some have wondered where Barça will play after November’s referendum, though why, I have no idea, just as I have no doubt that La Liga will welcome our beloved club with open arms. Look at Monaco and Ligue 1. No, there isn’t any rancor in that case, true. Politics is politics, but money is money. Only a blinkered fool would let one of the richest clubs in the world leave the nest, even if a couple of clubs from the capitol city probably wouldn’t mind.

Posted in La Liga, Messi, Team News, Thoughts81 Comments

Classic Doublespeak: Sexism in Football

This post was written by Isaiah.

The world loves to hear people prattle on about themselves. If you don’t believe me, just listen to any of Kanye’s albums. Sometimes interviews are immensely revealing of their subjects, such as Inside the Actor’s Studio‘s trip through comedy with Dave Chappelle (YouTube has some of it here), but other times they reveal their inner bigot in a way that is not intended. When they are rightly harangued for their paleolithic views by one section of the media and society, these celebrities are often simultaneously defended by those who are convinced there is some sort of concerted oppression of whatever privileged group the celebrity is part of. A recent example is Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson commenting on homosexuality and race in a GQ interview and then the re-backlash from Christian conservatives. If you’re interested in such things, a good takedown of parts of that can be found here. It should be noted that Dusty is right in his prediction: A&E has already re-hired Robertson for another season.

Another type of the character-suicide-by-interview is the one that happens during a press conference. Laurent Blanc recently committed this by making light of women’s tactical understanding. He “joked” that it was beautiful that a woman understood the difference between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 while speaking to a journalist asking him questions. That journalist, Johanna Franden, is Aftonbladet‘s international football correspondent and while you might mock that newspaper’s general coverage, it’s obviously foolish to think that they have journalists who don’t know anything about the fields they’re covering.

Only that’s the thing: is it obvious? It seems blindingly obvious in cases like Blanc’s sexism because it was stated out in the open. We are also quick to believe anything negative about him because we already know that despite being cleared of racism charges in court, Blanc was part of a French national team structure that at the very least discussed implementation of racial quotas throughout the youth training program. It’s not necessarily so obvious in more nuanced moments, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Expressen interview (Swedish) from December 13.

At one point, according to a variety of media outlets, Zlatan said, as quoted in translation by The Local, “I was asked last summer who was the best, me or (Swedish ladies international) Lotta Schelin. You’re kidding with me, right? You’re joking with me. Do I have to answer that?”

It’s not like Sweden hasn’t recently encountered a divide between men’s and women’s soccer, either. In November, after Anders Svensson broke the all-time caps record for the Swedish national team with his 148th appearance, he was given a Volvo at a Swedish sports awards ceremony. Not really a big deal, except that he was given said car literally in front of Therese Sjögran, who just happens to have a record 178 caps for the Swedish women’s national team and who was most definitively not given a car. Obviously this oversight was corrected after the fact—by Peugeot.

In fact, Zlatan goes on to talk about that when the interviewer asks a follow up to his remarks on Schelin: “The media put a black shadow over everything. [Svensson] is better known for having been given a car than for breaking the record…Pay tribute to him instead for this record as he is one of the few players who has reached this level. It is better to stay on that line instead of devaluing him by comparing him with the ladies’ individual achievements. They can get a bike with my autograph and then we are good.”

He starts off with a correct statement about how Svensson’s record is no longer being talked about because of this car thing, but then he devolves into a sort of logic fail in which he says a comparison to the women’s game is a devaluation of Svensson himself. Oh and did I mention the part where he says that the Swedish women’s national team players who break records can get bikes instead of the cars the men get? From other comments it appears that he takes umbrage at how women are getting such equal shares of the glory while they’re pulling in so much less TV and advertising revenue.

The defense of Zlatan begins there, with the concept that it’s not fair when women get the same things as men. It’s the “Why is the WNBA on my TV” argument: they’re not as good, they’re not as fast, they’re not as entertaining. Why do women get gold medals at Olympics when their 100m times wouldn’t even get them to the final of the men’s race? Another tactic is to pooh-pooh the abilities of the women in question. Note that Zlatan doesn’t suggest that he’s better at football than Lotta Schelin, he mocks the entire idea of it. “You’re kidding, right?” It’s not even in the realm of the fathomable to The Great and Power Zlatan that someone might wonder if a woman who has put up insane numbers by any standard–some 140 goals in 138 games (depending on which set of stats you look up, but they’re all in agreement that she scores right around a goal per match)–might be nearly as good as him. Schelin also happens to play in the French league and has won the title there 5 times in a row since joining Lyon, has won the European Champions League title twice (consecutively at that), the Coupe de France twice (also consecutively), and the International Women’s Club Championship in 2012.

Yet poor Zlatan has to field questions about who is better. And what a joke, amirite? I once worked on a painting crew with a bunch of guys from my high school, several of whom played on the football team with me. The youngest of these guys was convinced that he, a second string midfielder on a mediocre high school team in the middle of Ohio, was better than any woman in the world. The rest of us laughed at him and eventually confronted him with this question in front of our coach, a semi-pro player in the Cleveland area whose skills were far and away above our own, and I’m happy to say that he laughed a hearty full-belly laugh and then told our little friend that the worst player in the then-existent WUSA would run rings around absolutely everyone on his own semi-pro team. Yet the kid wasn’t convinced.

Zlatan too is unconvinced. Schelin, Franden, and Sjögran are all highly successful Swedish women whose careers are nothing but literal laughs for men who should know far better. The amount of work that goes into building such a career, track record, and recognizable name is something that Zlatan and Laurent Blanc have already experienced, but they’re sitting on their throne looking down at everyone else. What isn’t “fair” is that women who compete at the national level in football are very often amateur or semi-pro athletes who have second jobs to cover their travel and training expenses. They’re at the peak of their powers, they’re dominating their sport, and their bodies are insane machines that can outperform all but the most elite of men yet they get to be disrespected on a grand stage simply because, well, men pull in more money.

There’s another side of the argument as well, which runs something like this: Zlatan isn’t talking about how Schelin and Sjögran are jokes because they’re women, but because of the level of play. Here’s what he said, according to The Guardian, “With all respect for what the ladies have done, and they’ve done it fantastically well, you can’t compare men’s and women’s football. Give it up, it’s not even funny.” It’s classic doublespeak to compliment someone in an offhand, meaningless way before putting them in their place.

You’re really bright, you’ve got a lot of sound ideas and your understanding of football’s ins-and-outs is really great, but Zlatan complimented them, he said the national team is doing great, but men are simply playing at a higher level; if you can’t see that, you are a sexist, Miss Take-Back-the-Night. Check your sexism-card-playing at the door, we’ll only have logical arguments here!

Sound familiar? The part that’s probably most infuriating isn’t the name-calling, the “rape is a joke” baiting idiocy, but the condescension where some Joe Schmo on the street can deign to acknowledge that a woman has the tactical nous to discuss a 4-3-3, or what the differences between Lotta Schelin and Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be. Classic doublespeak.

Posted in Thoughts90 Comments

blitzen awards, the Midseason Wrap-Up edition!

Hello and Happy New Year, everybody! I know it’s been a long time, so here is a bumper edition of blitzen awards to start 2014 off on the right foot! Enjoy!

Yay! I won an award!

Yay! I won an award!

Busquets d’Or: A new award, for the most perennially underrated player of the year/game/moment. And the inaugural winner is: SERGIO BUSQUETS! Although most of the top pundits these days seem to appreciate what Busi brings to the team, and he even appears on Top Ten Players lists with increasing frequency, no one so far has had the courage to place him at the top, or even in the top three. For my money, Busi has been by far the best midfielder in the world so far this season (yes, even better than Xavi or Iniesta), and should be on the shortlist for that golden trinket they are handing out in a couple of weeks. Of course, he never will be. But we know, don’t we? WE KNOW.

Pabst Blue Ribbon Award For Unabashed Hypsteria: The Barclay’s Premier League and English football teams in general, for whom the must-have accessory of the year is a Spanish football player, *any* Spanish player, regardless of actual talent or experience. To be an English team without at least a couple of Spaniards these days is downright shocking.

Prodigal Sons Award: Gerard Deulofeu, who injury notwithstanding, has been making quite an impression at Everton where he is on loan for the season (possibly two?). His current coach, Martinez, has expressed surprise that he has adapted so easily to the English game, and been more than effusive in praising his skills and “arrogance, but the right sort of arrogance”. It seems his year away has helped Geri mature and rise to the level expected of him, while losing some of the selfishness that has previously tainted his game. I don’t know about you, but I am very much looking forward to seeing what this can do when he plays alongside Messi, Neymar, Sanchez, Iniesta, ect. Runner-Up: Rafinha Alcantara, who has carved out a place for himself at Celta Vigo and become one of their most important players. While the club itself is stuck in the lower half of the table, it is clear that ex-Barça-B coach Luis Enrique values Rafinha highly and has a lot of faith in this young star’s talent. I see bright things in his future when he comes home.

Good Things Come To Those Who Wait Award: Marc Bartra, who did, and has earned his spot in the first team. Maybe he isn’t playing as many minutes as he deserves or as some would like to see, but he is still a junior player. He has the respect of his teammates and his coach, and if all goes well should be a fixture of our back line for years to come.

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow Award: Isaac Cuenca, as all signs are pointing to a January exit for this talented young striker. He has been extremely unlucky, first with injuries that deprived him of playing time for the past two years, then with the arrival of Neymar whose presence is already impacting the minutes of Pedro & Tello, and lastly with being closely associated with Pep Guardiola, without whose attention he would still likely be playing for Sabadell. Although I would love to see Cuenca stay and be given a chance to prove himself, the fact that he has been healthy for a month without even being named to a match squad (much less actually make the bench) makes it pretty clear that he will be moving on. Runner-up: Ibrahim Afellay, see above points 1 & 2.

We Don’t Need Another Hero Award: Centre-back? Who needs a centre-back when we have four perfectly healthy ones right here? Lalalalala I CAN’T HEAR YOUUUU!!!!

Three Wise Men Award: The entire FCB board, who took turns dropping clangers that undermined the team, the coach, and their fans around the world. But the award goes especially to Javier Faus, for implying that Lionel Messi was a moneygrubbing diva, to Toni Freixa, for saying that Tito was better than Pep in every way, and to Jordi Cardoner, for dismissing foreign cules as “outsiders” whose value lies only in what the club can sell them. Well done, gentlemen!

Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire Award: Faus again, who got his toasted well and good when an obviously angry Lionel Messi responded to his remarks about renewing his contract. Our little Leo may seem meek and mild, but when you question his motives or the integrity of his family, the shields go up and the shit goes down.

Lo Puto Amo Award: Gerard “Tata” Martino. You may disagree with his tactic, you may disagree with his lineups, but you must acknowledge our coach’s masterful handling of the Spanish/Catalan press, even under extreme provocation. His press conferences have been a joy to behold, as Tata cuts through the usual bullshit with forthrightness, straight talk, and self-awareness. The media don’t like him because he calls them out on their crap and gets impatient when asked the same questions again and again. He can’t charm the journalists like Pep did, but his intelligence and no-nonsense approach are equally delightful.

The Mouse That Roared Award: Rumours of Pedro Rodriguez’ demise have been premature. Over the last two seasons there have been (and still are) those who underestimate him, who think he reached his peak under Pep and should be moved on, sold off so we can buy a “big name”. It’s true that last season was far from Pedro’s best, but this season has seen a resurgence, a refreshed, confident Pedro, as our little roadrunner simply cannot stop scoring for both club and country. Who would have thought that at the midway point Pedro would be our joint top-scorer (along with Messi)? Pedro has always been valued for his hard work on behalf of the whole team and for his relentlessly positive attitude. It’s really nice to see him being rewarded with goals and the confidence of the coach.

Nice Work If You Can Get It Award: According to my extensive research (I asked twitter and this was the result, can’t be bothered to check for accuracy :D ), Jonathan Dos Santos has played a total of 17 minutes this season, 181 minutes last season, and 288 minutes in 2011-2012 in all competitions. Now, admittedly, Jonathan has suffered a major injury that will rule him out until at least April, but I don’t imagine he would have played all that many minutes this year even if in full health. I don’t know exactly what JDS’s base salary is, but it seems to me that he is earning pretty good money to not do much of anything. JDS should have moved on 2 years ago and found a club that would be happy to use his considerable talents. I can only hope that this summer, when he is healed and ready to move on, he will find a forever home. Maybe he could go play with his brother Gio at Villarreal?

Smells Like Team Spirit Award: I don’t know if you have noticed, but there has been a lot of shit thrown at our team this season, and not only from the usual madridista suspects. Even the Barcelona press has published stories about unrest in the dressing room, players wanting to leave, and unhappiness with the coach and his tactics. Messi in particular has been targeted with rumours about his finances and his personal life, to the point where the club has actually (and unusually as compared to their inaction over the last several seasons) issued statements defending him. If the intention was for the Barcelona dressing room to descend into the morass of intrigue, jealousy and unhappiness that we saw in Real Madrid last season, the campaign has backfired. Our players have rallied around their coach and each other and seem closer than ever. This. Is. Barça.

These Are Not The Dro’s You’re Looking For Award: Sandro Rosell, for his impenetrable web of misdirection and deception surrounding his murky business dealings in Brazil, the U.S., and Andorra. You would need an advanced degree in Forensic Accounting to illuminate the morass of dubious payments, ill-defined “services rendered”, shady “representatives”, offshore accounts and shell corporations that represent Rosell’s sporting and marketing “interests”. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

Brass Bollocks Award: Diego “Cholo” Simeone, who, despite having to sell off his best players every year, has developed a fantastic team and molded Atletico Madrid into trophy-winners and serious Liga title contenders. I couldn’t tell you much about his tactical nous, but what Simeone has in spades is the ability to infuse his players with self-confidence and the belief that they can take on any opponent and win. He has taken Diego Costa, previously know as a solid if not gifted forward, and transformed him into a force of nature running rampant over all opposition. David Villa, whose career took a sharp downward turn as he struggled to regain his form after breaking his leg, is reborn, revitalized, and dangerous. And Koke is finally getting the recognition he deserves as one of the finest midfielders in Spain. Simeone inspires his players to find their best selves, and is the perfect coach for this Atleti. How he was not nominated for Coach of the Year is a mystery. And a shame.

Every Step You Take Award: Thiago Alcantara. Since the days of Figo moving to Real Madrid, has there been another player whose every word, action, even thought have been more closely scrutinized than Thiago? Does he miss Barça, or has he forgotten us already? Is he grateful enough for what the club did for him, or do his words reveal the self-serving bastard we always knew he was? Has he come to praise Barça or to bury it? The boy can’t even fart without people wondering if his cul is pointed towards or away from Barcelona. This level of scrutiny of an ex-player speaks volumes about Thiago’s worth and talent–we know exactly what we have lost. After all, no one is monitoring every word Bojan speaks, are they? Whether you believe that Thiago left purely by choice, or was pushed out, or was kidnapped at knifepoint, he left a hole in our midfield that no other player can fit the same way, and he is missed.

How Low Can You Go Award: Hopefully not very much lower, as Barcelona B has now dropped into the relegation zone in the Segunda division, in 19th place with 23 points (only 3 points above rival bottom-feeders RM Castilla). I have written extensively in this space about my issues with Barça B coach Eusebio and how the team has been mismanaged over the past few years, so I won’t go into detail about how things have come to such a pass. Let’s just say that it is a combination of a younger-than-normal team, numerous injuries to key players, and a coach who at best appears clueless, and at worst seems to be actively inhibiting the development of talented young players. The worst part is that the current FCB board has already stated that it is no big deal if the B team is demoted to the Segunda B, when in fact it would be disastrous for our entire youth program.

The Day Football Broke My Heart Award: No, I’m not over it. I will likely never get over it. After two years of fighting the cancer that threatened to destroy his liver and end his career, Eric Abidal was finally back. Healthy. Fit. And ready to play. And he did play. He played as if he had never left. After so long with a huge gap in our back line, here was the CB/LB we have always needed. And they sent him away. Rosell and the other talking heads on the Barça board decided that this wonderful man, this excellent player, this living embodiment of the values the club claims to hold dear, was surplus to requirements. Even though they had made a public statement during his illness, a promise, that as soon as he was healthy they would offer him a new contract. They broke that promise. Their explanation? “Technical decision.” They had a press conference. Abidal, in tears. Rosell, pursing his lips and looking like butter wouldn’t melt. Zubi, the peacemaker, saying all the right things except WHY? FOR WHAT REASON? Well, we know it was money. Money the club would save on his salary that could be “better” spent on purchasing Thiago Silva (never happened) or topping up the Neymar Fund (tell us about that 40M, Sandro). Abidal, to his credit, has never spoken a single word of recrimination, not a jot of criticism except an air of puzzlement, of confusion as to why exactly he was sent away. He is better than that. I’m not. I will never, ever, forget this.

Joy to the World Award: The last few years have seen a remarkable baby boom amongst our players, with Messi, Pique, Pinto, Cesc, Pedro, David Villa (yes he counts), and Valdes (twice!) all welcoming new additions to their families. Tello, Iniesta, and our indomitable captain Puyol are all expecting as well. Even BFB has gotten into the spirit, as three (3!) of our mods have also been blessed with mini-mods in the past year. Something is definitely in the water in these cule parts…

So that’s the first half of our season! On behalf of all the mods in this space I would like to thank all our readers and commentators for making this space so special. Thanks for your patience during our time of transition, we are very grateful for all of you (even the ones we argue with ;) ). Now it’s your turn:

Tell us, what are your hopes and dreams for Barça in 2014? What changes (if any) would you like to see? What is the one thing you would like to see happen in the coming months? (And don’t just say “Buy a CB”, you know everyone will say that! Be creative, be thoughtful, be silly. Let’s see what you come up with!)


We wish you all a happy, healthy, and successful 2014! Visca Barça!

Posted in Barcelona, Nonsense, Thoughts19 Comments

Tika taka, golden days and the fallibility of memory

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it doesn’t exist.”

The dude who said this probably wasn’t talking about the nuances of football systems of the 20th and 21st century (or maybe he was, and we just didn’t know he was prescient in that way), but the quote is good to start this shebang.

Memories are a funny thing. You can have two people witness the same event and come away with two very different memories of it. Like the most embarrassing days of my life where I wish a flying couch would just eat me — coincidentally one of the most amusing days of my sister’s. (But notably not vice versa, because I am a lady and a scholar, okay. And also a liar.)

In football, a year is a long time. Actually, the last two weeks are a long time so the past 3 years will seem like a century, the years preceding that equivalent to an age. It’s a dynamic sport where things change all the time. (That’s true for all sports really, but especially football, seeing as it’s increasingly being run by the Jorge Mendeses and Mino Raiolas of the world.)

One thing might be true in one instance won’t be the next like how Thiago Silva signed a new Milan contract then signed for PSG two weeks later. Therefore it’s not surprising we like to dub the time a coach presides over the team as an ‘era’ even if that era lasts for a couple of months rather than years. So you’ve got the Cruyff era, the Rijkaard era, and – notably – the Gaspart Era (despite him being the president).

But what’s interesting is how people remember those eras, or really, how they airbrush some things out to up the nostalgia quotient.

When people talk about the Pep era, there is a lot of reminiscing about the art but not the science behind it. There was indeed a dreamlike quality with Pep’s Barça but at its heart, it was pragmatic.

Pragmatic, you say? Yes.

As Iniesta said in 2012, though he was technically talking about Spain, it also applies to Barça in my eyes:

The other thing is that we play the way we do because it suits us. We don’t have the players to pull it off playing a different way. People talk about ‘pragmatic’ football; well, for us, this is pragmatic. It’s the way we like to play and it’s the way we believe we have the best chance of winning.

In her brilliant article from last year which I highly recommend you re-read, BFB’s Linda (@blackwhitengrey on Twitter) noted:

Pep Guardiola was a firm believer in the permanent revolution. Not as Trotsky or Mao would understand it, but in the sense of never waiting around to be figured out. In a post now lost in the mists of time, I argued at the beginning of 2011/12 at the now defunct Spanish Football Info that Guardiola’s tactical tinkering was driven by the need to keep ahead of the competition. A theory of the game, like any other theory, is weakened by an insistence on permanence and dogma. It grows stronger through being questioned and tested, and evolving to meet the challenges posed to it.

The style and philosophy of Guardiola’s Barça was no less coherent for all the changes he implemented throughout his four year tenure: The false nine, an idea he tested in his very first pre-season and later put to use in the biggest games of that season; the holding midfielder as sweeper-centerback, which found its perfect vehicle in young Sergio Busquets; going from 4-3-3 to 4-2-4 to 3-4-3 to whatever that was against Santos that involved a team made up primarily of midfielders; and increasingly, towards the end, attempting to add more verticality to the side’s forward play.

Ye olde tika taka dogma

“The problem with using a word is that everyone interprets it differently” – Johan Cruyff.

People are lazy. That’s true for me and it’s probably true for you too. (Unless it’s not, in which case, I’m sorry.) If there’s a convenient chronology of ideas that have similarities between them that has spanned over years, what they’ll do is take that and create a narrative with it, often ignoring those pesky details that get in the way of the One True Way they’re trying to construct.

So when you have the related but distinct ideas of Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and the Dutch Total Voetbal, Frank Rijkaard and Luis Aragones with the Spanish NTs of 2006-08, Pep Guardiola and Vicente del Bosque with Spain 2010-current, they get amalgamated and packaged under the same label: tiki-taka.  This is exacerbated further by taking this tika-taka and claiming it is the Barca philosophy.

Barca’s philosophy is this: we own the ball. We do quick, instinctive and intelligent things with it, and when we lose the ball, we win it back as quickly as possible. Within that, sometimes there will be short passes, sometimes long passes. Sometimes there will be a quick three pass sequence to a goal, sometimes twenty passes. Sometimes it will be more vertical, other times more horizontal.

What I think has happened is people are mistaking the radical tika-taka of Spain 2010-12 as Barça’s philosophy. It’s not surprising given how many Barça players play for Spain, but one thing you should keep in mind is that just because something is similar, doesn’t mean it’s the same. Barça is not Spain and Spain is not Barça, even if Xavi plays for both.

While Spain has used possession as a defensive technique to rest their players during the rough-and-tumble of a game, Barça largely does not (unless it is a tight or otherwise brutal game). And while it’s true that Barça have always favored possession football, keeping the ball, these long passing sequences that you see now are an anomaly. It hasn’t been this way for Barça for thirty years, ten years, or even five years.

Take the famous 2005 Clasico at the Bernabeu when Ronaldinho got a standing ovation. All three of those goals were scored in what would be classified as “direct, counterattacking football” of the type that confounds “tiki-taka” purists today. It’s like Rafa Marquez never played for Barça.

The indignant cries of a loss of identity when someone plays a long pass or doesn’t have 60% possession is a little rich considering that every Barça preceding this one has played a comparatively more direct style — even Cruyff’s Dream Team.

Football is about systems and the players available to play those systems. The team changes as the players change and therefore the systems change as the team changes. This isn’t a bad thing, but rather the natural course of the sport. The team adapts to the players it has. When Keita played LM instead of Iniesta, he didn’t do the things Iniesta did, because: 1) he can’t and 2) he has his own qualities that he brings to the table.

Some aspects of the style Barça believes in, that is taught through every youth level except Barça B, is something that will not change and is non-negotiable. But others, as Linda says, must evolve to meet the demands of competition. When a philosophy becomes a rigid ideology is when the issues arise.

Change is not only inevitable but necessary

In football today resting on your laurels means you will lose. If you stand still in a race, people will catch and pass you eventually. You have to evolve to keep up with the competition.

But even if you do try to keep the team exactly the same, it won’t work.  Players don’t stay forever. Some leave for another club, others retire. The question of the club is how to make it so that the new players coming in can seamlessly fit into the style constructed. Not only that, but how can the team effectively use each player’s unique skills to their maximum?

A midfield of Van Bommel-Xavi- Deco is not the same as Busi-Xavi-Iniesta or even Yaya-Xavi-Iniesta, but different isn’t bad. In this case, it’s actually better. That’s what evolution is.

But you have to have the guts to try. Busi at the beginning made lots of errors (those backward headers, man…) but now? He’s imperious. Probably our best player this year along with Valdes.

With variety there’s potential for innovation. You can update a template without throwing it away. Windows doesn’t stop being Windows because they changed from XP to Vista (ok, bad example because Windows 8 sucks)

if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.

To expect Sergi Roberto to do Xavi’s job is to invite disappointment to egg your house. To expect Tata’s Barça to play like Pep’s Barça is to invite it to deface your lawn.

Song can’t do the job Busi does, not only because Busi is a monster who has supernatural positional awareness, but also because he was signed to be a Mascherano-esque centerback. (Because Arsene Wenger told Tito that Song could play there. Wenger: the ultimate puffy raincoat wearing troll). That hasn’t happened so Tata has moved him further up field to try and use the strengths he displayed at Arsenal. (Songinho, anyone?)

Neither Tito nor Tata now have the players Pep had. Even Pep didn’t end up with the players he had earlier in his Barça reign. But change invites innovation. Who would have thought two of the cornerstones of Rijkaard’s Barça, Ronaldinho and Deco, leaving would have led to so much success? Right now, we have Neymar, Alexis, Cesc, Busi which won’t be the same as Henry, Eto’o, Yaya, Gudjohnsen, but who’s to say it can’t be great in its own way?

“We are now being judged according to a level of performance which is almost impossible to reach. But we’ve earned the right to be judged that way. It’s a double-edged sword – the better you play the better you’re expected to play all the time. When it doesn’t happen then people start asking questions. We’re not complaining, we wish things had gone that well for the last 50 years that the expectations had always been so high. But maybe people don’t appreciate the difficulty sometimes.” – Andres Iniesta

Question of the Day: is playing a more direct style a loss of identity?

Awesomeness of the Day: Cruyff explains his diamond formation.

Posted in Analysis, Thoughts42 Comments

Match control, Barça and you

[Heya, BFB! This, unfortunately, isn’t the fun times post you’ve been waiting for. Hopefully, it will entertain you in some other way, though!]

Match control is what pretty much every team in football strives for. As the saying goes, control the match, control the game. Control the game and you win. Unless you fail to score goals There are a couple of ways a team can control a match. The most common ways of match control:

  • technique
  • physicality
  • creating numerical advantage in the midfield (i.e. having more players there than the other team)

Generally, teams uses a blend of those, like technique with some physicality and vice versa (how many times have you heard someone say a player is there to add some ‘steel’ or ‘flair’ to the midfield?), but there are some that lean towards one than the other. Arsenal, for example, tends to favor technique in the midfield, but that’s been the subject of discussion in England as teams in the EPL largely favor physicality as a means of control and Arsenal tended to struggle with that.

A thing that made Spain so interesting from Euro 2008 and beyond was they were able to have success without having physically imposing players, as Iniesta notes below.

“The 2008 Euros were so important because they showed you could win that way with a group of players who weren’t physically imposing in any way – if anything, we’re the opposite.”

I’ll talk about Spain a little later but first, we’ll walk through how Barça controls the midfield.

touchline to touchline

One thing you need to know is the midfield is not just the center circle. It’s that whole strand of the pitch, from touchline to touchline.

pitch mid

Area highlighted in red is the midfield

Historically speaking Barça’s always been a technical side that’s had steel in the midfield. With the arrival of Guardiola, Barça have favored creating numerical advantages in the midfield along with obvious technique in the side. There’s a reason for that.  Mostly, it was to play to the strengths of Xavi – a player who is very associative, who needs to have teammates surrounding him and passing lanes to be effective. Pep moved him higher up the pitch to take advantage of his defense-splitting passes and vision, but that meant Pep also had to push more players forward so Xavi would have players to link up with.

The result was the signing of Alves, who would occupy the right side of the midfield.* So when Xavi moved up, he’d have Iniesta on his left, Alves on his right (and most awesomely for Barça, Messi in front).

(*Jordi Alba was also signed, presumably, to have that effect on the left side, but that’s led to an imbalance throughout the team, particularly when Alves plays at the same time. But I’ll talk about that when I get to talking about the defense.)

For those interested, I’ll go a little bit more in-depth about numerical superiority below. If that’s too boring, you can just skip this part, haha

By pushing Alba and Alves up, we increase “triangulation”, which basically means we make more fancy triangles.

Numerical superiority in the offensive zone

Numerical superiority in the offensive zone

In the above pic, that’s basically the ideal triangles we like to make. So what does this all mean for match control? Pretty simple: more players means more people to pass to, which means playing keep away and holding onto the ball is easier.

Having numbers is basically a must for Barça right now since they persist with playing with the false 9. This is because teams play narrow; that is, they try to limit the space Barça has in the middle and make the pitch smaller. Barça’s response, of course, is to make the field bigger. They do this by using tactical width that comes from the wingers. You’ve seen it with Cuenca and Tello especially, the way they hug the touchline. Pedro/Alexis and Neymar/Tello do that for us, along with the fullbacks Alves/Montoya, Alba/Adriano. That makes it easier to play our game and try to overwhelm the opposition.

Of course, this didn’t come without risk. When all those players pushed up the pitch and Barca playing a high back line as a result, that left the defensive midfielder a lot of space to defend. From the left touchline to the right touchline, that’s all Busi.

How is it that can Barça get away with routinely leaving a player to cover what is essentially the space of three, often four players?

Busi is a freaking boss, that’s how.

The answer is simple but largely under the radar.

Positional play

Positional play was one of the absolute fundamentals of Pep’s Barça, and it was something that declined most last season. Positional play is what allows the ball to do the running, and not the players.

It’s also the ability to travel together throughout the pitch. Ray Hudson likened the players to an amoeba, and that’s an apt description. They are together in the offensive zone and in the defensive zone like a giant, gelatinous blob of organized chaos.

When the midfield triumvirate of Xavi-Iniesta-Alves moved forward, Busi was able to position himself in a way that makes it easy for him to be there to make a tackle. This was made easier by the way Busi had at least two additional passing lanes open to him to relieve the pressure and keep possession.

If you want an example, take this from the Getafe game in April 2012:

courtesy of euler

Every single Getafe player is marked. Not only that, but marked in a way where each Barça player has the ability to form triangular passes as well.

When it was Alves on the right touchline and Abidal on the left, it wasn’t too bad as Abidal was a lot more conservative moving forward (and he was fast as all hell, so he could just run back like a boss). With Alba now bombing forward, Busi has to cover that whole midfield area essentially by himself. Not only that, but when Busi does win the ball, his passing options are often limited. This is particularly bad with the Spain NT.

Passing is the lifeblood of the sport. What makes it effective, though, is having people open to pass to. That sounds obvious, but with players being marked, it makes being open difficult. Thus the movement of players is crucial.  Movement means that greater positional play. Greater positional play means the geometry we’re used to. Geometry means quicker passes and a faster tempo. Faster tempo means overwhelming the opposition. That leads to goals which leads to victory. Simple? Well, the hardest thing to do in football is to play simple.

Pressing and positional play

When people talk about Barça and pressing, you will hear the term “hunting in packs” about a million times (and if you haven’t, congratulations, you either have infinitely more creative commentators or you have a selective hearing ability you must share with the world). It describes the idea of Barça players crowding around the poor sap who’s got the ball.

Generally speaking, what’s implied is that it’s through an incredible work rate that the ball is recovered. You read these quotes and think they are talking about that off-the-ball effort, the work ethic, the running.

If you lose the ball, the key is how to get it back again. The old idea was to go to defend our area and press to recover before. Now they [Barça] have perfected the details and the most spectacular thing to watch is when Barça don’t have the ball. - Johan Cruyff

In today’s football, it’s a mistake to make a tactical foul when you lose the ball. What you need to do is to steal the ball with pressing, as Barça do. – Laureano Ruiz

Not quite. Whilst it’s true that Barça do close people down and with the likes of Samuel Eto’o, speed and hard work were an assets that Barça processed, the real triumph of Barça – and easily the most overlooked part – was the positional play of the team. That’s really what Cruyff and Ruiz are talking about.

The times when Barca lost the ball, it was in the opponent’s zone. But the key thing here is what when that happened, the team was organized so that the one who lost the ball was surrounded by two or three teammates. That is what helped Barca recover the ball and “hunt in packs.”

A master of this, as I mentioned before, is Busquets. Notice how he never has to go to ground or do the flashy sliding tackles? He just comes and nicks the ball, often leaving the opposition player lost and without the ball. It’s truly remarkable.

When Barça aren’t pressing well, it’s not only that they’re tired. They aren’t in the ideal position, so they have to travel a farther distance to close down the player. Before, they were close enough to the ball so that they could run full tilt and be relatively okay, but now Barça players have to run farther for a longer period.

For example, a player that used to get the ball a meter from you now has the ball five meters from you. Would you close him down as quickly? You can argue that they’ve gotten slower, but I’d argue that it’s because of this distance that it’s more noticeable.

There are reasons for that of course, not having your coach for a chunk of the season is a pretty major one. Thierry Henry talks about how much work Pep and Tito by extension used to put in organizing the team, in set pieces, in defense, in offense (around 1:00).

How crucial a coach is to the day-to-day function cannot be understated. The idea that Barça’s players are so good they could coach themselves is one that baffles me. Positional play is something that Barça have struggled to regain in the last year, but Martino has done a good job in this regard. It’s improved greatly since the tail end of last season.

But there’s another thing that Barca midfielders have that allows them to control not only the midfield, but also the tempo of the game, and it’s a concept that is particularly revered in Argentina.

La pausa

This is the ability to put the brakes on, to feint so that the opponent trying to tackle you misses by a couple of meters. It’s being able to establish some calm in a frenetic game and seemingly put the other players on hold until you pick your next pass, like pressing pause on a play. This is taught in La Masia from a young age.

For an example, I turn to one Andres Iniesta to show you.

And if you want to see that in slow-mo, yup, made a gif for that, too. (Because there is no such thing as excess when it comes to watching Iniesta own RM players).

Interestingly enough, what made Cesc Fabregas such a success in England was the pausa he brought to Arsenal’s game; in a league where two sides are running at each other full tilt, he was able to slow it down a bit and pick out a pass. It was very noticeable that when Cesc had the ball, he could take a touch, think, and pick out the pass he wanted. It’s also what Ozil has in spades, as well as Cazorla, Mata and Silva, so their success in the league isn’t much of a surprise. All they had to do was adapt a bit to the tempo, and the roar of the crowd that always wants them to run forward.

The Xavi-Busi axis of total control

Xavi is the barometer of our team. The tempo increases and decreases when he wants.  He’s not fast, he’s not physical, he’s not particularly tall, but he can still put a pressing player on his arse with a simple turn under pressure. That’s Xavi and he’s unique.

HAHAHAHAHA

Yes, that’s Cesc falling over.

Spanish journalist Marti Perarnau described Busi as your invisible friend:

“Busquets is the first firefighter on the scene and the last to collect the fire hose and put away the helmets. […] He’s neither fast nor agile nor flexible. He’s not strong or powerful, nor does he have a low centre of gravity to rely on.  But he’s essential. You don’t see him, but he’s always there. He’s the invisible friend.”

He is, along with Xavi, the one who makes the geometry of Barca work.  Right now, Busquets is the Barca player who I trust most with the ball. In the future, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him take the reins of the offense – well, as soon as we can get someone to do even half the job he does now in the defensive midfield, of course!

Cesc Fabregas

Contrary to popular belief, Cesc was signed not to replace Xavi, but to add more verticality and direct play to Barca. It’s why Alexis was signed in the same summer, too. While Cesc brought la pausa to the English game, Pep wanted Cesc to bring the direct tempo of their football to Barca. That’s why when Pep was asked if he was bringing back the Masia player who got away, he replied, “No, I’m signing the Arsenal captain.”

Now below I’m going to self-indulgently talk about something that we see all the time when FCB play.

What happens when you combine numerical superiority with poor positioning?

Well, that’s pretty easy. More men forward means less back to defend, and when those forward players don’t position themselves well they can’t be in a good position to press. That means there’s a lot of space for the opposition to counter attack in and a heck of a lot of space the defensive midfielder needs to cover.

For example, say the ball is lost somewhere up front. Iniesta and Xavi are often clustered in the middle with Messi. On the wings, Alba and Alves are “out of position” so the opposition use the space they leave behind to make Busi’s (and the rest of the, err, two man defense) job harder.

Team loses ball. Arrows show opposition counter

Team loses ball. Arrows show opposition counter

As seen below, it’s largely left to Busquets to defend the space of (min.) two players – Xavi and Iniesta – as well as the space of Alves and Alba. He does this pretty much every game.

Red is the space Busi is basically responsible for

Red is the space Busi is basically responsible for

(So when you play Alex Song who, amongst other things, doesn’t have the knowledge of the Barça system – i.e. where to position himself – in Busi’s position… well, you can see why Tata moved him further up the pitch, right?)

In conclusion

There actually isn’t a conclusion, because I’m too lazy to write it. :mrgreen: We’ll just continue talking in the comments! (Or, I guess, on twitter. I’m @officialkari, if you forgot).

Also, I actually made all the gifs in the post, omg. 

(No, seriously. I did.)

Posted in Analysis, Thoughts40 Comments

Barça at halfway, aka “Making sense of seeming craziness”

messhurt

It isn’t the exact midway point of the season, but it’s close enough where we can start to examine some things, look forward and look back with anger, sadness, happiness and any other emotion you can think of.

Healing Messi

Obviously, the most dominant thing this season has been Broken Messi. He first picked up the injury against Paris St.-Germain on their potato field last season, re-aggravated it, then re-re aggravated it. Finally, it tweaked a good one, and Messi took 8 weeks off to rehab a hamstring that didn’t take 8 weeks to heal. So what the hell?
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Posted in Analysis, Thoughts25 Comments

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