Learning from the Barcelona way
LA LIGA Barcelona v Real Madrid: Venue: Camp Nou Kick-off: Tomorrow, 6.50pm On TV: Sky Sports 1
BARCELONA PLAY Real Madrid in the Spanish league tomorrow evening. Given the game is at Barça’s Camp Nou stadium, the home side will look to maintain or stretch a surprising early eight-point lead over their Clásico rivals.
Whatever about the result, what is known for sure is that Barcelona – who average 70 per cent of possession in matches – will hog the ball in the encounter. Barça’s singular style of play, dubbed tiki taka, has garnered three Champions League titles in a five-year stretch and has served as the bedrock of Spain’s unprecedented three-in-a-row triumph in international competition.
“Barcelona’s idea is simple,” says Albert Puig, technical director of La Masia, Barcelona’s famous youth academy, which nurtured 10 of the 14 Barça players who featured in last April’s league tie against Real Madrid.
“They try to keep the ball until the opposition make a mistake. They even use the ball to defend – by tiring the opposition out. The training mantra at La Masia is ‘receive, pass, offer’. They try to think of where they will make a pass before the ball arrives at their feet.”
Barça’s game is built around reverence for the pass, particularly the short pass, and an appreciation of the need to create space, and to be patient while waiting until space opens up. Basically, they like to hold onto the ball until a gap appears.
They take this philosophy to the extreme in forsaking counter attacks. Real Madrid, for example, scored half their goals last season within 20 seconds of recovering the ball, as they swept forward on the counter, invariably instigated with a long first-time pass, a classic ploy of José Mourinho-trained teams.
If a Barça player regains possession – unless he is close to the penalty area – he will re-group and pass to his nearest team-mate, the thinking being that he’s done well enough to get the ball back, and is probably off-balance and without a good enough view of the pitch to give a half-goal pass.
Les Kiss, a Chelsea fan and defensive coach to Ireland’s rugby team, can see the echoes with his code. “Barça’s basis would be that once they get the ball, they keep it. They work triangles and they work in smaller spaces, with shorter passes which, it seems to me, is critical for them.
“It’s similar to rugby – if the ball’s in the air too long the defence can press hard and take that space away and start getting man on ball. That’s why you like to pull defenders out of line in rugby with shorter passes and decoy runs, which opens space.
“Barça, it seems, don’t like to counterattack. They like to keep the ball in hand (or on foot) and pass the ball until they pull somebody out of space and then lay it off to Iniesta or one of these guys who can swoop on it into space, which suddenly breaks up the opposition’s defence.
“Sometimes, you need long passes, but it’s about doing them at the right time. The All Blacks work beautifully at short, interchanging passes. When they use wide passes their speed of pass is exceptional, and they use it at the right time.
“What happens with their shorter passing game is that they get the ball a little bit earlier so the defence isn’t controlling the space on their terms, the ball carrier has a bit more space to work his footwork and the All Blacks, in particular, work the space and push through the line and then they can offload, which opens up more spaces.”
A good sense of positioning is prized at Barça. They figure the average player is only on the ball for two minutes in a game; for the other 88 minutes he needs to take up good positions. John Morrison, who has coached several intercounty Gaelic football teams and is the author of a book on coaching methods, Game Sense, can see the logic.