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.
“It’s the same in Gaelic,” he says. “Put it this way – that’s 120 seconds divided by three seconds on the ball, that’s 40 runs. If a boy gets 40 runs in a football match, he’s a good ’un.”
Barça look for kids who can see triangles, especially in the middle third of the pitch. Johan Cruyff famously plucked a skinny 19-year-old Pep Guardiola from the third-team and parachuted him into Barça’s first team because he had that sense of geometry.
Jason Ryan, the precocious former Wexford Gaelic football manager, says that a love of triangular thinking tallies with developments in Gaelic football as well.
“Diagonal balls are very important. And the line of running – so that you’re taking a ball at an angle. If you take a ball straight there’s an extra chance of a defender cutting it out but if I’m in possession and there’s somebody coming off my shoulder at an angle the defender is taken out of it by the angle of the run. In Gaelic football, the runs are coming from deeper.”
Barcelona’s work rate off the ball, an innovation of the Guardiola management regime, borrowed from his understanding of Italian defensive systems, is widely applauded. In the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley, for instance, in which Barcelona left Manchester United cock-eyed and flattered by a 3-1 scoreline, Xavi, Barça’s playmaker, ran almost 12km, more than any other player on the pitch. Time was when playmakers used to amble about the centre circle like a darts player in the pub.
There is a ferocity to Barcelona’s pressing at times, which brings to mind the Kilkenny hurlers. They have specific prompts for tackling – the second the ball is lost; when an opponent controls the ball badly or when he is facing his own goal, as his vision of the pitch will be impaired. High-level rugby teams work according to similar cues, says Kiss. They know when to employ a shooter in defence, and target players who have the ball tucked under their arms or players who aren’t good under the high ball. Often these prompts will be flagged by video analysis.
In a speech Guardiola made to the Catalan parliament last year while receiving a medal of honour, he identified his time squirreled away in a cramped office without natural light in the bowels of the Camp Nou studying videos of opposing teams as the key moments of bliss for him as a coach. It was there he unravelled their weaknesses, like a mathematician wrestling with sticky theorems.
“Hurling has become way more tactical since I played,” says Dublin manager Anthony Daly, a former All-Ireland winning captain with Clare. “I remember we drew with Tipp in ’99. I said to Ger Loughnane would we not all sit down and look at the video. ‘Video? Video?’ he says. ‘I f*****g saw enough on Sunday!’ Now there isn’t a team in the country that hasn’t video analysis.”
If there is a hurling team that evokes Barcelona’s short passing style of play it is perhaps Cork’s back-to-back winning team from the middle of the last decade. John Allen, who coached the 2005-winning team, discounts the notion, however, that much can be compared between the two teams.
“Our style was labelled as a support game,” he says, “where there was somebody in support to take a pass. But the option in hurling is always there to let the ball go 100 metres. I would think that the chance of the short passing game breaking down is obviously high. With the size of the sliotar and the fact that you can move it so quickly, I don’t think there is any team that is endeavouring to have a system like Barcelona’s in hurling.”
Barcelona don’t allow their youth team players to do physical training until they are 16, which contrasts markedly with their counterparts in the UK. The ball is idolised, and particularly in the most quintessential Barcelona training exercise – rondos, a kind of piggy-in-the-middle game.
Introduced to the club by Johan Cruyff in the late-1980s, rondos has become a staple of soccer teams’ training around the world. At Spanish national team training, it is noticeable how better Barça players are at them compared to other squad members. Players who are nutmegged or fail to control a pass are scoffed at. It’s played with the relish of kids, and hints at the joie de vivre that Xavi, Iniesta, and their cohorts play the game.
For Kiss, rondos brings to mind a tradition at Randwick, the Sydney club which has given us some of rugby’s most inventive players – the Ella Brothers, David Campese and the swashbuckling Rocky Elsom. At the beginning of their sessions on a Tuesday night, the first half hour is spent playing touch rugby.
“It’s about expression,” he says. “It’s not about not making an error. It’s about developing your skill set – how you can find a magic pass, how to find the right shoulder to run to, the cut-out pass, how a decoy works. If you can put a prop over in the corner it’s a glorious celebration. It’s an ethos that has run through the place for yonks, since amateur days, and it’s a philosophy that has served them well.
THE BARCELONA WAY: Five steps to tiki taka
1. The five-second rule: if the ball isn’t retrieved within five seconds, the team retreat behind the ball to form a 10-man wall.
2. The 3-1 rule: if an opponent is attacking near Barcelona’s penalty area, one defender goes to tackle him while the other three defenders gather in a ring a few metres behind him as a second shield.
3. Barcelona hold onto the ball because: a) the other team can’t score without it and b) it tires the opposition out.
4. Barcelona eschew the quick counter attack. They believe if a player wins back the ball, he will typically be unsighted or off-balance and unable to launch a good, counter-attacking movement
5. Barcelona use their goalkeeper, Victor Valdes, as an auxiliary sweeper. If he draws a player, it helps to create overlaps elsewhere on the pitch. It’s a risky ploy, however, which coughed up goals against Real Madrid last December and August.
JOHAN CRUYFF: Godfather of Spanish football
If there is a Moses figure in Barcelona’s biblical rise of to the summit of world club football, it is Johan Cruyff, who played for the club in the 1970s. When he returned to the Catalan city in 1988 as manager, he brought some youth development ideas he had been tinkering with at Ajax. He installed old team-mates from Barcelona's 1974 league-winning side – including Mora, Asensi and Antonio De La Cruz – to run the various teams in the club.
Every team, from under-eights to the senior side, all adopted the same keep-ball style. Under-age teams played against teams a year older than them so Barça’s emerging players couldn’t rely on natural skill but had to cultivate cunning as well. Barça’s glorification of the small player (Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, David Villa, Alexis Sanchez and Pedro average 5ft 7in) is an extension of this thinking. (The clubs’ scouts will take a small player over a big player if they have the same technical ability.)
Barça’s youth teams are there to feed the senior team, not to win matches and tournaments. It is interesting: Real Madrid’s youths are as good as Barça’s but very, very few Real Madrid youth team players graduate to the senior side. Iker Casillas and Álvaro Arbeloa are the only current first-choice players to have done so. The Madrid club prefers to buy ready-made galácticos than to trust in home-grown talents like Barcelona’s World Cup winners Sergio Busquets and Pedro who, it seems, came from nowhere.
Richard Fitzpatrick is the author of El Clásico: Barcelona v Real Madrid; Football’s Greatest Rivalry which is published by Blomsbury, £12.99.