The Complexity of Football.

By John Cartwright

Only recently we all marvelled at Barcelona’s tremendous performance against Real Madrid in a domestic league match. This week we saw a turn-around as Real beat them in the Spanish Cup Final. For several seasons we have seen Barcelona completely outplay teams with their brand of positive possession football, but Mourinho’s, Inter side managed to record a victory over them in last year’s Champions League Semi-Final. Twice Mourinho, has broken the mystique surrounding the playing style of Barcelona using a defensive performance and fast counter attacks.  Here we have seen two completely different approaches to a game – one is a brand of football that receives high praise, the other is a style that receives grudging approval. But it’s winning that counts at the very top of the game, losing is unacceptable.

This complexity of styles and success is at the very heart of football discussion and argument. What brought success only recently has been triumphed over and adaptations need to be made to restore it to its previous pedestal. Guardiola, has the job of fixing the problem that has arisen with the Barcelona way of playing – they’ve got to find adaptations to their present playing style to overcome the ‘park-the-bus’ methods that teams’ are now using against them.

I have always believed, and have often stated in numerous articles that all playing styles need variations that can be called upon when required. I have also noticed that football purists seem to exclude from their playing style an important part of the game – that the ball can also be passed in the air as well as along the ground!  In heavily defended penalty areas or against teams’ that pressurize, playing the ball in the air is an option that should be used – but with care and only when necessity calls!  Football purists, quite rightly, are often dissuaded from playing balls in the air for fear that their players may overuse and misuse it. This lack of practicality amongst some coaches reduces playing variations and decreases winning opportunities.

What we don’t want to see is a big ‘target’ player with limited playing skills other than an ability to head the ball — we’ve seen that for too long in our game. What we need are more complete footballers coming through their development years with all the skills and tactical awareness that the game demands. Guardiola, must be applauded for harnessing the talented players under his direction; they excite both with the ball and when having to regain it. However, it will be interesting to see how he copes with the latest disruption to Barcelona’s smooth-flowing style and, like so many like him who have brought ‘beauty’ to ‘the beautiful game’, has he the resolve to introduce further adaptations to their style of play and take it on to an even higher level, or as so often happens, – a ‘blanket of denial’ will exclude changes and adaptations?  For the good of the game, let’s hope Guardiola, can get the balance right.

3 thoughts on “The Complexity of Football.

  1. Hi John – I am sure that everybody who loves football,and therefore everybody who follows your blogs on this site,shares your hope that Guardiola can solve the problems that Mourinho’s Real Madrid have recently set his team after that wonderful master-class which was served up by Barcelona earlier in the season in the 5-0 demolition at the Nou Camp.I am writing before the Champions’ League semi final between the two teams but that is looking a very close call.
    You have mentioned in your blogs on quite a number of occasions and also in your book,’Football For The Brave’,that playing high and long passes/crosses has a place in the game in terms of a variation in game styles when the situation calls for it.You have previously criticised Barcelona for sometimes lacking this variation in game style.I have been thinking back 40 – 50 years to a time when thanks to the work of one or two enlightened football people English football started to catch up with its continental counterparts.England’s 1966 World Cup success hardly achieved the kind of world-wide acclaim that similar success achieved by Brazil did because the general feeling was that this was an ordinary team whose main qualities were team spirit,doggedness and sheer will to win, together with the home advantage which the host country always enjoys when the World Cup comes round.
    However,if you look closely at England’s performances in that era you will see that certain traditional English qualities,such as heading,playing the ball through the air in both passing and crossing over fairly long distances,were refined through good coaching to be extremely effective and were not the ‘hit and hope’ tactics commonplace both before and since that period.
    England scored the only goal in the quarter final against Argentina and their first in the Final against West Germany from balls put into the near post area and each time the scorer was Geoff Hurst to score with headers.Against Argentina the cross was played in to the near post by Martin Peters and in the Final the goal followed a free kick taken by Bobby Moore to the near post.Moore,Hurst and Peters,all three were West Ham United players being coached in that era by Ron Greenwood.I can’t remember the actual statistics but when Hurst and Peters were playing together at West Ham they scored an incredible number of goals at the near post.I remember a match against Manchester City shown on ‘Match of the Day’ during which Peters crossed to the near post for Hurst to score with a near post header and then shortly afterwards Hurst crossed to the near post for Peters to score with a near post header,and in an interview afterwards Ron Greenwood was asked what was the secret of all the gaols that West Ham were scoring at the near post and he said that it was simply a case of dropping the ball in short.For generations high crosses had been hit towards the far post for centre forwards like Tommy Lawton and Nat Lofthouse to climb high above everyone in packed goalmouths to head powerfully into the back of the net.But it got harder and harder to score at the far post and so seeing the space that existed at the near post Ron Greenwood worked on his players to time their runs into that area and for the crossing player to put the ball in there.England owed their World Cup triumph to that brilliant but simple piece of observation and refinement.
    In the same vein,if you look at football in that era and in this country,I recall that long balls were played through the air and from back players up to the striker but not a hopeful hammered pass but a beautifully flighted ball that dropped short of the centre forward so that he was able to come away from his marker and receive the ball in space.Again,the West Ham players mentioned were superb at this.Moore would play a beautifully carressed ball up to Hurst who would have a centre half tight on his back.But Hurst knew that Moore would be dropping the ball short of him so he would gain a vital yard on his marker as he went to meet the ball and take possession.When Martin Chivers of Tottenham succeeded Hurst in the England team he took those similar long passes from Moore so Tottenham had obviously taken on board the work that had been done at West Ham.
    Over time teams solve problems which are put in front of them and so now the near post cross is not nearly so effective because defenders get themselves into the space at the near post to deal with crosses which are put in there.But there must always be new ideas to counteract what the other teams/coaches do.So we hope that Guardiola can find something from somewhere to outwit Mourinho.It is a pity that it is no longer English teams/coaches that are in the vanguard of change and new ideas as it was 40 – 50 years ago.

  2. No particular system can prevail forever. In every system are the seeds to its own destruction. I agree that variation and developing complete players are two ways to prolong a footballing culture. Barcelona are a brilliant team and a challenge to all who seek to overcome them. Football is never static and long may that situation continue. Personally I prefer teams who use skill and intelligence though on the other hand I like and admire teams who use other qualities. The joy is eternal struggle between the two.

  3. I agree that Pep and purist teams must have a variation to their play. However I don’t believe Real found a system or tactic to completely stop Barca’s stlye or plan A in the Copa del rey final.

    In the 1st half of the Copa Del Rey final Barca moved the ball slowly and had poor movement and it seemed they were affected in the first period not by Real Madrid’s ability to nullify with pressing and high quality defending but due to the dirty constant fouling by Real Madrid – which is not football. A brave, fair and correct referee would have reduced the Real team to 10 men in the first half.

    And then in the 2nd half, right from the kick-off Barca dominated the ball and in the end created chances till Ronaldo’s goal. Their quick passing combinations in the centre of the pitch began and controlled and dominated as usual. A disallowed goal which could quite easily have been allowed and 3 exceptional saves from Casillias from good goal scoring created chances in the end denied and stopped Barca – BUT not the Real game plan. Yes Real forced chances on the counter or from the 2nd ball after a long punt by Casillas but I did not see Mourinho’s team STOP Barca from doing what they normally do, which is dominate the ball, control the centre and create chances.

    But I do believe Barca need a variation which can also be beautiful to watch. In the 2nd leg last season at the Camp Nou, Mourinho’s Inter did prevent Barca from creating chances and thus stopped Barca. However Barca did not have Villa and Pedro on together (Villa a Valencia player then) to make runs behind Mourinho’s defense and hence force the defense further back and create space in front and in the midfield for Busquets, Messi, Iniesta and Xavi.

    The irony being though – Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a Barca player last season and when his head is right he is more that capable of receiving aerial passes and being a weapon with the accurate aerial ball played to him.

    The other day I saw very good footage of the Holland team at the 1974 World Cup vs Uruguay and Argentina. The philosophy of that Dutch team is often said to have had a major influence on Barca because of Cruyff etc… But even though that was 1974 and this is 2011 from the footage I saw that Dutch team play a short passing game with the diagonal to wide players, one-two’s, reverse passes like the current Barca but they also played some lovely aerial passes. This included crosses and chipped passes with a third man run – something that as you say rightly John, Barca don’t play/utilise.

    The Liverpool team from Shankly 60’s to Dalglish 80’s were praised and labeled great for their silverwhere success and their brand of football but they had different ways of playing besides their reputation for pass and move. They utilised the aerial ball, the cross after dribbles from Steve Highway/John Barnes and stifling counter attacking performances along with the pass and move displays. As Paisely said, “football is a game where you have to play to your strengths and the opponents weaknesses”.

    Real will defend, and press the Barca midfield, and counter attack and surround the referee and accuse Messi of diving even though he has been hacked by Pepe and Alonso. But do Barca have enough strengths? Their second half display in the Copa Del rey showed their plan A or one way of playing was working as I said before – they created chances!

    Either way I hope Barca win because I find it a disgrace that squad as talented as Real Madrid’s (a set of players who can govern the ball and create chances) plays or will play nullifying football combined with foul play.

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