The latest ‘square-up’ between REAL MADRID and BARCELONA was a great example to everyone of how a highly charged game can also be full of skill and tactical qualities. Here were two teams playing the game to win and both had their own tactical way to achieve the desired result. Madrid decided to place more advanced pressure on their opponents and they ‘squeezed up’ to deny space on Barcelona’s back players to restrict their passing game. It was very successful in the opening 15/20 minutes and they took and early lead and might have had more goals. One has to admire the footballing beliefs and ‘guts’ of the Barcelona players who continued with their passing style irrespective of the way the game was proceeding. Eventually, Madrid relaxed the pressure somewhat and Barcelona took advantage of this increase in time and space that suddenly became more available to them and produced two stunning goals. The second half was just as fierce and skilful as the first, with both teams carving out good scoring chances. It was Madrid who managed to find the equalizer to bring the game to an interesting conclusion with the second leg being played tonight. (Wednesday). There is no doubt that both teams are full of highly talented players, all possess tremendous physical qualities. They have different tactical concepts; Madrid, combine the skills of individuals with fast attacking play and defensively they are more ‘positional conscious’ than their Catalan opponents. Barcelona, have a playing belief and showed there determination to stick with it even when placed under the severest of pressure. Their dedication to ‘possession football’ even in their own penalty box, is admirable but it needs players of the highest calibre to attempt to play in this way in such pressurized situations. As occurred during this game, Barcelona, gave several chances to Madrid by trying to play out from the back in their normal way when under heavy and consistent pressure near to their goal.

I am a ‘lover’ of the Barcelona way of playing. However, I have long thought that their compulsion to commit to a single playing style, come what may, is dangerous and will become even more so as opponents recognize that this over-commitment to ball possession throughout the pitch can be a weakness that can be exploited. I have high regard for Barcelona’s and Pep’ Guardiola’s, beliefs, but they must be careful that a strong belief doesn’t become an all-consuming dogma.

Tactical variations are vitally important on the battleground in warfare and in football matches. In the famous book that records the military beliefs of the Chinese War Lord, Sun Tzu – THE ART OF WAR, he advocates the importance of tactical variations. One of his most famous statements addresses the problem of fighting on ground forced onto one by the enemy. He strongly advocates the vital importance of gaining an early initiative and controlling the battle on ground of your own choice. General Montgomery, was also consumed with the need to ‘run the battle’ under his terms and not those of his opponent and used the phrase, “ don’t dance to the other General’s tune, make him dance to yours.”. This is exactly what occurred in the game between the two Spanish ‘War Lords` – Guardiola and Mourinio. The latter gained the early initiative and although it was lost and regained at stages throughout the game,  the Madrid team showed that by forcing Barcelona to play under pressure so deep in their own half  causing the Catalans obvious problems in producing their  normal composed and unruffled game-style .

The return leg at the Nou Camp, took on a similar pattern to the first leg; early pressure from the Madrid side with Barcelona  trying to play under severe pressure deep inside their own half. As in the previous encounter, had this early domination produced goals for Madrid from the chances created, Barcelona would have found themself in a very awkward situation to recover from. However, chances were missed and pressure gradually receded to allow Barcelona the little extra space and time for their wonderful players to restore their composure and to go on and win the game and the cup.

Barcelona, are without doubt an exceptional team. They possess a brand of players who have been developed to believe and play a game style that demands high individual skill as well as high quality team-play to achieve the success they have had. For the rest of us who have not invested in long-term player development and therefore lack the quality and playing belief of the Spanish team, we need to earn the space and time to play a more sophisticated game-style. At present we fight for game control but fail to utilize this through a lack of playing ability – we gain the ground but can’t dominate the ball !

I believe Barcelona will encounter more and more teams who assert severe, early pressure on them. How long their opponents’ can maintain this level of effort is questionable, but should chances be taken during these spells of high pressure, Barcelona, would find that giving goals away under these circumstances is unwise, costly and eventually will be highly destructive. Because of this possibility occurring, Guardiola, must have a ‘reserve’ playing formula that can be used when opposed by teams’ exerting high pressure tactics against them.

At PREMIER SKILLS, we were fully aware of the need to have variations to our playing vision. The details of these variations to the established possession game-style that is generated from the very beginning in level one of our PRACTICE-PLAY methodology, are introduced into practice levels  four and five after young players have acquired high levels of individual skill and tactical awareness. We, like our Spanish counterparts, know that individual ability and game awareness comes first, where we have been one step ahead of them is in realizing that, gaining the initiative in a game, retaining that initiative or regaining it if lost, requires variations to the regular playing style.

It seems we at PREMIER SKILLS are a step ahead of ‘the best football club in the world’, but who cares?


  1. In the recent Spanish Super Cup matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid, the Real Madrid team pressed Barcelona high up the pitch in an attempt to prevent the European Champions from playing out from the back in their normal possession-based style that they normally employ so effectively and which is so pleasing on the eye.In the early stages of the match this led to early chances for Madrid and, as John Cartwright says, they held the upper hand.
    The fact that Barcelona weathered the storm and in two matches of fluctuating fortunes and the initiative frequently changing from one team to the other, and that finally they lifted the cup, then perhaps Barcelona felt their unfailing adherence to their philosophy was justified.But from what I have read in his previous blogs and his book,’Football For The Brave’, is the case being made for the use of a big target man with a more direct approach?
    For a season Barcelona had the big Swedish striker,Ibrahimovic,but he was not a great success and he did not seem too popular with their supporters.But Barcelona’s game style was unchallenged and a player of Ibrahimovic’s ariel ability was unnecessary. But if Madrid’s approach in the Super Cup is copied,in both La Liga and the Champions’ League,then perhaps Ibrahimovic’s departure will be regretted.Barcelona can still play their possession game but primarily restrict this to their opponents’ half of the pitch.Longer passes from defence to a target player and then the possession game is produced largely in their opponents’ half of the pitch.Once the initiative is gained then Barcelona can switch back to their original game style of possessionn play right from their own penalty area – it all depends on the flow of the match and who has the initiative.
    Having said all that, Madrid did not maintain their high pressure game that they employed in the opening 20 minutes of the 1st leg because,I would say, it was too physically demanding.It has been said before that a team cannot press for 90 minutes because of the extreme physical demands and so the initiative switched back to Barcelona for this reason as well as their own unique brilliance.
    However, I think that Guardiola will have recognised that had Madrid taken their chances in that opening 20 minutes then the game could have been out of sight and the cup well on its way into the Madrid trophy cabinet.

  2. HI Steve. IT seems that you and i are almost sole contributers with replies to ‘blogs’ I finish the piece off with ‘who cares’? Well, WHO REALLY CARES? It is disappointing that more people don’t have something to say — for or against!
    However, your point about needing a big front target player is not necessarily what i had in mind as a playing variation. We go to this playing style too readily when placed under the type of ‘full court press’ that Madrid attempted. Our 4 and 5 level work offers alternative ideas other than hitting balls onto the head of a ‘big ‘un’ up front. We use brawn when we should be using brains. The ability to recognize the need for variation to the normal playing style must be worked at in paractice. Tactical variations must be more alligned to ball placement and players’ movements. Benchmark methods and appreciation of when and how to adapt from a preferred game-style is vital in today’s football.
    Let’s discard the long ball to the big ‘lump’ up front as the first thought, its use is well down the list of alternatives available to the enlightened footballer.

  3. Once again what a brilliant blog but i want to us to carefully consider a few points. .Since taking charge,Guardiola have re-introduced the real Barca way of playing and the results are there for all to see.
    I do understand John’s criticism that Barca should have a plan B incase the plan A do not work But barca are set up and have only got players that can play in a particular way due to the Player development methods,the physical attributes also come into consideration and the plan A have always worked although it may suffer a few blips!!
    Dont lets forget that Real Madrid had players like Kaka and co on the Bench and also ran Barca close for the title and therefore both teams are almost at the same level in terms of talent and Mourinho is also good at what he does.
    We saw Switzerland comfortably defeat spain in the world cup playing with a style that caught the Spanish off guard and before that the USA also neutralised the spanish in another competition.How have the spanish responded to those setbacks? not by changing or panicking but by continuing to believe in their way of life cause they cant change it as its the only way they understand(i know they replaced Torres with the big forward but they didnt go long).
    I support a philosophy which is well thought about, that develop and produce top quality players,that get results,that win trophies ,So we dont need to panick or change everything overnight when we get caught out,afterall Barcelona do not have a divine right to win everytime!!!

  4. I don’t think this belief and confidence in your own “way” is necessarily limited to Barcelona.
    I can’t recall the participants, but I recall the UEFA Cup Final of around 20 years or so ago when one team was losing 3-0 with around 15 minutes still to play and they carried on playing the same style they had used in the rest of the game.
    At the time, I can recall thinking, “Can they not see the urgency of the situation? Can they not inject some more speed into the game or try to create more direct opportunities?”
    But perhaps that is the way they play because, more often than not, it generates results.

    I appreciate that the game ebbs and flows and that momentum shifts as a result of certain incidents in the game but perhaps a belief in a philosophy is no bad thing.

    In the English leagues I do perceive a change happening – more and more teams seem to want to play a more considered game and to build up play through use of ball possession and utilising positional switches to create and exploit space by fracturing defensive set ups. Having said that, I now feel that we are still to ready to resort to smashing it forward if that steady build up doesn’t realise quick results.

    The crowds maybe don’t help with their demands to ‘get it forward!’ but there are stronger managers about who are demanding their way is preferable to some of the old ways. For example, I recently heard from a good source that Gus Poyet at the Albion has told his players that they must play according to his beliefs and not according to the demands of the crowd…or risk being subbed.

    As the poster mentioned above, no team can win all its games.

  5. John another excellent piece of insight and inspiration. As you know Steve and I have been great friends for over 25 years, so I always am interested in what his reply will be. We regularly have phone conversations – as I am in New zealand and he resides in London. I haven’t responded for a while but read all the blogs and check daily.

    The idea of variations in style is a good one to pursue; however, because Barcelona are mostly in control or able to wreste control back and make it pay with their ‘beautiful football’ and results perhaps Guardiola does not feel the need to compromise too much; if at all! Maybe he hasn’t even considered the possiblity of varying the play. Perhaps for lesser teams it should be so. My fear is that the for so many teams the variation they lack is the ability to play ‘possession-based football’and that their approach is rudimentary route-one; keeping the ball as far away from their goal as is possible – a combination of defending as much as attacking.

    John makes the point that to play possession football from defensive positions ‘needs players of the highest calibre to attempt to play in this way in such pressurized situations.’ However, youn layers need to learn how to lay out in such pressured situations. I remember Venables amking this point many years ago that English teams are not clever playing out in ‘tight situations.’ Players have to learn via mistakes; which may include a lack of passing options as well as technique. Maybe we should be more selective with the types of players we choose. Perhaps developing midfielders with defensive qualities to play further back, wide or upfront.

    Furthermore, by acquiring Fabregas and Sanchez, Guardiola has obtained too more players who can improve his way of playing; improve is the key word here. As a further thought, Barcelona have 3 Great players and another group who are looking at that type of status, therefore, does Guardiola need to have many variations; he seems to be stubbonly keeping to the theme, and to use a famour phrase’ winning friends and influencing people’ which is something the English are unable to do.
    NB Some people will always be blind and unfortunately tis is all too common in Britain! And dare I say it, over here – in what New Zealander’s refer to as God’s Own – well not as far as God is concerned – we are ABSOLUTE CRAP – having learnt from the English during a less enlightened period.

  6. Clearly, it is important and crucial, to have a way of dealing with the opposition if their pressing is stopping your team from getting out from their defensive third. This would suggest that the team is having difficulty imposing their possession based game on the match. Therefore, it is legitimate and highly desirable, to have as part of one’s armoury the option of variations. Having the ability to go longer – over the pressing opponents – into a front receiver up top, is a way of mixing game styles, when necessary, and is a practical application of ‘playing the game intelligently.’ Take the idea of a centre back ‘dropping the ball short of a target’ who then links with support by combining is good play. It means that the pressuring team cannot take it for granted that they can press and press and press without a response – and will be more careful; presumably allowing the team in possession more space. The key thing is to practise situations that allow the back players to recognise when to play long and then apply this technique in training. The team can then regroup and go back to the overall playing vision of possession-football. It could be argued, that this is a type of possession anyway. Certainly, the use of playing down the channels, maybe another way of turning the opposition around, and breaking out of the pressing zones. I am not advocating playing the long ball game ad nauseum, but recognising that variations, are sometimes essential; especially for lesser players. But its use needs to combine with a method; thus linked to a ‘playing vision’ that the players must get back to ASAP.
    The cornerstone, for me, and I spoke to a coaching friend last night, is the fundamental and undeniable conclusion that what we have been doing is not working; we are not producing great players or even quality players as individuals. Our players cannot eradicate themselves from tight situations, screen or dribble – and certainly cannot combine effectively with teammates. We cannot play an individual game or a polished collective game – We can however, knock it long! ‘WE MUST HAVE A NEW VISION; WE MUST CHANGE OUR FOOTBALL CULTURE’ and this can only be done by developing great individuals as our first objective; individuals who recognise ‘time and space’; and they need ‘LIKE-MINDED TEAMMATES TO PLAY WITH,’ to combine with when necessary.’

    Changing our culture requires football people to change the teaching methods and to know what makes great players and this is at the forefront of Premier Skills and the Practice-Play methodology.
    Culture might actually be understating it – A REVOLUTION IS PARAMOUNT!

  7. I remember a televised match last season between Liverpool and Wolves at Anfield.Like Real Madrid in their recent match with Barcelona,Wolves identified the fact that Liverpool like to play out from the back,building up passing moves down the pitch after keeper Reina has thrown the ball out.Wolves choked this approach by getting tight on Liverpool’s back players as soon as the ball went into Reina’s hands.The result was that Reina was forced into kicking the ball downfield far more than he is accustomed to.This played into Wolves’ hands because the long high balls downfield were meat and drink to the big Wolves central defenders and they ground out a 1-0 win without too much difficulty.
    Liverpool did not show the imagination or nouse to vary their style and illustrated perfectly how players must have the game intelligence to change the approach when the original game plan is found not to be working.

  8. It’s really interesting to see how much Barcelona use the ‘passing qualities’ of Valdes, their goalkeeper. As opposing players are dragged in to close down on Barca’s two central defenders, passes sent back to Valdes are usually played to an unmarked colleague. Because they have practised playing against various types of systems, thay are fully aware of the passing opportunities these systems provide them with. The ‘sweeper-keeper’ is someone i have discussed in previous ‘blogs’ as well as in my book ‘Football for the Brave’. Valdes passes the ball probably better than the vast majority of our back players –including GK’s.
    But our ‘Neanderthal’ football style continues unabated– ‘the best league in the world’ You’re ‘aving a laugh! I WISH I WAS !!

  9. Hi Stuart. Thanks for your input to this and previous ‘blogs’. I certainly like your analagy of our Goalkeepers’ being ‘clearing houses’ . They most certainly are in most cases. One could add that they are primarily ‘clearing houses’ for ‘dud clearances’!
    It seems inconceivable that after so many years watching our foreign opponents play the ball more cleverly, decisively and cleverly around football grounds, that we are still unable to digest the lessons and importance of ball possession from everyone involved —- Goalkeepers included!

  10. When I suggested using a target player up front I did not really mean using a big ‘lump’ to engage in a bloody battle with the opposing centre backs in an ariel dominated dual.What I had in mind was to use longer passes in the early stages of the movement to get the ball into the opponents’ half quicker and then to play the ‘possession game’ in their half,away from our goal and danger area.This would also allow our back line to squeeze up quickly to around the half way line and and then for our central defenders to drop off to receive balls from our players under pressure so that we start to dominate possession again but higher up the pitch.
    Also,during the last few years I had thought that Chelsea have more often than not come out on top in matches against Arsenal,(the nearest we have to Barcelona I feel), because they have been far more adept at putting balls in behind their defence,especially into the path of Drogba who would have transformed Arsenal if they had had him since he would have enabled them to vary their play so much more.

  11. PLAYING PERFECTION IS SOMETHING OF AN IMPOSSIBILITY TO ACHIEVE. The problem of fear when under pressure is possessed in all human activities. What is required in these situations is a ‘BENCHMARK’ reaction that counters those fears.
    In the game of football as in war, there are times when calculated risk is needed to be used to overcome a difficult situation. This reaction to a problem must be recognized and reacted to both individually and as part of a team’s playing variation. When difficulties are confronted that require an adaptation to the norm, this change must be understood immediately by all the players concerned in order that playing style can be recovered quickly and positively and initiative is retained with the game reverting to ground of your choice and not that on which you are forced onto by opponents.
    The methodolgy is all available in PREMIER SKILLS coaching, AFTER players have acquired individual skills and sound tactical experience at the early Practice/playing levels. Later, WHEN playing becomes more aligned to senior requirements, ‘BENCMARK.’ variation is introduced in the higher practice/Playing levels . YOU SEE WE HAVE THOUGHT DEVELOPMENT MATTERS THROUGH CAREFULLY AT PREMIER SKILLS — IT ALL FITS TOGETHER TO PRODUCE QUALITY PLAYERS TO PLAY QUALITY FOOTBALL — WITH VATIATIONS WHEN NECESSARY. But who cares, who really is that concerned ?

  12. The foreigners care because the crossing of Dover leads to a whole new football world; the world of Christopher Columbus! Seriously, they have never been afraid to ‘tinker’ yet the wise British press, so often in the past, attacked what they labelled as ‘tinkering’ when tactical adjustments were made. English football is obsessed with ‘like-for-like’ substitutions. A big 9 on for a tiring big 9; hell of a lot of ingenuity in that! But then for big crosses you need a ‘big un.’ Or so the story goes. Yes,clearly the lack of ‘playing’ variations dictacts the limited use of substitutions surrounding the game; and this is highlighted so convinvingly by off-shoots of English generations of coaching such as in New Zealand. As I’ve said before, if you think your football is in a bad way, the words cannot express the mire we are in. Why could Columbus have not discovered NZ before Captain Cook! And let’s not forget that the Spanish brought on Llorente – a target type in the World Cup, against Portugal. It is of course unfair to tar all English coaches with the same brush, but many bought theirs from the same cut-price discount store and have found out it won’t clean up the mees in the garden. Yet the salemen at The FA have done a bloody good job because their product still thrives and some even call it exciting – did tehy not get it when Jorge valdano said it is like ‘watching shit on a stick!’

  13. Attending an FA Coaching Course recently,I was informed that every time the first ball to look for from a deep position was one to find our target man striker.If that was not on then look for a closer player.This is not the way of Barcelona ,not in their playing vision of possession-based play.They shift the ball around in groups,working to create space.
    Watching Barcelona in their first match of the new league season last night – a 5-0 win over Villareal – it was interestiong to see their new formation of 3-1-3-3.It remains to be seen if they continue with this formation when key defenders like Pique and Puyol are fit but i wonder if Barcelona are on the way to playing what was many years ago referred to as the ‘whirl’. This concept was mooted shortly after Hungary took England apart at Wembley in 1953 and was the brainchild of Dr.Willy Meisl,who I have mentioned before,in his book ‘Soccer Revolution’ which he wrote following the Wembley rout.He envisaged a playing scheme where there was no formation, where football teams would be made up of 11 multi-functional players able confront and perform all playing tasks and challenges.Players would no longer be labllled strikers,midfielders or defenders – just players.There have been some outstanding teams since then who have come quite close to this concept, but none that could be truly said to be playing the ‘whirl’.
    Interestingly,there is a former English player who would have been ideally suited to play in this team concept – Martin Peters. In his time at West Ham United he played in every shirt number 1 – 11 (when shirt numbers meant something positionally) and,yes,he even played in goal and he was outstanding in every position. Sir Alf Ramsey,of course,made the famous
    quote of Peters being “10 years ahead of his time”. I think that it would have been more accurate for Ramsey to have said that Peters was “50 years ahead of his time”!
    Also,when looking into the past,I would like to say that in the 1970s there was a West German team, Borussia Moenchengladbach, who were outstanding.They had a very similar playing style to the present Barcelona,with the ball being moved around midfield until the opportunity arose to carve open the opposition with a defence-splitting pass.You could say that Netzer and Wimmer were their Xavi and Iniesta but they also had a great coach in Hennes Weisweiller.He took them out of the regional German leagues into the Bundesliga and they won the Championship several times. He left Gladbach in the mid seventies and had a short,unhappy spell at Barcelona before returning to West Germany and coached FC Cologne with a similar game-style.Udo Lattek took over from him at Gladbach and continued the good work.

  14. Hi Steve.It’s interesting what you say about the formation that Barca’. used against Villareal the other night. Unfortunately i did not see the game but i’m sure you are correct in your summation that Barca’s game-style reflected a ‘whirl’ type playing method. I have always said that football is firstly a game about individuals first who become team players later. Because of individual abilty players can move between positions with confidence. THE MORE PLAYERS WITH INDIVIDUAL SKILL AVAILABLE TO THE COACH, THE MORE TACTICAL OPTIONS BECOME AVAILABLE FOR HIM TO USE. Our structure of development here is mis-aligned and until a major overhaul of player development and GAME-STYLE is undertaked we will continue to offer teams who are diificult to beat but disappointing to watch.

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