By John Cartwright
When Mourinho’s Inter beat Barcelona in the EURO Championship by ‘parking the bus’, it left a question mark about the Spanish club’s possession play tactics. That question however, has often been ‘camouflaged’ by Barcelona’s outstanding playing quality and an ever-growing reliance on Messi’s ability to score. But as Barcelona and Messi’s playing reputations have soared, it has meant more opponents being forced to play ultra-defensively against them. Even going back to Spain’s World Cup victory, one remembers the difficulties they had overcoming opponents who pulled numbers back to defend. I have made several comments over the past couple of years about the developing problem that would confront teams such as Barcelona who rely on a ‘one brand’ playing method.
Without doubt, Barcelona have ‘raised the football bar’, and we have all enjoyed watching them, but their results this year have further emphasised a need for changes to the patient, possession style of play that has characterized their success. There needs to be more variety to their playing style. They are outstanding in the way they regain possession of the ball and because of this they should and could ‘gamble’ more tactically. The high possession statistics achieved by Barcelona as well as others copying their playing method is great, but means nothing without a penetrative conclusion. We, in this country, are Barcelona in ‘reverse’- ‘all penetration and no preparation’! Our poor skill levels demand a simplistic playing style, therefore, the direct route is generally the only option available. So we have two playing opposites; the patient, skilled possession method of the Spanish that needs more penetrative alternatives; and the game here that too often resembles ‘fightball’ and requires an ‘injection of skilled patience. The search for and discovery of football’s ‘Holy Grail’ – real, ‘Total Football’, is more likely to be found by a country who have an established development infrastructure – for it will be easier for problems to be noted and modifications to their playing style to be quickly introduced. That country is more likely to be foreign rather than our own!
What’s missing from Barcelona’s game-style at present is variables in their preparatory play. They seem over-conscious about ball possession and fail to exploit opportunities to penetrate quickly when available. Their flank play has not improved and any space down wide positions is not utilized enough. There is a lack of individual quality as well as insufficient ‘overloading’ in the wide areas and players who occupy these spaces have failed to produce as one would expect. The Club also seem to have a complete distaste in using any pass forward over 20 metres; this lack of early forward play allows opposing teams to get back and defend more solidly. The use of longer passing is an asset to attacking play—IF USED CORRECTLY and should be an integral part of any sound tactical method used in the game. Barcelona, are, without doubt the best team I have ever seen when keeping the ball around an opponent’s penalty area – (front play- round). They show great ability to play in tight situations and do create and score many goals from highly-skilled individual and combined situations. However, the opportunity to play angled, diagonal crosses from positions around a crowded box is very rarely used. The desire to keep good possession and not risk the loss of it has meant a noticeable lack of variety in their crossing of the ball. This is probably due to both a lack of height and heading ability in the team. I have always said that Heading is, ‘the football perfectionist’s blind spot’ and Barcelona are an example of this statement. The game allows the ball to be headed, but this often means players who are good in the air are not so good on the ground! Barcelona must produce or find players who are capable of being talented with the ball at their feet as well as with their head to complete the total playing quality for the game they seek. It should be remembered that most goals are scored from crossing situations and Barcelona, at present, are playing without sufficient use of this important fact.
We at PREMIER SKILLS have always recognized the importance of variations to playing styles and already cover these aspects in our coaching programs – perhaps, Barcelona might be interested in taking a look!!
So Barcelona, the world’s greatest team, must ‘go back to the drawing board’; (variations) must be added to their game to conjoin with their present playing qualities. If this is done I believe they will ‘raise the bar’ for the game once again…… I for one wait in hopeful anticipation.