Perfect Imperfection

By John Cartwright

A strange title, especially when concerning football, however, because I consider myself extremely fortunate to have seen the game played as I have always believed it should by the present Barcelona club over the past few years, I am concerned that their ‘obsession’ with perfection may become more of a hindrance than an asset. … opposing clubs have decided that they cannot compete against Barca using normal tactical methods and have resorted to playing an ‘ultra-defensive’ style against them. This problem has been developing for several years but has now become a major tactical situation that Barca must confront if they are to stay as world leaders of the game.


In major games’ over the past few years in which Barca’s opponents have ‘parked the bus’ they have continued to play their possession football with huge statistical advantages – but have failed to win! These games have displayed a major fault in Barca’s game-style ……they are ‘blinded’ in their search for perfection. It is generally agreed that perfection is a ‘fleeting target’ and although on many occasions Barca. have achieved never before seen standards they now need to make a serious appraisal of their present playing style and to ‘tweak’ it to introduce even more variety to their attacking play.

I have never seen any team retain possession of the ball around the oppositions penalty area so brilliantly as Barca. Their ability to remain patient and to create penetrative openings has been truly magnificent, but as time has gone on their opponents are limiting the spaces available for them to exploit by increasing the number of players to defensive duties; Barca’s perfect penetrations are being denied and goals-scoring chances made more difficult.

To overcome this increasing tactical barrier  Barca must be prepared to ‘tweak’ their game-style in two ‘imperfect’ ways: (1) They must be prepared to play longer passes forward more quickly to turn opposing defences around before they collect sufficient numbers back to defend. (2) They must introduce more diagonal crosses from positions around their opponents penalty area…..although spaces may be denied on the ground there is still space available in the air ! In both of these situations there is a possibility that possession may be lost and this is where Barca, must compromise — reduced possession stats. but an increase in attacking options.  A loss of possession should not be too much of a problem to Barca as they are superb at winning the ball back from opponents quickly. In conjunction with the deliveries for both of these aspects of play there must also be a co-ordinated team awareness to support positive or negative outcomes quickly, but as already mentioned, Barca are already proficient in both.


The use of diagonal crossing from areas around an opponents penalty area should be a particularly important addition to their game-style. Both the delivery of the ball and movement to receive it along with the support play by colleagues must be all recognized. The ball delivered in the air in these situations may be successful or not but whether perfect or imperfect players must react quickly to either circumstance. Receiving the ball from diagonal crosses will require intelligent runs and most probably the use of the head – sometimes there will be success, other times failure, but whichever is the outcome the players must be ready to act decisively.

I believe Barca. have the quality of players that can adapt their present game-style and make it even more difficult for teams’ to compete against them. I hope this is the case, for it will underline the importance of individualism being able to respond quickly to tactical changes occurring in the game. In Barca’s case they will be able to show that at times in the game perfection can follow in the footsteps of imperfection.

67 thoughts on “Perfect Imperfection

  1. Both of your proposals – counterattacking and flank attacks – would destroy Barca´s compact attacking shape and its defensive transition press.

    Vary attack pathways occasionally – sure, especially when you can exploit match-ups. But change strategy and leave the Barca back line exposed? Seems a bit of an over-reaction to an occasional ´imperfect´ performance.

  2. John has made some especially pertinent comments on how Barcelona can tweak their game style against opponents who ultra defensively ‘park the bus’.

    It is not inconceivable that Barcelona will not look to lengthen their forward passes, as in fact, one of Guardiola’s teammates in the Cruyff ‘Dream Team’ Koeman was fabled for hitting longer balls back-to-front or on the diagonal. Guardiola also had a range of pass. One could see Piqué doing this as well as breaking out from the back to overload. Xavi also has the technical requirements to pass over distance. We may see a little more of this on the second leg, if Barcelona try to isolate some of the Milan defenders.

    Historically many great teams included in their ranks prodigious headers of the ball such as the Hingarisn ‘Golden Head’ Kocsis and Pele himself as we know was excellent in the air scoring in both the 58 and 70 World Cup final this way. One also recollects his headed knock down from an aerial ball from Gerson that set up jairzinho on the win over the Italians in Mexico. Thus they will short term need to consider buying a world class air man , who can be brought on if needs must, and in the longer term develop their own players from the young Catalans etc that surely ate potentially excellent headers of a ball in an attacking sense.

    I agree with John that While Barcelona are going for perfection , in my comparison using clinical modern warfare they do need to incorporate other types of armory. A throw back as it were to more simplistic weaponry that once the target has been wounded – ie a goal scored – it will force an abandonment of ‘digging’in the renches; subsequently by the opponents coming out Barcelona will have space behind to vary they play or go back to the precise game they have mastered.

    I subscribe to the view they need an answer to every problem; one is sufficiently tactical whilst the diagonal cross requires good headers of the ball to be available. The questions to be asked are :can they play through them? Can they play over them? Can they play around them? Can theyvthresten in front of them? Can they ultimately threaten the back of any opponent by possessing a brilliant tactical and skill set to cope with any problem presented, therefore negating any defensive strategy faced. A problem faced is after all a problem to be solved and as John says it is BARCA WHO HAVE THE BALL.

  3. I think that the problems for Barcelona and their brilliant ‘tiki taka’ playing style, first surfaced nearly three years ago when they were eliminated from the semi finals of the Champions’ League by an Inter Milan team coached by Jose Mourinho.
    It will be recalled that Inter took a 3 – 1 lead from the first leg to the Camp Nou and played for all but the first 30 minutes with ten men, following a red card. Mourinho set his team up to keep in position at all times. They weren’t interested in having possession of the ball, all that mattered was keeping in position and retreating at the first sign of danger to defend around the edge of their penalty area. Losing a player to a red card did not affect them at all, because they kept the same team shape and frustrated Barca for 90 minutes, restricting them to one goal and proceeding to the Final, which, of course, they won.
    The frustrations which Barca displayed that night four years are reflected in what John Cartwright describes in his article. It will be remembered that they showed little idea, or change of planning or approach, to break the Italians down. If I remember rightly, the only substitution they made, other than for injury or tiredness, was at left back when they changed like for like, but no tweak or alteration in approach.
    In that game, Inter’s approach bordered on ‘anti football’. I recall reading eye witness accounts from people close to the trainers’ dug-outs, that at times Mourinho shouted out to his players when they had the ball to give it back to Barceona! It was easier for them to maintain their positional shape and suffocating defensive tactics without the ball, because if you have it then other players have to move into a new position to receive a pass and so there is the danger of not being in position defensively! That has to be the the extreme in negativity, but if the means justify the ends then teams will do it.
    Last week, three years later, the other Milan club, AC Milan, gave Barca great problems in their Champions’ League Round of 16 1st leg tie. This time, Barcelona were given problems at both ends of the pitch, because, besides suffocating the life out of Barca’s attacking play, Milan also exploited weaknesses in the Spanish defensive armoury by scoring twice without reply. In a post for the previous article for this blog, I put forward some points which i felt contributed to Barca’s defensive weaknesses.
    I think that it should be recognised that Barcelona, when they require it, have a defensive mentality which emerges in the play of both Barcelona and the Spanish national team, which is an off-shoot of Barca. This is displayed when they keep possession for the sole purpose of denying their opponents the ball, without any intention of penetrating the opposition defence, but merely to run the clock down and see out time. A few years ago the then Swansea Manager , Brendan Rodgers, openly admitted that, on gaining promotion to the Premier League, they would play a short passing, possession game, partly as a defensive strategy, to reduce the time that opponents with superior indviduals, could hurt them. He pointed out the folly of clubs with similarly limited playing resources who, on reaching the Premier League, play a long ball, percentage game but, in fact, give up the ball too easily and, consequently, spend their time chasing around trying to get the ball back from technically superior opponents, exhausting themselves in the process.
    i think that it is also relevant to draw attention to the weaknesses that Barca seem to have in the full back postion from a defensive viewpoint. Last week it seemed clear that AC Milan really targeted right back Alves, by hitting long diagonal passes from right to left, usually from Montelivo, into the space behind Alves for El Sarawy to exploit down the Milan left, and he was extremely instrumental in the Milan victory.
    Similarly, a few weeks ago, in the England-Brazil international at Wembley, it was clear that Brazil left back, Adriano, who plays for Barca, was having a nightmare against Walcott, both in positioning and one against one confrontations. However, in the second half, when he was replaced by the Atletico Madrid left back, Luiz, it was noticeable how much better he was and looked a much better all round full back. It was just a pity that at the same time England replaced Walcott with Lennon, so it was not possible to judge Luiz gainst the player who had given Adriano so much trouble.
    There can be no doubt that Barcelona’s full backs are brilliant when going forward, but sometimes defensively, they display unbelievable weaknesses. To be fair, when Guardiola was coach, he once described their defending as “horrible”; hence the need to defend by ‘tiki taka’ and deny the opponents possession.
    It will be interesting to see if Barca do adopt a slightly more direct approach along the lines which John suggests. I wonder if Guardiola was thinking along those lines when he signed Ibrahimovic, but i don’t recall many diagonal high crosses and he did not work hard enough when Barcelona wanted him to join in the pressing. The change in approach will have to begin in their youth development section but, in the meantime, they will have to scour the transfer market carefully.
    For the return leg with AC Milan, they must get the ball forward quicker, as John suggests, and get their wide players playing ‘out to in’ more than they did in the first leg.They must adopt a high pressing game straight from the kick off and look to get players in behind Milan’s defence regularly. They must play more balls from the back to the front players than they normally do, missing out the ball to Busquets, which they play often and which Milan were ready for in the 1st leg, by getting striker Mazzini to drop back on to him when a Milan attack broke down. This stifled so many Barca attacks before they had even started. This approach from ‘back to front’ is against the Barca mentality, i know, but i think that it may be necessary to rescue the tie.

  4. Hi Steve. It’s going to be a very interesting period viewing the decisions that Barca. make. I just hope that they display the same progressive thinking that has propelled them to such outstanding heights over the past few years. Not only for Barca.will those next steps in their playing style be so important but also for the game of football itself.

  5. Well, after last night’s performance Barca. look to have serious tactical problems; they have not found a way to overcome high-numbered defending. There slow build-up play that could find space against normal defensive line-ups has ‘hit a brick wall’ against more solid defensive units.
    The game against Madrid was a copy of similar games in which they won the possession statistics prize but failed to win the game. Last year after the defeat by Chelsea i wrote a ‘blog’ entitled ‘VARIATIONS-VARIATIONS’ it mentioned the need for Barca to have an exrta ‘ace up their sleeve’ when confronting more defensive formations; they don’t seem to have made the necessary adjustments to their game.
    Yes, they are well ahead of their rivals in La Liga, but even here the are finding teams’ have less desire to come out and play preferring to sit deep and counter-attack. In last night’s match it was painfully obvious that delivery of the ball forward was needed much quicker and with less importance given to perfection all the time. There were ample chances to play passes over or through Madrid’s defence but passes were not given neither were penetrative runs on and off the ball made.
    It was also obvious that Barca., in their obsession with possession are pushing more players forward in an effort to retain the ball. This is fine as long as defensive solidity is not sacrificed. Last night showed a huge malfunction in coordinated attack and defence. In Golf they say, “drive for show, putt for dough”. In football it might be said, “attack with style, but defend for winning results”. At the moment Barca. need to rethink their game-style. I hope they fomulate a style that remains pleasing on the eye and produces ‘silverware’ for their trophy cabinet.

    • Under what conditions should a long diagonal pass be made or not made?

      Let´s start with a simple situation: a winger has space on the flank to control a long upfield diagonal pass out of the defensive end.

      1) Should the first attacker automatically attempt the pass?

      2) Should the first attacker only attempt the pass if the opponent does not have numbers back (with different criteria possible) to defend play following the reception?

      3) Should the winger only make the run and ask for the pass if the opponent does not have numbers back to defend play following the reception?

      Different decision-making criteria lead to different possession styles. How do you want players to evaluate penetrating passing opportunities?

    • Resubmitting a reply I posted on the 27th at 2:48pm, which appears to have disappeared….

      :Under what conditions should a long diagonal pass be made or not made?

      Starting with a simple situation: a winger has space on the flank to control a long upfield diagonal pass out of the defensive end.

      1) Should the first attacker automatically attempt the pass?

      2) Should the first attacker only attempt the pass if the opponent does not have numbers back (with different criteria possible) to defend play following the reception?

      3) Should the winger only make the run and ask for the pass if the opponent does not have numbers back to defend play following the reception?

      Different decision-making criteria lead to different possession styles. How do you want players to evaluate penetrating passing opportunities?

  6. I forgot to mention in the reply i’ve just sent in that the levels 4-5 Premier Skills Coaching Programs already cover the use of longer penetrative passes and diagonal crossing whilst defending is on-going from level 1. It seems we were well ahead of others in recognizing that playing variations and defensive qualities are required in a game that continually changes.

    • I am surprised counterattacking and the passing skills involved are not discussed as part of ¨playing through the thirds¨ in the Level 3 course.

      How often are the level 4 and 5 courses offered? I have never seen them advertised on the Premier Skills website.

      How does your training progression for penetrating passing compare with Horst Wein´s well-documented approach, which also stresses a possession-with-purpose style?

  7. I want to point out that Milan didn’t park the bus like inter or Chelsea, they kept a higher line, exploiting Barca s refusal to dink balls over the top and flooding the midfield. for diagonal cross balls across the opponents penalty area you don’t even need good headers of the ball, just wingers willing to run into the space. Pirlo does this very well for Juve, combining especially well with Lichtsteiner cutting in from the wing. in Xavi and Iniesta, Barcelona have two players who can deliver these balls, they need attackers to make runs in behind occasionally instead of always coming for a pass to feet.
    With Ibrahimovic the theory of using him as a different option was sound, it failed mostly because of Ibrahimovic. ‘s ego, not wanting to do the hard work.

  8. Hi Brazil94…..
    The need for a big,strong target man type striker, is not necessarily because one wants to play an exclusively aerial game, which predominated in England during the 1980s. A good target man, which i think Guardiola had in mind with Ibrahimovic but who,as James Micalleff points out, was a let down largely because of his poor attitude, would enable Barcelona to relieve the pressure put on them in their defensive third, by providing an ‘out’ ball to play to further down the pitch, and, in other words, providing an option to play over the midfield sometimes, instead of always playing through the midfield, which opposing teams are now making it harder and harder for Barcelona to do. By playing up to the striker earlier, Barca would then still use their tiki taka playing method but will have moved the utilisation of this further down the pitch and closer to the enemy goal. There would also, of course, be the option of heading opportunities at the enemy goal from the diagonal crosses which John suggests, but this would be an option and not a total ‘game-change’, as I think Brazil94 seems to fear.
    I am interested that John mentions the alternative playing approaches which are in Levels 4 and 5 of the Premier Skills courses. I have not done those Levels, but I understand that the methodology of playing the ball more quickly from the back line to the strikers, peeling off their markers into spaces or offering themselves as targets to provide knock downs, is referred to as ‘benchmark’. I saw this change in approach put into operation midway through a match earlier this season, by Mick Fletcher’s team in Walthamstow, NE London, and it was very effective.

  9. At the weekend I was watching old footage of england v scotland in 1967.Many exceptional players on the pitch Bobby Moore,Jim Baxter,Gordon Banks amongst them.One thing I noticed was the way Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst linked up.Often with a long ball out of defence either into Hursts body or into space where Hurst could collect the ball.I think thats the kind of longer ball link up play Barca need to look at.Also the type of target man that would make Barca a more complete unit.Hurst gained his ability I believe thanks to hours of hard work on the training pitch under Ron Greenwood.I think English football could still learn a lot from that period of West Ham coaching philosophy.

    As much as I admire the fast 1-2 football that Barca play around their opponents penalty area I find their build up play too slow for my taste.Playing at that speed must make it easy for the opposition to get back behind the ball in numbers.

    When I compare their game style to the Arsenal invincibles at the best and the great Liverpool sides I know which I would rather watch and which is better suite dfor the English mentality as a game style to follow.Looking again at more penetrative styles of play I think of the use of fast player combinations -third man running again that Tony Carr and his staff preach in the development of their academy proteges.There is also the importance of the off the ball running that Liverpools pass and move that helped the anfield club dominate.Looking at old footage of Steve Mcmahon in his pomp breaking the lines to penetrate on a third man run is the type of combination play that I think would improve Barca.If I remember rightly Guardiola is more a believer in possession football-“playing from shape” as opposed to the pass and move style.

  10. The most fascinating aspect is WHAT BARCA ACTUALLY DO NOW? How will they go about rectifying an area that does cause them problems from time to time – in terms of the result.

    Do they persevere with ‘tiki-taka’ in the way we know it, or will they look to adjust? Tinkering or radically or the middle ground? I for one can state that we are from the ‘outside looking in’ – an an English speaking website at that – rather than the ‘inside looking out’..

    Will they see the problem in the same way as John has highlighted or look for alternative answers? Will the blame be apportioned on the missing of Villanova?

    Let’s not forget that BARCA play the game in a totally different way to anyone else; so it will be the degree to which they seek answers.

    There will be the short term of trying to win the second MIlan leg sufficiently, the longer shorter term of next season and then beyond.

    Because they are SO DIFFERENT AND HAVE BEEN SO, SO VERY, VERY GOOD – MARVELLOUS in fact, we must be interested in the evolutionary process or lack of that they Barcelona undertake.

    Spanish eyes might see the scenario TOTALLY DIFFERENTLY.

    However, what John is proposing that FC Barca should contemplate does fully demonstrate that the ‘Premier Skills’ philosophy doesn’t sit still, and is ample evidence that conceptually, and more importantly practically, it is far and away on a different level of thinking than the much older, conservative FA model, that has remained relatively staid for decades.

  11. An interesting and long-held belief in football is that one must ‘earn the right to play the game in an attractive way. Nobody just allows one to play the ‘beautiful game’ —- it has to be earned! Usually physical commitment resulting in a leading score being achieved allows the dominating team to relax and play with more ‘joie de vivre’. Barca. have never approached the game in this way — they have played the game with skilful style from the first whistle! It is a change in playing philosophy more than any massive tactical upheaval that the club and players must now consider.
    Can you just image how successful Barca. could continue to be if they started games with more emphasis on fast penetrative football to overwhelm their opponents and, on achieving control of games’, settle down into their normal playing style. They would be unbeatable in my opinion.
    Any ‘tweaking’ in their game must first be in their minds –they must accept that ‘imperfection’ can create the foundations for the ‘perfect’ game-style they desire.

  12. Hi Brazil94……
    You say that Barcelona play the game totally differently to anyone else, but I don’t think that is actually the case. What they do is play it better than anyone else. In the last 2 – 3 years, Swansea have come close to a similar game style, though of course their players are not of the same high quality.
    The common theme that runs through both Barcelona and Swansea is the realisation that players must be developed and nurtured from their earliest years in the philosophy and development methodology of that club. Like Ajax of 40 plus years ago, Barcelona have everything in place and their best players are always the ones who came through the academy system from the age of nine years. Brendan Rodgers was fortunate at Swansea that he was preceded by good manager/coaches who put high quality development structures in place. Nevertheless, he did brilliantly well to develop the game style in the way that he did, closely relating it to the Barcelona/Ajax model.
    It seemed that Rodgers did well in improving and enlightening established, senior players who had been in the game for some years, and who, you might have thought, would be fixed in the ways of the typical pro and unable to adjust to a different game style. The fact that they did could adjust is a testament to previous coaches, notably Martinez and Sousa, and also reminds me of what the late John Lyall said shortly after he became manager of Ipswich Town, to the effect that the majority of players want to to play the game the right way, if they are given the right instruction and encouragement.
    In my opinion, Rodgers has made things very much more difficult for himself by by taking the job at Liverpool because now he has gone to a much bigger club, with higher expectations, and that usually means less time accorded to the manager/coach to get over his ideas in return for better results and success.
    It is all about being given the right amount of time It has been said that three years should be given to any new coach – one year to introduce the ideas, the second year to see those ideas become consistently visible in the team’s game style, and the third year to achieve success from those methods. If you look at the period at Barcelona after Johann Cruyff stepped in following a number of very poor years and introduced his own coaches who he knew and trusted, namely Rijkaard and Guardiola, then you will see that that three year cycle was fitted into place and Barcelona’s success emanated from it.
    Now that Barcelona’s approach is finally being threatened by opponents who have found ways to counter their brilliance, then the Barca coach must be given time to find the adjustments, as John Cartwright has suggested, and introduced them successfully into his team’s play. Of course, Villanova’s health problems make this much more difficult, but it is to be hoped that time is given for the solutions to be implemented.

  13. It hurts me to say that Barca. must modify their approach to games’. My book was entitled ‘Football for the Brave’ and nobody has been braver than Barca. in playing in the way they have over the past few years. Alas, nothing stays the same, and they must now be even braver and modify their playing style to overcome the defensive trend that they have forced opponents to take. ………… What a great challenge for them.

  14. I Have been watching a recording of the recent Barca. v R. Madrid game. There were nunerous ocassions in the game where passes could have been played over or through the Madrid defence. Too many of these opportunities were missed due to excessive slow ball retension in mid-field by Xavi and Busquets in particular. A few runs were made in behind the Madrid defence — mostly by Pedro or both Barca’s. fullbacks. There must be more penetration off the ball from other players — even Messi !
    It was also painfully obvious that more diagonal crosses into the box must be played as well as more players arriving to finish with foot or head or to pick up on bits and pieces from these situations —at times it looked like a vacant lot.

  15. Hi Sar…..
    You make interesting comments regarding the various situations which exist, or may exist, at the time of making a long diagonal pass.
    In the recent AC Milan – Barcelona Champions’ League tie, it seemed that the Italian side had purposely targeted Barca right back, Alves, no doubt from observations made on their scouting trips. As I mentioned before, the Milan midfielder, Montelivo, hit a number of diagonal passes from right to left over Alves’s head into the space for El Sharawy to run on to. I think that Milan had observed the tendancy for Alves to position ‘square on’ when the ball is on the opposite side of the pitch, thus allowing a direct opponent, like El Sharawy, to get in behind him.. Getting side on, with his shoulders across the pitch, would have helped Alves considerably, but inability to do this, together with often poor positioning, left him exposed on many occasions. It seems strange that a team that works so hard on the attacking side of the game, is found wanting on occasions, in quite basic defensive work.
    Hitting long diagonal balls over the heads of full backs into space, also has the benefit of ‘turning defenders round’ and no defenders like this, even if the full back, like Alves, adopts the correct body shape, it can be effective in this respect on occasions. I think that it is a feature which Barcelona should seriously consider adding to their play in the attempt to adapt their approach as opponents begin to give them more and more problems.

    • Steve, nice observations about Alves body shape and shallow positioning, which suggest he may be ball watching at times. Of course, a savvy defender can deceive by facing one way and watching out of the corner of his eyes …

      Did you notice if Alves´ mark was breaking downfield….

      a) before the pass – which suggests the penetration opportunity is triggered by the off-ball attacker and read by the passer, or

      b) with the wind-up of the passer – which suggests the decision-making process is triggered by the passer and read by the off-ball attacker?

      Also, did these passes consistently lead to a quality scoring chances because few Barca defenders were positioned to disrupt the attacks, or did the attacks fizzle out because the long pass drew too many Barca defenders and killed attacking space?

      One criteria for deciding when to make a penetrating pass is whether the situation created is an advantageous one (limited number of goalside defenders in some sense). Too many English-speaking coaches seem to ignore this consideration. Often the off-ball attacker is better positioned to evaluate the up-field situation than the first attacker is, although it takes practice to do so accurately.

      I am not a big fan of Barca´s defensive system, but I do like how they manage space in the attacking third. Barca attackers delay killing goal front space by not rushing the ball upfield, and then judiciously decide when to play penetrating passes into that space.

      Perhaps these penetration decisions depend too much on Xavi and Busquets´ brains. This might explain the success some opponents have found by limiting play through these two playmakers. It will be interesting to see if Barca asks other players to initiate penetration or if Barca adopts movement patterns to free Xavi and Busquets from markers so they can create more opportunitiies. Perhaps both …

  16. It is very true teams in big games against Barcelona are going to deploy these ultra defensive tactics. Teams have been deploying these tactics now for years against Barca and most of the time their precision play has amounted to a victory. If we look back the times Barca have lost these games it has been because Barca have hit the woodwork, not taken their chances and the opposition GK has made saves from shots that lack their usual Barca accuracy due to the lack of space. However against Milan Barca created nothing!

    2006 CL Final: Barcelona 2-1 Arsenal.
    With a man sent off and a 1-0 lead Arsenal deployed defensive tactics. On this occasion Barca did create and did take the opportunities to make them European Champions, combined with Henry choking in front of goal on the big occasion as usual!

    2007 CL last 16, 2nd leg: Liverpool 0-1 Barcelona (2-2 Agg: Liverpool win on away goals)
    Liverpool showed courage in the first leg to turn the game around with high pressing. But This was a Barca team losing its way under Rijkaard who allowed indiscipline to creep into the team created by Ronaldinho, Deco and Eto’o. Anyway in the 2nd leg it was Barca dominating the ball as usual with Liverpool defending in numbers. Barca did get a late goal created in typical Barca style – But Barca did miss chances and did hit the woodwork.

    2008 CL Semi Final
    1st leg: Barcelona 0-0 Man Utd
    2nd leg: Man Utd 1-0 Barcelona
    Despite Man Utd missing a penalty in the first leg it was again Barca against multiples defenders. The 2nd leg was the same with Scholes punishing a Zambrotta mistake. Again Barca created but did not take their chances!

    2010 CL Semi Final: Barcelona 1-0 Inter Milan (Agg: 2-3 to Inter)
    Inter deployed dirty tactics along with negative tactics. Barca did score a legitimate goal to make it 2-0 on the night and to win on away goals, but the officials made a horrible mistake. Again Barca that night hit the woodwork, missed chances by a whisker.

    The Chelsea game last season and the Celtic game this season followed the same pattern. There have been many many games Barca won when faced by these tactics. The ones they won they managed to take their chances and did not concede lucky goals at the other end.

    The games Barca have failed in against these negative ultra defensive teams, they have only lost by the narrowest of margins with little details being forgotten, such as the oppostiton making finger tip saves, hitting the post etc… These has been prevelant in all of these defeats except for the Milan defeat, where Barca created nothing and did not look themselves.

    I think its also apparent that the form of Dani Alves has somewhat dipped. He has been so important for Barca in the past with his ability to time his run so that Xavi / Inietsta / Busquets can play an aerial diagonal. Alves used to contribute many assists for Messi. Alves used to run at opponents with feints and tricks resulting in a quality final ball.

    Then off course over the last 2 seasons Barca have become dependent on Messi’s goals. The 2009 treble winning season Barca had Eto’o, Henry and Messi scoreing a vast amount. The 2011 double winning season saw Villa, Pedro and Messi share the scoring. Since then Messi has continued to dazzle but Villa suffered a horrific injury and is not used, Pedro was injured last season and seems to only now score for Spain since Euro 2012. Sanchez has not impressed and not chipped in like Eto’o, Henry, Villa and Pedro before him.

    So John I do agree with you to a certain extent but I also disagree because there have been many factors and changes and certain aspects not considered.

    The most apparent thing at the moment for Barca is the absence of Tito Vilanova. The stand in coach appears out of his depth and team look demotivated and making very
    un-Barca like mistakes as a result! Most teams at any level would struggle if the stand in coach is out of his depth!

  17. So far i have watched a recording of the first half only of Real Madrid – Barcelona, La Liga match, played yesterday, but from viewing those 45 minutes it appears that Barcelona’s problems continue. Overly slow build up play and long spells of keep-ball passing without achieving, or even seeking, penetration. From the part of the match which i have watched, there was one instance of brilliance – the Barcelona goal, a great piece of play which we associate with Barcelona. Messi made a great run, bending his run and timing it just right to stay onside and break the Madrid line, for a pass which completely split their defence. That’s what we expect from Barca, but are seeing it all too infrequently at the moment. I notice that SAR and Dav have also drawn attention to the poor defensive play of Alves, and yesterday he was again at fault with the first Madrid goal, when he failed to put sufficient pressure on the player who crossed into the Barca box for Benzema to put Real ahead.
    I think that these defensive lapses which are being highlighted in Barcelona’s play at the moment, have perhaps always been there, but the way they have completely dominated possession has helped to hide them until their recent problems. The possession stats are still heavily in their favour, but the lack of penetration is rendering this aspect of their game almost meaningless.
    Barcelona seem to be playing in static triangles, where they keep possession but the ball is just played from one player to another without the third man run being made, or even a one-two. I have read that when Brendan Rodgers took over at Swansea, he put into operation what he had seen in Holland, that is setting his team up in a 4 – 3 – 3 formation, but the players dispersed so that there are 7 lines. This is something that Van Gaal has always introduced when coaching a new team and, as I understand it, it basically draws a line at the keeper, 2 centre backs, pivot (i.e. holding midfielder),2 wing backs, 2 working midfielders, 2 ‘out to in’ wingers, and the centre forward – so that makes 7 lines. The Dutch belief, (and everything at Barcelona has its origins in the Dutch influence), is that the more lines you have in a team, the greater number will be the passing angles and passing opportunities. If you write down on the paper the 4 -3 -3 system (plus keeper) as i have outlined it, then if you join up the various positions you get 12 triangles. Like the old Ajax of 40 plus years ago, (and the one in the nineties when Van Gaal was the coach), Barcelona have used this framework and i understand it to be the basis of their play. What i am thinking is that those triangles are still there, but they are now static and without movement, nothing happens.
    I would be interested in hearing what anyone else thinks, and also what your understaning of the ‘7 lines’ is and how you go about coaching it. I also understand that Brendan Rodgers learnt this method when he was a youth coach at Chelsea during Mourinho’s time there.

  18. Steve, I do not understand your comment, attributed to the Dutch, that passing options and angles improve as players form more horizontal lines.

    If I take a 4-3-3 and arrange the players in 6 lines (2-1-2-2-2-1), 5 lines (2-3-3-2-1), 4 lines (2-3-2-3), or 3 lines (4-3-3), the players form 12 passing triangles in each case. Each ‘position’ also has the same number of support pass ‘spokes’ in each case (eg. 6 options for the holding/defensive mid, 5 for each working/attacking mid).

    What does change are pass angles and lengths. The 6 line arrangement provides the worst interior passing angles for the midfielders – the holding mid trying to pass to the attacking mids located two lines further upfield and an attacking mid trying to pass to the center striker located two lines further upfield. In these situations a ball defender positioned to stop dribble penetration toward goal also blocks off more of the forward passing lanes through the central channel than he would defending the same attacker in an attrangement with fewer lines.

    What am I missing? Are some other rules applied which define worthwhile passing options? Is this kind of static analysis useful when attackers re-position to get out of the ball defender’s shadow?

    (As for Alves’s play, I do not pin Barca’s shortcomings on his misplays. He may be making sound defensive plays 95% of the time for all I know. When a Barca fullback gets beat out wide, where are supporting defenders–the adjoining center back and recovering midfielders? Why aren’t the strikers having more success delaying the opposition build-up? Why does Barca ask its fullbacks to cover so much ground transitioning between attack and defense? Are both center backs ailing as one Barca poster claims … and team mates struggling to compensate for their reduced mobility??)

    Sorry for the long reply – trying to clear up any misunderstandings.

  19. Hi SAR……
    I’m sorry but I don’t think that I have explained the ‘7 lines’ very well, as I understand it.Louis van Gaal said that he wanted as many lines as possible because you then occupy as much of the field as possible.You can make more than seven lines by movement in midfield but 7 is what you get by the disposition of:- 1st line – keeper, 2nd line – 2 centre backs, 3rd line – pivot (holding midfielder), 4th line – 2 wing backs, 5th line – 2 attacking midfielders, 6th line – wingers (‘out to in’), 7th line – striker.He favoured the 4-3-3 system, with a triangle in midfield, and this is how he, and Cruyff before him, had all the junior teams playing at Ajax. Barcelona have , in turn, adopted this structure in all their development teams, as well as the first team. With 4-4-2, used for so long in England, you have fewer lines. When the players are staggered along the lines as I explained previously, then you get more passing lines and create 12 triangles. In this set-up, a player should always have at least two options available to him for a short pass. So when a player receives the ball, he should always have at least two options for an ‘out’ pass.
    The key to it all, of course, is fluidity and movement. When you see lower grades of football in England, and even in higher grades, and it is two banks of four across defence and midfield, then there are no diagonal passes on and you get constant passing and running on vertical lines As John Cartwright has often said, “straight line running/passing equals straight line thinking”.
    I feel that Barcelona’s present problems revolve around the triangular passing and running movements losing their effect by opposition stifling tactics and, as John Cartwright outlines, they must adapt by speeding up their play, advancing he ball downfield earlier and incorporating longer range passes into their play. But the structure and methodology remains the same.

  20. The priority for Barca. is to get players willing to make runs of all types behind oppsing defences. Once this is happening the players on the ball have no excuse in playing over-possession football. Messi scored a terrific goal against Madrid in the last game; he made the run and the ball was played. As i have said in an earlier reply, Messi must show more inclination to break in behind defences. Along with him they must use Sanchez more as he is prepared to make these runs. Pedro, Villa and also Inesta make more breaks behind —–AND THE ‘DELIVERERS’ MUST DELIVER MORE QUICKLY AND MORE OFTEN !

  21. Steve, my ´6 line´ arrrangement, which does NOT include the keeper, is identical to your ´7 line´ arrangement which does include the keeper. I omitted the keeper because his position is the same in all arrangements of the 4-3-3. Sorry if this confused you.

    As for the 4-42, there are also many different ways to arrange players into lines. For example, a bowl-shaped back line (fullbacks ahead of the CBs) with a diamond midfield can be arranged as a K-2-1-2-2-1-2 (CBs, HM, FBs, Wingers/Mids, AttackMid, Strikers), which produces 7 lines incl. Keeper. This arrangement forms 11 passing triangles by my count, but what matters most – as you hint – are the passing options offered to the ball carrier. With attackers moving to provide new attacking options, I do not think a 4-4-2 is inherently inferior to a 4-3-3 because the static version offers one less passing triangle. Indeed the twin striker arrangement of a 4-4-2 provides more space for overlapping fullbacks or mids than you would have in a 4-3-3.

  22. The problem of increasing the ‘lines’ of different systems of play means that there is a increase of space as the system becomes ‘slimmer’ . These types of system require quality players to play a highly rotational game-style offensively and defensively. 4-4-2 has dominated our playing method because it ‘fills’ the space on the field and satisfies the limited playing qualities of our players.
    Barca. have relied on a ‘medium thick’ system 4-3-3, Their players have the quality to rotate back and forward without vacating too much space defensively whilst being able to attack with more players.
    In the end the decision on a playing system and the success it achieves is dependant on the quality of coaching and of the players.

  23. I realise that the prime function of Premier Skills is to raise playing standards by introducing better coaching and development standards among young players. We have failed in this objective for so many years now in England. We can also get bogged down in the realm of tactics with comparisons as to the relative merits or weaknesses of various tactical formations. However, I recall 13 years ago, at a Euro2000 match, England-Portugal, in Eindhoven, that England took an early two goal lead. England looked set for a comfortasble win against the talented Portuguese but, in fact, lost 2-3. Quite simply, England never changed their shape from their conventional 4-4-2 which meant that the middle 2 were outnumbered by Portugal’s 3 in the central area. Portugal gradually took a stranglehold over the game and won quite comfortably in the end. Nobody on the England bench recognised the problem because 4-4-2 was deemed the ‘only’ way to play.
    Even now, in lower grades, at least, 4-4-2 is the prevailing system and even at top level our players, as opposed to the foreign imports, seem to have difficulty in adapting properly during a match to counter-act the opponents’ shape and structure.
    This was clearly illustrated the other night, when Real Madrid reacted immediately and positively to Nani’s sending off with a substitution and positional switching, to take advantage of the 11 v. 10 situation. Manchester United allowed their emotions to get the better of them and when they did react, the damage had been done and they were out.

  24. After seeing England fail to ‘thicken’ the midfield against Italy in the EUROS 2012 – and criticised on Al J Sports for not doing so by Hoddle and Venables – Ferguson will have noted Rooney’s inability to tighten up on Pirlo, so perhaps he decided that he could not trust this ‘world class player!!’ to do a job tactically on Xavi Alonso, thus opting for Wellbeck.

  25. I understand now that Ferguson has confirmed as much…BUT why didn’t the wonderfully intelligent British Press pick up on this Tuesday.

    However; the bigger question is why the superstar couldn’t do this job so well and if Fergie picked it, what on earth were England doing against Italy at the EUROS?

  26. In my opinion, last Tuesday Manchester United got their tactics spot on until Nani’s red card. Giggs and Nani out wide did effective double marking jobs on Di Maria and Ronaldo, as well as keeping an eye on Real’s overlapping full backs. Welbeck got close to Alonso every time a Manchester United attack broke down, and this effectively cut the supply to the midfield and forwards.
    Nani’s red card changed the whole tie. Mourinho acted instantly, by removing a full back and putting on a creative midfielder, Modric. He also shuffled other players around, with Khedira to right back, where there was now more space, and it temporarily distracted Welbeck from his marking job on Alonso. As I said before, Man Utd lost their focus through the emotions which were transmitted from their bench to the pitch. It’s at moments like that when a cold, observant, analytical eye is required, but by the time Man Utd had observed what Mourinho had done, it was too late.
    I recall John Lyall saying that Ron Greenwood had always stressed to him, not to take his eye off the match for one moment, because it is in that moment that a game can change. I notice that some managers often celebrate with their players when a goal is scored, but those seconds can be crucial for concentration, because often the opposition manager makes crucial tactical adjustments in an attempt to pull the goal back. If the manager of the team who has just scored does not see those changes and make swift counter-adjustments himself in response, then their advantage can be shortlived. I recall at Euro2008, in the 1/4 final, Croatia played Turkey and in stoppage time Croatia took the lead. It looked like the winner and their coach, Slaven Bilic, celebrated wildly with his players on the touchline. But, unknown to him, the Turkish coach was switching players around and from the kick off Turkey went straight down to the other end and equalised. Bilic was helpless because he completely failed to observe the Turkish tactical switching. Turkey proceded to win the penalty shoot out and reach the semi finals.

  27. Hi all. Well Barca. ‘came out of the traps’ against AC Milan and combined their game of possession play with more speed, varying types of penetration, crosses and shots from outside the box, plus there was more zest in their desire to regain lost possession quickly…. oh, and of course there was Messi !
    There is little doubt in my mind that Barca. hold a huge influence over the game and that teams’ have limited ability to overcome them when they utilize ALL their playing potential. However, there are two scenarios that can still cause Barca, some concern — a poor playing surface — a minimum sized pitch. Knowing football as i do, the search for a winning result can turn the gentlest of souls into scheming rogues. Are Barca. prepared for the next attempt to disrupt their unique playing style?

  28. Hi John.
    I understand that when George Graham was manager of Arsenal, he arranged for the Highbury pitch to be the minimum permissable length and width, as an aid to their vigorous, closing down approach.
    Nowadays, even clubs in the lower divisions have much better playing surfaces than they used to have, but at one time, when a first division team was playing away at a fourth division ground, then it it used to be said that the pitch would be a “great leveller”. Consequently, you frequently got famous ‘giant killing’ results, although this was often because the lower division team played played much better than normal. I do remember, however, George Best once scoring six goals for Manchester United at Northampton in ankle-deep mud in the driving rain.
    Class usually tells in the end and Barcelona’s adaptation and adjustment in approach, resulting in the hammering of AC Milan, hopefully keeps then at the top of the world game for many more years to come.

  29. Hi i have a few compents and a question at the end about these suggestions, it would be great to here any of your views on the subject. Thanks.

    I think its clear that more methods of attack are great as they 1) they allow a attack strategy that can punish the defensive strategy of the oponent, and 2) if the team is able to attack in different ways with the same personal the oposition, constantly have to re-evaluate how the best way to defend the present attacking method, creating potential errors. I think 2 is the big one really. If we take the example of your striker, there has been the suggestion of the target man, but if having the target man with arial ability, but little pace, ment no messi dropping into midfield of running behind the defenders, then surely the oposition could simply push the defensive line up. safe in the knoledge that the high line would deny the the oposition heading oportunities and not worrying about the pace of the slower player. If you have both pace, arial ability, and can drop into the midfield to create a midfield superiority then this is surely very hard to defend against.

    Saying that barca need different strategies, is all well and good if there was one mind controlling the whole team, or some sort of telepathy when everyone knew what everyone else was goin to do. But this isnt the case. What if some players start to initiate one strategy, and others do another one. The result could lead to a lack of defensive or agressive cohesion. Surely one of the great strengths of barca is as everyone in the team knows the strategy everyone else is playing they are able to predict very well what the other players in the team are goin to do. It seems to me that it would be very hard to attain the cohesion that barca do if there where many different attacking strategies. Its like on the defensive transition, do you press and deny the oposition controll, or do you deny them space. If all the players arn’t on the same page then you will get space opening up without enough pressure being put on the oposition. Now barca dont just press in defence they use the 6/5 second rule highlighted here, if you are interested,
    where they press for 6 seconds or untill the oposition has passed 3 times with energy after the ball is lost, and then retreat to deny space if this fails. This is an easy and clear instruction that means all the players know what all the other players are goin to do. There are fixed rulles for when to re-initiate a press, so it is easy for everyone to understand what everyone else is goin to do.

    So finally my question is the following, how do you suggest you create a set of rules within the team so that they know when a direct or more patient style of offense is best? how do you decide if its best to apon gaining possession quickly passing the ball to an advanced player to take advantage of the defensive disorganisation of the oponent, or instead regaining controll completely and gettin the whole team in the position to attack effectively.

  30. Hi Simon. the answer to your question is …………. REALISTIC PRACTICE ! Barca’s. players have developed through a gradual learning process that continues unabated into first team status ————-THEY PRACTICE HOW THEY PLAY AND THEY PLAY HOW THEY PRACTICE.
    Read GUARDIOLA’S Biography …. it’s a real eye opener when set against the kind of practice and playing standards here.

    • Thanks for the quick response! I can see that realisitic practice would help build an intuition between players, but i think my meaning in my question was prehaps unclear. I guess what I am interested in is the decision making process, and if the act of making the decsion actually might not be beneficial. For instance if you take real madrid, a team very good at taking advantage of transitions in play and counter-attacking, or barcelona with their more patient build up play, clearly each have their own benefits and flaws. But the advantage of playing by either strategy is all the players are on the same page. When madrid get the ball i imagine they are all thinking about the counter, and how to damadge the oponents position. If they had to decide int he transition weather to do this or say barca’s strategy that choice in each players head could do three things, 1) the team could make the wrong choice, 2) Different members of the team could make different choices based on their own intuition, causing a lack of cohesion creating offensive and defensive problems, 3) the act of the descision process would waste time potentially leading to the moment to counter to be lost.

      In order to stop this the players have to be able to quickly make the correct choice, and implement it. And in order to make this choice the criteria for the different choices must be easily identified by everyone. This is why I like the 6 second rule, it allows barca to change between the pressing and denying space defensive systems as a group. 6 seconds wont always be the ideal amount of time but it creates unity between the players, rather than a set of individuals. In order for offensive system to change fluidly between different strategies and maintain unity between all the players a similar set of easily understandable rules need to be in place. I guess I am wondering what these rules would be… The simpler the better really, you want to confuse your oponent, not your own team.

      I do believe pratice gives a greater understanding of your fellow players, allowing prediction of what they will do. But these understandings take a very long time to produce, and it is comon that groups of players in a team create a partnership rather than the team as a whole, think how well centre backs work together, or strikers in a 442, or maybe 3 midfielders. But is quite uncomon for a whole team to have that level of cohesion with all the other players on the pitch. And personally I think it can only be achieved if all the players understand a set of rules that decide what all the other players are likely to do. Individual moments where the rules are broken are fine as it is easy to tolerate small changes to an expected strategy.

      I seem to have gone on a rant, without meaning to!

      Thanks again for the quick reply

  31. Hi Simon. I don’t know if you have ever played the game to any level but you are missing the point of practise. A club will have a style of play that is stipulated by the type of players available and how the Manager/Coach feels is the best way for the team to play. The better the players available allows more tactical fluidity to be introduced into specific games as required.
    Of course a pre-practised playing tactic may not work as well as intended but the decisions to play in a certain way would have been formulated in training and rehearsed by the players prior to a game and used during it. As i said in my earlier reply; PRACTICE HOW YOU INTEND TO PLAY AND PLAY HOW YOU HAVE PRACTISED.

    • As I understand it, Guardiola’s philosophy is to dominate games by possession. They do not rely on counter attacks to create chances to score goals. The opposition coach can often see what will happen seconds before the Barcelona attacking thrust comes, but because of the movement and understanding displayed by the Barca players, they are powerless to prevent it.
      On the other hand, Mourinho sets up his teams to hit the oppsoition on the counter attack. He is happy to allow the opponents to have the lions’ share of possession, but makes sure that his players remain firmly positionalised. When they regain the ball then Mourinho plans for his team to strike swiftly at momentary weaknesses in the other teams’ armoury.

      • So do you think its possible to create a team that can seemlessly blend these two styles effectively? You could definately in theory teach a team to play in both ways, and they could decide to play one game with one strategy and a different game with another. But is it possible to teach the players when possession, or a more direct approach is best in the split second, and have everyone in the team respond apropriately? Is it possible to press like barca but still have players in the position to counter-attack effectively? How do you create football brains in the players that evaluate what to do effectively, rather than just teaching how to play each strategy individually?

    • I am probably looking at this from too much of a theoretical rather than practical view point! I guess I find how groups of people interact in order to maximise their efforts quite interesting. I wasnt trying to suggest pre-set routines or anything like that just that although player intuition can be built with practice it can also be guided with a set of rules everyone knows to look for. Like is their space between the midfield and defence, is their space behind the defence etc. Is their a way to decide which tatic to employ that all the players can react to and agree on in any moment of time.

      Obviosly all sports cannot be a purely intelectual activity, the players need to have built up an intuitive understanding of how their team operates. And clearly practice how you play is vital in this. I guess i was hoping for some queues the players could understand, and in this way aid how quickly they reach an intuitive understanding on how and when to employ each strategy.

      Most of my sporting experience comes from martial arts, and i think all sports have many parallels. Like football their are different strategies you can employ to defeat an oponent. Many people will stick to a set strategy because they are good at it or because their oponent finds it difficuilt. But the real skill comes from someone who can change their strategy on the fly to defeat the oponent. This fluidity of strategy is very diffcuilt to produce, as the time constraints on reaching a descision on what to do are so small. simple cues need to be understood intuitively. In football their is more time for these descisions to be made by the player, but there is the added complication that all the other players dont telepathicly know what everyone else is doing. I guess im interested in how individuals and teams decide which strategy is best.

      I keep meaning to write short responses but they end up long!

  32. Hi Simon. Team sports’ require a collective learning approach through practise. The importance of developing high quality individuals from day one is of paramount importance as each individual player must learn to combine with others when necessary as competition levels rise with age and ability. Forging individual playing ability into a team style that supports playing variations is what high quality coaching is all about.

  33. Hi Simon…
    The Premier Skills coaching methodology begins with individualism on its Level 1 Course. As the players develop as individuals then they are are shown/coached how to conjoin as a team. In England so many young players, even in the youngest age groups, are taken straight into the team elements. This is because we are suspicious of individualism in this country. We think that everyone must conform to the ‘needs of the team’ from day one.
    This has had disastrous consequences for our game and, unfortunately, the FA Coaching Scheme has failed to arrest this trend. In fact, the National Association has been at the forefront of ideas which have their roots in conformity.
    Premier Skills is the first organistion to face up to this challenge, and John Cartwright has developed a coaching scheme which is an approach of what his own coaching career has produced over many years. Even if your own roots in sports coaching lie in activities other than football, I feel that you if you attended a Level 1 Premier Skills course, then you would find the mothodology and ideas interesting and perhaps relative to your own field of martial arts.

    • Thanks for all the replies. I just wanted to also say i do totally agree witht he message on this sight. It very important i think to create well rounded players skilled in many different areas of the game. Players who also have a good understanding of how the game works and evolves. Although my question was on team organisation and playing philosophy I did not mean to imply that this was the most important aspect to coaching. I guess i just find the fusion of different styles of play quite interesting. And i do think when you do try combine 2 different ways of playing can be very constructive if done well, but also lead to a confused team that is unable to use either strategy effectively.

      As to the premier skills course i do not doubt i would enjoy it, maybe i’ll think about doing it some time.

  34. Looking at Barcelona’s La Liga match against Rayo Vallecano at the weekend, following on from their superb performance against AC Milan in midweek in the Champions League, it provided more evidence of Barca tweaking their approach. More longer passes, delivered in behind the opponents’ defence and played more quickly. So it now seems that Sanchis and Villa are coming into their own, because they are quick and are constantly looking for those balls delivered into the space at the back of the opponents’ defence.
    It was not long ago that I read that both Villa and Sanchis were likely to to leave in the summer, and mention was made that because they had not come through Barcelona’s academy, then they could never be ‘real’ Barcelona players. But I cannot imagine now that they will be sold on and it just shows that a coach, when he finds it necessary to alter or adapt his approach, due to the prevailing situation, can often find remedies in previously unlikely areas.

  35. Hi Steve. As i have said before, we at Premier Skills are ahead of Barca. for we have the necessary variations already in our coaching programs. As players develop through the levels there awaits them, as they enter more senior playing requirements, all the variations for each part of a team to use……… we are ahead of the game when it comes to calculated development needs over the discernable future.

  36. Over the Easter weekend, Eurosport have shown the semi finals and final of the NextGen Tournament, a kind of Under 19s version of the UEFA Champions League.
    From an English point of view, it may have appeared gratifying to see that the four semi finalists were made up of three English teams – Chelsea, Arsenal and Aston Villa – plus Sporting Lisbon. Moreover, the final was between Aston Villa and Chelsea, with Villa running out 2-0 winners.
    However, before we get too excited about the possibility of a new dawn emerging in English football, we should note that both Arsenal and Chelsea were represented by a considerable number of foreign-born players. The vital early years’ development had already been done at clubs overseas by foreign coaches and, of course, these players will never pull on the three lions shirt. But it is worth noting that Aston Villa were made up of mainly English players, with centre forward Robinson, in particular, catching the eye. He made many intelligent runs, worked tirelessly and was techncally skillful and tactically aware. In their semi final against Sporting Lisbon, the Portuguese were superior in skill but Villa displayed a doggedness and, together with superior mental strength,deservedly came out on top. In the final they were superior to a disappointing Chelsea in all departments.
    When you consider that, despite a difficult season, Aston Villa have promoted many young players to their first team, then this club deserves a lot of credit in developing local, English talent. Of course, these young players are only on the first rung of the football ladder and there is a long road stretching out in front of them, but the Aston Villa coaching and recruitment staff appear to be doing a good job.

  37. During the Eurosport commentary on Monday of the NextGen Final between Chelsea and Aston Villa, Stewart Robson made an observation which is relevant to John Cartwright’s article on the need for Barcelona to adapt their game style in view of their opponents setting them more problems. Stewart Robson criticised Chelsea for attempting to play out from the back even when Aston Villa were exerting high pressure on them and this, together with a bumpy pitch, was leading to the Blues putting themselves in trouble. He said that Chelsea should play beyond the pressure by passing the ball furhter upfield, with longer passes away from the pressuring Villa players. This would give the Villa players more problems by turning them round, especially with the use of longer, diagonal passes. Perhaps this lack of tactical understanding of our players, whereby they are not confident in making their own tactical decisions according to the ebb and flow of the match, is something that is holding back the development of our young talent.

  38. I have just finished reading a truly excellent book — THE GOLD MINE EFFECT by Rasmus Ankersen. It has verified the beliefs i have always had regarding player development. It has also underlined the important principles of Street Football —- the basis of Premier Skills football methodology.
    The poor content and presentation of so much of our development methods used today is clearly exposed in the book when compared with examples of the methods used in ‘The Gold Mine’ areas of sporting excellence around the world.
    The ‘Academics’ who now control the teaching of the game here should read this book and then throw their over-complicated and unrealistic ideas out of the window.

  39. I have been interested to read that the FA have introduced a ‘retreat line’ into the youngest age groups of mini soccer for next season. When the ball goes out of play for a goal kick, the team which has just attacked has to retreat back to the half way line before the ball is put back into the play. The defending team, taking the goal kick, is therefore encouraged to play the ball out from the back more constructively than using the biggest, strongest player with the hardest kick to send the ball as far as possible downfield.
    I was wondering if anyone had used this or a similar method and what has been the improvements or otherwise? Perhaps the team, having retreated to the halfway line, swarm forward like flies on their opponents’ first pass, preventing any improvement in constructive play. Perhaps setting a limit of, say, just two players to advance forward on the first pass will prevent this Of course, no such restrictions were imposed in the days of street football, which I realise Premier skills is trying to resurrect Anyway, when I get hold of it, I shall read the book which John mentions with intetrest.

  40. The GOLD MINE EFFECT John raves about is worth a rave as it is outstanding. On page 87 Ankersen writes I relation to the Brazilian football developed in the favelas that ‘the top players
    we see today in the major international football arenas were not trained in an established system ; they are direct products of unorganised football on the streets.’ I have long argued that whilst PREMIER SKILLS correctly cites ‘street football’ as the catalyst for true technical development, it does not allow for players under its aegis to practice ” ON THEIR OWN” page 87]…An adult coach is always present in the guise of a coach…no one has been forthcoming about why this ‘practically’ is NOT INCORPORATED as part of the process… ‘to let the kids play’…Surely to take PREMIER SKILLS to the next level, real ‘street football’ is an essential part of the syllabus… once the players understand and buy into the concept of ‘staying with the ball’ and combining with others when necessary… Then as part of each session – and quite lengthy – let them play with freedom and NOT COACH AT ALL.

    Because after all that is what ‘street football’ or ‘favela football’ is all about…it is football without adults…

    • Hi Brazil94…..
      I do not believe that the Premier Skills methodology negates the use of a coach. Also, street football, as it existed in Britain until a few years after the Second World War, did not necessarily preclude adults, or at least older players. I once heard Ron Greenwood say that there have always been coaches in football, because in the early days the coaches were senior players on the field of play, passing on information to the younger players and helping them through the game. As the game became faster, it was more and more difficult to ‘coach in the game’ in this way, and so coaching became an off-game activity and a specialist job. I have been interested to read criticism recently, from various sources, concerning the disappearnce of Reserve Team football in favour of Development Squad Under 21 teams.It has been observed that young players are not benefitting from playing alongside, and against, experienced senior players as they used to and I recall from years gone by, that most clubs used to keep older players on their books longer, even when their 1st team days were over, so that they could help younger players along in Reserve Team matches.

      • Hello Steve

        Can you tell me why any organised coaching cannot include favela type conditions without adults – SOME OF THE TIME – or is it so important in your view coaches are always involved! I cannot buy the totality of that. In fact from what I can make out ‘every’ coaching programme by definition including the F A structure must have coach involvement. When ever I was playing as a youngster with my friends most of the time no adult was anywhere in attendance. What about you?

        But I tell you what you and others are not convinced, I don’t care because I can give players I coach street football ‘FREEDOM’ even if just for shortish time frames.

  41. Hi Brazil94….
    Of course, children can play games free from any adult supervision, but unfortunately the conditions which existed years ago are no longer there, and therefore they do not acquire many of the benefits which accrued from street footbal, namely playing in tight areas, constant necessity to protect the ball and continuously look for the smallest areas of space to turn into or manipulate the ball into etc. The Premier Skills methodology provides the means to practise and develop these tecnical skills in the same way in which it was built up in the days of street football. If children develop this ability from the earliest years then when they play with their friends in an unsupervised situation, then they will play in little corners of playgrounds, gardens and suchlike, where perhaps they would not have,done previously, and the technical development will continue even in the absence of the coach or any other form of adult supervision.

  42. There are some breathtaking examples of developing sporting excellence in “The Goldmine Effect” by Rasmus Ankersen. It is clear that in all activities, whether sporting,cultural or otherwise, there is no substitute for constant practice from the earliest age. Just as importantly, the book shows that it is not a question of throwing money at the problem. Are the FA going to get value for the millions they have spent on St. George’s Park? Not if the lesson Ankersen cites in his book of the running school in Kenya, which began on little more than an unlit, stoney dirt area. Similarly, the favellas in Brazil are little more than tight concrete areas where kids play football for hours, developing the ability to play under pressure with little space. Those facilities are still little different now from when they started. What is important is that they are run by people who have the vision and foresight to be clear on what is required and what they are trying to achieve.
    Even in this country, I feel there are examples of good work, but is our ruling body really exploiting it as sufficiently as they could? I am thinking of the Senrab Football Club in East London. In recent years they have produced a number of players who have gone on to have successful professional careeers, such as Ashley Cole, John Terry and Sol Campbell. Then there is the Wallsend Boys Club in the North East of England who provided Bobby and Jack Charlton, and possibly more players before them.Their output of players into the professional game continues right up to the present day with Michael Carrick at least.
    I have no personal experience of either of these two clubs, but their output of players into the professional game is clearly not a coincidence. The North East has always been a producer of players in England since the game began. Similarly, Senrab must be attracting raw talent from areas of Inner City London and providing it to the pro game. If such places were dotted around the country, together with a relevant and well thought through coaching methodology, such as Premier Skills, then there would be no need for the vast areas of outdoor and indoor pitches that there are at Burton and at a fraction of the cost.
    Also worthy of note is the work done at the Youth Academy of MK Dons, which has been highlighted on this blog recently. Again, a simple concept of developing the ability of young players to play in tight areas under pressure, presenting them with various problems with regard to player numbers, over-loading, under-loading etc. No rocket science, but a gradual development of young players in a relevant, structured manner. The FA have actually highlighted the MK Dons approach in the latest issue of their coaching magazine – ‘The Boot Room’. Would it not be a simple task for them to roll out this type of approach throughout the country at centres in every region? It would be quite easy to introduce the methodology through their courses and this would fit in quite easily with the Premier Skills approach as well.
    The trouble is that the FA try to take ideas from so many different sources that it all becomes a mish mash and you get so many different ideas being pursued by so many different coaches. I think that from grass routes to the highest professional level, you do not get a common theme running through our coaching and that is why we stumble on. Then we get a huge structure like St. George’s being built, as if this were the answer to all problems, but all it represents is another unnecessary massive debt – like Wembley.

  43. After the champions league results its looks like the german’s have taken what the spanish do and inproved on it just like john cartwright talks about in his post on playing variations

    They can play possession football just as well as barcelona & real madrid but they can all so score in the air on the counter attack and play in behind the defence something barcelona are vary bad at

    The germans have evolved Total football and are moving it towards perfect football lets hope the people in charge of the england setup are watching and learning from the germans

  44. Hi tony99….
    As you indicate, the German thoroughness in dealing with problems within their game is a lesson to everyone, particularly in England. But I fear that we lack the courage and drive to tackle problems head on, in the way that the Germans do. The thing about the Germans is that even when their game is going through a dismal period, in terms of low quality playing standards and development as it was in 2002, they still reached the World Cup Final that year, with what I recall was an extremely ordinary team. Their team which reached the World Cup Final in 1982, and lost to Italy, was just as ordinary and the one that won it in 1990 was far from brilliant, defensively very efficient but low in creative quality.
    I recall an interview with the very experienced German Coach, Dettmar Cramer, a few days before the final of Italia90, where he was a FIFA technical observer, and on being asked how did Germany so often reach the final stages of international tournaments, he replied simply: “The secret of German success is discipline”.
    When the Germans have a problem they take whatever steps, however extreme,which are required to cure it. But we just rearrange things round the edges, with a mish mash of new ideas, but not a complete and wholesale reorganisation.
    Over the course of the last three years, that this blog has been in operation, there have been numerous suggestions and imaginative remedies put forward, principally by John Cartwright, and the posted comments are evidence of the increasing number of people who concur with these views. Were this situation to have been in the German environment, then it is my belief that these suggestions would have been acted upon instantly, but because we are not then we just stumble along in the way in which we always have and committees of octogenarians and well-meaning, but limited, amateurs, set the course of English football.

  45. Coaching’s about ‘leadership’ — knowing what’s to be done and being steadfast on how to do it; introducing ideas and elaborating on them creatively ; guiding development towards positive achievement ; gaining respect and confidence from players.
    The problem with the street player was not a lack of playing ability, but of total game understanding on how to use the skills productively. Players’ must be allowed to practice , make mistakes and learn from them. However, although the street game allowed all of this, too often mistakes were not recognized nor understood and became an integral part of a players style. It is here that coaching becomes a decisive element in the learning cycle, for it is here that the good coach can step in and show what needs to be done.
    Faults can be eliminated at an early stage allowing for a smoother and less faulty development future for players as they move up through more difficult playing levels.
    Premier Skills practice method provides the necessary combinations of type of practice–the space to practice in– and the gradual development forward towards a pre-determined playing vision.
    Remember, what is taught and learned at 6-7 years of age is the foundation of what is played at 20+ years of age !!

  46. Hi John…..
    The session which I saw you take at Crystal Palace FC Academy last week bears out what you have just stated. In common with so many other young players in this country, the boys were so anxious to part with the ball at first, but gradually they became more confident at staying with the ball and trying to do something clever and imaginative.
    The playing area was divided into thirds and the players had to work their way up and down the pitch, keeping possession, but in a positive manner. A line of cones were placed down the centre, to encourage diagonal movement by cutting across the pitch. Overloads, body shape and adjustment of the feet were emphasised and coached. To begin with the players used their hands before the ball was put on the floor for using their feet.
    So the players were developing playing ability and increasing their game understanding. I can well imagine the conditions and environment in which Messi developed as a player. In Argentina, he played for hours and hours in tight, cramped areas with friends where his phenomenal playing ability developed. When he went to Barcelona, they were careful not to take anything away from this brilliant talent which had been developed in ‘natural’ (street-type) conditions, but now carefully developed his game understanding. It has been said that it was not what Barcelona did for Messi, but what they DID NOT do, i.e. they were careful not to take anything away from his playing ability from poor, functional coaching, (which could well have happened if he had come to an English club), but carefully developed his game understanding.
    What we must do in England, by the Premier Skills methodology, is to develop both the playing ability and the game understanding, and the wortk at Crystal Palace showed that this is clearly possible.

  47. Hi Steve. Can you imagine what playing quality could be produced from the talent we have here ?
    FA coaching methods restricts learning and doesn’t expand it towards individual and team brilliance.

  48. It will be interesting to see what Guardiola does with the Bayern team when he takes over next month. They look a particularly strong, all-round squad who are proficient in both attack and defence.
    I thought that Guardiola might introduce a little more ‘possession patience’ into their tactical qualities as at times they seen to ‘force’ situations in the front third when in fact the ball could be transferred quickly to less congested areas.
    The clever part will be to maintain penetration when it is available and not get fixated with possession statistics…….. in the end it’s goals that count !

  49. I agree with John that it will be interesting to see how Guardiola approaches the job at Bayern. Because the German way is to play a fairly direct way then I think that we should see a more ‘positive possession’ style than was the case for much of last season at Barcelona. When watching the Bundesliga highlights programme each week on ITV4, you can see that many goals come from crosses and their fans clearly like the goalmouth action which is typical of the English game. But there is much more playing quality and, of course, their young player development is much superior than our own. So while I expect to see Bayern improve in terms of ‘possession patience’, I would expect this to be ‘positive possession’.
    Perhaps Guardiola’s biggest problem could be ‘Bayern arrogance’ which has seen them sometimes fail to fulfil their full potential in the past.

    • Hi Steve. I fully agree that ‘Bayern arrogance’ could be a vital issue for Guardiola next season. He is going to have to ‘preach’ a slightly different playing formula and it will be interesting to see how the present players respond.

  50. Hi John.
    Looking again at the Bayern-Dortmund CL Final. Dortmund gained the upper hand in the opening stages because of their effective high pressing and Bayern were clearly struggling. But Dortmund did not score during this period and, through fatigue, they could not keep up this pressing for 90 minutes. But they still kept a high defensive line but without sufficient pressure on the ball, which Robben, in particular, with his pace and trickery, took advantage of. Dortmund did not change their tactics and so paid the price.
    Bayern always had the higher possession stats, even during the opening half hour when Dortmund’s pressing gave them the ascendancy. But Bayern’s passing was more negative than positive in that opening phase and so it bears out what you say – not to “get fixated with possession stats….in the end it’s goals that count ! “

  51. England’s performance against Brazil on Sunday, especially in the first half, was in stark contrast to what we saw in the Champions’ League Final. In the first half, England rarely strung more than two or three passes together. Rooney was left stranded up front on his own without support. So whenever the ball went forward it came straight back or Rooney was left to battle away, largely on his own. Hodgson, to his credit, made good adjustmernts at half time by bringing on Oxlade-Chamberlain into a central position and got the whole team to move forward to become a more compact unit and so England became much more of an attacking force.
    Bayern and Dortmund at Wembley played with skill, intelligence and bravery, but it seems that the English player is too easily inhibited and falls too readily into a ‘safety-first’ mode. We have played with fear for too long and if the second half performance on Sunday proved to some players and coaches that our performances will improve when we throw off the cautious shackles, then it will have had some benefit.

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