The Barcelona Way -- Part 1

Barcelona 3 Manchester United 1. How can a game between the champions of England, the legendary ManU, and the champions of Spain, the equally esteemed Barca, possibly turn out to be a mismatch?

But such was the superiority of Barca, such the increasing tameness of ManU’s response, that the word drowns out one’s attempt to resist it. If Barcelona was playing soccer, then what was ManU playing, because there certainly did seem to be a fundamental difference in what each team’s players did with the ball.

When Barca was in possession the ball stayed mostly on the ground, mostly nursed and cuddled and prodded and yes, sometimes, caressed, by Barcelona feet. The caressing came, mostly, from the sublime Lionel Messi.  

This is the point at which one can always expect a baying interruption from those irritating macho types whose troublesome hormones demand that they mock those words, that they insist, as Italy’s Claudio Gentile once famously did, that soccer is not a game for ballerinas, and that, as they sing the praises of red-blooded soccer, they are also proving that any less robust style -- the classic Brazil, or Barca for instance -- lacks the super-necessary physicality.

The argument is, of course, pathetic. Neither Brazil nor Barca lacks a strong physical presence, and no one is saying that you can play top class soccer without that. What Barca was saying - shouting - on Saturday was that physicality is merely the foundation, a given, in fact, to which the unique soccer skills must be carefully added . . . to produce a game that is recognizably soccer and not merely a test of strength and stamina and machismo, a game in which the skills and artistry of soccer are paramount, a game in which those qualities are what you notice, a game in which the physical element is always secondary, always the means, not the end.

I shouldn’t say always -- we know there’s no such word in soccer. There are bound to be occasions when muscle alone suffices, but for a team determined to play skillful soccer, those occasions will be infrequent.

A team such as Barcelona, in other words. How many times on Saturday did we see the Catalans powerfully belting the ball any-old-where, or committing crudely physical fouls? Or even simply running frenetically about, as though determined to prove that they have that current coaching solve-all, a high work rate (another physical measure, incidentally, not necessarily connected to any known soccer skill)?

This is not to say that ManU were guilty of all those gaucheries -- merely to point out that they were a lot closer to them than Barcelona. Why would that be?

We can start to probe ManU’s ineffective performance by casting an eye over the starting line up -- where what strikes one immediately is the lack of brain-power in midfield. Muscle, yes, from Michael Carrick -- and work rate, yes, from the non-stop Park Ji-Sung -- -- and speed and trickiness, yes, from Antonio Valencia. Which left the brainwork to the 37-year-old Ryan Giggs -- a role that he comprehensively flunked, partly because he looked his age, but mostly, I think, because it was beyond him in the first place. Giggs is yet another of those good players whom the Brits turn into great players -- simply on the strength of performances within the English league.

You also know that buried in the selection process by which that midfield came about was the perceived need for at least one ball-winner, those rugged, hard-tackling midfielders so typical of the English game. Enter Carrick.

Which was something of a joke. To win the ball you need to be able to tackle, or to move quickly enough to pull off interceptions. So, seriously, one has to wonder just what sort of scouting report Alex Ferguson was working on when he decided to rely on Carrick, Park and Valencia to first win the ball and then to hold on to it when confronted with an opposing midfield that is notorious for its dizzying passing patterns and its tenacious and skillful possession.

Pause for a momentary glimpse of the stats: Possession - Barca 63 percent, ManU 37 percent.  

Enough said? No, not at all -- because there is possession that is nothing more than repeated lateral and backward passes, easy passes, that accomplish little other than to improve the stats -- and there is possession with purpose, attacking purpose. If that factor can be built into the stats, if the stats are re-named Attacking Possession, or if we could have -- which I have not seen -- the “Possession in the Attacking Third” stat -- Barca’s advantage would be even more overwhelming.

The failings of ManU’s banal midfield are brutally revealed by the contrast with what went on in Barca’s midfield. Who was Barca’s ball-winner? Did they need one?  Maybe it was Sergio Busquets, perhaps the least skilled of the Barca squad, but he was never called upon to exert any physical presence, it simply wasn’t necessary for a team that has Xavi and Andres Iniesta buzzing around in the crucial area. You can, should you feel so inclined, sit back and admire the phenomenal work rate of those two players ... but it is more than likely that their superb ability to keep the ball rolling smoothly along the grass, their passing skill and accuracy -- their playmaking ability, the very ability that went missing in the ManU midfield -- is what will dazzle you. As it should.

In particular, that bit about the ball being kept on the ground. It is a banal observation that Barca is “not a big team.” Its three key players -- Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta -- are comparative midgets. Confronting them, at the heart of the ManU defense, stood two imposing center backs, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, both 6-foot-2 tall. Yet that huge height advantage, considered so important for English Premier League play, counted for nothing on Saturday. Barca kept the ball where it surely belongs in soccer -- on the ground. The build-up to all three goals was on the ground, two of the scoring shots were ground balls. Only David Villa’s curling shot for the third goal was airborne.

You could say that Barca plays to its strength -- that it gets the best out of its wee players by keeping the ball on the ground. Possibly -- though it is much more intriguing to view things the other way round. What if the vision of a style, of a quick-moving ground-based game, came first? What if it was that vision that allowed those three wonderful players to develop? Players who, without Barca’s devotion to the ground game, might well, given the current obsession with size, have been rejected as “too small”?


Part 2 of Paul Gardner’s “The Barcelona Way” will appear later this week.

16 comments about "The Barcelona Way -- Part 1".
  1. Jake Jones, May 30, 2011 at 2:58 a.m.

    Paul Gardener,

    You clearly know close to nothing about football (or soccer since you are American), because some of your comments border on fantasy.

    Barcelona have the greatest player in the world Messi, and if that wasn't enough they have the brain behind Spains world cup win Iniesta, a man who is head and shoulders above any other midfielder in Europe, except for perhaps his team mate Xavi... are you getting the picture yet, no? ...Okay perhaps you need to look further at the squad, like the IFFHS number one ranked goalscorer David Villa, who was also joint top scorer at the world cup.

    Manchester on the other hand have a very average midfield and little money to spend in the transfer market and since their American bosses have saddled the club with debt. The fact that this United team have made the final is nothing short of miraculous, and mostly down to the guile and experience of Giggs, who has used his brain power (or lack of in your words ??) to pick apart so many teams on the road to the final... its amazing you can find the breath to criticise him. Giggs is 37 and still in great shape, do you think he would have been on the team sheet to run down his opponents though? ...Again you sound idiotic when you criticise the player who has created United's only goal.

    Its not about winning the ball, you can't win the ball from these players, their pass completion is close to 95% and hundreds of passes, so its about keeping the ball when you do have it, and united didn't do this. if you need to look for United players that didn't perform then look at the players who gave away the ball cheaply, and that is where your analysis should start. Can you tell us how many passes Rooney fluffed and how many times Hernandez went offside? These things turn over the possession, and you have to wait several minutes to get the ball again.

    Manchester United didn't get the ball because they didn't learn from 2 years before... they played 4-4-2, and thought they could stand toe to toe with Barca in midfield, playing two striker, well they were wrong, it was is a mismatch and suicide. Had they played a solitary striker, and an extra midfielder like Nani (or deeper Berbatov instead of Hernandez) to hold onto possession, they 'may' have done better. But even then this is a young Barca team in their prime, so we should just watch and enjoy history in the making.

  2. Paul Cuadros, May 30, 2011 at 9:32 a.m.

    Paul Gardner is not American born. He is British. He is very knowledgeable about football. He emphasizes a possession game, a skilled game, over the traditional English directed play, the physical play and size he has seen all his life in England. Just saying.

  3. Mark Edge, May 30, 2011 at 9:35 a.m.

    Gardner (a Brit by the way) lives in a strange Utopian world where the only acceptable forms of soccer were played by the 1970 Brazilians and the current Barcelona team. And to be fair, I wouldn't disagree. But in all practicality, we can't all have Pele, Jarzhinio, Carlos Alberto, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta Alves et al in our teams. Much the same way the Chicago Bulls did it with Jordan, Pippen and co. in the early 90's. I don't think there's a coach or a player on the planet that would rather have the Barcelona style of play at their disposal, but we have to play the cards we're dealt. That's always been the challenge but unfortunately, Ferguson, the most successful and internationally respected manger in the world got this one wrong. As Jake correctly points out Man U. had an average midfield but was the victim of it's own success against Shalke. The performance against them led Sir Alex to think he could repeat the process against Barca. This may also have cost him the services of Berbatov. If Abramovich was his boss he would probably have been fired for such tactical failure. But hindsight is 20/20 as you Americans say. Something Gardner has the benefit of in the damning indictment of the Manchester Utd. organisation. His journalism is clouded by his anti-Brit agenda and therefore inhibits his ability to write a perceptive piece on a sensational game of football.
    I look forward to part two of his ranting which will produce more of the same, before canceling my subscription to Soccer America. I advise all fans of the beautiful game to do the same.

  4. Garfield Vaughn, May 30, 2011 at 9:48 a.m.

    @Jake. You start your comment off by saying Paul Gardner is an American. Please check your facts.

    I sum up your comments by saying that you are the one bordering on fantasy believing that it's Man U's 4-4-2 formation that lost the match for them. So, one more player would have allow them to increase their possession from 37% to 50%? They should get rid of Sir Alex Ferguson for making such a bad call. Formations win matches ....hmmmm. I thought it was individual players' ball handling, ball control, decision making and ability to create goal scoring opportunities that win matches. Are you kidding me? Can you tell me why they (Man U) were only able to hold on to the ball 1/2 as long as Barca? Ah that's right the 4-4-2 formation.

    BTW, I recalled several times in the second half Rooney annoyed at the ref for not calling a foul after he lost control of the ball. So I am not sure what game you were watching when you implied Rooney did not turn over the ball.

  5. Walt Pericciuoli, May 30, 2011 at 10:02 a.m.

    Overall I agree with Paul Gardner, but I must say, he is a little harsh on Man United. I think Sir Alex played the best players he had (perhaps Berbatov may have been a better choice for this match but...)I give credit to Man United for not turning this into a crude foul filled negative tactical match (Real Madrid). Barca is the best team both in quality of players and performance that I have ever seen. They maybe the best ever. I don't see another club team anywhere on the horizon that can challenge them. Give Barcelona their due. They are great champions and role models.

  6. Carl Walther, May 30, 2011 at 10:29 a.m.

    Saying that you can know nothing about soccer (re: Jones) unless you're British is about the stupidest thing I've heard in a long time. (Well maybe since someone in the magazine "442" said that the British won WWII.) A statement like that reflects a psychological "manhood problem" that seems to be endemic in the British culture, and which results in violent, boorish behavior.
    The question that begs to be answered is why does Jones even read Paul's blog, since he so obviously disagrees with anything that doesn't have a British slant? Only to complain I suppose.

  7. Edgar Soudek, May 30, 2011 at 11:30 a.m.

    The real losers in the Barca-Man U encounter weren't even playing: Real Madrid(edition 2010/11) and the Dutch National Team(World Cup edition 2010.
    With their brutal style, and whining coaches both these teams have lost tremendous respect world-wide, including a former fan of both Real and Holland, yours truly. All the praise to Barca for their display of inspiring football/soccer, and to Manchester for not lowering themselves to the punkish level of Real and Holland...

  8. David Sirias, May 30, 2011 at 11:41 a.m.

    Well I won't comment on the the lame post by my Jake ( geez I know Paul rubs many the wrong way but in this article he's mostly correct. Pick your battles dude). But there is one comment that struck me regarding we can't all have a pele and messi on the team. That is true but that negs the question , why ? This is what Paul Gardner is all about. Only a fool would believe even the best euro clubs have never overlooked certain players because of lack of speed or size. Sometimes the overlooked was just a late bloomer. Mistakes happen But they were mistakes Not a policy as has ( had) been the case in the USA And only a fool would believe that more top clubs cannot play a good ground game / possession game. They can but the coaches don't. In short Barca have done this generation a huge favor They have reminded the world that skill and brains generally defeats greater size with less skill. Let's hope all the pro academies around the globe take notice .

  9. Tom Kondas, May 30, 2011 at 12:04 p.m.

    It's just like the Brits to try and defend the English performance. It was pathetic and it doesn't matter one way or the other that we call it soccer and they call it football, who cares:, by any name they still looked foolish playing their "kick and run" style against the possesion game of Barca. I casn only hope this is an eye opener for those fools in USSF who have always followed the lead from these loser Brits who pretend to know the game where in fact they only know how to play it on the recreational level as they did against Barca.

  10. Gak Foodsource, May 30, 2011 at 1:29 p.m.

    I agree Walt, this game had little to do with Man U. and everyone to do with Barcelona. The big question is what happens now. Barça have steamrolled through international soccer with absolutely no signs of stopping. How many teams will fundamentally change the way they play to put more technical players on the field? What kind of squad is Mourinho gong to field, he with all of the motivation and money in the world to return the shellacking? Only a team that can rival Barcelona in possession will stand a chance, barring injuries of course.

  11. James Froehlich, May 30, 2011 at 1:50 p.m.

    GAK Foodsource and David Sirias have nailed it!!! This game was not about one or more players having a bad day or of a coach picking the wrong formation or tactics, this was about a change in the entire STYLE of play and of player selection and development. Whether Barca's current and future successes will have any permanent impact on the world's style of play remains to be seen but for the moment they have forced the denigrators of tiki-taka to crawl underground since with every pass Barca puts a lie to their insults. One final comment -- I would agree that Paul was too harsh on Man U and SAF. They played their game and didn't resort to Mourinho's style and all credit to them for that. That was class.

  12. David Sirias, May 30, 2011 at 2:13 p.m.

    James F spot on. Man u played like men. And didn't park the bus They took it to barca the first 20 minutes but really didn't have possession personnel to keep it up all 90 You can't play with two classic wingers against barca Two much possession is given up because by definition wingers are all about pace and NOT having the ball at feet all that often If Mourino is smart he will build RM around Ozil and not Ronaldo Barca can be vanquished but only by making them chase too ! They are human and will get tired eventually just like Man u did

  13. Mark Edge, May 30, 2011 at 7:10 p.m.

    Did anyone watch Swansea vs Reading this afternoon? Completely different game but just, if not more, exciting with six goals. It's soccer, an entertaining, incredibly emotional sport. We shouldn't make every team and every culture play the same way. How boring would that be? Our sport embraces not just tactics, but cultures. Don't fall into the trap that any one style is superior to another. The Champion's League has been won by Brits, Germans, French, Portuguese and Dutch. Just because Barca won it in this manner doesn't mean we should all adopt the same style. It would be a lesser sport as a result. I appreciate a great header or sliding tackle as much as a well crafted goal after ten passes. Open your minds. We can't all have a Jordan, Gretsky, Best, Messi, or Montana on our teams, so we hope the teams we support and follow with a passion are successful in any way shape or form possible.

  14. gary at k, May 30, 2011 at 7:27 p.m.

    Are people finally going to wake the f up in this country! Take off your god damn EPL goggles and wake up! Stop being so ignorant and graduate from the soccer ghetto. I know it's difficult to accept that the core ideas you have built up over the years about this game are wrong, but you do have a choice. Yes I'm talking to you. The ones who think the EPL is it. The ones who think the USMNT is respectable. The ones who defend Bob Bradley. The ones who've never played this game and think they know. The ones who have played, but were bred with clueless coaches in a non-possession environment. The ones who coach winning youth, college, or pro teams but with unwatchable soccer. Pretty much 99.9% of Americans (no exaggeration). It's not too late. Assume everything you thought you knew about this game is wrong and start learning. Formations? LOL! Jake et al, it's time you start exploring the game far more deeply ... Even you Paul G, who I fully support as an example of someone who actually "gets it", got something off on this one - Busquets is an incredible player! Unbelievable!

  15. Oz LatinAmerican, May 30, 2011 at 9:55 p.m.

    Soccer is about style of play and the article is about SYLE and for all of us that believe in the beautiful game just like Paul does we like what Barcelona has done for soccer. This didn’t happen overnight they had being working on this from the youth system to the first team. Soccer has always been played in countries with different styles. We all know very well these styles, for example in England they play a lot with long balls and it is a very physical game. Germany and Italy use similar style but with some variation. Others like Argentina and Brazil, they like to play the tiki-taka and win playing beautifully, and now Spain does just that. Both styles had produce success winning top trophies. From these styles of play the tiki-kaka, toque y toque, the “Jogo bonito” is the one that had produce the most skillful players in the world. Just look where all those players are from right now: Messi, Ronaldo, Iniesta, Xavi, Kaka, Tevez, Higuain, Robinho, Di Maria, and the list goes on… The point is what style would you prefer? How about the American style? Would you like coaches from England, Italy, or Germany teaching their style to the youth here in America developing players like Carrick, Gatuso, or Schweinsteiger or coaches from Spain or Brazil working on players like Pedro or Neymar? Barca had 3 players from South America 1 from France and 7 from Spain.

  16. Rick Figueiredo, May 30, 2011 at 10:51 p.m.

    Well said Paul. Remember Brasil 4-1 Italy WC 1970 Final. Similar. Two styles. One overwhelming champion who had more talent than the other team could cope with. If you watch the 1994 Brasil Russia game you will see Barcelona's passing patterns. Hey just about everything you see pretty much comes from the past. It is just executed by players with different physical abilities. Nice article all around Gardner. You have after a while away come to your senses again. Thanks. Hope you have been watching Santos in the Copa Libertadores cause there is quite a team waiting to meet Barcelona in the real finals. Hoping they do not stumble along the way because though Barcelona is tactical mature, Santos still needs to develop in that arena, though their technicalskills will match the Spanish team. And by the way Neymar's brilliance will match Messi's. By the way euro's, the tournament is not over. There is something called the Finals waiting for Barcelona.

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