The Barcelona Way -- Part 2

By Paul Gardner

The day before last Saturday’s Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United, an irritating article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, which told us that we -- meaning, one gathers, almost everyone except the authors -- don't know what we're watching: “But here is something most people don't know about Barcelona: Unlike every other famous soccer team in the world that thrives on possession and ball control, they do something unique during matches. They run as if their bikini briefs are on fire.”

This far from original observation was backed up by a totally unconvincing stat which held that, during its six knockout-round games in the Champions League, Barca’s players had run a total of 390 miles, while its opponents had run “only” 380 miles, a difference of a mere 3 percent, surely not statistically significant, but which was then built up into a claim that Barca’s “central weapon, and perhaps its defining strength, is what happens when the other team does get its cleats on the ball ...” In other words, Barca’s strength is defense.

In the sense that attack is the best form of defense, that may well be true. But only if, as with Barcelona, the attack is sustained, intelligent, skillful. Are we supposed to ignore the beauty that involves while we tick off, from our handy list of coaching essentials, work rate and tackles?

But those are the sort of observations, backed up by bad stats, or by badly interpreted stats, that occur so easily to people who seem intent on downplaying the skillful side of the game. People to whom the success of a team like Barcelona will remain a mystery -- and evidently an annoyance -- unless it can be explained in puerile defensive terms.

What Barcelona has been doing these past few years is to emphasize that in soccer it is a mistake to even think that offense and defense are separate compartments of the game. The two are intertwined in almost every move of the game, a mutual reliance that involves the inevitable problem: to bolster one aspect is to deprive the other. It is the abiding curse of the modern game that it is now enveloped in a cloying mist of cautious play brought about by an overemphasis on defense.

Barca, for sure, has its defensive qualities. Separating them out from the team’s overall attacking style is not an easy -- nor necessarily a useful -- exercise. To acclaim them as the bedrock of Barcelona’s style and of its success is simply fatuous.

Equally absurd -- and another of the carefully constructed coaching myths, most of them designed to underline the importance of coaching -- is the idea that star players are somehow damaging to a team, that star players are always selfish, that a team is better off with out them.

Barca is the greatest example we have right now of a team that plays as a team, as a tightly knit unit that knows how to play -- simultaneously -- offense and defense. It is also a team that has a collection of superb individual stars. Including, of course, the greatest individual player to be seen in today’s game, Lionel Messi.

Analyzing Messi is like dissecting Mozart or Rembrandt or Tolstoy -- the results are always unsatisfactory, always counter-productive, for they leave us with something so much less impressive than what we started with. Is it helpful, or in any way rewarding to separate Messi into a sequence of muscular movements, of lightning synaptic connections? Or to make him sound like a coaching manual, nothing but a collection of tactical platitudes, which will inevitably end up praising him because he does his defensive duties, because he tracks back?

If it is agreed that Messi is a soccer genius -- and this seems now to be the widely held opinion -- then any sort of materialistic analysis is not going to bring understanding. Genius does not abide by the accepted guidelines, the usual measuring sticks, the standard scientific norms. Speaking of Messi, his coach Pep Guardiola said, somewhat tautologically, “I think his genius is impossible to describe. That’s why he is a genius.” Which is more or less what the 19th century essayist William Hazlitt had in mind with his “rules and models destroy genius and art.”

The message is that Messi, the superstar on this wonderful Barcelona team, should be left alone to do what he instinctively does. But genius in soccer cannot be an isolated talent, it can only flourish in the group, in the team. A fact that gives the macho brigade yet another opening to downgrade skill as they claim that the star’s life is made easy by others who are doing “the dirty work” for him -- a phrase clearly meant to position the star as an effete Little Lord Fauntleroy and the “workers” as brave heroes who should really be getting the praise.

That is another coaching shibboleth utterly laid to waste by Barcelona. Who are the “workers” on Barca, these industrious slaves whose only purpose is to spend all their time feeding the ball to Messi? Xavi and Iniesta, maybe? Oh, come on -- two players who, while not in the Messi class, have considerable claim to dwell among the second tier of soccer geniuses. Where was this “dirty work” anyway, in a game during which Barcelona committed only five fouls?

ManU’s Alex Ferguson, right after he had seen his champion team made to look very ordinary indeed, praised Barcelona as the best team he’s ever faced in all his long coaching career (it began back in 1974) and gave us, in five monosyllabic words, a terse but all-embracing comment on their style: “They play the right way ...”

One can hear a certain wistfulness in that praise, a regretful look back by Ferguson to the glory days of Scottish soccer, the soccer he must recall from his boyhood or from the tales told by his elders of the traditional Scottish soccer of highly skilled attacking players and an on-the-ground, short-passing style. That was the right way, but as far as the Scots are concerned, it has sadly faded away, to be nothing more than a romantic memory.

But not for Ferguson -- there’s no doubt that his ManU teams have always been more skilled than the average English team, have always included a greater emphasis on talented attacking players.

Ferguson’s teams undoubtedly try to play soccer the right way, but within a hostile environment he has had to compromise to live with the traditional thud-and-blunder requirements of the English domestic game.

Last Saturday, Ferguson saw -- well, suffered, I suppose -- the beautiful, majestic power of Barcelona. “They do mesmerize you with their passing,” he said. He praised Barca’s style laconically, but with real feeling. This was “the right way.”

So where do we go from here? A more skilled, closer-to-Barca, ManU? Possibly. A much wider attempt by coaches everywhere to adopt Barca’s style -- which has shown that it is not only a delight to the eye, but is a winner, too? Alas, that seems doubtful -- the dead mass of conventional coaching opinion and what passes for original thinking within the profession will find proof, yet again, either that the Barca way doesn’t really work, or that it is a fluke, and we shall be back to the glutinous platitudes of the coaching manuals, the very ones that ... “destroy genius and art.”

No one is saying that playing “the right way” is the easy approach. It is, in fact, the greatest of soccer’s challenges and, as such, it is the only worthwhile one. Ferguson says he is ready for it. How many other coaches will follow his lead?

21 comments about "The Barcelona Way -- Part 2".
  1. Gak Foodsource, May 30, 2011 at 8:55 p.m.

    It is always frustrating when non-soccer watchers misinterpret the game. You are happy they are paying attention, but frustrated that you have to hold their hand through everything. The only thing i would suggest is that as much as we try to understand, and claim to recognize, Barça's brilliance, we too are only experiencing a taste of their sophistication. Johan Cruyff used to tell players that sprinting on the pitch was for those who were out of position, for surely if you were in the right place you wouldn't need to run. If that is true, and watching Xavi play I believe it is, not even those of us who claim to understand Barça are immune from making WSJ level analysis, Paul. It's part of being a fan.

  2. Chris Ogle, May 30, 2011 at 9:21 p.m.

    The only thing about this article I would disagree with is that Iniesta and especially Xavi are second tier genuises. Xavi is the best midfielder I've ever seen and I've seen Cruyff,Platini,Rivellino etc. as well as most of the other great midfielders.I watch all of Barca's games and some of Xavi's passes seem humanly impossible.He'll be looking one way and then, in the opposite direction, he'll deliver a pinpoint perfect pass straight through the heart of the defense that Messi or Villa will latch onto and score,all in the space of one second.In fact he rarely ever passes in the direction that he's looking and the precision is absolutely devestating.

  3. Derek Dunmire, May 30, 2011 at 10:07 p.m.

    Someday we can only hope you will have a positive article. I feel for you, I don't know what it would be like to go through life so negatively. Please explore your articles and realize you're an unhappy man and work to correct it. Life is much better that way.

  4. Kent James, May 30, 2011 at 10:08 p.m.

    Yes, the WSJ article is ludicrous, and I don't disagree with PG's general adulation of Barcelona. But his theme of a high work rate being somehow a negative thing is counterproductive, and the statistic quoted in the WSJ article demonstrates that. Barcelona has a very high work rate, and that contributes to their effectiveness. When they (admittedly, rarely) lose the ball, 2 or 3 Barca players immediately and intensely attack the ball, and they usually get it back. So while their offensive prowess rightfully gets a lot of press, it is appropriate to mention that they are just as impressively defensively. And while in a an ideal world, a coach could find players of the caliber of Xavi and Iniesta who are so talented on both sides of the ball, in the real world, most players are either better offensively or defensively. And a good team may need to employ players as "ball winners" (who often have high workrates) to get the ball back, so they can get it to their more offensive minded teammates. Of course, one would hope that the ball winners are also reasonably skillful on the ball (as one would look for offensive players who can also play some defense), but a high work rate does not mean a player has no skill, as PG implies and Barcelona disproves in every game they play.

  5. gary at k, May 30, 2011 at 10:22 p.m.

    Derek, it's difficult to see much positive in US Soccer (predominantly the audience here) when it's a cesspool of soccer ignorance. There are more than enough rosy pictures painted out there by American soccer writers/bloggers. For those that don't want to get real, I suggest sticking with that blind crowd...

  6. Derek Dunmire, May 30, 2011 at 10:50 p.m.

    Gary, while I appreciate your sentiment, it is very discerning to constantly read how negative everything is compared to Europe. Why can't he once focus on the positive that MLS and US Soccer has been able to accomplish. Premier league teams are studying the model of MLS and its financial success. No one else in the world can make a sport financially fluid and profitable as the US. Paul is serially negative and it has grown old for me. There are much more positives to focus on. What negative can anyone find woth Barca's performance than Paul?

  7. Bill Ford, May 30, 2011 at 11:08 p.m.

    Sorry Derek, you can stick your head in the sand if you like but some people ( like Gary) want to fundamentally change soccer for the good in the US. It starts by being brutally honest about whats wrong with it. Financial success and developing elite soccer players are not mutually exclusive, the MLS has proven that.

    There are glimmers of hope but we have a LONG way to go!

  8. Oz LatinAmerican, May 31, 2011 at 12:16 a.m.

    The only negative ones are you whom don't understand soccer at all or you are from the United Kingdom, because I don't know any player from that part of the world that is worth to watch, maybe Rooney. You can have your MLS also it is the most mediocre soccer I have seen! Most American don't get it, don't try to compare soccer to some of your sports! Soccer is about the beautiful game not a workhorse sports is about skills, artistry, and improvising on the go: watch Messi again and you will learn. It is not about the coach is the player who make this game fun to watch! and yes you can work at a youth level to make this to happen! How can you watch an MLS game after watching BARCA!

  9. Brad Partridge, May 31, 2011 at 8:35 a.m.

    While Paul's approach may have a negative slant, he gives great creedance to the significance of Barca's style and skills. In the US we seem to continually miss this message. Looking at our new curriculum we see some very disturbing ideas. "avoiding over-dribbling", "1, 2 or 3 touch maximum: Minimizing the number of touches improves the speed of play."
    Can you see a coach telling a young Messi, Xavi and Iniesta to stop over dribbling and please limit your touches to just 3. We need to recognize that skills are missing from US soccer. The only way we will overcome this deficiency is to require, recognize, and reward players that develop skills. Our focus should be on U12 and under not U16 and older. Maybe then we will have the opportunity to see a Messi or Marta come from the US.

  10. lorenzo murillo, May 31, 2011 at 8:44 a.m.

    Good Point Brad! Barça's success is the result of tryouts of 1000's of players, of which three, Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, have proven to be above excellence, CRACKS, as we say in South America. And how many hundreds of other young players never reach this level of play? Barca's success is the result of careful planning, and good fortune. There is no recipe or cookie cutter program that will develop these type of players consistently. And, one last thing, stop comparing MLS to other leagues, it's a good league, developing its history. If I follow the advice of the MORON who say's you should not watch MLS after watching Barça, might as well not follow the league in my country (Ecuador). I watch because of passion, and love for club and country, same reason you see end of the table teams in EPL full with spectators. It's all about the LOVE of the beautiful game.

  11. Charles O'Cain, May 31, 2011 at 9 a.m.

    So what is the point of all this? Is there no team worth watching except Barcelona? Should all teams try to play as they do? And if so, where are these little geniuses supposed to come from (it seems obvious from PG's rants that they can't be coached into being, except perhaps at the Barcelona academy)? Perhaps Fox Soccer and ESPN should abandon the EPL and instead televise Barca's intrasquad matches and training sessions. I think not. There is a reason EPL is the most-watched league ... it's competitive, well-commentated, and well-televised. Many talented and creative players populate the teams, though there are the unfortunate number of thuggish ones as well. Barca are a great team fortunate enough to play in a weak league, and too many of their La Liga matches are akin to watching the Harlem Globetrotters play the local pickup squad. Give me a Manchester Derby, or a North London one, or Blackpool playing anybody, any day.

  12. Walt Pericciuoli, May 31, 2011 at 9:33 a.m.

    In my mind,this Barcelona team represnts the ideal way the game should be played. Can we enjoy other soccer, of course, but while we do,aren't we looking and hoping for a breakout of those elements in the match that Barca demonstrates week in and week out. I do. To each his own though, we each have our own idea as to what is enjoyable to watch. Paul's article best statement sums up the Barca way. "What Barcelona has been doing these past few years is to emphasize that in soccer it is a mistake to even think that offense and defense are separate compartments of the game. The two are intertwined in almost every move of the game" Pep says himself,they defend by holding the ball. For anyone who has ever played keep away, you kown the team that keeps the ball actually runs more than the team witout the ball. It only seems the other way around to the team without the ball. The team with the ball is having more fun.

  13. Chris Ogle, May 31, 2011 at 10:57 a.m.

    To Charles O'Cain: You have no idea what you're talking about.Barcelona has proven that the so-called best league in the world, the EPL, is a fraud by destroying Arsenal and Manu for the second time.If Barca were in the EPL they would have a much easier time of it than they do in La Liga because even the worst Spanish teams are far more skillful than most English teams.Truth is,most English clubs couldn't make it in Spain's first division,clubs like Blackpool,Newcastle,Stoke,Blackburn etc.couldn't make it in Spain's second division either.By the way,yes they should stop broadcasting the EPL because for the most part it's antifootball.When I watch the EPL all I see is a game which is void of any skill and is for the most part all about hard(dirty)tackling and mindless long balls.There is a reason that Spain are current Euro and World Cup champions, because they produce the best players in the world along with Argentina and Brazil and if you look at the rosters of all the clubs in La Liga you'll see that they're made up for the most part of players from Spain,Argentina and Brazil.People who think that the EPL is so great are either British or ignorant Americans who've been suckered into the myth of English greatness.

  14. Brian Something, May 31, 2011 at 4:06 p.m.

    I beg to differ with Mr. Gardner (though we both agree on the sheer majesty of this Barca side). I think Barca’s defense is inseparable from its overall style of play. The best defense is for the opposition to have the ball as little as possible and for them to not have a second to breathe when they do. Barca demolishes the “conventional wisdom” that the game must be won with a rock solid back four and tactical “nous” (a fatuous word if I’ve ever heard one) and that attacking soccer is only acceptable so long as it’s not a “liability” to overall defensive solidity. The false choice has always been: artistic but ultimately futile beauty like Wenger or ugly efficiency like Mourinho. Why I love Barca, even though I’m normally loathe to support Goliath, is that they show that you don’t have to choose between the two.

  15. James Froehlich, May 31, 2011 at 10:08 p.m.

    Barca's influence is already being felt across the soccer world -- even in blogs like this the argument has changed from "nobody likes to watch tiki-taka soccer" and "tiki-taka can't win" to "how can everyone play tiki-taka? there just aren't enough good players!!!!" Maybe now we should move on to the question-- if Barcelona can find and develop such players how can the rest of the world? We'll never know if we have any home-grown Messi's unless we start looking in different places and use different criteria besides height and strength.

  16. Oz LatinAmerican, June 1, 2011 at 12:58 a.m.

    Only MORONS would watch mediocre leagues and unfortunately I watch the MLS from time to time and even go to their games to see what level they are and because I love soccer too much, but unless they change their approach it will take long time, long time to be one of the top leagues in the world, just like countries like Ecuador that never won anything in soccer, they never produce any outstanding top notch soccer player to this date because they always play a MORON way of soccer: mediocre that is and nobody would ever be interested to watch their league. The same goes with England since 1966 they had not won anything or produce any world class player, Boby Charlton, Michel Owen, Rooney are among them I can say yes they are great players.But how is this possible? England should be producing exceptional players! they created this sport! But no, Argentina and Brasil and now Spain are producing exceptional players like hot cakes! because maybe they play a different style of soccer! and their league is worthy to watch, yes they play beautiful soccer not like MORONS! the MLS and add the country of your preference if you like! there are plenty in Europe and even SA.

  17. Charles O'Cain, June 3, 2011 at 9:35 a.m.

    Chris Ogle, you are totally deluded. La Liga is a two-team league, with only Real and Barcelona competing for the championship (with a rare Valencia threat). Only 3 teams won more than half their matches. Champions League is the only real test for the top two clubs, making most of their league matches merely training exercises. Barcelona are a great team, when they PLAY and refrain from diving and cheating the ref. They "destroyed (as you put it)" 10-man Arsenal only 4-3 on aggregate after a very questionable ref decision to send off Van Persie. Barca have the highest wage bill of ANY SPORTS TEAM on the planet. They are in their ascendency at the moment, but someone will come up with a solution to their style, and it won't necessarily be "anti-soccer", any more than dunks are "anti-basketball", or home runs "anti-baseball". Athletic competition thrives on clashes of style, and it is a very narrow view (not shared by the majority of the football world) that only the latin approach is acceptable. Barca vs Barca would bore me to tears, but if that's what you want, de gustibus non est disputandum. I won't choose your channel, so you keep your fingers off my remote.

  18. Chris Ogle, June 5, 2011 at 9:06 a.m.

    Charles O'Cain:Your mighty Arsenal had a grand total of 0 shots on goal in the second game of the CL tie,absolutely pathetic. Getafe or Deportivo would give Barca a better game than any lame EPL club. Anyone who prefers to watch the skill deprived EPL doesn't know what quality football is and is either a homer or a gullible American who swallow's the lie of English greatness,hook, line and sinker.I mean really,is that what you look for in professional sports,a bunch of skill deprived goons charging about,hacking the crap out of each other and booting their aimless crosses and long balls? I can get that same sort of game in American college soccer. That would be like going to an NBA game and watching teams and players who can't shoot,can't dribble and only know how to play roughhouse,dirty defense.

  19. Charles O'Cain, June 6, 2011 at 8:13 a.m.

    They are not my Arsenal, and are certainly not mighty. They did have a shot on goal, and for that sin their striker was sent off.

  20. Andres Yturralde, June 6, 2011 at 12:40 p.m.

    "It's soccer, an entertaining, incredibly emotional sport. We shouldn't make every team and every culture play the same way... I appreciate a great header or sliding tackle as much as a well crafted goal after ten passes. Open your minds..." Nice, edgy take, Mark— I like it. But I’d go further than asking you to open your minds. Like the ultimate controversialist, I’d say ‘Raise up your hearts, my brothers, high, higher! And do not forget your legs! Raise up your legs, too, you good dancers. And better still, stand on your heads.’ Appreciate Barcelona soccer for what it was: gorgeous technique coupled with very smart tactics. Although the first half was pretty even-money and ended rather fairly, the second half proved just how much better Barcelona soccer is. But it is what it was. That was yesterday, and this is today. New ideas and new concepts are already underway. ‘The truth, to be sure, can stand on one leg; but with two, it will walk and get around.’ And that’s why we play the game!

  21. aloysius wilderburr, June 15, 2011 at 8:19 p.m.

    incredible how many people are missing gardner's point... great article. nowhere does he imply that there is only one way to play the game-- only that we have far too many cheerleaders for mindless hard work, and too few calling for that work rate to be equaled by ingenuity, skill, vision, and intelligence.

    my own soccer experience was a case in point-- playing in the early 2000s for Pitt, we were routinely admonished that quick passing or attempts at creative attacking weren't "pittsburgh soccer," that we had to "gut it out" and so on. The coach, (ironically the author of a coaching manual on "attacking soccer" that consisted entirely of drills and lacked any actual tactical vision,) never provided actual instruction even when asked for it directly-- nor did he conduct player meetings or evaluations, video sessions, or team tactical meetings. a former pitt player himself in the 70s, he was allowed to do as he pleased by the athletic department so long as the status quo was undisturbed and results were average enough.

    these are the people who are entrenched throughout so much of the game in the US, in ODP programs, high schools, and colleges that could be developing american talent, and these are the people preaching defense, running, and hard work first, and that creative play was just something that happened once in a while when a natural prodigy like messi comes along-- they don't encourage their players to BE that prodigy, or instill the belief that better and more beautiful soccer is even a possibility. and while it may be seen as negative to criticize that attitude, it is a vitally necessary criticism.

    here's hoping gardner never lets up.

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