Thursday, June 2, 2011

Barcelona v. Manchester United: Tactics vs. Talent – Part I

photo by Oh-Barcelona.comvia PhotoRee

Columnist Ed with some thoughts on a game I can't bear yet to re-watch:

Is Barcelona Football's Version 2.0?
                        Barcelona’s domination of Manchester United at the Champions League final was stunning.  The score – 3 to 1 – could have easily been 5 to 1.  Barcelona had an outrageous 70% of the possession, outshot United 22 to 4 (12 to 1 in shots on goal), and was in control of the game for all but a few minutes.    This game, as well as their prior series against Real Madrid, a team with a similar style as Manchester United a singular question that for some reason has been largely ignored by the media.  Namely, is the talent level of Barcelona that much greater than United, or are the imported Dutch tactics the future of football?  Put in another more personal way, has the direct game perfected by Sir Alex Ferguson become dated?  Will or should all teams work towards the Dutch “clockwork orange” methodology?
                        Let’s be clear regarding what I consider the main characteristics of Barca’s play.  Barca favor short passes and possession.  They play 5 or arguably 6 midfielders.  Their players are small and quick.  They attack centrally and, due to the size of their players, rarely put long crosses into the box.  Even when they attack from the outside, they work to penetrate as close to the goal as possible and then favor passes at the feet of rushing attackers.
                       United play, of course, a more direct style.  They often play aggressive cross-field passes.  They look to push the ball forward towards the space available, and try to spread teams out with speed on the edges.  Wide midfielders typically stay wide and put high crosses into the center.  Their players tend to be larger, and work to increase players physicality.

                        Ultimately, it’s extremely difficult to compare these systems as there are no “identical twins separated at birth” type studies to review.  In addition, the hypothetical question of whether Barca v. United would have the same result if the teams had swapped players is complicated by the fact that the personnel of each of the teams are tailored to their styles of play.  Xavi, for example, might find it far more difficult to play in a league where he is forced to fight for possession more often than he has to at Barca.  However, a few factors in the game can give us some clues, and we’re going to review these factors in several installments.
                        The Goals
                        It was remarked by NYC FOF fan that Barca’s team is really the Spanish World Cup team sans Messi, and that world cup team dominated possession but struggled to score.  And indeed, Messi played was a determining factor in each of Barca’s goals.
                       For the first goal, Messi switched with Pedro, dragging Evra to him and leaving a Pedro wide open on the right.  It was a mistake by Evra, but one that is understandable as Messi is always a top priority.  In addition, the pass played by Xavi was remarkable.  After taking a quick glance at the switch, he ran about 10 yards with possession of the ball all the while looking away the defense.  Finally, he quickly jabbed it with the outside of his foot past 3 or 4 United defenders and onto the foot of Pedro.  I suspect that there are few players in football that could pull of that set up and pass.  In addition, few others pull defenders out of position like Messi does.  Therefore the verdict on goal number one is that talent exceeded technique.
                        For the second goal, Messi turned the ball past Park, who at this point had run himself ragged chasing the ball from one side of the pitch to the other.  Park seemed to stop once Messi was past him.  This could be because he didn’t want to foul him at the top of the box, or that at the top of the box Messi was now Carrick and Vidic and Ferdinand’s problem, or that he had been running himself ragged chasing the ball from one side of the pitch to the other.  I suspect all three of these were factors.
                       After beating Park, Messi pushed it central passed Evra and shot it hard past a diving Van der Saar.  It should be noted that Messi’s pace made Evra’s blocking the shot off the turn impossible, and I suspect that Vidic and Ferdinand each were too afraid to step forward and too slow to block the quick release of Messi.  In short, the second goal was also largely talent.
                        For goal three, Messi received the ball on the right sideline and stood and waited.  Nani slowly moved toward him, and just at the point where Nani would appear to have closed down Messi, Messi kicked it off his right foot and literally left Nani in his wake.  Messi then darted past a covering Evra as if he wasn’t there, leaving a tentative Ferdinand as the lone back.  Messi then tried to play it to the middle, and it bounced around until Barca recaptured the ball, got it to David Villa at the top of the box, who quickly stopped it and put it into the top right corner of the net.  I frankly don’t know if anyone else in the world could do what Messi did on this one, and David Villa’s shot was also top tier.  Verdict again – talent not technique.
                         Thus if we look solely at goals scored, it would seem these were largely the result of the unparalleled Messi, with assistance from the enormously talented Xavi and David Villa.  Would Barca scored these goals if Messi was instead Rooney, and Xavi and David Villa were Giggs and Valencia, respectively?  Hard to say, but at least for the first and third goals, probably not.
                    Verdict on Goals Scored:  Talent not Technique.
                    The Arsenal Comparison
                    Perhaps the greatest measure of the tactics versus talent analysis is Arsenal.  Arsenal plays the same game as Barcelona, but does it with players that are less talented.  Instead of Xavi, they have Song, instead of Messi they have Van Persie, and instead of Iniesta and Busquets they have Nasri and Wilshire.
                     Arsenal did play Barca well in their first match, winning the game but still losing the possession battle pretty handily and seeming to have been the poorer side throughout the match.  It is difficult to judge the second match due to the fact that Arsenal ended up with 10 after a red card.  Regardless, they came close as Bendtner had a shot to advance Arsenal in the last minutes of the game at the Nou Camp.
                     Arsenal, however, had little success against United.  While they beat them 1 to 0 in their last match, United beat them in the FA Cup match as well as their first meeting.  It should be noted that Arsenal had most of the possession in all three games – approximately 55 to 45 – but this was no where near the possession that Barca enjoyed, and Arsenal did not seem to threaten United as much as United threatened them.  United simply allowed Arsenal the wings and plugged up the top of the goal box with defenders.  This was a strategy, I believe, they took with Barcelona to little positive effect.
                      Arsenal also came in 4th in the EPL this year – not a terrible finish, but not a great one considering the fact that they do have considerably talent.  For this reason, the Arsenal study is another factor that seems to indicate talent over technique.
                       Verdict on Arsenal:  Talent Over Technique
                        . . . to be continued . . .

This is farlieonfootie for June 2.

1 comment: