Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Barcelona v. Manchester United: Tactics vs. Talent - Part II

photo by americanistadechiapasvia PhotoRee

Back by popular demand is Part II of Correspondent Ed's analysis of the UEFA Champions League Final:

Let’s start right in and continue our analysis of Tactics v. Talent.

The Problem of Mascherano

There is one player who plays for Barcelona whose abilities we already know from his stint at Liverpool – and that is Javier Mascherano.  Mascherano wasn’t a bad player for Liverpool, where he played at holding midfielder, but he certainly wasn’t very dangerous or dominant. 

For the Champions League game, Mascherano was inserted at center back for Barcelona.  One would suspect that this would be a terrible problem; however, in those few opportunities that United created, Marchiarano handled himself reasonably well.  Central defense was really not a problem for Barcelona throughout the game, and this is large part because United never had the ball.  Plus, the Barca system allows for and almost requires smaller defenders who are better at handling the ball than United’s big two in the middle. 

This is not to diminish the contributions of both Pique and Busquets, who were outstanding both defensively and handling the ball.  That said, I would think United could never hide Mascherano in the center. 

Verdict on MascheranoTactics cover up lack of talent


Possession is obviously not the same as scoring, but for Barcelona it both allows their players to rest and, of course, it is difficult for the opposition to score when they don’t have the ball.

That said, Barca’s possession was not all behind the line to the fullbacks.  Barca plays an aggressive possession game, often pushing it forward in quick give and go’s in tight spaces.  Their players are obviously training to handle these quick passes and control.  Even on those occasions when they were stopped, it was often by a last minute lunging tackle or some other kind of near miss.

Additionally, the possession arrow is aided by Barca’s structure, which in practice allows for four backs and as many as six midfielders.  They don’t play with a true man on the last shoulder, and each of Messi, Pedro and Villa come back into the midfield.  In addition to outnumbering United in the midfield, this created many matchup problems for the Red Devils, and caused players to shift out of position from time to time. 

It should also be noted that the possession gap between the Barca and United wasn’t just large, it was huge at 70% to 30%.  More impressively, this was the same number that Barca put up in its most recent thumping of Real Madrid.  Obviously, this number translated into both rest for Barcelona, jumpiness on the part of its opponents when they finally got the ball, and a lopsided shot count against both.  If I recall, United had only a very few shots on target in the game.  And surprisingly, in light of the huge size mismatch in favor of United, Barca seemed to win more than one half of the 50/50 contests in the air. 

Returning to the question at hand, insofar as there is a talent gap between these teams, is it really over two-to-one in favor of Barcelona?  Consider Real if not United – is it possible for anyone to say the talent assembled by that payroll isn’t among the best in the world?  Ronaldo, Ramos, Kaka, Ozil, Xabi Alonso – all top tier.  And United’s line-up – Vidic, Nani, Valencia, Rooney, Chicharito, Park – isn’t much behind.

Verdict on Possession:   Tactics not Talent

Pretty Pretty

While watching Barcelona play can be mesmerizing, I find United at its best to also be extremely entertaining and enjoyable.  That is, the beauty of the Barca system vis-a-vis United’s system is somewhat overstated. 

For, example, watching Blackpool charge the ball up the pitch and Charlie Adam rocket passes to the far wing was dynamic and exciting.  In addition, sometimes watching Arsenal can be frustrating as they seem to pass and pass and pass, and just when they should shoot, pass some more.  Plus they often look bad trying to force their way through a very congested center area – the natural defensive reaction of teams like United to their style of play.

All of that said, it’s impossible not to give Barca the edge here.  What they do as a team is so compelling as to make one think this is exactly what football is supposed to look like.

Verdict on Pretty Pretty:  Tactics Not Talent

Luka Modric and Feguson 2.0 – an Admission Against Interest?

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about replacing Giggs and/or Scholes at United with the diminutive Luka Modric.  Modric does not spray the ball around nearly as much as Scholes.  He’s not as fast as Giggs or nearly as much of an offensive threat.  But what Modric is better at possession than both of these players.  He controls the ball and makes short, smart passes that often control the game.  He has more patience and is willing to go the easy route until something better opens up.

In light of Ferguson’s stated goal to attain Barca’s level, this would seem to me to be a classic admission against interest.  After getting schooled by Barca twice, the 2.0 version of Fergie seems to want to be more like his newest nemesis. 

Verdict on Luka Modric:  Tactics Not Talent

Conclusion and Final Thoughts

By sheer numbers it would seem that the difference between United and Barca was more about tactics than talent, but I think there must be some caveats to this conclusion.  First, Barca also had superior talent to United.  That is, the difference between the teams was exacerbated by tactics, and regardless of tactics, Barca probably would have won.  

Second, some teams are simply not built for the Barca style.  Wolves or Bolton, for example, are likely not going to be any better if they tried to play Barca’s style.  In fact, many if not most teams have personnel that not only could not run the Barca system, but might regret it. 

But I also think that the Dutch system – and let’s remember to give credit where credit is due – is the system that most teams should aspire to even if they must vary from the model to accommodate personnel.  It would also seem that this system is the one that youth players should be trained in.  Moving the ball quickly in tight spaces, excellent footwork, patience – all of these things are good if not critical things to teach the next generation of American players. 

And where does this leave United and Real?  Well, I’d expect that European Football is just like other sports – it’s a copycat league.  I therefore expect to see both sides slowly change their game to what seems to me to be the next stage in the evolution of football.

This is farlieonfootie for June 8.

1 comment:


    I think it is tough sometimes to make talent and technique concepts distinct. Barcelona have uniquely talented players who are made even better by their system. Could someone like Marcelo or Ozil thrive in the Barca system – probably so. I would take Fedinand and Vidic over Pique/Puyol/Mascherano but the latter work well with their system. If David Villa and Pedro played for ManU, they would possibly be on the bench behind Rooney, Chicharito and Berbatov assuming he shows up at the stadium. Iniesta and Xavi would be stars anywhere, but would their impact be more of that of Fabregas, David Silva or Nasri who are great players but go invisible at times in the EPL

    At the end of the day it all comes down to Messi – he changes every tactic and decision on the field and just his mere presence makes life easier for the other players. As I have noted, at the World Cup Spain had great difficulty scoring. Lost to Switzerland, took a Puyol header to beat Germany and could not score until 118th minute in final. Beautiful team but they could have lost to Germany who was missing Mueller from a ridiculous yellow in previous round and Robben could have scored in final which would have changed game.

    There was some guy on the Bulls once who scored 2 points and said I will remember this as the night Jordan and I combined for 54 points – every player who has Messi on their team should pinch themselves.

    Also, I think ManU at least tried to attack while RM’s tactics were negative