Barcelona’s Seven Secrets to Success – By Simon Kuper
I love Barca’s philosophy and having spent a few days at the Academy, witnessing with my own eyes the beautiful way they teach kids, I’m always delighted to come across more insight into the way they play and coach.
Simon Kuper is a British author. He writes about sports “from an anthropologic perspective. He is the author of several superb books, including “Soccer Men: Profiles of the Rogues, Geniuses, and Neurotics Who Dominate the World’s Most Popular Sports,” and “Soccernomics.”
He is also a journalist for the Financial Times
This what he wrote.. Starts Here>
We all see that Barcelona are brilliant. The only problem is understanding just how they do it. That’s where my friend Albert Capellas comes in. Whenever he and I run into each other somewhere in Europe, we talk about Barça. Not many people know the subject better. Capellas is now assistant manager at Vitesse Arnhem in Holland, but before that he was coordinator of Barcelona’s great youth academy, the Masia. He helped bring a boy named Sergio Busquets from a rough local neighbourhood to Barça. He trained Andres Iniesta and Victor Valdes in their youth teams. In all, Capellas worked nine years for his hometown club. During our last conversation, over espressos in an Arnhem hotel, I had several “Aha” moments. I have watched Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona umpteen times, but only now am I finally beginningto see. Guardiola’s Barcelona are great not merely because they have great players. They also have great tactics – different not just from any other team today, but also different from Barcelona teams pre-Guardiola. Barça are now so drilled on the field that in some ways they are more like an American gridiron football team than a soccer one. Before getting into the detail of their game, it’s crucial to understand just how much of it comes from Guardiola.
When a Barcelona vice president mused to me four years ago that she’d like to see the then 37-year-old Pep be made head coach, I never imagined it would happen. Guardiola was practically a novice. The only side he had ever coached was Barça’s second team. However, people in the club who had worked with him – men like the club’s then president Joan Laporta, and the then director of football Txiki Beguiristain – had already clocked him as special. Not only did Guardiola know Barcelona’s house style inside out. He also knew how it could be improved. Guardiola once compared Barcelona’s style to a cathedral.
Johan Cruijff, he said, as Barça’s supreme player in the 1970s and later as coach, had built the cathedral. The task of those who came afterwards was to renovate and update it. Guardiola is always looking for updates. If a random person in the street says something interesting about the game, Guardiola listens. He thinks about football all the time. He took ideas from another Dutch Barcelona manager, Louis van Gaal, but also from his years playing for Brescia and Roma in Italy, the home of defence. Yet because Guardiola has little desire to explain his ideas to the media, you end up watching Barça without a codebook. Cruijff was perhaps the most original thinker in football’s history, but most of his thinking was about attack. He liked to say that he didn’t mind conceding three goals, as long as Barça scored five. Well, Guardiola also wanted to score five, but he minded conceding even one. If Barcelona is a cathedral, Guardiola has added the buttresses. In Barça’s first 28 league games this season, they have let in only 22 goals. Here are some of “Pep”’s innovations, or the secrets of FC Barcelona:
1. Pressure on the ball
Before Barcelona played Manchester United in the Champions League final at Wembley last May, Alex Ferguson said that the way Barça pressured their opponents to win the ball back was “breathtaking”. That, he said, was Guardiola’s innovation. Ferguson admitted that United hadn’t known how to cope with it in the Champions League final in Rome in 2009. He thought it would be different at Wembley. It wasn’t. Barcelona start pressing (hunting for the ball) the instant they lose possession. That is the perfect time to press because the opposing player who has just won the ball is vulnerable. He has had to take his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception, and he has expended energy. That means he is unsighted, and probably tired. He usually needs two or three seconds to regain his vision of the field. So Barcelona try to dispossess him before he can give the ball to a better-placed teammate. Furthermore, if the guy won the ball back in his own defence, and Barcelona can instantly win it back again, then the way to goal is often clear. This is where Lionel Messi’s genius for tackling comes in. The little man has such quick reflexes that he sometimes wins a tackle a split-second after losing one. The Barcelona player who lost the ball leads the hunt to regain it. But he never hunts alone. His teammates near the ball join him. If only one or two Barça players are pressing, it’s too easy for the opponent to pass around them.
2. The “five-second rule”
If Barça haven’t won the ball back within five seconds of losing it, they then retreat and build a compact ten-man wall. The distance between the front man in the wall (typically Messi) and their last defender (say, Carles Puyol) is only 25 to 30 metres. It’s hard for any opponent to pass their way through such a small space. The Rome final was a perfect demonstration of Barcelona’s wall: whenever United won the ball and kept it, they faced eleven precisely positioned opponents, who stood there and said, in effect: “Try and get through this.” It’s easy for Barcelona to be compact, both when pressing and when drawing up their wall, because their players spend most of the game very near each other. Xavi and Iniesta in particular seldom stray far from the ball. Cruijff recently told the former England manager Steve McClaren, now with FC Twente in Holland: “Do you know how Barcelona win the ball back so quickly? It’s because they don’t have to run back more than 10 metres as they never pass the ball more than 10 metres.”
3. More rules of pressing
Once Barcelona have built their compact wall, they wait for the right moment to start pressing again. They don’t choose the moment on instinct. Rather, there are very precise prompts that tell them when to press. One is if an opponent controls the ball badly. If the ball bounces off his foot, he will need to look downwards to locate it, and at that moment he loses his overview of the pitch. That’s when the nearest Barcelona players start hounding him. There’s another set prompt for Barça to press: when the opposing player on the ball turns back towards his own goal. When he does that, he narrows his options: he can no longer pass forward, unless Barcelona give him time to turn around again. Barcelona don’t give him time. Their players instantly hound the man, forcing him to pass back, and so they gain territory.
4. The “3-1 rule”
If an opposing player gets the ball anywhere near Barcelona’s penalty area, then Barça go Italian. They apply what they call the “3-1 rule”: one of Barcelona’s four defenders will advance to tackle the man with the ball, and the other three defenders will assemble in a ring about two or three metres behind the tackler. That provides a double layer of protection. Guardiola picked this rule up in Italy. It’s such a simple yet effective idea that you wonder why all top teams don’t use it.
5. No surprise
When Barcelona win the ball, they do something unusual. Most leading teams treat the moment the ball changes hands – “turnover”, as it’s called in basketball – as decisive. At that moment, the opponents are usually out of position, and so if you can counterattack quickly, you have an excellent chance of scoring. Teams like Manchester United and Arsenal often try to score in the first three seconds after winning possession. So their player who wins the ball often tries to hit an instant splitting pass. Holland – Barcelona’s historic role models – do this too. But when a Barcelona player wins the ball, he doesn’t try for a splitting pass. The club’s attitude is: he has won the ball, that’s a wonderful achievement, and he doesn’t need to do anything else special. All he should do is slot the ball simply to the nearest teammate. Barcelona’s logic is that in winning the ball, the guy has typically forfeited his vision of the field. So he is the worst-placed player to hit a telling ball. This means that Barcelona don’t rely on the element of surprise. They take a few moments to get into formation, and then pretty much tell their opponents, “OK, here we come.” The opposition knows exactly what Barça are going to do. The difficulty is stopping it. The only exception to this rule is if the Barça player wins the ball near the opposition’s penalty area. Then he goes straight for goal.
6. Possession is nine-tenths of the game
Keeping the ball has been Barcelona’s key tactic since Cruijff’s day. Most teams don’t worry about possession. They know you can have oodles of possession and lose. But Barcelona aim to have 65 or 70 per cent of possession in a game. Last season in Spain, they averaged more than 72 per cent; so far this year, they are at about 70 per cent. The logic of possession is twofold. Firstly, while you have the ball, the other team can’t score. A team like Barcelona, short on good tacklers, needs to defend by keeping possession. As Guardiola has remarked, they are a “horrible” team without the ball. Secondly, if Barça have the ball, the other team has to chase it, and that is exhausting. When the opponents win it back, they are often so tired that they surrender it again immediately. Possession gets Barcelona into a virtuous cycle. Barça are so fanatical about possession that a defender like Gerald Pique will weave the most intricate passes inside his own penalty area rather than boot the ball away. In almost all other teams, the keeper at least is free to boot. In the England side, for instance, it’s typically Joe Hart who gives the ball away with a blind punt. This is a weakness of England’s game, but the English attitude seems to be that there is nothing to be done about it: keepers can’t pass. Barcelona think differently. Jose Mourinho, Real Madrid’s coach and Barcelona’s nemesis, has tried to exploit their devotion to passing. In the Bernabeu in December, Madrid’s forwards chased down Valdes from the game’s first kickoff, knowing he wouldn’t boot clear. The keeper miscued a pass, and Karim Benzema scored after 23 seconds. Yet Valdes kept passing, and Barcelona won 1-3. The trademark of Barcelona-raised goalkeepers – one shared only by Ajax-raised goalkeepers, like Edwin van der Sar – is that they can all play football like outfield players.
7. The “one-second rule”
No other football team plays the Barcelona way. That’s a strength, but it’s also a weakness. It makes it very hard for Barça to integrate outsiders into the team, because the outsiders struggle to learn the system. Barcelona had a policy of buying only “Top Ten” players – men who arguably rank among the ten best footballers on earth – yet many of them have failed in the Nou Camp. Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic did, while even David Villa, who knew Barcelona’s game from playing it with Spain, ended up on the bench before breaking his leg. Joan Oliver, Barcelona’s previous chief executive, explained the risk of transfers by what he called the “one-second rule”. The success of a move on the pitch is decided in less than a second. If a player needs a few extra fractions of a second to work out where his teammate is going, because he doesn’t know the other guy’s game well, the move will usually break down. A new player can therefore lose you a match in under a second. Pedro isn’t a great footballer, but because he was raised in the Masia he can play Barcelona’s game better than stars from outside. The boys in the Masia spend much of their childhood playing passing games, especially Cruijff’s favorite, six against three. Football, Cruijff once said, is choreography. Nobody else thinks like that. That’s why most of the Barcelona side is homegrown. It’s more a necessity than a choice. Still, most of the time it works pretty well.
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