The word “judo” shares the same root ideogram as “jujutsu”: The use of jū in each of these words is an explicit reference to the martial arts principle of the “soft method”. The soft method is characterized by the indirect application of force to defeat an opponent. More specifically, it is the principle of using one’s opponent’s strength against him and adapting well to changing circumstances. For example, if the attacker was to push against his opponent he would find his opponent stepping to the side and allowing his momentum (often with the aid of a foot to trip him up) to throw him forwards (the inverse being true for pulling).” Wikidia
It’s the way underdogs approach their football matches. They scout you, they analyze your strength and weaknesses and they use that against you. Not only they expose your weaknesses, but even abuse your strength. There is a reason why the favorite at any knock out competition usually fails to win it. There is a reason why no team succeeded to win the champions’ league twice in a row.
It’s all a part of the football development cycle. The dominant teams are always in a quest to create new dimensions to enrich the game (basically offense wise), the recessive teams download the new evolutions to their destructive machines analyze it and invent the right “Antibiotic customizations” to counter the new threats, forcing the dominant teams to regenerate the creative thinking seeking new ideas.
While most of the big clubs are counter attacking clubs that base their style on direct play, a playmaking club like Barcelona has its additional reason to carry the flag of continuous improvement rather than applying the secured approach where you don’t change what’s working. A major team with a direct style layout can face weaker –counter attacking- teams by applying an identical style then defeating them by absolute quality. They don’t need to dominate the game as a must to win it. Through patience and lethal efficiency they can hunt their opponents down. Keep in mind that we are not talking about the approach here, but the method.
Obviously the underdogs are usually more defense oriented while the favorites are the ones who approach the game in an offense minded manner. Yet, that’s only an output of how deep each team moves the lines to serve its objective while the overall pros and cons of the tactical methodology are relatively the same for both teams.
The playmaking style in return is more fragile by nature. Guarding possession and dominating the match tempo is the hardest task to achieve in football. It’s not the result of individuals’ absolute quality but the exponential added value of collective quality reduced by the destructive resistance generated by the opponent.
While the direct style depends on efficiency, the play making style counts on dominance. Efficiency is an output; dominance is a method of play. So if a team successfully terminated an opponent efficiency while defending against a direct-style club they makes it harder for that club to win, but if they damage a playmaking team dominance they can turn the table upside down. That’s one of the reasons why a playmaking style is more fragile as it’s easier to defy dominance that’s based on collective dynamics than terminating efficiency that counts – relatively- on individuals’ qualities within a team-structured template.
Direct style’s quality can be modeled by Grapes cluster with each node consists of passing, positioning, and movement scheme linking two or three players together. Terminating one node does not necessarily damage the whole system as the rest of the nodes can stay in service. Play making style is like a chain that links all players together in one conformable interrelated system based on functionalities, not on positions. When it clicks it can ruin everything it cruise through, but when one of the chain’s nodes collapse, the failure may turn to be epic.
Pep Guardiola, son of the system!
There is a reason why I have been an extreme supporter for this coach since day one. After Frank Rijkaard whom even though I like, respect, and appreciate for his achievements with this club, I have never been a fan of as a tactician, finally we got a coach who showed the awareness needed to stamp the system in steel. Claiming that everything he did was right is absurd, but he definitely did more than just getting the players dressed for the game. During the best days of Rijkaard’s era we were more an offense oriented team than a playmaking team. We had that talented freak on the left flank supported by an offense oriented fullback –Gio. We had another less influential right flank where an offense oriented Belletti /Zambrotta/Oleguer linked with Giuly, A striker to score and midfielders to serve offense with assists. Defense? Don’t ask.
Pep, since day one, showed the signs to continue from the point Rijkaard reached, transforming the quality players he inherited to execute a systematic engine of brilliance. Doing so, he had to make the changes that –for me as well – were unavoidable. After offloading great talents whom he felt may cause some “Issues”, beside Eto’o who survived, He customized the role of his left fullback –Abidal- who is characterized by defensive qualities and physical presence to help achieving game dominance in a way that serves play making style. He bought Keita whom I labeled then as the best buy of the summer comparing the price to quality (Pique with time made that opinion less accurate though), Pique was a huge addition and Alves was a vital need (I forgot to mention Hleb and Caceres, right?). We all already know the rest.
Our strengths last season were obvious through our performance level, added to the fact that the opponents needed time to start finding some vaccines against Barcelona offense. It’s not a Coincidence that our most attractive period was during the first half of the season. But one specific weakness kept unrevealed: Putting high pressure on our defenders (though some teams made attempts to expose this soft spot). There was a myth that parking the bus is the only way to stop Barcelona, now everyone knows that it’s just ONE of the ways.
While the clubs of the dark side making their plans to hunt Barcelona, Pep was not pampering Bojan. He was sitting with his staff planning for the following season. There were three main threats we needed to tackle:
- Counter attacks: We struggled a lot last season against teams that masters counter attacks. Only pure luck saved us from the damage of this threat that was bad enough to shrink our titles from six to less than three (Liga, CDR, and Super cup).
- What we used to call “Teams that park the bus” playing a passive defensive style.
- Pressure applied by the opponent to disturb the buildup process from the initial spark in our defensive third. Tight marking, mainly applied on our midfielders to dry the game fluidity.
How did we meet the mentioned challenges so far?
- Counter attacks: I repetitively mentioned the Vacuum tunnel last season and demanded a Keita to support Yaya there if we want to terminate this threat (and it will be an added value for offense as well). Pep listened, and it worked. Besides, we used Iniesta more often on the left flank in the games where we were worried about the opponent counters so we dominated possession and avoided losing the ball more often which is a healthy feed for counters. Checked.
- Passive tactics (Teams parking the bus): We bought Ibra as a target man who can play in the box when needed and he is also a good play maker who can pull the defenders out of position and generating assists for his teammates inside the box. Keita is a great help in that matter as well. Henry qualities as a striker benefit more from having a striker who can open to the left flank when Henry penetrates inside the area. We also bought Maxwell in case we needed to activate the two flanks using our fullbacks. So far, Keita was the only player who fulfilled his role perfectly. Ibra succeeded to generate assists but he still need to work on his headings (he missed a lot of chances) and to create a better understanding with Henry. Henry is not in a good form yet to serve this strategy (Villarreal game was a rare exception that we can hope it continues). Maxwell is yet to contribute as well.
- Press applied on our defenders and Tight marking applied against our midfielders- Especially Xavi: Messi is playing more as a 10 this season. He started this shift last season but now he is getting more and more involved in the buildup. Ibra passing skills is also a great aid when he moves to the midfield, the same as it is when Pique moves forward. The involvement of the holding midfielder becomes crucial when the opponent run over our defenders while marking Xavi. In this situation every player is needed to contribute in an active manner in the buildup stage. Passive approach becomes useless. Pique has to get used to the libero role. He did his job perfectly well in some games, while in some other games –Villarreal as an example- he was disastrous. We are not a team that shies under pressure. We have to move the battle to the opponent half no matter what. When the opponent put pressure on the defenders to prevent them from moving the ball forward, when no outlets in midfield are available then getting panicked and holding on defensive position is catastrophic. The same as Alves- through with stubbornness keep on running forward no matter what- force the opponent fullback and wing to be more concerned about their defensive duties than attacking regardless of their attacking qualities, Pique has to run over the initial press with Abidal and Puyol covering behind him and demand the pass in the midfield. Is it a risky approach? Well isn’t our whole football approach risky? Is it less risky to stay in your area with the ball dancing between the defenders there while the opponents are trying to get it and score? We can’t be “half driven half chicken”, pick an option and go till the end. The same goes for our holding midfielder. And here, a word of fairness has to be said about Busquets, especially for receiving his weekly sticks after each and every game. Yaya suffered a drop in form. Alright, let me rephrase this one first: “Yaya didn’t fulfill the new demands installed in the system properly, and Pep felt that at the moment Busquets can do the job better”. That’s what Pep thinks at least. “Pep didn’t use Yaya because he wants to prepare Busquets for the period when Yaya leaves for the ACN” pick the one that suits you and let’s move forward. Yes, Busquets does some crimes, but here I will say it and I mean it: Finally we are so close to having our own Fernando Rodendo. Remember where you read it first!
It’s true that Busquets can keep playing the ball safe through being loyal to the Thiago Motta back passing style instead of his risky attempts passing forward. Keep receiving the ball from Pique and passing it back to puyol while four horses are running over you as crazy wolves putting enormous pressure on the defenders. Then what? A defender loses the ball and the opponent scores a goal. Here is a scenario I’ve seen often this season: Defense under pressure all the time, Pique doesnt help easing the pressure as I mentioned above, Xavi marked, as well as the third midfielder (Keita/Iniesta). Someone had to move the ball out of the defensive area at all cost. That guy was Busquets who- if you watch the games again- is usually the most available outlet for the defense though out the match. Through all the successful attempts he does to move the ball, he loses the ball every once and while resulting a dangerous situation. Some may count every time he falls in the field as a failure. But maybe, just maybe, hm…he gets kicked? At least, That’s what the referee sees and whistles. From there, the ball starts from midfield (Set piece), no pressure on defense or anything, if you know what I mean. When a team applies pressure, they do not gain the ball from the first attempt, they may or may not gain it from the second one, but they will in the third. We at Barcelona –the masters of pressing- know that well. So if you stop the game for a foul at the peak of the opponent pressing dynamic it’s not a bad thing at all. Prove? Watch the opponents’ frustration. Is it risky? Again: Driven or Chicken? And is it better that a holding midfielder-who is covered by his defenders- loses the ball while trying to break through the pressure or is it better if the Center backs lose it?
Cruyff said once: “Avoiding to play bad is easier than trying to play good.”. Interestingly, Busquets loses fewer balls than some other players on the field who even face less possession battles. Through word of mouth we can keep whipping Busquets whenever we have nothing else to do. I refer that to a marketing terminology called: ”Halo effect”, And after year and a half of blogging I know now that you can’t rush things that need time. I remember last season when Iniesta was trashed as a left wing because he doesn’t score. The Season ended with a mysterious miracle: The team scored the same average number of goals per game with Iniesta as we scored using Henry on the left flank. But still Iniesta sucks on the flank (People still seriously believe so).
The train is moving forward. We are still a bit far from the complete upgrading. With Yaya, Henry, and Iniesta on the wish list to regain their form, with Ibra, Maxwell, and Chigrnskiy adapting, with Busquets, Pedro, and the youth gang maturing after each and every game, we can raise our expectations bar high. But Patience.
* This is an Adjusted generalized version for my article on "The Offside" Blog: Half Season P/Review Beyond Villarreal and Sevilla. Barcelona Era and the wind of change.
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