Thursday, April 01, 2010

Ferguson and Wenger can learn a lot from studying Barcelona...

Last night's Arsenal vs Barcelona Champions League tie was billed as a "feast of football"; it was, but Arsenal very nearly ended up being the main course and if it wasn't for some inspired goalkeeping by Almunia, the feast would have been over by half-time. Almunia was of course doing his job, he is expected to pull off top drawer saves; likewise his manager is expected to do his job and the introduction of Theo Walcott saved the Gunners from certain defeat.

It turned out to be another absorbing Champions League encounter in which Barcelona played some fabulous football in the opening period; so much so, the Catalans' first-half performance was a good as any in the history of the competition, all that was lacking was goals.

Arsenal deserve some credit for scraping a draw, in so doing giving themselves a flicker of hope of progressing into the semi-final, however, football is a strange game and so no one should be surprised if the Gunners somehow turnaround this tie and progress, even though the odds are stacked against them.

Since winning the competition last season this Barcelona team appear to have just got better. When fans and pundits talk about Barca, Messi is usually the focus of attention, but against Arsenal by his own standards it was a quiet night. There's no suggestion Barca are a one-man-team. As we saw against Arsenal, this Barca side is full of stars who are all comfortable on the ball.

Barcelona are a joy to watch, you don't often see them booting the ball from front to back; ironically they did last night when Pique played that glorious long ball to Ibrahimovic, who scored after letting the ball bounce once before lobbing the out of position Almunia (his only mistake of the night).

As a fan of attacking football and not for the first time, I sat watching Barcelona and analysed their every move in a bid to understand what makes this team so special.

One of the biggest factors behind Barcelona's success is hard-work, but not in the sense of running around like headless chickens'; when an Arsenal player had the ball in the Gunners half, they were immediately closed down by at least one Barca player. When a Barca player had the ball, there was always at least one good short passing option; and here is the key, they keep their passes short and they don't dither on the ball. Much of Barca's attacking play revolves around one-touch football. I don't have access to stats and I don't know if back-passes are totted up, but I'd wager that Barca play the ball backwards more often than other leading side in Europe; this is another important factor, they pass the ball backwards in order to retain possession and then go forward. The name of the game is keeping the ball and moving it quickly.

Barca's game plan is very effective, but only players of the very highest calibre can make such a system work. No disrespect, but I cannot see the likes of Park, Fletcher, Carrick or Park-Ji-Sung slotting into Barca's team, not without the system breaking down. Barcelona's midfield relies on players' who are ultra comfortable on the ball; they don't want for time to dither. In his pomp, Paul Scholes would have been the perfect player for Barca's midfield.

Personally, I couldn't help reflect on United's shoddy performance against Bayern Munich the night before and last year's final against Barcelona; United's midfield was hopeless in both games and I couldn't help wonder what Ferguson makes of it all.

In the wake of what was a football lesson for Arsenal, you also wonder if Wenger will be reflecting on how comprehensively his team had been out-played; frankly, if the Frenchman isn't thinking about his own methods and the development structure within his club then he isn't doing his job, that is the blunt truth of the matter. The same can be said of Ferguson, who has voiced his concerns about player development at United.

The way United and Arsenal play isn't necessarilly the wrong way, it certainly isn't boring, but it isn't as easy on the eye as the Barca system. The Times recently came up with an interesting stat: Arsenal had conceded more goals from counter-attacks than any other Premier League club, they had also scored the most goals from counter attacking...

United have become more of a counter-attacking team these days; we have become more reliant on slightly more defensive approach. Barca play a purer brand of attacking football; they go for the oppositions throats from the off and by retaining possession they starve their opponents of the ball. To use an analogy: at times last night it was a bit like watching a cat tormenting a mouse before putting it out of its misery - except of course it ended with the mouse surviving, for now at least anyway.

United and Arsenal might not win the Champions League this season, the odds must be stacked in favour of Barcelona retaining the trophy; if it happens they will become the first-club to do it, and at least the fans of both United and Arsenal will have the small consolation of watching another feast of football in the Bernabeu.


  1. gooner here. Good post.

    A crucial part is that Barca play in a league that encourages that sort of football. You see the smaller teams thay play similar style (even if not as effective), so there is no culture shock when they play in europe. Granted english teams have done well in europe, but that is because of the strength, pace and fitness that is encouraged in the premier league.

    All depends on what type of football you prefer.

  2. There is a lot to say in this regard. Start with Barca. Firstly, I am not sure how representative last night was for them in terms of work rate and offensive potency.

    But lets assume it was: They don't just work hard to close down, they overload in the offensive and middle third, when attacking. They hardly ever lose it cheaply, hence your point about Scholes-like skills, or Cesc, and if/when their moves break down they are all over you making it nearly impossible for teams to come through the middle straight away. This Arsenal didn't realize and couldn't cope with partly b/c Cesc was playing injured and the distance between where we won the ball back and Bendtner was massive. We will adjust for this on the return leg one hopes but I don't know how much this will help to get a result.

    So, are you saying that ManU and the Arse should develop (or buy) midfielders with the skills to overload in the final third, i.e., to never lose the ball? I'd say Cesc, Nasri, Denilson, Diaby, Rosicky, Song and Eboue have this technical ability (weaker than Barca, but better than most in the Premier league with the possible exception of Chelsea and Liverpool). But the work rate of pressing alone just knackers your squad. Arsenal were doing it (a Barca-lite version, if you will) at the beginning of the season and were on pace to score 100 premierleague goals, but couldn't sustain it. I know Barca took their foot off the pedal after going 2-0, but they also looked knackered, too, by the 75th minute. So in fact the lesson is that if you are going to commit so many bodies to swarm-pressing you better be able to shut up shop at the back come the 70th minute late in the season, or have an unassailable lead.

  3. But, that barely addresses what ManU and Arsenal COULD learn from last night. What stood out most was the irritating way the Barca players pirouetted around with the ball. It was never obvious which way they were going to pass. Arsenal's style, and ManU this year seems so direct in contrast. Almost like saying this is what Nani or Arshavin or Palacios is going to do, let's see you stop us. This was Ronaldo to a 'T'. It works in the Premier league. The point would be that you need greater guile at this stage of the champion's league. I would say that United had this guile last few seasons but in their ping-pong medium range passing in the final third, which typically freed up someone at the far or near post as defenses were scrambling and then left stranded. Arsenal still don't do much of this team guile thing. Cesc is the string puller and lead guiler. Other than Arshavin no one else does it very often.

  4. what is there to learn.. you need money to buy the players of the highest calibre.. and by that i dont mean Park J, Micheal C, Denilson, Diaby and certainly not the gunner legend in reverse Barndoor Bendtner!

    and that my friend.. is money that Arsenal is never gonna spend and money that ManU does not have anymore

  5. James, I think that you are right on point about Barca, but this makes me wonder why it is that they have player of that calibre.

    I think that it really comes down to the league quality. Look at the EPL and you have 4 viable candidates to win the UCL every year. The last two years, 3 of the final 4 were EPL teams. After Utd., Arsenal, Chelski, and Liverpool, our 5-10 teams are high quality. Fulham just dipatched Juventus and Everton can easily compete with many European sides. Essentially the EPL is watered down between so many quality sides and considering that, you must really give Fergie credit for what he has done when players can go to so many places.

    Contrast this to Spain where the only great players, with some rare exceptions, go to one of two places. The 3-5 places in Spain are decent but never really challenge the status quo. Add on top of that the ludicrous TV deals that RM and Barca can make (100+ mil GBP to Utd.'s 52 mil) and you can see why they can bring in so many fantastic players.

    If the EPL was only ever a challenge between Utd. and Chelski, with the level of competition and revenue between them and its competitors to that in Spain, Utd. would be unstoppable. But we get by more frugally with the Parks and the Carricks (I am throwing up in my mouth) who can be fantastic supporting players.

    I don't know what we can do with such competition around us while in Spain, you really only have two options unless you don't want to win anything in Valencia. How do you think we can overcome this or do you think that eventually the Spanish revenue system won't sustain itself?

  6. It is really frightening to see what had happen in Emirates. Barcelona totally outplayed in the first half. In the second half in the last few minutes Arsenal then only manage to play slightly better. The possession of Barcelona is 60+% at Emirates. At times, i wonder who is the home team. Barcelona will advance to the final if Arsenal couldn't beat them away. If we manage to go the final, unless there is miracle happen, we can only hope for the best.

  7. Evgenni,

    You're right to ask what can be done. Teams of the calibre of the current Barcelona do not come around that often. At the risk of being hammered by United fans; the nearest I can think of is the Louis van Gaal Ajax team that won the Champions League in 1995 - that team was a bit special.

    Barcelona are raising the bar, and some.

  8. Scott,

    You make some interesting points. Yes, pressing does tire you, but not half as much as chasing the game, and let's be honest the game could have been over by the break.

    Regarding your point about Arsenal; I'm not having a go, but I see the Gunners most weeks on TV and I've never seen them play like Barcelona - though they do try to play the right way - but remember those stats and the points about counter attacking.... There's a lot of hype surrounding the Arsenal and much of it is just that.

    Barcelona's style is refreshing. It isn't built around soaking up pressure and counter-attacking; it is about applying pressure in your oppenents half and then retaining the ball.

    With regard to Fergie (it's too late for him) and Wenger (too late for him also) is that they should be re-evaluating everything about player development at their respective clubs.

    Fergie has spoken in less than glowing terms about certain aspects of the Academy system; I don't know enough about it to pass comment, but I know it sounds like an excuse and frankly there is NO excuse when you're managing a club the size of United.

    IF you read my replies to other posters I hope you get where I'm coming from...

  9. Warsame,

    I enjoy most things about the Premier League, but I also enjoy watching good football: football that centres around passing and movement without aggression; that is partly why watching this Barca team is so refreshing.

    Both Arsenal and United have had their dogs of war: Keane and Vieira to but two. Barca don't have that type of player because they have total belief in a certain way of playing the game.

  10. Thierry,

    I think you've missed the point slightly and maybe I didn't make it clear enough in my post. How many of those Barca players came through their system?

    I'll tell you:
    Puyol: - who by the way I don't actually rate that highly, but he's been a very good player for them.

    Pique: Although he moved to United briefly, he is now one of the best central defenders in the whole of Europe; so much so, that allowing him to leave will prove to be Ferguson's biggest ever dropped bollock. But, if Pique had stayed chances are he'd never have blossomed into the player he has become.

    Iniesta: Didn't feature the other night, but another hugely important player.

    Xavi: the man of the match in last season's final.

    Messi: what more is there to say?

    Pedro: Another emerging talent.

    Now then, in case that doesn't underscore the point I'm making, the issue is twofold. Player development and ethos / total belief in particular way of playing. What's more Barcelona are proving beyond any doubt you do not need big powerful players in the centre of the park, there is another way: you can win by playing attractive football with the little guys.

  11. Hey, very nice blog
    i cant find the 'follow' button to follow the blog .. did you disable it ?


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