Sergio Busquets: Re-inventing the midfield pivot role

Karthik Venkatesh (KV) argues why Sergio Busquets is one of this generation’s most important players. Oh, and why that also makes him the perfect foil to the the sitcom character, Barney Stinson.

Sergio Busquets is the ultimate ‘Bro’ on the pitch. His game is so astonishingly altruistic that he can be fittingly compared to the perfect ‘wingman’ who will do his all to set you up with that girl of your wildest fantasies. Once he gets the ball, it seems like all he does is greet the ball and say; “Hello! Have you met my genius friend, Xavi?” Here are three good reasons why Sergio Busquets is an extremely vital cog in the Barca team and the foremost ‘team player’ in the world today.

Passing Efficiency

The prime reason for Sergio Busquets’ near perfect passing success rate is that he knows where to pass to even before he receives the ball. His awareness of the players around him is extraordinary, enabling him to complete the process of choosing and executing in a matter of seconds. In the game against Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey, Busquets took an average of 1.6(!) seconds to complete a pass. In some cases, he dispatched the ball within a heart attack causing 0.4 seconds. His game is mostly about releasing the ball quickly and it is fair to say that he has more than achieved the goal. In the recently concluded La Liga season, Busquets completed 91.9% of his passes successfully.

Personifying efficiency, Busquets is technically compact, finding solutions in jet speed to pick out a free team mate. He uses the ‘fake’ to a great deal of impact to open up space in a passing lane and also ensures that he hits the ball with minimal rotation, so his team mate can play another one touch pass. Xavi Hernández, quite possibly the greatest midfielder of this generation, describes Sergio Busquets as “fundamental”. He says: “Busi sees you quickly, he always takes the simple option. He reads the game well and moves the ball with precision, in as few touches a possible.” Here is the graph showing the relation between his passes and the time it took to complete them:

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Tactical Intelligence

Sergio Busquets performs a key role as the “pivote” of the team, playing in between defence and attack. This role involves carrying out a number of tasks. In the defensive phase, Busquets crucially moves into space to cut off passing lanes for the opponent, forcing him to play the least dangerous pass. He uses his sharp anticipation skills to win the ball back by intercepting it in midfield and immediately transfer it to a well positioned teammate. His primary function is to ‘receive and release’ and he performs this task flawlessly due to his astute reading of the game and tactical intelligence.

He plays an extremely crucial role in attack also. The basic foundation of Barcelona’s tiki-taka style of play is creating triangles. Busquets, being an imperative component in midfield, moves into space when his teammate has the ball to form triangles and increase passing options. The spontaneity with which he carries out this task is critical to the circulation of the ball and a ‘destroyer’ in midfield would retard the flow of circulation, unlike Busquets. Also, when in possession of the ball, Barcelona morph into several formations ranging from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3, and Busquets dropping deep in between the center backs is the trigger which changes the structure. When he drops in between the center backs, they are allowed to move laterally and cover space out wide. This in turn pushes Daniel Alves higher up the pitch, meaning the right winger cuts inside to make use of space vacated by Messi dropping deep, increasing the number possibilities of attack. Watch how Sergio’s off the ball movement from CDM to CB causes a chain reaction which eventually leads to a goal. “Xavi and Iniesta are the most creative midfielders in the world, but, above all, there is Busquets,” says Javier Mascherano, who is highly regarded to have a keen eye on the beautiful game. “He has the talent to play for any team anywhere in the world, but he’s made to play for this team. Literally, he’s the perfect guy. He robs the ball, he has superb technical skills and brings tactical order. I watch him and try to learn from him.”

Selfless Playing Style

Barcelona, a team obsessed with attacking football and scoring goals, scored a whopping 114 goals in the league last season. Only one of the 114 goals was scored by Sergio Busquets (1goal and 1 assist), a stat which belies the fact the he is a major force in the Barca midfield. Of his one goal, Sergio Busquets jokes that that is an error on his part: “I made a mistake once.” Always preferring to not hog the limelight, Busquets is the ultimate team man, focusing on plugging gaps and covering space, instead of venturing forward and having fun with the likes of Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas. Statistics show, for example, that Dani Alves, nominally Barcelona’s full-back, spends more time in the opposition half than his own. “The coach knows that I am an obedient player who likes to help out and if I have to run to the wing to cover someone’s position, great,” he says. “I genuinely enjoy watching the full-back run up the pitch and going across to fill in. I spend the game calculating: how many on the left? How many on the right?”

Standing 189cm tall, Sergio Busquets standing between his Barcelona teammates looks like Gulliver amidst a bunch of Lilliputians. As comfortable in a scrap as with the ball at his feet, Sergio is ever ready to leap to the defense of his teammates, putting himself in the dangerous situation of getting carded. The perfect amalgam of intelligence and the ability to do the dirty work for others sets him apart from his more famous and celebrated teammates. When questioned about the style of his game, Busquets says: “My only obsession is not to lose the ball and to give my all, make sure I leave it all on the pitch. I am here to help. I have to be intense.” Del Bosque agrees: “He is an example of generosity, always thinking of the needs of the team rather than himself.”

Conclusion

If Barney Stinson, the serial womaniser in the television series “How I Met Your Mother”, ever notices Sergio Busquets doing his job for either Barcelona or Spain, he would at once convince/beg Sergio Busquets to accept the coveted position of being Barney Stinson’s wingman. Even if he has to only utter the lines, “Hi! Have you met my friend Barney?” and leave, Sergio will do it so perfectly that Barney’s efficiency, just like Busquets’ passing efficiency, will touch the ninety percent mark. Such is the effectiveness and impact of Sergio Busquets, the unheralded hero of modern day football.

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Lionel Messi assures his place in the pantheon of the greats

“Lionel is the best player I’ve ever seen, probably the best ever. He made the difference. Messi is unique, a one-off….” Pep Guardiola looked to be drifting off into predictable territory with his eulogy of Lionel Messi after the UEFA Champions League final but he suddenly slipped into a more sombre note when turning his attentions to Lionel Messi: the human being. “….Messi is unique, a one-off,” he continued. “I just hope he doesn’t get fed up. When he doesn’t play well it is because something is wrong with his environment. Let’s hope he can continue playing well.”

The comment was a revealing insight into Messi’s character because the player we all know and admire derives so much joy from kicking a football that is hard to imagine how he can ever fall out of love with the game. But beneath his unflustered exterior perhaps lies a more vulnerable character who, until recently, has had to do a lot of growing up. Ronald Reng writes for FT Weekend Magazine that Messi “has a pleasant lack of interest in the world, which protects him from the blandishments of the football circus.” Thus, he cares little for fashion and prefers to stay indoors – a rarity it must be said in the Spanish culture – while he watches minimal football on television. All his attention is focused on the moment he kicks the ball.

On the pitch, Messi plays by instinct and is guided by whatever means allows him to get the ball the most and in dangerous positions. It’s because of this operational mastery that it is sometimes better to strip him of any great tactical responsibility and allow him to express himself the fullest. His former coach, Frank Rijkaard, attempted to mould Messi into a tactically, more robust player perhaps misunderstanding that the greater advantage lies in granting him more freedom. Messi almost construed this as an act of punishment saying, “I cried a lot because Rijkaard was so hard on me.” In the grand scheme of things, it has helped make Messi the player he is but Guardiola has handled him better, subliminally channelling his genius into a tactical framework which gets the best out of him. Messi’s movement is overwhelmingly a team ploy, wreaking havoc with opposition marking structures and he runs harder than anyone to win the ball back. Perhaps it’s this environment which Guardiola was alluding to earlier on; that Messi needs the encouragement to play his game and should not be too bogged down by tactical quirks. Because all he wants to do is play football. “When I have the ball at my feet, I don’t think, I just play,” said Messi. “On the football field, my only thought is: ‘Give me the ball!’ I don’t invent dribbles. I don’t work out any moves. Everything simply comes from instinct.” Guardiola identified this as soon as he took over the reigns at Barcelona, his chief scout Pep Boade, telling Simon Kuper in 2009, that Guardiola had “structured a Messi strategy. If John Terry kicks Messi, the whole team will protect him.” Even though he doesn’t go out, the club say they will do all they can to make Messi feel happy, feel part of the city.

Lionel Messi’s presence in greatness has surely been confirmed by his European Cup exerts but at 23 and still maturing, the question is how great he will be. Pep Guardiola is in no doubt he is the best ever. So good in fact, it’s as if has implied that Messi may even get fed up of being better than the rest. Of course that’s not true but at the moment, he has no parallel. Cristano Ronaldo may have pipped him to the Golden Shoe but the Portuguese midfielder is a maverick and his pursuit for individual glory was put into perspective by Messi’s team play. As Jonathan Wilson writes for Sports Illustrated, “the greatest greats — Pele, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Ferenc Puskas, Franz Beckenbauer, Alfred Di Stefano — were all individually gifted, great team men. Messi may not have won the Golden Boot or the pichichi this season, but he is an awful lot closer to joining them than Ronaldo.”

Certainly any attempts to justify Messi’s place as the greatest of the greats, as many have argued and others against, prove to be highly subjective. You could say he does things that others don’t but so does Xavi Hernandez, who must be considered the best constructor and Messi, the best destructor. And what about Sergio Busquets? The man Xavi calls “the best midfielder there is playing one-touch.”

Ossie Ardiles, a World Cup winner with Argentina in 1978, argues that the game is at its peak now and that puts Messi above the likes of Diego Maradona and Pele.  Ardiles said: “the modern game helps goalscorers and the ball players; the pitches are better, the boots are better, the rules have been altered to favour the attacking players… the way the players look after their bodies, the way that clubs and national sides employ so many people to look after their bodies, with what they eat, and just about everything you can think of.”

The argument, however, can be labelled as biased against those of the older generations because the environments were markedly different then and were out of their power to shape. Sure, there was more scope for one to differentiate one self but they did it in spite of those environmental disadvantages. Logic says it’s not possible to compare players out of their time period and it would probably be better if you judge their relative superiority in that era and compare the differences. It’s still an imperfect measure but if it’s the method that’s used, it weighs in favour of Messi.

Lionel Messi’s rise has been inexorable but if demographic trends are anything to go by, he shouldn’t have made it as a football player. His story in itself is already astonishing as at 11, he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency before the intervention of Barcelona at 5’6 but he’s still 2 inches short of the average Argentinean male. But sport is increasingly an athletic one and at the top-level, they have been steadily growing bigger, getting stronger, fitter and faster. And while Messi satisfies three of those criteria, if you compare it with other sports, Messi goes against those humanistic trends. Of course, football is a peculiar sport because it’s more skill-based therefore physique is not definitive. Indeed, natural conditioning is reaching its peak and, at the highest level, that will expose technique – a factor Barcelona are ahead of and others still catching up – culminating in the rise of the “little men.”

<Figure 1>How Sportsmen Grew From the 1980’s to Now. Source: Observer Sport Monthly January 2010, Issue No. 118

From a tactical point of view, Messi is also innovative, first inspiring the now universal use of “inverted wingers” and now leading the charge for the “false nine.” In the role Messi is a creator but unlike the game’s other great creators – Ferenc Puskas, Pelé, Michel Platini and Diego Maradona – who played behind another forward, he tends to have no fixed position. Perhaps only Johan Cruyff and Alfredo Di Stefano have played similarly in a forward role. Again, attempts to justify a player’s greatness positionally proves futile because it is almost discriminatory to those players who sacrificed themselves for the team ethos; a factor so key in football. Similarly futile is scorning the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo just because the coach chooses to get the best out of him in a position which is perhaps not as central as a playmaker but is still pivotal.

Some argue Messi wouldn’t be as effective without the groundwork of the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta and point to his international record as proof. Yet, apart from two separate periods when he stoked up a partnership with Juan Roman Riquelme and now under Sergio Batista, he has had to play with broken teams. In the World Cup of 2010 he nevertheless carried an exciting and at the same time, vulnerable Argentina side. When the balance is right in international level, he can be the difference as he so often is for Barcelona as displayed –- ironically — against Spain in a match they won 4-1. In the Champions League final against Manchester United, the defenders were visibly scared of him, backing off to gift space for the last two goals in the 3-1 win and his movement and potency effectively made the space for the first. Messi is overwhelmingly a team player and drifts to where he feels appropriate. Rinus Michels may have been the man who originated the theory of Total Football but it is widely recognised that it was Cruyff who breathed life into those most complex of plans and Messi is doing similar at Barcelona. Guardiola acknowledges he is the difference. The best he’s ever seen. Probably the best ever. Messi is unique. Messi is a one-off.

Barcelona sends Arsenal crashing back down to earth

Barcelona 3-1 Arsenal (4-3 aggregate): Messi 45, Busquets (og) 53, Xavi 69, Messi (pen) 71.

Arséne Wenger’s men are often too ready to accept their role as beautiful martyrs, highlighting the negativity of their opponents and bad refereeing as causes of their downfall. At Camp Nou, they may have been right to aggrieve the latter, never the former, although in football, much is about managing luck and that Arsenal escaped two penalty decisions has seemingly not registered with their arguments. Perhaps there is a saneness to that action because a penalty at 0-0 and subsequently at 1-0 when Pedro was brought down, wouldn’t have “killed the game” as Wenger exclaimed. When the harsh red-card was given, it certainly deprived the encounter of its competitive edge.

Arsenal was seemingly back in the game after Sergio Busquets headed into his own net following a painfully one-sided first-half which ended with a delightful Lionel Messi goal. And once Robin van Persie was played behind on 55 minutes, there was a feeling Barcelona had lost some of its sharpness; the constant probing and rummaging of Arsenal from left to right in the first period and asphyxiating hard press beginning to take its toll. But the Dutchman was flagged for an offside and then inexplicably called back for a second yellow for taking a shot. One second had elapsed since van Persie took his first touch and shot wide but that was enough for Massimo Busacca to deem it as time wasting. To be fair to the Swiss referee, he had already made clear of his no-nonsense attitude after booking Bakary Sagna for throwing the ball away but he similarly overlooked the Darth Vader Death Grip performed by both Eric Abidal and Adriano a few minutes earlier. And what of the referees role in the modern game? Shouldn’t it be, not just to uphold the spirit of the game but with so much at stake and the mass televisation of football, encouraged to let the game be played as competitively as reasonably possible? Howard Webb was derided by the mass audience for not showing more leniency and understanding to the significance of the event in World Cup Final of 2010 and Busacca should similarly be examined for a soft red-card.

However, to fixate on the red-card alone is perhaps missing the point because before then this was utter superiority in its purest form. Sure, the tie may have taken a different course but as the Madrid based newspaper, AS wrote, “Arsenal, despite Wenger’s complaints, didn’t have a shot at [Víctor] Valdés once. And even so, they were just a step away from making the quarter-finals.”

Here, Barcelona seemingly wiped away any notion of Arsenal’s identity. The rapid passing, the quick interchange of players, the dynamic speed in which it can create an attack was non-existent. Passes never found a sequence; it was as if Arsenal was passing to prime numbers. This was because not only did Barcelona monopolise the ball, they owned space and viciously hounded The Gunners off the ball whenever it had possession. They completed 24 interceptions, the majority in the final third of the pitch and you could say the Cesc Fábregas error was forced by their intense pressing of the opponent. Arsenal couldn’t get out of its own half and the final statistic, 20 shots to 0 tells it’s own story of Barcelona’s domination. In Lionel Messi, Barcelona has the man that can make the difference and more often than not, he does. His goal was sumptuously taken, flicking the ball over Manuel Almunia before shooting in an empty net. And around that, he was at the heart of every dangerous move from Barcelona although there must also be credit given to Xavi, who finished the second after a great move and Andres Iniesta for his assists for the two goals.

Tactical Errors from Wenger

Arsenal tried to reproduce its gameplan from the first-leg by pressing up the pitch and conceding the wings so it didn’t lose its compactness. Abou Diaby came in for Alex Song and produced a competent display; his presence also helping to smother Messi early on. However the first two selectional mistakes Wenger made was to bring in Tomas Rosicky for the injured Theo Walcott and despite their obvious qualities, two players clearly lacking in match sharpness in van Persie and Fábregas. The pair may have been passed fit but that in itself should not have been used to make the decision on whether to start the two. Fitness tests doesn’t necessarily give a great indication on the intensity they would have to exert and it was evident that both men were behind the rest after twenty minutes. Their lack of fitness gave no intensity to the press high up the pitch and that forced Arsenal to defend ever more deeper. But Arsenal didn’t park the bus, it was just unable to get out of its own half. Much to do with Barcelona’s pressing but the lagging intensity levels of the front men and the inability to break past the press, did it for The Gunners. “They attack less. Maybe they play to keep the result,” Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said. “The reality is that they were not able to string together three consecutive passes and they were not able to shoot once on goal.”

barcelona-interceptions

Bringing in Rosicky also showed Wenger’s fixation on keeping Barcelona quiet when the presence of Andrei Arshavin or Nicklas Bendtner may have allowed Arsenal of an out-ball. There was no speed in the transition and evidently, Arsenal relied much on Samir Nasri on the break because Rosicky and Fabregas were unable to help get support to van Persie. It all seems quite harsh on the manager to point out selection discrepancies, especially with such a big decision going against them and the sheer quality of Barcelona but the team defended well and that for one deserves some credit even if it seems inferior to say that.

Barcelona sets the benchmark

In Spain they believe Barcelona is the best team in 30 years or so and it is hard not to agree with that assertion. The quality of its own league hinders it acknowledgement as the worlds best, especially with Real Madrid also dismantling La Liga opponents with relative ease yet no one does it in the style Barcelona does. There is an argument the team is too dependent on Lionel Messi and in this game, perhaps that showed but the Real Madrid side of the 1950/60’s were heavily influenced by the genius of Alfredo Di Stéfano yet that does not stop them from being so revered. There is another assertion that, through all their technical brilliance, they play one pass too many but again that is merely clutching at straws and and acknowledged of how good they can still be. Nevertheless, it should be up to the opponents to a) stop the amount of passes played by Barcelona and b) have a respectable amount of its own. That defending to keep a clean sheet for the whole game is seen as a achievement further underlines Barcelona’s greatness and one still waits for the day where a team can compete with them for possession. That Arsenal did try to fight fire with fire and succeeded with a win at The Emirates saw this blog exclaim the game as the best of the modern era because no one else has come close using tactics which can be considered as “proactive.”

AS put Arsenal’s struggles in the 3-1 defeat in the context of just how superior Barcelona is to the rest of the football stratosphere. “Arsenal yesterday spent 90 minutes pursuing what is their hallmark in the [British] Isles. But there, there is no Barça.” Arsenal has Manchester United next. The best team in England. But, in their own right, a long way away from being Barcelona.

The art of defence is in attack for Barcelona and Arsenal

It is a celebrated part of Arsenal’s history but Herbert Chapman’s revolutionary tactics were initially received with much furore. The seeds of the change that was to see the W-M formation (or 3-2-2-3) supersede the 2-3-5 were planted in Chapman’s spell in charge of Huddersfield when in 1922, in the FA Cup final game against Notts County, his side won the trophy in a scrappy affair. However, the FA were not pleased with the way Chapman sent out his side because they felt it went against the “right way to play.” It wasn’t that they were incensed with the amount of “niggly” fouls on show in the final but the way Chapman had purposely deployed, what they saw, as a defensive strategy by dropping his centre-half very deep, almost as a third centre-back. Chapman took those tactics to Arsenal where the W-M formation was finally borne out with the aim to win the match, almost at all costs a strategy which Chapman later came to regret. (It remains a strategy that is still the primary objective of most teams and their success measured by the league table). Bernard Joy, writing in Forward Arsenal! gives a greater insight to his tactics: “The secret is not attack, but counter-attack….We at Arsenal achieved our end by deliberately drawing on the opponents by retreating and funneling to our own goal, holding the attack at the limits of the penalty box, and then thrusting quickly away by means of long passes to our wingers.”

The Arsenal of today may be a direct opposite of those such ideals but tonight at Camp Nou, they will be forced to borrow some of the tactics of Chapman’s side from yore. “We will have to [play another way] because it’s one of the few games where we will spend 60 per cent of the time defending,” said manager Arséne Wenger. And that’s no over-statement from Wenger – in fact, it may be a bit hopeful because this season, in 44 matches played by Barcelona in all competitions, the lowest share of the possession they have accrued is an astonishing 61%. Two times and both against Valencia. To put that into context, Arsenal only managed to let Pep Guardiola’s side have 66% of the ball in its 2-1 win.

But there was also something a bit un-defensive about Arsenal’s strategy in the game at The Emirates that makes it distinguishable from those who have faced Barcelona before them.

At the Emirates, there was an unwavering desire from Arsenal not just to stop Barcelona from playing but looking to play, as much as it could, their own game. Their strategy was asphyxiating to the point where the distances between the first line of defence – the attack – and the last line – the back-four – was not much more that 25 metres apart and at some moments, even closer to 15metres. Arsenal’s defence was proactive; they played a high-line, pressed up the pitch although perhaps not all the way up to the centre-backs as they knew the danger of losing shape and stuck tight to Barcelona’s carousel of ball-players. Some labelled it as “parking the bus in front of the goal” and in some respects it was true but more apt will have been a defensive block in the second quarter of the pitch. Arsenal was like a black cloud, swirling and snarling at Barcelona’s feet while it tried to keep passing.

The Gunner’s success this season has been all about the unit and those arguing that Arsenal, as beautiful martyrs, can’t have both a good attack and defence, have been proven wrong. The notion that the two styles are mutually exclusive simply isn’t true. In fact, there seems to be a whole swirl of clichés and truisms that surround the Arsenal Football Club that just do not stand up. Yes, the team is prone to making a few defensive errors which are more a matter of mentality that contrive to throw open a game but it has been an example that modern clubs can be highly-integrated like a machine but still produce expressionist football. In the last nine matches, Arsenal concedes less than 2 shots on target per match and have kept seven clean sheets in nine. “We have to fight against the pre-conceived ideas because the only way of thinking is that Arsenal cannot defend,” said Wenger. “I will just remind you that in the last seven games [actually nine] we have seven clean sheets in the Premier League, we have conceded less goals than Man United who have a very good defence.”

Defence can be an effective form of defence as Barcelona has also shown. They will pass a team to submission because put simply, if you don’t have possession, you can’t attack Barcelona. And when you do get it, you can be sure that you are a) too tired b) committed too many resources back to stop the attack and/or c) Barcelona will press you at all angles quickly in order to win the ball back. The back four are far better than they are given credit for but it is not only about who starts in defence – as Barcelona will have to prove with both Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique unavailable – defending starts with the ball and thus the back-four doesn’t remain a four but rather, becomes a back-eleven. Both Arsenal and Barcelona uses the Dutch principles of through-marking to aid their closing down although while Arsenal’s is more structured, Barcelona try and ensure the ball is won back as quickly as possible. The Gunners use a 4-2-3-1 that transforms into a  4-4-1-1, the Blaugrana opt for an adaptive 4-3-3/3-4-3. But as shown in the first-leg, a team cannot maintain a hard press for the whole 90-minutes. The Ajax side of the 70 would naturally lose intensity at around 70 minutes while, under Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Dynamo Kyiv used to implement “false press” during games to give itself a rest from true pressing. The substituition to bring on Seydou Keita for David Villa last time round was a confirmation that pressing high up the pitch would be difficult to maintain so Guardiola went and added another man in the midfield. Arsenal will surely have to weather out the early storm before sensing their best chance, should they survive, after 60 minutes. Guardiola will prepare for this but his main hope will be getting the goal that will put them in the lead.

Arsenal will need to keep defending as it did at the Emirates – squeezing space to stop Barcelona thriving in the final third.  It is risky but those are the margins against best side in the world. For the Catalan club, passing to keep the ball is the least riskiest strategy, for one because they are wondrously accurate with it but all the more important, because as Pep Guardiola says, they are “horrible” off it. Strategic defending and studious work on positional play, they say, will compensate for a lack of height. Arsenal though will feel they can take advantage. If the chance comes. The encounter may be seen as a match pitting attack vs attack but both sides know defence will be just as important.

Modern football reaches a pantheon. Arsenal prevails in attack vs attack

Arsenal's Johan Djourou, at left, with teammates Alex Song, centre and Emmanuel Eboue, at right, challenge for the ball with Barcelona's Lionel Messi during a Champions League, round of 16, first leg soccer match at Arsenal's Emirates stadium in London, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Tom Hevezi)

Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona (First Leg)

This was a match where every detailed seemed to matter just that bit more. Every pass was stressed. Every shot was scrutinised. Every contested challenge, dribble and interception was crucial. Every bounce of Lionel Messi’s hair. The timing of Theo Walcott’s runs. Refereeing decisions. Pep Guardiola’s catwalk struts down the touchline. Every unscrewing of Arsene Wenger’s bottle cap. Every inch Victor Valdes left exposed at his near post. Every substitution. Each moment of ascendancy had to be taken. Those were the margins and fortunately enough, a huge dose of Lady Luck went Arsenal’s way also.

Barcelona played Arsenal off the park for the first forty-five minutes. Or so it should have been. Lionel Messi was sensational in dropping deep and collecting possession then running at Arsenal’s back-line. But Arsenal tried it’s darnest to limit his threat and for keeping it 1-0 and sticking religiously to their gameplan, it nevertheless must go down as a fantastic first-half effort. After the break, however, Arsenal ramped up their intensity and it was Barcelona who looked like they may buckle. Granted, Pep Guardiola’s side had plenty of the possession but that was expected. The Gunners continued to play pro-actively, undeterred by their so-called superior’s level of technical ability. And for that the game must go down as the best of the modern era. Manchester United and Chelsea in the Champions League in 2008 may have been a compelling advert for the speed and power of the evolving game but this was how football should be played: with an unerring technical accuracy, tempo and tactical complexity.

But it is more significant given that Arsenal has beaten the best team of the current generation and one who is light-years ahead of the rest because of the philosophy bestowed onto them by Johan Cruyff (although their financial ethics must be questioned). Whenever anyone has played the Catalan giants, they almost certainly contest in one way; to defend deep and look to counter attack and all with an air of inevitability and fear. Only Villarreal has deferred from the modus operandi but it has only served to highlight the difficulties of facing Barcelona at their own game. “You’re always on the border of collapsing against them,” said Arsène Wenger, after last night’s 2-1 victory and it seemed like it may go that way for Arsenal as well after they made a fantastic start to the game in the first ten minutes. Somehow a good ten minutes becomes a positive thing when facing Barcelona.

Arsenal fought fire with fire and although the possession count was a superior 66%-34% to Barcelona, it was not as if The Gunners tried to concede possession to their opponents. Arsenal pressed and squeezed Barcelona. It worked but at the same time, failed to work also. Messi had a fantastic chance when he chipped wide when one-on-one with Wojcjech Szczesny and had a goal disallowed for offside. But the highly integrated, highly compact pressing from Arsenal, which at most times was never 25 metres apart from the first line of defence to the last, constantly broke up play.  Arsenal’s best play was mostly on the turnover but fortune favours the brave and as a result, they also had their fair share of possession. Jack Wilshere in particular was so impressive that he never gave the ball away in the first-half. He had a composure in front of defence beyond his years and a discipline which was crucial to the moment. The central midfield pair delegated roles accordingly, as Alex Song continued charging for the ball, knowing that he was the better tackler and Wilshere the better circulator.

Arsenal did get a bit of joy when defeating the first line of Barcelona pressing which consisted on Pedro, Messi and David Villa. The threesome tried to close the defenders down high up the pitch but if Arsenal bypassed it, they found space down the wings because it exposed Xavi and Andres Iniesta in the middle. Emmanuel Eboue galloped up and down while Samir Nasri had Dani Alves in knots at times. But by also keeping the front three high up the pitch and the keep ball that Barcelona are capable of, it sucked Walcott and Nasri, in particular, centrally and Alves himself continued bombing up and down.

Arsenal’s strategic defending

It is true Messi had a barnstormer in the first-half but he was eventually squeezed out for big periods in the second. Lethargy had a part to play but also, Barcelona cannot really be asked to defend for 90 minutes and against a team like Arsenal, it was also going to concede chances on the break. Arsenal’s tactic was as it has always been this season; strategic defending that incorporates the Dutch principles of through-marking and winning the ball back quickly. Through-marking sees the players behind the first presser looking to eliminate the next pass through tight-marking and close attention. It is highly dependent on the structure and distances between players and Arsenal’s 4-4-1-1 in the press, which was Arrigo Sacchi-esque, ensured the team could match up well numerically. Laurent Koscielny typified the strategy as he continued to nick the ball away from the Barcelona attackers.

Much was to be made of the two central defender’s style before the game and by the end, showed that their style of winning the ball back quickly, which has been the mantra of Arsenal’s defensive strategy this season, was a masterstroke. The high-line got them in to trouble on occasions but apart from a Messi miss and a lack of concentration from Gael Clichy, it worked to great effect. Villa tried to take advantage by getting in between Johan Djourou and Koscielny and in that one instance, it worked.

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<Figure 1> Arsenal’s defensive outline. Arsenal squeezed the play, looking to stop Barcelona from playing their game. Their backline was adventurously high and that meant at most times, a distance of 25 metres between attack and defence.

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<Figure 2> Lionel Messi’s completed passes. Arsenal’s compactness shows in Messi’s passing graph. The Argentine had a free striker role and dropped deep to collect possesion but Arsenal tried not to let him get into the final third. (Courtesy of Zonal Marking and Total Football iphone app.)

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<Figure 3> Arsenal Interceptions (Courtesy ofSleepy_Nik and and Total Football iphone app.)

In the second-half, Arsenal was more effective, more tighter and this allowed the side to comeback in the fashion that they did. Robin van Persie’s goal had a bit of good fortune but the build up was just what Wenger would have wanted. Quick passing, quick interchange and dynamic movement. Clichy’s dinked pass had Gerard Pique a bit flat-footed, enough for van Persie to exploit. Andrey Arshavin’s goal was even better as an interception at the edge of their own box started a crisp counter attack which saw two great passes by Wilshere and Cesc Fabregas to free Nasri and he showed fantastic composure to tee-up Arshavin to place home.

Much was made of Guardiola’s substitution of David Villa for Seydou Keita. In one sense it was defining but you could understand his reasoning. Barcelona was losing the dynamism and potency that their possession game is famed for and as a result Villa was kept quiet. He wanted to retain control and defend via possession; however, it only served to hand some initiative to Arsenal. Wenger was spot on with his substitutions which saw Nasri just hold his position deeper with Fabregas also dropping back and Nicklas Bendtner replacing Walcott. Guardiola’s tactic, however, also showed his flaws as he wanted to make a artistic impression when the game should have been killed off –  to teach an educational lesson with their belief in keeping the ball on the floor and moving at all times.

“We made more chances and in general terms, we have had a very good game,” said Guardiola. “But Arsenal is good at playing the position and exposing the weaknesses. When they get past the first pressure line, they are very fast. For many years they have set an example in Europe.”

The return leg at Camp Nou promises to be special and judging by the last three games against each other, the first-half will be crucial. But right now, Arsenal can celebrate even though the game is only at the halfway point. They have beaten the best team in the world and in a style that never at one moment, betrayed their own. This was a game where ascendancy had to taken. Where every moment was crucial. When football reached a pantheon. When Arsenal prevailed in attack versus attack.

How do you stop Lionel Messi?

Even the most extensive database on earth can find no solution. Try typing into Google, “How to stop Messi” and while it produces 2,660,000 search results, none come anywhere close to answering the million pound question. When Arsenal faced Barcelona in the Champions League last season, they resisted the calls to treat Lionel Messi with special dispensation but instead, they considered him the same as everyone else and the results were disastrous. Messi was instrumental in the first leg as Arsène Wenger’s side survived an onslaught in the first twenty minutes but in the second leg at Camp Nou, delivered what he so promised at the Emirates as he ran amok to complete a devastating  twenty-one minute hat-trick.

He’s not omnipotent although his mother tells us he is just angelic. Nor is he a mutant although his minute stature is because of a hormone defect he had as a youngster which enables humans to grow. And he certainly isn’t a holographic character, which, essentially some have described him as. (Theo Walcott and Arsène Wenger, “Messi’s like a PlayStation”). He is simply a human being. An extraordinary one at that, however, and one so ahead of his peers at this current moment that there was no doubt he was to be crowned FIFA’s world player of the year despite Xavi’s most mesmeric efforts. This season, Messi has scored an amazing 40 goals in 34 games, a feat which Cristiano Ronaldo is doing his darnest to try and make look as insignificant as possible. (Currently Ronaldo has 34 goals in 36 games and the rivalry should prove to be the most defining of a generation since Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbaur).

When Arsenal faces Barcelona in Wednesday’s clash at The Emirates, the immediate question will be whether or not they should man-mark Messi and the answer will almost certainly be “no.” Wenger will put faith in his team’s ability to squeeze Messi out of the game through their improving structural pressing. It is tactic that is to be admired and it is only one of the two ways to approach Barcelona.

Man marking

The supposed problem with marking Lionel Messi is that invariably you neglect the other individuals that make Barcelona brilliant. And there are a lot of those. But it is also a risk that it may be worth taking as it strips Pep Guardiola’s side of their most spontaneous player and that is more easier, in theory, to defend against. Taking Messi out of the game, some argue, leaves you essentially facing Spain, a weak argument perhaps given that there are massive structural differences not to mention changes in personnel but it serves to highlight the dynamism Messi gives. Wenger was virtually implying that very point in the 4-1 defeat last season although he knew that if he did state it pointedly, questions will be fired back at why he didn’t detail a man to follow the Argentinian. But can you really mark Messi out of a game because his impact goes beyond what he does on the ball? Sticking close to him creates space elsewhere for others to exploit and also leaves you with one man short in another area of the pitch while his movement is always proactive, always finding ways to be useful in one way or another. Chelsea did that successfully in 2009 as Jose Bosingwa followed him from left-back but it was with an ultra-defensive approach Arsenal is not willing to take.

That was two years ago and it shows just how far tactically Barcelona have come to stop such instances occurring again. Messi has now almost exclusively played a free role, last season behind the forward, this season as the central forward. If Arsenal have plans for any such individuals, positioning will almost always complicate them.

On the right

With Barcelona’s formation, there is bound to be some interchangeability with Messi swapping with Pedro at some point in the game, and the right-winger shifting into David Villa’s position as he takes up the striking role. On the right, Messi will look to drift infield by initially starting on the right. Dani Alves will bomb forward regardless, nevertheless, his central tendencies will open up space for the Brazilian right-back. Barcelona’s keep ball means there is a constant movement of players and while it would seem like Messi is drifting into a congested area, it will certainly make space for someone else. If anything, it will give Barcelona a spare man centrally – a tactic Chelsea used well in their 2-0 win over Arsenal earlier this season as Florent Malouda occupied Alex Song, affording Ashley Cole the space to get forward. Arsenal’s wide men will almost certainly have to track back but there is still much onus on Song and Jack Wilshere to shuffle right and left. One can envisage a similar scenario for the pair to contend with while even moving centrally alerts the two centre-backs of a player entering their zone and one will at some point have to cover him.

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<figure 1>1.Messi cuts in from a right-wing position therefore creating the space for Alves to run into. 2. By occupying his place in the centre it gives Barca a man advantage but also engages either the full-back to push out of position, a centre-back to push out or a midfielder to watch him. If Messi plays on the rihjt, it’s not an undesirable position because it means Arsenal can double up and squeeze him out the gmae but here he tries to ensure a man advantage. 3. The space that Koscielny vacates is spotted by Villa who looks to make a darting run behind.

False nine

Messi, however, is likely to play as a false nine. It is a tactical trend which Arsenal have been at the forefront in recent times and with Robin van Persie being able to combine dropping off with the timing of runs off the shoulder of the defender, have a striker for Barcelona to worry about. Nevertheless, it’s Messi which is the focus and his deployment in the position has scratched many-a-heads. Opposition are unsure of whether to stick tight or stay back and at most times, are left to do neither. Central defenders hate marking space, at that is particularly true of Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny, who prefer to win the ball back quickly. As they don’t fancy marking space, they invariably push up and that creates space behind. With Barcelona using two wide forwards, Pedro and Villa will look to take advantage, not to mention the effervescent Alves and the wily thinking of Xavi.

As mentioned, Koscielny and Djourou like to get tight, which at first seems tactical suicide, but if they do get it right, it could be a master stroke. The best option is still to play deep against a false nine and against Barcelona in general. They seldom look to do the orthodox even if their spectacular is made to look mightily easy. Inter did that last season in the most defensive of approaches although their first leg 3-1 win serves as a protocol. The kept their three strikers up the pitch and defended in a unit that shifted left and right (similar to Arsenal’s). But Barcelona are not oblvious to the ploy of defending deep, so instead of looking  to play into opponents hands by playing an orthodox forward who will play as the same line as them, they look to drag the defenders out by playing with the space in front. Arsenal will have to patient as it will be the greatest test the youngsters have faced mentally.

There is another salient point and that is how Messi has adapted to the centre-forward position. It is not an inhibiting role although it puts him closer to defenders as it may have seemed for Wayne Rooney. He is still encouraged to find space but in a sense he’s liberated as he’s playing higher up and is more ambiguous than before.

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<figure 2>1.Messi drops off into a  false nine position thereby committing one of the centre-backs to follow him. 2. The effect is two-fold on the defence. Djourou is then made to shuffle across to help cover the space and likewise is the right-back as he doesn’t want to create a too big a gap between he and Djourou. Either way, Villa looks to take advantage of the extra space by hugging the touchline or looking to get behind.

Arsenal pressing

Arsenal will stay true to their word and look to press up the pitch. It will be crucial, then to form an effective wall that frustrates Barcelona’s passers. Sergio Busquets is the best one touch passer in the world but Arsenal should not worry about him. Stopping Xavi and Andres Iniesta from getting to the supply line will be key. It may be more effective then, for Arsenal to drop Cesc Fabregas back to make a five man midfield rather than press as a 4-2-4 as they have this season. Last season at the Camp Nou, the tactic failed because The Gunners pressed with a 4-1-4-1, taking out the rest with one pass and exposing Denilson; this season, the adoption of the Dutch principles of through-marking should help Arsenal stay compact and squeeze the space. This will stop Messi because as Alves says and in some ways displayed by Argentina’s abject failure in the World Cup, it’s the team that must be stopped first. “I believe the secret to marking Messi is to not worry about marking him,” says Alves. “Because he doesn’t play alone and has a team by his side. That’s the key to marking Messi.”

Villarreal pressing in 1-1 draw last season. Pep Guardiola: “In the game, we were unable to score a decisive second goal. We struggled to get past Villarreal’s first line of pressure in the pitch and that made the match an end to end affair.”

How do short, on the move strikers at Barcelona help break the bus?

Barcelona’s clever use of short, tricky forwards have made them an unpredictable force against defensive-minded teams and particularly have allowed Lionel Messi to revel. By Karthik (KV)
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At Camp Nou, Barcelona fielded a forward line of Messi, Bojan and Pedro to battle it out against the determined defense of Arsenal. One similarity between these players that springs to our mind is their height – all three are 170cm or less. How then did these players, with their slight build and a hardly awe-inspiring physique wreak havoc to Arsenal’s backline?

Movement

Movement is to Barcelona what oil is to a machine. Barcelona, arguably the most attacking team in the world, encounters teams week in and week out which just park the bus in front of their goal to stop Barcelona from scoring and playing freely. They are a side who rely heavily on movement to breakdown defenses and score goals. They require a well drilled, fast and a quick thinking frontline for their team to function properly. Bojan, who is an out-and-out striker by trade, possesses all these qualities. He is technically brilliant, intelligent, blessed with great ball control, balance, vision and devastating acceleration. “There are only a few players who have a magical touch,” the Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola said, “and Bojan is one of them.” As the spearhead of the attack, his movement along with Messi’s is vital to opening up space elsewhere for other players to make the most of. This cannot be more critical as the relentless machine that is Barcelona function superlatively only if there is no one restricting the flow. They need to keep getting better and find better ways to disintegrate defenses.

The unorthodox forward

In the olden times of England, the centre-forward tended traditionally to be a big target-man figure – what Brian Glanville intelligently labels as “the brainless bull at the gate”. His job was, essentially, to meet crosses and hold up the ball with his imposing form. Elsewhere, though, where skill was prioritized over physicality, he soon became something rather more subtle, and there is evidence to suggest that by the 1920s it was not uncommon for centre-forwards in central Europe and in Latin America to drop deep and roam around the ground freely. Over time, we have seen hybrid strikers who can hold the ball up and also play as a false nine leading the attack for most of the big clubs. But Bojan is a different type of striker. He may not quite offer the flexibility of style but he moves about the pitch without restraint in search of open spaces. This enhances the fluency of movement which the likes of Xavi and Iniesta crave for. “People think we had these big strong players, but we had guys like Evani and Donadoni who were slight. No they became big strong players because of their positioning and movement. That’s what made them seem big” said Arrigo Sacchi. Similarly, the likes of Messi, Bojan and Pedro compensate for their slight physique with intelligent movement and by dropping between the lines. Bojan is capable of playing on the wings too, which adds to his versatility.

The Decoy

Basketball is a game which is all about movement the movement of players on court. Teams plan beforehand and devise intricate plays to attract double teams and isolate a player. As play is generally compressed into one half, it is extremely interesting how much impact a simple movement from the center to the wing makes enough space for the man on the ball to drive inside. The man off the ball is as important as the man with it. The same comparison can be made on attacking teams like Barcelona, Arsenal and Manchester United which rely heavily on movement of players to score goals. Lionel Messi, most certainly the best player in the world, is used as a decoy by Pep Guardiola. The goals in the first leg of the quarterfinal match against Arsenal, demonstrate this. Defenders are attracted to him and neglect the presence of other players, who are just as capable of inflicting damage. In the average position graph above, we can clearly see the amount of space available for Xavi (6) to thread in his passes. Messi (10) has the ability to attract the direction of play towards him. With their movement, they will be able to outwit bigger and brawny defenders, which may be why Silvestre was drafted in place of Sol Campbell.

The Arshavin experiment

Arsene Wenger’s love for short players with meteoric acceleration led to his brief experiment with Andrey Arshavin, a shrewd player, up top as a Center Forward was largely a failure. Arshavin, who is 172 cm high, relied on swift movement to create space for others. But, due to the injury crisis at that time, the right personnel weren’t there to take advantage of his movements. Lack of penetration and dynamism on the wings were major reasons for the failure. But pushing Fabregas higher up the pitch seemed to be the right solution but the return of Bendtner, a hybrid striker himself, ended the short-lived experiment.

What next?

Will we see more of the Bojans and the Messis leading the line? May be not on a regular basis as things may get one-dimensional and easy to defend against. What the hybrid striker offers is flexibility of styles and options for the manager when things are not going as per plan. Ibrahimovic is certainly not the ‘brainless bull in front of the gate’ type of player. They may present an alternative such as the long ball, but not quite the fluency of movement that the players like Bojan and Messi offer. But they too are versatile in their own way, which may see more being deployed up front in the near future.

Next up: Analysing Arsenal’s Pressing Game.