Taking a break from studying and figuring out applications needed for my group’s project for class, I started watching some of the highlights from the UCL championship game between FC Barcelona and Manchester United from Saturday afternoon. After watching the game on Saturday, I was kinda disappointed that Man United got beat handily by the team from Spain. Granted, I’m an Arsenal fan and definitely no Man United fan, I figured they would have prepared a bit better for the match when in fact they didn’t. The point of this article though isn’t to criticize Man United’s approach because they had to go about their own way to try to beat Barca.
The point of this article is understanding Barcelona’s approach to the game. What people don’t realize is that this team is, for the most part, the polar opposite of what most teams are these days. Most of their team is quite small. They’re also not the fastest team, nor the most physical team out there either. Yet, they manage to win games with such ease that it’s quite unbelievable. Sure, you can account skill for some of it, but when you watch their game, it doesn’t have the kind of explosive appeal that other teams might have, like say Real Madrid, Arsenal, or Manchester United. They don’t counterattack other teams nor do they regularly take powerful shots outside of the 18 (though Saturday’s game was definitely a change of pace with two goals scored from outside of the box from both Messi and Villa).
In order to understand Barca’s game, you have to understand Tiki-Taka. Tiki-Taka is the game in which you try to promote the short passing game, possession and patience. It’s not about getting goals quickly. It’s about controlling the pace of the game to your own pace. By controlling the possession, you not only enable the opportunities that you get to score goals, but also create few chances for your opponents to score, as well as tire them out from having to chase after you. The emphasis here is on the short passing. Rarely do you see a ball go across the field in the air in an attacking position such that they head the ball in. It’s just to create space and maintain control.
If you haven’t seen them play before, this is what I mean with Tiki-Taka:
Again, the emphasis here is short-passing movement, one or two-touch passing, opponents chasing after the ball and controlling possession. The music is rather fitting, as they play against other teams as though they are like the Harlem Globetrotters of football (or soccer).
When you hear discussions of Barcelona, you hear a lot about Messi. Yes, he’s arguably the best striker in the game right now, but is he the key element to their game? Not exactly. He scores goals, yes. But the most crucial element to Barca’s game is in the midfield, that is, Iniesta, Xavi, and Busquets. Here’s a quick video (taken from AllasFCB). Keep an eye on the movement between the midfielders:
As you watch, notice the movement of the ball. It’s not exactly complex by any means. Just simple short, one or two-touch passing. There’s nothing too fancy about it, but it obviously works.
Because of the lack of size, they can’t afford to just get it quickly down field to try to score a goal. Why not? It would seem to make sense when you have the best striker in the world on your team. Well, it doesn’t work that way. By moving the ball patiently and together as an entire team, you’re making it such that if you do not score, you can regain the ball back in the attacking zones rather than chase after them in your half of the pitch. And because of their diminutive size, you usually can’t just run at opposing defenses, especially the stronger, physical ones because they’ll just overpower you the moment you get the ball. Hence, the one-two touch passing. You keep moving and avoiding the physical confrontations of the opposing team, while looking for channels to make key passes.
If they do lose the ball, they simply get it back via pressing the player with the ball. Like in the video, it shows a great example of this. Take away the space for which the person with the ball has to either pass or dribble and you’ll force them to make a mistake in their own half and put more pressure on their defense.
One of the difficult things about this strategy is that you can’t just have anyone. You need to have disciplined players, especially in the midfield, moving the ball. That is why I don’t think Messi is the keystone to their game. If I would have to choose a player that exemplifies “tiki-taka”, it’s either Xavi or Iniesta. Their passing rate is virtually unmatched. There was a fact before the game that Xavi in Champions League games had on average of 122 completed passes, according to OPTA. An average player would usually get about 25 or so. Iniesta also has a strong work rate as well with his passing and ball movement, and according to FourFourTwo, has approximately 89% passing completion. These two guys have been so crucial to their recent success. They rarely make mistakes in terms of passing. If they do, it’s usually in the attacking third of the pitch.Not only are they the ones that control the possession, but they (along with Busquets) are usually the first ones that regain it if they were to ever to lose it. It’s also their vision that allows their teammates to score so many goals. It’s their ability to keep and control the game that makes this all click properly. Again, Messi scores a ton of goals, but it’s Xavi and Iniesta that create plays and opportunities behind the scenes.
But ultimately, it’s a tactic that frustrates and emotionally, mentally, and physically demoralizes the opponent. To constantly have to chase after the ball while they’re just moving it from one player to the next in the space of five to six yards is hard work. Here’s another example:
You can see all the chasing that opposing players have to do. They can either chase or just let Barca play this game and concede possession. But in the end, it’s not going to work because Barca will eventually find that one run that allows them to score first. Then you’re behind and forced to chase the moment they regain possession. If you’re curious to as how frustrating it can be, check out Cristiano Ronaldo as he attempts to chase after the ball.
Arms flailing in frustration, he gets lost in Barca’s passing game (though it could be said that Real Madrid’s strategy was to concede possession, thus not chase). But by tiring them out, you can enable those runs later on and eventually get that goal.
It’s really the perfect strategy. Beat your opponents to death by passing around them. It’s simple, elegant, yet effective. They utilize the gifts of their players to their greatest potential and completely negating their weakness of lacking strength and size that their opponents have over them by playing this way. This not only has worked with Barcelona, but with the Spanish National team as well, as the lack of size (and the skeptical and prone backline) forces them to avoid giving their opponents possession of the ball. This epitomizes the thought of “the best defense is a good offense.” Prevent your opponents from getting the ball and you won’t get scored on.
How do you beat it? Try to press and hope you have enough stamina to pull it off. However, I think we’ve all yet to see a team that can outright pull this off consistently. Until then, Barcelona might have the most unbeatable game out there and will continue to frustrate every team (and those fans that want their team to win trophies, like myself and Arsenal).