Gaining Territory v. Possession: Part III (El Clasico thoughts)

If you watched El Clasico, you witnessed Barcelona concede a goal in the first 23 seconds.  Real Madrid decided to press high, knowing that Barcelona rarely hoofs the ball up the field.  In an effort to frustrate Barca’s rhythm, Madrid pressed all the way to the keeper, disrupting Barca’s attempts to play it out from the back.  In the first gasp of the game, the ball was played back to Valdes (Barca GK) who played it back to Puyol (Barca back) who played it right back to Valdez.  Then, Valdes tried to switch the field but angled the pass right to Di Maria for Madrid – 3 touches later, goal.

Some will point to this as evidence that Barca plays possession ball to its detriment.  Surely, when a team as skilled as Real Madrid decides on a course of pressing, including pressing the keeper, the keeper should just hoof it up the field.  Did Barca alter course after the Valdez mishap?  Were his teammates frustrated?  No and no.  I think Barca’s response to the early hole showed its commitment to its system as well as a team spirit that Madrid lacked.

In regard to its system, after the game interviews revealed that Captain Puyol told Valdez immediately after the event to “Carry on, Victor.”  Guardiola said:

The perfect image of this game was that after the goal Victor Valdes continued playing the ball. Real Madrid steamroll[ed] you. Most goalkeepers  would boot it. But Victor kept playing the ball. I prefer to lose the ball like that but give continuity to our play.

Xavi called Victor’s conduct as “brave.”  Sid Lowe, writer for The Guardian, says “a brave player is the one who loses the ball three times and still wants it; who keeps attacking. The goalkeeper who makes the biggest mistake on earth — and doesn’t take the easy, if short term, way out. The team that have the courage of their convictions.”

Lowe notes that Barcelona passes to their keeper more than any team in La Liga.  He also notes that Valdes attempts fewer long passes than any player in La Liga.  At the same time, Valdes has the highest league passing accuracy at 85%.  Lowe concludes:

So Valdes passed the ball. And so did Barcelona. Even as Madrid pressured high, Barcelona continued to take risks — not taking them is riskier yet; for Barca, a big hoof just means the ball comes back again, at the opposition’s feet…Valdes’s mistake threatened to change everything but it changed nothing. On Saturday night, Barcelona did what Barcelona do. They won. (with emphasis)

Lowe doesn’t mention attitude in his post, other than to say the Barca players supported Valdes after the error rather than blame or cuss.  Madrid, on the other hand, seemed to lack that team spirit.  I noticed several times during the match that players were upset with each other.  Go back and watch Di Maria’s body language when Ronaldo attempted a shot well wide.  Di Maria was unmarked.  He was clearly, demonstratively upset.  There were other instances too.  On the other hand, Barca, playing from behind from the first minute on, rallied around each other.  Just something I noticed.

Information for this post was taken from a great post by Sid Lowe from The Guardian.  To read the post, click Victor Valdes epitomizes Barcelona’s bravery as Real Madrid falter.

Barca Playing 3 Fullbacks?

After watching El Clasico, it appeared that Barcelona altered the shape of their defense.  One of my favorite soccer writers, Jonathan Wilson, wrote an article about the change to a 3-1-4-2 in an article for The Guardian.  He also writes for SI and has a similar piece there.  Here are the two links:

Wilson starts by stating that tactics do make a difference.  For those that think “the best players” win out all the time, the history of the game is replete with examples of tactical evolution and examples of advantage gained from the same.  Wilson is a student of the tactical changes in soccer and outlines them in his book Inverting the Pyramid.  I summarized some of his ideas on possession style football versus kick and rush in the blog post here on  Soccer Thoughts titled “Gaining Territory v. Possession: Part I.”  

In El Clasico, the big change was Barca pushing their Right Back up (Alves — who Wilson says is more comfortable in attack anyway) and pushing one center back to right back to cover (Puyol) while using a holding mid (Sergio Busquets) to drop as additional center back when need be.  Wilson calls this a back line of 3 1/2.  Puyol then was able to handle Ronaldo and Busquets could move up and back as holding mid/center back to mark Ozil.  

Wilson’s book Inverting highlights every major shift in tactics all across the world.  Are we seeing another change now?  

Gaining Territory v. Possession: Part II

As outlined in the prior post, kick and rush soccer, which has infiltrated every layer of American soccer, had its beginnings in England and, though justified with faulty statistical analysis, has spread throughout the world.  While there are likely times when, because of the skill level of the respective teams (meaning, when there is large discrepancy in skill level of players on one team that is playing another), less possessive tactical strategies may be required, consider the following statements of soccer “Style and Principles of Play”:

Style of Play-Specific
1.  Technical. Passing the ball on the ground with pace from different distances and receiving the ball while keeping it moving will be encouraged in all age groups.
2.  Ball Control and Turning.  Players will be encouraged to keep close control of the ball and use different turning techniques to move away from a defender.  

1.  Playing Out from the Back.  All teams must feel comfortable playing the ball from the back through the midfield and from there to the final quarter of the field. 
2.  Possession & Transition.  All teams must try to keep possession of the ball playing a one-two touch game. Players will be encouraged to support and move, thus creating passing options. Once the possession game is consolidated the team must learn how to transfer the ball in the most efficient way from one area of the field to another.  (I added emphasis here because it seems that they want us to develop ball control and possession passing before long ball).  

Principles of Play
1.  1,2, or 3 touch maximum. Minimizing the number of touches improves the speed of play.
2.  Keep the game simple. Do not force situations, over-dribble or be careless with the ball (kickball).  
3.  Keep the ball on the ground.  A ball on the ground is easier to control and can be moved more efficiently by the team.
4.  Accuracy and quality of the pass.  Passing must be firm and accurate, with the proper weight.
5.  First touch.  Make a clean, controlled first touch without stopping the ball. Take the touch away from pressure and into free space.
6.  Perception and awareness.  All players with or without the ball should constantly scan the field.
7.  1v1 situations.  Encourage determination to regain control of the ball in defense and keep it simple in attack by taking a touch to the side, at speed, to beat a defender.
8.  Individual transition.  Players must react quickly when possession change from offense to defense and vice-versa.
9.  Shooting.  Always keep an eye on the goal.  All players are encouraged to shoot.
10.  Take risks.  Soccer is an error prone sport and mistakes are part of the game and learning process.  Players are encouraged to take risks in training session to increase the speed of play.  1
(U.S. Soccer Curriculum, Style and Principles of Play, p.2-3)

You may think from the style and principles outlined, that those are guidelines for Spain, not the U.S.  But these are our new youth coaching guidelines.  Why are these our guidelines?  As Spain demonstrated in the World Cup, possession soccer isn’t just cute, it wins.  

But in my experience, most youth soccer locally, from recreation to competitive to high school, is based on the kick and rush model rather than the style described above.  Why?  I think one of the problems is that we focus too much on the result at young ages when we should be focused on player development.  In desperate attempts to win matches, players are pigeon-holed into specific positions and assignments, like winning the ball and kicking up to a fast forward.  It works.  With little or no change, kids develop habits and, later on, are then asked to change them.  That is not so easy.  

I appreciate and respect all of the time that coaches give for youth sports.  But, is it helpful to a 8 year old to play fullback all season with the instruction to kick it as hard as he can to a fast forward?  While that does work and should be a part of the game, it should not be the only part of the game.  One of our local coaches that I admire (Chris Carter), who was previously a basketball coach, puts it this way:  “You need to be able to fast break, but you don’t fast break an entire game.”  To finish the basketball analogy, you also need a half-court offense.  Or, to put it in soccer speak, a soccer team should be able to play an over-the-top through style (long ball), but it should not be their only style.  

Most of the objections come from people who believe that the system described above is too hard for kids. But, as noted on the principles above, a ball on the ground played to a young player is easier to handle than a lofted ball from longer distance.  

Here’s hoping we embrace the paradigm shift from U.S. Youth Soccer in Southeast Texas.