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?