Tag Archives: Barcelona

An Inside Look at Barcelona’s Youth Training System

La Masia

From the book, Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, Chapter 9 “The Breeding Ground” by Graham Hunter

I have been reading this book and, while the entire book is wonderful, Chapter 9 is brilliant for my interests.  Hunter gets inside La Masia and details what kind of player they look for, at what age, and how they teach the Barca way.  I am including some excerpts here.

“Barca’s youth academy is nicknamed ‘La Masia’ because the old stone farmhouse building next to Camp Nou is where the talented kids who needed a residence in order to train with Barcelona have stayed since 1979.”  Barca have teams from 7 year old all the way to the top squad.  If you are in the system, you are referred to as a cantera.  While Barca look to find Catalan players and talented players worldwide at ages 7-8. they also recruit talented 16-19 year olds too.  Here are some of the things that they look for:

1)  Kids who love to have the ball at their feet (size is not as important as a love of the ball).

2)  How is the first touch?  This is of paramount importance.

3)  Can he retain possession?

4)  Can a winger play with either foot?

5)  How quickly can he read situations and how is his decision-making under pressure?

6)  Does he press when his team does not have the ball?

7)  Does a center back have the technical ability to start attacks?  Can he dribble out of the back?

(Hunter, page 328)

“If a kid gets into the futbol base system at Barcelona around the age of 10 and makes his debut for the first team aged 20, he should have amassed something upwards of 2300 training sessions. Vast chunks of those 3070 hours will be spent on routines which train possession retention. . . At many clubs, the youth training will start with the physical, the development of power and stamina, followed by the tactical and then the technical. At Barcelona, it is quite the reverse. Almost everything will focus on technique to start with, tactics follow soon after. Only at 15 or 16 will there be increased emphasis on physique, stamina, and power.”  (Hunter, 333)

Hunter quotes Xavi:  “We are always looking to out-number our opponents, two against one, so if Puyol is on his own with the ball, I’ll say ‘Bring it up, bring it up!’ He’ll bring it up to the point where the guy marking me is forced to break away and press him, so now we have two of us against one and I’ll shout, ‘Puyi! Puyi! Puyi!”  (Hunter, 335) I love this because of how he describes combo play – it is a math problem.  If there is only 1 defender, then 2v1.  If there are 2 defenders, then Barca need more players in close proximity to outnumber the defenders in the space.  So often, in soccer over here, when your teammate has the ball, everyone runs away from him whether he is under pressure or not.  I hate seeing that.  If your teammate is in trouble, go to him!

Xavi again:  “In Barcelona there are many concepts we discuss at training sessions. ‘Keep your head up’ is one. The ball is at your feet, but you need to keep your head high. If not, you’re watching the game. Another saying is ‘look before you receive the ball.’ That’s a really important one for shaping your stance to control first time and then knowing what move you have to make to release the ball quickly to the next guy.” (Hunter, 338-39)

These are just a few of the wonderful excerpts from Hunter.  There is also some great dialogue on the difference or similarity between competitiveness and winning.  We will cover that next time.

Dribbles per Game, Germans, Tiki-Taka, and Overhead Slams

What role doees dribbling have in the modern soccer game?  Watching the US Women play New Zealand today in the Olympics reminded me of how we can teach and coach dribbling right out of the game.  Every licensing course I attend the instructors lament the lack of creative, playmaking ball masters, while at the same time we seem to assembly line produce one touch passers.  And now, since Spain and Barcelona’s success, everyone assumes it is the style of game that is the most successful.  In fact, if you ask most people to describe the Spanish or Barcelona style of play, the one word that you would hear most is passing or Tika-Taka.  I can think of a few more (movement, pressure).

At whoscored.com, you can sort stats for teams and individuals in offensive and defensive categories.  One of the categories is “dribbles per game.”  The date is collected by Opta Sports.  They define their dribble state as follows:


This is an attempt by a player to beat an opponent in possession of the ball. A successful dribble means the player beats the defender while retaining possession, unsuccessful ones are where the dribbler is tackled, Opta also log attempted dribbles where the player overruns the ball.


So, at the professional level, what teams succeed at this category?  Surprisingly, of the top 10 teams, 9 of them compete in the Bundesliga,  Only Barcelona, number 9, is ranked in the top 20.  The Bundesliga not only made of 9 of the first 10, but only one other team made it in the Top Twenty.  Here is the list:

R Team Tournament Shots pg Shots OT pg Dribbles pg
1 Hamburger SV Bundesliga 13.2 4.8 16.6
2 Hoffenheim Bundesliga 13.4 4.3 16.6
3 Werder Bremen Bundesliga 14.9 4.6 16.4
4 Bayern Munich Bundesliga 15.7 6.3 15.7
5 Schalke 04 Bundesliga 13.7 5.6 13.9
6 Mainz 05 Bundesliga 12.6 4.4 13.9
7 Borussia Dortmund Bundesliga 16.6 6.3 13.4
8 Bayer Leverkusen Bundesliga 12.9 5.5 13.4
9 Barcelona La Liga 16.5 7.6 13.2
10 Freiburg Bundesliga 12.1 4.3 12.9
11 Hertha Berlin Bundesliga 11.1 3.8 12
12 Hannover 96 Bundesliga 12.2 4.1 11.9
13 Nurnberg Bundesliga 12.6 4.1 11.9
14 Augsburg Bundesliga 11.3 3.9 11.9
15 VfB Stuttgart Bundesliga 13.9 5.7 11.8
16 Kaiserslautern Bundesliga 12.6 4.1 11.7
17 Borussia M.Gladbach Bundesliga 13 5 11.3
18 Wolfsburg Bundesliga 12.4 4.8 11
19 FC Cologne Bundesliga 8.9 3.3 10.6
20 Lecce Serie A 11.3 3.6 10.3

When I first saw this, my first thought, cynic that I am, is that they must be keeping better stats in Germany.  Or maybe they are more consistent with their record keeping.  But, assuming the statistics accurately reflect what is going on in the game, it seems apparent that their are more one on one dribble challenges occurring in Germany.  Notice the one team that makes it in the Top 10 – pass-happy Barcelona.

The German trend is also reflected in the individual stats.    Like the team stats, I sorted these according to the dribbles/game column:

R Name Team Pos Apps G A SpG KP Drb
1 Gökhan Töre Hamburger SV M(R) 16(6) 6 1 1.9 5.3
2 Lionel Messi Barcelona AM(R),FW 36(1) 50 16 5.5 2.5 4.8
3 Ryan Babel Hoffenheim AM(CLR),FW 28(3) 4 2 2.1 1.2 4.2
4 Franck Ribéry Bayern Munich AM(L) 27(5) 12 12 2.2 2.1 4
5 Jefferson Montero Betis AM(LR) 26(6) 1 3 1.9 0.9 3.6
6 Juan Guillerm… Lecce D(R),M(R) 32(1) 3 2 1.8 1.2 3.4
7 Raffael Hertha Berlin AM(C),FW 30(1) 6 8 2.2 1.6 3.3
8 Andre Schürrle Bayer Leverkusen AM(CLR),FW 30(1) 7 4 2.2 1.4 3.1
9 Marco Reus Borussia M.Gl… AM(CR),FW 32 18 9 3.2 2.3 2.9
10 Joaquín Malaga AM(CR) 19(4) 2 3 1.2 2.1 2.9
11 Roberto Firmino Hoffenheim AM(CL) 26(4) 7 1 2.1 1.5 2.9
12 Jonathan Biab… Parma M(CLR),FW 27(11) 6 4 1 1.1 2.8
13 Claudio Pizarro Werder Bremen AM(C),FW 28(1) 18 8 2.9 1.8 2.7
14 Jefferson Farfán Schalke 04 AM(CR),FW 19(4) 4 8 1 2.7 2.6
15 Daniel Caligiuri Freiburg AM(CLR) 18(7) 6 4 1.5 0.9 2.6
16 Ashkan Dejagah Wolfsburg AM(CLR),FW 24(2) 3 7 1.6 1.3 2.6
17 David Hoilett Blackburn AM(CLR) 34 7 5 1.9 1.3 2.6
18 Stevan Jovetic Fiorentina AM(CL),FW 27 14 3 4.5 1.4 2.6
19 Julian Draxler Schalke 04 AM(L) 21(9) 2 3 1.1 1.2 2.5
20 Ezequiel Lavezzi Napoli AM(CL),FW 25(5) 9 5 2 2 2.5

While  not all the players on the list are Germans, many of the non-Germans play in the Bundesliga.  Interestingly, Leonel Messi is ranked second.  Combined with Iniesta (not far out of the Top 20) and Xavi, they make up the heart of the Barcelona squad.  I have stated on here before — it is not pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, shoot for Barca or Spain.  Rather, it is pass, pass, pass (lots of off the ball movements), penetrating dribble, pass, carrying dribble, shoot.

So…what role is the dribble in the modern game?  Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, the future of England, is a dribbler. So is Jack Wilshire.  Both are flexible and can play lots of positions.  Better yet, what are we doing in youth soccer to encourage this?

This is where we get to Overhead Slams.  I grew up playing tennis.  I played competitively in my youth and had the benefit of some instruction. When you are taught the overhead slam in tennis, you are not taught it the way we all love to hit it — slamming it straight down, watching the ball careening high into the air.  Rather, you are taught to hit it deep.  Hitting overhead slams deep requires more skill, timing, and practice than just slamming it straight down.  It also makes life difficult for your opponent.  The idea is that if you learn the harder approach, you can always slam.  The same is true for passing.

If you can dribble real well, you usually can control the ball too.  Kids that excel at dribbling usually do well at juggling and receiving the ball.  And, if you want to teach passing, you have to teach reception before you can pass.  In the book The Spanish Soccer Coaching Bible, Vol. 1, Laureano Ruiz (2002), Mr. Ruiz talks about “contiuning to dribble” in his chapter “Reaching a Higher Level, 14-16 years old.”   He states:

“Although I am constantly telling the players that soccer is all about passing, at this age they are encouraged to make individual runs,practice dribbling, feints and dummies. Remember, only the most outstanding players are able to influence a match by performing individual skills or moves. . . I know some soccer coaches will be asking: ‘Can soccer be played without dribbling?’ I do not think it can. When the opposition has closed down all the space, when it is impossible to play triangles, when the opposing team is pressuring intensely, then the best solutions are dribbling feints and dummies. These should also be used near the goal in classic one on one confrontations.”  Page 180-181.

Those instructions above are for 14-16 year olds.  If you spend the time to learn to dribble, passing comes much easier as effective passing requires not just proper weight, angle, and vision, but it also requires ball control.

As I have quoted here multiple times, here again is a quote from the book Arsenal: The Making of a Modern Superclub: ”Their (Barcelona) Academy coach Carlos Rexach reveals … ‘Above all what we are after is a boy who is good with the ball and then we hope he becomes strong physically. Other academies tend to look for athletes they can turn into footballers. Most coaches, when they see a kid who dribbles a lot they tell him to stop and pass the ball.  Here (Barcelona) they do the opposite. We tell them to continue so that they get even better at dribbling.  It’s only when the kid develops that we start teaching them the passing game.’”  (Page 68).  In other words, they teach ball mastery and encourage dribbling first, passing second.  Do we?

As Ruiz states, the advantage to dribbling is that it puts the defense under pressure.  I think teams can sometimes move the ball around too fast.  Quick ball movement player to player may not force a defense to adjust.  By contrast, a player with the ball and some space who challenges the defense, requires the defense to react to her.  This reaction can cause a domino effect throughout the defense.  To add even more advantage, if the dribbler is able to beat a defender with the dribble, then she has eliminated a player and created space for her and her teammates.

Out motto for our teams is “take him on.”  This is a quote from Peter Kirkley, who has been with the Wallsend program in England, a top youth academy,  for 40 years.  He noted that the junior club was not formed to create professional players but to “give local lads and lasses a game of football, help them grow and love the sport.”    The club emphasizes punctuality, politeness, and discipline.  And, what they teach has been referred to as the Wallsend Way — love of the ball.

“I was involved in Newcastle’s youth set-up for years, and I don’t think any kid they signed at eight has ever made it through to 16, never mind the first team. I go to academy matches and all I hear from the coaches is ‘pass, pass, pass’. I long to hear someone say: ‘go on son, take him on.’”

So…are Germans the most advanced dribblers now?  What part of Tiki-Taka is dribbling?  And, if you learn to dribble, you can then learn to pass (or slam you tennis ball straight down!).

Spain – Barca Style is Not Just about the Pass

What do you think of when you think of Barcelona or Spain?  I assume it is passing.  Movement of the ball in small boxes – combination play in tiny areas and domination of possession.  All of that is true and beautiful to watch.  Gary Williamson, an instructor in the National Youth License course and technical director of North Texas Youth Soccer Association (and an incredible teacher), demonstrated their system without saying a word:  he used his hands to demonstrate how a cobra attacks (sway, sway, sway, sway, strike).

While the Spaniards and their training schools excel at teaching passing and movement, to reduce their philosophy to just passing and movement is a disservice to the wonderful ball players and teachers in their system.  To me, what they excel at his ball mastery.  Here is quote from the book Arsenal: The Making of a Modern Superclub: ”Their (Barcelona) Academy coach Carlos Rexach reveals … ‘Above all what we are after is a boy who is good with the ball and then we hope he becomes strong physically. Other academies tend to look for athletes they can turn into footballers. Most coaches, when they see a kid who dribbles a lot they tell him to stop and pass the ball.  Here (Barcelona) they do the opposite. We tell them to continue so that they get even better at dribbling.  It’s only when the kid develops that we start teaching them the passing game.’”  (Page 68).  How about that!

It makes sense, though.  Think of players you know who excel at ball control, trapping the ball and passing.  Are they also you best dribblers?  In my opinion, dribbling is a great way to learn to catch and pass.  Dribbling is a great way to learn “mastery over the ball.”  So, then, according to my theory Barcelona players or Spanish national team players should be great dribblers too.  Well, they have a stat for that.

I have been largely unsuccessful at finding a database of dribbling stats for European players, but you can find things here and there.  If you go to the site http://www.whoscored.com/Statistics, you can find a wide range of statistics.  I share this with you as a gift – it took me hours to find a site that had dribbling statistics, etc., for all players.   Anyway, just google dribbles/game and Messi or Iniesta or Villa or Silva or even Xavi.  Here is what I found:

Successful Dribbles/Game

  • Messi 4.8
  • Joaquin 2.9 (Malaga)
  • Iniesta 2.2
  • Iker Munian 1.8
  • David Silva 1.1
  • Fernando Torres 1.1
  • Cessc Fabregas 1.0
  • Xavi (less than 1)

Cristiano Ronaldo, by contrast, averages a little more than 1.5/game.   Now, these stats are based on the 2011/2012 league games, not international games.  Interestingly, of the top 50, 11 are Germans!  Here they are:

  • Mario Gotze (6) 3.5
  •  Andrea Schurrle (9) 3.1
  • Marco Reus (10) 2.9
  • Sidney Sam (13) 2.9
  • Aaron Hunt (17) 2.6
  • Daniel Caliguiri (19) 2.6
  • Ashkan Dejegah (20) 2.6
  • Julian Draxler (23) 2.5
  • Ilkay Mundragon (33)  2.3
  • Marko Marin (39) 2.1
  • Lars Stindl (49) 2

You do have to consider the position they play when looking at this, but it is interesting considering all leagues in Europe are represented in the stats.  And, if you are following signings this time around, the top of the list above is a who’s who of of European players.  Eden Hazard, by the way, comes in at (30) with 2.3/game.

Great site on the stats.  Have fun with it.


Enough about Chelsea Please

Ok.  This is a little late, but the Chelsea love fest has gotten too rich for me.  Yes, they are advancing to the Champions Final after dispatching of one of the world’s best team (and a team far superior to them).  That is great.  But, what I find humorous is the journalism.  Soccer journalist comically deconstruct soccer stratagem after the fact and proclaim genius with their 20/20 hindsight.   It gets old.  Article after article lauded Di Matteo for his brilliant strategy to beat Barcelona.  How about this – he had no strategy.  Since his team only had the ball 20% of the time, he instructed them to hold on for dear life and pray that Barcelona’s strikes hit the post, not the net.  A few inches here or there and the aggregate would have been 7 goals for Barcelona.  Somehow, we lose sight of that.

Interestingly, Di Matteo cannot even be given credit for English football strategy.  The old English strategy was based on a flawed assumption that the more balls you kicked into the opponents penalty box, the more goals you would score.  So, following their 1966 World Cup victory, English teams started a 4 decade trend of lumping the ball forward at all costs.  Di Matteo didn’t even follow that instruction – he literally held on for dear life.  Credit goes to the performance of Cahill and Cole for their play.  in fact, I haven’t seen much coverage of the goal line clearance that Cole made in the first half.  Messi broke down the defense (which usually comprised the entire Chelsea team), dished the ball to Fabregas who flicked to an open net.  Why he didn’t put more pace on the ball seemed to puzzle Messi (watch his face after clearance).  You can almost see Messi saying, “I do all the work, draw all the defenders to me, give you the ball with an open net, and you try to be cute.”  You can find the video clip of the save but youtube has taken it down.

For numbers lovers, try this power point Thomas Shenton sent from Sky Sports: http://www1.skysports.com/football/news/12040/7701796/Numbers-game

Interesting blog article referred by Keith Barrow:  http://www.socceramerica.com/article/46458/the-cloud-that-hangs-over-chelsea.html.  

Also, lost in the post game buzz, Guardiola stepped down. Not because of the result, but because he is ready to move on.  He mentioned last summer he was considering it.

Before I end, I will say that I do see some of the same problems with Barcelona that I see in Arsenal at times.  Bot teams try very hard to attack the center rather than use wing play.  The math supports them – most goals are scored in the “zone of danger” (as Hector Leano calls it) in front of the goal.  Crosses from the side are great, but Barcelona and Arsenal regularly demonstrate the effectiveness of attacking the middle rather than the flanks.  That being said, and while I hate the “lump it” strategy from Reep and Cullis (link to blog summary here: Gaining Territory v. Possession: Part I (Book Review: Inverting the Pyramid), Barcelona would be served to occasionally use the long pass it seems.  Like I mentioned in an earlier Arsenal post, playing short out of free kicks and corners is great, but it seems like sometimes you need to take a shot at the goal from 35 yards out.  The winner of this year’s Champions League will be Bayern Munich which I predicted in September.  I think that they demonstrate a balanced approach to the game.  They can play possession, attack middle, but they can also pay wide and long.  And, if you didn’t see the shootout with Madrid and Manuel Neuer’s saves against Ronaldo and Kaka, you need to watch it.  He is the best goalie in the world.  Cheers.