TSG’s Tuesday back with an op-ed
Who's in the right? Who's in the wrong?
After losing the Copa Del Rey leg of El Cuatro Clásicos, Barcelona reclaimed their crown as the best team in the world on a night that left Real Madrid’s manager and several of their players questioning why they keep finding themselves a man down against Barcelona.
According to Xavi, “they have nothing left but to play dirty because that’s what their coach drums into them. I wouldn’t dream of playing that way and Barça cannot let ourselves play that way. Football was the winner.”
Xavi is wrong. A mirror image of their pragmatic opponent, Barcelona were willing to use any means necessary to win. Football was not the winner last night, only Barcelona was. The two things are not synonymous. Barcelona’s claim to moral superiority, their claim to carry the banner for “football” increasingly strains credulity.
Not to mince words, but they cheat to gain an advantage in these contests. They do not simply dive or go down without much contact to win free kicks. Several of their players cynically try to get opposing players sent off as their colleagues surround the referee in a display of mock outrage. And they’ve been doing it for years, while football’s aesthetes saw only the beauty. But the ugly is there for all to see.
Frankly it’s disgusting. And even though they’re capable of playing the most extraordinary football in the world, it’s why I hate Barcelona.
It bothers me that those on the Barcelona side think that their opponents should just give them space to play their little triangles and not contest, not challenge and not try to win the ball. Then they complain of negative tactics as Barcelona reach those lopsided 71% figures scrolling across our screens.
With the brilliance of their possession, the intensity of their pressing (somewhat subdued last night), the numbers they manage to get forward, their style of play isn’t boring. But counterintuitively, Barcelona plays with incredibly little risk to dominate possession as they do. While they sometimes leave themselves short at the back, they don’t play thrilling football, at least for those less in thrall to geometry. And without Iniesta they’re quite an ordinary team that happens to have the best player in the world to single-handedly win games.
Ordinarily, much of their possession of the ball is just outside the final third. They keep it there, gaining territory little by little and pushing their opponent back towards their own goal, compressing the space between the midfield and back line like a boa constrictor. They squeeze the life out of their prey, pummeling their opponents with a dizzying array of short passes until they become fixed points in space, reduced to the reference grid for their attacking patterns.
Same strategy, different tactics?
But Mourinho’s Madrid refused to be pushed back. They had 6 midfielders waiting around the halfway line, daring Barcelona to try to play through them in an area where any mistake would have Madrid streaking forward on the counter. They did not concede the territory Barcelona is accustomed to using as their attacking base.
How did Barcelona react? With long stretches of aimless possession around the halfway line. At times they were positively English, knocking it across the back. They found opportunities to get forward up the flanks, but they weren’t able to find possession in dangerous areas until they gained a man advantage. Even then, Barcelona were only rarely able to push Madrid back and pressure with possession in the final third.
All Barcelona’s possession asks their opponents to chase them. That means they are going to get fouled more. This isn’t cynical fouling. It is a simple consequence of having the ball twice as much as their opponents. Trying to get it back quickly whenever its lost, Barcelona are ready to mow down any attempt to break through their lines. Let’s stop pretending they aren’t above putting a stop to their opponents counterattack with a judicious foul.
The fetish for possession can be an extremely negative tactic when they aren’t intent on doing anything with it. It’s almost a cliche now to say that this is their way of defending, the mirror image of Mourinho putting 6 players in front of them in midfield. As Mourinho’s side is content to do without the ball, Barcelona wile the game away with it, knowing they only need that one moment of magic from a Messi as Madrid needs one from Christiano Ronaldo.
The desire for referees to call things this tight at the highest levels was to protect these special players. They needed to stop players like Messi, Villa, Xavi from having lumps taken out of them to remove their influence on the game and preserve the potential for magic that those tactics once threatened to extinguish.
But it’s not these “special” players falling down clutching their faces or rolling around like they’ve been shot after losing a 50-50 ball. It’s the combative midfielder Sergio Busquets with the face so long it extends all the way down to his navel, Delicate Dani Alves and second-rate Pedro that are deliberately trying to con the referee into sending players off.
Messi, the great "un-"equalizer...
A lot of this would be solved if feigning serious injury and immediately returning to the pitch was discouraged with a yellow-card for time-wasting at any stage of the match instead of being rewarded with the occasional game-changing red.
The Barcelona brigade think everyone should play Barcelona’s way and if they aren’t they aren’t playing football. But cheating to gain an advantage and then hoping Messi can win it for you? Is that football? If they’re really the best team in the world how come they always seem to need a man advantage to win matches at this level?
I for one, would love to see someone compile the numbers on how much time Barcelona spends with a man advantage compared to the average team in the knock-out stages of the Champions League. I expect they would tell an interesting tale.