John Nyen sees parallels
The two managers sit across from each other, both hooked up to the machine. The humming and whirring increases as they are instructed by the lab technician in the white coat.
“Think of your ideal, of what you want your team to become. Imagine the best possible scenario, with the best possible players, on the largest scale. What we will see is a real world simulation of that, from start to finish.”
On the overhead monitor the scene comes into focus and the teams walk out onto the field with one group all in white and the other in the blaugrana. The managers step back from the machine and begin to watch.
It strikes as odd that the similarities–loosely at minimum– What I speak of here is Real Madrid and Barcelona as the logical elite ideal example of what the US men’s soccer team could become. In these two teams are the very ideals of the last two (and some could say three) coaches of the United States men’s soccer team. Certainly there are differences, and it is important to recognize and discard these in order to get to the meat of the matter.
With the Jurgen Klinsmann-Barcelona comparison the difference is that Barcelona play more through their midfield, slinging passes together in creative rhythm, while the USA (under Klinsmann) is being built to attack more down the flanks using wingers and play from the LB/RB position.
With the Bob Bradley-Real Madrid comparison the difference is that Madrid tend to control play against most of their opponents (with the exception of Barcelona). As a caveat though to this difference, one could argue that Bradley’s team during their nadir fell under the same spell. They would control the game more so playing inexperienced and physical sides while having difficulty with quick/skill based sides.
Having stated that though, the similarities in this one particular game are striking.
Looking at this through Bradley’s ideal you have Real Madrid playing counter attack soccer, packing their side of the ball with defenders who break down the offense with their shape and then funneling the ball out via long passes (usually by the stalwart linking midfielder Xabi Alonso) to attack the opposing team when they are at their most vulnerable, AKA when the opposing team has committed players on offense. Defensively oriented, Real Madrid relies on work rate, formation, and shape to thwart more offensive teams.
Looking at this through Klinsmann’s ideal you have Barcelona taking the game to their opponent. They dictate play in every game, forcing the other team to have to think and react quickly. Barcelona attempt to play defense from the front using the press technique to try to defend in their opponents half of the field and win the ball back. They play a forward thinking positional game, on offense, with players knowing that the movement without the ball is sometimes more important than with the ball. They also tend to press up with their fullbacks, getting them involved in offense while packing the midfield, with the effect of shrinking the field for the opposition.
The most recent encounter between Madrid and Barcelona really offers a direct comparison to games that USA fans should remember well.
Madrid goes ahead early in the first half, playing counter attacking soccer against a passing oriented team. They defend for their lives over the course of 90 minutes finally succumbing to the overall pressure and talent of the team they play against. They even give up a crushing goal before the half.
This type of game happened a few times for the USA in past few years, most notably against Brazil in the Confederations Cup and against Mexico in Azteca. In both these examples, the USA came out strong, counter attacked to get a goal up and then went into a shell. In the Brazil game that shell happened in the second half, in the Mexico game it happened in the first half.
In Klinsmann’s perfect ideal, the USA goes into Azteca, scores the Charlie Davies goal and proceeds to defend in Mexico’s half, shutting down passing lanes, winning the ball back early and making Mexico chase the play around. Of course whether or not he can actually perform this task with the player pool allotted to him is another question entirely.
If we start to breakdown the Barcelona-Real Madrid game even more we can see that, in typical Bradley team fashion, Madrid turned to fouling in an effort to slow down the quick passing of Barcelona. (They finished the game with 22 fouls to Barcelona’s 13.) Certainly some of what they did goes beyond the pale of the Bradley coached USA squad, however we have all seen the USA attempt to foul and slow down the play of the offensive team in their end in an effort at quelling the passing dominance of better teams. We also see less of the priority on number of passes attempted/completed as the only person on Real Madrid who passed more than Pinto (Barcelona’s keeper) was Xabi Alonso.
With the Klinsmann squad (and the Venezuela game will suffice as an example here) what we are seeing is that the USA is, in certain regards, attempting to play a more forward and upwards version of the Barcelona game. I have described some of the Klinsmann games as “frenetic” because he is attempting to have the USA players thinking quickly, passing quickly, moving quickly and always driving towards the goal. When this transition began for the USA there was a tendency of the midfield to spray passes left and right, with the result of these being turnovers (due to bad positioning and poor first touch) that lead to the players having to work hard to get the ball back. During the first few games it lead to a chicken with the head cut off routine that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. Lacking the tiki-taka passing in the middle of the field, the USA attempts to replicate this with triangle interplay between players like Shea, Feilhaber, Pearce, and Jermaine Jones.
You will see Shea driving at players down the left until closed down, passing back out and cutting infield with Pearce overlapping to provide the cross in from width if possible. Many times the ball would be stopped before the cross came in (indicative of Shea’s poor night attempting to provide service) and then the midfielders (specifically Jones, Feilhaber) would attempt to pick the ball back up distributing it either back to Shea or sending it around the back line and Larentowicz to alleviate pressure.
With the passing dominance of the USA in the second half of the Venezuela game, you began to see the Real Madrid frustration fouls (many not called on both sides by the referee) that started to mar the game. Typically, in the past few years, if the USA wasn’t up by two or three goals at the 75th minute what we were seeing (and this included games by the next opponent Panama) was an all out assault on the net by the opposition. A point driven home by the much-belabored Argentina game in which the USA put 11 men behind the ball and dared Argentina to break them down.
This also brings us to an interesting point, that of differing styles and the effectiveness of them. Certainly a style doesn’t make a team win a game, as much as it allows them to play the game in their manner. One couldn’t quite call the Greek style of the last few competitions as lacking effect, having won Euro 2004 by playing Bradley ball. However, this style takes a certain toll on the players and requires all 11 players on the field to buy into the madness, something that Bradley lost along the way of his tenure and something that might be happening now to Mourinho.
Certainly Klinsmann believes as Barcelona and Ajax believe, that with the efforts of passing and maintaining control the Team begins to impose their will against the opposition allowing them to dictate the play rather than being dictated upon. It is really an arrogant train of thought (I say this in the fondest way), and something that the average USA fan has not been accustomed to thinking about in regards to the play of their national team. The idea that the USA can and will outplay you not necessarily with physical effort, but with ability, form and technique.
This really is the ultimate paradigm of Barcelona, they believe they can and will control the opposition no matter which opposition they are against.
Certainly the Bradley ideal was more about water breaking on rocks, and knowing the fact that 99.9% of clubs choose to not play (or simply cannot play) in the Barcelona/Ajax fashion. His ideal was based more around the fact that teams will screw up and hang themselves far more often than they will succeed. Using the effort that his opposition put forth against themselves in the counter attack would allow the defensive team to win.
In review of this information it is important to note that being defensive and shutting down the attack has served Mourinho well. He has used quite a few of the same techniques at all his stops and (ignoring Real’s struggles to win La Liga) he has won at every single one of his prior stops. It is also important to remember that what Barcelona are doing right now is a once in a lifetime generation of players and coaches who have come together at the right time to play in this fashion.
I do tend to think that Real Madrid will begin to win over Barcelona. No team can sustain a dominance on the level that Barcelona has over the last few years; and Madrid will find their weakness. Aesthetics aside, the goal is to win the game and the only issue that Madrid has currently is their inability to counter the control/pressing game of Barcelona with a system that will allow a win. Far too often Madrid find that their midfield (especially their defensive midfield: IE Pepe) are overrun by the passing and positioning of Barcelona and incapable of breaking up the pressure.
However, if we ignore season totals and playing styles outside of this game, the Real Madrid v Barcelona clash can be looked at as a training tool of how two diametrically opposed teams function when they play each other. As well it can describe how the ideals of Bradley and Klinsmann would potentially play out if given a wealth of players.