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View from Brazil: some thoughts from Santos on the enigma of beautiful Barca

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JORGE VASCONCELOS is from Santos in Brazil, where he lives a couple of miles from the Estadio Urbano Caldeira – the footballing home of Pele between 1956 and 1974. Like every Brazilian, he’d claim to know what constitutes a beautiful game. And in his latest article for Sportingintelligence, in the wake of Barcelona’s 4-0 crushing of Santos in the Club World Cup, he ponders how Barca might be beaten.

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By Jorge Vasconcelos

21 December 2011

I’m writing this right after FC Barcelona have won the final against Santos. (Highlights below, refresh if video is not there immediately).

I live in Santos City, the hometown of Santos FC and despite being a Sao Paulo FC supporter I feel compelled to write about FC Barcelona due to the sad atmosphere here in Santos after the above mentioned game.

I want to be able shed a light on what I call “The Barcelona Enigma”. Everybody who follows football nowadays knows that Barca are favorites to win every match play. They’ve honeyed their tika-taka craft of patiently passing the ball from one side to another in front of the adversary defences, waiting for the moment to unleash the final blow.

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The majority of the teams who play FC Barcelona appear to think the best strategy is to recoil back into their own half and hope for the best.

At times Barcelona literally don’t allow other teams to touch the ball, and it’s not rare that they large percentages of the possession, exceeding 80 per cent on occasion.

I’ve long listened to media conclusions about a “team from another planet”, or “it’s impossible to take the ball from them”, or “it’s impossible to mark them” and other exaggerations.

Yes, yes. Barcelona have a beautiful game plan, played out by one of the best casts of players a football team can have, marshalled by an above average head coach. And this tactical analysis from Zonal Marking explains how they beat Santos.

But no team is invincible.

I think the only guy on earth who refuses to surrender to FC Barcelona’s majesty is someone that the media sometimes likes to classify as a madman: José Mourinho.

To me, and seems like to Mourinho too, Barca are an enigma. but just like all enigmas they present a code that surely can be cracked.

My contribution to the solution of this puzzle is below.

THE CHALLENGE: FC Barcelona don’t allow us to touch the ball! Answer: FC Barcelona’s team likes to pass the ball from one side to another in the field of the adversary patiently waiting for the moment to unleash the final blow. The way to prevent Barcelona to be able to create and use this “comfort zone” (i.e. ball possession in the adversary half) is to set up your team to mark Barcelona in their own half, putting pressure on their players from the very moment the ball leaves their goalkeeper’s hands. The idea is to create a marking “blitz” over Barcelona’s players since their defensive field. Barcelona are not used to have adversaries pressing them hard in their own defensive field and this will for sure cause them some real problems.

But marking FC Barcelona in their own half will demand a lot from the players and nobody can keep such a level of pressure all the 90 minutes! Answer: The idea is not to keep 90 minutes of marking “blitz” pressure on Barcelona because no team can physically keep up with such a high level of demand. The main idea is to cause them problems to the build-up phase in their game. You allow them to pass the ball from one side to another but inside their own half (and not in your yours). But in order to keep things feasible your team should intermix the marking “blitz” with Zonal Marking pressure phases, retreating a little bit (but keeping your team inside Barcelona’s field)  in order to let your own players breath. Believe me: Barcelona’s player will be tired too. This way they can “tic-tac” the ball as much as they want but in their defensive field.

But what can we do in the case Barcelona still progresses to our field despite of our efforts to push forward the marking pressure as you are suggesting? Answer:  The marking strategy explained above has three main purposes. First, to try fence Barcelona’s team back into their own field as much as possible. Second, to gain ball possession as near to Barcelona’s goal as possible. And third, to put a heavy burden on Barcelona’s shoulders so even when Barcelona manage to progress to their attacking half (your half), they do so having had their tika-taka disrupted, and knowing you are ready to press them in their half if they lose possession.

But, as many will insist, Barcelona’s players pass the ball with one touch only and on top of that they don’t have fixed positions. How can I mark such a team? Answer: First of all the target here is to mark the players of Barcelona and not the ball. Making the adversary run after the ball is exactly what Barcelona wants (in order to create spaces). The marking strategy explained above has an important collateral effect which is to add up little disruptions on Barcelona’s game plan even if your players don’t manage to tackle and gain the ball at a given specific moment. The strategy is to patiently and continuously destroy Barcelona’s game plan, piece by piece, throughout the game. Keeping the advanced blitz plus Zonal Marking strategy described above, always inside Barcelona’s field, is key to make Barcelona’s game plan give in. The ball, then, will come to your control.

All right. We have discussed how to make it more difficult from Barcelona’s team to progress from their defending field to attack and/or to have such a volume of ball possession in front of my defenders. But what can a team do after gaining ball possession, in order to be efficient and effective (i.e. scoring goals), knowing that my players don’t have such a quality in passing the ball? Answer:  As mentioned above, one of the main objectives of the marking strategy explained here is to gain the ball possession as near as possible from Barcelona’s goal. This will create the scenario where your players will need the least possible number of touches in the ball to shoot at Barcelona’s goal. When you are near to the opposite goal, the number of passes required as well as the decreasing complexity of such short passes should help to equalise the disparity in the passing quality between Barcelona’s team and your team.

Note: if all else fails and your team has a significant difficulty to progress with the ball coming from your own half, consider the long ball to players deployed tactically as above. If nothing else, it gives you two hopes; (i) the ball is going straight to your players as near to Barcelona’s goal as possible;  (ii) the ball going straight to Barcelona’s defenders in their own half field, from where you again apply the blitz/ZM mix.

Really, what’s to lose in trying?

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More from Jorge Vasconcelos

REVEALED: Barcelona’s ‘More than a club’ image belied by dash for cash

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2013-05-28 11:34:43