Of course, I do not really mean that.
I rarely comment on games seen only on TV, but this time I see a change in tactics, an extension of the direction already visible on my last few trips to Spain. One has to look at the game, and try and go beyond the gushing comments of praise offered up by the TV networks and commentators and ask what actually happened.
The BBC stats suggested that Barcelona had 68% of the possession . Another site, citing a link to “Total Football Apps”, says that Xavi attempted 148 passes in the game, and 141 were successful, Iniesta also had over 100 successful passes, while Messi made 92 out of his 100 attempts. Rio Ferdinand made the most attempted passes for United, but this was only 47, with 40 making it.
I am not sure of the accuracy of this, but the figures are believable, having watched the game on TV. Barcelona played a short passing game, with a player rarely remaining in possession for more than five seconds, and the vast majority being successful and over a short distance. It was not just that United could not intercept these, they generally did not try.
When United had the ball, tactics still owed a lot to Charles Hughes, the apostle of the long ball and direct game. Hughes said that most goals come from moves of three of less passes, and hence players should get the ball into a shooting position in that time. Correct analysis, wrong conclusion. Barcelona do score goals that do not depend on 20 or 30 passes, but these depend on gaining possession near to the goal. If you play a long ball, then more often than not you are trying to win possession again. If you pass like Barcelona, then possession is never lost, and so never has to be regained. Not surprisingly, Barcelona committed far fewer fouls than Manchester United. Most fouls are mistimed attempts to dispossess the player with the ball, and hence they do not occur when you are already in possession.
Traditionally in the English game, possession has always swung from one side to the other, and is lost due to poor quality of passing and control more often than due to tackling. A team’s dominance of a match is down to being more effective both with and without the ball, but a team could totally dominate a game, win by four or five to nil, and still barely exceed 50% on the possession chart.
In Barcelona, we have a team that holds possession, keeping it for more than two thirds of the time. Most of these short passes are not taking the game anywhere, but it frustrates the opponents when they just cannot get the ball. In this way, cricketers are more tactically astute than footballers. They know that a run of maiden overs can frustrate their opponents, and that this can win a wicket when a more direct attack will fail.
The natural consequence of Barcelona’s success is that more teams will copy this style, (on the continent anyway). No imagine two teams playing possession and short passes, but without Barcelona’s star players. Neither side will commit to a challenge in the other’s half of the field, for fear of being caught out with their players out of position. Without Iniesta, Alves and Messi to run at the defence, and to open up spaces, these sequential passing moves will break down eventually. Even Barcelona did not score every time they had the ball. With defenders falling back, the side in possession will be forced to shoot from distance, and will not be able to generate the excitement of play in the penalty area.
Barca have been anything but boring, but the Barcelona style could well be copied into a new and more sterile game, leaving commentators to regret some of the superlatives thrown at this new dawn.