This blog has spoken before about the naivety of replicating Barcelona. I want to focus on what has been lost in this quest. When possessing the type of player of which Barcelona do, the importance that keeping the ball on the floor and retaining possession was fundamental to their success. In not possessing the strength and height of other sides, Barcelona needed to use their own strength, which was technical excellence and ball retention.
In my opinion Barcelona evolved from a counter attacking 4-3-3 side between 2003-2009 where they attacked constantly with speed and guile, to a slower more purposeful possession based style where retention was deemed important as sides began to defend much deeper to counter act the threat of Barcelona’s majestic attacking players. It was also a way of remaining fresher for longer.
Their pressing style of defending enables the side to regain possession and halt the oppositions attacks which has been shown to be very effective in recent years. Yet that style of defending is exhausting and thus possession is a means to rest. Many sides who have seen to replicate Barcelona however have simply mistaken the tiki-taka and have ultimately just kept the ball.
Rodgers' ideal is so far failing
Brendan Rodgers got the job at Anfield this summer based on his achievements at Swanseaas well as being able to convince John Henry, Liverpool's owner, that his style of football could take Liverpool up the table and bring success. Naively his belief is that if it works for Barcelona, then it can work for us.
However, his stubbornness to stick to a tactic which is clearly not working is a worry for the fans surely. Liverpool have not won a game yet, they have scored twice, from a corner and free kick and have conceded seven goals. Simply his side are not creating chances on goal and defensively they are making mistakes and leaking goals.
It is a worry surely that their goalkeeper is prone to a mistake each game and their defence is struggling to adapt to a short passing game. The midfield possesses a continuity player in Joe Allen, another in Nuri Sahin yet in Gerrard they have a player who clearly cannot play the short passing game of which Rodgers wants. Up front the wide men are not involved enough and importantly have not as yet made the incisive runs behind defences of which Barcelona do. And finally, they have one striker in Luis Suarez who has started the season worse than he played last season.
It all is going wrong for Rodgers and it must be disconcerting for Rodgers that his desire to play tiki-taka football is not working. Yes they are keeping the ball yet they are not penetrating defences. Without penetration, possession is useless surely?
Not attaining Dempsey is a criticism of the board without doubt, yet he would have given Liverpool a player capable of getting behind defences effectively. Suarez is struggling to be the No.9, he is much better at dropping deeper in my opinion to get on the ball and turn. Instead he is struggling to be a target man and is losing possession too easily and too often.
Rodgers belief in his style of play is not admirable but naive. He is not a youth coach looking to develop excellent footballers. His job is to bring success to Liverpool and until he finds a way to turn possession into penetration, then he will find his career at Liverpool shorter than he hoped.
Guilty of over playing?
Man Utd so far this season have lost one and scraped two wins. The performances of Utd must be worrying for fans so far. Although United are playing "pretty" football, they are actually struggling to create chances and are looking defensively shaky.
The acquisition of Shinji Kagawa was very impressive by Ferguson, the little Japanese star was mesmorising for Dortmund these past two seasons. His position as a playmaking No.10 indicated that United were keen to change their style. And after watching United’s three games so far, it would appear that they are inclined to changing their style.
I have spoken before how United have regressed tactically since the days of Quieroz, an interchanging attack was replaced with a more rigid 4-4-2 formation, which although brought league success, increased the gap between the top European sides and United. The 2011 Champions League indicated as much.
Kagawa’s arrival appears to see the value in the “little man”, a position which has seen players like Messi, Iniesta, Sneijder and Silva showcase in recent years. However, United have encountered a problem; it is not actually working!
I remember last season, especially in the Charity Shield where United played a short passing game with quick passing in the final third. Attacks were more central and intricate and the goal from Nani highlights this.
The coaching of Rene Meulensteen I am sure has attempted to introduce a totalfootball style to the side and it appeared that United were on course to implement this style last season. Yet, losing 6-1 to City put a stop to that. Even the 3-1 win against Chelsea made Ferguson conscious that this style of play was dangerous, his comments focused on the openness of the game and how it could have gone either way.
In seeking to play open football United had become defensively vulnerable, a problem which ultimately cost United the title last season. Ferguson seemingly abandoned the open style for a more organised one, reverting back to the 4-4-2 which had won the league the year before.
However, Ferguson knows the value in more progressive football, especially in Europe. Kagawa has been bought to give United improved ball retention in the final third and to give them creativity which has been lacking in recent years.
It is not suprising that English clubs desire to bring in creative players who can retain possession, create goals and in tight games, produce moments of magic to provide the win.
However United need to improve if they wish to implement this style on a regular basis. Much acclaim was given to Kagawa after the Everton game, yet United did not create many chances on goal. For all the nice passing, Everton were not really put under pressure and they in fact created the better chances. The style of play resembled that of Arsenal in recent years; nice passing, good ball retention yet no final product.
Against Southampton United were pretty, dominated possession in the first 15 minutes, yet did not trouble Calvin Davis. It was Southampton who took the lead twice and it was only when Kagawa was removed did United look more threatening. Ferguson reverted back to his wingers Nani and Valencia and sought to be more direct and penetrating.
United won a penalty and scored twice to win the game from crosses. Scholes was also credited and rightfully so, his vision and willingness to get the ball behind defences and into dangerous areas are important assets when seeking to win a game, yet United seem to reliant on Scholes, thus players like Cleverley and Kagawa will do well to learn from Scholes about what is required to be successful in England and learn the value of penetration.
A time to stop replicating Barcelona
As Villas-Boas has being criticised for his poor style of play also, there is a real issue as sides try to replicate Barcelona. The Spanish league is different, the culture is different and the expectations of the fans is much different. And this appears to be the problem which Barcelona have produced, coaches appear more inclined to keep the ball than create goals.
Like with any football cycle and style of play the Barcelona model has being taken to extremes. Before I spoke of how Barcelona are at their best when playing an attacking 4-3-3 formation, with counter attacking football. Their evolution to seeking to have 70%+ possession was actually detrimental to their success. They allowed sides to become organised and difficult to break down and importantly by not allowing other sides to attack, they had little room to exploit and counter.
Barcelona actually outdid theirselves. Yet coaches still seek to emulate them. I have spoken of the problems of replication, esepecially concerning the players possessed and the culture of football in a specific country. Yet this new generation of coaches including Brendan Rodgers and Andre Villas-Boas appear ignorant of these problems.
Three games in and both have not won a game and questions are being asked already. I am not surprised, as I said this would happen. They are trying to copy a style which has taken decades to perfect and are importantly trying to use a style which was actually counter productive.
Possession based football has been shown to be more effective in the long run. When sides have over 60% possession in a game it has been found their success rate is increased. It would appear that sides who are better at keeping possession are in the long run more successful and consistent.
However, based on what I have seen so far, the top sides need to do more to create chances and not just keep the ball. This will be the key for success and job security.