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Why Spain is not FC Barcelona Yet

November 14, 2011

The Spanish are the World champions and European champions. But are they the best team in the world including clubs?? The answer is NO. They would come second to FC Barcelona. The question won’t be relevant always. But it is, now, because the two teams have the same engine rooms (read Xavi and Iniesta) and play with the same philosophy. More importantly I would say no other club can beat the Spanish team and that includes Real Madrid, Manchester United and other English clubs. The same cannot be said of any other national team that I have seen and hence the question is relevant.

I recently watched the friendly England V Spain, England beating Spain 1-0 scoring of the only chance they had in the entire game. If not for the jersey colours you couldn’t tell the game from any other FC Barcelona league game. But Spain lost it while Barcelona would never have. That brings me to my question of focus –
Why Spain isn’t as good as FC Barcelona yet? An immediate answer would be- Because they don’t have Lionel Messi! Well if that is the case they will never become FC Barcelona as Messi is from Argentina. In that case why isn’t Argentina even half as good as FCB yet? Let us try answering the former question alone because answers to the latter mostly involve events off the field. If the answer is the absence of Messi alone it begs the question whether the system of play in Barcelona is really the best in the world? Can it work without the best player in the world?

The Spanish are the World champions and European champions but they simply don’t have the goals in them that FC Barcelona has. They won the World Cup with a string of 1-0 wins while the possession stat in each match was comparable to what Barcelona would have. They didn’t score many goals. They just lacked that cutting edge. True, Spain will murder lesser equipped teams. True, they created some good chances against England, which had they been taken, would have made it 2-0 or 3-0. But that would be taking false solace as teams are fast finding the way to beat Spain; whereas how to beat Barcelona has been an unanswered question for three seasons running. Add to it the fact that England did absolutely nothing on the counter attack. Teams like the Netherlands and Germany are well equipped to do much better on the counter and had Arjen Robben buried those one on one’s in the WC final we would be discussing something else now. England just sat back (parked the bus as they say), maintained their defensive shape superbly and thwarted Spain all day long. The English will rave about the win while I don’t think there’s much they can take home on the attacking front from that win. England did what Switzerland did better in the World Cup, what the Netherlands could so easily have done.

In spite of the greatest creativity on the field, Spain lack goals. The reason for that is not because they don’t have Messi. It is because they lack width as a team. They simply don’t field players who like to run on the flanks, run at the defenders to create gap between defensive lines for their forwards and attacking midfielders to exploit. They were plagued by the lack of width in the WC and not much seems to have changed, if the Engalnd friendly is anything to go by. No, I am not suggesting in the very least that they should change their formation, go 4-4-2 or anything like that. It is just that this system of Spain or Barcelona, which is outstanding, needs players who can run on the flanks to create gaps in the middle. Spain can retain the system but will need to field players who can go wide. Barcelona has so many such players who run the flanks all day, many of them even being wing backs. Daniel Alves is the first name you would mention and Arbeloa or Sergio Ramos can never match him at right back. Adriano, Maxwell and Abidal are other wing backs who derive a lot of joy attacking the opposition wing back. Jordi Alba was efficient at left back against England but will need to offer better in the attacking third. Barcelona also has players like Ibrahim Affelay and Alexis Sanchez (when fit) who can provide width every day of the week. The other player from Barcelona who can do that, who also performed spectacularly for Spain in his short stint at the WC, Pedro Rodriguez was missing from the Spanish line up surprisingly. Injured?

A look at the Spanish line up and you cannot see many players who can provide width. Vicente del Bosque has always played all the four of Busquets, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, all of them being central players. Del Bosque’s formation I would imagine is a 4-3-3 (Iniesta being a part of the front 3) and the 3 in front rotating themselves which is very much like Barcelona. The two forwards they started with were David Silva and David Villa. David Villa was a fantastic marksman for Valencia, then started playing the role of the withdrawn striker and has a penchant to cut in from the left. He often starts wide left during the play for Spain and is always going to cut in. One can seldom see him take on the defender on the outside and play a cross in, which makes it quite easy for defenders. David Silva who played on the left flank for Valencia has abandoned the position to revel in a more central role for his country as well as the new club. His exploits as a play maker at Manchester City need no mention here but he hasn’t played wide for more than three years now. The players that came on- Cesc Fabregas, another playmaker who plays centrally. Santi Cazorla is another class act, who can run the game at any top club, but another central midfielder. Juan Mata- when I saw him at Valencia three seasons back, he played on the left wing, but now runs the game at Chelsea playing more centrally. So where does the width come from? I recently came across this article where I read the term ‘Media Punta’ and how Spain is extremely gifted with so many players who run between the lines. All the players mentioned above, fall in that category. Excellent! So many players run between the lines but who pulls the lines apart? Who drags defenders wide? Anyone who watched the game can vouch that Engalnd were comfortable sitting back protecting their goal centrally and knew nothing would come in from wide. Spain derived some width out of Torres and Villa in the WC and now Silva replaces Torres. Not much difference is it?

One player I wished, would come on for Spain when they were 1-0 down against England was Jesus Navas, the gifted winger from Sevilla. Now, he is a player who can play wide and can challenge any wing back, put them to shame on his day. He showed flashes of brilliance in the WC before Pedro came on to the scene. Pedro himself is another such player for Spain. From the fantastic talent pool of the La Liga such players are bound to be found as well. If Spain is to match the higher standards of Barcelona they will have to fit in such players into the system for better execution of Plan A and more importantly to have a plan B. An immediate retro fit would be start with Pedro in place of Silva or Sergio Busquets, the latter being a more attacking option. Irrespective of what line up they start with Del Bosque has to bring these players on as impact substitutions instead of may be a Fabregas, especially when the going is tough with the opposition defending well. Spain will also need better output from their wingbacks in the attacking third. The system with which Spain plays is a fantastic one which denies the opposition of quite simply the ball itself, places deep faith in possession. But when it is only possession without clear cut chances, troubling the opposition keeper it suffocates the team and opens them up for a counter. If Spain is to conjure up goals from high percentage of possession with scores of 2-0 or better, they need to find the width to stretch defences. That is the benchmark set by FC Barcelona and till they reach that, they are not the best team in the world yet. Or Spain isn’t FC Barcelona yet.

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El Classico- PART III UCL SEMIFINAL

April 28, 2011

Sparks fly when Real Madrid plays FC Barcelona and last night was no different though the quality of football on display was not the most spectacular. Here’s an attempt at the highlights.

THE LINE UPS

REAL MADRID- No center forward was ample indication of what Jose Mourinho wanted out of the match or at least the first half. Though not suprising, one was only hoping against hope that Jose would play either Benzema or Higuain. In spite of his weekend heroics against Valencia, Kaka who has been there, done it didn’t make the cut. I would have played him ahead of Ozil as Kaka is a proven matchwinner.

FC BARCELONA- No Iniesta, a big blow. Mascherano at center back was a huge surprise. Gabriel Milito can surely look for another club now. Keyta is no match for Iniesta and Barca’s line up meant they were going to be short on creativity. A dull first half was already on the cards.

FIRST HALF and JOSE’S APPROACH

The first half was a predictable stale mate marked more by acting skills than attacking skills. Sergio Busquests can consider himself lucky for not getting a yellow card for diving and unlucky that he couldn’t become an award winning actor elsewhere. Real had clear instructions it would seem to A. put Barca out of their rythm and B. attack on the counter. An approach much criticised after the match was working all fine on the ‘A’ part but the fact that they were not pushing for the ball in Barca’s half meant there was no chance of a counter. Ronaldo was visibly annoyed that none of his team mates joined him in putting pressure on Barca in their own half. The approach that won them the Kings Cup was not well received at the Bernabau and the pressure was telling on the Madrid players. Someway down the middle of the first half Jose would have realised he needed a target man to whip a long ball in or to hold up play when Real did get the ball once in a blue moon. To play 3 midfielders all of whom are defensive in nature was not a bad tactic (remember Copa Del Rey, Inter Milan) but Ozil was invisible and a CF in his place could have made a lot of difference. The half was marked by Real’s lack of attacking intent and the now famous Barcelona play acting.

SECOND HALF and the RED CARD

Not often do you see these two teams play sportingly against each other and Jose Pinto’s red card without entering the field and during halftime was a sign of things to come. Mourinho made the much wanted change of Adebayor for Ozil. The african’s height and strength were what Jose opted for ahead of Benzema and Higuain, one would assume. The second half began in no different fashion than the first with Barca having all of the ball but not much in the attacking third. Adebayor showed more willingness to chase than the man he replaced but not to much avail. Mascherano fouled Pepe who went rolling down the ground. But only a yellow it was for the former Liverpool man who was all at sea at central defence. Tempers were flaring on both sides with a conference around the refree for every foul and free kick, Barcelona being more aggressive than Madrid. Then came the moment of the game that would be discussed well beyond the night- Pepe made a high footed challenge on Dani Alves with his studs pointing to the wing back’s shin and was shown a straight red by the ref. Though a poor challenge, no replay could confirm any vicious intention and Pepe clearly went for the ball. A yellow was probably what it deserved but Barca know to milk the red out of any pocket. Alves was stretchered off, only to return in a few minutes and run for the ball as well as he ever did. Barcelona did their image no good by pressurising the refree on every liitle chance but what they did mange was a berth in Wembley as it would turn out. What followed was a sending off for Mourinho himself from the technical area and two goals from you know who. Ibrahim Affelay had come on for Pedro and at the moment looks in better form than Pedro. He beat Marcelo on the right flank for pace and whipped in a cross for Messi to turn it in. It was great work from the Argentinian to be the first to the cross. Advantage Barca one would have thought and before long it was game set and match Barca when Messi produced the kind of goal which makes him the best player on planet. A stark contrast to the first, the second was a solo, getting past 4 defenders to slot it home.

THE AFTERMATH

The brilliance of the second goal would be least discussed and all news were about the sending off, Mourinho’s defensive approach and Barcelona being favoured by refrees. The sending off was harsh, no doubt. Mourinho’s approach is being criticised in hindsight. It’s worked for him on three occasions- La liga draw, Copa Del Rey and with Inter and I wouldn’t fault him too much for it except for the fact that he desperately needed a target man for the counterattack. Real Madrid have been at their best in recent times only under Jose Mourinho and their fans will have to do with the fact that spectacular football wont come overnight with the buy of spectacular players. Persisting with Mourinho is the way ahead for Los Galacticos. Barcelona have been receiving favourable decisions for quite sometime now- the semifinal against Chelsea in 2008-09, Van Persie sending off this year, the Pepe red card today being cases in point. But is it a mere coincidence or is there something more to it is a question hard to answer. I would say it’s mere coincidence because I believe Football is too clean for it to be the other way around.

THE RETURN LEG

When the media is done with the ifs and buts, when the managers put behind them the refreeing decisions and the associations finish pondering on the Mourinho accusations, Messi’s two goals will still remain. Come Tuesday, Real Madrid will need a miracle that Mourinho has already ruled out. It will be FC Barcelona against Manchester United again but lets brace ourselves for another El Classico hopefully a cleaner one.

Wenger has to “PEP” Up

December 18, 2010

It was not the same old story for Arsenal at Old Trafford. It was worse than that. The 1-0 defeat at the hands of their archrivals brought out one more disturbing fact about Arsenal this season- that they don’t seem to have the goals against the bigger teams. They just didn’t look like scoring as they did against Liverpool in the season opener, in the loss against Chelsea nor in the home loss against Newcastle. But Cesc Fabregas did not start any of these matches and that tells a story in itself. Without him Arsenal crave for some brilliance from either Nasri or the enigmatic Arshavin. While Nasri has been in top form, Arshavin has struggled to make an impact this season. Surprisingly though, when Fabregas is not available, Wenger hasn’t often played Nasri through the middle and has preferred the lesser creative Rosicky or inexplicably Denilson for a couple of games. In what could be the season deciding three weeks, United have drawn first blood. Arsenal are probably the English team that takes the Champions League most casually at least in the early stages and have now paid the price by setting up a clash against Barcelona. Things couldn’t have got tougher for them but here’s what Wenger could do to move towards that elusive silverware.

At the moment, the best silverware chance for Arsenal comes in the form of the Carling Cup and that silverware may not be enough for the club to retain Cesc Fabregas and Arsene Wenger his “Trust” if not the job. In Arsene they may trust but it has not been easy to guess in what Arsene trusts. It was indeed baffling to see them finish second and all that Wenger can do now is to return to the cliché that in every adversity lies an opportunity. Arsenal and Barcelona are teams with similar philosophies. They play their passing game irrespective of opponents and venue. They have immense faith in ball possession and flair is top priority for their managers. Both the teams try to score the “Perfect Goal” though Barcelona score more often than Arsenal do. Arsenal were a quick passing and fast breaking team during the times of Thierry Henry and Robert Pires but this season have slightly leaned towards the Barcelona style of slow but sure passing albeit against the weaker teams only. So what trick does Wenger miss that Pep Guordiaolla doesn’t?? And what could Arsenal do to pull off a surprise by advancing to the quarters??

One would be tempted to blame the Arsenal defence. But it has been considerably strengthened by the twin signings of Koscielny and Squillaci and Arsenal are still awaiting the return of their best defender in Vermaelen. The next blame might fall on the forward Chamakh who is nowhere as clinical as a David Villa. For all his ability in the air Chamakh along with Kenwyn Jones must be the two forwards who simply don’t have a shot in them. There was this funny yet revealing moment in the game against Fulham when Arshavin sent Chamakh through for a one on one with the keeper and Chamakh turned back to set up a shot for Arshavin as if to say “that’s not my job”. But given all that, Chamakh has had a wonderful season up front having a hand in most of the goals scored. So he surely isn’t my area of concern for Arsenal. To me the position that marks the difference between Arsenal and Barcelona is that of the holding midfielder. Alexander Song is being termed the most improved player at Arsenal this season, but the drastic personal improvement has come at the team’s cost. It’s hard to recall when Arsenal last kept a clean sheet, but it’s easy to remember that they were often caught on the counter, even as late as the Fulham game by Diamanti Camara. Attribute that to a defensive collision but also to a defensive midfielder failing in his primary duty. Jack Wilshere when he does play that role of a tackler, also ventures too far forward unlike a Sergio Busquets. While it is exciting to see your defensive midfielder score goals as Wenger himself claimed about Song fast turning into a “Forward”, getting carried away with that has been Wenger’s problem. Mathieu Flamini and Gilberto Silva seemed to know the line that shouldn’t be crossed which Song and Wilshere so often seem to do. Sergio Busquets knows that line to a T. For all his attacking exploits this season Song is just not equipped to be a playmaker. But Song is the best tackler in the team even though he picks up cards regularly. So the first thing Wenger has to ensure against Barcelona is that the defense has the right cover on its top against the world’s best attack.

While it’s been quite evident that Arsenal struggle to play the cutting edge pass against a well organized defence even if they have lopsided possession stats, they wont have to worry about that against Barcelone. Because they simply wont have more possession. That just might prove to be a blessing in disguise. Counterattack is the only way to beat Barcelone, though it’s easier said than done. Counterattack needs pace and Theo Walcott is a must against Barcelona without whom its tough to see Arsenal scoring at Emirates let alone Nou Camp. Barcelona’s wing backs do go a long way forward. While Daniel Alves does have the pace to run back, Walcott will test Abidal. Nasri against Alves will be worth the watch too. The third thing Wenger has to do is to play both Van Persie and Chamakh up front. Wenger cannot stop the Barcelona midfield from playing like how Sir Alex, so predictably yet effectively, did against Arsenal themselves by playing Anderson. So Wenger has to call on the heading ability of Chamakh for set pieces and the interplay that Van Persie brings with the wingers.

It is worth noting that the teams that beat Barcelona in the Champions Legue last two times went on to win the competition- Inter Milan and Manchester United. “If you can beat Barcelona you can beat anybody” seems to be the word going around. But in that case Hercules should be La Liga Champions. Reality doesn’t work out that way and Arsenal are still quite some way from looking a Champions League class club. How to beat Barcelona might be the million dollar question but beating them can be the spark for Arsenal to set the season on fire. Whether they are able to do that in cold winter nights is what has to be seen.