Barcelona vs. Chelsea: The Revenge of Soccer’s Short Men

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Phil Cole / Sportimage / Cal Sport Media

John Obi Mikel of Chelsea tackles Lionel Messi of Barcelona during the Champions League semifinal in London on April, 18, 2012

Watch the pre-kickoff handshake between the players of Barcelona and Chelsea ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League semifinal showdown and you’d be forgiven for believing the Catalans had sent a youth team to face the big men from London. Didier Drogba, the Ivorian striker whose goal last week gave Chelsea an improbable 1–0 lead in a first-leg game dominated by its opponents, is a 6 ft. 2 in. muscular colossus; by contrast, Barca’s main attacking threat, the Argentine genius Lionel Messi, is a slight and runty 5 ft. 7 in. — and he needed months of growth-hormone injections in childhood to reach even that limited stature. A player of Messi’s height would be an exception on any English team, but at Barca he’s the norm: three of his team’s four other key attackers in last week’s semifinal first leg, held in London — Xavi, the baby-faced Andres Iniesta and the Chilean Alexis Sanchez — are no taller. And the broad-chested and muscled Sanchez aside, none looks much like an athlete. On the team fielded by Barca that day, only midfield anchor Sergio Busquets was over 6 feet tall, which might have made Barca fans wince every time Chelsea won a free kick or a corner, giving the team a set-piece opportunity to loft the ball into Barca’s penalty area, where a phalanx of heavy-set 6-footers — Drogba, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Gary Cahill, Branislav Ivanovic and John Obi Mikel — towered menacingly over their markers.

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But Chelsea didn’t get that many opportunities to use its advantage in height and heft in the English style. Barcelona, as the team’s coach, Pep Guardiola, loves to point out, is a “horrible team” when its players don’t have the ball, which is why its game plan involves making sure they rarely turn the ball over to the opposition.

When they do lose the ball, they have an extraordinary ability to win it back almost immediately. In that respect, the diminutive stature of the Barca players may actually help: it’s almost routine for Messi to be tackled by a defender and yet still come away with the ball — his center of gravity is lower than that of many of the giant centerbacks who try to stop him, leading him to regain his balance a split second faster and control of the loose ball. (You can see the same effect at work in the other semifinal, to be held on Wednesday, with Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery, also 5 ft. 7 in., often managing the same thing.)

Barcelona’s tiki-taka style is based on short passing and movement off the ball to create triangles that always give the man in possession at least two passing options; even goalkeeper Victor Valdes prefers to pass his way out of trouble rather than hit a clearance into no-man’s-land, risking turning over possession. And it’s that metronomic passing and movement that systematically breaks down opposing defenses.

(LIST: Top 10 Goals from Soccer’s Champions League)

Consider the statistics from last week’s leg of the semifinal, as provided by the brilliant Michael Cox, whose website Zonal Marking is essential reading for anyone interested in tactics. Barca had 72% of possession over the 90 minutes; its players played 814 passes, of which 754 (93%) reached their intended target. Chelsea, by contrast, played just 209 passes, of which 158 (76%) reached their target. No matter, says the Chelsea fan: the only statistic that counts is Chelsea 1, Barcelona 0. And in a sense, of course, that person would be right. Chelsea players chose to defend in numbers and confine themselves to trying to strike quickly, on the break, using their physical advantages and Drogba’s explosive power (in essence, the tactics often employed by the away team). Indeed, their goal came from a move in which Chelsea made just two decisive passes to get the ball to the Ivorian in the penalty area. (Even Real Madrid, whose emphatic 2–1 victory at Barcelona on Saturday in “El Clasico” surely prevented the Catalans from winning a fourth successive Spanish league title, enjoyed just 28% of possession — but they used it more emphatically and decisively in a quick-break, counterpunching style.)

Barca players don’t play on the break, however. They hold the ball as much for reasons of defense as attack. The opposition can’t hurt you when it doesn’t have the ball, and chasing the ball tires it out. Still, last week the Catalans created at least a dozen scoring chances (to Chelsea’s one), hitting the woodwork twice and going agonizingly close a number of other times. Chelsea, in short, was desperately lucky.

Chelsea would be foolish to expect its opponents to be so profligate at its Camp Nou stadium on Tuesday, when the famous tiki-taka game is likely to be in full effect. It’s a style that puts brains above brawn, tactical awareness above speed and power, and delicate ball skills and keeping possession above hopeful passes lobbed into dangerous spaces.

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It was two Dutchmen, genius forward Johan Cruyff and coach Louis van Gaal, who laid the foundations of the current Barca — and Spanish national — style. Cruyff moved to Barcelona in the early 1970s and instilled in a generation the virtues of the quick, short pass and movement game that involves expanding the space available to your players when your team has the ball and compressing the space available to opposition players when they have the ball. Watch Barca players in training and the speed and skill with which they are able to pass the ball in extremely congested spaces. It is breathtaking.

Cruyff built the cathedral that is Barca today, says Guardiola, and it is his job to maintain, renovate and upgrade it. A profoundly insightful piece by Financial Times correspondent Simon Kuper — perhaps the most astute soccer writer out there, and whose Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win remains essential reading for anyone seeking an analytical take on the game — gets an insider’s take on Barca tactics from former coaching staffer Albert Capellas.

Barca’s first line of defense is its forwards, whose capacity to win back a ball lost deep inside an opponent’s half is what keeps the team’s adversaries on the rack. Kuper explains:

“Barcelona start pressing (hunting for the ball) the instant they lose possession. That is the perfect time to press because the opposing player who has just won the ball is vulnerable. He has had to take his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception, and he has expended energy. That means he is unsighted, and probably tired. He usually needs two or three seconds to regain his vision of the field. So Barcelona try to dispossess him before he can give the ball to a better-placed teammate.

“Furthermore, if the guy won the ball back in his own defence, and Barcelona can instantly win it back again, then the way to goal is often clear. This is where Lionel Messi’s genius for tackling comes in. The little man has such quick reflexes that he sometimes wins a tackle a split-second after losing one.”

If they fail to win the ball back within five seconds of losing it, Kuper continues, Barca players immediately retreat into a compact defensive unit that compresses and congests the space through which the opponent will have to move the ball. And its players take a martial artist’s cues in deciding when to resume their hunt for the ball:

“There are very precise prompts that tell them when to press. One is if an opponent controls the ball badly. If the ball bounces off his foot, he will need to look downwards to locate it, and at that moment he loses his overview of the pitch. That’s when the nearest Barcelona players start hounding him.

“There’s another set prompt for Barça to press: when the opposing player on the ball turns back towards his own goal. When he does that, he narrows his options: he can no longer pass forward, unless Barcelona give him time to turn around again. Barcelona don’t give him time. Their players instantly hound the man, forcing him to pass back, and so they gain territory.”

Perhaps the most fascinating distinction between Barca and most English teams is the fact that the sort of lightning counterattack mounted by Chelsea for its goal in the first leg is almost anathema, except in instances where the ball is won near the opposing team’s goal.

“Most leading teams treat the moment the ball changes hands – ‘turnover’, as it’s called in basketball – as decisive. At that moment, the opponents are usually out of position, and so if you can counterattack quickly, you have an excellent chance of scoring. Teams like Manchester United and Arsenal often try to score in the first three seconds after winning possession. So their player who wins the ball often tries to hit an instant splitting pass. [This is what Lampard did when dispossessing Messi to set up the Chelsea goal last Wednesday. —Eds.] Holland – Barcelona’s historic role models – do this too.

“But when a Barcelona player wins the ball, he doesn’t try for a splitting pass. The club’s attitude is: he has won the ball, that’s a wonderful achievement, and he doesn’t need to do anything else special. All he should do is slot the ball simply to the nearest teammate. Barcelona’s logic is that in winning the ball, the guy has typically forfeited his vision of the field. So he is the worst-placed player to hit a telling ball.
This means that Barcelona don’t rely on the element of surprise. They take a few moments to get into formation, and then pretty much tell their opponents, ‘OK, here we come.’ The opposition knows exactly what Barça are going to do. The difficulty is stopping it.”

Chelsea managed to stop it last week, of course, through a combination of luck and dogged, disciplined defending. And the London side may take heart from the weekend’s games: Chelsea started Saturday’s clash at Arsenal without eight of the players that started last week against Barcelona, resting them for Tuesday’s showdown — and still managed to prevent Arsenal from scoring. Barca, by contrast, started Saturday’s league showdown with Real Madrid with all but two of the same players they fielded in London last week, and the Madrileños’ 2–1 victory means those same players will have to lift themselves from the demoralization of losing on home turf to their arch nemesis (it was Barca’s first home defeat in 55 games in all competitions). Of course, if Chelsea were able to field a team of even half the quality of the Real Madrid squad, Barcelona might be in real trouble. But seeing as Chelsea spent most of the home leg metaphorically parking the team bus in front of its own goal (with 10 men in their defensive third most of the time), there’s no reason to expect them to do much differently when playing away.

Instead, Tuesday’s tie is more likely to be an opportunity for the Barca players to offer their fans the solace of progress toward the final, and another possible date with Real, ensuring that while the Madrileños may have captured the Spanish league title, the Catalans won’t easily cede their status as champions of Europe.

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