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Having worshipped at many altars in my time, I took the chance to visit one of the greatest churches of all two weeks ago; the Camp Nou.
There, I saw Barcelona play Villarreal in one of the most entertaining encounters I have ever witnessed, and it left me begging the question: Are Barcelona even playing the same sport as other teams?
Barcelona has always been associated with great teams, players, managers, and most importantly, great football.
But even the football played by Rinus Michels’ great side of the ’70s, or Johan Cruyff’s team of the ’90s, remembered as the Dream Team play, is nowhere near the brand of football that is employed by Pep Guardiola’s modern incarnation.
Tiki-Taka is a wonderful term and comes closest to describing Barcelona’s style of play. The sound of the drum beat is as close as you will come to depicting La Blaugrana’s rapid passing game.
Watching them against Villarreal was an education.
Conventional tactical thinking in England—or anywhere else for that matter—has the two full backs pulling wide to receive short kick outs from the goalkeeper.
However, Alves and Maxwell push on into a wide midfield position with Barca’s two centre halves pulling out wide to take the ball.
The gap they leave is filled by the much maligned and possibly the most disciplined player in football; Sergio Busquets.
As he drops in, La Blaugrana’s defence becomes a three man team with five options in front of them, and when the out ball is players like the great Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and the two fullbacks, you know they are going to be brave enough to accept the ball in any situation.
As the centre midfielders accept the all, Pedro and David Villa creep infield slightly, while the full backs push on even further. These two players really are key to Barcelona’s style of play, as they support even section of the team.
It is testament to Guardiola’s attacking instinct and will to win the game that the full backs are utilized in such a way. For instance, under Rafael Benitez, Liverpool’s full backs rarely attacked and never at the same time.
The movement off the ball is sublime.
Even player seems to have three to four options every time they take the ball in, and with each squad member being incredibly comfortable on the ball, they have an innate ability to hold onto the ball for long stretches.
To date, Barcelona FC has completed more passes than any other team in world football this season. When they start stringing passes together, it is not unusual for them to hit 20 or 30 consecutively.
In England, the league that I would be most familiar, it is unusual if a team puts more than six passes together.
Arsenal, Spurs, Manchester United and Chelsea are easily the best footballing teams in the UK, but even the football that they employ is like long ball football when compared to Barcelona’s style.
To play in such a way, Pep Guardiola’s team is super fit. Possibly fitter than any other team on the planet. The ball does so much work, but the movement off the ball is what makes the whole system come together.
That is not to say that Barcelona do not have their flaws. Like any team they have weaknesses, particularly the way the full backs move on and a well organised team with a centre forward in great form can exploit these frailties.
One other flaw is their lack of a recognised center forward, Villa and Pedro play wide, while Messi is given a free role. What that means is that Barcelona almost never has the option of going long or even crossing the ball, as there is no player in the box.
Think Inter Milan last year for a perfect example of one team, and one Jose Mourinho exploiting every single weakness in Pep Guardiola’s team.
But who would you rather watch? A team who defends well and wins matches, or a team who tries to win every match? You’d go for the team that is positive in every way.
After spending the evening at the Camp Nou and then partaking in a few beverages at Flaherty’s Irish Bar we decided that we were in the mood for football and couldn’t wait to see Arsenal and Everton the next afternoon.
It was like watching paint being tortured, never mind watching it dry. Arsenal is hailed as one of the best passing teams in the EPL, and they are. But they played the ball long more times in the first five minutes than Barcelona did in the entire 90 the night before.
As a matter of fact the only time Victor Valdes kicked the ball long all night was in the 93rd minute and the only outfield player to play the ball long all night was Javier Mascherano in the 87th minute, three minutes after he had come on.
To see football played like that was a privilege, and it is little wonder that we bumped into hundreds of tourists who had gone to Cataluña specifically to see Guardiola’s team play.
On show that particular night were eight world cup winners, (Valdes, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Busquets, Villa, Capdevilla) with players like Messi, Alves, and Maxwell in support.
Messi was not as good as he usually is, but his two goals were exquisite, as was David Villa’s opening strike. If anything, Messi’s phenomenal first was worth the ticket price alone. It summed up everything that this team stand for.
Quick thinking, clever play, and rapier like passes that cut through Villarreal like a knife through butter. Two one-twos in the space of five yards after a quickly taken free kick and the deftest of flicks past the on rushing Diego Lopez.
It was a goal that was as simplistic as it was beautiful, and provided the perfect example for everything that is good about Barca.
I suppose that one of the greatest aspects of Barca is that they play the game in such a simple way.
They take the easy pass every time and rarely do you see a Beckham style special winging its way across the pitch and out of play. Guardiola wouldn’t let them play the percentages, which is all too common with most other teams, even the good ones.
This weekend Barca take on Real Madrid in the biggest El Clásico since the last one. Jose Mourinho’s team are slick outfit with some great players of their own. The game will be a who’s, who of world football as almost the entire Spanish first team will take to the pitch with sidekicks like Messi and Ronaldo in support.
It will almost definitely be a good, if not great, game of football. But then again, you could say that about any Barcelona match.