The myth of Barca’s ‘beautiful game’

Barcelona’s foul play is hidden away in their exorbitantly high percentage of possession says Andy Simanowitz.

FC Barcelona are widely regarded in football circles as not only the best team in the world but perhaps the best team the world has ever seen. This belief is fuelled not only by the team’s unprecedented success on the domestic and European stages but also by the aesthetic qualities of their attacking play. If teams attempt to resist the sublime skills of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Co. with defensive tactics and strong tackling they are accused of negativity. When Barcelona overcome this ‘negative’ play, their success is framed as a victory of footballing good over footballing evil. And yet a study of the statistics reveals that Barcelona are, in fact, one of the most foul intensive teams in Europe

Although Barcelona may lead the table for the least yellow and red cards received in both Champions League and La Liga, the fact that they commit less fouls than other teams is because they have so much possession of the ball. In terms of fouls committed per minute when they are defending, the story is very different.

Watching Barcelona’s flowing attacking football it is easy not to notice some of their fouls particularly since so many of them are committed, not in their own half when defending attacking play, but in the opposition’s half. Indeed Barcelona are sometimes said to “asphyxiate the opposition” and they do this by pressing in numbers high up the field to win the ball back. It is here where the fouls are committed. Barcelona’s possession is not simply due to their unquestionably exquisite ball retention abilities or the opposition’s negative tactics, but to a style of defensive play that relies on persistent fouling when the opposition has the ball.

In individual matches statistics show that Barcelona commit less fouls than the opposition – often by a significant margin. But fouls are generally committed by the defending team. So in order to see how foul intensive a team’s style of play really is one needs to not just look at the number of fouls committed but also how much possession of the ball the fouling team had. Taking possession into the equation shows how foul-intensive a team actually is.

When one squares Barcelona’s low number of fouls with their high percentage of possession they are exposed as one of the most foul intensive teams around. Looking at the statistics from the 2011 Champions League season, they are in fact in the top four out of a total of 32 teams. And what’s more, in each of the three knockout ties they played, from the round of 16 to the semi-final, they were more foul-intensive than their opponent. Yes, they did commit a lower number of fouls than the opposition in each of the ties, but because of their exceptionally high percentage of possession they effectively did so in a much shorter period of time, averaging a higher number of fouls per minute spent defending.

The most extreme example for their hidden foul intensity is the first leg of their infamous semi-final clash with Real Madrid. In this match Barcelona committed 25 fouls compared to Real Madrid’s 21, which, on the surface, looks pretty equal. When one takes into account the possession statistics however, it turns out it was not so at all. Barcelona had an average of 72% of possession. This means they spent only 25.2 minutes of the match defending. If one assumes that the 25 fouls were committed in those 25.2 minutes defending the numbers equal an average of 0.99 fouls per minute. Real Madrid in comparison, committed 21 fouls, but did so in 64.2 minutes of defending, thus averaging just 0.32 fouls per minute. While Barcelona averaged almost a foul per minute, Real Madrid averaged a foul about only every three minutes.

How extraordinarily foul intensive Barcelona’s play was in this particular match becomes clear when one calibrates the numbers by assuming a hypothetical game, in which both teams have an equal share of possession. In such a game, Real Madrid would commit 14 fouls. Barcelona would commit 45. If the team with the 45 fouls won this hypothetical game (and Barcelona did win the game the statistics derive from, effectively deciding the tie to qualify for the Champions League final) few pundits would rave about ‘footballing good’ triumphing over ‘footballing evil’.

The final between Barcelona and Manchester United on Saturday has all the ingredients for a truly great game of football but I will be watching out for the cynical edge to the way Barca play the beautiful game.

CL 2011 Round of 16 Arsenal vs. Barcelona
x y z w
1st leg Arsenal 39 16 54.9 0.29
Barcelona 61 13 35.1 0.37
2nd leg Arsenal 32 19 61.2 0.31
Barcelona 68 8 28.8 0.28
Total Arsenal 0.30
Barcelona 0.33
CL 2011 Quarter-finals Barcelona vs. Shakhtar Donetsk
x y z w
1st leg Barcelona 64 9 32.4 0.28
Shakhtar 36 20 57.6 0.35
2nd leg Barcelona 62 17 34.2 0.50
Shakhtar 38 22 55.8 0.39
Total Barcelona 0.39
Shakhtar 0.37
CL 2011 Round Semi-final Real Madrid vs. Barcelona
x y z w
1st leg Real Madrid 28 21 64.8 0.32
Barcelona 72 25 25.2 0.99
2nd leg Real Madrid 36 31 57.6 0.54
Barcelona 64 10 32.4 0.31
Total Real Madrid 0.43
Barcelona 0.65

Statistics taken from

x = Possession in %
y = Fouls committed
z = Time spent defending in minutes (on the basis of a game lasting 90 minutes)
w = Average number of fouls per minute spent defending

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