Previously on the Soccer Yoda:
We discussed Brazil’s whomping of #1 in the world Spain and the reaction to it in soccer circles. And we talked about the basic concepts of Spain’s ticky-tacka style of play and why it has been so successful (please see our last post ).
And now, Part 2:
Teams facing Barcelona knew they must adjust or continue to lose. Since the style typically calls for slow play, they knew they had plenty of time for their players to fall back into defensive positions. So, rather than battle for the ball up field and get beat by the combination of lack of numbers on their part and great ball skills by Barca, they fell back into a defensive shell. They usually formed two defensive lines ,each consisting of 4 defenders, with the backs lining up around the top of the penalty area and the midfielders about 10 yards in front of them. Although the two remaining forwards even dropped back on occasion, usually they stayed farther up, waiting for the opportunity to counter-attack against the drawn-up and often out-of-defensive-position Barcelona defense. By the way, this is not a new nor uncommon defensive tactic against pass-possession oriented teams. I, myself, even at my much-lower- than- world- class level, have seen this as far back as the early 1980’s and as recently as last spring when my under-12 girls ran into 9 pulled back field players who simply refused to cross into our defensive half of the field. This defensive shell strategy achieved some success in lowering the number of goals scored by Barcelona. But unless a team had a very fast ,strong forward or two, it merely delayed the inevitable and made the scores easier to digest. On occasion Real Madrid or Chelsea ( teams with just such an attack) actually won, but it didn’t change the basic Barca strategy.
The question must be asked , ” why not attack them farther up than in front of your goal”? The answer is a bad case of Lionelphobia (I made up that term), which is defined (by your Soccer Yoda) as ,” fear of Messi”. Let’s face it, when playing against the best scoring machine in the world, who has terrific speed, quickness, ball skills AND a nose for the goal; it seems like suicide to give him space by pulling your players up. So, even good teams fell back, tried to absorb a game full of pressure and counter-attack when they got the ball, which wasn’t often.
So far we have considered Barcelona and Spain to be virtually the same squad, just playing against different teams in different competitions. For the most part, they are. BUT, there is one MAJOR difference; Messi is from Argentina, he doesn’t play for Spain. And the Spanish have nobody else at near his level to replace him. That hasn’t made much difference the last few years, other than the Spanish scoring fewer goals -as an example, they won the World Cup with a succession of 1-0 victories. They continue to ticky-tacka, they hold the ball, they make the opposition chase, they fended off the Netherlands in the World Cup final when the Dutch tried to hit them out of their possession. And on occasion, they break through and score plenty, as in their 4-0 win over Italy in the European championship.
So what happened against Brazil?
First, it must be made clear that the Barcelona/Spain defense has gotten much weaker in the last couple years. The combination of injuries and age have slowed them down immeasurably. This makes them even more susceptible to fast breaks than before. They don’t see many of these quick counter attacks though, because the opposition doesn’t see much of the ball. One thing about ball possession; it’s a great form of defense. It’s a fact – a team must get the ball at their feet, even if only briefly , to score. No ball=no goals. Commentators have often spoken about the evils of “possession for possession’s sake”. They say a team must do something offensively with the ball when they have it. Not necessarily so….the best way to play defense is not actually having to play defense. Spain has continued to be tough to score on because opponents don’t get the ball much. As for Barcelona, this past season they decided to attack somewhat more quickly ,therefore scoring more goals. BUT that opened the way for more counters and against the better teams they gave up more goals. When Messi got hurt toward the end of the season, Barca suffered, going out of the Champions League rather decisively.
But remember, Spain doesn’t have Messi. There is no Lionelphobia. As a matter of fact, there is no fear of Spanish forwards at all. So Brazil decided to play Spain’s game , but from a defensive standpoint. When the Spanish moved to provide their guy with the ball those passing options, the Brazilians moved also. They refused to be outnumbered around the ball and when they got there , they pressured the ball and they frequently got it. And when they didn’t win the ball quickly, they fouled. The ref gave them some latitude when it came to yellow cards, so they broke up Spanish possession and broke up the rhythm of the game. Yes, they opened themselves up to fast attacks. Remember , that’s what you do when you move players to the ball and away from balanced defensive positions. They basically dared the Spanish to fast break on them. And with only a couple exceptions, the Spanish couldn’t do it.
So what about at the other end? The Brazilians knew the fast attack was on- find the open spaces and run! And they have their own version of Messi!
Neymar da Silva Santos Junior is a fast, skilled 21 yr old Brazilian forward who has been lighting it up in the Brazilian league for a couple of years. He was somewhat young and inexperienced on the national level, but no more. He scored amazing goals in the Confederation tournament and created more goals for others to score. To go with him the Brazilians have Fred, who doesn’t seem to do anything except 1)magically appear in the opponents penalty area whenever the ball arrives there and 2) find a way to put it in the goal- even if lying on top of it, as he did on Brazil’s first goal Sunday.
So the Brazilians pressured Spain at the ball instead of falling back into a shell, they attacked quickly at the Spanish defense knowing that the Spanish would be out of position because of the ticky-tacka style of offense and knowing that they were quicker and faster than the Spanish defenders. Why-because of Spanish age? Yes ,but mostly because of Neymar. AND they knew the Spanish offense would probably be too slow and unskilled to take advantage of the space the Brazilians would give them. They were right on all accounts. Oh, one other thing……not small….at any level of any type of competition….The Brazilians simply wanted it more. Sergio Ramos ,longtime Spanish defender said after the game,” one day the moment will arrive when you don’t win, we are not machines”. It seems as if the Spanish almost expected to lose. The Brazilians had something to prove, they were at home, they were quick , fast and well rested. The Spanish were none of that.
So, what is the future of ticky-tacka? Is it dead like many are proclaiming? Is Barcelona and Spain in big trouble? Well, not Barca. While it is true that they could certainly use some youth and speed on defense, they have something Spain does not…..actually TWO things that Spain does not. As mentioned before, Messi is still there, providing a good reason for teams not to take the chances that Brazil took against Spain. And if that were not enough, Neymar- the very player who made the Brazilian strategy viable, moves to Barcelona this season. Any team pressuring up field against Barcelona will have to deal with arguably the two best scoring threats in the world. Messi and Neymar and ticky-tacka–oh my!(Sorry about the old movie reference)
As for Spain….they have a year until next summer’s World Cup to figure out what to do. They need better forwards, they need faster defenders, they now have the motivation to make up for Sunday’s defeat. As Iker Casillas ,the Spanish goalkeeper said,” this wasn’t the World Cup”. Time will tell.
On Sunday Brazil gave Spain a 3-0 beating that was a shock to the soccer world. Not the fact that Brazil won – many thought that was possible. But few predicted that the Brazilians would trounce the defending World Cup champs , Euro championship,28 consecutive wins, no 1 in the world ,etc Spanish team in the manner that they did. And now , of course, the bandwagon jumpers are claiming that Spain is dead and that their style and that of the Spanish club Barcelona that makes up the majority of the Spanish squad has had it also.
The Soccer Yoda says ,”not so fast!”.
Now, to understand the what happened Sunday from a strategy standpoint, we must look at the tactical plan used by Spain and Barcelona ( it is very much the same) and see what Brazil did to defeat it. I will describe it by the basics. If the reader is a very knowledgable soccer person, you might find this part boring (that’s assuming you don’t find the whole blog boring!) If you are a fan, the forthcoming explanantion could be enlightening. If you aren’t a soccer person at all, you will learn much……but I am not sure what you are doing here in the first place! (Don’t leave though!)
One of the main concepts of modern soccer that most coaches accept (not all, mind you) is that in order to win a team must keep possession of the ball for at least a portion of the game. Just kicking and shooting isn’t enough; passing the ball around while looking for and creating openings is needed. In order to do that there must be more offensive players around the ball than defenders. Rule 1 of possession soccer : outnumber the opposition around the ball! To do that a team must (at least to an extent) forget the concept of spreading out and playing position. Players must move into positions that give the ballholder options to pass without interception. At least one player must be open, so there has to be more offensive than defensive players in the vicinity.
A few years ago Barcelona started taking that concept to the extreme. They moved their midfielders around so much that it became a moot point as to what position they played other than “midfield”. Their forwards moved back to help in the “outnumbering”, so much so that some observers said they had no “real” forwards at all. The center forward ( who often wears #9-that’s a soccer history thing) moved back so much that the formation was called the”false 9″. And yes, defenders joined in also. It is VERY common for Barcelona backs to go down the wing when the opportunity presents itself. The supporting players get so close to the person with the ball that often the passes are very short ( 2-3 yards) and one might wonder why they passed it at all. Commentators called these super short passes “ticky” passes and the next super short pass was a “tacka”pass and lo and behold, the style got a name! Ticky-tacka became the signature style of Barcelona and since the Spanish national team consists mostly of Barca players, it became their style also.
What happened on the field was that teams employing traditional “spread-out” formations could never get the ball. They couldn’t intercept the passes because not only were they outnumbered , but the Barca/Spain players had incredible ball control, passing accuracy and the vision to spot the open player ( and there always was one). They got physically and mentally tired of chasing the ball all game trying to avoid being “it” in the game of keep-away being played against them. The Barcelona offense would move down the field, often at a very slow pace….I mean a VERY slow pace! At a Barcelona match that I saw at Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium, they averaged 27 passes per possession; AVERAGED 27 passes! Sometimes it got into the 40 and 50 passes without an opponent touching the ball. When they arrived within striking distance of the goal : they often only had to beat the keeper, a few out-numbered defenders and the offside rule in order to score. The rest of the defending team had been passed by the passing!
In one memorable game Barcelona played Real Madrid in what is referred to in Spain as “El Classico”. Whenever these teams meet it is an “El Classico”. That’s how good Real is. They are always among the world’s best club teams. Barca was just really getting into the ticky-tacka and Real didn’t adjust at all. The result was a humiliating 5-0 defeat and ( as they say) it could have been worse!
The ticky-tacka does have a weakness, of course. All styles ,formations, etc in all sports have strengths and weaknesses. Ticky-tacka’s inherent weakness is the very movement that sets it up. On the rare occasions when the ball IS lost, the team is in a poor position to defend in the spaces that have been left open by the movement. Sometimes they have less backs than they would like; sometimes the entire team is caught upfield as they were passing the ball around. So the counter-attack is their Achilles heel. Any team playing this style effectively must have fast defenders who tackle well and understand the situation when the other team is coming at them. A good goalkeeper doesn’t hurt either. For Barcelona and therefore Spain, that wasn’t a problem, they had the required backs and keeper and next thing you know, they were winning almost every thing. Barcelona was being called the best club team “ever” by more than a few, and the Spanish national team started a winning habit that had few bumps. Opponents did try to adjust ( more about that next post), but largely to no avail. But things have changed in the last few months, cumulating in Spain’s defeat on Sunday. What has happened? What did Brazil do to breakup ticky-tacka? Next post ( probably tomorrow if the Soccer Yoda can get off the xbox) we will talk about why. How’s that for a teaser?