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.