A style not best suited to the Premier League?
Barcelona are considered to be the best team in the world, and it has even been argued they are the best of all time. It is easy to understand why. Not only do they have personnel who are incomparable to their counterparts in any other club, country or league in Lionel Messi, Andreas Iniesta and Xavi, who play alongside a cast of sensational talent such as Cesc Fabregas, Javier Mascherano, Carlos Puyol, Gerard Pique and Dani Alves, to name their more prominent squad members, but their style of football is unique, eye-catching, technically perfect and seemingly almost impossible to find an answer to.
So in theory, the Barca way, the employment of “tika-taka” football, with players constantly moving around, using short precise passing and an impetus on keeping the ball, should be the impeccable model to follow, but do the Premier League clubs in any shape or form attempt to adopt this style? Or is it even possible to do so – in a division where physicality and end-to-end play appears to be the most dominant features?
Firstly, it must be said there is a reason that only Barcelona play like Barcelona with the success that only Barcelona have achieved. Not only does their passing game rip teams apart with pinpoint balls and passes that require exceptional skill and vision, but also their high-octane closing down, often conducted by those players more commonly recognised as being creative talents, is a well-oiled method of defending that requires the determination, spirit and work-rate that only the most competitive players with the right attitude can effectively pull off. The Barca team may often have smiles on their faces, conducting themselves in a rather relaxed manner, but they are no doubt the most competitive footballers in the game; that is the driving force behind their collective success as well and their individual performances.
So Barcelona’s style isn’t for everyone, but has any club in the English top-flight tried to play their football in such a manner? Well, the most obvious examples of clubs trying to do so would be Liverpool and Swansea. Both have a possession philosophy and regularly play the ball out of the backline, and aren’t afraid of moving backwards in order to go forward. The latter club signed a number of players from La Liga in the summer, which has very much helped and enriched a style of football that impressed many last season under Brendan Rodgers, and originated at the Liberty Stadium under Roberto Martinez. Rodgers, now at Liverpool, has taken his tactics and applied them to his new club, which have averaged nearly 60% possession this year.
As well as keeping the ball, the Barcelona style has a strong emphasis on attacking, expansive football – an approach which can be attributed to a number of teams, especially over the past few seasons. Manchester United and Chelsea have especially been geared towards attacking play, despite the latter once being thoroughly organised machine under former boss Jose Mourinho, which brought the London Club their most successful period. Similarly, the average number of goals per game has increased steadily by the season since the Premier League’s incarnation.
But there are a number of subtle differences between the possession-minded and attacking mentality teams of the Premiership and the Nou Camp’s brand of football. Firstly, the way in which the ball is kept is somewhat different, and it is a problem which is also suffered by the England national team. I’m not sure what it is about the English game, but possession football appears to mean in this part of Europe that the ball is continually played along the defence, pushed up the half-way line. In Spain, Barcelona play possession football by keeping their opponents pinned back as far as possible, regularly in their own box, with the ball being kept in the midfield area in little pockets of space. It seems the typical English footballer may well be very good at nailing a 40-yard diagonal through ball, but passing the ball a few metres in a quick and technical fashion proves much more difficult.
Secondly, Barcelona’s team are incredibly short and the nature of the Premier League would never allow such a low height average to be successful. Celtic managed to capitalise on their height advantage in the Champions League group stages, and although in an ideal world, many English clubs would love to play like Barcelona, they would certainly get punished for their lack of physicality. Teams like Stoke City and West Ham especially, where the majority of their Starting XI are towering individuals, and even their shorter players are effective in the air, creates a bit of a defensive stumbling block for a side constructed of short and nimble footballers.
Of course the theory would be that the benefits of such a style would lead to more positive than negative results come the end of the season, but in the Premier League balance is often key. I do believe Premier League clubs try to play like Barcelona, and may well do in training exercises; it is after all the most ideal form of playing the beautiful game. But there is a reason that no club since the days of Arsenal’s Invincibles – which still included a rather tough defence and physical element in midfield – have made a serious attempt at playing in such a glamorous and stylish manner.
Finally, the way Barcelona play isn’t created by a session in front of a whiteboard or down to a few key individuals; it is very much the club’s underlying philosophy, constantly installed into their players at youth level via La Masia. Their players are bred that way, just as the stereotypical Englishman is bred to be physical, hard-working and direct. Some clubs do try to emulate Barcelona, or at least borrow parts of their ethos but as I said, there is a reason Barcelona play like Barcelona and no one else does. It’s because they are the only footballers capable of performing in such an idealistic style, with the belief, attitude and ability required to do so, and therefore they could never be successfully mimicked in England.