Is copying Barcelona really the blueprint needed at Anfield?
Liverpool have begun the new season with a brand spanking new philosophy to compliment the new manager at the helm in Brendan Rodgers. It’s all very new down at Anfield this season, even the nets in the goals are new, but old new because they used to be red years ago. However, after defender Jose Enrique’s assertion that the club were attempting to copy Barcelona’s style this term, is that really the way forward for the club?
Copying the greatest club team in living memory is no small feat – the hours of learning and the mentally and physically exhausting time put in on the practice pitch means that this sort of football is not tailored to every kind of player, particularly older ones set in their ways.
Footballers, by and large, are a pretty dim breed of people and all this ‘let’s pass the ball around nicely for five minutes’ is often beyond the realms of most English players’ capabilities, it’s simply not in their DNA to ignore an extravagant Hollywood pass every five minutes – it’s certainly a case of nurture over nature and it requires a great degree of patience that many at the club may not be able to cope with.
Jose Enrique told ESPN last week: “The best team in the world is the best example; Barcelona. You could see against Real Madrid a few days ago, how when they have the ball it is amazing and when they lose it, within three or four seconds they have it back. This is the way we try to play. We can’t compare with Barcelona they are different, but we are trying to play like this. We are starting to learn but we are learning well.”
Against West Brom and in their Europa League games to date, Liverpool have shown a willingness to play the ball out from the back and hunt it down like wild animals looking for an easy meal whenever they happen to lose it, which makes a welcome change from the lethargy which seemed to take hold of the side in the final stages of last term under Kenny Dalglish. There’s an urgency and purpose to their play now, which makes them an attractive and dangerous proposition.
Of course, this cost the side all three points against Manchester City, when Martin Skrtel was found guilty of committing the cardinal sin of defending, playing the ball back to his goalkeeper without looking what was behind him, but Rodgers’ reluctance to criticise him after the match highlighted that this is a learning period for everyone at the club.
Against the champions at Anfield, Liverpool were very impressive, with Joe Allen and Jonjo Shelvey in particular catching the eye. The average age of the squad was just under 25 years of age, the youngest that the club have turned out since playing Newcastle way back in 2003. There is a clear and deliberate shift in ethos – get young players in that the manager can mould, who suit his style of play and are willing to learn his ways, with Raheem Sterling praised by Rodgers as much for his tactical discipline as his pace or trickery out wide.
Nevertheless, doesn’t this all sound vaguely familiar? Didn’t Arsenal try something very similar under Arsene Wenger with Cesc Fabregas as the fulcrum of all of their attacking and creative play? A side based largely around youth and future potential? The result was a seven-year trophy drought from which the club are just starting to recover in terms of their change in tack in the transfer market, and from which they may never fully return to the pinnacle of the top flight because it backfired.
The £15m purchase of Allen was certainly less of a risk than many first feared and he’s misplaced just six of his 114 attempted passes so far in his two league outings at his new club – in short, he’s been absolutely superb, which given that he’s familiar with the system and his role in it, should come as no surprise.
But attempting to copy Barcelona’s style, as Jose Enrique has claimed, which Allen at the heart of it seems like a foolish thing to try and attempt. Their squad and Liverpool’s squad are absolutely poles apart in terms of quality, while the majority of players plying their trade at the Camp Nou have been indoctrinated into such a style from a very young age, not taught it well into their careers.
Perhaps the Spanish left-back has merely fallen into the trap of comparing every side that passes the ball with Barcelona, which seems an overly simplistic thing to do, as each side has their own different ways of penetration to make all the passing worthwhile. The phrase tiki-taka is one that’s often bandied about, but very few teams actually play with it and judging by Liverpool’s performances so far, they aren’t one of them.
There’s also the fact that no club in British football has ever been successful with a style of play that focuses solely on retaining possession as a means of not only attack, but defence – it doesn’t quite suit the culture of the league that we’re in.
Swansea’s demolition of West Ham last weekend showed that passing football is far more transferable than long-ball football over the course of a 38-game season and to a higher level with better players, but the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City have built their successes in recent years on the ability to do a bit of the ugly stuff as well as the tidy triangles often praised to the high heavens.
It’s a massive gamble, an experiment of sorts, but in the theme of the new at Anfield this season, it’s something borrowed, not blue which appears to be the in-vogue thing. Attempting to copy Barcelona is futile; having a footballing philosophy is fine and principles by which you want to abide by, but you must put your own stamp on it, otherwise you’re in danger of losing your own identity as a club along the way.
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