Watching Barcelona v. Arsenal in the UEFA Champions League yesterday, I texted back and forth with friends about what makes Barcelona so unique:
* they defend with the ball - when they can retain the ball for such long stretches of time (70-30 possession advantage in the first half), they make it impossible for opposition to mount an attack.
American football pundits talk a lot about how important ball control is to keep a high-powered offense off the field - NFL teams that can run the ball and chew up the clock for long stretches keep top offenses on the sideline, and can disrupt a rhythm for that team.
Watching Barcelona in possession, it is humbling to see that the opposing team can't get into any form of rhythm because they are asked to defend for such long stretches of the match.
* possession isn't always about sideways and backwards passing - as great as Barcelona is at retaining the ball when they have it, they are also the best team in the world with penetration as well. The combination of the perfectly weighted and angled passes from the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets - coupled with the well timed and angled runs of Messi, Villa and Pedro - forces teams to sit back and defend deep. When Arsenal played a high line, they were often punished for it.
Playing against a team that can hold the ball for long stretches when you drop your line of confrontation or back line deep, or against a team that can get in behind you when your line is too high, you really are left to pick your poison.
* defensive transition - the most underrated part of Barcelona's game is their ability to win the ball back once they lose it. They press high up the field, and since they are able to keep the ball in the midfield and attacking 1/3 for long stretches, they have most of their players around the ball and in the opposing half of the field. Even when they lose the ball (which doesn't happen too often), they work so hard to win it back quickly that they are able to counter quickly as well.
Whether it be passing for possession or penetration, or their ability to win the ball back quickly when they win it, we are watching a blueprint for success that is soon to become the modern game.
Saying that, I can't think of another team in the modern era that have been able to replicate this style of play - a reason why I haven't tried to emulate this with my teams is because you need to have the best players in the world to play this way - Duke University's John Rennie used to say that to play like Brazil, all you need is 11 Brazilians...
Well, you can try to adopt certain aspects of 'the Barca way', but to play like Barcelona, you need...Barcelona's players...