Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Coaching Changes for Chicago & Vancouver

With coaching changes made in Major League Soccer this past weekend with both Teitur Thordarson (Vancouver) and Carlos de los Cobos (Chicago), Ives Galarcep looks at the moves by both teams.

The 2011 season started off with so much promise for both the Vancouver Whitecaps and Chicago Fire, two teams who came into the season with question marks and coaches who seemed like prime candidates to be replaced if things didn't go well.

After an encouraging March that saw the teams go 2-1-1, Vancouver and Chicago went on horrid runs, combining for a 0-9-11 record, with few signs that things were going to turn around for either club.

So it really shouldn't have come as a surprise that both Teitur Thordarson and Carlos de los Cobos would be the first two coaches fired, and both before the month of June began. Both men were fired on Monday.

The Barcelona Way - Part II

Paul Gardner hit another home run in his 'The Barcelona Way - Part II'.

Aspects of 'the Barcelona Way' that I definitely agree with are:

* What are normally not associated with teams that stand out for thir ability to keep possession and ball control - work ethic and defending when the other team has the ball - are what makes Barcelona so unique. Teams should try to mirror and emulate the things that Barcelona do so special, but as great as they are in keeping possession, they are equally adept in retaining the ball once they lose it. The idea of transition - they are the best transition team in the world on both sides of the ball.

* In regards to the work ethic and ground they cover during the match, you don't have to be a blue-collar worker bee to extend a lot of energy. Normally associated with a grunt - I have always referenced the phrase of 'piano players and piano carriers' - Barcelona has clearly shown that special players can be both creative artist ('piano player') and battler and hard worker ('piano carrier'). Not only does Barcelona keep the ball longer and complete more passes than their opposition, but they also cover more ground and do more running than anyone else - perhaps the difference is that their running is more constructive, both on and off the ball, and both in attack and in defense.

* 'They play the right way...' - Sir Alex Ferguson echoed that statement in his post-game comments in reference to the style and substance with Barcelona. Teams like Brazil (in the modern era) and Arsenal (over the past 5 years) have played 'the beautiful game', but haven't been able to claim the titles that go with the truly special teams. For Barcelona to claim the ultimate prize with putting a premium on possession and ball control, doing so with players that aren't hulking in size - they have created a new era and way of thinking in the modern game.

Reading Gardner's second installment (below) will make you see that Gardner's rants of the past have come to fruition - his quest in finding 'the beautiful game' will now be realized, as a new era and revolution in the game is ready to begin.

The day before last Saturday’s Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United, an irritating article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, which told us that we -- meaning, one gathers, almost everyone except the authors -- don't know what we're watching: “But here is something most people don't know about Barcelona: Unlike every other famous soccer team in the world that thrives on possession and ball control, they do something unique during matches. They run as if their bikini briefs are on fire.”

This far from original observation was backed up by a totally unconvincing stat which held that, during its six knockout-round games in the Champions League, Barca’s players had run a total of 390 miles, while its opponents had run “only” 380 miles, a difference of a mere 3 percent, surely not statistically significant, but which was then built up into a claim that Barca’s “central weapon, and perhaps its defining strength, is what happens when the other team does get its cleats on the ball ...” In other words, Barca’s strength is defense.

In the sense that attack is the best form of defense, that may well be true. But only if, as with Barcelona, the attack is sustained, intelligent, skillful. Are we supposed to ignore the beauty that involves while we tick off, from our handy list of coaching essentials, work rate and tackles?

But those are the sort of observations, backed up by bad stats, or by badly interpreted stats, that occur so easily to people who seem intent on downplaying the skillful side of the game. People to whom the success of a team like Barcelona will remain a mystery -- and evidently an annoyance -- unless it can be explained in puerile defensive terms.

What Barcelona has been doing these past few years is to emphasize that in soccer it is a mistake to even think that offense and defense are separate compartments of the game. The two are intertwined in almost every move of the game, a mutual reliance that involves the inevitable problem: to bolster one aspect is to deprive the other. It is the abiding curse of the modern game that it is now enveloped in a cloying mist of cautious play brought about by an overemphasis on defense.

Barca, for sure, has its defensive qualities. Separating them out from the team’s overall attacking style is not an easy -- nor necessarily a useful -- exercise. To acclaim them as the bedrock of Barcelona’s style and of its success is simply fatuous.

Equally absurd -- and another of the carefully constructed coaching myths, most of them designed to underline the importance of coaching -- is the idea that star players are somehow damaging to a team, that star players are always selfish, that a team is better off with out them.

Barca is the greatest example we have right now of a team that plays as a team, as a tightly knit unit that knows how to play -- simultaneously -- offense and defense. It is also a team that has a collection of superb individual stars. Including, of course, the greatest individual player to be seen in today’s game, Lionel Messi.

Analyzing Messi is like dissecting Mozart or Rembrandt or Tolstoy -- the results are always unsatisfactory, always counter-productive, for they leave us with something so much less impressive than what we started with. Is it helpful, or in any way rewarding to separate Messi into a sequence of muscular movements, of lightning synaptic connections? Or to make him sound like a coaching manual, nothing but a collection of tactical platitudes, which will inevitably end up praising him because he does his defensive duties, because he tracks back?

If it is agreed that Messi is a soccer genius -- and this seems now to be the widely held opinion -- then any sort of materialistic analysis is not going to bring understanding. Genius does not abide by the accepted guidelines, the usual measuring sticks, the standard scientific norms. Speaking of Messi, his coach Pep Guardiola said, somewhat tautologically, “I think his genius is impossible to describe. That’s why he is a genius.” Which is more or less what the 19th century essayist William Hazlitt had in mind with his “rules and models destroy genius and art.”

The message is that Messi, the superstar on this wonderful Barcelona team, should be left alone to do what he instinctively does. But genius in soccer cannot be an isolated talent, it can only flourish in the group, in the team. A fact that gives the macho brigade yet another opening to downgrade skill as they claim that the star’s life is made easy by others who are doing “the dirty work” for him -- a phrase clearly meant to position the star as an effete Little Lord Fauntleroy and the “workers” as brave heroes who should really be getting the praise.

That is another coaching shibboleth utterly laid to waste by Barcelona. Who are the “workers” on Barca, these industrious slaves whose only purpose is to spend all their time feeding the ball to Messi? Xavi and Iniesta, maybe? Oh, come on -- two players who, while not in the Messi class, have considerable claim to dwell among the second tier of soccer geniuses. Where was this “dirty work” anyway, in a game during which Barcelona committed only five fouls?

ManU’s Alex Ferguson, right after he had seen his champion team made to look very ordinary indeed, praised Barcelona as the best team he’s ever faced in all his long coaching career (it began back in 1974) and gave us, in five monosyllabic words, a terse but all-embracing comment on their style: “They play the right way ...”

One can hear a certain wistfulness in that praise, a regretful look back by Ferguson to the glory days of Scottish soccer, the soccer he must recall from his boyhood or from the tales told by his elders of the traditional Scottish soccer of highly skilled attacking players and an on-the-ground, short-passing style. That was the right way, but as far as the Scots are concerned, it has sadly faded away, to be nothing more than a romantic memory.

But not for Ferguson -- there’s no doubt that his ManU teams have always been more skilled than the average English team, have always included a greater emphasis on talented attacking players.

Ferguson’s teams undoubtedly try to play soccer the right way, but within a hostile environment he has had to compromise to live with the traditional thud-and-blunder requirements of the English domestic game.

Last Saturday, Ferguson saw -- well, suffered, I suppose -- the beautiful, majestic power of Barcelona. “They do mesmerize you with their passing,” he said. He praised Barca’s style laconically, but with real feeling. This was “the right way.”

So where do we go from here? A more skilled, closer-to-Barca, ManU? Possibly. A much wider attempt by coaches everywhere to adopt Barca’s style -- which has shown that it is not only a delight to the eye, but is a winner, too? Alas, that seems doubtful -- the dead mass of conventional coaching opinion and what passes for original thinking within the profession will find proof, yet again, either that the Barca way doesn’t really work, or that it is a fluke, and we shall be back to the glutinous platitudes of the coaching manuals, the very ones that ... “destroy genius and art.”

No one is saying that playing “the right way” is the easy approach. It is, in fact, the greatest of soccer’s challenges and, as such, it is the only worthwhile one. Ferguson says he is ready for it. How many other coaches will follow his lead?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Gardner hails 'The Barcelona Way'

Paul Gardner sums up the UEFA Champions League Final perfect in his rent piece on 'The Barcelona Way'-

Barcelona 3 Manchester United 1. How can a game between the champions of England, the legendary ManU, and the champions of Spain, the equally esteemed Barca, possibly turn out to be a mismatch?

But such was the superiority of Barca, such the increasing tameness of ManU’s response, that the word drowns out one’s attempt to resist it. If Barcelona was playing soccer, then what was ManU playing, because there certainly did seem to be a fundamental difference in what each team’s players did with the ball.

When Barca was in possession the ball stayed mostly on the ground, mostly nursed and cuddled and prodded and yes, sometimes, caressed, by Barcelona feet. The caressing came, mostly, from the sublime Lionel Messi.

This is the point at which one can always expect a baying interruption from those irritating macho types whose troublesome hormones demand that they mock those words, that they insist, as Italy’s Claudio Gentile once famously did, that soccer is not a game for ballerinas, and that, as they sing the praises of red-blooded soccer, they are also proving that any less robust style -- the classic Brazil, or Barca for instance -- lacks the super-necessary physicality.

The argument is, of course, pathetic. Neither Brazil nor Barca lacks a strong physical presence, and no one is saying that you can play top class soccer without that. What Barca was saying - shouting - on Saturday was that physicality is merely the foundation, a given, in fact, to which the unique soccer skills must be carefully added . . . to produce a game that is recognizably soccer and not merely a test of strength and stamina and machismo, a game in which the skills and artistry of soccer are paramount, a game in which those qualities are what you notice, a game in which the physical element is always secondary, always the means, not the end.

I shouldn’t say always -- we know there’s no such word in soccer. There are bound to be occasions when muscle alone suffices, but for a team determined to play skillful soccer, those occasions will be infrequent.

A team such as Barcelona, in other words. How many times on Saturday did we see the Catalans powerfully belting the ball any-old-where, or committing crudely physical fouls? Or even simply running frenetically about, as though determined to prove that they have that current coaching solve-all, a high work rate (another physical measure, incidentally, not necessarily connected to any known soccer skill)?

This is not to say that ManU were guilty of all those gaucheries -- merely to point out that they were a lot closer to them than Barcelona. Why would that be?

We can start to probe ManU’s ineffective performance by casting an eye over the starting line up -- where what strikes one immediately is the lack of brain-power in midfield. Muscle, yes, from Michael Carrick -- and work rate, yes, from the non-stop Park Ji-Sung -- -- and speed and trickiness, yes, from Antonio Valencia. Which left the brainwork to the 37-year-old Ryan Giggs -- a role that he comprehensively flunked, partly because he looked his age, but mostly, I think, because it was beyond him in the first place. Giggs is yet another of those good players whom the Brits turn into great players -- simply on the strength of performances within the English league.
You also know that buried in the selection process by which that midfield came about was the perceived need for at least one ball-winner, those rugged, hard-tackling midfielders so typical of the English game. Enter Carrick.

Which was something of a joke. To win the ball you need to be able to tackle, or to move quickly enough to pull off interceptions. So, seriously, one has to wonder just what sort of scouting report Alex Ferguson was working on when he decided to rely on Carrick, Park and Valencia to first win the ball and then to hold on to it when confronted with an opposing midfield that is notorious for its dizzying passing patterns and its tenacious and skillful possession.

Pause for a momentary glimpse of the stats: Possession - Barca 63 percent, ManU 37 percent.

Enough said? No, not at all -- because there is possession that is nothing more than repeated lateral and backward passes, easy passes, that accomplish little other than to improve the stats -- and there is possession with purpose, attacking purpose. If that factor can be built into the stats, if the stats are re-named Attacking Possession, or if we could have -- which I have not seen -- the “Possession in the Attacking Third” stat -- Barca’s advantage would be even more overwhelming.

The failings of ManU’s banal midfield are brutally revealed by the contrast with what went on in Barca’s midfield. Who was Barca’s ball-winner? Did they need one? Maybe it was Sergio Busquets, perhaps the least skilled of the Barca squad, but he was never called upon to exert any physical presence, it simply wasn’t necessary for a team that has Xavi and Andres Iniesta buzzing around in the crucial area. You can, should you feel so inclined, sit back and admire the phenomenal work rate of those two players ... but it is more than likely that their superb ability to keep the ball rolling smoothly along the grass, their passing skill and accuracy -- their playmaking ability, the very ability that went missing in the ManU midfield -- is what will dazzle you. As it should.

In particular, that bit about the ball being kept on the ground. It is a banal observation that Barca is “not a big team.” Its three key players -- Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta -- are comparative midgets. Confronting them, at the heart of the ManU defense, stood two imposing center backs, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, both 6-foot-2 tall. Yet that huge height advantage, considered so important for English Premier League play, counted for nothing on Saturday. Barca kept the ball where it surely belongs in soccer -- on the ground. The build-up to all three goals was on the ground, two of the scoring shots were ground balls. Only David Villa’s curling shot for the third goal was airborne.

You could say that Barca plays to its strength -- that it gets the best out of its wee players by keeping the ball on the ground. Possibly -- though it is much more intriguing to view things the other way round. What if the vision of a style, of a quick-moving ground-based game, came first? What if it was that vision that allowed those three wonderful players to develop? Players who, without Barca’s devotion to the ground game, might well, given the current obsession with size, have been rejected as “too small”?

5 Lessons that needed to be learned by Manchester United

Sachin Nakrani of the Guardian writes of 5 lessons felt weren't learned by Manchester United between the two UEFA Champions League finals versus Barcelona in 2009 and now in 2011-

Failed to stop Dani Alves marauding forward

Of all the errors Sir Alex Ferguson made in the 2009 final, few were greater than deploying Wayne Rooney on the left wing. Not only was the forward ineffective out there but he failed to help curb Barcelona's attacking threats from full-back. On Saturday, the principal figure in that area was Dani Alves, who is renowned for spending more time in the opposition's half than his own and adds greatly to the relentless nature of his team's play. This time, Park Ji-sung was stationed wide left and it was felt he could not only pin back Alves, but also exploit the Brazilian's defensive frailties. But Park was overwhelmed, allowing Alves to run free and add to the state of siege United found themselves under during the second half.

Ferdinand did not harass Messi enough

When a player's skills are as captivating as Lionel Messi's it is perhaps futile trying to come up with a plan to stop him; but what is certain is that the forward operates best when allowed time and space between the opposition's back line and midfield. As he dropped into that area Rio Ferdinand needed to go with him, using his pace and agility to harass the Argentinian whenever he was in possession and force him away from goal. It would have been a brave move but given Barcelona are not prone to playing balls over the top, it would not have badly exposed United's defence. Ferdinand, though, was passive, allowing Messi, as he had done in Rome, to score the goal that put United on the rack. Unsurprisingly, he struck from just outside the area.

No one had task of keeping Sergio Busquets quiet

He may be the least heralded of Barcelona's midfield trio but Sergio Busquets has a key part to play in the functioning of the side, picking up possession from deep and, with simple regularity, passing it on to the more creative Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. Keeping him quiet would have disrupted Barcelona's rhythm from the outset, but no one in United's central area, whether Rooney, Ryan Giggs or Michael Carrick, did so to a sufficient degree, allowing a player who has demonstrated he can become irritated if put under pressure to dictate proceedings. He played a small role in Barcelona's first goal and a key one in their third, winning the ball and laying it off to David Villa to bury United's hopes.

The men in white allowed themselves to lose belief

There are many clubs, at home and abroad, who can testify to United's refusal to roll over and die. Under Ferguson they have developed a well-earned reputation for coming from behind, so much so that it is often said the worst thing opponents can do is take the lead against this team; it just makes them angrier. But twice now in two years these men of resolute spirit have been crushed by Barcelona, losing not only the tactical battle but also the psychological one. United never looked like recovering after going behind to Samuel Eto'o's opening goal in the 2009 final and, despite cancelling out Pedro's 27th‑minute strike on Saturday through Rooney, did not appear capable of repeating the feat once Messi made it 2-1. A complex appears to have formed in Rome and, after Wembley, may be difficult to shift.

A top midfielder has not been signed since Rome
It is accepted that this is not a vintage United side and nowhere is the relative lack of quality more apparent than in midfield. The 1999 treble winners were imperious in that area but, more than a decade on, Barcelona's own central powers exposed those charged with filling the void left by Roy Keane, David Beckham and, in their peak years, Paul Scholes and Giggs. After Rome, and following Cristiano Ronaldo's departure to Real Madrid, Ferguson needed to invest, but instead he stuck by the likes of Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and the ageing Scholes and Giggs. Wembley showed the folly of that decision as Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta yet again reigned supreme.

From my initial reflections of the UEFA Champions League final, Nakrani brought up some similar key points - shutting down Busquets in midfield; staying up Messi and not giving him as much time and space in between the lines; keeping Alves from bombing forward down the left flank.

It seems easy to point out possibilities or tactical options after a match to play Monday morning quarterback, but after failing in two attempts versus Barcelona on the biggest stage, you are left to wonder if Sir Alex Ferguson (or anyone) has answers to the key questions on how to battle against Barcelona.

The stats behind the match - Barcelona dominance in Champions League Final

Most of the past 48 hours since the UEFA Champions League Final have been spent breaking down the brilliance of Barcelona.

The most important statistics measured in their 3-1 victory over Manchester United was the scoreline, but Robin Bairner of Goal.com shares more statistical insight into Barca's victory.

The final score failed to paint the entire picture of the match, in which Barca enhanced their reputation as the greatest side on earth today, but the statistics at full-time helped to portray the utter dominance Pep Guardiola’s side enjoyed over the course of this memorable encounter.

63 – The ball was Barcelona’s for a great proportion of the match, and at their peak they were pushing 70 per cent possession. When full-time arrived, a late surge from United had seen them claw some ground back in that regard, but they were still well short of their Catalan rivals, having had to spend the majority of the evening harrying their opponents, who controlled play for 63 per cent of the time.

19 – Over the course of the evening, the Blaugrana mustered an impressive 19 shots on goal, 12 of which found the target. The English club managed only five attempts at Barcelona’s goal, and their only shot on target was Wayne Rooney’s first-half equaliser.

5 – Though he was being employed as a midfielder, Andres Iniesta racked up five strikes – as many as the entire side from Old Trafford.

12 – It was an evening to remember for Lionel Messi, who scored his 12th goal of the Champions League campaign this season, thereby equalling Ruud van Nistelrooy's record. Ironically, the Dutchman set the mark while playing for United.

0 – Corner kicks were expected to be a source of weakness that United could potentially exploit, yet the Blaugrana did not have to face this type of set play once all evening. At the other end of the field, they won five of their own.

662 – It is commonplace for Barcelona to pass their opponents into oblivion, and that was certainly the case on Saturday night as they totalled 662 passes completed from 772 attempts. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, by comparison, managed only 301 completions from 419 tries.

124 – Xavi was Barca’s maestro in the heart of the midfield, successfully channelling the ball to a team-mate on 124 occasions. Manchester United’s best player in this regard was Rio Ferdinand with a mere 40 – a tally bettered by eight of the champions’ starters.

45 – The midfield duo of Iniesta and Sergio Busquets exchanged 45 passes during the game, more than any other two players on the field. Meanwhile, United's struggle to retain possession is emphasised by the fact that it was Ferdinand and goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar who combined most frequently on their part with 17 relays.

108,085 – Barcelona’s movement off the ball should not be underestimated. Despite controlling possession for the majority of the game, they clocked up over 108km of running, more than their opponents by 4km-plus.

3 – For all of their dominance in the other aspects of the game, the vital statistic after 90 minutes was Barcelona’s goal tally, outstripping their opponents in the crucial area 3-1.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Barcelona - Masters of Art and Science, as well as Europe

As a Manchester United supporter, it was hard to sit back and watch the Red Devils get humbled by Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League Final.

As a true admirer of the sport, it was easy to appreciate the aesthetics and beauty that Barcelona plays with - precision passing and movement by the best players on the best team in the world.

As a self-described 'soccer scientist', I have spent the waking minutes following Barca's 3-1 rout of Manchester United at Wembley Stadium searching for answers of how Barcelona are able to do what they do, and how to find tactics to counter it.

I watched the Catalan display with my friends, children and their friends at a local restaurant, and as I saw the open-mouthed gaze on my 9-year old's face as he watched Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Co. dart around the field, it led me to wonder both how to coach a team to play the way Barca does, and how to stop a team like that. As a Monday morning quarterback, it always looks easier from the stands or watching on television. Every fan has answers as they watch of how to play and who to put in the team - I can't imagine the challenges for Sir Alex Ferguson and his staff in putting together a game plan of how to play against arguably the greatest side of the modern era.

After watching the game live and again on tape, and reading all the post-game reports from pundits, my post-game thoughts and potential answers (or more questions) to my questions all came back to Barcelona's engine room in midfield.

Barcelona's Midfield

Each of Barcelona's goals were scored by their front line of Pedro, Messi and Villa, but every Barcelona attack is created by their brilliant midfield of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. They are able to retain possession for long stretches of all the matches they play, and dictate a rhythm and tempo that puts the opposition on their heels and has them chasing for huge portions of games. The like of Real Madrid and Arsenal have already been asked to defend for most of their matches, and United were asked to do the same in their UEFA Champions League final in 2009.

From a purely analytical standpoint, it stands to reason that if you can cut off the source, you can cut off the legs of the animal that is Barcelona.

Easier said than done - regardless as to the alignment or tactics you use, it ends up robbing from Peter to pay Paul to do so in most cases. Teams that have created a log-jam in midfield or sitting deep in their own third of the field have been left with very little to attack when they do win the ball.

Transition Defense

The other challenge is that the most underrated part of Barcelona's game is their ability to press defensively, and specifically in transition - they are able to put immediate pressure on the ball and regain possession faster and better than anyone else in the world. Even if you put numbers around their midfield and are able to win small battles in gaining possession, you have the even greater challenge of now retaining it against immense pressure. Arsenal conceded a goal to Barcelona in the earlier stages of the Champions League after Barca countered after winning possession back off a Fabregas back-heel in their own third of the field; Barcelona's third goal in yesterday's final came off Busquets dispossessing Nani deep in United's third to counter with a strke from Villa.

Alignment Options

So how do you cut off the source of Barca's brilliance without limiting your own attack and not giving the ball back to them so quickly? Looking at what was left to Sir Alex Ferguson's disposal, I can see why he started in a 4-4-1-1 alignment. Rooney was tasked with dropping in on Busquets when Barca has the ball. I do believe that he thought he would be even numbers in midfield by doing so, but with Rooney looking to create space and opportunities for himself when United had the ball, it was a tough challenge to expect him to transition quickly to find Busquets.

Busquets influence in both Barcelona and Spain's teams are the most hidden and overshadowed by the brilliance of magicians Xavi and Iniesta. Where Xavi is mastery in possession and Iniesta may be the best pentrating passer in the world, Busquets balances the two of them to perfection. He is the consumate 'connect the dots' player - always linking play into one of his primary attacking players, or switching play out through one of Barca's outside backs. Busquets is the quarterback in Barcelona's own half of the field, and has the ability to bring Xavi, Iniesta or Alves into the game.

Carrick and Giggs had formed a strong partnership during the course of the season, but it is hard to envision that they would be able to press both Xavi and Iniesta for long stretches in this match. Fletcher and Anderson have worked themselves back into the team in battles with fitness, but neither are 100%. Looking at creating an alignment or system to combat Barcelona after the match has already been played (which Sir Alex Ferguson doesn't have the luxury of doing), my guess is that deploying an alignment of 4-2-3-1 might be the best way to match up with Barcelona's engine room. Two of the opponents who managed to defeat Barcelona this season - Real Madrid and Arsenal - lined up with two holding midfielders to match up with Xavi and Iniesta, and 3 attacking midfielders who would rotate into the roles to keep the outside backs in front of them and deal with Busquets or Mascherano (whichever was in that balancing midfield fulcrum role).

Manchester United opted to deal with this challenge by playing with Giggs and Carrick in midfield, Rooney dropping in on Busquets whenever he could, and Park and Valencia tucking in help give defensive balance.

The challenges with doing so were the following - asking Park or Valencia to tuck in defensively now exposed the flanks when the ball can get switched out; Park was asked to chase and do a lot of work in midfield, and as the match went on, Alves got more involved down Barca's right side; Rooney couldn't grab a hold of Busquets, and he was able to bring others into the game; as Xavi and Iniesta really got going off the ball, both Giggs and Carrick had challenges keeping a hold of the midfield trio; once Messi started checking back deeper into midfield, it appeared like a game of keep-away between that group versus Carrick.

Sir Alex appeared to switch Giggs with Park at halftime, which appeared to render Giggs even more ineffective as he was overwhelmed a bit defensively with the task of chasing Alves, and as the half started, Alves twice bombed down the right flank. Park offered more energy in midfield, but he was left to chase a cavernous space that became the middle third of the field.

Could United have used two defensive midfielders in their central roles - perhaps Carrick and Fletcher - and charge them with staying up the two Barcelona creators all over the pitch? I don't know that they could have accomplished that for 90 minutes, but with Giggs, Scholes and Anderson in reserve, perhaps a combination of players sharing those responsibilities are the best way to accomplish that.

Rather than Rooney dropping in on Busquets, could Park have been able to do that job and have Roon play out in the left channel more? Park has the energy and commitment to cover large spaces on the field for long durations and is one of United's chief defensive weapons, but a move like that would create a robbing from Peter to pay Paul scenario- I don't know that he would have scored the goal that tied the match up if he was chasing Dani Alves down the left flank. Saying that, maybe Roon out on the left side would keep Alves honest - or give United a weapon to attack down the side that Alves would leave vacant.

Rooney is not comfortable playing as a lone central striker, as he prefers to drop in under the central striker to play in a freelance role in attack. He tends to either drop underneath or drift out into the left channel. I don't know that he would have been taken out of his comfort zone by being asked to play out on the left side.

The inclusion of Berbatov as a target that could hold onto the ball would have helped as the game went on - as United struggled to grab a hold of the ball and retain possession as the game went on, Hernandez was rendered uselss. He was caught offside on several occasions early on as he fell victim to Barca's offside trap at the back. The inclusion of Berbatov could have allowed United to hold the ball up front, and perhaps help them to get out of their own half of the field and initiate their counter-attack. Unfortunately, he was dropped and not available as a reserve.

Pressing vs. Block defending

The idea of pressing Barcelona worked in 2009 for the first 10 minutes of their match, and United were not able to sustain that kind of pressure. United started off this match in much the same context, and similar to 2009, came out punching and were able to apply pressure and create scoring chances. They had dictated tempo for about 15 minutes this time around, but after a Xavi cross almost found an open Pedro in the 16th minute, the floodgates started to open.

Similar to boxing with the punching analogy, the tactics stand that if a puncher can't knock his opposition out early in their prize fight, that they will run out of gas at some point. Very similar to the 2009 final, United were not able to sustain that kind of pressure. Once their lines of defense got pulled apart and the midfield was stretched, it was too vast a space for the likes of Giggs and Carrick to maintain. Even with the engine of Park racing all over the field, when the midfield space was opened up, United was exposed to the brilliance of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta.

Even if they came out in the 4-2-3-1 recommendation I made earlier, I think a key to the system deployed would be the lines of confrontation and their ability to block the midfield out. They would have to stay tight in that midfield block to make it hard for Xavi, Iniesta and Co. to develop a rhythm.

The master of block defending - Jose Mourinho - had defeated Barcelona in successive seasons with Inter Milan (2010) and Real Madrid (2011) by not only congesting midfield with numbers, but by blocking that space with a tight group and making it harder for the Barca maestros to find time/space.

Keeping the lines tighter by block defending might have aided the massive challenge that Vidic and Ferdinand had in keeping an eye on Lionel Messi. I don't know that there is really a way to shut down Messi - he scored an amazing 53 goals this season, and is the greatest player of the modern era.

The only way to even have a shot and containing him is with numbers - whether that is by man-marking, using a screen in midfield, or just keeping the lines tighter. Vidic did a great job of staying up him early in the match, but once the midfield got stretched, the Argentine magician had too much room to operate.

I am a massive supporter of Sir Alex Ferguson, and I love the fact that he came out with a puncher's mentality of trying to knock Barcelona out. When it came to picking your poison, Ferguson was brave to attempt to come out swinging against the Catalan giants.

In the end of the day, United were not able to expose Barcelona to their fast-paced counter-attack. To be able to counter-attack, you need to be able to retain possession when you win the ball and attack down vacated spaces on the field. Barcelona's smothering midfield defense kept both Carrick and Giggs under wraps, and the defense of Eric Abidal kept Valencia shackled on the right flank. Other than the great combination between Carrick, Giggs and Rooney to create United's goal (and only shot on target), Barcelona won the chess match of imposing their style on the opposition.

Xavi, Iniesta and Messi were the stars of the show; Busquets and Abidal were unsung heros in Barcelona's footballing carnival. Barcelona dominated from every statistical category, and were clearly the class of the 2011 UEFA Champions League.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Barcelona Way - behind the scenes at La Masia

Jere Longman of the New York Times offers a behind the scenes look at La Masia, the home of Barcelona's youth soccer academy.

BARCELONA, Spain — The stone farmhouse, built in the 18th century as a country estate, is now surrounded by modern stadiums, high-rise buildings and hotels in a leafy and upscale neighborhood here, but it continues to produce a bountiful harvest.

The house, known as La Masia, is the symbolic home of Barcelona’s youth soccer academy, which helped develop eight of the team’s projected starters for Saturday’s match in London against Manchester United in the final of the European Champions League, the world’s most prestigious club tournament.

Given Barcelona’s standing as one of soccer’s best and most attractive teams, La Masia has become an international model for the financial, athletic and social benefits of growing players on home soil.

It differs from the standard American model of youth sports development, which is generally based in schools. And it differs, too, from the typical European soccer model, in which the best players often quit school around the age of 15 to devote their full attention to the sport.

For instance, team officials said that a dozen players on Barcelona’s B team — as well as one of its stars, midfielder Andrés Iniesta — are taking college courses.

“This surprises people,” Carles Folguera, the director of the residence at La Masia, said through an interpreter. “They think the players are here to play football and not to study. We prepare them for sport, but also to have another future if sport does not work out.”

The success of Barcelona’s youth academy was never more evident than in 2010, when the graduates Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández and Iniesta were the three finalists for FIFA’s Golden Ball award as the world’s top player. (Messi won for a second consecutive year.) Xavi, Iniesta and seven other players who won the World Cup for Spain developed in the academy.

So did Pep Guardiola, Barcelona’s manager, and Guillermo Amor, a former star midfielder who is now the technical director of the youth academy. For one Barcelona player, Gerard Piqué, a central defender, affiliation with the club has been nearly lifelong.

Piqué grew up five minutes from La Masia and Camp Nou, the Barcelona stadium. His grandfather was a member of Barcelona’s board of directors. After a stint with Manchester United, Piqué returned to his boyhood team in 2008.

“Since I was a kid, I was a fan; I went to the stadium every week,” Piqué said. “It was a dream to play for Barcelona.”

To have so many players spend much of their careers together enhances team unity, Piqué said.

“It’s good for the atmosphere of the dressing room,” he said. “And there’s a lot of confidence. We can help each other as a friend, not only as a teammate. You can see this on the pitch — when we are in trouble that we work as a team and we fight to win.”

Approximately 210 boys between the ages 7 and 18 are enrolled in Barcelona’s youth academy. A dozen players between 11 and 14 live in dormitory rooms at La Masia, which also includes a dining room, library, playroom and computer center. Forty-eight players between 15 and 18 live in rooms across the street at Camp Nou. Those who are from Barcelona live at home with their parents. So do some players who travel from other countries with their families.

An 11-year-old, Ben Lederman from Southern California, has caught Barcelona’s attention. Some soccer Web sites have reported that Lederman is the first American accepted to the academy, but Amor said that not all details had been completed.

Late next month, La Masia will close its dormitory, and all youth academy activities will be moved to Barcelona’s training center in the nearby village of Sant Joan Despi. The daily routine, though, will likely remain for the academy’s residents: During the week, they rise at 6:45 a.m., eat breakfast and leave for regular school in the city at 7:30. They attend classes from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., return to La Masia to eat, rest and attend mandatory study groups. Training is held from 7 to 8:45 p.m., followed by dinner and some free time. Lights out for the younger players is 10:30 p.m., 11 for older players.

“Parents are giving us something they consider most valuable — their children — at a vulnerable age,” Folguera said. “It is important to show them the value of effort and humility. Talent alone does not work. You must be humble and a normal person, something that each parent of a certain level of dignity would be proud of.”

Each player living at the academy is provided a laptop computer, Folguera said. On staff are cooks, nutritionists, a doctor, a psychologist, tutors and social directors who take the players on outings around the city. It can be an exhilarating but jarring experience for the boys to be separated from their families at a young age. Iniesta has talked about his homesickness upon arriving at La Masia at age 12 and of jostling with others to use a phone to call his parents. The pressure to succeed at such a young age can also be overwhelming. Piqué said he did not let himself think about playing for Barcelona’s first team until he turned 17.

“It’s a really bad feeling when one day they say to you, ‘You have to leave,’ ” Piqué said. “So maybe it’s better not to think about it a lot. I saw a lot of friends of mine who were thinking to play in the first team, and then one day the club just says, ‘You don’t have the level to stay here.’ It’s a really difficult shock because you are really young.”

From an economic standpoint, growing your own players is not so different from growing your own vegetables. It saves money at the market.

In Barcelona’s case, this strategy has allowed it to be judicious in spending tens of millions of dollars in transfer fees, paid apart from salaries, to sign players from other teams. In 2009, Real Madrid spent $132 million just for the rights to forward Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United and another $94 million for the rights to the Brazilian playmaker Kaká from A.C. Milan. Since then, Madrid has failed to win the Spanish league, much less the Champions League.

For Barcelona to have to pay transfer fees for such stars as Messi, Xavi and Iniesta at about the same time “would be impossible,” Folguera said.

From an aesthetic standpoint, Barcelona grooms 8- and 9-year-old players to play its mesmerizing style of short, rhythmic passes. Especially for its younger players, learning to play with the ball is more important than winning. This is the opposite of the way many children in the United States learn soccer.

In America, “the games are do or die,” said Claudio Reyna, a former captain of the United States national team who is now the youth technical director for U.S. Soccer, the national governing body. “At Barcelona, they are about educating players, and winning takes care of itself. I believe it makes an impact when players can develop in a calm and proper environment, not being judged on whether you win games all the time. They are just looking for players with soccer brains.”

Patience has its rewards. In the end, though, Barcelona demands titles, not merely beautiful soccer. Young players must develop according to the club’s lofty standards, or they will be replaced. So while Xavi and Iniesta have spent their careers at Barcelona since boyhood, the average time spent living at the youth academy is three years, officials said. The majority of players must find another team or another pursuit.

“Karl Malone and John Stockton played beautifully,” Folguera said, referring to the former stars of the Utah Jazz basketball team. “But they never won anything.”

BEHIND THE TACTICS - Manchester United vs. Barcelona

The UEFA Champions League Final that pits Manchester United and Barcelona should prove to be a tactical chess match between these two storied clubs.

For those who are enthusiasts of team tactics, here are the key points to watch for:

* Pressing: United came out strong in the 2009 final, and almost scored early when Park came close to finishing off a Ronaldo free kick. That kind of pressure was hard to sustain, and after conceding in the 10th minute, United were chasing the rest of the match.

There are different ways to press, and whether it be by stepping up higher on the pitch (which might expose Vidic and Ferdinand at the back) or blocking the midfield third to lead to United's counter-attack, how United are able to press Barca will be a key.

Keeping an eye on Xavi and Iniesta will be the key to United's success - both players have the ability to unbalance an opponent by disrupting their shape by their movement off the ball, or their tremendous decision-making in possession by knowing when to keep the ball and when to stretch the opposing defense.

Along with keeping Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and Co. under pressure in midfield, the backline has to be able to keep Messi and Villa with their backs to the goal and under extreme pressure as well. Laying off Barcelona allows their key attacking players get a rhythm and is hard to disrupt - Manchester United can't give them too much respect, and allow them to develop a flow early on.

Barca is probably the best pressing team in the world, and due to their ability to keep the ball for long stretches, is probably the most underrated part of their game - they win the ball back as fast they lose it, which puts the opposing midfield under tremendous pressure. Whether it by making United's midfield chase or by putting them under immediate pressure after losing the ball, Barca's midfield pressure will be a key for their success.

Manchester United will need to be able to keep the ball better than they had in 2009, and make sure they are able to punish Barca by getting behind them when they win the ball. Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs will be key to United's ability to retain possesion and to initiate counter-attacks. Darren Fletcher and Anderson may also play a strong role in that if United opt to play with 3 in midfield.

* The counter-attack: Manchester United may be the best counter-attacking team in the world, and can get in behind on the break in so many different ways. Shutting down the likes of Javier Hernandez, Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia, Nani and Ryan Giggs when United win possession will be critical for Barcelona to find success.

Watch for the cover that Barca provides on their left, as either Eric Abidal or Carles Puyol will have the task of shutting down Valencia. The Ecuadorian is as pacy an attacking player as there is, and with either the rusty Abidal or slower Puyol matched up with Valencia, this could be a key that United will try to exploit on the break.

* How will Manchester United line-up against Barcelona?: Ferguson has been partial to a 4-4-2 in the English Premier League, and some variation of a 4-5-1 in Europe. Looking at the success that teams that have defeated Barcelona in this past season (and they have only been defeated 4 times in all competitions), it has been in an alignment that looked like a 4-2-3-1. Playing with two holding midfielders allowed those teams to put more pressure on the Barca midfield by matching up in there, and congesting that midfield 1/3.

Based on convention and historical reference point, Sir Alex Fergson really has two options as they select their team for today- stay in their 4-4-2 that has had a lot of success the past two months, and ask Wayne Rooney to drop in on Busquets when Barcelona has the ball (resembling a 4-4-1-1); play a 4-2-3-1 themselves with Fletcher or Anderson joining Giggs and Carrick. Deploying a 3rd central midfielder could also offer the option of marking Messi with a holding player, much like Mourinho had used with Pepe as Real Madrid defeated Barca in the Copa del Rey.

It would be a hard decision to break up the combination of Rooney and Hernandez, as they have been pretty potent together. With question marks on Barcelona's back line - Puyol might have to push to the left back and Mascherano or Busquets dropping in at center back - the pace of Hernandez and creativity of Rooney underneath him in a free role might be the key to unlocking Barcelona's defense.

My guess is that United will use one of those two alignments (and likely both at different times in the match), with either Rooney dropping in underneath Hernandez, or with Fletcher getting the assignment in midfield and Rooney playing up front on his own. Park and Valencia will probably be selected on the flanks, but if Ferguson does opt to play 4-2-3-1, I could see him making a change at some point to bring Hernandez on and push Roon out on the left. He is most comfortable playing underneath a central striker or drifting out onto the left channel, so I don't know that playing as a lone central striker fits Roon.

The 2011 UEFA Champions League final should prove to be a tremendous match and outstanding tactical chess match.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Abramovich rips up his empire and begins from scratch at Chelsea

The Goodison Park stairwell where Carlo Ancelotti was reportedly sacked is a warm and friendly part of the ground, where veteran doormen in blazers exchange pleasantries with old school Evertonians and Bill Kenwright, the club's chairman, floats through dispensing bonhomie.

It is a place, in other words, of decorum and permanence and not the kind of area where a thoroughly capable manager would expect to be dispatched moments after being allowed to say, in a post-match press conference, that a meeting would be held next week to discuss his future. Ancelotti was fired like a junior accountant who had been caught fiddling the Christmas party fund and made to travel back to London like a pariah.

At least West Ham United, who dismissed Avram Grant in the tunnel, could cite relegation as the natural full stop at the end of their manager's Upton Park career. Only 12 months had passed since Ancelotti scored Chelsea's first Premier League and FA Cup Double.

The early termination of his three-year deal at Stamford Bridge was handled in a manner that will make all future managers wary of Ron Gourlay, the Chelsea chief executive who did his master's bidding. In wielding the axe so swiftly Gourlay either has no sense of etiquette or is too weak to stand up to Abramovich, who might have been persuaded to wait until Monday morning at least.

One of Abramovich's failings is to misunderstand the connection between boardroom behaviour and the tone set in and around a football club. In reality Ancelotti was discarded by degrees. He was knocked to the ground when his No2, Ray Wilkins, was sacked by the owner and given a kick when Abramovich bought Fernando Torres for £50m and forced the manager to play him ahead of Didier Drogba – not by edict, necessarily, but certainly by implication.

The surest sign that Ancelotti knew his time was up came at the Premier League title decider at Old Trafford, when he left Torres on the bench and started with Drogba in Chelsea's best formation: 4‑3‑3. This defiance failed to halt Manchester United's march to a 19th English championship but it reminded the rest of football that the former Milan coach knew what he was doing.

The charge of passivity against Ancelotti is well-founded. From the moment Wilkins was culled he looked a passenger on his own ship. The arrival of Torres snuffed the managerial life out of him. He was caught between Abramovich's meddling and the listlessness of a side who had always corrected bad spells of form in the past.

It is true Ancelotti seemed dazed but it was Abramovich who caused the change, reacting with his usual autocratic clumsiness to a mid-season slump of the kind Ancelotti will have come through many times in Milan. Again the disconnect in the Chelsea owner's mind is between cause and effect. Managers who are undermined from above are weakened in the eyes of players and start making political calculations about their own future when they would prefer to be planning two or three seasons ahead.

Since Abramovich decided he was a professor of the game he has dispensed with Claudio Ranieri, José Mourinho, Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari and now Ancelotti. Guus Hiddink, who is being tipped to return, was only a caretaker in 2009. So the prevailing culture in the Chelsea dressing room has lurched from Italian to Portuguese to Israeli to Brazilian to Dutch back to Italian and maybe now on to Dutch again. The Bridge is about to welcome its seventh manager in eight years.

Each upheaval brings new practice methods, new relationships at the training ground, different managerial likes and dislikes and often an altered tactical approach, all of which the players must learn. Chelsea's senior players have been unusually resilient in the face of these repeated culture shocks but must be reaching the point where their powers of adaptation are stretched to twanging point.

This instability is now built into the system. Speculation about Ancelotti's job started with the winter of discontent and intensified the moment they were knocked out of the Champions League – Abramovich's obsession. Each manager joins knowing that failing to win the European Cup is grounds for dismissal, and dismissal usually comes before the manager has had sufficient time to impose his vision of how the European Cup can be won.

Is it best to play in high school, or on an academy team?

Earlier this month in Woodbridge, one of the area’s top soccer players, Dario Redondo, sat in the stands watching No. 7 Gar-Field High School, a team for which he used to star, cruise to a 5-0 win.

One night later in Fairfax, Langley forward Josh Ellis charged from the top of the box as a blocked penalty kick rebounded into the area and smacked the ball into the net, helping lead the second-ranked Saxons to a 3-0 win in the district playoffs.

Both Ellis and Redondo are a part of D.C. United Academy, an elite soccer program established by the U.S. Soccer Federation in 2007. With their senior seasons approaching, however, they chose different paths for the final months of their high school careers: Redondo decided to play solely for D.C. United, while Ellis chose to balance his academy and high school schedules.

That decision may not be in the hands of high school-aged players much longer.

Four years ago, the USSF formed a league for elite youth soccer teams to develop better players and streamline what had become a jumbled system of club teams, summer development leagues and the Olympic Development Program. Now, more and more clubs in the U.S. Development Academy league are insisting that their players forgo their high school teams completely.

The movement pits those who believe training with elite clubs is the best route for developing international-caliber players against others who say the trend could undermine a uniquely American tradition in which the best athletes compete alongside their classmates for their high school teams.

“Since soccer is a really big sport here in the U.S., kids who play soccer think it’s fun here to play for their school,” said Ellis, a native of Sweden. “People come to watch you, your friends. For that reason I think it’s fun to play high school. At the same time, academy improves you as a player, takes you places, polishes you.”

Hiddink admits he misses club management

Reported Chelsea target Guus Hiddink has admitted he misses the day-to-day nature of club management, but is refusing to be drawn on talk linking him with a return to the club.

"I have in my career very few games. I want to do more with the players on a daily basis but that is impossible because I am national team manager," he told TV show %100 Futbol.

"But I am not going into the speculation as I have to prepare the team and to make sure that no one can blame me afterwards saying I was concentrating on other things.

"I am not going into speculation, I am fully concentrated. I demand full commitment from myself so I will not go into speculation.

Tactics determined by finding best way to win

"We'll find a solution to the game. It's about what's best for us; what's the best way for us to win the match. It will be down to how we operate in the attacking part." - Sir Alex Ferguson.

Carrick, United peaking at the right time

Manchester United midfielder Michael Carrick, on peaking at the right time-

"I feel good. The boss always says he wants the team to start hitting top form when it counts and we've managed to do that. When you're playing in a team that's playing well, it makes it easier as individuals to be on top of your game and thankfully a lot of us have been in the last few weeks. We need to make sure we are on Saturday."