Monday, June 6, 2011

Barcelona should be model for how soccer is best played

MIKE JACOBS COLUMN, Evansville Courier Press, June 4, 2011

Those who watched Barcelona defeat Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League final last weekend were able to witness the potential of a soccer revolution here in the United States.

According to figures compiled by Nielsen Media Research, as reported by Soccer America, the telecasts of the game delivered a 2.1 rating and 6 share, which represents 4.2 million viewers nationally. That share is the percentage of U.S. households with televisions that were tuned to the game, and doesn't include restaurants and bars that might have been tuned in as well.

Those statistics, which are generally larger than Major League Baseball averages on the same day and time slot, again show that soccer is now a mainstream sport in the United States.

Still, the tremendous TV ratings and attendance at exhibition games generally have come when the top European and South American teams are participating. So the next step as a soccer nation is for us to be able to replicate those ratings and attendance figures with American players and teams in Major League Soccer.

The revolution that I mentioned could reference soccer as a spectator sport here in the United States. But this soccer transformation will truly be felt on the field and is due to the performance of Barcelona.

As a Manchester United supporter, it was humbling to see the team get handled so clinically. Barcelona's 3-1 victory was a convincing defeat of its English opposition, but it wasn't just on the scoreboard that a huge victory was displayed. How Barcelona defeated Manchester United is what will spark this change in the modern game, both in the United States and abroad, as well as potentially in other sports as well.

Here are key points that were illustrated by Barcelona, and could be adopted by young athletes in all sports in the United States-

* Piano Players versus Piano Carriers: I had once believed that great teams had a balance of creative artists (piano players) and hard workers (piano carriers). What made Barcelona so unique was that their most creative players were also the ones who displayed the most blue-collar qualities.

Xavi Hernandez is considered the best passing midfielder in the world today, and not only did he lead Barcelona with the most total passes (148) and completion percentage (95), he also covered more ground than any other player on the field. Xavi's 7.4 miles covered in the 90-minute game dwarfed any of the players on Manchester United.

When your best players are also your hardest workers, you know that you have special components. At Barcelona, their top players are both piano players and piano carriers.

* The best defense is a good offense: This phrase is used often in military and sport, and was evident in the UEFA Champions League final. Barcelona's movement of the ball and player movement away from the ball is a standard that every player and team should emulate.

As a team, Barcelona's 777 completed passes more than doubled the passes Manchester United made (357), with Barcelona retaining the overall possession for 69 percent of the game. When your team has the ball for more than two-thirds of the game, it is hard for the opponent to mount an attack. When your team is forced to chase and defend for long stretches, it is hard to compose yourself to create any counter-attack when, on the rare occasion, you do win the ball.

* Transition defense: As much is made of Barcelona's ability to retain possession, their most underrated attribute is their ability to defend in transition. Great teams in all sports take a level of ownership in defensive transition — winning the ball back immediately after your team loses possession. In this case, Barcelona is the best team in the world at defensive transition with the ability to put the opposition under pressure immediately after losing possession.

The combination of Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets in the midfield closes the ball down and pressures the opposing midfield quickly to create turnovers and turn them into scoring chances. Barcelona's third goal was a brilliant finish by David Villa, but it all started with Busquets dispossessing Manchester United midfielder Nani deep in his own defensive third.

* Does size matter? Strength and toughness are not measured in feet and inches, but rather in the way a player conducts himself. Barcelona has three of the world's greatest players in Lionel Messi (5-foot-6), Xavi (5-7) and Andres Iniesta (5-7). When your game is built around keeping the ball on the floor, quick movement and defensive pressure, perhaps athletic success is less about how big you are, and more about how big you play.

Whether by high technical quality or ability to retain possession when their team has the ball, or their ability to win the ball back so quickly when the other team has the ball, Barcelona has created a new blueprint for youth players and teams all over the world to follow.

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