August 20, 2011


The World's Best Soccer Team: Using Math to Crack the Barca Code (Cordt Schnibben, 8/12/11, Der Spiegel)

Pincers Engulfing the Opposition

This seemingly automatic passing game results from a system drilled into the team through thousands of hours of training. Regardless of whether Barcelona is playing Real Madrid, FC Copenhagen or Arsenal, the total passes completed during the 90 minutes -- printed by the tracking system onto a sheet of paper -- yields the same image; compact like an oil painting and identical like a fingerprint. The center circle always appears as an interconnected hub of passes, and further forward a pair of pincers appears that engulf the opponents. After 90 minutes, other teams leave behind a much less uniform image that reflects an increasingly haphazard passing game. Real Madrid sometimes paint a passing network that is thicker on the left than on the right or vice versa, and sometimes it is very tightly concentrated around the penalty box, but it always depends on the opposing team and its tactics.

This basic geometric order is the constant in Barcelona's game, whereas the disorder of street football is often found in that of other teams. After minutes of routine passing the team can launch into attacks with extreme speed, attacks that are as unpredictable as a lightning strike. Football players who have faced Barcelona on the pitch tell of how inaccessible their opponents were, how seamless their game was, and how quiet they were.

Barcelona's players communicate through their passes; every pass speaks physically to their team mates. "Our grouping isn't right," says a ball that Xavi allows to bounce back to his passing team mate. "Wait a bit," "Now we're positioned just right," "Run to this area," "Heads up, we're about to make a dash for goal," "Attack!" -- this is how they speak amongst themselves when they play cross passes, back passes, hard passes, diagonal passes, and passes down the pitch.

This alternation between geometry and anarchy is the allure of their style, and because the team lets this strategy playfully run wild, the repetition of the same pass patterns over and over can be rather entertaining. Nevertheless, danger always lurks behind this easy-going, relaxed fa├žade. The strategy is meant to wear out the opponents by forcing them to run after the ball time and again; "negative running," as the coaches call it, is demotivating. Occasionally Barcelona meet a team that can endure this mental torment, whose trainer is well-versed in psychological warfare. When this happens, the methods used to entrance and disarm opponents against a violent and sudden sprint towards goal can backfire, leading to a self-hypnosis of the Barcelona players.

A Repetitive Dull Passing Game

This is precisely what happened in the second half of the cup final. Barcelona passed and passed, created angle upon angle, let the ball run, created scoring opportunities, scored an offside goal, but the longer the game went on, the more their wonderful passing game became pointless, repetitive, dull.

This time the Madrid players appeared to be immune to the mockery of the long ball retention and the derision of the Barcelona fans, who cheered every pass as if Barca were the elegant torero and Madrid the witless bull. Mourinho's players grouped together and moved forward as one unit, as if there were ropes strung between them. In addition, Real hardly committed any fouls -- unlike normally against Barcelona, when they invariably end up with 10 men or less on the field.

Mourinho had drilled contempt for this endless passing game into his players. For him, ball possession in games against Barcelona means little. As coach of Inter Milan in last year's semi-finals his team had beaten Barcelona, proving how a continuous carousel of passing can be rendered useless. Let them play until they get dizzy from their constant passing, and then start scoring.

Once when he was asked what his idea of beautiful football was, Mourinho took a piece of paper and drew four thick lines from side to side. Vertical, horizontal, vertical, horizontal, goal. This is how FC Porto, Chelsea, and Inter Milan all played under his leadership, and this is how he won six league titles the Champions League twice with his various teams. It is how Real Madrid managed to win 1-0 in extra time in the cup final. Vertical, horizontal, vertical, horizontal. Then Ronaldo with the header.

Counter-attacking and dominating are the two primary systems for football teams worldwide. Teams with a good attacking game attempt to maintain ball possession and beat their opponents through a series of passes, while those who favor the first strategy let the other team keep the ball, wait for a mistake, and then pounce to exploit it.

When not playing against Barcelona, Real Madrid rack up around 60 percent ball possession in the La Liga and Champions League games. But when his players face Barca, Mourinho goes on the counter-attack and accepts his team's temporary inferiority. However, before and after the games he alleges that Barcelona, their advertising partners UNICEF and Uefa, the game's governing body in Europe, are all biased against his team.

Mourinho Stirred Up Hatred

Mourinho stirred up hatred -- and there is no other word for it -- between the two clubs before the first semi-final game in the Champions League by predicting that Barcelona would have one chance to beat Madrid: if his side lost a player to a red card.

And that is exactly what happened in the 61st minute to Pepe, who is usually key in breaking up opponents' attacks from his position in the center of defense; up until then Madrid had seen 144 successful passes and 56 failed attempts, while Barcelona had managed 467 successful passes and 56 failed attempts. However, Barca only created five scoring opportunities, while Madrid managed three by playing on the counter-attack. Despite 70 percent ball possession, Barcelona had proven to be no better at scoring than Madrid. In any case, Barcelona's performance appeared to be so oppressively superior that the Madrid fans, a rather non-committal and unenthused audience, cheered every clearance their team made, even if it went out of play.

Up until the 61st minute Barcelona played exactly as they always do. The carousel of passes was better than in the first half of the Cup Final because they better resisted Madrid's attempts to break up their plays, and they also sought out more one-on-one physical duels, which they normally consider to be beneath them. In this game they fouled even more than Mourinho's players.

Barcelona added physical roughness to the psychological terror of their passing and in so doing stole the self-confidence away from Madrid, the same team that had weathered the constant waves of attacking in the cup final with stoic imperturbability.

(1) You basically don't ever have to have watched a game to be able to come up with the strategy that thwarts the best team in the world.

(2) Teams can't stick to that strategy because they're too frail psychologically.

(3) The ref will decide the game because he'll always favor the bigger team.

Childish, girlish, and crooked is a tough sell.

Posted by at August 20, 2011 6:32 AM

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