Monday, 27 August 2012

The Spanish Giants and the Style/Efficiency Conundrum

So, Real Madrid are Spanish champions, Barcelona; the bloody-nosed, de-throned people's champions.

On the surface this suggests that whilst Barca supporters may have spent their summer wallowing in their all-conquering side's end of season collapse, the Madrid faithful will have rode a wave of delirium since managing to grind their ancient rivals' stylish juggernaut to a halt. Delve beneath the surface though, and it becomes apparent that this is a more complex issue than it may first appear. In Spanish football, and within this rivalry in particular, there is a fairly generally-shared common value – that style and manner of victory is fundamental, and may carry almost as much importance as winning itself.


With this in mind, it must be pondered:- Did Madridista's fully embrace Jose Mourinho's uber-organised and direct, whilst frighteningly ruthless style of play?; Were they willing to approve of, and support, a managerial approach that was often publicly abrasive, defamatory and insulting?


Let's face it, Madrid managed to amass a points total of 100 in La Liga, scoring an incredible 121 goals in the process of lifting the Primera Division trophy and denying arguably the world's best ever club side a fourth consecutive league championship. Supporters of Real Madrid would be forgiven for simply rejoicing in such an achievement, which undeniably many of them have. There remains however, an element within the support that cannot be fully supportive of a team and management that displays a machine-like efficiency, often at the sacrifice of the free-flowing, expansive style of play synonymous with the traditions and history of the club.

Make no mistake, winning at all costs is Mourinho's sole objective, and you almost sense that the mischief created and upset caused along the way, are seen by the man himself as a form of 'icing-on-the-cake', rather than a natural by-product of his approach.

So what next for the new Spanish champions? It seems certain that the old mantra, 'if it's not broken, don't fix it' will be adhered to. As undoubtedly one of the world's best coaches, with the credentials to support, Mourinho approaches the game in a holistic and almost scientific manner, looking to control as many aspects of his team's play—not to mention the workings of the club generally—as is humanly possible. Sure, by leaving such little to chance, logic would suggest a more likely positive outcome, but may it prove counter-productive to to inhibit or stifle the natural and innovative instincts of the world-class attackers he has at his disposal?

Of course, it is extremely difficult to criticise a campaign in which Madrid's La Liga achievements were truly outstanding and whilst this continues to be so, the doubters and critics must hold their peace. Should the balance of power shift towards Catalonia though, Mourinho may find the knife-sharpening cynics and critics circling once more.

And perhaps thats is the essence of the argument as far as Madrid are concerned, their current strategy and style will be tolerated, if not revered, for as long as they eclipse Barcelona.

In the world of football management, a feat which probably only Mourinho could achieve.


Barcelona on the other hand have an entirely different concern in their quest to regain national and continental dominance. Villanova's men must somehow try to match the formidable domestic consistency shown by their rivals from the capital last season. Let's not forget, Los Cules racked up an impressive points total of 91,which in most seasons, in most country's, would comfortably seal a domestic championship.

Not last season though, not in Spain.

Barcelona found Madrid's ruthless efficiency and unparalleled consistency impossible to replicate and their “written in the stars” elimination to Chelsea in the Champions League, proved to be a disappointing and anti-climactic end to the reign of their history-shattering coach, Pep Guardiola.

So how might football's answer to the Harlem Globetrotters address last season's failures under their new and untested replacement to Guardiola? The defining factor of present-day F.C. Barcelona is their footballing philosophy and style of play. With regard to their aesthetic appeal, they have in recent years, and most likely will continue in the future, to enthral and entertain their audience. Such breathtaking displays, last season however, could not abate the disappointment in the eventual and somewhat feeble relinquishment of their Spanish and European titles.

And there-in lies the problem. Barcelona are unquestionably the world's most attractive and skillful football team. But what about when skill and beauty is not enough? What if the conditions are not conducive to Barcelona's style? What if the opposition find a fix to counteract Barca's fluent style? What if Messi and co. are simply having a rare off-day? It's at this point, where Barcelona begin to look lost and predictable.

I don't believe any football purist, or any real football fan – put more bluntly – would champion a drastic overhaul of Barca's principles and strategy such is their entertainment value, but there is a growing acceptance that this side must arm themselves with a 'plan B', at the very least, to counter the aforementioned awkward occasions. Regardless of the opposition, too often this side's overwhelming superiority, in terms of control and possession, is not reflected in the scoreline. This is an element of the game in which Barca are vastly inferior to their arch-enemies from Madrid.

If we cast our mind's back to Barca's Champions League round of 16 tie with Arsenal in March 2011 for example, Barca enjoyed almost complete dominance over their English opponents, home and away, but despite such dominance left London with a 2-1 deficit to overturn at home, which they managed to do......but only just. At home Barca set about carefully carving Arsene Wenger's side apart at Camp Nou, in the process displaying one of the most scintillating exhibitions of attacking football seen in modern times, only to jeopardise their 3-1 lead and consequent entry to the quarter finals, by serving up a gilt-edged chance for Nicklas Bendtner to steal the tie for Arsenal at the expense of the Catalans. Bendtner missed and history showed that Barcelona won the tie 4-3 on aggregate to progress, but surely this episode was all too close for comfort?

To any reader who did not witness this tie it is difficult to sufficiently convey the extent of Barca's dominance over the two legs, it is an understatement to say though that it certainly does not correspond with the aggregate scoreline. On that occasion Barcelona escaped but in La Liga, last year specifically, there were a number of matches in which Barcelona, controlled, dominated, dropped points. By contrast Madrid very often were underwhelming as a spectacle but continually churned out victories by defending stoutly and rigidly and finishing ruthlessly, with sometimes little else noteworthy occurring in between.

This is not a criticism of Madrid, on the contrary. The fact that they can be so effective without being at their best is a quality that Villanova would do well to incorporate into the new, post-Pep, Villanova Barcelona. To achieve this perhaps Barcelona should sacrifice a little beauty for a little more brute force, particularly in the striking department. Perhaps the opportunity for wingers to cross from the bye-line with an aerial target, for example, is a viable alternative tactic – not to change their fundamental system of course but to simply provide another option when their usual game is adequately suppressed by the opposition (i.e. Inter Milan (2010), Chelsea (2012) – both Champions League fixtures) The key point being that Barcelona, whist utterly devastating, are predictable. Their level of play is such that despite this predictability, almost all other teams find them impossible to resist. The presence of another option may make them an all the more mesmerising puzzle for opponents to solve.


Should there exist a style/efficiency spectrum then I would suggest that Barcelona (style) and Real Madrid (efficiency) find themselves at opposing ends. This of course is not to say that Barcelona are not efficient and that Madrid are not stylish, but that perhaps each side individually may be stronger if they had a little more of each others' qualities. This may seem a little unfair on Mourinho in particular, who has done a wonderful job in Madrid. But Madrid play as all Mourinho sides do and with a vociferous media and support that follow Real, he might find his own manner and his team's style of play come under attack should he not replicate and build upon last season's successes. Barcelona on the other could profit from subtle adjustments that result in increased variety in terms of playing styles, more ruthless performances and consequently the results that their regular dominance warrants.

So, can the machine from Madrid be more entertaining this season, whilst being successful in the process? Can Barcelona's artisans once again reign in Spain and Europe without being slightly more mechanical? The styles of the respective teams' will be an interesting sub-plot to a La Liga season that promises to be as exciting as ever, but which philosophy will prevail – science or art? Perhaps the very contradiction is what makes this contest the most thrilling in world football.

¡Viva la Revolución! – Marcelo Bielsa breaks the mould in Bilbao

¡Viva la Revolución! – Marcelo Bielsa breaks the mould in Bilbao 


What happens when one of the broadest thinking, revolutionary football managers in the world meets arguably the most traditional, rigidly-structured clubs in World football?

An inevitable collision of philosophies or a match made in heaven? 

This combination so far has been a portrayal of a perfect paradox which has cast the club’s resulting fortunes into sharp focus across the continent and beyond. A relationship, which in theory should be divisive has, through creditable adherence on the part of the players’ it must be said, taken them on a pilgrimage across Europe and throughout Spain, displaying an attacking brand of football with much of the verve, swagger and intensity of that of the world’s current foremost club side, Futbol Club Barcelona. 

Indeed Guardiola, the captain of the all-conquering Barça ship, has even acclaimed Bielsa “the world’s best trainer”, and wholeheartedly and publicly states his admiration for the energy and panache with which the current los Leones team goes about its business. These are sentiments echoed by one of Bielsa’s own charges, the talismanic Fernando Llorente, who has revelled in his new coach’s innovative and relentless approach to the game, saying: “ Guardiola is right. Marcelo changes the way you perceive football completely. You learn a lot from him. It is incredible to see the changes in this team in just one year. We have been playing under him for less than a year and the team’s growth is amazing”.

Bielsa himself, one of football’s deep thinkers and innovators, introduced the world to revolutionary tactics such as 3-1-3-3, more akin to those deployed around the middle part of the twentieth century. Prominence accordingly placed on the roles of ‘inside forwards’ and how movement, rather than rigid structure, would be the fundamental focus upon which the team strategy would be built. Within such systems Bielsa has developed and adopted previously unexploited footballing phenomena such as ball-playing midfielders utilised at the heart of defence; full backs (if the second layer of three can be so regarded) overlapping their wingers on the INSIDE, (penetrating gaps created by the wingers ability to stretch the opponents midfield and defence); a tactical nous for immediately and efficiently altering formations to combat adjustments made by their counterparts on the opposite touchline. 

When such progressive methods are applied in alliance to good, old-fashioned toil – evident in Atheltic’s incessant and intense pressing-game – the results are manifested in the comprehensive and swash-buckling fashion that resulted in the destruction of Manchester United, and to a lesser extent Schalke, on the road to a Europa League semi-final. 

True, Bilbao have somewhat struggled to find a consistency in this level of performance, as recent league form and their ever-decreasing aspirations of Champions League qualification for next season would suggest. However, the manner, more-so than the result against last season’s finalist in the aforementioned competition, points to exciting and uncharted promise of things to come, with ‘the madman’ at the helm. 

Athletic, for their part, may be just the perfect fit for Bielsa and his radical and unflinching philosophies and quirks. A platform perhaps, upon which he will be given time and support to implement his methods. Concessions that he may not have been granted at one of Europe’s superpowers (Andre-Villas Boas at Chelsea being a case in point). 

Indeed some detractors voiced dissatisfaction over the early part of the season at the absence of the uncompromising attacking football promised upon arrival of the Argentine. All good things though take time, and the ferociously fast and flamboyant brand of attacking football now regularly displayed at San Mames, has endeared Bielsa to the cub’s supporters and firmly silenced any early-season critics. This new found appreciation is partly attributable no doubt, in stark contrast observable in the Bielsa way to the British-style football with which the club is synonymous. Such incongruity has only served to heighten the reverence for an aesthetically appealing, diverse brand of football, as opposed to an archaically direct and predictable slog, to which Athletic’s faithful have traditionally been subjected. 

Changing the face of football 

 Make no mistake, much of Bielsa’s approach is revolutionary, and is particularly welcome in an age where destruction seems to carry more value than construction. Yes, even facets of Guardiola’s unparalleled Barça side have been developed from Bielsa’s principles. Perhaps, intimating that many of Europe’s top coaches are pragmatic, at best, is unfair or at least simplistic, but Bielsa, and Guardiola too for that matter, warrant tremendous credit for their insistence on style as well as substance. Bielsa, may go on to achieve nothing tangible in his time in Bilbao, but he has certainly given the fans of the club, and further afield, a footballing experience rarely enjoyed in modern times. Despite his introverted nature and idiosyncrasies, his ingenuity has probably alerted the continent’s top clubs of his talents, and from a fan’s perspective hopefully the continent’s coaches, of the merits of this approach. Ingenuity I say? Well they do say that there’s a little bit of ‘loco’ in any genius.