Some thoughts from last night’s game:
About the football
Mourinho has done pretty well over the first three Classicos in this run of four – one draw, one win, one loss. None of them were freak results.
I disagree with the view that Mourinho was overly defensive and going for a 0-0 draw last night. The plan was clearly to thwart Barcelona early on, frustrate them, and then hit them when it hurt. There was a period in the second half (before the red card) when Barca kept losing the ball, and Real pushed forward. Real also won ten free kicks in the Barcelona half, with Ronaldo heading a couple of chances over, and also wasting a couple of other free kicks. It’s entirely reasonable that Mourinho expected to score from a “one off” chance such as these – in a similar way to how they scored on the break in the domestic cup final.
Furthermore, Barcelona only had one more (11) shots on goal than Real (10).
As expected, however, Barcelona dominated possession, completing 91% of their 750 attempted passes (compared to Real only completing 157 passes). As per usual, the top three passers were trusted, home-grown Barca players (Busquets, Xavi and Pique).
Whenever I’ve met a Barca fan, the first thing I’ve noticed is a distrust of star names coming from other clubs. While recognising other talents, they fear that many players can’t cope with Barcelona’s passing game, which only the home-grown lot can really thrive on. The difference in passing between Pique and Mascherano last night demonstrates this. Pique made 64 forward passes, compared to Mascherano’s 37. Yet, even more notably, all of Mascherano’s forward passes were very short, while Pique played many successful long balls, finding team-mates further forward, in space. As the graphics show, Mascherano’s forward passes were condensed into one area of the pitch, whereas Pique was spreading the ball around at will. Despite this, Mascherano lost the ball 10 times, compared to Pique’s 4 failed passes (which gave him the second highest pass completion rate on the pitch – 95.7%).
From the Total Football iPhone application
We’re probably all getting bored of hearing about Barcelona’s “beautiful” football, yet one point that is too often ignored is how ruthlessly their system thwarts the opposition. Contrary to Ronaldo’s peevish post-game words, Real are not a defensive side – they’ve scored well over 100 goals this season, and in the league their scoring rate is almost 20% higher than the supposedly attack-obsessed Arsenal. Yet playing against Barca changes everything. It is near-impossible to “play your own game” against Barcelona in a purist sense, given that a) they squeeze the space on the pitch where any passing takes place b) they hunt you down all over the pitch c) they deprive you of the ball for long periods. This is why some contrarians say they find watching Barca boring – it’s because they crush the other side. They can destroy any chance of an open, free-flowing game where the ball flies from one end of the pitch to the other like a basketball game. Footballing clichés like “they’re hard to break down” and “they get in your faces” are usually reserved for somewhat different teams, yet are more appropriate to Barcelona than any other side.
Returning to last night – Barcelona showed just how stubborn and ruthless their tactics can be. While the tie is presented as the beasts of Real trying to strangle the beautiful Barcelona, in a sense it’s Barcelona who do the strangling. How many other sides limit Real to fewer than 200 passes over 90 minutes?
And on the subject of ruthlessness…
Another trait attributed to Mourinho sides – his “win at all costs” mentality – was also shown more by the opposition. Barcelona’s clearly-planned faking and hounding of the referee makes a mockery of Xavi’s supposed ethic that winning is not as important as winning the right way.
While Barcelona were the more culpable (or proactive) cheats, one shouldn’t forget that Di Maria and Marcelo were up to the same antics all game. Furthermore, Marcelo stamped on Pedro, which is probably more cowardly than Pedro’s own face-clutching theatrics. And while Pedro’s reaction was both hilarious and pathetic, he was blocked cynically by Ramos, which begs the question: were Barcelona just fighting fire with fire?
Many Arsenal fans will answer a straight “no”, given the horrific sending off of Van Persie in the Nou Camp and occasional antics of some Barca players in this year’s and last year’s ties. Yet I can’t help but notice that Barca do this mainly against Mourinho’s sides, or against sides that look to boot them off the park (eg. Holland v Spain last summer, when several Barca players, albeit in Spanish shirts, hounded the ref all game).
While it’s easier to simply be outraged at such cheating, I can’t help but ask: does it work? And are they doing this as a pre-emptive way of stopping the other team from kicking and cheating their way to a “win at all costs”? After all, these uber-cheating tactics came after the Copa Del Rey, in which Real were quite, shall we say, “robust” in how they dealt with some of Barca’s threats.
Two more questions: 1. Would such an approach work for Arsenal against Newcastle, Stoke or Wolves? 2. Would you want to see Arsenal pressuring the referee like this?
I suspect nearly everyone will respond “no” to both questions. My answers would be more like 1. Possibly 2. No.
Referees are, for the most part, prone to pressure from crowds, players, managers, and they’re also scared of missing key incidents, big talking points. This is why, when a Barca player goes down clutching his face, they wonder if he did get hit. “And what about that other one a few minutes ago? What if I’m giving every decision against them?”
It’s for this reason that players surround the referee, as made infamous by Fergie’s Man Utd well over a decade ago. There is a difference, however, between this and clutching one’s face at the slightest excuse. Some Barca players used both together, but it doesn’t have to be that way, and it inevitably took the shine off their win.
The tarnished outcome of yesterday’s game brings us back to the issue of whether or not it is best to “win at all costs”. Is winning an end in itself, or a means towards other ends – such as widespread respect, self-satisfaction and, most importantly, pushing the boundaries of human achievement?
Barcelona’s ‘tika taka’ style of play has, in my opinion, pushed the game forward, and been fascinating to observe. It has changed the way millions of people think about the game, think about tactics, and it has earned them honours, respect, and admiration.
Those awards are less notable today, with more attention being paid to the cheating, the fights and the politics in the press briefings. I can understand pressuring the referee for protection, but is it really worth surrendering a reputation of “genius” for a reputation of “cheat”, just for a win?
Ironically, Mourinho would probably say “yes”.
Yet note the words of Xavi from earlier in the season:
“Sadly, people only look at teams through success… Football is played to win but our satisfaction is double. Other teams win and they’re happy, but it’s not the same [as at Barcelona]. The identity is lacking. The result is an impostor in football… There’s something greater than the result, more lasting. A legacy.”
It’s difficult to see how such a puritanical stance can go hand in hand with some of the cheating from last night.