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May 31, 2011

2011 Champions League Final - Barcelona vs. Manchester United

We'd be foolish to not cover the Champions League Final. Two of the best teams in the world? Yes, please.

Apparently America's television ratings for the semifinals had dramatically improved over last year's. I'm curious to see what the ratings were for the final. Unfortunately the 1.5 million viewers for the semifinals weren't enough for Fox to not "dumb down" soccer, yet again. Grant Wahl put it well,
"...the only negative aspect was Fox's pre-game coverage, which continues to dumb down the sport and compare it to other U.S. sports. ESPN proved with its excellent World Cup coverage that you can cover soccer straight up for an American audience without having to turn it into Soccer for Dummies. Fox, sadly, has yet to figure that out. And so we got Michael Strahan making a dimwitted appearance comparing fútbol to football and inane coverage of Gerard Piqué's relationship with the singer Shakira."
Yikes. You can watch the video here but I would only recommend it for those who like to laugh while being frustrated at the same time.

Thoughts on the game are below (and lengthy) but let's first take a look at the stats. (No player ratings but I think we all know how they did. No surprises here.)

(First time here and confused as to what's going on? Check here for definitions and general life clarity.)

Game Stats

Goals at 27', 34', 54', and 69'.

Total Subjective Points Graphs

First Half

Barcelona - 43.47
Manchester - 20.10

Second Half

Barcelona - 63.37
Manchester - 10.70 

Full Game

Barcelona - 106.84
Manchester - 30.80

Momentum Graphs

 First Half Dominance
Barcelona - 56
Manchester - 31
None - 13

GG Rating - 31

Second Half Dominance
Barcelona - 60
Manchester - 0
None - 40

GG Rating - 40

Final Game Dominance
Barcelona - 58
Manchester - 15
None - 27

GG Rating - 36

***Example Category***
Team - Chances...Threat Rate/100 
Team - Chances...Threat Rate/100

First Half
 Barcelona - 49...12.3
Manchester - 23...10.2

Barcelona - 40...14.4
Manchester - 24...13.5

Barcelona - 10...27.6
Manchester - 3...46.0

Second Half
 Barcelona - 59...13.2
Manchester - 22...7.1

Barcelona - 39...14.6
Manchester - 25...5.3

Barcelona - 12...46.5
Manchester - 2...33.0

Barcelona - 108...12.8
Manchester - 45...8.7

Barcelona - 79...14.5
Manchester - 49...9.3

Barcelona - 22...37.9
Manchester - 5...40.8


The only stat that's surprising is how low the GG Rating (36 out of 100) and Manchester's dominance are (0 in the second half). Turns out that this wasn't really "the game" to display to Americans as far as pure entertainment goes. Sure, watching one of the best teams of all-time demolish another really good team is meaningful to most of the world, but if you wanted to grab someone's attention that didn't know anything about soccer (which seems like how every soccer game in America is presented) this wasn't the one, in hindsight, of course. You'd want constant action because everyone in America is so ADD not a moderately paced game. All of this just furthers the point of who the 1.5 million viewers really were; they weren't some random sports enthusiasts but genuine soccer fans (*ahem* Fox...). But all of this is really a side point...

As far as the stats go, Barcelona trounced Manchester. Well, as far as anything went in this game, Barcelona had a significant edge.

At first I was going to point out Manchester's lack of performance from Javier Hernandez and Antonio Valencia but I think the bigger problem may lie in Manchester's strategy. The kick-it-and-get-it strategy obviously didn't work for Manchester (see the numbers). More importantly, this game plan is universally reviewed as "bad soccer". The one major complaint about America's strategy is that we do just this exact same thing and maintain a lack of creativity in attack. On top of the general distaste from the soccer community, English soccer was blasted in Soccernomics for an overabundance of over the top passes. (I'll hold off on the book review for now, but I'll just go ahead and point out that the start of the subtitle is "Why England Loses...".) By now, soccer should have progressed from the 1970's where teams were solely relying on these type of booted "passes" combined with raw speed to produce goals. You'll hardly ever see Barcelona do this because they have a much more efficient strategy, but we'll get back to that later.

As far as Hernandez and Valencia go, Hernandez isn't equipped to play such a game. He's too light to win anything in the air compared to the athletic backline that Barcelona produced. And the umpteen offsides (I think I counted six) for Hernandez really shows he doesn't belong in this environment. The same goes for Rooney (except that he can actually hold himself in the air). Rooney is known for his striking abilities but he possesses equally talented vision and recognizes great passing lanes. Put the ball on the ground and don't let their talents go to waste. You can run the 4-4-1-1 if you wish, but not like this.

Valencia may have a different problem on his hands. This is likely the best type of offense for him, which is disheartening. His brute work-ethic (that's a compliment) fits this strategy perfectly and he's always looking upfield. However, he couldn't find rhythm in his short-field passing (or long, for that matter) nor could he figure out what the ref would and wouldn't call on his challenges. (Right or wrong, you have to be aware of what referee you're dealing with. Valencia came off as more of a thug with the constant bulldozing of Barcelona's quick-to-drop attackers.) The inability to conquer these problems are warning flags indicating his lack of discipline of skill and a change to a more passer-friendly setting would be a big challenge.

Moving on, something that I noticed in Barcelona's gameplan is that they hardly ever served the ball from the corner (whether in-game or a set corner kick). In fact, sometimes when they were rewarded with a corner they looked insulted and they would just play the ball back out. They do this because, one, they don't match up physically, and two, they don't need to. Their most effective attack was some combination of these events (all heightened by Manchester's inability to defend the attack properly):
  1. Slowly creep onto Manchester's side of the field. No rush here.
  2. Push outside-mids to the touch-lines, which widens the defense and creates holes.
  3. Once ball is 20-30 yards out, have outside-mids make a diagonal run from the touch-line through the corner of the 18. (Here the defense struggles to maintain balance. Either the outside-mid is blatantly open or a defender has dropped off to defend the through ball.)
  4. Either slot a ball to the running outside-mid or to another attacker who has stepped up in the gap where a defender once occupied.
  5. Play some sort of combination pass to set up a shot either inside the 18 or, Barcelona's favorite, atop the 18.
  6. Shoot smart, percentage shots. No need to hit the ball 100% strength nor in the deepest part of the corner. Just on frame, well-struck, and away from the keeper.
This strategy is extremely efficient for multiple reasons, which we will also list:
  1. No relying on a mass clump to head the ball towards the goal that outside service relies on.
  2. It doesn't matter how many defenders the opposition drops because this offense supplies multiple points of attack: inside of the 18, goal line areas, top of the 18...
  3. An ill-disciplined defense is getting too sucked in to the ball play to notice a camper (if not two) patiently waiting their shot.
  4. The shot from atop the 18 is golden and highly underrated. The keeper is back on his line with a blocked view. Villa's goal is a perfect example of this; it wasn't drilled but rather lofted into the corner. Ask a goalie how much more difficult stopping a shot is when you're sitting on your line as opposed to stepping up and cutting down the angle by two steps. Huge difference.
  5. Clears by the defense are panicky with this pressure and it's easy to corral the ball to start back up again.
    Eventually Manchester retaliated to Barcelona's offense by dropping their already low pressure to even less to make sure there weren't any dangerous through balls. This forced Van Der Sar to have to drop even further as well, playing right on his goal line. Barcelona didn't change and thing and, with even more time on their hands, waited for an opening in the defense. With hardly any pressure, they used their quick acceleration and superb touch to take three or four dribbles into given space and shoot confidently from within twenty yards. All of this is why Messi was given the opportunity to shoot his would-be goal but he wasn't the only one.

    Basically, Barcelona has perfected everything your U-10 coach has been yelling at you for years. Off the ball movement, low amount of touches, backdoor runs, and willingness to shoot ("You can't score if you don't shoot!"). But could Manchester have done anything to stop the best team ever? Yes, but it wouldn't be easy.

    Stopping Barcelona
    We thought the insanely large print would be a cool effect.
    1. (Hey, we like lists here.) Start pressure with the forwards and attacking midfielders (and not just because Barcelona did it!). Barcelona is getting the luxury of looking in from 40 yards out with no pressure to see their best option. It's as dangerous as it sounds. Manchester was willing to run (as displayed fearlessly by Ji-Sung and Rooney) but they need to harness that effort into not letting the first 60 yards be a cakewalk for Barcelona.
    2. Off-the-ball defending. This is huge. Barcelona is so good at backside runs that it makes you want to go play FIFA 11 immediately. (Watch the first goal and see the back two defenders get torn to pieces.) Defenses need to keep their shape even if players are zigging and zagging about. And just because the player you're defending passes the ball doesn't mean you can stop defending him. See all runs through to stop potentially dangerous opportunities.
    3. Don't be so quick to counter. Barcelona honestly doesn't push a lot of players forward (they scored their third goal 5 v. 7) so a counter in your favor won't happen too often, which Manchester didn't see. Work with the same patience Barcelona displays and work the ball up through your midfield. Be mindful not to just waste a ball by dumping it over the defense, especially if they've seen it a dozen times already. 
    ::::Edit:::: I found a couple of other suggestions as how to combat Barcelona but they weren't too helpful. All I found was basically being told to just "stop" their entire team, another told you what not to do with Messi, there was the general rhetorical question with no answer, and one implied injuring him.

    However, the best (besides ours, of course) was this one. It suggested putting pressure on the back line (our number one), funneling the wide attack by staying tight, and essentially having someone play one-on-one with Messi as a personal defender. We're not too uppity on the second option, as Barcelona will take the ball down to the goal line if they are given the chance, but I liked the personal defender option. Interesting tactic...

      Everything previous summed up into three sentences:
      - Manchester had the skill, they just didn't use it to their best interest.
      - Barcelona isn't impossible to defend nor score on.
      - But they're still the best team in the world for a reason.

      1 comment:

      1. Great review. Liked the section detailing Barca's offensive strategy and of course the FIFA 11 shout out. I agree with the tactic to stop Barca (or Argentina for that matter) by frustrating Messi. However, for teams to even attempt this will have to have a very disciplined/talented CDM to disrupt Messi.