The World's Best Soccer Team Using Math to Crack the Barca Code

The new soccer season is just warming up as leagues across Europe get into gear, but the biggest clash of all is already on the cards. Two of the world's best teams, bitter rivals FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, will battle it out on August 14 and 17 in the Spanish Super Cup.

By Cordt Schnibben

As long as people have been watching soccer, they have loved the unpredictability of the game, the marvel of a sudden run down the wing, or a shot from distance or a slick passing move. And for as long as people have been playing football they have tried to make it predictable; training hard to master the perfect run down the wing, the perfect shot from distance, the perfect passing move.

Since Pep Guardiola took over as coach at Barcelona and José Mourinho arrived at Real, football fans have witnessed two teams attempting to perfect the sport using thoroughly contrasting methods.

Both teams have scored exactly the same number of goals: 2.4 per match on average. Both teams play an attacking game with art and grace. Both dominated La Liga, the Spanish championship, and both stormed through the early phases of the Champions League last year.

And so football fans everywhere were set for a historical treat when the two best teams in the world played four games in three weeks at the end of last season: a league match, a cup final and a two-legged semi-final in the Champions League. But it was no feast of football for the fans; rather, the games developed into one intense battle strung out over 390 minutes, which revealed everything that can be said about modern football.

The Magic of Barca's Passing

You could rave about Messi's slalom run which made it 2-0 to Barca in the first leg of the semi-final, or about the move which saw Real player Angel di María set up Cristiano Ronaldo's match-winning header in the cup final, or about the magic of Barcelona's incredibly fast passing between the 30th and the 40th minutes of the semi-final second leg. You certainly could rave about those things.

But the true story of these games is told in numbers. Math and geometry, with angles and diagonals, must be applied to the game in order to grasp why Barcelona won the Champions League and La Liga while Real Madrid only took home the Copa del Rey. It is something many football coaches occupy themselves with before and after the game, and some even during halftime.

José Mourinho is obsessed with modern match analysis, like many other coaches in Spain and England. Since his time at Chelsea, and then at Inter Milan and now Read Madrid, he has trusted stats company Amisco to supply him with match data collected in 60 stadiums all over Europe. Every little movement of every player is captured by sensors, then analyzed and sent to him.

This tracking system, which was developed from a military research program, can register up to 3,000 individual events and collect 4.5 million pieces of information per game. In preparation for the four matches with Barcelona, Mourinho learned the customary movement profile of every opposition player -- their sprinting, their stamina, their likelihood of suffering an injury -- and he accumulated thousands of facts about the passing utilized by Barcelona to leave good teams in a trance. He could even present his players with the normal running routes of Xavi, Messi, and the rest as 2D animations.

Mourinho also had all the knowledge garnered from the disastrous 5-0 loss in the season's first league meeting between the teams in November at Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium. He developed a strategy from the experience of that defeat, a strategy that was typical Mourinho, but a humiliating degradation for the proudest football club on the planet. He ordered that the turf in the Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid be neither mowed nor watered in order to blunt the playing field and slow the passing. He then ceded the ball to Barcelona for the majority of the game -- Real only had 23 percent of ball possession in the first half -- and stuck two banks of four in front of their own penalty box. Normally only teams fighting relegation would play this way.

The Mouse vs. the Lion

It was only when Barcelona, who were markedly superior but could only score once, had established a one-goal lead and Real had lost a player to a red card that Mourinho changed tack. He sent on playmaker Mesut Özil, had the team playing more offensively and eventually salvaged a 1-1 draw. But Madrid legend Alfredo di Stéfano was clearly unconvinced by the team's performance, likening Real to a "mouse" against the "lion" of Barcelona.

After analyzing the data collected during this primarily defensive game, Mourinho had his team defend from a bit further forward in the cup final in Valencia four days later. Whenever the playmaking trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi attempted to start up their passing game, Madrid players Pepe, Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira smothered the movement of the ball in Barcelona's half of the field.

Real applied this strategy for the entire first half of the game, and Barca simply could not get their famous carousel of short passes working. Xavi, 1.7 meters (5 feet, 7 inches) tall and slender, is the fulcrum of this carousel; Iniesta, also 1.7 meters tall, pale, and even more slender, plays slightly to the left and forward of Xavi. Lionel Messi, who only reached his current 1.69 meters thanks to growth hormones, plays slightly to the right. In any given game, Xavi will pass the ball more than a hundred times, and about a quarter of these passes are directed to one of these two players. This triangle plays out from the center circle all the way up to the penalty box. It is secured from behind by the defensive midfielder Busquets and is supported on the right flank by the attacking wingback Dani Alves.

Xavi is constantly sought out by the other four -- he receives one-third of their passes. Xavi is always running, and normally clocks up a kilometer (0.6 miles) more than the rest of his team, but his movement is almost completely confined to in and around the center circle, occasionally heading in the direction of the goal.

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