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Spiel-Analyse: Das System Barça

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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.

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.

"The Best Team in the World"

Many teams and coaches are envious of Barcelona's accurate and intense passing game thatproduces so few errors. With their precision, ease and grace the 11 players are celebrated like few teams before them. Arsène Wenger, coach of London side Arsenal, felt compelled to call Barca "the best team in the world."

What does Wenger mean by this?

Every team that moves the ball quickly and through many players until a goal chance is created offers spectators a unique choreography of man and ball. Each pass, every move can be marvelled at -- how ball and player find each other without allowing the opponent even a sniff of the ball. Experts certainly recognize this quality, but ordinary people also appreciate its artistic creativity. With Barcelona it seems that the ball travels between players 20 or 30 times before either an opponent interception or a shot on goal ends the spectacle. This is what Wenger meant when he declared Barcelona to be the world's premier team. By contrast, in an average game in the German Bundesliga the ball usually changes possession after the fifth or sixth pass.

From the 60th minute of the cup final at the latest, Read Madrid's players were clustered in front of their own penalty box like a handball team, surrendering to Barca's rapid passing. Short movements alone were enough for the Camp Nou team, who sought to create new angles in the 38 meter long, 70 meter wide strip between the halfway line and the Madrid penalty box by forming triangles, squares and pentagons within which to pass. With these strategic formations they attempted to maintain constant numerical superiority.

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 façade. 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, with a 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, and 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. Madrid also hardly committed any fouls, starkly contrasting Barcelona, which had played so savagely that they had already lost a player.

Mourinho had drilled into his players a 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 and 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.

Mourinho Stirred Up Hatred

When not playing against Barcelona, Real Madrid racks 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 -- 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 self-confidence from Madrid, the same team that had weathered the constant waves of attacking in the cup final with stoic imperturbability.

A Textbook Barca Goal

Xavi in particular was getting on their nerves. He had the ball 144 times and made 127 passes, of which only 11 were unsuccessful. He played the ball backwards 41 times and laterally 26 times and in so doing forced his rivals Pepe, Xabi Alonso and Lassana Diarra to rush frantically back and forth. Pepe lost control of his temper in the 61st minute and was sent off, and from then on Xavi had more room in which to operate.

Barcelona went into the lead with what was a textbook goal for the team. Other sides create goal opportunities mainly from situations around the penalty box, whereas Barca's goals are initially created -- if the team is playing against strong opponents -- usually as far back as the center circle. This is where the silent call to attack is sounded, a call understood only by the Barcelona players.

Often it is Messi who gives the signal. He suddenly switches from his tidy passing game into street football. Instantly he runs much faster, receives the ball, and immediately attracts three of four defenders, who throw themselves at him as if they were back playing schoolboy football. With this sudden move, Messi either creates masses of space for David Villa, Andres Iniesta, Pedro or Dani Alves so that he can pass to them, finishes his slalom run with a shot on goal or dribbles rings around the defenders, as was the case on this particular evening in Madrid.

At the starting point of the attack, Xavi is in the center circle, surrounded by three Madrid players. He passes to Messi, who speeds off towards goal, but five players hem him in. Two of them block his shot and deflect the ball back toward the center circle, but Messi reacts faster, and sends the ball back to Xavi. No other team can recover the ball so intuitively after a failed play; even as the ball is being fired toward the goal, nearby Barcelona players are anticipating the best positions for regaining it. This mentality stems from their training, where they are instructed to always think two passes in advance.

Outwitting Eight Opponents

Xavi positions himself as if he is going to play the ball toward the left-hand touchline and tricks eight Madrid defenders into moving in that direction. But Xavi veers right and makes for the center circle, lulling the defenders into a false sense of security. He stands with his back to the goal but then suddenly turns left and passes through the newly created hole in the defense to Ibrahim Afellay, who now stands wide open near the right touchline. Barcelona like to open up the play using the wingers or the fullbacks, who stand so wide they are almost on top of the assistant referees. Afellay dribbles around a defender diving in and passes the ball to Messi in the box, who has managed to squeeze past three defenders. Messi then slots the ball through the goalkeeper's legs into the net. Three players managed to outwit eight opponents with just two dribbles and three passes.

Messi's goal, which made it 2-0 some 11 minutes later, was no team effort, but rather a street footballer outsmarting Mourinho's careful defensive coverage. The diminutive Argentine picked up the ball in the center circle and waltzed past five Madrid defenders, making them look like waiters at a buffet.

Following the game, the 84-year-old Alfredo di Stéfano tried to swallow his disappointment in the Restaurant De María a short distance away from the stadium. He muttered in a tired voice that his grand Real Madrid once again had looked like a mouse fighting a lion. Both Barcelona and Real Madrid had wanted to recruit di Stéfano in 1953, but it was Real who triumphed, and he led them to the Spanish championship eight times. Twenty years later the two clubs fought over Johan Cruyff of Ajax Amsterdam, perhaps the most complete playmaker ever. It has always been this way, with Real and Barca fighting over the best football and the best football players. Cruyff chose to play for Barcelona and left a mark on the team almost as indelible as Di Stéfano did at Real. As the team's coach from 1988 to 1996, Cruyff laid the groundwork for the "total football" that Barcelona play today.

The Conveyer Belt of Talent in Catalonia

The famous Dutch 4-3-3 formation was adopted by Barcelona and all their youth teams. Coaches at the residential school transformed young players, from the age of 13 and 14, into exactly what such an attacking style of play requires: all 10 players need to be technically strong enough to be superior in one-on-one situations; the whole team must be able to defend; the whole team must be able to attack; after the loss of the ball the opposition must immediately be put under pressure; after regaining the ball they must quickly go on the offensive; and the team must have midfielders confident on the ball who can conduct a disorienting, short-passing game over 90 minutes and guarantee possession of the ball.

By far, one of Cruyff's most important achievements was his promotion of the short, slender player. Up until then, many skilled young players had been sent home by their coaches because they were too short or too slight for football, a man's sport.

Cruyff himself was neither tall nor well-built when he was young, and he quickly learned the advantages of smaller players: they fervently strive to master good technique due to their constant physical disadvantage. They are more agile because of their lower center of gravity, and they also are naturally more creative because their heads are closer to the ball. In his eight years as Barca coach, the Dutchman saw 29 talented young players brought through from the La Masía boarding school into the professional ranks. Today, 15 of the players in Barcelona's squad come from this goldmine, including of course Xavi, Iniesta and Messi.

Cruyff, who once referred to the players as the "machines behind the production of football," was named "the spiritual father" of Barcelona's current successful style by its management. Every Monday he speaks down from his Mount Olympus about the strategy and tactics of the current coach, Pep Guardiola, in a column in a Catalonian newspaper. Guardiola himself used to be an indispensable player in the team when Cruyff was still the coach.

Cruyff has only contempt for Mourinho. He says that the Portuguese man has infected his own team -- which had been playing wonderful football in their league matches -- with "Barcelonitis." This overpowering fear of Barca and their playing style caused him to have Madrid behave like an antibody, a counter weight -- not like a team that orchestrates plays and wants to thrill spectators. On top of this, after the first leg of the semi-final, Mourinho raved about conspiracy theories to explain away Real's defeat, which Cruyff says betrayed the traditional sporting values long held by Real Madrid.

More than Just Football Clubs

In Cruyff's opinion, Real and Barcelona are more than just football clubs, and anyone who tours the Barcelona museum at the Camp Nou stadium knows what the man dubbed the "Lenin of football" by Britain's Observer newspaper means. Amidst the dozens of glass-encased gleaming trophies, old jerseys of famous players and photos of legendary teams stands a stone tablet. On it visitors read about democracy, human rights and the fight against the Franco dictatorship. FC Barcelona consider themselves as having stood in opposition to the Spanish tyrant and having defended the Catalan culture, so present-day matches against Real Madrid are still considered to be demonstrations against the central state. This is why the museum implies that it was actually Catalonia which became European champions in 2008 and World Cup winners in 2010. Eight of the 12 players on the Spanish team were from Barcelona, every Spanish goal in the World Cup was scored by a Barca player, and the national team's playing tactics were the same as those seen at Camp Nou.

A football club as a resistance group, a football club as an aid worker -- the club's own foundation supports children in developing countries as well as UNICEF -- and a football club with 170,000 members. This is why the 57 million supporters of Barcelona believe that they are not only better fans, but arguably also better people. The appearance of the triumph of a rather socialist form of football over a more conservative style is always in evidence when Barcelona meet Madrid.

"We play leftist football," says Guardiola. "Everyone does everything."

Across the globe, Madrid are considered to be the prototype of a market economy-centric club: The team buys whoever is high-quality and expensive, and from these purchases they form a team that must be successful. Barcelona take a more planned-economy tack: they formulated an idea of a superior form of football and then created a team of young players that could embody this idea. Chelsea, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich represent the former style, while Arsenal, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund show characteristics of the latter. Financially, though, the planned-economy and the market-based economy of Barcelona and Madrid are equally unsuccessful -- both clubs are deeply in debt.

A Team Should Play as it Trains

It is to their coach's credit that a team that thinks along the lines of a planned economy can produce the most creative football. Pep Guardiola, however, is alternately the object and the subject of his plan. His training follows the principle that a team should play as it trains, so he mixes order with disorder and chalkboard football with street football. Training is always done with a ball, with the single exception of a few sprints. There are no endurance runs -- all of a player's physical conditioning can be gained by actually playing football. If a player does not exert himself sufficiently during practice, he is shown his physical statistics and accordingly undergoes extra training.

During training the team only uses a half of the pitch in order to simulate the limited playing space normally found in a match situation. This half of the field is subdivided into 16 squares, and the players split up and hold their positions until an incoming ball obliges them to move into the next square.

Many of Guardiola's training tactics come from sports that operate much more scientifically. Barcelona's handball players, like its football players, are quite successful, and the club also has good basketball, hockey, and rugby teams. Upon closer examination, some of Barcelona's tactics can be seen to include attacking formations from handball and basketball. Occasionally the team makes typical hockey or rugby plays, and sometimes they even make diagonal passes like in American football just before a touchdown. These all are sports in which the hand rather than the foot is dominant; in general, humans are much more skilled with their hands than their feet. Barca's players -- and this is the goal of their training -- are instructed to build up the same command of the ball with their feet that players of other sports have with their hands.

The training strategy of this top professional football team is based on match data collected by companies like Amisco/MasterCoach, Opta and or Impire. Opta, which for years has been the main supplier of match data in the English and Spanish leagues, also evaluates the Bundesliga and the Champions League; in total they analyze data from 30 different sports in 70 countries. Impire received a commission from the German Football League to install tracking systems in all German stadiums so that they can begin compiling data starting next season. This will take the ever-increasing mathematization of football to a whole new level.

The Most Beautiful Passing Moves Ever

The data will be made available to all Bundesliga trainers, and every weekend each team will come under intense scrutiny. Each player's smallest movement will be observed and analyzed, and their performance on the field will become more predictable than ever before. Now not only the coaches but also the media will be able to alternately criticize or praise a player for the smallest fluctuations in his performance. Opta's "Total Football" iPhone/iPad app offers a taste of what is to come by allowing users to examine every Champions League game just like Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho can.

In the fourth game against Barcelona, Mourinho deployed a more attacking formation than in the three previous games. As his team trailed 2-0 after the first leg of the Champions League semi-final, he urgently needed goals to even things up.

In the first 15 minutes Xavi and his team mates got a feel for the Madrid players. With 43 lateral passes and 55 back passes -- only 57 going forward -- they studied how their opponents moved, how the defense behaved, how they would counter-attack, and they tested out the various attack paths of their new formation. Between the 30th and 40th minute they created some of the most beautiful passing moves that have ever been seen in football. They made 121 passes in 10 minutes. By contrast, Madrid made 179 passes during the entire game.

There was continuous alternation between triangles and squares, dribbling, long passes, short passes, quick tempo, slow balls, and all of this with a precision normally imaginable only in a video game. In these 10 minutes, Madrid managed to make a paltry 16 passes, almost all of which quickly led to loss of possession and initiated the next wave of Barca attacks. While Madrid were still in disorder after losing the ball, Xavi, Messi and the others would graciously wait for them to catch up. Only when their opponents had again oriented themselves would they gleefully begin to out-pass and out-maneuver them. These are the moments in which the game seems to freeze, in which players and spectators alike stop and stare at how Xavi or Messi move the ball in these moments of electrified stillness.

Football's Wonderful Irrationality

Barcelona made five goal attempts in these 10 minutes, but Madrid's keeper Iker Casillas emphasized the unpredictability of football and kept out every one of them. Barcelona's goal to take a 1-0 lead, itself an example of the wonderful irrationality in football, came about in a very Mourinho-like way. Vertical (keeper to Alves), horizontal (Alves to Iniesta), vertical (Iniesta to Pedro), goal. Three passes scattered all over the field within 13 seconds -- ending with the ball in the back of the net. Does this contradict all the mathematical attempts to make football predictable? No, it only means that the variables on the playing field will always have more weight than the constants.

After the end of this unparalleled four-game sequence, Barcelona's super-ego Cruyff raved about "hegemony in the world of football", about "wonderful tyranny", about the "culmination of a project", and he described his team as "always on the offensive, always dominating, always thrilling the spectators and fans, and not just our own."

There are still three questions.

What distinguishes this "perfect" football from the "perfect" football played by Ajax Amsterdam and Dynamo Kiev in the 1970s and by AC Milan in the late 1980s and early 1990s? What is the Barca Code?

The Barca Code is a goalkeeper who sets up scoring opportunities. It is two central defenders who initiate attacks, two fullbacks who play more offensively than defensively, a defensive midfielder who wins 70 percent of his tackles and makes more than 100 passes to his team mates, two playmakers who are as short as they come in football (but there might as well be five players of their height); two wingers who win almost every other battle, and a forward who is not just a forward -- he is Messi. They complete more than 800 passes a game, retain an incredible 70 percent ball and score 2.4 goals per game on average.

Copying the Barca Code

Can other teams copy the Barca Code? Many try, utilizing small players in midfield and banking on high possession of the ball. But they lack command of the ball, tempo, and Xavi. And Messi.

So how can teams win against Barca? Real Madrid tried by positioning seven defensive players in the middle of the pitch, and in the Cup Final it worked because Barcelona's passing merry-go-round eventually overheated. Arsenal, also one of the best passing, ball possession teams in the world, beat Barcelona in the first league of their second round Champions League match with a high tempo and two quick attacks which led to goals.

But in the semi-final, Mourinho did not trust his team to stay true to his style against Barcelona for fear of suffocating in the storm of passes.

Now Mourinho has toughened up his team for the new season -- he wants to break the years of Catalonian superiority. But Barcelona have also strengthened their line-up. Victory in the Spanish Super Cup will depend on how seriously both coaches treat this competition, on which team can get back into their game groove faster, and whether Mourinho will let his team play with spirit.

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