Saturday, April 30, 2011

Barça-Madrid 3: It All Becomes Too Much But Not For Messi

Credit: ITV Sport
One of the more typical scenes of the match
       My high school Biology teacher always taught the autonomous nervous system with a parable: "Parents always worry when their children dare to hold their breath" he produced.  "But I always tell them that there isn't any way that their kid will be able to carry through with it.  At worst they'll faint, and the ANS will kick in again, innervating breathing."  Whether or not those words comforted the parents (and whether or not he meant for them to) is open for debate, but in those words Mr. Steinkamp had imparted a bare truth about biology: You just can't betray it.
       But of course that does not mean you cannot try to outfox it.  Holding your breath is just one form of disobedience against your own natural laws, and perhaps it is the most rudimentary.  Others forms include eating an entire chocolate fudge cake, taking a bike ride up and down the mountains, embarking to understand Onsager's reciprocal relations in one night, and trying to follow four gripping clásicos in eighteen days.  Sometimes too much of a good thing just gets damned awful.

 Pepe throws away the initiative

       Certainly that is how it felt as an air of rabidity swept nearly everyone in the Bernau, although it was only Madrid who collapsed under it.  As I wrote in my last piece, in Wednesday's match I was hoping to witness Mourinho continue to tinker with his tactical experiments against a Barça side who have not been more depleted in recent times.  I was taken in by the complexity of his defensive arrangements, but when the logic behind that cynical surfeit was lost there was nothing left to defend it.  More crucially when that logic was lost the entire strategy fell.
       Most critics and commentators tend to label Mourinho's tactical philosophy in broad terms.  This is a problematic way to describe any team's tactics, but it is doubly so for Mourinho's Madrid.  Madrid have deferred to Barça being the superior side in terms of flowing, combinatorial football, but their current approach is far from a simple "park the bus" game plan.  Under Mourinho, Madrid have been drilled to cut off specific supply points in the Barça line-up, and they have changed their targets in both of the previous matches. In the first match Pepe marked Messi out of the match, while in the second he focused more on Xavi.  Frankly it is impossible to ensure that every Barça player has a terrible game on any night let alone on a clásico, so Mourinho has had to constantly assess, predict, and determine which Barça player(s) to focus his defensive stranglehold on.  It's an approach with little margin for error and no margin for nonsense.
      Given that, it does little for Mourinho to complain about Pepe's red card.  Its color will be debated, but in his passion to battle on the pitch Pepe completely lost sight of the grander scheme.  Pepe may defend his lunge as a directed effort to win the ball, but considering strategy it was entirely aimless.  Damningly unnecessary, it occurred in Barça's third of the pitch with Barça posing little risk of a counter attack.  Both of Madrid's other midfielders, Xabi and Lass, were a safe distance behind the ball, and Di Maria was also present on the left wing to stymie Alves's run, need be.  Pepe's thoughtlessness highlighted the reason why there was such an acrimonious reception to the match from the casual observer.  It is not that the preceding two matches were not as testy or competitive, but in this third match one could not help that both teams were drawn to be cynical for no constructive reason. Unsurprisingly this negative football did not help either team win the match, and specifically it caused Madrid to lose.

Credit: ITV Sport
Pepe goes kung fu fighting

        After Madrid were reduced to ten men, Guardiola's options suddenly multiplied.  Against ten men, Guardiola was able to exchange David Villa for Afellay, which he might not have otherwise.  Because the score was 0-0, normally one would not want to substitute a goalscoring forward with the calibre of Villa even though he was playing poorly, but against ten men Guardiola easily inserted Afellay who is more of an assister and provider than Villa.  Guardiola's decision was justified when Afellay's cross met Messi's feet and created the opener.  Villa's terrible night was ended as Afellay's gleaming one began.

Mourinho descends into madness

        But the most startling aspect of play after the red card was that Mourinho "made no effort to counter Barca's man advantage".  He did not make a single change to strengthen Madrid's hold in the midfield, or frankly in any area.  When the match begged most for a tactical change, one of the game's most heralded tacticians went to grab his coat and headed for the stands.  Mourinho blatantly admitted defeat to Barca in his post-match press conference, but he had already done so in the match an hour earlier. 
         Of course before the match, Mourinho played a different tune in his conferences, taking every shot he could to make defeat sour for his opponents, and in doing so it seemed he had succeeded.  Guardiola uncharacteristically responded in an angry tirade before issuing the challenge, "Off the pitch, he has already won, as he has done all year. On the pitch, we'll see what happens."  With his art of dissemination, Mourinho seemed to have won the verbal battle as he so often does.  This is because Mourinho is savviest when he slyly underlines his verbal attacks as if they were undeniable truths ("Guardiola is the first coach in history to rue a good decision by a referee", he let slip).   This frustrates opposing coaches to no end and causes them to make mistakes, but on this occasion, Guardiola was vindicated both on the pitch and afterwards in the media.  On Wednesday, Mourinho was the one who became flustered in the most acute moments of the match, and afterwards he could only cut an angry, contemptuous figure as he rattled on aimless jibes to Barca, UEFA, the referees, and the press.  At once his speech attacked seemingly everyone in football, yet at once it was not aimed at anyone in particular.  Mourinho was left trying to grab at anything he could after a thoroughly miserable match.

Credit: ITV Sport
Mourinho was ushered off to the stands moments after Pepe's dismissal

Messi the hero once more

         But perhaps in his defeatist monologue, Mourinho was only concealing the fact that he could not have done anything to stop Lionel Messi.  In an odd mix of self-pity and meltdown, Mourinho was only sequestering attention away from Messi who'd produced two of the greatest goals in the sport's history.  It was a feat all the more spectacular as it had blossomed from the most infertile of premises.  Before the match I noted that because Guardiola was limited in his tactical options, both in his deployment and instruction to his players, the players would have to take it upon themselves to carve a moment of brilliance.  Essentially they would have to improvise to overcome Mourinho's defenses.  Guardiola found that much needed improvisation in a player who's framed his legend on such bursts of pure genius: Lionel Messi.
        Afellay's gilded cross may have provided Messi with both the pace and position of the ball needed to tap it into the net, but Messi still needed to beat three Madrid defenders to reach it.  The sheer brilliance of his run was reflected in its aftermath: Xabi Alonso could only wildly gesture while he lamented yielding a goal to the isolated forward in the box.
Credit: ITV Sport
Messi had to beat a host of white shirts to break the deadlock
         As for the second goal, it was a classic mazy dribble where Messi is teed the ball by a teammate as he then proceeds to unravel the entire opposition, while his teammates merely stand and applaud.  Both goals were startling in their splendor and in their contrast.  For the first, Messi had to find space without the ball.  For the second, he had to carve space with it.  Perhaps the only commonality between them was how effortless they appeared.
         But for the longest time it seemed as though Messi would never find the breakthrough to win the match.  Still if someone were to watch only those two goals they would think that he was dominating throughout it.  That is a mark of class few possess.  The quality of his goals speak of the effort Messi puts in to every run, every touch, and every move.  After his first Ballon D'Or, the footballing world could not help but feel that as good as he was Messi could only get better.  While before there was a slight tendency for him to be demoralized and marked out of matches, since then he has rose to the occasion repeatedly.  Since then he has been the one to save Barça, and on this particular night, football.

Concluding remarks

       It was certainly fitting that Messi made both breakthroughs.  For all the negativity and cynicism throughout the match, Messi was one of the few players most removed from it.  He had to rise above the mind games, tread over the tackles, and block out the abuse of the madridistas, but the beauty was that by the end of the night he was enjoying all of it.  My Biology teacher may have been right about most of us not being able to tread past our physical and mental boundaries, but on Wednesday night Messi did.  It certainly was not easy for him, though he made it look so, but importantly he accepted the challenge without hesitation. 
       So let your kids hold their breath and eat all the cookies from the jar, because with age they'll convert that daring into greater, more considerable feats.  Otherwise God knows they may end up like Mourinho's Madrid on a night they can not afford to.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Footballer in Focus: Xavi

        Being a football fan is a very difficult thing.  Unless you are lucky enough to live where the best football is being played and have your grandfather sign you up for tickets before you were born, in all likelihood you will not be able to see the best footballers of their generation have a kick-about on a regular basis, if ever.  Back 'till the late 90's you would be stuck to admiring them from a small grainy TV set, and in the internet age you can still get the same effect for free from a stream of your choice.  Honestly there is a certain unrequited love a football fan feels for a team and, more specifically, for a footballer.  That one footballer.  The one that you see week in and week out, and you can't help but keep your mouth open.  Like the girl you may know at your workplace, only casually, yet in your mind every single action she takes fits together so aesthetically, so perfectly.   But of course, she does not compare to Xavi.
          And how can she?  How can anyone?  There is no matching the poise he has on the pitch.  As the ball frantically bounces from one side to the other when it finally reaches his elegant touch it almost rests for a second, as if it were soothed like a lion meeting its tamer; then with one deft flick it heeds his command.  But Xavi's influence doesn't stop there.  Certainly each touch he takes on the ball is calculated, but there is a tenderness attached to that mathematical precision.  As he respects the ball, the ball respects him.  By virtue of a swift turn or change of feet, he rescues the ball from a rash tackle by a brutish defender.  With a soft touch he prevents it from straying away for a throw-in.  By putting spin on the ball for a pass, he really does makes his teammates better! Once they receive it, they don't even need a good first touch because the first touch was already provided by Xavi.
              But perhaps the most interesting moments in a match come when Xavi himself scores.  At once his goals are rare, yet watching a single one will make you wonder why he doesn't score more often.  As evidence in the 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid, Messi always looked the most likely to score from the kickoff, while it was a goal from Xavi which opened the floodgates on a truly spectacular evening.

            And what a goal it was!  The combination of Iniesta's perfectly angled through ball and Xavi's timed run left Marcelo completely for dead; then Xavi collected the ball with his backheel at full stride, flicked it over his head, and with the same right foot, lofted it over Casillas and into the net.  Of course Iniesta deserved the plaudits for the pass, but through balls are successful only when they beat the defense and the goalkeeper.  Even a forward like Villa wouldn't have had that soft touch that Xavi had to prevent the ball from being taken by Casillas.  The backheel was certainly a party trick, a bit of flair, but it was also absolutely necessary to score the goal.  In fact, with the ball arriving behind him it was about the only way that Xavi could have scored the goal.  We regularly praise forward players like Messi, Pedro, or Villa to be the flair players in a stacked Barca line-up, but looking at that goal you can't help but feel that Xavi has all the same tricks they have and perhaps some even better.
        So why then doesn't he pull them out of his hat more often?  Well partly it comes down to physical laws.  Xavi has never possessed the same pace as his teammates who play further forward, and with the sheer numbers which Barca devotes to the attack it would be congested to fit him into the front.  In fact for that first goal against Madrid, Xavi and Iniesta had cleverly switched the positions they normally occupy in order to stretch the defense. But going back to my earlier praise of him, the real reason Xavi rarely goes forward to score goals is because it would take away from that special control that he has in the match.  It is a control that he can exert only from being in the center because that is where he can observe and influence both ends of the pitch.
        It is true that had he been born even a decade earlier Xavi would have been deployed in a more forward band where he would work his magic.  Up until the 90s and early 00s, teams frequently deployed their most skillful players directly in the "hole" behind the strikers.  Classic players such as Ortega, Del Piero, Rui Costa, Zidane, Valeron, Gazza, etc. established the "number 10" to be a player who thrived in between the lines of opposition, using their dribbling, passing, and shooting solely to set up numerous goals; but Xavi operates a more busier role in the center of midfield. While one might argue that even better (and pacier) players like Messi and Ronaldo have emerged to occupy the attacking midfield band, while slower players like Xavi have lost out; this fails to explain why Xavi has won more trophies than both players and that those trophies were won without them.  The attacking players change and rotate for Xavi in Spain and in Barcelona, but his success remains.  In fact, Xavi's role has become the most important in football.
        Yet still, his role is poorly understood around most parts, although this lacking is somewhat understandable.  Because the work that Xavi performs is much busier and varied than his predecessors, the classic "number 10s", much of it can be easily lost or unnoticed.  Many observers will claim that most of the time Xavi only offers a simple pass, and when he does contribute an assist it is because another player darts across the pitch to expose an open channel.  Of course in a team with Messi, Villa, and Pedro even I might be able to provide an assist in the entire season.  When the entire team presses for the ball, anyone close enough might be able to get a hold of it after it pops off a teammate.  When five or six teammates make clever runs to find space, even a reserve player might be able to maintain possession without too much trouble.  It is just that when Xavi does all of these things he just does it better than anyone else can.  In fact, whenever Xavi does anything on the pitch, as simple or extravagant as it may be, he does it better than any other player.  If you want evidence, just look at more of his goals.
            Immediately you will notice that each touch he takes en route to scoring a goal is precise in its timing and execution.  Even when he has to beat two or three players he makes it look effortless by controlling the ball just outside of their reach.  He has the goal formulated before he even encounters a defender or goalkeeper, and often you'll see him wheeling away to celebrate before the ball has even crossed the line.  Each swivel, turn, touch, and nutmeg is deliberate.  He just has a knack for finding the most simple, elegant solution to a defense.  Xavi may not beat you outright with pace or acceleration, but his speed of thought is such that he does not need such bold advantages. In contrast, a player like Messi or Iniesta will often have a "spark" of genius, a burst of acceleration or sharp turn in direction.  Messi will frequently beat the same player twice in the same dribble.  That is astounding in its own right, but in a sense Xavi's play is more elegant, much more pellucid in its construction; and the fact that Xavi takes the shortest, most elegant solution on the pitch is ironic in the sense of people who claim his passing to sideways or  rudimentary.

         A more detailed inspection of his passing reveals the same qualities as those of his goals.  Xavi always knows when to implement the right pass, when to use his body to shield the ball, or twist and turn away from his opponents.  Each individual skill may not be as impressive as a mazy run by Messi or Iniesta or a walloping shot by Pedro, but it is the masterful synthesis of them through which he builds something truly magnificent.  It is easy to glance at his work and find it unimpressive, but then you are only focusing your eyes on him.  Only when you look at his play and the entire pitch, just as Xavi does, do you realize his genius.  You may label me and others who exalt Xavi to the status he deserves as "intellectuals", but I will hardly complain or disagree because to appreciate Xavi you do need to think a bit like him.  Only when you put in that effort do you realize that three or four runs are being made simply because of his positioning and passing.   Only then is it apparent that a 18 move session which resulted in goal was possible because of the six or seven touches he had.
           In a word, Xavi is the underpinning of Barcelona. He makes sure that Barcelona keep the ball moving from player to player in manner that makes sense.  Barcelona do play unselfishly, but everyone from Barcelona has a hunger for the ball as much as they do have a hunger to pass it. When Villa doesn't get the ball he'll run even harder to prompt a pass his way. When Messi doesn't get it he'll hassle the opposition midfielders and defenders even more. Whenever Xavi decides on a pass he keeps all of these variables in mind. On the pitch Xavi is as much of a manager as Guardiola is, and he is just as much of a manager as Guardiola was when he played in midfield.
            Furthermore, Xavi also makes certain that there are no gaps left in between the attack and defense.  Teams like Argentina at the last world cup and Inter Milan in this year's champion league have shown just how fatal error this can be.  Perhaps this was not such a fatal error 10 or 15 years ago.  Perhaps this was not such a fatal error when teams placed their most intelligent footballer in the "number 10" slot.  But back in the early days of football the most important player in the team there was a breed of footballer not quite so unlike Xavi: the old-school centre-half. As Jonathan Wilson pens, "[The centre-half] was a multi-skilled all-rounder, defender and attacker, leader and instigator, goal-scorer and destroyer."  Perhaps with Xavi and with Barcelona, we are simply left feeling nostalgic for a style of football we never even experienced.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Barça-Madrid: A Struggle Between the Grandmasters of Football

Credit: GQ
Guardiola and Mourinho have always had a difference in style.

           When Madrid had wrested a 1-1 draw at the Santiago Bernabéu in the first game of what has been touted to be an epic series, the groans burst from all corridors.  After all, when you pin two teams who are the most acclaimed in world football on the basis of form and pedigree, you expect to see the most acclaimed football.  But inevitably, accusations came flying of Mourinho having once again "sterilized" the game and removed the element of skill.  Of course the impatient journalists decried it as a bore, and Barça fans stuck to their moral high-ground, lambasting Madrid for being unambitious and even guerrilla-like. Even Real club legend Alfredo Di Stéfano condemned Real saying"Madrid are a side with no personality. They just run back and forth constantly, tiring themselves out. We saw clearly that their approach was not the right one. Barcelona were a lion, Madrid a mouse". But one felt that instead of blasting Madrid's players, Di Stéfano was actually using his honorary president title to scythe Mourinho, a coach who's philosophy is largely different from the one Di Stéfano played under with Puskás and Kopa all those years ago.  
          Every since Mourinho has arrived at the Bernabéu, there has been backlash from the "romantics" in the game.  He has shouldered a lot of unfounded blame by critics who have only chosen to focus on moments such as Madrid's 5-0 Clásico debacle.  His reputation for defensive solidity has been shot back against him, when throughout the season he has fielded mouth-watering players like Ronaldo, di María, Özil, etc.  Cruyff has taken upon himself, as he often does, to publicly scorn Mourinho as a "title-winning coach, but not a football coach."

          It's funny how all the lynchers disbanded after Real's monumental Copa victory.  

          Of course Mourinho was no apologist after having been vindicated in his principles. "Thank you," he simply said. "I like being a coach who wins titles."  The classic tale with Mourinho and his detractors played out once again.  He had silenced them for a moment, but not won their hearts; without a doubt his critics will emerge once more should Madrid falter in the Champions League stages.  As Mourinho has said before in the oft-repeated quote "Those who love me, follow me.  Those who hate me, chase me", there is not much he can do to win over such stubborn crowds.  It's more appropriate to describe him as a "title-winner, not a critic-winner", and I'm certain that is a description he would most savor.
           But the truth is there are only a few people in the media and in football who understand Mourinho's tactics (if one can lump them all in such a large motley box).  Mostly you will hear the same buzz-words bandied about: "defensive", "constricting", "anti-football". They're words which are hardly descriptive, if not outright misleading.  Only a few in the football have given Mourinho the analysis and respect he deserves: Sid Lowe and Michael Cox being the first to come to this writer's mind.
          The truth is that 1-0 perfomance with which Mourinho silenced his critics was not all that different from the 1-1 demonstration.  In fact, Mourinho only built on the same tactics he had experimented with in the draw at the Bernabéu in the Copa win.  In the draw, Mourinho was blasted for placing Pepe in the midfield as a sort of "spoiler", when Pepe actually proved to be composed on the ball and adept at tracking the deep runs of Messi.  That's quite far from the description of him being a pure hacker to remove Messi from the game.  Also in the draw, Madrid were accused of lacking attacking intent, when Madrid had equaled Barça's shots on goal with a third of the amount of possession.
          Most observers decided that the superiority was Barça's, as they had quite easily secured their third consecutive league title, but Mourinho took the result as a positive knowing that this opening salvo had revealed just enough of a weakness in his opponent to exploit.  And sure enough, in the Copa Del Rey Mourinho only enhanced his earlier tactics. He pushed Pepe even higher up the pitch, and moved Xabi Alonso deeper.  It seems odd to play a "defensive" player higher upfield while moving an "offensive" player deeper, but this allowed Pepe to win possession higher up the pitch; and Alonso was more free to distribute, establish counter-attacks, and control the tempo of the match.
           Mourinho also took attacking players and inserted them outside of their natural positions. The success of this was apparent as Ronaldo headed home from a center forward position over a helpless Adriano, but at the same this rearrangement in attack naturally made his players a bit more rigid by tweaking the fluidity they have in their natural positions. More importantly this tactic helped Madrid maintain their shape, and it puzzled the Barça defense who had to deal with players in positions they weren't comfortable with all night long.  Özil was a particular nightmare in the wing, constantly making use of long balls driven behind Barça's attacking fullbacks.  In a sense, these are some of the same tactics that Mourinho has used in Inter, where he placed Eto'o a proven goalscorer on the wing, and one must remember that Inter stunned the world by knocking Barça out of the cup.
           That is not to say that Barça aren't as adaptable as Mourinho's teams.  Guardiola is as much a tactical genius as Mourinho although in a completely different sense.  In moving Messi to the middle in the last two seasons, he's helped the team unlock countless defenses by pulling the oppositions centrebacks out of postion.  By moving Busquets to a sweeper role, he's given the fullbacks and the entire team even more attacking thrust than before.  But for all of that, you do have to question his prudence at times.  It was apparent Barça were playing a dangerous game in the Copa final whenever Piqué roamed out of the back, leaving Mascherano of all vertically-challenged people as sole protection; and Guardiola has been stubborn in choice of forwards with Messi, Villa, and Pedro all being physically the same sort of player.  But most of all one worries about the lack of options Guardiola has now with Puyol, Abidal, and Bojan injured, and the thought that as fluid and versatile Barça are, they can't match the many variations which Mourinho has in store.  As natural as we say the linkups between Barça's attacking players are, there is a risk that it gears them to only playing one kind of football.
           Certainly it would not be the first time in history that a brilliant attacking team has been undone by another team's more solid, structured approach, especially one which the attackers are not accustomed with.  It happened to the Dutch teams in '74 and '78, to Zico's Brazil in '82, and even the Mighty Magyars fell to it back in '54.  It's a theme which has resonated throughout history, politics, love and war, but perhaps it has never been better understood than in the odd obsessions which all men carry like football, racehorses, and chess.
            Particularly in chess, there are legends who have defined a certain style of play, even boldly declaring never to abandon it.  Karpov once said,

"Let us say the game may be continued in two ways: one of them is a beautiful tactical blow that gives rise to variations that don't yield to precise calculation; the other is clear positional pressure that leads to an endgame with microscopic chances of victory... I would choose the latter without thinking twice. If the opponent offers keen play I don't object; but in such cases I get less satisfaction, even if I win, than from a game conducted according to all the rules of strategy with its ruthless logic."
          We have also seen the likes of Nezhmetdinov, "a tactical genius who had a plus score against none other than Mikhail Tal (possibly the most attack oriented and exciting world champion of them all), [who's] victories were frequently incredible but he lacked the support to reach the summit of the chess world." 
           Perhaps Guardiola and Mourinho are not quite so comparable to these legends of a wholly separate field, but in the final two games between them you can't help but feel that much deeper questions will be answered aside from which team is better.

Credit: Free Commons
Nezmethdinov, on the left, and Karpov, on the right, never played each other, but we might get a sense of the outcome which never came in Barça and Madrid's clashes.