By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 30, 2012) US Soccer Players — Does Barcelona continue to pass? It's one of the very basic questions to come out of Pep Guardiola's decision to part ways with Barcelona: the future of his version of the passing game. Guardiola insisted on moving the ball against all levels of opponents. Turn on any Barca game from the last four seasons, and you were assured of seeing a clinic in connecting passes.
Insistence on a system is an easy thing to criticize. Coaches that use two defensive midfielders against overmatched opponents tend to look a little silly when they're the ones bogging down their own offense. Single striker setups get especially predictable when the single strikers in question are in dire need of a partner. Barcelona had to lose a Liga title and a Champions League defense in the same week to really stress the point about the limits to their passing game, but the critiques were already in place.
We've seen pass happy clubs in Europe before, and the big picture criticism is usually the same. Does anybody really believe that passing the ball around wins games? We've seen teams cede tons of possession over 90 minutes and still win. Chelsea already raised the question that confronts a Barcelona style passing team. When the opportunities aren't there, what does the passing game – aka moving the ball around for the sake of moving the ball around – really solve?
There's an argument that the answer is that it doesn't solve very much. Teams unable to adjust can almost expect that some team somewhere will do just enough to take a game or a series off of them. It's the way professional soccer works at any level. Familiarity from just the wide availability of game coverage can give an opponent an advantage they wouldn't have had a decade or two ago. Everybody knows how Barcelona plays the game, and at least one over-matched on paper English club figured out how to beat Barca over 180 minutes.
In fairness, by this point Barcelona had begun to look like a Saturday Night Live sendup of its own passing routines. Major League Soccer's new insistence on statistical analysis has already demonstrated how silly passing stats can look. Pick any MLS game, and you're likely to see one or both teams moving the ball around their own half with no obvious tactical purpose. A dozen connected passes later, and they might actually have an opponent try for the ball. That's never likely to win games, but it does eat up time. Though it doesn't flatter Barcelona, that's a part of what they've been doing for the last few seasons. Play the opponent, play the official, and play the clock.
One of the closest comparisons to what Barcelona does game after game is from basketball. The old four corners offense, designed to take away time from the opponent as much as it was to pick out scoring chances. Basketball's shot clock put an end to offensive setups that were there to play the clock as much as the opponent. The National Hockey League has introduced a similar rule to prevent teams from holding onto the puck on their side of the ice. Soccer doesn't have that luxury. A soccer referee doesn't add time back because a team has decided to see how many passes they can make before really starting their attack. There's no time wasting penalty when the ball is actively in play.
Almost every team Barcelona plays is happy to let them connect with multiple passes before they're anywhere close to 30 yards out. And why not? Engaging anywhere else risks a pass that takes multiple defenders out of the run of play. It's a simple response to what we're supposed to see as a complicated offensive setup. It's how you play the best club team in the world.
Yet again, we should still be asking what the Barcelona version of the passing game is designed to solve now. At this point, we're the ones playing with time. The question we're asking moves Barca away from the recent glory years where they would frustrate great teams by simply moving the ball around. Real Madrid and Chelsea have brought that version of Barcelona's game to an end. With Barcelona management promoting an assistant coach, we should assume what we'll see next season is a tweak on what we've already seen rather than a return to a more traditional style or a mimic of what works for Real Madrid.
Barcelona has the luxury of choice. There's no system on the planet that group of players can't adopt and make work. What it requires is the end to the self-congratulatory insistence on control. That's what Barca's passing game really represents, a system that puts them completely in control of every game they play. Losses will always be disappointments, with the associated statistics that show – once again – that Barca dominated.
Unfortunately, in practice that control has been shown to be an illusion. Just like those MLS completed passing numbers, they don't represent what is crucial to winning soccer games. Make no mistake, more often than not Barcelona does that too. However, it's not the story they necessarily want to tell. Their superstar on the ball exploiting opportunities isn't what Barcelona does. They play a team game that highlights that superstar, but is about a group of stars reinventing club soccer at the highest level. Maybe for a little while, but Barcelona are now in the position of needing to win just like everybody else.
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