MALCOLM COOK: UNLOCKING THE BARCA CODE
Posted on February 28, 2012 by leaders
As a coach who, like every lover of the beautiful game is fascinated with the Barca phenomenon and keen to know what makes them tick. I will try to unlock their formula for success.
KEY 1: HEAD – UP AWARENESS
Barca players have great awareness of everything that is going on around the field because they have learned to play the game with their heads – up. Other clubs have excellent technical players who are good on the ball however, they need too much time looking at it to get it under control with the result that they fail to recognise opportunities to pass the ball to team-mates in advantageous positions.
“You see a kid who plays with his head up who can give a first – time pass when needed. We think ‘Yes he will do’ and start to develop his game with good coaching.” (Xavi)
The modern game at the top – level is lightening quick, so a player needs to be able to react quickly and correctly to the largely unpredictable situations as they evolve in front of them.
Another aspect of this awareness is the ability to play comfortably and effectively in any part of the field. By contrast all too many British players have been ‘pigeon – holed’ early in their careers to play in a set role, position as part of the field which severely limits their footballing development. The consequence of this is that many of them become ‘one-eyed’ in terms of their awareness rarely daring to venture into other areas of the field other than the ones that they are used to and when they do they perform poorly.
“Good players need to know the whole pitch.” (Johan Cruyff)
KEY 2: TECHNICAL SIMPLICITY
There are few extravagant actions, ‘showboating’ form effect, nor manufactured in any way from rigid coaching. All their dynamic techniques come from the head and heart with great economy of effort which makes them so much easier to apply.
By contrast, too many players work too hard to impress and look good, and in the process complicate things by thinking too much, which in turn affects the efficiency of their physical movement. Barcelona players understand the danger of this and do not let their egos get in the way. Every technique they use is based upon simplicity, end of story. If an easy pass to a better-placed teammate is ‘on’ – it’s quickly given or if a defender is blocking the way to goal and needs to be beaten – a drop of shoulder to unbalance him, followed by a little change of pace to go past him with the ball…….no fuss.
“Barca players need to think and act quickly. Look at Busquest. He looks, controls and passes in one movement whilst others need two or even three touches of the ball. That’s too slow in the modern game.” (Xavi)
Barca use the old coaching adage of….’Let the ball do the work’ better than any other when employing their brand of possession Football – their key is not to complicate things in any way, instead they keep it simple.
KEY 3: A POWERFUL IDENTITY
Historically Barcelona is a ‘Family club’. Their motto of ‘more than a club’ informs people of their aims, heritage and vision. They have a clear ideology based upon their Catalan culture and socialistic roots which is a powerful force and pervades the club today and everything that it stands for.
Too many top clubs pay massive fees for ‘star’ players to strengthen their teams, but find they bring poor attitudes with them which cause the team having to change their game in some way to accommodate them. New players can bring an extra- dimension to the team of course, and at Barca they are encouraged to do so, however, in recent years there has been an approach that ensures that no matter how big the player the club’s identity is made clear to all of what they are representing and what is expected on and off the field from them- end of story.
The club looks to instil good values, humbleness and attitudes in their players. When you see the players perform, there are no ‘stars’ with inflated egos and the negative behaviour to match- instead you will observe a group of highly gifted players who are smart in appearance. Have respect for each other and the club.
“Some clubs are paying big transfer fees for players but you can’t buy by tradition.” (Van Nistelrooy)
KEY 4: SUPERIOR WORK – ETHIC
It’s easy to overlook just how much running, action and sheer physical effort each Barca player puts in during a match.
Their unique way of playing the game demands intense mental concentration plus a high physical work rate over ninety minutes. Their game is all about possession of the ball and supporting each other to stay compact as a team. To do this each player needs to be constantly on the move to stay near to their teammates which requires a lot of running. Their work – ethic can be seen even more clearly when the team loose possession of the ball. This is the signal for the players to work together like a pack of wolves to get the ball back again as quickly as possible.
KEY 5: DIFFERENT COURAGE
One of the key factors that the Barcelona players demonstrate game-by-game is their sheer mental courage. There are two kinds of courage evident in the game of football – one is more physical in nature whilst the second could be said to be more mental.
In British Football, we give more importance to the first category. We tend to produce players who can generally give and take the tough physical tackles better than most. However, in the second type of courage, the mental sort, compared to Barcelona we are sadly lacking.
We do not breed the confidence, nerve or courage of our convictions (as coaches and players) when under some pressure to stick with the passing game so widespread in the world of football. There are a growing number of young coaches in the Premier League who are getting their team to play the possession – game (eg. Paul Lambert, Norwich; Roberto Martinez, Wigan and Brendan Rogers, Swansea) to join the elder statesmen of Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Harry Redknapp.
All too often though, we talk about playing the possession – game and sticking at it, but as soon as we are under pressure a lose a goal, we return to the direct way getting the ball forward.
“I admire their sheer guts in playing the ball out of trouble when under pressure – I would have just hoofed it into the channel in the same situation” (Gary Neville)
Barca players have been caught out at the back for losing possession but have the courage and belief to keep playing the way they have been brought up to do.
KEY 6: THE POSSESSION GAME
Barcelona players are brought up with the absolute mantra of keeping possession of the ball. They play a fast technical, athletic game which demands fast decision – making when ‘on and off’- the – ball. The amount of correct decisions that their players make on the field during the pressure of competition to keep the ball is truly staggering.
All this does not happen by chance. As young players they are encouraged not to be afraid of making mistakes and to keep taking risks, not only in practice but during matches.
Much of their everyday practice is devoted to games with the continuous rotation of players supporting each other, creating space, and moving the ball to pick the best pass in each situation.
“You can be the best passer in the world, but if your teammates don’t get into the correct positions quickly enough, you have no chance of keeping the ball.” (Iniesta)
Barcelona believes implicitly that possession begins at the back and as such they put more store on their Goalkeepers being able to pass the ball more effectively than other top clubs. Victor Valdes gave a master – class of how to maintain possession of the ball in the white – heat of a European Cup semi – final versus Real Madrid at the Bernabeu stadium. His performance would have put some of our Premier League centre – backs to shame with its excellence.
Keeping possession of the ball demands as much mental as physical or technical excellence. Barca players have been coached from an early age to take risks, be calm, confident and bold with their passing.
KEY 7: STAYING COMPACT
Barca have a dynamic and clear – cut way of playing which is unlike any other team. A key factor is their ability to stay together as a team retaining their shape when moving up, down or across the field.
They provide a basic structure for the team which allows the players to do their own thing in the moment within this framework. The compactness isn’t a static shape, it alters to deal with different game situations but always returns to its original compact shape. This is important to their game for a few reasons….when keeping ball possession the player on–the-ball always needs close support to ensure choice and accuracy. When passing and, in contrast, when the ball is lost and they need to defend, the team must press the ball close together and reduce the space the opponents have to work in and the amount of running they have to do to defend well.
“The best chance you have versus Barcelona is as soon as you win the ball against them, is to immediately inter pass through their first phase and get at their back – unit.” (Graeme Sounness)
They believe in staying compact so much that they rarely counter – attack as a team from deep positions for fear of becoming over – stretched and exposed to a counter – attack themselves. At times they have found themselves in potential counter – attacking situations where they have the chance to get forward quickly with equal numbers but decide to wait to re-join their teammates in support before restarting their passing to get forward again.
“There are great teams around – the difference is that we have more players who can think and react quicker. Most of our players have come through twelve years of education in our youth scheme which gives them a head start.” (Xavi)
KEY 8: THE YOUTH FACTORY
Many acknowledge Barcelona as having the best Youth Academy in the Football world. So, how does it work? Boys as young as 7 years of age start the Academy as they all receive a well-tried, holistic and trusted education the ‘Barca Way.’ With a motto of ‘more than a club’, they set out to develop great players and great people with life education running in tandem with Football – they believe the two go hand-in-hand. They aim to develop young Footballers’ self-esteem, intelligence and mental-toughness to deal with the inevitable pressures which come further along the line.
The Barcelona Youth Academy put the onus back on the young players under their care to take responsibility for their own learning development. Rather than constantly instructing them and telling them what to do, they guide, monitor and encourage them to find their own solutions to problems in the game – this is a far more effective way to learn.
KEY 9: TELEPATHIC UNDERSTANDING
They appear to be able to ’read’ each other’s minds and their intentions before they decide what to do next. This ability does not come easy – it is the product of the mind and body of two or more people working temporarily in complete harmony. Sometimes two players in a team ‘tune-in-‘ to each other and can latch on to what each other is thinking and make it count. What is so different about Barcelona, is that as a team they seem to have greater compatibility, trust and familiarity of each other which allows them to be on the same wavelength when they play.
“Some teams have two players with this sort of instinctive understanding but we have a whole team that can do it.” (Iniesta)
This superior teamwork has been homed and developed on the training ground over many years of clever coaching in the form of continuous small-sided games practice day-by-day which gives them the advantage of knowing each other reactions to each game situation that they are confronted with.
KEY 10: THE ‘REAL SPECIAL – ONE’
Pep Guardiola is the young coach who singlehandedly has masterminded Barcelona to its domination of World Club Football.
He is ideally placed to know all there is to know about the club’s history and where it has come from and where it needs to go in the future. He has taken the Cruyff ‘total football’ blue print that the legendary player and coach brought to the club and adapted it cleverly in his own special way so that it is way ahead of any other club in its effectiveness. His players respect him totally, and have put their trust in him to provide the coaching expertise to maximise their talents as individuals and as a team. He has managed to achieve the ‘holy-grail’ of coaching success that every coach dreams about – winning with beautiful Football.
Pep has devised for the team an ideal balance between free flowing skills harnessed to an effective structure that suits all the players. He has an unshakeable belief in how they play and has managed to transmit this to the players who are just as devout about the system as himself.
“Much praise has been given to Victor Valdes, the Barca goalkeeper after his terrible mistake in the first minute of the match versus Real cost his team a goal. To the astonishment and consternation of the Catalan fans he just kept giving short passes to Pique and Puyol, even when the risks were high, refusing to take the easy option of a big hoof up field.” (Matthew Syed, Observer)
The Barca code has taken the coach, his staff and all the players many painstaking hours, weeks and years of intensive practice, match experience and quality coaching to reach their superior performance level. It will be a great challenge for the rest of us to achieve.
“At Barcelona you are first taught to think, think, and think quickly.” (Xavi)