• Thursday, 9 August 2012

    The future - I've seen it

    Bored of Barcelona and tiki-taka? Tough. There's more of it coming - much more.

    Last night, Huddersfield Town completed their pre-season schedule with a game at home to Barcelona B. It not being often that the Catalan behemoth sends a team to West Yorkshire, so the radio station broke with tradition and sent a team to cover the match live.

    Of course we weren't going to see the established stars. We weren't going to see the big hitters from last season's B team that finished eighth in the Segunda Division given the first team's pre-season tours and the burden that places on squad resources. Town went in with what appears as close to a first XI as any of us could guess at, though with striker Lee Novak deployed on the right of a five-man midfield. If that was supposed to overwhelm the Barca whippersnappers, it didn't.

    From the off, Barca B did what Barca teams do - hog the ball, knock it about patiently, try and create openings and, if none become apparent, retreat and start over. What Huddersfield did do was retain their shape and, as such, kept the magical footballing micro-pixies at bay, but it was only ever going to be a temporary thing. Town held out in the first half and enjoyed a ten-minute spell towards the end where they were, arguably on top. Barca made eight changes at the break and were immediately more incisive. This time, Town's spell was just five minutes at the end, by which time they were 2-0 down to a Gerard Deulofeu penalty and Sergio Araujo's goal after an incisive move up the middle.
    So what did we learn? About Town, not a great deal other than they look a solid outfit and won't have to face a team like that too often in the Championship. About Barcelona, we learned that their players are inculcated from a very early age in the style of play we've become accustomed to seeing and that their ability to find players from outside the club to fit that style is very effective indeed.

    You have to hope that Town are sitting down today and poring over the lessons available to them. Denied the services of Cristian Tello, Thiago Alcantara, Rafinha, Carlos Carmona and others, this wasn't Barca B's first eleven. It mattered little. Again, it's all about respect for and retention of possession and it starts at the back.

    In England, if a centre-back gets to a ball first and launches it into the stands, he's applauded. This has to change. It's a cheap surrender of possession which the Spanish didn't do. Instead, being good on the ball having played futsal and been coached into making the weaker side less obviously weak, it's a little drag back or a trick to create some space and play an easy pass, retaining the ball for his side. Neither do goalkeepers or defenders play low-percentage, hopeful punts into the opposition half. Why would you, when there's little guarantee of retaining the ball? It makes no sense.

    The rest is purely coaching and arguments that have been had time and time again, usually when England have been dumped out of a major championship by a side that is vastly technically superior. It's futsal, it's skills, not pace and size and winning games on full-sized pitches in a mudbath. We hear all this on such a regular basis, yet nothing changes. It's not the English way.

    Tiki-taka is not a panacea. It will not work every time. However, it's philosophy of ball retention, patience and passing is more likely to produce good results than up-and-at-em, two banks of four traditional English football. Barcelona's system isn't the perfect one - there's no such thing - but all great football dynasties have - from Austria's wunderteam, the mighty Magyars, Rinus Michels' Ajax and Netherlands sides to modern Barcelona - been based around respect for possession and technical excellence. The former cannot come without the latter and we're all pissing in the wind to a certain extent until the conclusions of these regular lessons are put into practice.

    It's a long road, but you've got to start somewhere. Agustinho, Deulofeu, Kiko, Alejandro Grimaldo, Sergi Gomez, Carles Planas did not emerge from the womb with tiki-taka stamped across their DNA. There's been a tremendous amount of work done to mould them into that method.

    And if you find Barcelona's approach boring, I suggest you don't watch European football any more. There's another generation all set and ready to go.

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