What a fantastic display that was last week from Barcelona in a tremendously entertaining game. It was a joy to watch an excellent Barça side assert its superiority over a fellow Champions League contender by toying with them like that. Quite simply, they were too good. And it doesn’t need me to point out that the scoreline would have been very embarrassing for Manchester City had it not been for a fantastic goalkeeping display. In many ways, it was my favourite game that I’ve seen this season, and this was because there were occurrences during play which make teams like Barcelona stand out from teams who aren’t on their level, in particular their English counterparts – both club and country. This game served to clearly demonstrate that this gap between England and top sides still exists, and won’t be narrowed any time soon.
I’m not referring to Messi’s delicious pass for the goal, by the way. These moments aren’t as conspicuous as that, or even something like a precise through ball or 30-yard screamer – believe it or not, even the average player at my level of non-league football is capable of producing these from time to time. I am talking about subtler things which make it easier for great players to pull of these moments of what looks like footballing genius. The goal, or rather the build-up to it, is a good example. Messi’s first touch in a potentially tricky situation is the key; when he receives the ball from Jordi Alba, City’s shape is pretty solid. The pressing player, Aleksandar Kolarov, and Fernandinho next to him are protecting the three players back, who have stayed very compact. And the sky blue shirts in Messi’s sight considerably outnumber his teammates. The touch, however, kills this press stone dead and momentarily takes Kolarov out of the game as he has to make an extended recovery run – he shuffles across thinking he can show Messi inside and has to turn almost 180° before getting back.
Now try to think of players who would be able to manipulate this situation so effectively. Where Messi’s control and movement take him is probably the only way something would develop which puts the defending team in trouble. If he comes inside as City want, there are enough bodies in there to prevent Barça playing through them. If he goes too far the other side, he’s facing away from all his team-mates and easily pressured into losing the ball. Not only that, but the extra couple of seconds needed by City to adjust and gravitate towards Messi created the overload on the left-hand side which allowed the impressive Ivan Rakitic to score a very well-taken goal. I can confidently say that England wouldn’t be able to score from an identical situation, and there are just a handful of players who would be able to achieve a similar end result to what Messi created.
If I picture the same scenario in an English game, one of three things happens: the player takes a touch away from the press back towards their own goal and recycles possession, most likely giving it to a defender (my preferred move but a number of managers would give the player a bollocking for killing the momentum of an attack); the player panics and kicks the ball as far as he can in the other direction (would get a bollocking from me for throwing away possession so cheaply); the player plays the percentages i.e. moves towards the channel, tries to hold onto the ball and plays it off the nearest opponent to win a throw-in.
In short, the mentality of an English team or player would be, from my experience, “how can I get out of this situation as quickly and easily as possible?” Going through the minds of Lionel Messi and his Barcelona team-mates was, “I know how to get out of this, how will the picture change once I do?” When you consider how important possession of the ball is elite competitions such as the Champions League or major international tournaments (I’m not necessarily talking about dominating possession, rather making sure you don’t give up the ball so easily once you’ve got it), it is little wonder that England, and teams playing in its high-intensity domestic league, are lagging behind.
The above is the example that really sticks out, but there are other instances, namely in the first half when the Barcelona goalkeeper, Marc-André ter Stegen, being closed down, dinked a pass right onto the chest of Dani Alves at right back, also under pressure from City players. Instead of resorting to the emergency tactic of launching the ball up the channel, he waited an extra couple of seconds for an option to arrive in midfield and passed it short. This in turn allowed other Barcelona players to move into positions where space had appeared and receive the ball, and the team ended up playing quite effortlessly out of a tight area. I would say every Premier League team would have played the percentages in this situation, even Arsenal who try to play a style closely resembling Barcelona, but without players of the same class in every area of the pitch.
If a team is avoiding the risk of holding onto the ball a little longer when being pressured, what it says to me is that either the players don’t back themselves to play out of these situations successfully, or the manager’s trust in the players to do so is outweighed by the perceived risk of it due to the pressure he’s under to win games. Probably a bit of both. That’s why pressing England never fails as I can’t think of any of our defenders or midfielders who would be able to pass their way out of an intense press near their own goal on a regular basis – the ball would be clipped forward and 99 times out of 100 it would come straight back at them. Again, in the fastest league in the world where the game is played at such an intensity and there is such pressure not to mess up, the trend isn’t going to reverse any time soon.
Whatever you may think of possession football and tiki-taka, or whether direct counter-attacking football has taken over, the very best teams are capable of producing these subtle moments of brilliance such as Barcelona this week where others just can’t compete. As I mentioned, regardless of what style you play, possession – and making sure you don’t let the other team take the ball off you when you can keep it – is fundamental for successful sides. It fits then, that the very top teams (Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Germany, Spain etc.) are packed with players who remain confident on the ball when under pressure.
What is for sure is that the FA will continue to think up new schemes to give young English players a chance to play for their pro teams as well as schemes to involve more people in grassroots football, but fail to address this issue, which can’t be down to overseas players blocking paths. Premier League sides are in the fortunate position of being able to buy suitable players to help them get round this issue; unfortunately, it’s not the case for England on an international level, which is why we will perennially be playing catch-up.