Tiki-taka, superstars and artistry: Reviewing The History of Soccer, Week 2

Great class this week, as we just about made it to the turn of the 20th century! Seriously, I’m going to have to speed it up if we’re going to be discussing contemporary soccer issues by week 5, as I’ve intended.

Next week’s class will be divided into two parts. I’ll discuss the offside rule, address other questions about rules and take you on a quick tour of major controversies and developments to World War II, including the brief flowering of women’s soccer in England. The second half will be a presentation by journalist Ian Thomson, who is visiting North Carolina for the weekend. In a follow-up post in the next day or two, I’ll send you a chapter from Ian’s book about a colorful period of American soccer in the 1960s, and a couple of other readings.

With this post, I’d like to elaborate on a couple of topics that came up this week. This first one is kind of wonky and tactics-oriented, and the second is about Lionel Messi.

First, before I go into this tactics discussion, I want to emphasize that it is not a requirement for soccer fans to be interested in strategy. It’s perfectly fine to simply cheer for your team to win, or to applaud good plays when they occur (or, god forbid, goals). These days, I’m not much of a tactics nerd, but during the period of Barcelona’s greatest years (they are in a bit of decline right now), I was reading a lot about tactics and I also bought Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, which was published around that time.

That said, if you want to read a great blog that reviews recent European games and analyzes the tactics, your destination should be Zonal Marking. Here is ZM’s account of that thrilling 0-0 game between Chelsea and Atletico Madrid, about which the Guardian wrote that passage I read to you in class. (And be sure to check out the comments!)

Even if you haven’t the slightest interest in delving into the finer points of soccer tactics, an interesting takeaway is this: There is an egghead minority of soccer enthusiasts who enjoy dissecting tactics, and this tradition goes back at least as far as the pre-WWII cafés of Vienna and Budapest, as Wilson’s book documents.

Now, to review class (and if you’re just interested in Messi, scroll on down!): When I showed the video of Barcelona in a classic build-up to a goal, there were a couple of very good questions about the sequence. (Here it is again.)

The question came up of whether the opponent was just really poor. The opponent was, in fact, a fairly high-level one, the Brazilian club Santos (incidentally, the team with which Pelé spent most of his career). But even if Santos was significantly inferior, top European rivals like Real Madrid often play Barcelona this way, too. (The slang term for packing the defense in front of the goal while allowing the opponent to pass the ball in midfield is “parking the bus.”)

There are two main reasons why Santos’ defense seemed so passive. The first is that if they were to aggressively defend in an effort to take the ball, they would quickly tire. It’s already extremely stressful for the defenders to keep track of the constantly moving Barcelona players and the ball, and Barcelona’s midfielders, especially Xavi and Iniesta, are so skilled that it’s difficult to win the ball. The second reason is that by challenging the ball, the defense would get pulled out of its compact shape, and Barcelona would then ruthlessly exploit the open areas. I think I said this much in class, but I want to reiterate these points.

Barcelona’s style is uncanny and deceptively simple, and it seems ludicrous that a bunch of small guys tapping the ball around could be virtually unbeatable, but Barcelona was, in fact, virtually unbeatable from about 2008 to 2011 or so (the video is from 2011).

But this brings me to the most important point, which I failed to make in class: Barcelona’s style of play, which is called “tiki-taka,” is not the only effective way to play. And furthermore, there are many, many people who absolutely loathe Barcelona’s style of “death-by-a-thousand-cuts.”

Barcelona’s style is extremely well suited for its key players, Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, who all have been with the club since they were boys. But the “tiki-taka” style is also strongly associated with Pep Guardiola, who was the coach from 2008–2012. Guardiola is a former player for Barcelona, a club he joined when he was 13. Like Xavi (and Iniesta), he was a brainy midfielder.

In 2012, Guardiola resigned from Barcelona because he was burned out. After a year’s sabbatical, Guardiola was then hired by the powerful German team Bayern Munich.

This brings me to a recent Guardian article I want to share. But first, some background:

Last year, Bayern Munich was the best team in Europe, winning what is called the “treble.” The treble usually means winning three titles: the domestic league (what we call the “regular season”), the domestic cup (such as the FA Cup in England, or in Germany, the DFB-Pokal), and the continental club championship (in Europe, the UEFA Champions League). Continental treble winners are normally rare, but in Europe there have been three in the last five years, including Barcelona. (Here’s a list—note that Santos is the only team to do it in South America.)

An important point about these competitions. In international club soccer, there isn’t a divide between the regular season and the post-season. Instead, these are separate competitions that run concurrently during the season. There are no post-season playoffs as we understand them. The exception, of course, is America (and Mexico), where the seasons are organized in a way that is familiar to us, with post-season playoffs. *

The UEFA Champions League is currently at the semifinal stage. If you want to get up to speed, start here. The final is on Saturday, May 24, two days after our last class. It will likely have a television audience three times larger than the Super Bowl.

Now, to my point about Pep Guardiola and soccer tactics. He had a very tough act to follow, taking the job at Bayern Munich the year after they won the treble. It’s hard for him to do anything but disappoint, and predictably, the sniping has begun. Even though Bayern is still in a position to win a second treble, fans and journalists are complaining that he has changed Bayern Munich’s style of play. Last year, they were a fast, exciting team that sent dangerous attacks down the flanks through their wingers, Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben.

See, for example, the highlights of their crushing 7-0 victory last year in the Champions League semifinal over… Barcelona (the score was an aggregate of two games, home and away). The goal at 1:40 is particularly representative of Bayern Munich’s style, with a lightning-fast counterattack starting on the left with Ribéry, who centers the ball to a trailing Schweinsteiger, who then lays the ball off to Robben on the right, who finishes (with help from a nasty body check from Müller that the official chose to overlook).

This year, under Guardiola, Bayern Munich is passing the ball more deliberately, Barcelona-style, even though they have pretty much the same players. And not everyone is happy about it.

Here is the Guardian article.

Here is an update, added April 29: Bayern Munich was taken apart by Real Madrid in today’s second leg of the Champions League semifinal.

All of this is an attempt to demonstrate that Barcelona’s style is not the only effective way to play. I didn’t want to leave that impression. My real point was that soccer is a game of collective effort. There are stars, of course, but successful teams have to operate as a cohesive unit, with everyone understanding their roles and communicating with teammates (even across the language barriers that are common in club soccer).

And now for a brief few words on Lionel Messi, one of the world’s greatest players. I brought him up in the context of discussing player size, and how Messi is quite short. I also want to use Messi to make a point about soccer and superstars that is important for newcomers to the game to appreciate, especially in advance of the World Cup. Messi is an incredible goal scorer, as you’ll see in the video below. As of this writing, he has scored 241 goals in 273 league games for Barcelona and 37 goals in 83 games playing in international competitions for his native Argentina.

That’s a lot of goals, but notice that he scores less than one goal per game.

He scores 0.78 goals per game. That’s a phenomenal rate, but it gets at the point I’ve been stressing in this class, that expectations in soccer are different. When you turn on a Miami Heat basketball game, you expect to see Lebron James score about 25 points. When you turn on a Barcelona game, you hope you get to see Messi—or anyone—score. When you see Messi get the ball with a little bit of room to run, you hold your breath, hoping that a magical moment will occur. Sometimes he’ll score, many times he will do something momentarily thrilling that will not yield a goal. So, much of soccer is anticipation and disappointment!

Messi is all over YouTube, of course, but the video I’ve linked below is good because it’s only three and a half minutes long and it covers the arc of his career, beginning when he was 15  or so and playing for one of Barcelona’s youth teams. (You may want to mute the sound, however.)

At 0:40 you can see Messi’s first goal on the senior team. He was 17 years old, but it would take another year or so for him to claim a regular spot in the lineup. This is fairly typical for top players, to get their first taste of senior action at the age of 17 or 18. Often, they’re sent out in the last few minutes of a game, or they play in a relatively meaningless game.

On that first goal, notice that Messi receives the assist from the Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho, and then climbs on his back. Ronaldinho is an example of a player who is an artist, someone whose objective is to produce the beautiful soccer that Galeano celebrates, but despairs of finding, in Soccer in Sun and Shadow. Players like Ronaldinho are beloved by crowds, thrilling to watch but sometimes despised by people who just care about the results. (YouTube was created for people like Ronaldinho; here’s a typical highlight reel, with 11.5 million views.)

A couple of other things to notice in the Messi video. In a sport where scoring is a rare event, it’s important to be able to appreciate dazzling technique, such as the sequence that begins at :25, a brilliant bit of ball control in a crowd of defenders that ends in an exquisite pass into a dangerous area.

And starting at 1:15, there are good examples of Messi’s most outstanding talent, being able to run at top speed with full control of the ball. Notice how the ball seemingly doesn’t leave his feet as he runs.

And notice that a number of these dazzling highlights don’t produce goals!

Here’s the video.

* It is true that most foreign soccer leagues have a post-season playoff phase for the purpose of determining who gets promoted to the next league. However, promotion playoffs are not considered a competition for a championship. The champion has already been determined and doesn’t have to participate in the playoff.

My team, FC United of Manchester, won its game this morning, but so did first-place Chorley. This means we will have to be in the playoffs, which we’re disappointed about. We’ve lost in the playoff final three years in a row!

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