I was fortunate enough to get to both Arsenal and Man City’s Champions’ League games during the week; City welcomed Barca on Tuesday, with Arsenal hosting current champion’s, Bayern Munich, the following evening. The stage was set for the Premier Leagues’ strongest, versus, arguably, Europe’s elite, as both English clubs had the unenviable prospect of facing opposite that have a share of nine European trophies.
Strains of the Premier League
Whilst we consider the Premier League to be the major league in the world, you cannot help ignore the factors that contribute towards it being such a entertaining league; such as the constant mental and physical challenges that make it so appealing worldwide, yet it also creates a hinderance on our team’s progress in such competitions as the UCL.
A couple of things struck me about both European superpowers. Firstly, how little they seemed to run compared to their English counterparts. And secondly, how simply they passed the ball. It’s easy to make a case for the physical data; less possession equates to more running, therefore increasing the distance both City and Arsenal covered. In addition to this, they both went down to ten with plenty of time still to play; even more running to cover the positions left by those players dismissed.
Just pass it simple!
The second point is difficult to make a case for. Short, simple, accurate passing. Why is it English sides cannot do this as well as the stronger European sides? As a player, I certainly fall foul of this, particularly getting the ball forward far too early. If you think of the British mentally towards passing, you only have to think of the unfair criticism aimed at Michael Carrick. Carrick never risks the ball, he’s often considered a negative kind of player as a result – which I strongly disagree with – because if he was a foreign player, particularly Spanish, he’d be seen in a different light. He’d certainly be honoured and appreciated for his role within the national setup, think of him as a Busquets – if anything Carrick possesses better attributes than the Spaniard in my opinion.
Curious to find a correlation between how Europe’s top sides passed the ball, I spoke with friends over at @Prozonesports and here’s their findings.
The data above, supports what I saw during both games:
- More passes per minute from Barca and Bayern
- A higher percentage of successful passes between Barca and Bayern
- Fewer forward passes, but more successful forward passes from Barca and Bayern in comparison
- However, I didn’t notice the increased number of touches per possession (2.55 vs 2.00)
In summary, Barca and Bayern passed the ball quicker, more often, shorter, simpler and more accurately than their English counterparts. I’d argue the success of both these teams is partly due to the manner in which they tire out their opponents, because the likelihood of making a mistake increases when you’re fatigued. People may argue that this data is biased based on the fact both English sides where reduced to ten men, and whilst I agree both English sides had spells within each game, in a competition over two legs, I think the percentages favour the stronger European sides.
Look at the City Barca stats here in detail. Pre and Post, Demichelis seeing red.
Lets focus on Barca. Most of their passing stats remain roughly the same before and after the red card for City. The only significant difference is the amount of passes before a shot is taken by Barca players (401.0 vs 145.4). The data also suggests Barca weren’t forceful in playing the ball forward (6 shots post sending off, we’re inside City’s area!).
Believing in your ability
The data helps to support Barca’s beliefs in their own philosophy – that keeping the ball is key to their success. There were no dramatic changes to their tactics after the sending off; other than they became more accurate and had slightly fewer touches per possession – a likely indication they were moving the ball around faster as a result of the extra space.
For me, as a player, it was a privilege to see Europe’s elite. Not once did I see players attempting to dribble past 3-4 players, doing lollipops and nutmegs. What I did see was players passing and playing simply, supporting the player in possession and not being afraid to play backwards in order to keep their team in control of the ball. It will certainly effect the way I approach the art of possession going forward as a player, now, and a potential coach for the future. Short, sharp, accurate passing is an admirable playing style that captures the essence of how football should be played, and that’s why the likes of Barca and Bayern play some of the world’s most entertaining football.
Simplicity is genius. It was my pleasure to watch these modern football genii at work.
A special thanks to everyone over at Prozone Sports for providing this week’s data.