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Different tactical systems mean different duties for individual players

October 23rd, 2012 SB Tang No comments

Earlier tonight, I wrote during the second half of the Barcelona v Celtic Champions League group game at the Camp Nou:

Where was Song (Barca’s only nominal holding midfielder) in that 2 v 2 Celtic counter-attack which Wanyama fluffed!?

It was left to poor Xavi to hare back to support the two exposed Barca centre-backs. The man’s got enough on his mind, what with his symphony orchestra conducting duties and all …

In response, a gentleman named Dave Konopka emailed The Guardian to say:

I love how SB Tang apparently thinks that Song “holds” or otherwise plays defense. As a loyal Arsenal fan, I can tell you with absolute certainty that three things will happen whenever Alexandre Song plays. 1) He will play at least one incredibly incisive pass. 2) He will never be in position to break up a counter-attack. 3) He will commit a lot of fouls. This is why Arsenal are playing better defensively after selling Song, even if Arteta is far from a prototypical defensive midfielder.

Unfortunately, The Guardian didn’t have time to publish my response to Mr Konopka so here it is in full:

Dear Mr Konopka

Um, yeah mate, I reckon we’re in agreement — my point was that Song isn’t actually performing his function in this Barca side as the one and only holding midfielder, hence my reference to him as “Barca’s only nominal holding midfielder”.

Arsenal’s tactical system last season and this season is slightly different from Barca’s.

Arsenal typically play a midfield triangle with a deeper-lying two man base (last season it was any two of Arteta, Song, Ramsey, Frimpong or Coquelin) and only one more advanced creative midfielder (this season: Cazorla, Cazorla and, if Cazoral ever gets injured, a life-size cardboard cut-out of Happy Gilmore) supporting their lone striker, so Song could afford to lope forward and play his trade mark scoop passes for Van Persie to volley home. (As a Liverpool fan, Van Persie’s volley at Anfield still gives me cold sweats at night.)

By contrast, at Barca, Song is expected to play centre-back or function as the one and only nominal holding midfielder in their central midfield triangle which typically features two (you know who) playing high.

In short, different tactical systems mean different duties for individual players.

Cheers

SB

From Underacheivers to Overwhelming Favorites: What Could a World Cup Win Do for Spain?

June 16th, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments

As Spain prepares to take on Switzerland on Wednesday, the world is abuzz with anticipation.

Not only are Spain joint favorites with Brazil, but the tournament needs the Spanish team like a fish needs water. After one of the drabbest opening rounds in memory, fans everywhere are looking for reasons as to why things are so awful this time round. The long European season, the austral winter, the security concerns and the stress it creates, the ultra-defensive attitudes, and the worst ball in history that was still round: the Jabulani. Thanks, adidas, for a World Cup with no shots on goal.

The prospect of the Spanish team being true to its image, thus, serves as a necessary riposte from the otherwise disappointing level of play seen so far. The Spaniards seem to be on the rise, even considering their incredible record winning and unbeaten streaks, as well as their scintillating win at Euro 2008.

Having seen the Brazilians struggle to beat North Korea 2-1, the Spanish side brings a promise of a real jogo bonito. The coach, Vicente del Bosque, seems more than likely to be faithful to their image of artful prodigies of world football. Despite coming off the success of 2008, the 2010 squad is one that is still tremendously youthful and not bound to the stereotypical cynicism associated with defending champs who refuse to sacrifice anything in their bid to retain. With enough talent to build two squads, it is easy to forget that Spanish football itself is defined by its strict divisions, often with its bitter political roots.

In the case of this current squad, there is a strong base along the Real Madrid-Barcelona line, with as many as 9 starters featuring from these two banner teams. At the same time, there is also a significant infusion from other Spanish teams such as Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla, not to mention the small but brilliant British contingent in Torres and Fabregas. It is a team filled with Catalans and madrileños, with Basques from Guipúzcoa and Vizcaya, with stars from La Mancha and the Canary Islands.

This diversity of linguistic-ethnic groups has long been associated with an underperformance of the Spanish national team at big tournaments. However, Euro 2008 showcased a side that seemed to be driven much more by professional, global ambition, than by regional differentiation. The team was able to assembe around a single footballing language that made sense not only to them, but to the world.

Laurent Dubois, an avid football fan and historian at Duke University, speaks about the idea of football and the French empire in the 20th century, his study Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France culminating with a discussion of the impact of the World Cup triumph of 1998 on society and politics. Among other things, the triumph (and the run) of the epic ‘98 French team generated a maelstrom of political and social debate that went down to the bone of French identity.

The fact that the team was composed of an unprecedented mix of ethnic backgrounds, mostly descending from the French colonies, was a source of contention during their famous run. At the same time, the French victory created a platform for unification, in which the idea of France gloriously embraced post-colonial realities. A once homogeneous identity became multicolored, and under its figurehead Zinedine Zidane, son of Algerian immigrants, realized the possibilities of a truly race-less society.

And yet, Soccer Empire also brings up the question of how long such a feelgood moment lasts before society reverts to its previous patterns, moving on to other, perhaps more immediate concerns.

In the Spanish case, it would be fascinating to see how the politics of autonomous communites play out alongside the progress of the national team. What would happen to the vociferously separatist contingents from the Basque Country and Catalonia? More importantly, what would happen in terms of the public opinion of the masses who follow football, whose opinions are not always represented by their most vocal politicians even in areas with anti-Spanish nationalist ambitions?

Unification seems like a naïve ideal, especially in the context of what many will consider merely a sport, a diversion. Nonetheless, one cannot negate the reality that this sport is a phenomenon resulting from innumberable cultural conditions, and is an important part of the social fabric, occupying not just stadiums, but imaginations and everything that derives from that. Ideas about masculinty, sex, discipline, beauty, violence, and so forth, pass through and are perpetuated by the global game.

For the Spanish team, while we cannot predict the impact they will have on politics and society in general in Spain should they do well, we can certainly know for sure that a deep Spanish run will certainly bring the footballing public a great deal of joy.

Press roundup: Messi can lead to divorce, Cristiano Ronaldo “greater than Messi,” England looks to the “clásico;” Dani Alves on life and literature

April 9th, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments
  • According to Barcelona’s SPORT, the appropriately named Bigboy Cheverevere, a South African football fan rushing back home to watch the Barcelona-Arsenal match, caused quite the spat when he arrived to find his stepsons watching something other than football. The ensuing melee resulted in the channel being changed and the police being called by his wife, Grace, who is intent on divorcing her Messi-obsessed husband.
  • Cristiano Ronaldo has unsurprisingly claimed that he is bigger than Messi. Indeed, he admits, he is not only taller, but wider than him.
  • The English Imperial Press, much like its Spanish Nationalist Cousins, are wont to admit that the accomplishments of another nation’s league could usurp their own. Though when it comes to the “clásico,” they won’t miss a moment to do some reconnaissance on their lesser continental neighbors. From the Guardian to the Times, a smattering of paraphernalia in preparation for Saturday’s Big One.
  • A curiously compelling interview with Brazil and Barcelona’s Dani Alves from The Guardian’s Man in Spain Sid Lowe, in which they discuss greatness, literature, and Wayne Rooney.

Anti-Spaniards for Spain: Irony, Terrorism, and La Roja

February 19th, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments

The whole army of Spanish media outlets has been splashed with this bit of news, regarding the facebook page of suspected ETA members–ETA being, for those unfamiliar with Spain, the Basque separatist-terrorist group responsible for thousands of acts of violence since their establishment during the Franco dictatorship. From sports dailies such as AS to Marca, to dailies such as El Mundo and even regional papers like La Voz de Galicia, most everyone had a shot at this piece.

The story stems from a photo on a facebook profile of one of the suspected terrorists, Jon Rosales, along with another suspected member, Adur Aristegi, in which both are wearing new Spanish national team jerseys and are posing with a third person also wearing the jersey. Underneath the image, a comment from Rosales saying “WE CAN DO IT” ["Podemos"].

The intrigue begins at the hour of deciding upon whom the joke has actually fallen. The mainstream media seems to interpret the situation as a one showcasing the comical ineptitude of modern-day ETA. The fact that terrorists would have facebook pages is being presented as a hallmark of the stupidity of the terrorists (though we really know that we should be suspicious of those amongst us who don’t have a facebook page).

I lament the fact that so many of the aforementioned media sources overlook the richest piece of evidence here: the photo itself. In it, the two suspects appear to be having fun–whether they are aware of their irony or not. Are they cheering for Xabi Alonso? Reveling in the glorious past of the Clemente era, when Spain were coached by a proud and impossibly red-faced chain smoker who happened to be Basque?

Javier Clemente, from AS.com

Those of us who remember the Clemente era will now light up in a frenzy of conspiracy theories. Maybe ETA long-ago penetrated the “Roja”in an attempt to sabotage Spain’s chances in the World Cup? Of course! That would explain Spain’s ignominious 1998 failure at the hands (literally) of Andoni Zubizaretta (cue similarities with Fabianski’s own goal yesterday). And the absence of Basques in the Euro 2008 starting lineup would explain why Spain did so well (though this aspect invites the possibility of a Catalan conspiracy to take over Spain through it’s tiki taka football).

Back to the photo: so are they being sarcastic here? If so, this is a pretty long way to go to be sarcastic. Walking into a store, befriending the clerk, trying on jerseys, all at the same time (what coordination!), hamming it up for the camera. It seems like one of those jokes that is intrinsically sick because it is more the playing out of a true fantasy than the dismissal of some idea (in this case, that Basque separatists could secretly love Spain).

And even more questions: did they actually end up buying the jerseys? (I wonder if ETA would fund such a thing in such economic times when the pirated versions are so much cheaper). Even more importantly, do ETA followers cheer for Xabi Alonso (a native Guipozcoan) when he plays for the national team?

Finally, it is worth mentioning one paper that didn’t include the news on the front page: Sport. Their headline: Guardiola wants to coach the national team. Which one? Well, Sport says loud and clear, he doesn’t say!

Guardiola in Sport

Guardiola in Sport

Coincidence or not: the people who arrested the ETA members were, of course, Catalans from the mossos, Catalunya’s regional, autonomous police force.

Discuss!

Categories: European Football, La Liga Tags:

Symbolic Coaches, Porn Singers, and the Men in White

October 6th, 2009 Joaquin Bueno No comments

Has Raymond Domenech become a mere symbol as France’s national team coach?

That is what people are wondering, as France reaches do-or-die time in the struggle to obtain a World Cup playoff berth. Much-criticized French coach Raymond Domenech has been more than under fire since as far back as 2006, when a resurgent Zidane, along with fellow veterans Thuram, Makelele, Vieira, et al, led France to the final. What followed was the all-too telling moment when Zidane’s headbutt and dismissal led to the crumbling of any French hope.

Domenech has had bust-ups with a number of major players through the years, and has, to understate things, a poor sense of timing (at some point it was discussed here that he proposed to his girlfriend on live tv after France’s humiliating elimination from Euro ‘08). There appears to be a perpetual coaching void, as the French Federation has inexplicably kept 100% faith in him despite a lack of good results, poor form, and the lack of support from fans, star players, and subs alike.

A recent Guardian article goes so far as to call Domenech a “puppet” coach. Just a day before, the same paper reported Henry saying the team had no direction. Now Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema is joining in on the fun, putting his lack of motivation on display.

A sigh of relief for Domenech as the very latest buzz about him has to do with a new hit song–starring him as the theme. Former porn star turned rocker Catherine Ringer sings about him in Je kiffe Raymond (“I fancy Raymond”). You can read more on that here. Interestingly, she sings that “one golden result” and everyone will love him again. Naturally, we can’t read her mind to tell if she is being serious or facetious.

Returning to Benzema, he is not to be contented with disrespecting authority on the international level. He evidently had a hissy fit upon being substituted against Sevilla in Real Madrid’s 2-1 loss at the weekend. He took a moment to rant against Raúl González, long-time Madrid golden boy, and Manuel Pellegrini, the Madrid coach. Evidently he believes he should play 100% of the time, no matter how badly he is doing. And he was pretty bad on Sunday.

And back to the idea of the puppet coach. Everyone knows that Real Madrid have set records this summer in money spent on Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, Benzema, Xabi Alonso, and Raúl Albiol. Naturally, the president, construction magnate of shady associations Florentino Pérez, wants all of his new toys on display alongside a symbol of madridismo such as Raúl (remember his old policy, quite ridiculed, of Zidanes and Pavones?).

Sadly for anyone hoping that real football could emerge here, an excellent coach is being exposed as a mere puppet. Pellegrini, a Chilean, guided modest club Villarreal FC, with little history and hailing from a town of a mere 48,000 people, to unprecedented heights. In his time there, he led them to high-table finishes and Champions’ League appearances (including a semifinals appearance), playing some of the best team football in Spain and Europe. Of course, he did so as a true coach, exerting authority where needed, even exiling the Villarreal superstar Juan Román Riquelme back to Argentina for insubordination. He has already been called in for a “special meeting” with his bosses, the Sporting Director and Director General of Madrid. That must be very comforting for a coach, to know that his bosses care so much about him that they want to “help him find out what went wrong,” since it is obviously his fault.

We shall see what transpires at Real Madrid, a club with a history of firing even coaches who win major titles (Jupp Heynckes got the axe after winning the CL in ‘98, Vicente Del Bosque got the axe the day after winning the title [he coached Madrid to 2 Champions' Leagues]).

What is certain is that Benzema might be hoping for the same influence for France that players get to wield at Real Madrid. And of course, it is pretty clear that such a thing is not always good for football.

Categories: La Liga, World Cup Tags:

The Transparent Sergio Ramos Returns to Sevilla: An Argument Against Bad Defenders

October 5th, 2009 Joaquin Bueno No comments

Wow, what a game. Interesting, a friend of mine, a big Premier League follower and Arsenal fan, was not impressed by what he called a “sloppy game.” To the contrary! I observed an intentionally open game, thanks to Sevilla’s tactical plan. Rather than sloppiness, I observed a directness that is characteristic of the best Spanish football, one that is arrived at through carefully executed strategy. “Vertical” backs, fast play down the wing via Perotti and Navas (Lord, let him overcome his travel fears), deadly finishing from players like Luis Fabiano (who surprisingly did not score), deep runs from the holding midfielders.

Perhaps with Him (TM) on the field, things would have been different for Real Madrid, though it might have created a total kamikaze match, with black jerseys trying to keep up with the galloping Portuguese and white jerseys hitting break after break. Sevilla were simply hungry. And good.

One thing that probably merits some more attention is the sheer inadequacy of Sergio Ramos to deputize in any defensive capacity. Attackers pass through him like ghosts (much like through Marcelo) and leave him with a horse-like expression of blankness on virtually every attack. In Euro 2008, almost every goal Spain allowed was through a Sergio Ramos error (see the ‘09 Confederations Cup as well).

Against Sevilla, former club of his heart, he might as well have sat on the sidelines, munching pipas, drinking at the botellón, catching up with his cani pals from Er Barrio. Truth be told, it seems like the only time when he actually looked good was when he played with Sevilla, where he floated from a central defensive role to come forward and join the wing-attacks as an occasional target man.

Which brings me back to the annoying pigeonholing of footballers today–players being kept in positions as if they were genetically determined to be, say, right attacking fullbacks, or left-sided holding midfielders. I put part of the blame of Sergio Ramos’s sloppy mistakes upon his coaches and others who are unable to envision him in other spots on the field. Why not unleash him in midfield to take advantage of his speed and attacking tenacity? Give him some chances to defend but don’t count on him as a “defender?”

In the end I think this tendency in football to not demand versatility from all players is a sad mistake. For Real Madrid and Spain fans, I think that, naturally, this is going to result in many more sad mistakes from Sergio Ramos.

As a bizarre anecdote to conclude these musings, the GolTV Spanish language announcers went on a somewhat homophobic rant about Sergio Ramos allegedly posing for a Spanish gay magazine, Shangay. I would say that this is a rather progressive move by football to enter into every possible market.

Categories: La Liga Tags: , ,

Johan Cruyff, total football, and total nationalism

October 2nd, 2009 Joaquin Bueno No comments

When Spain won Euro 2008, “tiki’taka” became a popular buzz word in the Spanish sports press. They were referring to the selección’s style of quick, short, incisive passes–a possession game based on high-pressure in the midfield and near the opposing area, a defense playing far forward, a style based on control and calculated effort.

In fact, this style, as we could intuit from footage of World Cup ‘74, has many similarities to the Dutch style that was christened as “total football” and honed by Rinus Michels and the great Johan Cruyff. Indeed, Cruyff went to Barcelona in 1973, and his legacy there involves his identification with the Catalan cause, one of resentment towards the dictator Franco and his Spanish nationalist politics. By 1973, Franco was of ill health, and the question of succession and continuation of the dictatorship was raised; the political climate was increasingly tense. You could imagine the statement Cruyff made when he named his son Jordi, a Catalan name, as well as the name of Catalonia’s patron saint.

His legacy did not end as a player–he led Barcelona to  their first title in 14 years in just his first season. He also came back as a coach in 1988, and went on to become their most successful coach, leading them to their first Champions League (then known as the European Cup). Though he left in acrimonious circumstances, bearing the dislike of an unpopular president and vowing never to coach again, a seed was planted in Barcelona–one of total football.

Though total football is in many ways impossible to completely define, many of its modern characteristics have to do with the “Barcelona” school of playing, a philosophy that  extends beyond the stadium as well. Extensive youth set-ups, an important inheritance from the Dutch, play a major role; FC Barcelona even has its own boarding school, La Masía, for young players. Fans can be owners (socios) and participate in club elections. It is a model of self-sufficiency, what you might call sustainability–rather than having sponsors, they might be the only team in the world that pays their charity “sponsors” (UNICEF).

In 2009, as in 2006, Barcelona’s tiki-taka total football won the Champions’ League in style, often overcoming physical, fast, and direct teams with the dizzying, controlling style favored by Cruyff and his own former coach Michels. The style is identified as central to Barcelona’s otherness. Rather than buy galácticos, they “make” them through a system that launches individual brilliance while maintaining tactical unity. Messi is a perfect example of this, while pillars of the team such as Xavi have consistently been some of the world’s best players. Now we can talk about the dynamic Iniesta, the much-maligned yet steadfast Víctor Valdés, or a player dubbed “Piquenbauer” thanks to his silky defending and willingness to attack, Gerard Piqué.

Interestingly, the coach of the current team, Josep Guardiola, was a pupil of Cruyff’s, and was a central figure in the ‘92 team. 1992 was, as an aside, year of the Barcelona olympics, launching Barcelona, and Catalunya, into the world’s consciousness. Barcelona continues to be, as it was in the Franco years, a symbol of Catalan difference, a bastion of “resistance” to the centralist option of Real Madrid, “mes que un club,” as they say.

In 2008, the tiki-taka, its foundations well put down by Cruyff and company, went to Europe, as the backbone of the Spanish national team featured Barcelona players. Xavi was the midfield reference and was named player of the tournament, with decisive assists (including one for Fernando Torres in the final) and leading possesion splendidly. Carles Puyol had the summer of his life in the center of the defense. Andrés Iniesta was a catalyst for Spanish attacks–producing the type of displays that have led people as different as Wayne Rooney and World Cup-winning Argentine coach Cesar Luis Menotti to call him the best player in the world. In the post-2008 era we can count on Gerard Piqué, already the leader of the Spanish defense, as well as the maturing Sergio Busquets to be important starters on theselección. And it’s only a matter of time before younger stars like Pedrito make their impact internationally (let’s also not forget ex-Barça players such as Francesc Fábregas).

Mes que un club: “More than just a club,” a way of life, a system. And to think: the 2009 Champions’ League winning team was the first Barcelona team to do it, without a single Dutchman on the field.

Categories: La Liga Tags: