The Possession Kings Do Battle

The biggest game of piggy in the middle is set to take place

The possession kings of world football (soccer) are set to do battle again in the Champions League as Barcelona face off with Arsenal in the return leg at the Camp Nou. Tuesday, March 8, 2011: Barcelona v. Arsenal at the Camp Nou


Both teams own the highest possession per game average in their respective leagues this year.

Yes, you read that right, 75% of the time a Barcelona player has the ball at their feet during La Liga games this season. Last year, Barcelona finished the year with a possession time average of 68%.

Here’s a quote from a story about Pep Guardiola in the Guardian, talking about Barcelona’s ability to hold on to the ball:

“Barcelona are the only team that defend with the ball; the only team that rests in possession,” Juan Manuel Lillo says (Almeria manager). “They keep the ball so well, they move so collectively, that when you do get it back, you’re tired, out of position and they’re right on top of you.” Lillo knows: his Almería side were defeated 8-0 by Barcelona.

How did the possession time stack up in the first leg of the Champions League match at the Emirates Stadium? Arsenal had just 34% possession and Barcelona 66%, even though the Gunners won the match 2-1. A higher possession total doesn’t equate to wins, necessarily.

Xavi spoke of how important ‘rondos’ are to Barcelona’s style of play. Rondos being the game ‘piggy in the middle’. The game which is often just a fun warm up game for many a team across the world. It’s a simple drill: a group of players keep the ball away from one player in the middle, the pig.

For Barcelona, the keep away game is still of course fun, since they always have the ball, but it’s also a bit more serious, as it’s the foundation of their style of play.

So, when the kings of possession do battle, who’s going to spend the most time in the middle as the piggy? And, will it matter, or will the team with less possession time win again?

Arsenal is often referred to as Barcelona-lite or a younger, newer version of Barcelona. Although it’s a fitting comparison in many ways, as they both love to share the ball with quick, short passes in the tiki taka style, but no team can match Barcelona’s collective ability on the ball.

Both teams do have an extraordinary central midfielder triumvirate, Barcelona with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, and Arsenal with Fabregas, Nasri, and Wilshere. And, interestingly, all these players don’t stand taller than 5 feet 7 inches. But that’s another article. If the height thing says anything it’s that skill is the most important thing in soccer.

The three midfielder maestros are the players who maintain control of the ball for their teams, as the ball moves in and out of these players feet throughout the match. Most certainly, the one player who gets the most touches or has the most time on the ball for Barcelona it is Xavi and then it’s Cesc Fabregas for Arsenal. These two players are the wizards for their teams and the possession game hinges on their ability to control the game.

Here’s another quote from the Guardian article talking about Barcelona’s possession game:

The top nine passers in La Liga are all Barcelona players. But that is not just an attacking option, it is a defensive one too. “There is no rule like in basketball that says you have to hand over possession or shoot after a certain amount of time, so ‘attack’ and ‘defence’ don’t exist,” Lillo says. Not in Barcelona’s model. Barcelona attack to defend; when they lost to Arsenal, Guardiola was angry with Alves not for attacking too much but for attacking badly. That Barcelona lost because they were caught up the pitch is one reading; Guardiola’s reading is that had they scored they would not have been caught on the break.

What does it say about the game of soccer today when two of the best teams in the world favor a style of play where the ball is kept on the ground and played in and out and through opposing defenses in swirling triangles that make other teams nearly dizzy as the ball moves from midget maestro to midget maestro, rather than playing a more direct style of soccer?

I think it says that skill and touch on the soccer ball wins out in the end.

And it’s not just the three midfielders who possess incredible skill and ability on the ball. No, in order to play the tiki taka style of possession soccer every player on the team must have good skill and touch on the ball. Otherwise, the style of play is lost and the possession time will plummet.

So, the key to being able to play this way is having defenders like Dani Alves and Eric Abidal and Bacary Sagna and Alex Song. Players who can attack as well as defend. Actually, it’s about having players who don’t lose the ball so you don’t have to defend as much, not matter what position they play.

The defenders for both Arsenal and Barcelona are players who want the ball at their feet almost as much as the central midfielders like Xavi and Fabregas. But they know their role, and so they give the ball to the maestros so they can run the show.

“We play in the other team’s half as much as possible because I get worried when the ball is in my half,” Pep Guardiola says. “We’re a horrible team without the ball so I want us to get it back as soon as possible and I’d rather give away fouls and the ball in their half than ours.” The stats bear that out: Dani Alves makes the fourth highest number of touches in the opposition half in La Liga. He is a full-back. Typically, only the two centre-backs and the goalkeeper spend more than 50% of the game in their own half.

I guess to keep the ball like Barcelona and Arsenal do, what it gets down to, along with players possessing incredible technical skill, is for each player to know and accept their role in the team.

At times however, both teams and their style of play are questioned in a way, for not taking shots when they are near or in around the goal. This is the case more so with Arsenal of late, since Barcelona won the Champions League and La Liga in recent years, and Arsenal haven’t won a trophy in four or five.

But this is the beauty of the passing style of play, just this past week, as Theo Walcott cut inside you thought surely he was going to shoot after he sliced through the Barcelona defense. Instead, the ball was slipped to Fabregas, who lifted the ball up and over a defender to Van Persie who nearly scored at the near post. It’s always one more pass with these teams.

And that’s why it’s fun to watch these two teams play, with their passing carousel style of play, as Alex Ferguson called it, because just when you think they are going to shoot, they pass once more and nearly walk in on goal. It’s just fun to watch. They almost tease, tempt, and try to embarrass the teams they play against. If you watched the most recent El Clasico, where Barcelona thrashed Real Madrid 5-0, it certainly did seem like Barcelona wanted to make a point.

With all this possession, it would be interesting to see how this effects the fitness level of opposing teams. Teams facing Barcelona must get tired chasing the ball around the field. And, they too must get very frustrated. I’d like to see some stats on the number of yellow and red cards versus Barcelona and Arsenal compared to playing against other teams.

In the end, for me, this is the way the game of soccer should be played, with quick and sharp one and two touch passing.

However, is Barcelona missing something. A forward who can score in the air and is a target player so they can play long balls if they get behind? Barcelona playing long balls? I doubt it. When pigs fly.

Is Arsenal missing something? A tougher and more physical personality, one that will help them win those big matches in the English Premier League?

For not, it’s all about keeping the ball away from the other team, and this Tuesday, the experts in the art of keep away face off once more. Can’t wait.