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Anti-Football: The cure for FC Barcelona

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Inter Milan and Chelsea. Perhaps you’ve heard of them. They are the winners of two of the three most recent Champions Leagues titles. Furthermore, they have attained fame because of their defensive exploits in taming the ferocious footballing powerhouse that is Barcelona on their way to claiming European glory.

The Blaugrana are heroes and innovators to those who have a different vision of football. Bus drivers, bus parkers, anti-football squads to all those that love FC Barcelona’s passing game. But who is right or wrong in this argument?

In my opinion none are wrong. Football is football, and every approach that leads you to a result is commendable.

This week’s villain according to the Barcelona faithful is AC Milan. A traditional European powerhouse who through disciplined defending made FC Barcelona look mundane and achieved a shocking 2-0 result in the first leg of their double header in the UEFA Champions League knockout round.

Judging by pure game statistics, FC Barcelona should have won. But Milan with their (negative) approach, achieved the result they longed for. Something that is all too familiar now to Blaugrana faithful.

Anti-football indeed seems to be the route, the path, the way, to beat FC Barcelona. Its effectiveness cannot be denied. Almost every side, be it a European giant like AC Milan, to relative Champions League minnows Celtic has used disciplined defending to defeat usurp Barcelona.

Simply put, it works! It’s effective! And, it gets results!

milan celebrate Anti Football: The cure for FC Barcelona

FC Barcelona has no answer when it encounters a side hell-bent on enforcing such tactics. Their passing slows, they don’t create spaces, they gets few if any shots, and are successful put to the sword on the counter attack.

Anti-football, as it is referred to, is a tactic.

It’s a tactic that can work against any team but is made famous for working so well against FC Barcelona.

Who can blame them really?

To win a game you must play to your strengths. Hence, defensive football is what teams who can’t match FC Barcelona on an even playing field choose to employ. They play to their strengths and play to FC Barcelona’s weakness, the counter attack.

Thus far, it’s produced stunning and shocking results. It will continue to do so. Why fix something that is not broken and works just fine, in this case achieving victory through parking the bus?

Defensive football is not outlawed by the rules of the game. It’s not much of a show, but it’s a means to an end. An end that is very much worth the sacrifice to play defensive football and secure progression in the UEFA Champions League.

Don’t agree?

iniesta milan Anti Football: The cure for FC Barcelona

Ask any AC Milan fan how they feel right now and compare it to how a Barcelona fan feels. These days defensive football is the only way to get a result against the best footballing side on the planet.

For every tactic there is a counter-tactic. One would figure that after the mistakes made at Inter Milan and Chelsea, FC Barcelona had figured out how to overcome defensive football, but they haven’t.

The reason being is that FC Barcelona stays true to their style and feels they are the better team. But tactical, they are not. FC Barcelona pride themselves on not just winning, but winning in style – by playing football the right way.

Put on a show for the spectators, entertain the masses, come out the hero to be praised and admired. But in always trying to entertain, FC Barcelona forget that in this game, the result is what matters most. No one cares about a show, no one cares how you won, they only care that you did.

In this game sometimes a clean victory isn’t possible. Sometimes you must do what it takes to achieve victory.

By keeping true to their style, FC Barcelona play defensive teams to a disadvantage. Barcelona plays open, risks everything, and loses everything, by keeping true to their style against a defensively organized squad.

Sometimes, style must be forsaken, one must change what one does wrong, to ultimately do something right.

FC Barcelona are playing straight into the jaws of defeat by continuing to approach these games with the same style and naivety as if they were playing at the Camp Nou on a Saturday night against a La Liga bottom feeder.

One can’t play everyone the same way. Most teams only play defensive when they face FC Barcelona.

Look at Chelsea, Inter Milan, AC Milan, week-in and week-out they play attractive football. They can play well. But to achieve results under very specific circumstances, say, facing FC Barcelona in a two-legged knockout Champions League tie, they sacrifice everything for the result.

FC Barcelona on the other hand isn’t doing the same.

messi milan Anti Football: The cure for FC Barcelona

FC Barcelona must adapt. They must sacrifice style. There is no shame in defending. There is no shame in meeting defense with defense. There is no shame in a 0-0 draw. Their fans won’t protest. It’s not like FC Barcelona will adopt that as their permanent way of play.

One must meet the opposing team on an equal playing field. To do so, FC Barcelona must play defensive. There is no way around it. If FC Barcelona doesn’t they will continue to suffer these type of humiliating and humbling defeats.

If Barcelona is to turn around what seems to be an insurmountable result against this AC Milan side in the return leg they cannot be the usual Barcelona. They can’t come out gun ho and attempt to outplay them.

If they are to have any hope of progressing they must defend once they have secured two goals to ensure extra-time and opt to employ a counter-attacking strategy.

If Milan is desperate enough they will come out to play in an attempt to win. It’s a big if, because the draw seems buried and a favorable result seems difficult for Barcelona to achieve at this point.

But if they do manage by some miracle to get back into the tie, they must hold on, and play defensive. Like they say, if you can’t beat them join them. If the result is in your favor joining them means being equal, means getting the victory.

Nothing is more appalling than to write this, considering that FC Barcelona went 2-0 against Chelsea at the Camp Nou in last Champions League season, the result in hand, and still playing the same. Only to succumb to two Chelsea counter attacks and eventual elimination.

Had they just sat back Chelsea would’ve opened up looking for a way back into the tie and perhaps Barcelona would counter with another goal.

This is AC Milan’s tie to lose, but if by a miracle, Barcelona achieve a result, they must change their ways to hold onto it. As it stands, AC Milan came out with a brilliant, effective approach. One that cures them of the ailment known as FC Barcelona for at least a few weeks, if not for the season.

As for FC Barcelona, football is like life, life designs every living thing in such a way to assure its survival. FC Barcelona must adapt or face extinction as a footballing powerhouse.

Football is a beautiful sport and Barcelona probably play it the most beautifully, but sometimes the beast that is defensive football is needed if beauty cannot win the day.


You can follow Jose on Twitter @BlaugranaJ.

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Comments (11)

  1. So playing quickly on the counter is anti-football, but keeping the ball just in front of the centre circle for ages for no reason is beautiful? That’s an amusing point of view.

    • Well when you set up 11 men behind the ball I guess you can say anti football to a degree but I know Milan play well, and are you trying to say Barcelona don’t play beautiful football, because if you are you are clueless

  2. Quite an interesting point of view but i dont agree with Barca having to change. The problem is that a team like Milan were happy to defend and play on the counter (and played it exceptionally well against Barca) then what do Barca do? Milan were happy for them to have loads of possession and keep the ball and sit deep. Therefore Barca cannot themselves adopt counter attacking football, you can’t have both teams defending at the same time. Barca will always have lots of possession and push teams back which means there players will be far more advanced on the pitch which will leave them open to counter but remember, most teams are very very defensive and there players have to cover a lot of ground to get onto the counter against barca.
    You have to remember as well, most of Barca’s opponents mostly defend and Barca still manage to win the majority of there games. Barca can’t win every game all the time, Milan’s plan worked, on another night it might not of and we wouldnt have had this article. Barca can’t win everything all the time, they will lose games, its because they are SO good people think that one lost game like this that something isn’t right.

    • I agree–Barca didn’t lose mainly because of their style. The only credit the style has for the loss is that Barca wasted too much time building possession play from the back when most of both the teams were comfortably positioned in Milan’s half. I feel like the 1-0 away loss to Chelsea may have influenced them to play as defensively as they did at the beginning.

      I think they lost mainly because their substitute manager is way inferior tactically to either Pep or Vilanova. Fabregas should be been subbed for Sanchez way earlier. Pep encourages counterattacking when teams bunker and Vilanova like beginning games attacking.

  3. Just because AC Milan had the tactical ingenuity of freezing out Barcelona doesn’t mean it’s anti-football. Is another style of football which is dismissed as negative in the British media (although man utd did the same against Real Madrid).

    Tactics have always been an extremely integral part of football, and it just so happens that Italian football is the master when it comes to tactics. So please, explain to me how carefully studying your opposition prior t the game is anti-football?

    You probably all think that lobbing the ball towards attack and running your hearts out is beautiful football, or the tiki taka approach of Barcelona is beautiful. Keep in mind that brawns are not the only thing required to succeed in sport.

  4. I’m a Mourinhoista who likes to see Barca lose (though I like Barca as well somehow), but Barca’s defeat to Milan is easily the most impressive one I’ve seen since 2009. It was particularly impressive because Milan DID NOT use a counter or contain strategy as their dominant means for beating them like Madrid/Chelsea/Inter have. They used a control or defend strategy coupled with counterattacks.

    There were 2 keys Milan exploited-the high positions of the fullbacks, and keeping possession of the ball under high pressing.

    The high fullback positions is a result of Barca not having good in-form wingers on the team, so they often rely on Alves/Alba to stretch play and cross the ball. This recent narrowness suits Italian teams who don’t like wide attacks in the first place. Because the wingbacks were in attack, Milan kept pumping the ball to and attacking down the flanks.

    The second feature was more surprising-the composed possession play of Milan–since this is a feature typically associated with Barca and Dortmund. When Barca press a team hard, they usually force a mislaid pass or a clearance that returns possession to them. Milan instead reacted to the pressing by slowing the game, keeping the ball more, and passing short. This style of passing allows midfields to control the game, and to me this is the main reason Milan were able to keep a clean sheet without being overly defensive.

    • so your a hater of the beautiful game

      • The ‘beautiful game’ isn’t something trademarked by Barca. Football has seen several styles, and for me the most beautiful game is where teams play the right style and tactics at the right time. This implies versatility in the game–something the uncompromising Barcelona refuse to apply at a major scale.

        Possession football was improved by Barca, but direct attacking, counterattacking, defending, and the control game have been improved by other teams.

  5. you can win all you want with anti football it’s still boring. Boring football will only kill the sport

  6. Thank you brian and gary you guys have contributed nicely and i’ll keep this short.
    One thing people fail to realise during analysis is that playing a defensive game isn’t good for team synergy in the long term, knowing that the same competetion is to come just in another season, lets take a brief look at teams who have placed winning the trophy just once above consistence and performance.. Inter milan, chelsea.. It is only normal to see this not maintain their level if indeed they were diserved champions, havn’t said that. Football will become a mess in the near future if we encourage a defensive play over attacking, take a deeper look to see that cowardice employ defensive style as it require little or no work. Now what we have today is some set of average teams coming into the competion hoping to defend only to win the trophy and not be able to compete in another season just because they fail to develop team work to achieve the win while maintaining their consistency like what we’ve seen in barca, bayern and dotmund of late. Its football antics because the purpose of football is gradually dieing.. And that is entertainment and competion, now we have a set of 9 able me waiting behind and hoping to bat the ball forward like its a lawn tennis game, all because they can’t fuse a set of pass to one other, its anti-football, its bad for the sport! Think of the future!

    • This is just ideology. The prior advent of catenaccio in Italy by powerhouse teams is disproof of the ego & teamwork claim. Not only are you wrong on this, the entire history of football has been a story of quicker developments in attacking than defending.

      Go watch the two legs of the Man Utd/Real Madrid tie from 2003 which ended on a 6-5 scoreline to see both great attacking and shit defending. It may have been as entertaining as it gets, but from an analytic pov it’s an embarrassment because the winner was not convincingly superior and it’s a scoreline which implies a lack of strategy.

      Barca has a reputation now as an attacking team, but in the first 2 Pep years they had great defensive balance as well. They only gained this reputation of attack covering the defense because Barca refused to buy defensive cover as their defenders aged, something they haven’t allowed as much with their attack or midfield.

      Also don’t discredit the recent developments in defending, which often reflect aspects applied in attacking adapted for defensive purposes. In attack training has emphasized teamwork for improved fluidity and dropping out of the attacking zones to help the buildup and encourage counterattacks. Now defenders are using the same principles to both defend and start counterattacks better. In short, we are seeing pressing and buildup become more fluid across the board.