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The myth of Barca’s ‘beautiful game’

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Barcelona’s foul play is hidden away in their exorbitantly high percentage of possession says Andy Simanowitz.

FC Barcelona are widely regarded in football circles as not only the best team in the world but perhaps the best team the world has ever seen. This belief is fuelled not only by the team’s unprecedented success on the domestic and European stages but also by the aesthetic qualities of their attacking play. If teams attempt to resist the sublime skills of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Co. with defensive tactics and strong tackling they are accused of negativity. When Barcelona overcome this ‘negative’ play, their success is framed as a victory of footballing good over footballing evil. And yet a study of the statistics reveals that Barcelona are, in fact, one of the most foul intensive teams in Europe

Although Barcelona may lead the table for the least yellow and red cards received in both Champions League and La Liga, the fact that they commit less fouls than other teams is because they have so much possession of the ball. In terms of fouls committed per minute when they are defending, the story is very different.

Watching Barcelona’s flowing attacking football it is easy not to notice some of their fouls particularly since so many of them are committed, not in their own half when defending attacking play, but in the opposition’s half. Indeed Barcelona are sometimes said to “asphyxiate the opposition” and they do this by pressing in numbers high up the field to win the ball back. It is here where the fouls are committed. Barcelona’s possession is not simply due to their unquestionably exquisite ball retention abilities or the opposition’s negative tactics, but to a style of defensive play that relies on persistent fouling when the opposition has the ball.

In individual matches statistics show that Barcelona commit less fouls than the opposition – often by a significant margin. But fouls are generally committed by the defending team. So in order to see how foul intensive a team’s style of play really is one needs to not just look at the number of fouls committed but also how much possession of the ball the fouling team had. Taking possession into the equation shows how foul-intensive a team actually is.

When one squares Barcelona’s low number of fouls with their high percentage of possession they are exposed as one of the most foul intensive teams around. Looking at the statistics from the 2011 Champions League season, they are in fact in the top four out of a total of 32 teams. And what’s more, in each of the three knockout ties they played, from the round of 16 to the semi-final, they were more foul-intensive than their opponent. Yes, they did commit a lower number of fouls than the opposition in each of the ties, but because of their exceptionally high percentage of possession they effectively did so in a much shorter period of time, averaging a higher number of fouls per minute spent defending.

The most extreme example for their hidden foul intensity is the first leg of their infamous semi-final clash with Real Madrid. In this match Barcelona committed 25 fouls compared to Real Madrid’s 21, which, on the surface, looks pretty equal. When one takes into account the possession statistics however, it turns out it was not so at all. Barcelona had an average of 72% of possession. This means they spent only 25.2 minutes of the match defending. If one assumes that the 25 fouls were committed in those 25.2 minutes defending the numbers equal an average of 0.99 fouls per minute. Real Madrid in comparison, committed 21 fouls, but did so in 64.2 minutes of defending, thus averaging just 0.32 fouls per minute. While Barcelona averaged almost a foul per minute, Real Madrid averaged a foul about only every three minutes.

How extraordinarily foul intensive Barcelona’s play was in this particular match becomes clear when one calibrates the numbers by assuming a hypothetical game, in which both teams have an equal share of possession. In such a game, Real Madrid would commit 14 fouls. Barcelona would commit 45. If the team with the 45 fouls won this hypothetical game (and Barcelona did win the game the statistics derive from, effectively deciding the tie to qualify for the Champions League final) few pundits would rave about ‘footballing good’ triumphing over ‘footballing evil’.

The final between Barcelona and Manchester United on Saturday has all the ingredients for a truly great game of football but I will be watching out for the cynical edge to the way Barca play the beautiful game.

CL 2011 Round of 16 Arsenal vs. Barcelona
x y z w
1st leg Arsenal 39 16 54.9 0.29
Barcelona 61 13 35.1 0.37
2nd leg Arsenal 32 19 61.2 0.31
Barcelona 68 8 28.8 0.28
Total Arsenal 0.30
Barcelona 0.33
CL 2011 Quarter-finals Barcelona vs. Shakhtar Donetsk
x y z w
1st leg Barcelona 64 9 32.4 0.28
Shakhtar 36 20 57.6 0.35
2nd leg Barcelona 62 17 34.2 0.50
Shakhtar 38 22 55.8 0.39
Total Barcelona 0.39
Shakhtar 0.37
CL 2011 Round Semi-final Real Madrid vs. Barcelona
x y z w
1st leg Real Madrid 28 21 64.8 0.32
Barcelona 72 25 25.2 0.99
2nd leg Real Madrid 36 31 57.6 0.54
Barcelona 64 10 32.4 0.31
Total Real Madrid 0.43
Barcelona 0.65

Statistics taken from uefa.com.

x = Possession in %
y = Fouls committed
z = Time spent defending in minutes (on the basis of a game lasting 90 minutes)
w = Average number of fouls per minute spent defending

Comments (37)

  1. right, you have exposed them. barca; terrible footballers, lousy team. horrible to watch. they’re like the spanish version of stoke city, made up of 11 nigel de jongs!

  2. I’m so glad you’ve highlighted this. People get carried away with Barca’s individual skill but it hides the fact that they’re really no different to any other team when it comes to fouling and cheating generally – that’s not even counting the diving and referee-badgering we saw in the CL semis.

  3. Andy – what are you talking about? When people say “Beautiful Football” they are not talking about fouling. Fouls are a part of football, and we all have to trust the refs to give out cards when they need to, and to call simple fouls, even if made unintentionally.

    “Beautiful Football” means technique, mostly in the attack, holding possession, passes made and completed, but also in defense, trusting yourselves and your teammates to clear the ball by passing is up, and not by kicking it as far as you can, for instance.

    “BF” is when you lose the ball, you run after it. It means trusting your defense enough to let your line backs become midfielder. When you see that the goal tender Valdez made more completed passes than any Real Madrid player. When any player is expected to be able to out maneuver any opposing player, indeed any two players.

    I hope you now understand what the words “BF” mean.

  4. Your article is completely meaningless. Obviously comes from a Barca hater and an EPL lover and perhaps trying to prove that Barcelona is foul intensive and that it is no different from the other teams with negative tactics. Whose problem is it if the other teams do not have the opportunity to hold onto the ball? Real Madrid had about 20% possession in the copa del rey and scored 1 goal whereas Barca did’nt. So will you say Madrid were more attacking than Barca in that game because the number of goals scored per minute is much more? A football game is played for 90 minutes and not 1. So you need to analyze over the 90 and not average it to 1. Please do not write such articles and try to defame one of the most beautiful teams in the world.

    • You can keep as much percentage of possession in your own half, who cares. High no of passes between the backs and goalkeeper will improve the stats on n of passes and % completed. What counts is ball possession in opponents half or rather close to the box, no of shots on goal. If the ref would book Barca players the way others get booked, can Barca try to play pressing game, what will happen to the so called Beautiful game. It all adds up to the outcome of a match. The team is good but not as good or all time best as portrayed.

  5. Incompetently incomplete. You’re neglecting to include succcessful tackles. Assuming both teams win the ball roughly the same number of times (since possession alternates), this implies Barca’s successful tackle/foul ratio is almost always better than their opponents, since they foul less overall. They may foul more per minute, but they also successfully win the ball far more per minute of the opposition’s possession.

    Why include all possession? Since people always complain that Barca bounce the ball across their defenders aimlessly, surely this shouldn’t count in meaningful possession stats (since there is presumably not much scope for fouling unless there’s a high press – infrequently used against them)

    Why not include yellow cards to measure severity of fouls?

    • Well said.

    • Ref: Ur arguement about successful tackles

      You did not think your arguement through. You start off with Possession Alternating between Barca and their opponents. So the number of fouls committed should be considered for this scenario(and not the overall number of fouls which happens in the scenario when Barca have 70% or whatever possesion)

      SO now who’s incompetent????

      • Hang on, this has gotten completely out of hand. The amount of crap the author is getting – “incompetent”, “pom-pom girls” etc.

        Come on. Sure you may disagree with a) the methods or b) the sentiment and you’re well-entitled to do so. But don’t just blast the guy for writing one point of view – there’s simply no point and it invalidates part of your opinion.

        The author doesn’t deserve what is in essence anonymous abuse for writing.

  6. This is some stuff I’ve been saying for quite a while. If you actually watch Barca, you will see that they are in fact quite a dirty team. They do a great job selling the not-so-well informed that they’re “more than a club”, but reality is much different.

    I am biased because I’m a Madrid fan, but I will always admit my own teams flaws. What irritates me about barca is that their fans will NEVER admit these things.

    • I am a Villarreal fan and a lover of the beautiful game. So you can say I am not biased towards Barca or Madrid. There are certain things that a knowledgeable fan will accept and there are things that they won’t. Please do not tell me that all the Madrid fans accept Jose Mourinho’s mind games, his attitude towards other coaches, etc. The statistics should be done over 90 minutes and not average to 1. Now, will you also do the same for attack and try to look at goals scored per minute of possession to decide the most attacking team in the world?

      • Actually if you count goals scored per minute of possession, you’ll find Barca’s avarage to be quite low. With 80% possession against Real during the clasico bonanza, they hold onto the ball for 72 minutes plus injury time. You would expect goals left and right, not two goals, or one goal. Especially when you consider that for a significant length of time, they were against only 10 men.

        As for your point about the CDR final, you can’t say Real were the more attacking team because they scored 1 goal with 20% possession and Barca scored none with 80% possession. But you can say that Real played better when they had the ball than Barca did. The stats are quite clear in that game. Real had many more goal scoring opportunities than Barca did, despite the possession. Casilas had to make two saves in the second half. The rest of their shots were not even on target.

  7. Insightful but even this can be concluded differently and not necessarily with the negative connotation. There is that supposed ‘six second rule’ that Guardiola has set out for his team. This means pressing the opposition in numbers and this naturally results in a higher number of fouls committed. That said, the article does have it’s merit. As good as Barcelona are, their holier-than-thou stance is certainly hypocritical.

  8. Interesting premise, poorly written and you make it sound as though because Barcelona pressure to get the ball back that negates their great football the other 65% of the time.

    Strange, you seem to think you’ve uncovered the ‘dark’ side of their game. But all you’ve done is proven what everyone who knows more about Barcelona than the surface possession stats, that when they lose the ball they manically pressure to get it back.

    You yourself ably parrot the honorable stat that they lead the league in fair play (least yellows/reds), so somehow their savage ‘hidden foul intensity’ doesn’t transfer into bookings.

    A note about the writing, it was plodding and repetitive. you need an editor. Wading through your near-endless repetition of your thesis statement, wondering when you’d get to the point was highly irritating. Be more concise.

  9. Barca are fair when they are allowed play and opposition just stand and admire them. but when they meet a good defensive team, they lack ideas, start to dive blatantly. They have taken diving to whole new level. they dive to get players sent off ,

  10. What a load of old tripe. You sir are in desperate need of some female company. Listen very carefully, I will say this only once… Barcelona are the greatest football team in the history of this beautiful game. Only stats that you need to worry about. Fact..

  11. Let’s not jump off the cliff here – this article isn’t criticising Barca per se, just challenging the definitions of Beautiful Football. I find it very difficult to handle how writing such as this constitutes “Hating” or “EPL loving”. It’s just presenting a different way of looking at something.

    Also, I’m a little bit weary of this present-time-revisionism which sees us trying to pick wholes in Barcelona (not accusing the author of doing so, just seems an appropriate forum to say it) – can we not just agree their passing game is a marvellous, wondrous thing but sometimes they play up the “we’re the goodies” a bit too much?

    That said, the article presents a lot of good information but tenuous (but not necessarily incorrect) conclusions.

    You can’t argue with numbers, but equally they (almost) never tell the whole story and this is the case here. This means that while the numbers of fouls-per-minute for Barcelona are interesting, they can’t be divorced from the fact that Barcelona dominate possession to such an extent that the meaning and impact of those fouling numbers decreases.

    Fouls-per-minute is a meaningful but rather unspecific statistic. It can indicate any of clumsiness, cynicism and endeavour. What is perhaps less viable is creating hypothetical games: Barcelona foul because they can afford to. Their tactics would change (ie. tendency to foul decrease) if you give their opponents the ball 50% of the time.

    There’s a good argument (which I wouldn’t know how to begin proving/disproving) that their fouls per minute (FPM) is a result of their dominance of the ball, rather than contributing to it.

    The methods of evaluation are fine, but the conclusion that such increased fouling rates means Barca are cynical (or that their Beautiful Game is lessened because of it) is a big jump – as @Zvi said, when people talk about the Beautiful Game, they’re talking offence, not defence.

    These fouls happen in such a small amount of time, and it’s their tactics to prioritise keeping the ball, so really rather than indicating a cynical edge (you’d need to include cynical fouls in this, something which would take AGES to do) it just reflects their game style.

    As a final point, I’d suggest the headline causes a lot of the inflammation here as nowhere in the article does it suggest that Barcelona don’t play a beautiful game, just that it’s marred by a tendency to foul when they don’t have the ball.

  12. Check this out: “…so many of (their fouls) are committed, not in their own half when defending attacking play, but in the opposition’s half.” That is hilarious. So the ball STILL hasn’t left the opposition’s half and Barca take a 30 second breather while they argue the call. Total football, total control.

  13. Well said, this team is dirty and like to cry and dive.

  14. @mattwood040, Great assessment of the article and comments!

  15. Thats why, being a statistician myself, I tell my self that Statical conclusions need to be validated.
    This analysis is fundamentally flawed:
    -Barcelona has about 30-40% meaningless possession,
    -The opponents also are happy with such statistics, thats because playing Barcelona with equal possession(which requires larger presence over the pitch and more widely distributed players) will play into Barcelona Hands(More likely than not).
    -The opponents will continuously try to draw Barcelona forward with their possession(lack of) and Foul them only in precarious positions and the only way Barcelona can play against such Tactics is to believe that they can win over such tactics. They send players forward in numbers and opponents foul/steal the ball from them in such situation to take advantage of lower man to man numbers ahead of them. Barcelona counter this by immediately fouling the opponents softly to get their numbers back in defense. This is the accepted set of rules in most Barca games, funnily even after Barca score a goal.
    - More fundamentally the information suggest non linear effect of possession with Fouls committed. Barcelona had more minutes to defend against Arsenal but had fewer fouls to their name than when they played Real Madrid.
    In a sense, the article tried to prove something like there are Nukes in Iraq.

  16. “If one assumes that the 25 fouls were committed in those 25.2 minutes defending the numbers equal an average of 0.99 fouls per minute”

    Facts dont lie.

  17. I admit some players from Barca do try to play the ref but this outrageous onslaught on Barcelona in the last few weeks is just ridiculous.

    It seems to me that the whole of England had given up on Barcelona and had their hopes to end their golden era on two Portuguese. One is a diver himself, the other is going crazy.

    When both of them couldn’t stop Barca together, a nation which gave birth to Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zm5-zLu8S9U) is now pointing fingers at others for diving.

    I would add something to adi’s closing comment: English journalists/bloggers/football fans calling anyone a diver is like the US accusing Afghanistan of terrorism.

    If you can’t beat Barca, don’t bad-mouth them just cos they do something you do too.

  18. This by far has to be the silliest article i’ve read in eons! I wouldn’t expect an article of this caliber from a pom-pom girl either!!

  19. Very good art!

  20. It is clear to the millions of people who have watched Barcelona play that they have a lot of talent but are also terribly theatrical and love to throw themselves on the ground and play act. It is embarrassing. And they are extraordinarily sanctimonious. If they win, they say they dominated. If they lose, they say they dominated and the best team didn’t win. They believe their own shit smells like roses.

    I think most of the world will be supporting Manchester United against Barcelona after the terrible display of play acting they did against Madrid. All my English friends who liked Barcelona have turned off them.

    And the blatant stealing of the Chelsea match in 2006 and the red card on Van Persie is unbelievable. Italy had calciopoli where matches were fixed. Portugal had the gold whistle. I have no idea if Barcelona has fixed matches or not, but these things have happened in other leagues. Somehow Barcelona almost always plays against ten men. Referees probably adore Barcelona. Stark, the referee from the first Madrid game, has tried to ask for Messi’s autograph before. You can’t make this stuff up.

    Barcelona are great players. They should stick to playing instead of behaving like bad actresses.

  21. People who believe the article is meaningless are just as silly as those who believe in it whole heartedly. The point is, there isn’t a science of football which says fouls per minute can best be used to articulate a club’s “dirtiness”, having said this, we have nothing to say that it isn’t a good criteria either. I believe all have witnessed some telling decisions on the referee’s part in many games which have really tipped the balance in Barcelona’s favor (chelsea, arsenal, RM). To deny this as well is dishonest. I believe Barcelona play beautiful football, but they also at very crucial times are aided in there progression. With that said – this is what I believe will be the lasting memory for this team.

    ———–
    They are ONE OF the best teams to have ever been assembled, one of the most beautiful but also one that was most aided in winning championships.

    I would not be surprised if we found out years from now that this team had bribed referees and even if UEFA was involved, i honestly don’t believe many would be surprised either. If you are a real fan of Barcelona, believe me, you would be blinded to this thought. But I believe that this is a growing thought that will linger just as much as their greatness.

  22. This guy is a bloooody madrid fan no doubt…. who put you up to this andy ??? Mourinho?
    how much money are you getting paid

    When you assume things without any evidence and write shiitty articles this is the only way to respond

  23. Hope you enjoyed the game, Andy. Man, did you ever predict the style of play Barcelona would employ.

    Get your head out of your, how do you say it in the British parlance, Arse.

  24. lies, damn lies and statistics, Barca like all the great teams find a way win when it’s on the line, they are one of the all time great football teams no amount of spin can change that !

  25. Author wouldnt know beautifull football if it sat on him. Go learn a little about the history of the El Clasico & then, maybe then try to write an article.

  26. This biased journalist makes no mention of the severity of the fouls. Barely clipping a player and cleating him are two very different fouls but this writer believed they should carry the same weight. Most of Madrid’s fouls were far harsher than Barcelona’s (Pepe studs up and stomping Messi, Alonso from behind at knee height, Ramos elbow to the face, Adebeyor face punch, etc. etc.).

    The writer also neglects to mention how many fouls Madrid committed that weren’t called. Arbeloa alone committed 6 fouls off-the-ball by screening players but the refs didn’t see it. Also, the fouls that aren’t called because of advantage are also far greater for Barcelona because they are there to play not stop the play and take the free kick like Madrd.

    Biased, subjective, distorted, and worst of all inaccurate.

  27. your opinion surely counts. However, you have failed to provide the recipe to stop Barcelone from playing “sexy” and attractive football. Busquets may tackle and get the ball, and enhance the team’s possession, but Pepe will smash somebody’s leg just for the fun of it. Please, try and see what barca does exceptionally well to make football lovers enjoy the beautiful game, instead of counting fouls. Even SAF the great acknowledges barca’s supremacy.les jaloux vont megri

  28. i agree with raghu,im a man utd fan and was gutted that we lost BUT im glad that we lost to what i can only describe as perfection,i dont think they have the best defenders as said in the media,vidic is a better ch than pique by miles,but when you watch the way the midfield pass and move and then find the forwards everytime its unplayable,and then you got messi just roaming about waiting to make you look like a sunday league player…best team ive saw in years.

  29. Absolute meaningless. I mean how can you afford wasting that amount of time on such a shallow argument? I feel guilty wasting my own on commenting. But I just like this remark:

    “But fouls are generally committed by the defending team. So in order to see how foul intensive a team’s style of play really is one needs to not just look at the number of fouls committed but also how much possession of the ball the fouling team had.”

    Then shouldn’t we also take possession time in consediration when we count how many times referee decisions go for Barcelona’s favor? I mean its easy to analyze by applying probability principles. Though, going by the shallow logic of this article, I doubt you can get there.

  30. Just a stupid argument, in all honesty. Barca press high, with extreme intensity. Like you pointed out, most of the fouls come in the opponents half. So who do you think are fouling them? Not defenders, who are typically excellent ball winners and tacklers. No, it’s forwards and attacking midfielders, who don’t know how to tackle as well who are facing stockier, larger defenders. So not only are they working hard to win the ball back, an act alone which will result in fouls, but they are also less proficient at tackling, which compounds the fouls they give. You yourself pointed out the low number of cards they receive, which means the maliciousness of their fouls is likewise very low. Not to mention the style of football they play means they have the ball more, which means they foul less. So however you do the math, which on the field doesn’t matter at all, Barca fouls less than most teams because they keep the ball BECAUSE THAT’S HOW THEY PLAY. It takes away nothing from Barca. Get over it. This is in absolutely no way shape or form exploiting the ‘myth’ of Barca’s beautiful game, it’s just highlighting the stupidity of some football ‘pundits’. Criticize our diving, ref-baiting, or often one-dimensional style, but please, don’t create arguments when they are nonexistent. It’s embarrassing and makes you look stupid.