29 May 2011


* full credit to Douglas Engle for the title

BAR (3) MAN (1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRKIa-a-Ows

Not since the Dutch-inspired spatial revolution in the 1970s has there been a team that has so challenged and changed the geometry of football. Barcelona’s players not only think ahead in time, they also anticipate the shape of the immediate future. For instance, Xavi’s pass to Pedro in the 27th minute split two defenders whose very movements were creating the space for that pass to occur. You see Xavi moving, waiting, procuring, probing, identifying and liberating. Pedro had the relatively banal task of a sublime first touch and side-footed finish.

Xavi is clearly a master of his world, but his dismantling of Euclid’s hegemonic spatiality is fostered by the silky technicality and tactical brilliance of his comrades. Iniesta hides the ball and darts through thick legs, leaping from trouble to glory as he both conducts and misdirects.  He knows instinctively where pressure is coming from and finds the release valves through he becomes a blur of thought and action. Midway through the second half, I remember a ball coming at him in midfield, with a defender coming in hard for a challenge. Pressure in the front, big hard man, space behind. If he turned away from pressure, he risked a nasty challenge, there was no time for a touch to the side and the ball had to be won. With a flick of his left foot, the ball rode up his left thigh which he swiveled to nudge the ball to his right thigh, which dropped it to his right foot. The defender flew by, the midfield opened like a can of tuna, and he splayed the ball to…Messi.

@ Camp Nou, May 2008

The second goal showed the danger of not effectively controlling and compacting defensive space around the box. Messi received the ball from Xavi 35 yards from goal. Park had come too high to defend and left space for Messi to run. He accelerated into the gap between the midfield and central defense and blasted a low shot that curved away from a partially blocked Van der Sar. 2-1.

Messi  started the third goal on the right flank by schooling a world-class defender and cutting into the box. This dragged the United defense goal-ward and as the ball popped around the box, Villa stepped into the void at the top of the box, measured his angle as he set himself and curled, around the lunging defender, an inch perfect shot past 6 foot 6 fingertips into the top corner. 3-1. Champions of Europe.

(United’s goal was excellent if slightly more pedestrian. Rooney paired 1-2s through midfield with Carrick, and into the box with Giggs, slotting home the neat return pass from the greybeard. After their goal, however, it is difficult to remember United doing anything other than chasing the ball. (For fuller tactical analysis click here.) To Manchester’s credit, they are all acknowledging that they were very well beaten).

The players that come through Barcelona’s youth academy are trained from a very young age to think about time, space, and movement in a very particular way. Their collective spatial-ability is changing something about the way football is conceived and played. I see the Barcelona players as constructing new ways of movement and spatial consciousness that are only possible with extreme technical competence. It appears to be unbeatable, with the exception of the occasional team (Inter Milan, Real Madrid) expert in the art of matching Barças non-linear, shifting constellations with the spatial dynamics of a Rubik’s Cube.

How these elements come together to put a smile on my face, I don’t know. But they did. I even managed to forget that all of the candidates in the FIFA elections scheduled for June 1 are under ethics investigations. Thankfully, there’s the Copa do Brasil final on Wednesday to get my mind off of that. 

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