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There is no quicker way to get the ball from A to B than by punting long balls up the park. But as with so many other things in life, the quickest method is rarely the most effective. The world took some convincing, but Barça got there in the end.
So much so that it was even given a name. But although the term ‘tiki-taka’ was only coined about a decade ago, the philosophy behind it goes back to the days of Johan Cruyff and his illustrious partner Charly Rexach, with their basic premise that “if you have the ball then your opponents don’t.”
The Barça method shows that it’s far safer to keep the ball on the ground and advance it boot to boot, man to man. And the root of the team’s world famous passing game is another expression that been internationalised over the years. It’s called the ‘rondo’.
Young players the world over are used to starting training sessions by gathering on the edge of the penalty area and pumping random shots at the goalkeeper. Somebody might thump in a few crosses for heading practice and as much time would be spend collecting stray balls from behind the goals than anything else. And when that was done, the team would run around the field a few times.
The ‘rondo’ is based on a very different philosophy, which is all about honing teamwork and passing skills. The players warm up by gathering in a circle and stringing passes together while a smaller number of players in the middle try to intercept the ball.
There are variations on the number of consecutive touches allowed, the space used, the ‘punishments’ and ‘rewards’ and so on, but a concept that was created at La Masia is now a regular component of training sessions in every corner of the globe.
“I remember when I arrived at Swansea and Roberto Martínez got us doing rondos. They had great fun making it hard for their team-mates by making deliberately bad passes. I was knackered on my first few days” laughs Andrea Orlandi, now in Italy after spending time in the UK and Cyprus, and before that at Barça B (2005-2007).
“Wherever I go they ask about Barça and how the club works. The Barça universe gets a lot of interest.”
“The same thing happened to me in Belgium” remembers Víctor Vázquez, who went to Bruges in 2011 and also played in Mexico before arriving at his current home in Toronto. “Juan Carlos Garrido liked to start sessions with rondos and what they found fun was getting their team-mates sent to the middle.”
He struggled to adapt to the Belgian idea of football. “It was much more physical” he explains. “We tried to play football, but if a defender made a mistake or the goalkeeper wasn’t too good with his feet, we’d just go for long balls.”
“Because of our mentality, the long ball game isn’t much fun” says Albert Capellas, now the assistant manager at Borussia Dortmund. Before, at Vitesse in Holland, he reckons the ideas were more akin to what he was used to, but what he found in Denmark were the kind of traditions typically associated with the British game. “You come across experiences like that time and time again because the local culture always carries a lot of weight and it’s hard to find the Barcelona method in other places.”
Teaching them young
“When I go back home I’m amazed when I watch the U12 games on Barça TV” confesses Orlandi. “I don’t know how they do it. Do they clone them or what? My wife says I must be mad to be watching kid matches but I find it awesome to see them all playing the same way.”
“It’s what struck me most about La Masia. The players learn how to do everything. Hoofing the ball was like a heresy. Everything is ingrained in them. It’s very hard to achieve such levels of acceptance.”
But for Sergio Lobera, a youth coach at the club for eight years and now working in India, it runs much deeper than that. “It’s not just about Barça” he comments. “It’s a concept for life, for every kind of work.”
“It was all so different at Barcelona" continues Vázquez. "We’d spend most of the time in training working on passing, doing positional exercises and rondos. It was mainly skills work. The main idea was that the best kind of attack is to have the ball. We learned that the more you move, the more passing options your team-mate has, but the real running is done by the ball I’ve never encountered anything like that outside of La Masia.”
“And they’ve been working that way for years. They have so much experience of it” adds Capellas. “They know exactly what kind of players they need. They generally have to be very skilful, quick-thinking players, but every position has its own special characteristics. The central midfielder is an especially important part of their scheme. He needs to know how to read the game and filter passes through at the right moment.”
“And that identity stands high above the power and identity of any single coach” insists Josep Gombau, who left FCB to work in Hong Kong and then spent two years as head coach of Adelaide United. After a short spell in New York, he is now back in Australia.
These days, ‘Barça’ is not just a buzzword in professional football spheres. The club’s methods are a standard reference on training grounds among teams of all ages and all nations. But how easy is it to export the methodology to very different cultural settings?
“From my experiences in Hong Kong and Australia I’d say it can be done, but you need very strong convictions” argues Gombau. “Wherever I go I’ve always found they struggle for the first year, because it isn’t easy to internalise the idea. You need time to find the right players. If the club is patient, fantastic. If not, then it’s impossible.”
“I don’t think an exact copy is feasible because the conditions will never be quite the same” admits Lobera. “But one thing is for sure – once you’ve experienced the Barça way you are never going to settle for anything else. You need to find a place where they are willing to let you stay faithful to your ideas, but you need to adapt your own too.”
“In some places it’s not easy to convince people. Especially if the results aren’t coming” says Orlandi. “At Swansea we were fortunate that Roberto Martínez was so respected by the fans and they were patient with him. They didn’t mind switching from the 4-4-2 long ball game to a 4-3-3. They even ended up calling us Swanselona.”
But keeping an idea like that going on for years is difficult” he laments” The time will always come when it breaks down.”
“It’s like a good wine” concludes Capellas. “It’s a years-long process. There is nowhere that has a social structure quite like there is at Barça. And when you move away from that, the alarm bells start ringing. It’s not just the club. It’s the people and the whole city that have taken on board that kind of football. There is a dynamic at Barça that’s existed for years and it’s very difficult to copy that.”
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