The most exciting band you haven’t heard yet – Ghost

Warning: today I won’t be writing about football. I imagine the majority of the people who stumble across this page do so because they follow me on Twitter which, presumably, they do because they’re interested in sport. If you’re still following me then it’s because you haven’t allowed my inane rambling on said social media platform to put you off – which means you have an open mind. Bravo, and thanks.

I’m going to ask you to keep that wonderful mind open while reading this piece. There is a band you need to hear, and today you’re going to hear them. You may or may not like it at the end of the experience (that’s beside the point) but you absolutely need to hear it at least once. The band is called Ghost, and they are on the road to becoming huge.

In the world of hard rock they already are, but while their sophomore release broke the top 40 in both the U.K and the U.S, they never got near the top 10 or even 20. At present therefore we can’t quite say Ghost are universally well-known among your average listener. I’m absolutely convinced that’s about to change. There is nothing quite like them out there – and they’re getting even better.

At the risk of drifting into cliché, Ghost genuinely have something for everyone. If you’re a casual pop fan you’re in luck: their music is full of brilliant hooks, an obvious reflection of their emergence from Sweden (a nation that knows plenty about writing great pop songs). If rock is more your thing, then the instrumentation will keep you interested. Seasoned musicians will appreciate the nuances of a group of players who have been around for years as both live and studio musicians prior to forming this particular outfit. Choral music fan? Their second record has more Latin choir work than you can shake a Gregorian chant at. Hell, even if you’re not a great lover of music and more of a film buff, then there’s something there for you too. The references to classic horror movies in their imagery are many, their merchandise also harking back to some of the greats of modern cinema. See the cover of their recent Dave Grohl-produced EP, for example…

Nosferatu anybody?

Nosferatu anybody?

Refreshingly, their music manages to be simultaneously both accessible and challenging, with a huge dose of humour on the side. When you first cast eyes on the group – comprised of five nameless ghouls and one zombie – chances are that, like me, you will presume a certain kind of output: aggressive, angry young man stuff that forsakes melody. Wrong. No screaming to be found here. Instead, there are vocal melodies destined to be stuck in your head for days. Ghost manages to make the lines “Hail Satan, Archangelo. Hail Satan, Welcome year zero” catchier than most of the stuff in the charts these days, and that’s no mean feat. I’m not kidding. The proof is in the pudding:

Ghost’s unashamed love of a hook has pissed off a fair chunk of the heavy metal crowd, while their (completely self-aware and not at all serious) satanic imagery isn’t likely to go down well with some the mainstream audience either. That can only be a good thing. Anything worthwhile challenges norms.

It’s the whole package that really makes them special. Everything has been taken into consideration, to the finest detail. Each year there is a clear progression in the image, part of a long-term plan that the band insists has been mapped out for years (judging by how fully realised the concept was from day one, I believe them). Their lyrics contain more historical research than some people get through in a PHD. Their singer, a fictional undead satanic pope  (did I just write that?), went to the effort of learning pidgin Italian so he could portray his character as authentically as possible in a recent mockumentary. The amount of work that has gone into the experience is astounding.

I’ve fought my case for long enough (music can’t be imposed, you either like it or not) so as a parting note I’ll say that as wonderful as the records are, Ghost are an even better experience live. I was introduced to them through exactly that avenue. I caught the band supporting another group in London around a year ago now and was absolutely blown away – the first time I ever remember being impressed by a support act. On vinyl, CD or.. Spotify (that’s what the kids use these days, right?) their music is infectious, but in the flesh it’s something else.

PS: Here’s the brilliant cover of Roky Erickson’s “If you have Ghosts” they released last year. Like all good covers, it’s completely left-field, reminding me a little bit of when Van Halen used to cover old Motown hits and leave the oh-so-serious rockers fuming. The next Ghost album is in the works and due out within the year – after extensive touring across the world, it wouldn’t’ be a shock if it does significantly better than the last one. In any case, I’d imagine this won’t be the last time you hear of them.

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Hammarby fans tear their stadium apart

Hammarby IF, from the south of Stockholm, are one of Sweden’s most passionately supported clubs. Malmö, IFK and city rivals AIK all have a far bigger name internationally, but what Hammarby lack in titles they make up for in dedication. Last season they played in the distinctly unglamorous Swedish second division, yet still managed to sell out the 30,000+ capacity Tele2 Arena on several occasions. By comparison, top-flight side Djurgården – with whom they share the ground – averaged around the 15,000 mark or thereabouts.

That dedication was ultimately rewarded with Hammarby gaining promotion to Allsvenskan (the Swedish first division), but not so long ago they were rewarded with something far greater. In 2001 the green and whites won the Swedish league for the first and only time in their history, taking the title by a single point over Djurgården. It wasn’t the Tele2 Arena, but Söderstadion, Hammarby’s old home ground, that witnessed the finest season in the club’s history. I made a trip that historic ground last Saturday for a very particular reason.

Söderstadion is only a stone’s throw away from the Tele2 Arena but the two grounds are worlds apart. Built in the 1960s, it holds around half the capacity and lacks many of the modern comforts of its newer neighbour, but in my opinion it captures the spirit of the club far better – above all because of its simplicity. Like many older football stadiums it catches you by surprise upon approach, springing up in a narrow gap between office and residential buildings. Not so long ago my other half could even watch Hammarby train on the Söderstadion pitch from her office window which looked on to the ground – there are none of the huge protective walls that guard the secrecy of modern stadia.


Söderstadion, wedged between two far bigger buildings.

Hammarby left the ground in 2013 for their new stadium, with club (and Football Manager) legend Kennedy Bakircioglü scoring the last goal there. Inevitably, the ground will soon be demolished, with the land used for shops, flats or other such boring, soulless things. End of story, except not quite. On Saturday the club opened the ground one last time and invited supporters to come and take what they wanted. Benches, tiles, taps, signs, billboards, hooks, and of course, the sacred turf. Everything was on offer – first come, first serve.

I turned up and played amateur photographer for the day and have to say it was pretty touching. I have no connection to Hammarby at all, yet I couldn’t help but feel quite sad as I stood back and watched what was once the thriving heart of a community being stripped to its bare bones. Allowing the fans to take what they wanted as a memento was a nice touch from the club. Quite soon there will be no remnants of this place on its original site, so it is fitting that the memory will live on in countless homes. Below are some of the better pictures I took along with a description of the varying amusing, moving or in some cases, baffling sites I saw.


Upon entering the ground the first thing I was greeted with was a fan waving a bright green flare in the stands – one last time.


One fan placed these on the centre-circle.


Some kids watch on as their dad hacks away at one of the old benches with a saw


Prams aren’t only good for carrying babies, they’re good for carrying shovels, it seems.


In the tunnel looking out towards the pitch. Even the plexiglass was taken by some fans.


I have no idea what you would do with part of the bench from the home dressing room, but there you go!


This – presumably for washing boots – has seen better days.


I met a teary-eyed Hammarby fan draped in a scarf in the home dressing room. He seemed resigned to but not thrilled by the fact that moving to the new stadium was good for the club.


Out of shot there was some blood on the floor here. An attempt at taking one of the green tiles from the showers, gone wrong…


One entrepreneurial sort turned up with a hotdog stand, as you can see in the bottom right of the picture.


There were even a few volunteers on site with tools to help people who had none of their own


These guys win the ‘sentimental but useless’ prize. I have no idea what they will do with a turnstyle, or where they will put it, but take it they did.


By now this will be planted in their back garden.


This idiot decided he wanted the ‘H’ sign from one of the supporting structures so badly he would shimmy along and grab it. Fortunately other fans managed to convince him to come back before he broke his neck.


Someone tied a floral offering to one of the stands.


Hopefully these two didn’t have a long journey home with that bench.


This image gives you a good idea of how no-frills the stadium is/was, and how built up the area is too.


This is the view many fans would have seen after coming in one of the main entrances. I found it quite sad.


On my way out I noticed this board – albeit with the letters missing. The kid who now owns it let me take a picture while glancing suspiciously as if to say “don’t even think about it!”.


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Luis Enrique’s options v Real Madrid: Suarez, Iniesta, Xavi, Mathieu and the potential trump cards for Barça

One of the most exciting elements of El Clasico during the Pep Guardiola era was the frequency with which the Catalan coach surprised us all. Whether it was using Maxwell as a forward, Alexis as a lone striker, or shifting to three at the back in the middle of a game, Guardiola always seemed to have a trick up his sleeve that few if any would have predicted before kick-off. Luis Enrique’s belief in constant rotation combined with the certainty that Luis Suarez will play at some point this weekend means that unpredictability makes a welcome return to the game, following two years of relatively straightforward approaches adopted by Gerardo Martino and Tito Vilanova.

Ahead of Saturday it’s worth contemplating some of the changes Enrique could make in an effort to gain the upper hand, as well as some based on fitness concerns that would have an equal impact on Barcelona’s game. Evidently these are only educated guesses and therefore open to debate or even outright dismissal, but the examples are nonetheless based on observations of the moves Enrique has made from the pre-season onward – be those one-off changes, or in some cases, shifts that have occurred consistently in virtually every match.

Mathieu at left back
Barcelona signed Jeremy Mathieu as a centre back, but the Frenchman’s years as a left-sided full back haven’t been forgotten about. Mathieu’s experience there has already been put to use by Enrique in a 2-0 away win over Rayo Vallecano, and even if he wasn’t decisive on the outcome of the fixture, he looked comfortable resuming his old role. Barça have never really been able to replicate the balance at the back provided by Eric Abidal on the left, and Mathieu does share some qualities with the club legend that could be useful against Madrid. Most obviously, the Frenchman brings a greater physical presence over Jordi Alba, while he could also shift inside as a third centre back when Dani Alves pushes forward, leaving one of the other central defenders free to pursue Cristiano Ronaldo.

There are some clear drawbacks to this move however: it would both weaken Barça’s centre-back pairing (Mathieu and Mascherano have been the club’s most consistent partnership this season so far), while  also removing some of the attacking threat on the left flank. With the full-backs hugely important in providing both width and profunditat (cutting edge in terms of runs behind the back four) under Enrique, sacrificing some of that by playing Mathieu in Alba’s position could be counter-productive, strengthening one area but taking away from the other.

The ‘four man’ midfield
One of the rumours doing the rounds in Barcelona this week is that Enrique could opt for the now familiar move of using Andres Iniesta as a false winger on the left in an attempt to add more control to the midfield. That would allow Barça to maintain Ivan Rakitic in the team – who has been vital in protecting the space behind Dani Alves as well as providing a shooting threat from distance – while at the same time not forcing the manager to sacrifice one of Xavi or Iniesta. The veteran showed against Eibar that extra rest is helping him to stay mentally sharp (at his best he’s still the most natural ‘Barça-style’ midfielder the club has by a distance), and playing him in left central midfield should provide more opportunities to link with Iniesta than typically occur when the latter is used in the forward line. With Lionel Messi and Neymar both dropping extremely deep when they see fit this season, Barça have effectively been playing with two forwards and an extra midfielder in various spells of each game anyway, so it wouldn’t be a huge change in terms of shape.

Where the change would be most notable however is in the goal threat. Neymar is, evidently, far more efficient in front of goal than Iniesta, and moving the Brazilian out of the position in which he has both been scoring frequently and linking well with Messi this season would be a risk. Moreover, Iniesta’s inconsistency this year (aside from his outstanding showing against Ajax he has largely underwhelmed) means there is no guarantee he would influence the game sufficiently to justify disrupting the Brazilian’s game anyway.

Questions of personnel
Some of Enrique’s changes may not necessarily be a consequence of tactical issues, but rather, fitness. Should Sergio Busquets be judged unfit to play, Mascherano would likely replace him, and that in turn would have a knock-on effect on the back four. With the Mascherano/Mathieu defensive pairing disrupted, Enrique would need to field one of Pique or Bartra in the Argentine’s place. Equally, playing Mascherano in midfield would slow down Barcelona in their construction of play: he doesn’t move the ball forward or push the team up as quickly as Busquets, while his tendency to play more risky long diagonals from deep could lead to more opportunities for the home team to counterattack if they can pick the passes off. The absence of Busquets would also deplete Barcelona’s aerial presence, the lack of which Madrid have always looked to capitalise on, and perhaps the only real gain from fielding Mascherano in his place is added pace when tracking back.

Now, to the inevitable. The big selection question is Luis Suarez. No-one, not even Enrique can be fully certain of how well the Uruguayan has adjusted to his new team both in and offensive and defensive capacity, and while that is a potential asset in the sense that he remains an unknown commodity for opponents, it also presents a huge risk factor, given his coach has yet to see him in action with Barça at any real level of competition let alone the highest possible one as Saturday’s game is.

The only noteworthy example we have had of Suarez at Barça so far was his showing for Barça B in their 6-0 friendly win over Indonesia’s U19s in September. That game provided a number of clues about how he will play for the first team, particularly in terms of his movement in different phases of play. When Alen Halilovic pushed up to the middle of the attack, Suarez invariably pulled out to the right, looking to make diagonal runs in behind the back four. Conversely, when Halilovic dropped deep, Suarez became the centre-forward, occupying the central defenders and attacking through the middle. Essentially, his movements in relation to Halilovic mirrored those Neymar now makes according to Lionel Messi’s position on the pitch, albeit on the opposite side. The obvious question is how well Suarez and Neymar intuitively understand at which moment it is appropriate for one of them to become the ‘nine’ and at which moment the other, as they cannot occupy the same space on the pitch at the same time, lest chaos unfold. The Uruguayan will have been training on those issues for a while, but putting them into practice without error against the Champions League holders in your debut is a different question.

Theories are just that…
There are some who believe Enrique simply won’t start Suarez due to the above concerns, but it wouldn’t be the first time such a move has occurred. Most notably, Pep Guardiola gave Alexis Sanchez his Barcelona debut on August 14th 2011 against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. How well the Chilean played that day depends on your perspective, but the general consensus tended to be positive, and Suarez is certainly as capable of staying afloat if dropped in at the deep end. Until Saturday night none of us will know whether any of the possibilities named above come to pass, but the potential for unpredictability is welcome from this analyst’s point of view.

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Deportivo v Valencia: A rivalry built on penalties, conspiracies and trophies

Great footballing rivalries often run parallel with other dividing factors away from the field of play, and La Liga is no exception. When Barcelona and Real Madrid meet, it’s portrayed as a cultural and political battle, Catalonia taking on the central Spanish state. The biggest derby in the city of Madrid is often talked of as a social one, Atletico associated with the working class and Real Madrid the aspirational. In Seville there’s something a geographical distinction, Betis representing the residential Heliópolis barrio in the south of the city and Sevilla bustling Nervión in the centre. There are a few exceptions though, and when Valencia visit the Riazor this Sunday to take on Deportivo, none of the above categories will really apply – yet animosity will still be thick in the air. Despite hailing from cities some 958 km apart, there is an immense distrust between the two groups of supporters, and it all dates back to May 14th 1994. That day a piece of La Liga history was made, and it’s one Deportivo fans will never forget.

That spring evening some twenty years ago now, Deportivo found themselves on the verge of making history, ninety minutes from securing the club’s first ever La Liga title. Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona trailed the Galicians by a single point in second place, but with only one league fixture left to play, a win for Depor would render anything the Catalans done in their own game against Sevilla redundant. Better still for Deportivo, they were at the Riazor, and opponents Valencia had nothing to play for. What could possibly go wrong?

Nerves, of course. Nerves did indeed get the better of the home players, who time and time again failed to find the back of the net. As the final minute of play approached with the score still at 0-0, fearful whispers echoed around the stadium, the muffled murmurs of countless transistor radios revealing that Barcelona had hammered Sevilla 5-2. Then, hope: Nando, fouled by Ferrer in the Valencia area, won his side a penalty. The only question was who would take it. Regular taker Donato had been subbed off, top scorer Bebeto (who had missed several spot-kicks already that season) opted out. The responsibility fell upon the shoulders of defender Miroslav Djukic, but with Valencia reserve keeper Jose Gonzalez between the sticks, the odds were still with the home team. Those odds meant nothing in the end: Djukic, indecisive, neither produced power nor placement. Gonzalez collected comfortably and pumped his fists in the air in a gesture of celebration. Depor had thrown away the league. Instead, it was Barcelona who made history, winning their fourth title in a row under Cruyff.

Deportivo fans tend to resist turning on their own, and instead of blaming Djukic, they found the perfect enemy in Valencia, unable to shake the image of Gonzalez and his triumphant celebrations. In all likelihood there was a financial incentive for the Valencia players from Barcelona, adding insult to injury for the Galicians. From that day forward the rivalry between Deportivo and Los Che has sustained, intensified by the years of success that would soon follow for both clubs.

At the turn of the 2000s, both teams were competing for the right to call themselves Spain’s third power, steadily chipping away at the dominance of Barcelona and Real Madrid. The Galicians finally won their first league in 2000, while at the same time Valencia were busy making it to back-to-back Champions League finals – Djukic somewhat ironically playing in both. Things really reached boiling point in 2002, when Valencia beat Deportivo in direct competition for the league. It didn’t end there however: a Copa del Rey win for the latter side ensured both would meet in the Supercopa at the end of the summer, and it wasn’t exactly a cordial occasion.

Depor wrapped the tie up within 31 minutes of the first leg, going 3-0 up at the Riazor, but given the opponents were Valencia, the home fans found something to get annoyed about regardless. The subject of their ire that night was keeper Santi Cañizares, who was pelted by missiles, and reacted to the impact of one projectile by falling to the ground. Home supporters claimed his collapse was an act of provocation, and even the local press went to town. La Voz de Galicia, the biggest paper of the region, had this to say:

“Cañizares once again done what Cañizares does. After being unable to help his team in 90 minutes, after being unable to avoid a hammering, after doing nothing of note to convince Iñaki Sáez he should return to the (Spain) number one spot, then… his provocative side came out. When the team walked back towards the tunnel he deliberately lagged behind to make himself the perfect target for the crowd. The fans in the stands recriminated him for his arrogance, and maybe it seems, some fans done so in a bad way, practicing tiro al plato (clay pigeon shooting) with him. The player himself could have been the first person to avoid that scenario if he had left the pitch with the rest of his team. But the bleach-blonde goalkeeper loves to show off, and the Riazor obliged.”

As the 2000s progressed, Valencia and Deportivo’s respective challenges to the big two slowly faded, but their rivalry stayed alive. Boiling point was reached when the two met in the quarter-finals of the 2006 Copa del Rey. Depor won the first leg 1-0 at the Riazor thanks to a penalty from Sergio, and Valencia fans, who saw the partisan crowd as key in convincing the referee to award the spot kick, looked to turn the heat up just as much in the return game at the Mestalla. Unfortunately, the intense atmosphere only worked against them: Carlos Marchena was sent off early on, and less than a minute after David Villa drew the tie level on aggregate, one of the referee’s assistants was struck with a coin from the crowd. The game was suspended and the second half played behind closed doors a week later, with Valencia also fined. After play resumed Los Che managed to score again, going 2-1 up on aggregate, yet almost as soon as that had happened, David Albelda was harshly judged to have fouled Senel in the Valencia area. Megia converted and Valencia were out, a penalty once again playing its part stirring up the hatred between the two sides.

To make matters more interesting, a quirk of the La Liga calendar meant the two sides met once more the following Saturday, a night that was immortalised by David Villa’s stunning strike from the half-way line. Valencia fans claimed justice had been served, but Depor’s own supporters didn’t forget in a hurry. When El Guaje was sent off in a 2008/09 league clash at the Riazor, the home support greeted the decision with a chorus of “Villa, you bastard, get out of the Riazor”. It wasn’t exactly poetic, but it summed up their sentiments perfectly.

Two years after that ode to Villa, the Riazor was once again the stage for an encounter of huge significance between the teams. This time it wasn’t a league title at stake, but Deportivo’s very survival in the top flight, a perfect symbol of how far they had fallen. Once again the final fixture of the league season, the home team only needed a draw to avoid relegation, and fittingly, just like in 1994, Valencia had nothing to play for after already sealing their Champions League spot. Things didn’t look good for Deportivo when Aritz Aduriz scored for Valencia early on, and the home team proceeded to squander a number of good chances. With minutes left to play, Roberto Soldado wrapped the game and Deportivo’s fate up by adding Valencia’s second, yet as the final whistle blew something quite unique happened. In a rare moment of peace between the two teams, the Valencia players opted not to celebrate their opponent’s woes, the Riazor for once not provoked into an angry response. The images of Deportivo and Spanish football legend Juan Carlos Valeron breaking down in tears summed up the solemnity of the occasion.

The ceasefire didn’t last. In the two encounters between the teams in the 2012/13 La Liga season there were a total of three red cards and fifteen bookings. This week, one of the front covers of Galician sports daily DXT featured the Valencia badge within crosshairs, a clear message of intent. With the fortunes of the two clubs once again shifting, further fuel has been added to the fire. This Sunday Deportivo are looking for only their second league win of the season, while with Peter Lim’s takeover of Valencia all but complete, Los Che are now once again aspiring to big things and perhaps even trophy wins. Depor supporters may be concerned first and foremost with staying up, but they would like nothing more than to end Valencia’s unbeaten run of seven matches and dent the momentum their rivals are building. Los Che, for their part, will see a good opportunity to make a further statement at the Riazor, a ground that has proven a solid hunting ground for them in the past. Titles, red cards, penalties, conspiracies and relegation: something always happens in this fixture. Sunday isn’t likely to be an exception.

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FC Barcelona’s football v Dutch football – A coach’s view

As a football journalist who likes to pay the bills, I live in permanent fear of the day when coaches collectively catch up and decide they want to be football writers themselves. While simply being a qualified coach doesn’t necessarily make you a good analyst, a good analytical brain along with a strong experience in football coaching is a formidable combination, and it’s something I have a feeling we’ll see a lot more of in the future, as the base of football writers continues to grow with the ever-expanding internet.

As writers, most of us are guilty of educated guess-work, reaching our own conclusions over why any given manager made any given decision regarding systems, individual player roles, reactionary substitutions and so on. These conclusions may or may not be correct  – the chances of reaching a more accurate conclusion increases with better research and greater degrees of expertise, as with any type of analysis – but if you’re a highly experienced football coach, chances are you will have seen many of these decisions on a training pitch or game in which you yourself have been involved. I think that in order to provide the most accurate analysis possible, drawing on that kind of knowledge is important, and as such it’s no coincidence that the best football writers tend to spend a great deal of time in conversation with the people who practice the game daily.

One such person is Jordi Pascual, a UEFA A licensed coach with over 20 years of experience in his field. Along with his practical expertise, Jordi is also one of the ‘coach-writers’ who are likely to put me out of a job in the future, with a book on coaching Spanish football, an excellent blog, and thousands upon thousands of pieces of mini-analysis on Twitter under his belt. When he speaks, it’s worth listening.

I asked Jordi to write something in response to one of my own pieces for talkSPORT, in which I debated the ‘uniqueness’ of FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team’s football (horribly mislabeled as ‘tiki-taka’). I find it difficult to see this style of play as an entirely separate movement from the style gradually developed by the likes of Johan Cruyff, Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard in Barcelona, later adopted by the Spanish national team.

Jordi’s response is what I had hoped for, drawing on both his practical experience in coaching and his years as a football observer. You can find it below. As a final note, Barcelona’s style of play is referred to here as ‘positional play’, a phrase we both feel more aptly describes its fundamentals than the nonsensical ‘tiki-taka’, and one that has been in common use by journalists and coaches in Spain for years now. Enjoy.

Total Football v Positional Play
I’ve been asked if I think that Total Football and Positional Play – the name given to the style of FC Barcelona in recent years – are the same or different. My answer is neither one, nor the other, really.

I’ll explain. As we all know, the style of the Ajax sides and Dutch National Team of the 1970s (mainly when Rinus Michels was manager) is considered Total Football. Other coaches, like Stefan Kovacs and Vic Buckingham worked with it earlier, but it wasn’t until the 1974 World Cup played in Germany that this way of playing really became famous.

So what’s at the heart of this way of playing football? Mobility. Mobility is the key word. Mobility of players to cover the pitch. Mobility of players to appear and disappear from the “scene of the crime”. What does that really mean in practice, you may rightly ask? Let’s take the classic formation used by these teams, 1-4-3-3, as an example, and see what happens.

The starting positions in this 1-4-3-3 are defined as: one goalkeeper, two centre backs, two full backs, one central /holding midfielder, two attacking midfielders, two wingers and one striker/centre forward. The graphic below shows their starting areas on the pitch.



The idea is to maintain this shape, no matter where the ball is. This is where mobility appears. If, for example, the right full back goes running towards the touch-line for a cross, then someone else has to be playing as ‘right full back’, occupying that space. Who? Well, there are several options: you can have the other three defenders shuffle to the right to cover this gap, or, the right attacking midfielder can drop back behind the right full back. The central midfielder could even adjust his position to the right. The graphic below provides an example of how the rest of the team reacts to the right full back’s movement in order to maintain the basic shape:



Ultimately, the rest of the players in the team have to move according to this first movement. As a result, at certain moments of the game, a lot of players can be out of their ‘natural’ positions, but the team continues to maintain its structure. Importantly, when we talk about ‘structure’ we have to think of it not as a rigid one, but as a mobile one that allows the movement of all of the players from their starting positions.

A lot of us remember the Clockwork Orange, in which Johan Cruyff could be crossing from the left and the winger from the opposite side, Johnny Rep, arriving to finish the move. Or defender Ruud Krol may be the one crossing while midfielder Willem ban Hanegem kept his place. If the ball was cleared by the opposition defenders, it was immediately recovered again by any of the Dutch players placed around the pitch. That recovering player wouldn’t necessarily be the one who started the game in the area of the pitch in which the ball ended up being recovered.

Most of what has been said here will sound familiar to a lot of people, particularly if the shirt in mind has red and blue stripes, and the names of the players are Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Eric Abidal, Xavi Hernandez or Carles Puyol, and the manager is someone like Pep Guardiola.

Does this mean that Barça played some form of Total Football? We could say the answer is yes. Was the Dutch national team also playing some form of Positional Play, therefore? I also could say yes. That doesn’t mean they are one and the same.

That’s because unlike Total Football, Positional Play has another key word: patience. As Johan Cruyff himself said regarding his own Barcelona, “If I have the ball, you don’t have it and, if you want to score, you need to do two things. The first one is to get the ball”.

By looking at this simple statement you can understand what the aim of Positional Play is. Having the ball? Absolutely not. The aim is to score. Always. As with any other style of play, the winner of the match is the one that scores the most goals. Possession is just a tool in order to do that. It is important to keep that in mind.

When you are playing Total Football the speed at which you go from defensive positions to attacking ones isn’t a key issue. When the style is Positional Play, it is. Why? Because these days we need to move our entire structure from one point to another point located 40m away. This structure is heavy: it contains 11 players. We said before that this structure is mobile, but this doesn’t mean that it can be elongated infinitely. It’s like your muscles and ligaments: stretch it too much and it’s broken. When it’s broken, players are out of position and the gaps are too big. The other teams will find those spaces and use them to score. Easily.

In Total Football the most important thing is to create confusion with the movement of players, usually at a very high speed. Forget patience: the players need to arrive in the opposition area quickly, and it doesn’t matter too much if the structure is perfectly placed. We’ll fix it later. In Positional Play, along with the structure, tempo is the key, as we are looking to vary our pace in order to create spaces in which to put the killer pass. That’s why we are all going to miss Xavi Hernandez so much, but that’s another story.

You can follow Jordi on Twitter here, while his website Futbol Pirineus has much more of the above.

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Xavi Hernandez, Barça and conceptual continuity

After years of dithering, delaying and postponement, this summer marks an unavoidable turning point for FC Barcelona. The much talked about ‘revolution’.  At the start of last season, five of the players that participated regularly in the club’s Champions League win in 2006 were still members of the first team squad. At the start of next season, only two are likely to remain.

The departure of Victor Valdes is one that was flagged up well in advance by the player himself, while the end to Carles Puyol’s battle with his own body has unfolded steadily before the eyes of supporters. In the case of Xavi Hernandez however, everything was slightly more opaque until very recently, with few certain over what his future would hold. While the midfielder has undoubtedly suffered over the last two years or so, there have been conflicting attitudes over whether he still has something to offer at the highest level, or if it is time to cut the cord definitively.

In the end the player appears to have made the decision himself. Not content Barcelona’s attitude towards him in recent months, the proud midfielder has now decided he would rather go elsewhere to see out his final days as a player than take up a bit-part role at a team he once drove forward. According to TV3’s Xavi Torres, a meeting recently took place between Xavi’s agent, sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta and president Josep Maria Bartomeu, with the conclusion being that the club would do everything possible to facilitate the player’s departure. Whether that means allowing him to leave on a free transfer or otherwise has yet to be divulged. The prevailing reaction to the news is best summed up by the Catalan phrase ‘Bon vent i barca nova’; thanks for the service, now have a good journey.

Are the club and its supporters being a tad hasty in wishing Xavi bon vent, however? If we use the dangerous method of Twitter posts as a way of gauging opinions on the midfielder, then apparently it’s no big loss. The general reaction to the news of his departure has been shaped by the midfielder’s diminishing returns on the pitch over the last few years, yet I can’t help but feel like much of the analysis is lacking the details of the full picture. Are we really certain that Xavi’s reduced performances are the cause of Barcelona’s decline, or rather, has he also suffered from the effects?

Xavi’s game relies on orden, order. Both providing it and working within it. Put him in a well-structured, fine-tuned team and he will drive it forward, always finding the right pass and always ready to receive from his teammates. Place him in an anarchic, almost structureless side like Barcelona’s over the last few years however, and he is likely to suffer.

The image that sums this up best was a recurring one last season: Victor Valdes kicking the ball long and Xavi Hernandez standing in the middle as it sails over his head. Not exactly playing to the strengths of Barcelona’s second captain. The reasons for Barcelona’s decline are likely to be multiple, but one certain cause is the reduced importance on practicing key mechanisms of their game in training. As a result, play off the ball has become slack, with less clear lines of passing available at the speed they once were, making it more difficult for someone like Xavi, who relies on off the ball movement, to control a game. When carried out at 100%, Barcelona’s way of playing football can be brutally effective, yet it is also a high-risk strategy. When delivered at an inferior level, it all begins to fall apart. The use of a single midfield pivot, high defensive line and attacking fullbacks, for example, all key aspects of Barcelona’s game, can in turn create weaknesses that are relatively simple to exploit for intelligent opponents if other, equally important mechanisms are not also present.

Perhaps Xavi is a significant part of the diminishing execution of Barcelona’s model – the natural process of aging means it is inevitable that his own way of playing football will alter slightly over the years. Yet at the same time, I think it is telling that it was he who spoke up last season when senior squad members felt Tata Martino’s training methods were not up to the high standards the players were accustomed to. The 34-year-old should know: he has been training the ‘Barcelona way’ for over two decades. His body may be changing, but his mind is still there, and within that brain lies a better understanding of how to execute Barcelona’s football than any other active player on the planet.

There is and will continue to be a huge turnover in Barcelona’s squad this summer, bigger than perhaps any other summer over the last decade, so having access to the knowledge in that mind could be an invaluable commodity for Luis Enrique in showing new squad members how to put those key ideas into practice not only quickly but effectively. How to maintain Barcelona’s conceptual continuity, if you like.

Conceptual continuity is a term I’ve borrowed from the late Frank Zappa, the American composer whose body of work spans over 100 albums (and counting). Zappa made a regular habit of breaking up then reinventing his performing bands over the course of a four decade long career. As the musicians came and went so too did certain aspects of the music. Some players were best suited to jazz, some to rock, some to orchestral music and some to a combination of all of those things. Zappa picked and chose the players according to what he wanted to deliver sonically. Yet at the same time as these various genre elements dipped in and out of his music in parallel with the ever-changing roll call of musicians at his disposal, Zappa was a master of maintaining key sonic traits, motifs and musical markers. As a result, everything in his vast body of work is instantly recognisable as Zappa, regardless of the genre any of his given groups could be most closely related to. That, in essence, is conceptual continuity: while his work varied wildly, it is all in some way tied to an overarching concept.

One of the key ways Zappa maintained conceptual continuity was by keeping certain band members on his books long enough to educate the newcomers in how to perform his work. While he completely restructured his group between various decades, musicians also straddled different periods. The multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood, for example, spanned the late 60s group and the early 70s. Keyboard player George Duke overlaps the early 70s and mid 70s period. Drummer Terry Bozzio played in both the mid 70s and late 70s bands. Guitarist Steve Vai first worked with Zappa in the late 70s and continued into the early 80s. Bassist Scott Thunes the early 80s to late 80s period. And so on, and so forth.

While Zappa himself was always the dominant force in instructing musicians on how to perform his work, the simple reality is that he wasn’t a virtuoso drummer, bassist or even guitarist in the strictest sense of the term, and he wasn’t afraid to admit it. As such, having musicians with both the experience and the technical ability necessary to show new band members how to execute his most difficult passages was an invaluable commodity. Zappa chose the musicians mentioned above as his practical teachers because they were among the best in the world at what they do. Think of Vai as the Lionel Messi of Guitar playing, Bozzio the Carles Puyol of drumming and George Duke the Xavi of jazz keyboard and piano playing. Which brings me back to the veteran midfielder.

Barcelona no longer have their Frank Zappa – Johan Cruyff has long since been frozen out of the club – but they do have their Terry Bozzio, Steve Vai or George Duke. A virtuoso player capable of instructing others in how to best carry out Cruyff’s ideas and the key roles within the Barcelona model in general. Newcomers like Ivan Rakitic, for example, may find it is far easier to assimilate the tasks required of a central midfielder in Barcelona’s system if he has the master of playing that role available to show him first hand, every day in training. With it absolutely essential that Barcelona hit the ground running next season if they want to avoid being left behind both domestically and in Europe, Xavi’s knowledge could be the difference-maker.

It is important to note that the current path Xavi seems to be heading down isn’t only shaped by the club – it is also shaped by the player. The Catalan still feels he has something left to offer at Barça, and evidently isn’t content with being thrown the scraps of a more or less symbolic part (one of the reasons he is believed to be more ‘out’ than ‘in’ at the moment is a discrepancy between what he feels his role should be next season and what the club thinks). While Xavi cannot continue to play every minute of every game for the Catalans however, one hopes the club was smart enough to make an effort to sell him the idea of a different but important job within the team. There is reliable information to suggest otherwise, and more than a hint that Barcelona would be happy to see a big earner leave.

Xavi wouldn’t only be useful to Barcelona as a teacher, but also as a unique player capable of coming off the bench and using his experience to see out difficult games, or stepping in as a starter on occasion when required, as Ryan Giggs has done so effectively for Manchester United over the best part of the last five years. The midfielder has been the subject of significant criticism in the aftermath of Spain’s humiliation against the Netherlands, but as is often the case in football, the result doesn’t tell the whole picture. In the second half he certainly struggled, yet look at the first 45 minutes in isolation and you will see an accomplished performance. Managing Xavi’s time on the pitch is the key. Like all precious things in small commodities, he should be used sparingly. That doesn’t mean he stops being useful, however.

If the last three decades at the Camp Nou tell us anything, it is that while Luis Enrique’s Barcelona won’t play exactly like Guardiola’s Barcelona, just as Guardiola’s didn’t play exactly like Rijkaard’s, Rijkaard’s like Van Gaal’s and so on, the new manager should aim to maintain a certain degree of conceptual continuity, and a return to working hard on the key mechanisms of the Barcelona model will be important in the club’s success going forward. Rebuilding is always a difficult process, but rebuilding with a master stonemason on the books is a much more comfortable one. Perhaps both Xavi and Barcelona need to reconsider, for the best of both parties.

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