There are very few teams who can do what Barcelona have; keeping the sympathy and support of the neutrals despite dominating Spanish and, to an extent, European football. Few seem to begrudge their success and, if anything, many cheer them on. If someone other than my team has to win, then I’d rather it is Barcelona.
The reason for that lies in the way that they play the game. The verve, creativity and fluidity of their movement is as spellbinding for those watching as it is to the defenders who are trying to stop them from scoring.
Look closer, however, and you start noticing something strange; that their play seems to follow a very rigid pattern. The six-seconds rule – press in order to try to win back possession for six second after losing it and if that doesn’t happen, retreat back to your half of the pitch – is perhaps the most famous such pattern but there are others.
Take, yet again, their action when they’re trying to get the ball. Barcelona’s players don’t simply move to win the ball, they wait for very specific movements to occur. One is waiting for the opposing player to turns towards his own goal; another is if he mis-controls it to the extent that he has to look downwards to verify where the ball is. Barcelona players have been trained to realise that those are the moments when others are at their weakest and that is when they have to make their move.*
Their attacking play also follows a similar set of patterns. Contrary to most teams, upon winning the ball a Barcelona player doesn’t try to move it forward as quickly as possible, but rather moves it on to a team-mate. And when this happens, based on which area of the pitch the ball is, everyone knows what runs to make and what spaces to look for.
Barcelona’s game, then, isn’t a spontaneous expression of genius but rather the perfect execution of a series of deeply ingrained habits.
There have been many sides who have been built on habits even if, in football, the term often used is ‘mechanical’; a somewhat revealing description that shows the disdain for the lack of creativity that such teams show.
The classic example was Wimbledon in the nineties where, as soon as they got the ball, defenders hoofed it as far forward and into the channels as possible knowing that there would be a team-mate waiting. Once that happened, the rest of the team knew what they had to do and what runs they had to make.
For them, their defenders winning possession of the ball was the trigger that set off a series of well drilled actions. That was their habit.
In his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg talks of the “habit loop”. This is set off by a cue, the trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode. Then there is the routine, which can be
physical or mental or emotional behavior. Finally, there is a reward.
From a Wimbledon circa 1990 point of view then, the cue was the defenders getting the ball, the routine was the ball being hit into the channel and runs that the players made whilst the reward was the goalscoring opportunity created. It is a rather simplistic analysis – for instance within that overarching habit there probably were other habits that defined what runs were made depending on the positioning of the opposing team – but it serves its purpose of describing how habits can appear within a game.
When spoken of Wimbledon, ‘habits’ do not really raise eyebrows. If anything, it is further confirmation that the relative success of a technically limited group of players was down to repetition rather than anything else.
Barcelona, however, are different. Their success is down to the talent and skill of their players; the fluidity of their game is the antithesis of Wimbledon’s up-and-at-them tactics.
Yet, whilst the approaches might be different, the basic mechanism is the same for both teams. Look again at how Barcelona press for the ball. They wait until the opposing player turns to face the goal or miss-controls the ball – the cue – at which point the Barcelona players close him down to put pressure and hopefully force an error – the routine – and then win back the ball – the reward.
Indeed, if you start looking at the way that some of the greatest teams in the history have functioned, then you’re bound to start noticing how much habits influenced them. During the glory days of the seventies and eighties, Liverpool were famed for their pass and move style of play. To drill this into the players the coaching staff had them regularly playing five-a-side games which essentially was a way of instilling in them the habit of looking for team-mates and then moving into space.
The examples keep flowing. The offside trap that defined Arsenal for a generation was based on habits making their defensive movement an instinctive one (including the raised hands). Same goes for AC Milan’s pressing game or Valeri Lobanovsky’s Dynamo Kiev; both sides whose manner of playing was shaped through obsessive and repetitive training.
This acceptance of the power of habit is vital for coaches looking to shape their teams’ strategies. Looking to instil positive habits – and remove negative ones – will determine their ability to be successful.
One of Alex Ferguson’s earliest decisions as a manager, and also one of the most controversial, was that of getting rid of Paul McGrath. The central defender was a big fans’ favourite yet his alcohol abuse was a huge problem, not because it greatly affected the player’s own performance but because of the effect that it had on the rest of the team.
Ferguson realised that if he was to have discipline and remove the drinking culture prevalent at United (like most English sides at the time) he had to take a drastic action and that came in the sale of McGrath. In effect, Ferguson realised that McGrath was serving as a cue for others; seeing him made other think that there was no issue with them drinking. McGrath’s persistent injuries might have also played a role but not having him around made his job of changing the culture at the club easier.
The power of habit doesn’t end there. Despite the modern (albeit justified) fascination with intelligent footballers, players who can think quickly to fix things when they aren’t going well, that behaviour only applies to specific instances. Instead, in a lot of cases, you want them to follow the usual patterns because that is what will ensure that they perform to their normal capabilities.
Otherwise, they risk making mistakes. A typical instance comes during high pressure games when the less experienced might try to hard to perform but only end up doing the opposite. In such games it is easy to claim that the player bottled it when perhaps the right phrase is to say that he over thought it.
Even at the highest levels it easy to let the emotions of a big game get to you; clouding your judgement and diminishing your ability to do the simplest of task. What happens in most cases is that people start believing that since this is such an important game they have to do things differently than usual. Thus, rather than carry out moves fueled only by past experience – the repetitive motions that they done time after time – they try something a bit different.
When you're playing against a strong team is, arguably, the worst time to try something different because you're faced by players who can really make you pay if that moved doesn't work out. And when you're trying something different there is a good chance that it won't work out.
The aim, then, has to be that of infusing your team with the habits that you want or that best suit your situation and then making sure that they have complete confidence in those habits. It doesn't mean that you exclude creativity or intelligence - Barcelona are proof of that - but ensuring that you have a solid platform on which to build.
*Highlighted by Simon Kuper in an article titled ‘Pep’s Golden Rules’ that appeared in Issue 9 of the Blizzard magazine.