This is Phil Ball's weekly column for soccernet. Always thought he was one of the better football writers around and I think this week's was particularly good. Worth a read.http://soccernet.espn.go.com/columns/story?id=738484&sec=europe&root=europe&cc=4716
"Successful football is about good habits," quoth Brian Clough, more or less in those words. Maybe so. What he meant was that you inculcate good habits into a player on the training ground to the extent that the player then reproduces them automatically on match-days, usually without the manager's further intervention.
Clough, for one, was famous for not turning up for training sessions, preferring to take his dog for a walk, which was his implicit way of acknowledging that the habits had been taken on. Vicente Del Bosque is another one from this school of management, preferring not to change the well-oiled Luis Aragonés machine, and only applying fine-tuning when necessary.
When this works well, a team can seem invincible. When it's the other way around, the negative runs can seem irreversible. The phrase that often accompanies these two states is 'winning/losing mentality', since a simpler explanation seems to be required by the general public. But it's a combination of habits and a state of mind, from the background work that has been put in.
My team, Grimsby Town, lost at home to Notts County last Saturday and established a club record of 20 consecutive games without a win. That's some going, since the club was founded in 1878. I saw them play at Christmas, as I mentioned in this column, and they drew at home to Bury, needlessly conceding a penalty in the last minute of the game. It was a result of bad habits, an inability to both kill the game and hold onto the ball for any longer than a couple of seconds. It was nothing to do with bad luck.
With this not particularly in mind, I watched an indulgent amount of football over the weekend, for a married man with children. May St Peter understand, in the end, that it was all in the service of ESPN. On Saturday morning I watched a junior game of my son's ex-team, then nipped home to watch the Liverpool derby on the box. Early evening I watched some Spanish second division fare, with Murcia playing Real Sociedad, then wandered out to the bar to have a look at Barcelona versus Getafe. The wonderful Strictly Come Dancing has been replaced by the appalling So You Think You Can Dance?, leaving me no option but to leave the house. When I returned, I took in Real Madrid v Espanyol, and finished off in a semi-vegetative state as the English Match of the Day droned by.
On the Sunday morning I went to watch my son play for Antiguoko, the boys' team that produced Xabi Alonso, Mikel Arteta, Aritz Aduriz and several others now plying their professional trade. They won 3-0, went top of a league in which they are a year younger than the rest of the teams, and basically proved Clough's point - or is it Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola's?
Antiguoko were visited by a delegation from Liverpool last year to see how it's done, and visited this year by a Japanese delegation for similar reasons. They're a humbler Ajax Academy, and are not affiliated to any professional team. Neither do they enjoy the facilities that Ajax possess. The visitors sent by Benitez were stunned to find that the club had no ground of its own, sharing a municipal one with a score of other local clubs. The present squad, plus recent additions like my son, went the first three years of its existence without losing a single match. The first time was to Barcelona, in a national tournament. Their tactical system is slightly rigid, and it takes time for newcomers to get used to it, but the players are basically wired into a curious 'we shall not lose' paradigm. It's kind of scary, and I think they'd probably beat Grimsby, in spite of only being 14 year-olds. Scary in the same way as Barça were, on Saturday night.
Barça still haven't lost in the league this season, and the Getafe game in the Camp Nou was an interesting demonstration of why not. It marked a line across the league, a possible 'they shall not pass' in reference to their closest pursuers, Real Madrid. If ever there was an occasion in which they were likely to lose, this was it. The fact that they won comfortably (the 2-1 scoreline masks the truth), was a slap in the face of Madrid's dogged rearguard actions, condemned for several weeks now to the act of entering the fray with the sole motive of needing to win in order to reduce Barça's temporary eight-point lead to five. They must be getting a bit fed up of waiting for the leaders to blow it.
But hope springs eternal in the breast, despite the fact that Messi had opened the scoring with another wonder goal to add to his burgeoning collection, hitting a curling shot first time with his instep that left Codina grasping at the ether. Twenty minutes later, Gerard Piqué took out Rafa with a clumsy and aggressive-looking challenge which earned him a direct red, although you might argue that the decision was a tad harsh. It wasn't the first problem of the night, since Dani Alves had already gone for an earlier bath having injured himself in the warm-up.
Problem? Not really. Getafe are a good side, and are not afraid to have a go in a place like the Camp Nou, and for twenty minutes or so after Pique walked they controlled the game and should have equalised. But the curious thing about that initial period of numerical inequality was that it made absolutely no difference to Barça's basic approach. Helenio Herrera once said that he preferred to play with ten men because it suited his tactical mentality and approach to the game, but he was talking about parking the bus and renouncing anything resembling so much as a counter-attack. Barça did no such thing, and only made minimal tactical adjustments.
At one point (I made a note of the time - 33 minutes, 24 seconds), Getafe gave the ball away just inside their own half and were suddenly swarmed upon by marauding azulgranas, effected with such speed that Getafe were suddenly outnumbered four to five at the back. Xavi almost scored, and the pattern for the second half was set.
As time wore on in the game, particularly after Ibrahimovic had given way to Sergio Busquets, Barça seemed to have more men on the pitch than Getafe. It never occurred to Barcelona that they might lose. Instead of retiring into the trenches and letting Getafe have the run of Camp Nou, they simply played their usual possession game, using Messi as the lone reference up front, but making sure that whenever he had the ball he would scare the Getafe defenders into the sort of defensive scurrying that impeded their staging a comeback. When you're 11 on 10, you wage a war of attrition on your tiring opponents, and eventually it pays off. Instead, Getafe seemed to be constantly on the back foot, much to manager Michel's growing desperation.
Messi sealed it after 66 minutes, setting off with five Getafe players in pursuit and like a mother bird leading predators from her nest, he za-zoomed to the left of the area as Xavi crept up behind and stole into the unguarded space to the right. Messi stopped on a 50-cent piece, turned and passed it over with his right foot, upon which Xavi finished the game. Getafe's penalty in extra-time, which resulted in Rafa Marquez being sent off, was hardly significant.
The funniest aspect of all this was the continued campaign in the Madrid press the following day about how Barcelona are being aided and abetted by the referees. Interesting one that. Barça had two players sent off and conceded a penalty. The referee, Teixiera Vitienes, was clearly a secret Catalan. If it weren't so pathetic it would be amusing. Apparently Ibra was offide for the first goal, and the ref turned a 'clear' penalty down when Rios actually dived over Abidal. Sending off two Barça players was clearly an attempt to hide his bias, and the fact that the two players will be missing for the trip to Atlético Madrid next week is irrelevant, of course. Txiki Begiristain, finally losing his patience with this niggly little campaign, let forth some emotional steam on Sunday morning, but he might be better off just ignoring it.
Barcelona sent out a message to the rest of the league on Saturday night. Its content was basically 'we're going to win the league again, and there's not much you can do about it'. The good habits have not been formed entirely by Guardiola, but he has added to them and is not a hands-off manager. Barça do not view defeat as a possibility. So far it's a mojo that's working fine.