Barcelona Doing Fine Leaving it Late: Possession and Tiredness

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Barcelona struggled to break down Granada but finally scored twice in the last five minutes. How does possession affect tiredness, and what other factors are at play in these late surges?

Granada's goalkeeper, Toño, turned in a virtuoso performance over the weekend that would have made Paganini jealous.

Barcelona, who have what some people consider the greatest bunch of attackers ever assembled, launched wave after wave of attacks for what seemed like an eternity. They all crashed harmlessly against the one man defensive wall - a wall that somehow possessed cat-like agility, pouncing on every shot as if the ball was his prey.

For 87 minutes.

That was when Xavi took out the heavy artillery and blasted the impenetrable fortress with a laser-guided missile. 1-0 Barcelona. Five minutes later and Lionel Messi had hit a cross that a Granada defender turned into his own net. 2-0 Barcelona. Game over.

It was remarkable, but par for the course for this season. "Barça keeps tiring you and keeps eroding you," Toño reflected after the team had held out for so long, only to eventually crumble.

Because Barcelona have the world's best passers without a doubt - not just Xavi and Andres Iniesta, but for their positions, players like Messi, Gerard Pique, Victor Valdes, and Sergio Busquets are unparalleled - they will have the ball far more than the other team. For an astonishing 255 matches in a row, Barcelona have held the ball longer than their opponents. This includes all of Pep Guardiola's time as manager.

The other team is forced to chase the ball, thus expending more energy. Thus, tiring quicker. It's a very Spanish form of victory, resembling a bullfighter. He waves his cape as the bull chases it and misses, he moves it somewhere else and the bull misses, and so on until the man has beaten his physically stronger opponent. (Of course, bullfighting involves all kinds of other trickery and the entire concept is morally questionable. No metaphor is perfect!)

It keeps happening. Against Spartak Moscow in the Champions League, Barcelona trailed 1-2 before reversing it to 3-2 in the last portion of the game. Against Osasuna in the league, Barcelona again trailed by one goal before two late goals turned it into a victory.

This chart shows the scoring of Barcelona and opponents in 15 minute intervals:

As you can see, the Blaugrana have scored 9 of their 21 goals in the last sixth of the match. An impressive statistic... but, does the tiredness of the opponent explain it fully?

For one, you will see that Barcelona do not gradually play better as the match wears on and the other team exhausts itself. For another, it is not as if Xavi's goal was necessarily a result of tired defenders. It was just a wonderful strike with what Ray Hudson called "NASA precision."

There are other factors besides tiredness at work here. One is urgency: the team has needed these late goals so it has gone forward bravely in search of goals, and so far, they have gotten them. Another is tactical: manager Tito Vilanova has often changed formations, from a 4-3-3 to a more obviously attacking 3-3-1-3, usually taking off a defender for a forward.

On the other hand, Barcelona does fairly well in the opening 15 minutes despite the opponents not having been tired yet. Their worst periods are actually in the second quarter of an hour and in the first period after halftime. Are they mere coincidences? Possibly, given the small sample. It's still rather noticeable, so it suggests something else might be at play.

Perhaps teams are a bit cautious at the beginning, but still want to attack before they are tired. And maybe it's that after half-time, Barcelona are merely preparing their big charge at the end and haven't quite found their groove.

Whatever the reason is, Tito should be looking into it. After half-time is the time when his players should be doing better, not worse. After all, he has had time to give a halftime speech, fix things tactically, and give instructions. The team should have those things fresh in their minds and be ready to apply them. I don't know if it's that Tito has not done these to a great level or if it just has taken longer for them to sink into the players. Whatever the case, it could be something to address.

On the other hand, the late surges are a testament to both the calm and determination Tito has helped instill in the team and his tactical nous. The team never panics and goes into desperation, rather it channels urgency into purpose to get results. Tito's subs have not exactly been orthodox, but they have worked with great frequency and helped lead comebacks.

The final question I'd like to pose is, is it bad leaving it late? I would say no. Certainly, it'd be nicer to be winning 5-0 coming into the 75th minute than losing, but late goals are more valuable than earlier goals. The opposition has little time to react, the manager usually has few subs left if any, and it affects morale to a much greater extent. Not only that, but opponents are too tired to mount their own comeback.

Toño was gracious after losing, despite his Herculean effort to keep his net unbeaten. "Controlling a match like they control it during 90 minutes is very difficult. They make it easy. They are brilliant and effective."

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