Barcelona’s influence in the soccer world is not just about the aesthetic quality produced by the La Masia nurtured technicians. They have reopened the eternal debate of how the game should be played. Their mystical football has given us pleasure, but at the same time has influenced a significant number of clubs and countries. For the greater good, perhaps.
Soccer has evolved, and the voices speaking of its effect in English soccer have been resounding. Several pundits have been saying of late that the English game, which is traditionally known for its physical approach, is becoming more technical and less physical thanks to the revolutionary role played by the Blaugrana.
Teams such as Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool now try to play more proactive football with a lesser direct approach. And question marks are now being raised over the place of an Andy Carroll in the team.
But Everton manager David Moyes thought otherwise when the Toffees faced a Manchester United side where returning captain Nemanja Vidic and midfielder Michael Carrick were entrusted with the central defensive duties.
The Scotsman deployed the sturdy Marouane Fellaini in the hole behind Nikica Jelavic, with long balls aimed at him continually throughout the game. A tactic that was hugely successful in the 4-4 stalemate between the same teams at Old Trafford last season. And the story wasn’t much different this time round either.
The Belgian produced an impeccable display of physicality and technique that wreaked havoc on the United defence. Winning virtually everything in the air, he stood tall like an indefatigable pillar that was never really going to be broken down.
Fellaini’s performance was not only about his physical supremacy but also his technical brilliance. His ball control was superb as he successfully used his hold-up play to create chances for himself and his team-mates. Covering a lot of ground, and of course, heading home the 57th-minute winner, Fellaini was at the heart of everything Everton did.
United never really had any answer to the spirit and aggression of the 24-year-old. The Red Devils had technically more superior midfielders in the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Paul Scholes, but none could match the ex-Anderlecht man’s dominance.
So what does really matter at the end of the day? Physique? Technique?
Earlier this year, Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez, one of the shortest footballers in Europe at just 1.70 metres, voiced his opinion in this context.
“Talent is the decisive factor in football, much more than physical presence. I’m convinced that it’s technical quality that makes the difference,” Xavi told Sport.
“Back in 2002-03, people told me that I wasn’t suited to play in the centre of the pitch as you needed to be physically strong. I have shown you don’t need you be a physical player to be a top midfielder.”
How right he is. There is absolutely no doubt about the fact that it is technical quality that matters the most. A physical side wins nothing without sound technical ability. A team based on physicality can run kilometres and work hard, but it must also possess the ability to move the ball around well to create doubts in the minds of the opposition.
And when you possess both technical deftness and physical prowess, it becomes a devastating combination. Be it as a player or a team. Fellaini exemplified that yesterday.
The English game might be becoming more technical but that does not necessarily establish that it has to become less physical. Technical and physical ability can co-exist. And when they do, you might become unplayable. Just like Fellaini was.