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Gaffer troubled by lack of playing time for many of the players.

Nigeria coach Lars Lagerback is worried by the lack of playing time for many members of his squad at their clubs leading up to the World Cup.

The coach, who is compiling data on the players he has shortlisted in his provisional 45-man squad for the World Cup, is also speaking to the coaches of their respective clubs, team spokesman Idah Peterside says.

Lagerback is yet to visit any of his players, or watch them play, but Peterside explained that he was taking it step by step.

"Right now, he is compiling data on all the players, how they are doing at their clubs and the number of games and minutes they have played," Peterside told KickOffNigeria.com.

So far, those numbers have given the Swede little to cheer, and Peterside says Lagerback is keen to do something about the situation.

"He wants to speak to the players individually to find out why they are not playing. At the same time, he is calling the coaches to ask why his potentially World Cup-bound players are not getting game time.

"By the time he visits the clubs, he will be in a better position to understand the situation from both the players and their coaches' points of view."

Nigeria will play Argentina in their Group B opening game on June 12 in Johannesburg.


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As we head into this weekend’s mouth-watering Clasico at the Santiago Bernabeu, I cannot help but wonder if anyone else gets a feeling of déjà vu? In the match prior to last season’s 6-2 Clasico win at the Santiago Bernabeu, Barcelona had just played a thrilling first-leg Champions League draw at the Camp Nou against Chelsea. In the match prior to Barca’s 1-0 Clasico victory at the Camp Nou earlier this season, the Blaugrana dismantled Inter Milan 2-0 at the Camp Nou in a match that could have seen a far higher scoreline. Thus, as we approach Saturday’s Clasico at the Bernabeu, it is difficult not to get the feeling that we have been here before. But will the trend hold with a similarly Barca-centric result on Saturday?

Against Arsenal, Barcelona (and Lionel Messi in particular) picked apart the Gunners as a child cruelly pulls the legs, one by one, off of a hapless insect. The Premier League side did manage to threaten and even managed to score first, but at no point during the course of the match did it look as if Barca had lost control. How is it possible, in this the modern age of football, for one team to so thoroughly dominate not just Arsenal, but many of the teams widely considered to be the world’s elite?

Any fan of football, regardless of team allegiance, can appreciate the manner in which the Blaugrana impose their own style of play upon a match whether they are playing in the comfortable confines of the Camp Nou or the hostile hornet’s nest of the Emirates stadium. It is a style of play that Madrid fans find particularly infuriating, as it is exactly the sort of attractive, attacking style that Madridistas have longed for their team to exhibit and compelled the Blanco hierarchy to sack coaches of the highest pedigree like Fabio Capello. So widely admired is Barca’s play that if the Blaugrana put on a footballing master class in the Bernabeu, the Madridista crowd, ever appreciative of fantastic football (albeit somewhat envious) could even go so far as to chant “Olé” for their arch-rivals.

Messi had a first half hat trick in last night’s match against Arsenal and eventually scored all four of Barca’s goals in the match (frankly, he could have had more). Xavi Hernandez passed the ball 123 times as he pulled strings in the midfield—he finished with a 95% rate of accuracy with his passes. But these astounding statistics only go so far in qualifying what exactly Barca does that makes them so good.

Generally speaking, what makes Barca such a strong team is exactly that—they play as a team. But what exactly does that mean? Always the perfectionist, coach Pep Guardiola has created a squad that works together as single organism. As any elite athlete or coach will tell you, it comes down to perfecting the fundamentals—the little things—that breed a champion. And no one does the little things as well as Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. The Cule fans seem to have understood this ideology as well, as every effort to exert this control on a match is greeted by enthusiastic cheers. And so, no particular order, the following is a list of some of the “little things” Barcelona do so successfully in matches, one can only speculate how many times they have been drilled into the head of each team member in training:

On The Grass

For those that have taken the time to compare some of the intricacies of Barcelona’s style of play with that of other teams, one will notice the a marked difference in how the Barca manage the ball—that is, the emphasis they place upon playing it at their feet.

One of the most notable examples of how Barca strive to keep the ball is how they fight to either gain or retain possession in 50-50 balls. While Madrid’s players spend time trying to gain position to win balls in the air, Barca players, at the unwavering behest of their coach, dismiss the physical nature of aerial volleyball and instead opt for killing the ball on the green of the pitch in as short of time as possible. The directive seems to be “control, control, control” and the best way to gain and maintain control of the ball is when it is at one’s feet. Madrid’s midfield has improved in doing this with the additions of Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa, but Barca remain the masters at this tactic.

The philosophy of on-the-pitch passing (in footballing terms called a push pass) is employed in every facet of Barca’s game, whether defenders are trying to win balls in the air (usually it is just one header to the foot of a teammate or even a chest pass and control is secured), or midfielders are trying to engineer an attack. Rarely is a long-range chip above head height attempted; the ball is passed on the grass and for longer passes, it usually travels no higher a player’s hip, picking up grass stains as it skips along the way—both methods have a much higher percentage of being completed and thus ensure Barca’s domination of possession.

So adherent are Barca to this philosophy that even Victor Valdes rarely takes booming goal kicks or clearances. Instead, the ball is filtered out on the grass, usually to one of the two central defenders that have spread wide to each wing in an effort to open up the centre of the pitch.

Even free kicks are regulated by this rule. Free kicks won too far away for a direct effort on goal are frequently taken as fast as possible and often with a simple but incisive pass so that the team’s rhythm of play is not disturbed. The theory seems to be that the opposing defence was out of position, thus being forced to commit the foul in order to gain a respite to readjust. If the free kick is taken immediately, the defence should still be out of position and the weakness the opposing team hoped to cover by fouling should still be able to be exploited. Some Liga fans may remember Barca scoring in a crucial Liga fixture against Sporting de Gijon earlier this season using this exact tactic, as a quickly taken free kick led to a Pedro goal. Against Arsenal last night, the same thing almost occurred again as Busquets was fouled, but Messi took the free kick immediately only to see Pedro miss his chip over Almunia.

Keeping the ball on the grass is also better suited for circulating the ball quickly and facilitating Barca’s trademarked one-touch passing. It is easier to make the ball travel faster on the pitch than it is in longer passes through the air that would allow a defender to arrive in time to intercept or put a player off the ball. Further, it takes far less time to control a pass that has remained on the grass than it does to control one through the air, allowing Barca players more time to evade hounding defenders and keep possession.

Even in (especially in) tight spaces, Barca refuse to relinquish their commitment to this passing philosophy. Countless times we have seen the Blaugrana manipulate the ball along the wing, finding a way out of a congested area on the sideline and delivering an outlet backward to retain possession or toward the centre of the pitch to switch the point of attack. Just to take a contrasting example, Madrid’s Raul Albiol tends to clear his way out of danger with a booming kick in the opposite direction: an effective method, but also one that significantly diminishes the chances of retaining possession of the ball (curiously, partnering centre back Ezequiel Garay tends to be more conscious of retaining possession and frequently tries to one-touch his way out of trouble to considerable effect).

Dynamism

Even when under pressure the Blaugrana refuse to abandon their style. And fundamental to that style is the obligation each player has to keep moving. During the opening minutes of last night’s match, Arsenal pressed the Barca midfield, hoping to force a mistake. But instead of opting for long balls over the top to the forwards, Guardiola instructed his forwards to track back into the midfield to receive a pass and immediately hand the ball off to a nearby midfielder or return the ball to the defender delivering the pass. This route does take more patience and physical effort on the part of the Barca players, but the rewards are clearly apparent. Even if a forward makes a cut back for a pass and does not receive the ball, the run creates an outlet elsewhere as the opposing defenders shift to cover the retreating forward’s run. This sort of collective play benefits the entire team and is not only noticed by Guardiola, but engineered.

When watching Barca pass the ball around the midfield, the second a player releases a pass, he is immediately moving to either receive the ball again or create space for a teammate. It is this constant movement that keeps Barca’s offence flowing and the opposing defence on its heels as it tries to keep up. This movement forces the defenders to constantly assess and re-adjust their positions so that their team does not lose its shape against the advancing Blaugrana.

Even the subtlest of movements keep the Barca offence flowing. Such simple but effective movements used to only be performed by Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta, but now the rest of the team has followed suit. Of course the two moves are the stop-start move Messi uses to throw defenders off balance and then blaze past them and the small circle Xavi runs in to evade a defender and deliver the next pass.

The former move (for a long time only performed by Messi, Iniesta, and Henry but since adopted by Ibrahimovic, Abidal, and Maxwell) gives the player on the ball the option of either blowing past the defender or passing the ball to a teammate who can then in turn return the ball in the space the defender has left in responding to the initial feign. Xavi’s move is all the more simple: running a small circle in the midfield in which the player on the ball quite literally “chases” the space from which the pressuring defender came, retracing his own steps and giving himself more time and passing lanes to work with.

Of course, Barca’s commitment to dynamic play is best exemplified in their defence. Keeping in mind the same principles that allow them to perform so well, the Blaugrana are relentless in pressuring their opposition in order to force them into making a cardinal mistake—one that usually involves lifting the ball into the air.

The defence starts with the forwards and against Arsenal, it was Pedro, Bojan, or Messi who would sprint forward, not giving the Gunner central defenders or keeper a moment’s peace to comfortably take the next pass. Of course this would then result in a booming clearance, a pass that has a much lower percentage of being completed, thus allowing Barca to reclaim their vice-like grip of possession. It was this relentless pursuit of the ball that sparked Barca's second goal as Pedro came back to collect the ball on a deflected cross and then ceded to Messi who slotted home.

The forwards and midfielders are so committed to defence that Pedro and Messi can often times be seen behind Sardou Keita on the pitch, sprinting hard and fast to cover on a counterattack or to intercept a pass. Again, as a contrasting example, Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain, while helpful in the upper midfield in terms of defence, rarely are seen expending the energy of a full sprint just to pressure an opposing central defender into giving up possession.

Messi

Perhaps Barcelona’s biggest “little thing” of all is Lionel Messi. As Arsene Wenger so succinctly put it after last night’s match, “Messi is like a player on Playstation”. It is difficult to say much more than that to adequately express just how much the diminutive Argentine’s talent appears to come from another world.

Thus, as Barcelona come off of yet another supreme Champions League performance ahead of El Gran Clasico, Real Madrid would do well to take note of the “little things” the Blaugrana do so well. If Manuel Pellegrini and Los Blancos study the Blaugrana, heed the above warnings, and devise a strategy to neutralize them, they could very well beat Barca and restore both their reputation and pride. If not, it could be a very long night in the Spanish capital…