Most coaches active today can probably name the starting line up of the 2010 Barcelona line up off the top of their head. Starting with the goalkeeper whose technical ability set new standards and expectations for all future goalkeepers. The back 4 who coolly played through any amount of pressure they were placed under. The midfield 3 who created chances seemingly every time they touched the ball. And the front 3 whose one touch play cut through every defense they faced. These ideals are emulated all over the world, but are they appropriate for youth football?
What is the difference between Barcelona and your youth team? That Barcelona team trained together for many hours a week from a very young age, playing the same style of football from the moment they joined Barcelona all the way through their career. The ‘Barcelona way’ is based upon the assumption that they are technically superior to their opposition, which happens as a result of a higher focus on technique than other clubs. If a youth club trains for an hour a week and spends that hour working solely on technique, they may be slightly better technically but they haven’t learned how to put that technique into practise.
Defending is easier than attacking at young ages, a balance which changes to favour the attacker as players develop a change of pace around the time they hit puberty. The pre-pubescent team that spends its time solely working on technique may find it insufficient to play out through opposing team’s pressure. In my experience, pressing teams absolutely dominate at every age group below 14, as children struggle to generate the power to play over the press, let alone with enough accuracy to find their forwards.
The Barcelona style of play may be impossible to replicate at youth level, and trying to do so may see the team struggle. Often I see youth teams who play from GK to CB every time, and the opponents respond by man marking the CBs and winning the ball incredibly high up for an immediate 1v1. This crushes the confidence of the team in possession, and they don’t get the opportunity to do the things they enjoy. Results are not the priority, but the team need to have some influence over the game in order to learn from it.
FC Barcelona have realised this themselves, and as a result their youth teams are not afraid to play over the press. Their GK reads the situation and decides whether to play out through the CBs or not.
If they don’t have a safe option on, they don’t hesitate to play a ball for the forwards to fight for, allowing the CBs time to recover shape if possession is lost.
This requires more than just technique. It requires training goalkeepers and defenders to recognise when to play out, and when not to. This puts decision making in the hands of the players, which in itself can aid their development as they cognitively engage with the learning process. This is the ‘Barcelona way’ that often gets ignored, the impeccable decision making that is not fostered in technique drills.
Barcelona have principles off the pitch that we can emulate also, as their academy refuses to turn players away on the basis of their height or strength. As the primary concern of a youth team is development, each player should be given equal chance to develop, regardless of their build. Having a low centre of gravity is a quality that has been undervalued through the years, but as a tall player myself I know the pain of trying to tackle someone who can change direction multiple times in the time it takes you to get your footing.
As always, I come back to what the players want. They would love to dribble opponents like Barcelona do, to create youtube highlight video moments. They would love to pass around opponents, if only to avoid doing as much defending! We as coaches can encourage these aspects of FC Barcelona’s play without becoming dogmatic, and giving the players the ability to make better decisions gives them a better chance of doing the things they love.