So I’m sure by now there are a fair few neutrals out there who are at least somewhat miffed that Barcelona and Real Madrid keep cruising their way to what is almost always certain to be a two-way battle for top spot in the premier football division in Spain. Well, at least a fair few in Spain are. And although it would be healthy for the Spanish League to maybe have a new second placed team or, dare I say it, a new Champion altogether, the likelihood of that is almost negligible these days, and judging by the statistics, has been for some time. Barcelona and Real together have won 52 top division titles and all the rest of the teams in Spain have together won 28. No contest. So why is the battle for top-spot always just about those two and why are the others pretty much a no-show as far as title credentials are concerned? Simple answer. The others drop points. Real and Barca do not. Why? Because they have better players and because all teams choose to play the way these two sides like to play. Because there are not enough teams in Spain that set themselves out to be “hard to beat” or make their home ground a “fortress”. In fact, the concept of a home ground “fortress” is almost non-existent in Spain, except of course for the top 2, for whom, let’s face it, almost every ground in the top division is a “fortress”.
If we compare that to the Premier League in England, obviously there are more title challengers in England, and these challengers have substantially increased in number in the past decade. So why did we go from pretty much just Man United and Arsenal to a top 4 and now of course talk of a top 6 with Stoke, Newcastle and Villa all threatening to make it may be a top 9? Because there are teams in England, many of them in fact, who set themselves out tactically to be difficult to beat. Look at Stoke City. In a million years Stoke still won’t be able to pass the ball nearly half as well as Barcelona do now, but if they played Barcelona, one thing’s for certain, they will give that team a run-around. Barcelona is class of course, and they will probably stroll to a win if the two met in say a friendly. But imagine a league situation. Barcelona 2 points short of Madrid. 3 games to go in the season. Must-win game away at the Britannia (Hey, I said “imagine” a situation, don’t roll your eyes at me). Will Barcelona find it as easy as say beating an Osasuna or a Rayo Vallecano with 3 games to go? Hell no. Barcelona will have to fight for their win, big-time. Let’s face it, that’s the reason we love the League in England so much. The unpredictability and erratic nature of the game. No-one knows who ends up beating who sometimes and that’s what makes this, in my opinion, the best League in the World. I dare say, if Stoke were in Spain, they’d be up in the top 4 in my opinion. They are organized, they are strong, they are able to grind out key results, and they’ve done it far too often to be passed off as a fluke success like that of Birmingham (who were ultimately relegated) or Bolton (who are pretty much in the dumps now). Stoke City have developed their own unique and it has to be said, effective style of football. It may not be pretty to watch, but Stoke fans are not complaining. Knock-out round of the Europa League and eighth in the League Table is not too shabby for a side with really, no superstars, or even stars for that matter.
I’m not a Stoke fan, not at all. In fact, I’m a purist. I enjoy the way Arsenal and Barcelona (and occasionally this season Man United and City) go about their games, and I love seeing football played “like it should be”, as the purists would say. Get the ball down, and pass it. But even I have to admit that though Stoke’s approach to the game is unorthodox, it gets them fantastic results and has done for quite a while now. Man United, Liverpool and Chelsea have all been to the Britannia this season and they’ve all been held. In fact sorry, Liverpool lost. Stoke are hard to beat. Very very hard. The simple fact is that if Spanish managers would realize how effectively Stoke’s style of play has been adopted now by quite a few teams in England, they too may be able to give the Spanish Elite something to contend with. Holding Barcelona or Real Madrid to a draw is almost a Herculean feat for any other top division Spanish team because they choose to make it Herculean. They try to pass the ball neatly, and tiki-taka their way past (let’s face it) two of the best footballing sides in the world. You cannot beat teams like that at their own game. They are just too good. Just like Stoke can’t beat United, or Arsenal, or even West Brom if they got down to playing football that way. But they can and they have beaten several teams because they have worn them down, frustrated them, and caught them out defensively on set-plays or what have you. And then they slowly but surely have climbed up the table and ended up, rather comfortably I might add, in an FA Cup Final last year.
The main cause of the somewhat non-innovative, really predictable, though admittedly highly entertaining passing style of play employed by virtually all teams in Spain, is that the national team plays that way. The coaches are Spanish, and the Spanish love a pass. They love possession. They love elegance. They don’t love Stoke, no doubt. And while that style of play is a joy to watch, the deterioration of the Spanish League into a “top 2” and “everyone else” has not. Teams are too easy to beat when they play that way because there is nothing different about it. Every week Barca and Real face, quite frankly, similar opponents who are weaker than them. In contrast if you look at England, the national team itself pretty much has no clue what it’s preferred style of playing is. It does not have a set of 25 players, or even a starting eleven in mind who can typify the “England” style of play. What is the England style of play? Defend grittily for 89 minutes and pounce on a knock-down from Darren “no other talent” Bent for Frankie Lampard to finish in an open net? Well, they did beat Spain that way. Who’s to say, maybe it works? These are questions Spanish La Liga team coaches should be asking themselves! Now, plagued as the national team may be by this rather transparent absence of any real style of football, it has had a brilliant and for us, thoroughly entertaining consequence in the league becoming a delicious melee of different styles and well, let’s call them, tactical approaches, to the game. Different managers employ new and innovative techniques and are trying and indeed succeeding in puzzling the top footballing sides in England. Even Sir Alex comes out and openly admits that a point at Stoke and a point at Everton are not bad results. Can you imagine Guardiola saying that about Mallorca or Sporting Gijon? Definitely not. I can even recall an interview where in Arsene Wenger had actually come out and said “We never expected to get a point at Stoke” which would be unthinkable for the Spanish top 2.
All this being said, a team does come to mind who have done rather well against Barcelona and Madrid in recent years and who are in fact not very easy to get past. Athletic Bilbao Football Club are almost always in the top 6 in Spain, and deserve to be. Now they at least seem to be trying to embody a slightly different philosophy to the rest of the lads in Spain and have quite effectively made themselves a difficult side to beat. And they’re doing rather well in Europe too. They, like Stoke, are organized, disciplined and extremely hard to break down. This, shockingly, is not a feature of many top division sides in La Liga. The philosophy usually is, win by out-scoring your opponent. That being said Bilbao of course play a much more entertaining game than Stoke, but then hey, to each his own. Tony Pulis will say, we got the points. Fair play.
The fact of the matter is, that if a few more top division Spanish sides adopted this strategy that Stoke and to an extent Bilbao have adopted, they could really do well for themselves in a League where the rest of the teams all play the same way. They could cause a few problems, while they’re at it, to the boys at the top and this could make for a far more interesting La Liga. Not that the Real-Barca battle is not interesting in itself, but maybe then we all wouldn’t feel so tempted to say, “Hey, if Real win El Clasico they’ll go 9 points clear at the top, League over”. No sir, not if the Stokes of this world have something to say about it. More power to them, I say. Let’s Stoke this Spanish fire.