For the Love of the Ball

The history and methods of the FC Barcelona youth academy

Albert Folch, 2013, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

When I found this book, I was really excited. Finally an English book about the famous youth academy of one of the best teams of the last 20-30 years, all information, how they shape their players, what their strategy is a.s.o. Furthermore it was written by a scientist, so I could expect some thorough analysis of the success of FC Barcelona in the last decade.
The initial euphoria soon wore off. Albert Folch has, unfortunately, not much more to say than what you can read in the newspapers of the last years, when you followed the articles about the Barcelona team. Furthermore he is not able to keep the fanboy out of the text, which makes it very annoying to read sometimes, especially the constant side blows against Real Madrid. Also the analysis, why this generation was so successful, misses unfortunately scientific scrutiny completely. The whole excitement and expectations I had for the book make me feel that it is worse than it really is, so just let’s try to separate the good and the bad.
Let’s start with the latter. You might not expect that after reading the book but FC Barcelona is not the first and only team with a successful youth academy. They are just the team which had the latest successes with players formed in their youth academy (during writing the book, because after that Bayern München just followed them 2013). I would also question that they have the best youth academy. Best is, of course, always ambiguous but a team which has to spend hundreds of millions of euros for transfers does not seem to be successful in growing their own talent. Also the argument about the high number of players in first leagues in Europe only shows that the Spanish soccer organization is extremely centralized. No other team in Spain, except Bilbao, can compete with Barcelona’s and Madrid’s youth academy, because the poaching from Barcelona is so extreme. Do they just get the best players at an earlier age than other European top teams or are the players really developed better than in any other academy? This question is not really answered in the book, because the examples for the success are always the same (Xavi, Iniesta, Messi) and other players or the drop-outs are not really examined at all. Therefore the conclusion that the Barcelona youth academy is the best is mainly based on results which automatically favor this club, the club player per league comparison makes the less centralized work in youth soccer of the Dutch or German teams automatically look worse. I would also argue that a small team fighting every year relegation with bringing young players in their team or developing players to their maximum, which failed in other clubs, might be the better soccer school, than a multimillion dollar club who just makes more use of their youth academy than other rich clubs. But smaller teams, maybe with regularly positive transfer balance sheet, are not considered here.  When you read Soccernomics you can see that the Dutch players have the largest number of players in the first leagues of Europe (although their league is not even in this elitist circle), which shows you where the best youth academies of the continent might still reside.
The other topic which is entirely missing in the book is a tactical analysis of the 2010/2011. Just the notion that Barcelona should change their style to more crosses into the penalty area, because the opponents would block the penalty area with two five player lines shows a significant lack of understanding. The possession play was not the factor which cemented Barcelona’s dominance but the counter-pressing (“Gegenpressing”). That means, that when Barcelona lost the ball they were usually already organized to put pressure on the player with the ball and they did so very quickly without leaving any gaps for the other to get out of the pressure with the pass. Furthermore their defense line was usually so high, that the ball hardly came close to their penalty area. A 5-5-0, how the author proclaimed, was the worst you could do against them, because then you just made it easier for them to counteract when they lost the ball. When they were beaten by Bayern München it was because München played the better pressing. When Barcelona’s team slowly dwindled down they still played the possession play but their pressing became worse and worse, either because the tension was not there anymore to keep the players alert, because of the successes or them getting older or the new coaches did not focus on that aspect anymore as much as Guardiola and therefore their major asset in the game went amiss. Even in this book, I think, the influence of the coaching team under Guardiola is still underestimated. He was not so good, because he brought so many academy members to the first team. The team became so good, because he is one of the best coaches and developed the players further, although they were already the best players in the world. This development of players is now totally missing and therefore also the constant influx from the youth academy is not helping at the moment.
I would like to stop here talking about the negatives and mention also some things the book does really well. Folch provides a good history of the clubs and especially the development of the youth academy. If you do not constantly screen the media for information about FC Barcelona the text provides a good overview about the last forty years.
Some aspects of the decline were also nicely catched. I think one aspect which was underestimated in the media and also from the experts is the aging of Xavi. Folch mentions that the dependency of the team from Messi became stronger and stronger because Xavi’s play slowly declined and I think there is a lot of truth in that.
Finally the biggest plus of the book is the last section, which describes how to train pre-school kids in soccer. It doesn’t matter if you want to teach the Barcelona style or not I think his descriptions help in general to explain kids in an early age how to play more structured and serious and therefore it can help to give kids a head-start into soccer.
As I said before the book is a mixed bag. If you find something interesting for you in the last paragraphs then it might be worth to buy the black and white or the Kindle edition. If you know already most of the articles about the FC Barcelona or you want to set up a youth program or academy for your own club and you seek advice how to do so, then the book probably does not provide enough in-depth information.

Biography: 1/3
History: 2/3
Background: 2/3
Tactics & Game philosophy: 0/3

Next book: The Blizzard: Issue Seven

Pep Confidential

Inside Pep Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich

Marti Perarnau, 2014, Arena Sport

There are no two opinions about Pep Guardiola. He is since years the best coach of the world. He developed with Barcelona the best team of the last 20 to 30 years and there are no weaknesses of his character known. If one doesn’t like him than usually because even perfection gets annoying over time.
A biography about such a coach is easy, because there are enough stories floating around, so that you are always able to piece together a book or an essay about his character. On the other hand it is incredible difficult because there is not a lot new to talk about. However, Marti Perarnau made it and wrote a unique book, which stands out of all Guardiola books.
The book describes the first season of Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich, pre-season, game by game, highlights like the Championship in March but also bad days like the 0:4 against Real Madrid. The whole time Perarnau was allowed to be on the training court, in the dressing room or in the office of the coach. Regularly he is able to talk with players, club officials, the coaching team and to Guardiola himself. He uses this access not to ask just the typical question of sports journalists like “How do you feel after the win/loss?” but he discusses tactical details, to better understand what the coach wants to achieve with the system he plays. These detailed descriptions of training, game planning and preparation are probably unrivaled in the history of coach biographies. There is probably no other book which better describes what a coach really does every day. Simply the comparison with the book of Neil Warnock shows, that either their approach to their work is so different that there are no similarities between their jobs or that the descriptions of Warnock simply doesn’t cover the most important parts of the work of a coach.
About Guardiola himself you learn in the book that he is a perfectionist, driven by a clear vision, but also constantly haunted by the fear of failure, which always pushes him to think about the next problem, as soon as one is overcome. Nevertheless these characteristics also make him popular with players who want to learn and improve themselves and who see that things become easier and success is at hand, when they follow his guidance. Other biographies might tell more anecdotes and cover the whole career of Guardiola, but with the atmosphere created in this book one gets very close to Guardiola and gets to know him like a good friend.
At the end one can just add that it is a shame that Perarnau’s other books are not published yet in english language. It is more than time that his excellent work is distributed more broadly.

Biography: 2/3
History: 1/3
Background: 3/3
Tactics & Game philosophy: 2/3

Next book: The Blizzard: Issue Six (Feb 27th)

Herr Guardiola

Das erste Jahr mit Bayern München

Marti Perarnau, 2014, Verlag Antje Kunstmannünchen/dp/3888979749

Zu Pep Guardiola gibt es keine zwei Meinungen. Er ist seit Jahren der beste Trainer der Welt. Er hat Barcelona zur besten Mannschaft, zumindest der letzten 20-30 Jahre, gemacht und charakterliche Schwächen sind an ihm nicht auszumachen. Wenn man ihn nicht mag, dann höchtens deshalb, weil selbst Perfektion irgendwann auf die Nerven gehen kann.
Eine Biographie über einen solchen Trainer ist einfach, weil ohnehin genügend Anekdoten kursieren, so dass man diese immer zu einem Buch oder zu einer Charakterstudie zusammenstückeln kann, aber gleichzeitig ist es auch schwierig, weil es wohl nicht mehr viel Neues zu sagen gibt. Marti Perarnau hat es allerdings geschafft, ein ein einzigartiges Buch zu schreiben, dass aus der Masse an Guardiola-Büchern heraussticht.
Das Buch beschreibt die erste Saison von Pep Guardiola bei Bayern München, Vorbereitung, Spieltag für Spieltag, Höhepunkte wie die Meisterschaft im März und Tiefschläge, wie das 0:4 gegen Real Madrid. Dabei ist es Perarnau erlaubt, die ganze Zeit dabei zu sein, auf dem Trainingsplatz, in der Kabine, im Büro des Trainers. Regelmäßig hat er Gelegenheit mit Spielern, Cluboffiziellen, dem Trainerteam und Guardiola selbst zu reden. Dabei fragt er nicht das oberflächliche “Wie fühlen sie sich nach der Niederlage/dem Sieg?” von Sportjournalisten, sondern diskutiert taktische Details, um besser zu verstehen, was der Trainer mit seinem Spielsystem zu erreichen versucht. Diese detaillierten Beschreibungen von Training, Spielplanung und -vorbereitung sind wohl einzigartig in der Geschichte der Trainerbiographien. Es gibt wohl kein Buch, was den Alltag eines Fussballtrainers besser beschreibt, als Perarnau es tut. Allein der Vergleich zum Buch von Neil Warnock zeigt, dass die beiden Trainer entweder so unterschiedlich in ihrer Arbeitsauffassung sind, dass es kaum Gemeinsamkeiten zwischen ihrer Trainingsarbeit gibt oder dass die Beschreibung von Warnock auf einen großen, wenn nicht sogar den wichtigsten Teil der Arbeit eines Trainers nicht eingeht.
Über Guardiola selbst lernt man, dass er ein Perfektionist ist, angetrieben von einer klaren Idee, aber auch von konstanten Versagensängsten, die ihn immer schon an das nächste Problem denken lassen, sobald eines erfolgreich überwunden ist. Allerdings machen ihn diese Eigenschaften auch beliebt bei den Spielern, die lernen und sich verbessern wollen und die sehen, dass wenn sie seine Vorgaben umsetzen, die Dinge leichter gehen und sich Erfolg einstellt.
Zum Werdegang von Guardiola und Anektdoten aus seinem Leben gibt es bestimmt in anderen Biographien mehr, aber die Atmosphäre, die im Buch erzeugt wird, läßt einen näher an die Person Guardiolas heranrücken und man glaubt am Ende, dass man ihn kennt, wie einen guten Freund.
Abschließend bleibt eigentlich nur noch zu sagen, dass es Zeit wird, dass Perarnau’s andere Bücher auch ins Deutsche übersetzt werden, damit man seine erstklassige Arbeit größere Verbreitung findet.

Biographie: 2/3
Geschichte: 1/3
Hintergrund: 3/3
Taktik & Spielphilosophie: 2/3

Next book: Pep Confidential (Feb 17th)