13/09/2012 08:35 BST | Updated 11/11/2012 05:12 GMT

Is Football Evolving?

I was watching Barcelona in the Champions League last season (I forget the game, which tends to happen when the anecdote is made up) and two thoughts flew to mind, with the urgency and clarity of a glass frisbee.

1. Lionel Messi is so damn good because he has cheated fate. He operates outside the structured laws of nature. How? As a child, Messi had growth hormone injections to correct a genetic deficiency and ensure he would grow to the size of an adult human, as opposed to his predestined miniature size. Giving him the speed and close control of an oompa lompa but scaled up. Unfair.

2. Is football evolving, in a not dissimiliar way to the human race?

Okay, so Barca didn't win the Champions League, but Spain strolled the Euros so the question still stands. Are we witnessing the evolution of football?

According to my understanding, evolution of the modern human began with the adoption of language. More generally though, what set us apart from our bigger Neanderthal cousins and Homo Erectus forebears was our cerebral advantage; smaller more delicate bodies housing complex, intuitive minds which used its wits to outlive the competition. We realised that dominance of our competitors came not through individual size and strength but through quick-witted teamwork, the clever fashioning of sharp weapons, and reducing disease by cooking our food.

In some ways, Barcelona (and Spain) are those humans. I'd go so far as to say that when compared, their nearest competitors, Real Madrid, are positively Neanderthal.

Barcelona and Spain operate on a higher cerebral plane than their competitors. They have hit upon the most efficient way to dominate football games; keep the ball with quick, short passing, each player spending minimal time in possession so he can't get closed down. This entails two things: 1. As the opposition barely has the ball attacks on your goal are very rare, thus the likelihood of conceding is rare. 2. The opposition's relentless and seemingly futile chasing of the ball will wear down their stamina, morale and concentration. Inevitably, they will let their guard slip and that's when Barca/Spain strike, opening them up with intricate, mathematically precise through balls.

The style places its entire emphasis on teamwork; no man is ever left isolated in possession, the ball travels round the field being shifted between tight groups of three or four ("Passing carousels", Alex Ferguson called them), and when they lose the ball they immediately hunt it down in a pack to win it back.

Such a style requires midfielders like Iniesta, Xavi, Silva, Messi, Cazorla, Hazard; players with great speed of thought, tricky footwork, intuitive reading of the game, lightning anticipation, and a rational head content to play simple, short balls with the knowledge that they are serving the bigger gameplan of possession dominance. These players with greater cerebral agility tend to be found in a smaller body type (something to do with a more sensitive nervous system perhaps).

By contrast, Neanderthal challengers Madrid utilise a standard gameplan to its maximum effectiveness. Filled with perfect physical specimens such as Ronaldo, Ramos, Pepe and Ozil, Madrid play a powerful and direct game, using wingers and big forwards, which is easily able to adapt into a counter-attacking or possession mode depending on their opponents.

However, led by talisman Ronaldo, Madrid lack the evolved supra-team ethos of Barca/Spain and thus will always be tactically inferior. Madrid are a collection of very strong individuals who are marshalled well into a style designed to maximise their personal talents. Ronaldo is clearly more physical than Messi, Ozil faster than Iniesta, Pepe stronger than Busquets. But the Madridistas retain their primitive egos, their Neanderthal urge to wage their own private battles and so stand a greater chance of losing the ball. Unlike Messi et al, whose egos are subverted within the team's ego.

Of course Barcelona/Spain can be beaten, as Chelsea and Madrid have done on occasion, but usually by being stifled rather than outplayed.

That's not to say the advanced gameplan of relentless possession will immediately take over. Rather, like human evolution, it will be a gradual process whereby tactically simple teams will be be forced into that style to win trophies or fail to adapt and fall by the wayside.


This is all bull, and we'll soon revert to a 4-4-2 state of nature once more a la after 1970's Holland's Total Futbol.