The hard part of beauty is making it last. You know before hand that probability is weighted against you. That brilliance, as rare as it is, is even more infrequently sustained. But lasting beauty at the highest levels is the true reference for greatness in football.
I wrote the above in my review of the Champions League final last year. Eric Abidal had just raised that wonderful silver. I had a picture of that moment that I’d been looking at, of him kissing the trophy that cemented this team’s place in history. Wearing the arm band given to him by Puyol. Guardiola standing apart from the team to make sure the moment was theirs. Brilliance is rare. We encounter it so infrequently in our lives. And often we only know that we’ve brushed up against it, and appreciate how special the opportunity has been, when it’s no longer there.
The hard part of beauty is making it last.
And in the aftermath of the Getafe match many Cules are wondering what’s happened? How have things changed so drastically from that moment in May?
Nothing lasts. And every great team has their cycle end.
And all over, one can sense the eulogies being written. It’s as if Guardiola’s Barcelona were some insect trapped in amber. Look hard enough and you can make out the wonder. But ultimately what you are looking at that past, immobile and dead.
As the Getafe match ended, as Messi’s beautiful run – his equalizer in the making – withered into a deflection off the inside of the far post, as the team fell six points behind Madrid, the soul searching had instantaneously started. All of this is unchartered territory for Guardiola’s Barcelona. And by association it is unchartered territory for supporters as well. This simply isn’t supposed to happen. Not to this team.
Part of the value of history, of the dimensions of it we can access immediately through memory, is that it not only expand our understanding of the past, but also of the present and the future. That it enlarges the context and sense of perspective we can bring to any particular event. It gives us a way of filtering and better understanding the small sample specific moments represent.
The team is clearly going through difficulties now. But to say that this is somehow the end – that the season or over because they are six points behind is premature. Not in November and not with two Clasicos remaining. This team deserves not only the benefit of the doubt – but our belief. They’ve earned that. That is their history.
Any discussion about this being the end of an era, of the cycle being closed are completely overblown. Just months ago this team thrilled us with their play and performed at the highest level. There are always new challenges but this squad is set up very well to continue excelling at the highest level for years.
And this is why the talk about this team becoming complacent and self-satisfied doesn’t hold for me. You can look at any small sample of games a team underperforms in and describe them as complacent. But those kinds of conclusions presuppose that one can understand the heart, that one can fully unlock and interpret motivation and desire. That we can gain that kind of insight from a small sample of matches.
But character and heart aren’t that malleable. They are best understood by looking back at history rather than trying to discern new patterns over a small sample of matches and call them true change.
If the team has become complacent or lost its hunger then that means that individual players have done so. What else is the team besides the collective of the individual making it up. So if you believe the team is complacent – then who is responsible?
Messi? Xavi? These are the two dominant players on the team so if the team is losing its edge than it stands to reason that these two players would have to be the ones who are at least partially losing their hunger. But we’ve seen no evidence for this. If not them – then who? Alves – yes he’s not having the best of seasons – but he still runs constantly each and every game. Do players who lose their hunger do that? Villa is having significant difficulties scoring. Yet he works tirelessly to track back, defend and win the ball back. I see a player who may be lacking confidence – but heart? Not at all. The same is true of Pedro. Abidal – a player blessed to be back on the pitch after what he went through last season. Has he lost his passion for the game? If not – who?
Is it the manager? Has Pep – who lives and dies with the team lost his passion? Has the man with the anguished look on his face, the man constantly concerned about his players somehow self-satisfied and unable to motivate them?
We can go through the entire club this way. Who amongst this team of champions has lost their hunger? Who do you point to – because a team isn’t an abstraction. It’s made up of individuals and if the team is faltering through lack of hunger than it has to be the individuals comprising it who are faltering.
But there clearly are problem. So right now we look for reasons. For a cause we can point to. Without identifying what is causing a problem it’s difficult to fix it. But in doing so we often want to look for “the” reason there’s a problem. We look for a discrete cause we can point to. X is the problem. If we fix that then things will be ok.
But in the messy world we live in, there often aren’t discrete causes we can point to. Often it’s multiple factors that are small and difficult to see. Factors which interact and are contingent and change dynamically. But those are realities that are hard to acknowledge. Because we can’t point to something and say look – here is the why. If we fix this we can take control again. Instead we look hard for that one answer. And from that answer we build a narrative, a story about the way things are. We find comfort in those stories. They are the lifeblood of the internet and our world in which media is ubiquitous because we are all part of it.
Questions, Questions, Questions – What are the Right Ones?
So here are some questions I’ve been asking myself. And at this point I think formulating the right questions is more important than trying to jump to comforting conclusions that can be articulated into narratives.
Right now Barcelona’s biggest problem is likely the following. They have one player who is scoring consistently. If that player is off or if the defense choses to overplay him then Barça has struggled greatly to score? Why has this happened? How does the team widen its distribution of scoring, especially on the road.
Is the Barcelona system becoming too homogenous and narrow? If so in what ways? As teams continue to focus heavily on stopping the Barça attack does the team have the range of skill sets needed to respond efficiently?
Are players sacrificing too much of their individual skill and becoming too risk averse in order to maintain possession and play within the system? Rather than becoming a platform that multiplies how effective a player performs, is the way Barcelona plays becoming confining? If this is an issue, how can the team get back to a better balance of individual vs. collective play?
What is the impact that the cumulative minutes these players have played almost continuously since 2008 finally wearing on them. What is the physical toll? What is the mental toll? Does the squad have enough functional depth to make up for any wearing away due to fatigue?
How fatigued is the team? Does it have enough depth to make up for the injuries they’ve incurred to a squad that is already small.
The team had a grueling international break with extensive travel. They came back to play at Zaragoza at home but then had to travel to Milan to play a very difficult match. How much did that influence how they played? Was it a surprise that they looked out of sorts? If scheduling and travel is just part of the game now how can it be best addressed?
Why has the team been so much stronger at home this season than on the road?
How much has the lack of continuity this season due to injury affected the team in how they can interact and play dynamically together?
Each season Guardiola looks to push the team to play in a different way. How are these experiments going this season? Are they part of why the team is struggling?
What can we learn by looking at their recent history of accomplishment that will help them get back on track?
I’m not proposing any answers here. I just want to think through those questions and get us to start exploring them together. I do think the problems the club is going through right now have many root causes to them.
Guardiola more or less put the best line up out on the field he could given injuries and recent form. No one can resort to the notion that he didn’t take this away match against a bottom of the table side for granted. Valdes-Alves-Pique-Abidal-Maxwell-Busquets-Thiago-Xavi-Messi-Villa-Sanchez. That’s a team more than capable of ending a match aginst Getafe in the first fifteen minutes.
The only slight surprise was how they lined up. Villa started off in the center with Messi on the right. Guardiola has mentioned a few times this season about wanting to find Messi more rooms against teams that defend in numbers and stationing him on the right for that reason. Perhaps that was the thinking against Getafe. However, that switch seemed just as much about doing something different to get David Villa going. (Later on – interesting to see Villa take a free kick later on in the game from a space where Messi- who has become the team’s best free kick taker – usually lines up).
And from the outset we saw what was expected – sort of. More precisely, we saw the team play almost like a copy of itself. There was the same dominance in possession. The same overall shape to play. But from the opening, you could see that the last cutting edge was missing. The crispness this team plays with when it is on and clicking just wasn’t there. You just had to hope they could somehow find a way through to the back of the net.
Getafe played very well. They defended in numbers, maintained shape, pressed selectively (especially when Valdes had the ball – this is becoming a more and more frequent approach towards Barça – press high to prevent them from systematic build up from the back – defenses that like to sit high feel comfortable doing this because they don’t feel threatened by Barça changing their patter and attacking with speed). They expended tremendous energy defending and looked to hit Barcelona on a counter or set piece. In otherwords, Getafe implemented an approach that Barcelona has seen dozens of times in the past.
And Barça knows what to do in those situations. You have to force a defense which is doing everything it can to maintain its shape and utilize number to break its shape and open up by covering more of the field. This requires decisive and aggressive off the ball movement, rapid ball circulation, and utilizing width to make the defense cover as much space as possible.
Unfortunately, Barça did none of those things effectively. They owned the ball but did almost in the same way someone supposedly owns a cat – indifferently. It’s there. It’s around. You can stick it in a room but it’s just not going to do what you want when needed.
The most striking factors about the game were the marked lack of off the ball movement and slow tempo in possession. Getafe defended with shape – the purpose of doing this is to make the game static. The response from the attack has to be to try to make the game more dynamic. This means very fast off the ball movement and high tempo ball circulation. Instead, Barça added to the static nature of the game. They helped defend against themselves.
At the heart of the team’s problem against Getafe is that they fell into a stale pattern that made them very predictable. Once the ball crossed midfield it was immediately funneled to Xavi. Xavi then held the ball reading the defense trying to play to thread a through ball between the tightly packed defense to the forward line. If he was pressured or if that pass to the front three wasn’t there he utilized his other two midfielders as outlets.
Busquets and Thiago would look to play the ball back to Xavi or redirect play so that it could be returned to Xavi. He would then try to play the ball back to the front line.
One of the frustrations of watching this match is that what the team needed greater diversity in midfield play. Not only was too much being run through Xavi – but too much of the play was dependent in short passing through densely defended spaces.
The team desperately needed three qualities from midfield. First and foremost, it needed runs from deep. Second, beating players off the dribble with the ball. Third, shots from outside of the box. Given how Getafe was defending runs from deep were particularly critical. And this season Barcelona has exactly the player needed to do that. One of the best in the world at it. Unfortunately, Cesc Fabregas was hurt and unavailable. He was sorely missed against Getafe (this is why Guardiola brought Keita in for Thiago – to get more direct runs from deep). Iniesta’s skill on the ball and shots from outside the box were also lacking. Injuries are something everyt team needs to overcome however and they are no excuse.
The front line was pinched in for most of the match. Overall they played narrow, clustered in the middle of the eighteen yard box just in front of Getafe’s back four. It generally seemed like the team’s plan was to get the ball to Xavi so that he could get the ball to the front line in a position where those two of those three players could combine for a final ball to goal.
This pattern lacked diversity and became very predictable very quickly.
The way Getafe defended meant that the two Barcelona full backs were the players with the most time and space on the ball. They had the best opportunity to create danger. Unfortunately, the ball generally stayed in the middle. When it did get played out wide there wasn’t much opportunity to create combination play on the flanks because most of the attackers were in the middle.
Alves didn’t have a particularly good game and resorted to trying to cross the ball into the box. Maxwell is very conservative in possession and was content to act as an outlet for the midfielders and to circulate safe balls back to them.
And so it went on. Over and over and over filling up 70% possession without much in the way of any threats.
Guardiola clearly saw this and did try to make some changes. In the first half he moved Villa back to the left and played Sanchez as false 9. This led to what was likely Barcelona’s best stretch of play until the final two minutes of the match. Sanchez generated two strong shots on goal that were saved well. He demonstrated the close control and dribbling skills in tight spaces that are skills the team is short on.
However, having only played a small handful of games with the team, his play isn’t closely enough integrated with the rest of his teammates. He often looked unsure of what he should do out on the pitch and how aggressive he should be with the ball. In turn he simply looked to safely circulate the ball to retain possession.
In the second half, Guardiola moved Messi back to the center and had Sanchez move wider right.
Unfortunately, none of these changes in the frontline positioning made much of a difference. The team remained relatively static, their tempo of play slow and overly dependent on Xavi.
As the game progressed, Getafe became more conservative in how they defended. They sat back deeper and deeper to conserve energy and clog up space. As time passed in the second half and Barça were unable to find a way through, the match became one that became increasingly at risk for being decided on an isolated play. And ultimately that came on a corner kick that never should have taken place.
In the 66th minute Getafe had a throw in off their right flank. The ball was played through to Miku just in front of the eighteen yard box. Pique stepped out and closed him down quickly as the striker attempted to shoot on goal. The ball angled towards the byline, wobbling on the way suggesting a deflection. Valdes, assuming the ball was last touched by a Getafe player allowed the ball to go out for a goal kick. Only it wasn’t. It was ruled a off of Pique and instead a corner was awarded. Getafe had a set piece almost out of nothing.
Sarbia’s sent his out swinging corner into the area on a slight loop. It was placed in the area where zone defending is supposed to be able to clear the ball safely from. But with the loop in the kick it just got over the near post markers Busquets and Pique and dove quickly. Keita seemed to loose sight of the ball and as it dipped quickly Valero had to actually bend his head downwards to get a touch on the ball. And just like that Barça was behind.
A few minutes later Guardiola tried to change the game with the players he had available on the bench. Pedro and Cuenca came on for Sanchez and Maxwell. This game Barcelona an extra attacker with three at the back. It was clear from the outset that Guardiola put Cuenca and Pedro on to correct one of the major issues in the match – the lack of width. Both wingers played very wide and looked to cross the ball into the box. But by then Getafe was even more determined to defend conservatively and deep and while Pedro generated a few chances his shots on goal weren’t dangerous (and on at least one occasion – perhaps two – he should have slid the ball across goal to Villa).
It wasn’t until injury time that Barça threw the game into that extra gear needed to break a team trying to maintain shape. And in the final moments of the game Xavi switched fields sending a brilliant diagonal to Messi that put him free in space. As Messi broke free he looked set to score – but the ball hit the inside of the post. Pedro did well to keep his shot on goal off a deflection down and on target but Moya deflected it away.
Guardiola: Put out an appropriate line up. Didn’t take the game for granted. His team just didn’t respond. This was a match where Pep’s trust in his players to work through the problems at hand didn’t work out. More decisive changes would have been beneficial before Getafe scored rather than after. The problems were there throughout.
Team: Poor all around. They faced an opponent playing in a way they’ve seen many times. They just didn’t execute at all at the level required.
Valdes: Had very little to do. His distribution out of the back was good. His decision to let the ball ultimately called for the corner that Getafe scored on was largely unnecessary. Just pick the ball up rather than taking the risk of it being called a corner.
Pique: Played well at the back against Miku physicality when called upon. Given how Getafe was defending, Pique making runs into the box would have been a strong route to generate chances. Unfortunately, that tactic wasn’t deployed.
Abidal: As with Pique had a solid match. Did well shutting down Getafe’s counters when they occurred.
Alves: Was repeatedly open as an outlet. But the team didn’t need another outlet. They needed a source of threat from the flank. What was most absent from Alves’ game was that he rarely made runs from deep that he is so good at. Not having runners from deep was one Barcelona’s major problems.
Maxwell: Played his game and was generally proficient at it. Unfortunately, his skill set isn’t particularly useful against a team that is going to defend as deep as Getafe did. Was the player on the Barça with the most time and space on the ball. But he plays so conservatively that he isn’t a source of penetration. Should have been taken off for an additional striker much earlier.
Busquets: Sergio seemed to emerge out of nowhere. And in a very short period of time has emerged as one of the world’s best one touch footballers. However, it is concerning to see a player so young not progressing in his development. Busquets does what he does very well. But his game is not expanding and he looks like he may become a specialist player. A very good one – but one who impacts matches in discrete ways. In a match like yesterday’s he acted as an outlet for Xavi in midfield. Quite honestly – that’s not enough. His ability to help retain possession suffers from diminishing returns when the team is being defended the way Getafe was. Barça needed a midfielder who could make runs from deep or shoot from outside of the box. It would be very useful to have a holding player who can add that when needed.
Xavi: When Barça are at their best they have creative, dangerous play distributed across the pitch. Yesterday the team became far too focused on playing through the middle through Xavi. The attack became funnel shaped – with everything running through Xavi just behind the front three. They needed more dynamic midfield play from wide areas.
Thiago: Still feeling his way into the first team. This is only to be expected at this age. One of the active weaknesses in Thiago’s game in the past has been that at times he’s spent too much time on the ball and been too elaborate with it. This season he is actively trying to make sure he doesn’t do that and fits into the larger team concept. But it’s possible that he’s giving up too much of his game. Against Getafe he was too focused on not making a mistake that would cost the team possession. He was risk averse and too deferential to Xavi.
Sanchez: His game in many ways was similar to Thiago’s. He is still trying to establish his place on a team that has strong ways it likes to play. He exhibited the kind of individual skill that the team needs to expand how it can play. But in trying to fit into the team concept he often looked to circulate the ball quickly to retain possession rather than do something dangerous with the ball. He’s playing trying not to make a mistake. Again, this is almost inevitable for a player trying to fit into a complex system.
Messi: Not his best game by a long shot. Getafe basically decided to stop him at all costs and force other Barcelona players to beat them. This is going to happen more and more often as the season goes on. This was a match where Messi had to emphasize his role as a creator. That didn’t happen.
Villa: Just lost out on the pitch. Tentative, thinking rather than playing, short on confidence. Yesterday Pep moved him back to the middle – and his presence still wasn’t felt. Why Villa is struggling so much is unclear. But what is readily apparent is that the team has no second scorer – and that was the role Villa was brought in to play.
Keita: Little influence on the match. The biggest contribution he could have made – and why he was substituted in for Thiago – was to add more direct play. Runs from deep and shots from outside of the box. In games like this it can be difficult to get integrated into the flow and Keita never did.
Pedro: Again – very active and energetic. But his finishing wasn’t there. Last year or the year before he would have put that rebound off Messi’s last minute shot into the back of the net. Against Getafe it was blocked. Should have squared the ball to Villa rather than shooting on a few occassions.
Cuenca: Little impact on the match but hardly his fault. The rest of the team didn’t look to play him the ball and he stayed wide to fulfill a tactical role.
This Barcelona team has performed at such a high level for the past three years that it’s difficult to process and understand their current inconsistent play. But excellence – even sustained brilliance – aren’t perfection. They are human creations. And as fallible as we all are, no one can be perfectly consistent. Not even when you are the best in the world. Success is too fragile, too mutable to be taken for granted in that way.
This team has challenges it needs to face. But it has history, it has a track record and level of talent which provide the resources for fashioning a pathway forward.
The season isn’t over. Far from it. There’s still more wonder that going to grace us Perhaps the real challenge is for us to see it rather than see past it – and most importantly to appreciate it as fully as we can.
After the match Pep described the state of the team well. Nos levantaremos. We will get up.