There’s a curious attraction, almost an intoxication, which comes from spotting a trend. We look for them everywhere. It’s one of our foibles as humans. So eager to project what’s to come, we read too much into the tealeaves of our times. Small samples of evidence are transformed into forecasts and given weight they cannot possibly carry. Housing prices have gone up and up for years. They’ll continue to do so. Let’s keep borrowing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. The Cold War is over. Political economy has reached a final conclusion and democracy has won.
Finding trends allows us to believe that history has a direction, one that we can identify and shape. On a more intimate level, it allows to believe that we can see the future that our own lives and circumstances are headed towards. And if you can see your face tomorrow then you can sculpt your life in ways otherwise not possible.
We see patterns where none exist. We place disproportionate emphasis on events that have taken place more recently. We make conclusions about future events based on how something behaves at its peak performance thinking that this optimal state will define a new norm.
And so it was entering this Clásico. The entire match became widely connected with this kind of thinking. Almost everywhere one looked there was the general notion that Madrid would triumph because they had “closed the gap.” There was frequent speculation about the Barcelona cycle closing. This is a narrative we see a great deal in our culture of media and instant information. A twin story of ascendance and decay. Of a rise coupled to a fall. A new cycle was opening with an old one closing. That was the framing and in a sense the match itself turned into something of an afterthought. The trends were clear after all. The outcome apparent.
There’s no question that Madrid has improved as a squad over the past several seasons (a process that started under Pellegrini). And they have been playing outstanding football this season.
But the consensus around what the outcome of this Clásico would be was based on a fundamental assumption. That Madrid were improving while Barça were essentially standing still – even regressing. Each squad was headed in different directions – this was taken as evidence of the Madrid’s perceived ascendance. It was as if Madrid improving had to mean that Barcelona was regressing.
Madrid’s improvement seemed to preclude the possibility of Barça doing the same. It seemed to eclipse the body of work that this Barcelona project has put together under Guardiola. A new trend had emerged. The cycle was over.
What we heard was that this team – it’s not the same Barcelona. This Barça team is engaging in too much change. There’s no lineup. A different backline every game. Trying out different formations and dropping points in the process. They were growing complacent.
Madrid on the other hand were clearly on the rise. Mourinho’s second season. They have a system, a set selection of players. This match would clearly demonstrate how far things had changed. You could see it from the trends.
But teams don’t become champions in a world of abstract speculation. Championships are designations that can only be earned on the pitch. The narrative of ascension and decay voiced over and over placed a primacy on Madrid’s recent term results while discounting the accumulated accomplishments of this Barça team. It placed a more vibrant value on recent results, on what could occur and placed a heavy discount rate on what’s been achieved. That’s only the past after all. And in our world of constant churn, even last May can seem a lifetime ago.
From this perspective, growth in performance is seen as equivalent, even more important, than level of achievement. In this regard, Madrid’s improvement led observers to rethink this Barça team’s talent and fortitude. Barça were after all not getting better at the same purportedly breathtaking rate as Madrid.
One of the things that makes trends difficult to discern with any validity is that they always call into question how far back in time one wants to target their start. And with these two teams there are a few touch points that influence perception. One is Mourinho’s hiring. The other is the 5-0 Manita last season. So Madrid has clear points of demarcation for people to think about.
And in these implicit comparisons of rates of growth and projections about talent and levels of actual play, one of the things that gets lost is that this Barcelona team under Guardiola is getting better. It is just more difficult to see because of the recurring success. The Barça team that beat Manchester United in 2011 was better than the one that beat United in 2009. But the best you can do is win the European Cup. There are no higher tangible milestones to point to.
And what we saw from this Clásico in fact wasn’t new. We saw once again how this Barcelona project is never satisfied. It always wants to win. It isn’t complacent or interested in resting on the past or on a particular generation of talent.
We saw a team that is starting to evolve its core, a team that has been drastically turned over from 2008/09 yet still continues to achieve wondrous results. We saw a new group of players emerging to contribute. We saw a squad that is getting younger at key positions.
We saw a squad that Guardiola is constantly pushing to get better. A squad organized by strategy and tactics that are always evolving playing a system that is constantly designed and redesigned. If anything – this season we’ve seen these issues pushed even harder.
Surpassing Barcelona will not be an event because Barcelona will not sit still. This is the challenge for the opposition. Barcelona is a moving target – one that is competing not only against other teams – but against itself. Surpassing this Barça project will require a process, a process that will only attain weight and meaning over sustained time.
The longer that process goes on for the opposition though, the more difficult it will become in some ways because with each achievement this Barça team learns more and more deeply how to execute at the highest level, how to stay composed and focused. It explores new dimensions of how to win.
Winning builds a kind of knowledge that can only be learned from experience. It’s a kind of tacit knowledge that can only be acquired through doing it, seeing it first hand, from being part of it. Trends and linear projections about future accomplishments because another side is “improving” will not necessarily suffice. Surpassing Barcelona will require a change of state – not simply an extension of a perceived direction or trend.
And Barça will not cede that territory easily. They will do everything possible to retain their place. In fact, they will continue to strive to increase the gap between themselves and others. Let the competition improve. We will too. That’s the history of this group, of the institution.
Now let me be clear. I am not saying this project will continue on at this level in perpetuity. Barcelona will not win every trophy. They very well may not win any more silver this season. It is true that all teams, all epochs, have a cycle and eventually end.
What I am saying is that no one can say how long that cycle will last. Success is contingent not fated. Its end is not ordained. To conclude that this project’s time is closing – or even beginning to close will require a large body of evidence. One match, one result – even a season – will not prove that this team has burned through.
In fact, I’ll go further. It’s very possible that this Barcelona project’s window has closed. We can’t know. We can never know in real time. We can only know in retrospect. We can only know after this team has been decisively beaten – after they’ve shown on the pitch that they can no longer compete at the highest level. Trends, future projections, the rate of growth and improvement exhibited by other competitors – all of those are secondary. What matters are the matches themselves – what they say. Matches like the brilliant performance this squad once again executed in a Clásico at the Bernabeu, a competition with so much at stake.
It’s the matches that tell the story of a team and its cycle. It’s success on the pitch that defines their opening chapter as a project – and their closing pages.
And to date there’s been very little empirical evidence to suggest that any cycle is closing. A small series of matches to open a season does not provide any substantive evidence to those ends given the level of talent and achievement of this team. There’s no evidence that Madrid improving means that Barça is somehow getting worse or deteriorating – even in a relative sense. The two are not directly related. Madrid can continue to improve. That does not mean they will catch Barcelona. Only the matches will decide. Not what people say, what’s projected, or what trends are discerned.
The situation between the teams is much more akin to competitive environments where each side pushes the other to get better. There is constant pressure to improve. And for me that’s been one of the recurring themes of this project under Pep. There is no end – there’s only a process and that process is one that is constantly unsatisfied, that is always looking to get better, to play at a higher level.
Is the cycle ending? One of my lasting memories of this match came after Barça scored its second goal. The team celebrated with Xavi and the cameras panned to the group of five-hundred Barcelona supporters that had made their way to the Bernabeu.
What I’ll remember – what I love – about that picture is the supporter holding up a black jersey. Number 27. Deulofeu. There’s something that’s hopelessly romantic about that image. Bringing a Deulofeu jersey to the Clásico at the Bernabeu, a jersey that few spectators in the stadium will even see. A jersey meant to be shared with the small band of cules present.
Obviously Deulofeu’s not even on the squad. He’s a youth player and probability is stacked against him. Chances are that he won’t make it as a contributor to the first team. Those are just the odds for any 17 year old.
But there’s also a pragmatic aspect to the image. It acknowledges that the players we’re watching now – their time will end. That there will always be other squads trying to surpass them and one eventually will. It acknowledges that all of us face an enemy none of us can surpass – time. It acknowledges all of that. But it’s also saying that the institution understands this. It understands that success isn’t an event, or a trend, or period of time. Success is a process, one that is contingent, that constantly depends on improvement and regeneration. That’s life. That’s how we are able to breathe.
I’d guess that as he watched this Clasico, Deulofeu – and all of the players at La Masia – saw that image and opened their eyes in wonder. I’d guess they understood what the Clásico – what all of this means – even if only slightly better. What’s expected of them. What will depend on them.
I’d guess that they understood that the current cycle will end – and that one day it will be up to them. It will be their responsibility to start their own cycle. To renew this history – or at minimum – to try their very best to do so. They will be given the resources required. They’ll be educated and mentored on the pitch and off. They’ll have a model. They are watching it now. Just like this current cohort had the opportunity to watch and learn from and admire a skinny number 4 who once wore blaugrana with elegance, who once had hair, who was once dismissed for being too small and too slow. They have examples. Which is just another way of saying that they are not alone.
But ultimately it will be up to them. It doesn’t matter what’s projected. Their potential success isn’t a foreordained result of some kind of “trend” simply because the past five seasons have brought so much success. Barça is at a peak right now – but that’s just now. What’s been accomplished, how this feels, isn’t a given. It depends. On hard work. On patience. On talent. On teamwork and giving and belief. It has to be re-learned and renewed all of the time. I think those young boys sitting in La Masia watching their heroes learned that, know it a little more deeply and more securely in their hearts after watching the wonder of this last Clásico.
They know even better that one day they will have to walk into the Bernabeu needing to win. They will walk into that monumental stadium hard pressed to produce a result, the world around them telling them that they are likely to fail. And they’ll have to draw on every bit of talent and strength they have to win. They’ll have to utilize every internal resource they can access.
And we’ll have to hope that they too will be able to develop the magical alchemy that mixes talent and determination with history. The alchemy that understands the scope of what’s required to follow in the path being defined by this brilliant Barcelona project. And maybe one day, under dire conditions at the Bernabeu, conditions such as being behind 1-0 within the first minute of a match, they’ll be able to access a kind of strength they weren’t sure they had. A kind of strength that distills away the fear pounding in their hearts by mixing it with the memory of wonder:
This was an extraordinary match played by an extraordinary team. Given the context of what was at stake, playing at the Bernabeu and the disastrous way the game opened – this performance was in many ways more impressive than the 5-0 manita at Camp Nou last season.
The most important moments of this match did take place in the opening minute. But those critical moments weren’t the first 21 seconds in which Madrid scored. The most important moments of the match were those that directly followed that score, that started once the ball was retrieved from the back of the net.
It was in those moments that the shape of the match was defined. Barcelona easily could have collapsed under the weight of pressure. This was after all part of the ascendancy so many expected from Madrid in this match. The cycle had closed. It was now Madrid’s turn. That was the narrative. And the team was immediately staring into the possibility of falling behind nine points in La Liga with a loss. Most squads would have come unhinged in that context at the Bernabeu. But none of that happened. Not for a moment. Not to this Barcelona.
Instead the team simply kept their composure and got on with playing their game – just as planned. They just had that much more work to do. But they knew exactly what was needed – what had to be executed to regain control of the match and produce the vital outcome they needed.
That’s what you can do when you’ve been through this before and found the inner resources to prevail. That’s what you can do when you’ve needed a goal in the dying moments at Stamford Bridge and found a way. That’s what you can do when you’ve come from behind against Estudiantes in the Club World Cup through the efforts of Pedro – a little known player from the youth team – to equalize in the 89th minute and Messi willing the ball into the net with his chest in extra time. That’s what you can do when you’ve gone down 1-0 at the Bernabeu and come back to win 2-6. That’s the value of history.
And it was those moments of composure and patience in this Clásico – those other 39 seconds of the first minute of the match that were critical to driving the outcome. It was there that the match was defined. Where Barça found the will to see through a result that they had to have if they wanted to maximize their chances for winning La Liga.
[*Note: Part 2 of this review will cover the match analysis, tactics and player evaluation]