Yikes. It isn’t often that an opinion piece sparks a post outta me, but this one has done it. But it hasn’t done it out of sheer boneheadedness, which I think the post has in spades. It’s also a question of right questions, wrong conclusions that have their roots in devotion to a player, rather than to a club. It is still FC Barcelona, rather than FC Messi, something a lot of culers, including the abovementioned piece’s author, forget.
But let’s get to it. We have a lot of ground to cover.
The author asks the question, what if the team’s biggest problem is the decline of Iniesta? Good question, and one that I agree with in parts, even as I don’t think the question is framed properly. For me, the question is a more difficult one:
Is Andres Iniesta in his present state, fully compatible with Barça any longer?
That giant slamming sound you just heard is minds, shutting down. “You can’t criticize Iniesta. How DARE you, fool?”
But without question, Iniesta is off, and has been for a while now. But that isn’t the club’s biggest problem. It is clear that the author loves him some Messi, and has disdain for pretty much everything else. So that, to my view (which is as subjective as his) taints his perspective. But let’s begin at the beginning, and work our way back to the Iniesta (and, tangentially, Xavi) question.
What problems, and some blasphemy
First off, I don’t see that the club HAS a problem right now, except for poor finishing in two matches, which caused them to drop points (or allowed Osasuna and Milan to take them, dependent upon one’s worldview). Defense is better, offense is flowing more freely … problems? What problems?
“Oh, lawd! We drew against two teams that played organized defense, and pressed us. We all gon’ DIE!”
Probably not. In previous seasons, we have been completely ineffectual against defenses such as we saw from Osasuna and Milan. This season, chances galore were created. Fabregas spurned a pair of glorious ones against Osasuna. Against Milan, Sanchez, Adriano, Neymar all had chances that should have been put away. Then it’s 1-3 or 4, and we’re the Mighty Bus Breakers, right?
I do think that Martino is going to have to take some difficult decisions this season, including maybe fessing up to the reality that Xavi AND Iniesta on the pitch at the same time isn’t the best option any longer, because Iniesta is too soft and slow to compensate for Xavi’s diminishing abilities, which leaves Busquets in a lurch, particularly as Martino also has a new role for him, as he continues to evolve into one of the best midfielders (not just defensive mids) in the world. Note that the super aggro Bartra is one lovely solution to that complexity. But news flash: Xavi has ALWAYS been slow, even as he runs more than any other midfielder.
A big part of why Xavi looks out of it as times is because with no movement in front of him, he has to hold the ball. And the longer he holds it, the more vulnerable he becomes. So people, particularly the forwards, have to get moving, if only to create lanes and spaces. There is a reason that Xavi looks reborn with a front line of Neymar, Messi and Sanchez. They scuttle around like chipmunks, full of industry and threat. Xavi’s job becomes easy-peasy.
Yes, the team plays faster without Xavi. And also looser. But that has always been true, not just this season. Memories will strain to remember a time when Xavi came out of a match, and stuff didn’t fall apart. That clattering sound is the noise that brickbats being hurled at a club legend make, but tika taka can’t be a way of life when it’s going good, and a slow-moving liability when it isn’t. Further, tika taka is, at its core, possession-minded defensive football, to my view.
Don’t forget that Guardiola, when he was here, said we are crap without the ball. He was saying that for a number of reasons:
— Our defenders aren’t traditional defenders.
— Our midfielders can’t compete physically with bigger, stronger, faster players.
So the only way to keep matches even is to have the ball. So even at a 0-0, tika taka works because like a parked bus, the team didn’t concede. Guardiola was a romantic, but also a pragmatist. He played the way that he had to, once Henry and Eto’o left, and the Ibrahimovic experiment failed. Is Xavi less effective at pressing? Yep. But Xavi was effective at pressing in the past because Messi, Henry and Eto’o were pressing, as well as Busquets and Iniesta. So Xavi would roll in and pluck the ball away. Again, easy peasy.
In the here and now, Messi isn’t pressing, Henry and Eto’o are gone and Pedro’s energy often goes toward being energetic, rather than the laser focus of better pressers such as Eto’o, Messi and Henry. And Iniesta being off form means that suddenly, Xavi’s job is harder. It’s also a task that, were the same conditions present a couple of years ago, would have been just as hard.
I have noted on a few occasions that for Martino, when Xavi doesn’t start, he comes in mostly as a defensive substitution, which is to say that he comes in, calms the waters and keeps the ball. If we have it, we can’t concede.
So now what?
The biggest “problems” with the offense right now, such as it has, isn’t Xavi or Iniesta, though goals from them would certainly be of value, even as you can’t suddenly ask the dog to start talking. But let’s look at our two wingers, both of whom who are ineffective when they don’t have space. Pedro can’t beat anyone off the dribble. Nor can Tello. Both need space, something that opponents aren’t going to give us. So Pedro was invisible against Osasuna because … well … what could he do? No space, so he just passes the ball back to midfield. So at best, he does no harm. And that’s okay in the tika taka context.
Because here’s the thing: Culers can’t have it both ways. They want bags of goals, aggressive play AND not to concede. Impossible. Fast and loose is that way as an evolutionary consequence of its nature. Get some. Let’s roll. If we want tight and controlled, and for folks not to get their knickers in a bunch because an opponent has more possession than we did in a match (along with three fewer goals), people have to get over that. We out-possessed the hell out of Bayern, didn’t we?
Dropping the security blanket
A big part of “getting over that” means losing the attachment to Iniesta and Xavi, the former in particular, as they presently sit. Iniesta is like this security blanket that nobody wants to let go of, maybe even including Iniesta.
Look at the Guardiola Treble season club. Tika taka, my ass. That team cut your throat fast and often, then played with the ball to play defense. It pressed, took the ball back and then kept it. People say that tika taka, at its worst is pointless, but it isn’t, because we have the ball. And that is one of the core values of Xavi and Iniesta. Because when Iniesta makes runs into the box and, inevitably, loses the ball, that helps the club how? Yes, it’s pretty, yes, he does those moves that eviscerate defenders. To what end? Mostly beautiful failure.
The more recent role of Iniesta as a more aggro Xavi is more interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it shows that Martino isn’t blind to the passage of time on our Maestro, who is at the nexus of tika taka for Spain and Barça. Spain doesn’t win 1-0 because it’s boring, or has a problem scoring goals. What tika tika is supposed to do is control the match. The point isn’t to score goals, though goals certainly come as a consequence of possession from time to time. We have the ball. So you can’t score. Is it full time yet?
Tika taka acknowledges that while 5-0 is nice, 1-0 also works. Because three points is three points.
The security blanket being dropped to the floor means that Xavi and Iniesta are evolving, again to match the skill sets of the attacking players we have. Both are being asked, under Martino, to be more vertical. Higher risk, greater (well, faster) reward. Meanwhile, Busquets is operating more and more as that reset button, a modified Xavi role in which during tika taka, Xavi was home base. This sometimes catches Busquets between a rock and a hard place, but he is adapting.
The roles are all three players are changing under Martino, in a way that acknowledges a number of things:
— Xavi isn’t the man he once was, even as he was never the man of legend.
— Iniesta is best suited right now to be that “next Xavi,” even as that role doesn’t exist. It’s modified.
— Busquets can’t ever be that “next Xavi” either, even as he and Iniesta can split up Xavi’s role in a way that is greater than the part it replaces.
Iniesta isn’t off because he’s off. He’s off because he is struggling to adapt to a new role under Martino. We have seen glimpses of that role, that modified Xavi, and it’s been wonderful.
The Neymar problem
Neymar doesn’t tika taka. Neymar has the skills to tika taka, and is already acquiring the patience necessary to control and close out a match, as Martino has alluded about his team, but Neymar wants the take the ball and make something happen. He’s like a more talented Tello in that way. Tello gets the ball and says “The goal is that way. Let’s go.” So does Neymar. He wants to take on defenders, make space and stuff happen. And already, his teammates are relying upon him to create, as the roles of the midfielders evolve.
Likewise, Pedro is more comfortable with an unbalanced, fast-moving game. Chaos reigns. Fabregas thrives on chaos. Sanchez creates chaos. The number of players whose fundamental leanings are antithetical to tika taka is growing. To my view that is a good thing, because Messi also likes that chaos. Anybody who thinks that Messi likes to pass the ball around, oozing up the pitch toward a defense that is bunkered in like the Western Front, is nuts. That just gets him kicked.
Messi wants to get the ball at get at them before they get settled. And now, he has running mates who are ready and willing to bust out with him, just as he had in the Treble season. Yes, those running mates have the quality and ball skills necessary to play tika taka. But Barça football is possession football, rather than tika taka, which for me is a tactic adapted to suit the capabilities of the players that Guardiola had.
Advancing and adapting
As Guardiola’s tenure continued and the team continued to play in mostly the same way, results diminished. Why? Opponents figured stuff out. Let them keep the ball. Just don’t let them in the box. So things had to change. Vilanova began to add verticality to the team’s possession game. Fast and loose. More goals conceded. Bound to happen.
Martino came into a team that had just purchased the game’s finest young attacker, and a very direct player. He also inherited a club that needed shaking up, not least of because as Pique noted, it was doing things the same way not because it couldn’t do anything else, but simple inertia. People took note of his comments and groused, but he was spot on.
Now, the team is playing differently, and it’s playing better. It’s playing better because it is changing the way that it attacks, in part because of that very direct player, Neymar. Messi is also very direct. But with Messi being the only blunt object, it made the attack easy to stop. Xavi isn’t going to kill you. Xavi is going to make the pass to the guy who will pass to the guy who is going to kill you. Iniesta isn’t going to kill you. He will unbalance your defense to the point where space is created for the killers, Messi, Pedro, etc.
People say that we need goals from the midfield, but when Xavi and Iniesta are in there, those goals aren’t going to come. That isn’t their game. We scream at Iniesta to shoot, but you might as well tell the cow to fly. His brain doesn’t work that way. Xavi will ghost into the box and tag a few goals, but he doesn’t think of scoring, either. And Busquets isn’t usually sufficiently advanced to get into a position to score goals. So yes, forget about those midfield goals, even as they would be very, very useful.
Xavi will get some more goals, because of his advanced role on the pitch as Iniesta becomes that modified Xavi, and Bartra/Pique and Busquets initiate play.
What’s different about Ghostface?
Note that increasingly, what teams are doing is walling off Iniesta’s route into the box, channeling him toward the end line. Defenders don’t care how many croquetas he does, as long as he doesn’t get into the box. Two players just escort him to the end line. Done.
Nothing is different about Iniesta, except the way that opponents are playing him, and (I know … you hate me even more now) his inability to cope with that different way. Iniesta is Iniesta. He’s a magician with the ball and one on one, can beat anyone alive off the dribble. But then what? A smart defense just cuts off his passing angles, as we’re seeing more and more. You get a man between him and any of our attackers, in case he does the impossible, as he does from time to time. Then he’s in the box. He isn’t going to shoot. If he does, it’s going to be easily dealt with by the keeper.
Iniesta is still Iniesta. But without the likes of Henry and Eto’o running around, or a vibrant Villa or rampant Messi, he’s just this little guy with great ball skills. So what do you do with him? Martino is showing us a possible way.
Why did the team drop points to Osasuna and Milan? Poor finishing. Simple as that. The whole team was off, even Neymar. Some were less off than others, but everyone was off. And the goal(s) didn’t come. Xavi created, Iniesta created, chances were there. Just not goals.
“Iniesta isn’t playing like Iniesta.” Nope. Because his role is different, forced to be so by the presence of Neymar.
A rock and a hard place
Martino, like Guardiola, inherited a team that he probably wouldn’t have chosen, were he starting from scratch. But because both are excellent coaches, they can adapt. Look at Bayern. They aren’t playing tika taka, even as they are playing possession football. The two shouldn’t be confused. What’s more is that they don’t NEED to play tika taka, because they have the physical studs necessary to slash and burn, just as we did in Guardiola’s first year. Abidal, Henry, Eto’o, Toure Yaya, Messi.
Guardiola inherited a side that he analyzed and said, “Sheeit, we have to keep this ball, or we’re screwed.” Pragmatism. Martino, as a disciple of Bielsabub, has that same pragmatism. He locked things down and played ugly football when he had to, and also beautiful, attacking football.
But make no mistake, I don’t think that if Martino were choosing a team from scratch, the roster would look the same as it does now. So Martino has to adapt a system and player roles in a way that can accomplish a result, without getting too far outside a player’s skill set. Iniesta can be a modified Xavi. Easy. Xavi can be a controller drone, as he develops vertical tendencies. Easy. “If Iniesta scored goals, he’d be a shoo-in for the Ballon d’Or.” And if I had wings, I wouldn’t have to pay Iberia to get to Barcelona. You ask players to do what you believe they can do, then go from there.
And now, Neymar. The problem for Martino, as Cruijff pointed out, is that he and Messi are both spectacular players. Cruijff thinks they are incompatible, long-term. I disagree, but it will take a coach who is unafraid of angering the Best Player Alive. If I were Martino, I would be terrified of disrupting the Golden Goose. But this team has a possibility of being something extraordinary, if Martino can figure out a way to make it a great team that Messi is the best player on, rather than a collection of great players who play for and revolve around Messi. That difference is huge, but is dwarfed by this team’s potential. We will have to see if Martino has the courage to try to grasp that ring.
So what now?
We wait. And watch a team evolve. We can also get more excited about the years to come, even, that this one. Because capering around at La Masia, even as Eusebio is keying their paint, are players that are well equipped to take the club to that next level. People say Sergi Samper is the “next Xavi,” but from what I have seen, he is more aggressive, more vertical. Denis Suarez, scheduled for auto promotion next season, is another forward thinker. Tika taka isn’t going to die. The tactic will always be a viable way of defending when a club has such skilled players with the ball.
But if Martino is still our coach next season, once he learns fully what he has and what he would like, I think we could see something truly spectacular.