“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it doesn’t exist.”
The dude who said this probably wasn’t talking about the nuances of football systems of the 20th and 21st century (or maybe he was, and we just didn’t know he was prescient in that way), but the quote is good to start this shebang.
Memories are a funny thing. You can have two people witness the same event and come away with two very different memories of it. Like the most embarrassing days of my life where I wish a flying couch would just eat me — coincidentally one of the most amusing days of my sister’s. (But notably not vice versa, because I am a lady and a scholar, okay. And also a liar.)
In football, a year is a long time. Actually, the last two weeks are a long time so the past 3 years will seem like a century, the years preceding that equivalent to an age. It’s a dynamic sport where things change all the time. (That’s true for all sports really, but especially football, seeing as it’s increasingly being run by the Jorge Mendeses and Mino Raiolas of the world.)
One thing might be true in one instance won’t be the next like how Thiago Silva signed a new Milan contract then signed for PSG two weeks later. Therefore it’s not surprising we like to dub the time a coach presides over the team as an ‘era’ even if that era lasts for a couple of months rather than years. So you’ve got the Cruyff era, the Rijkaard era, and – notably – the Gaspart Era (despite him being the president).
But what’s interesting is how people remember those eras, or really, how they airbrush some things out to up the nostalgia quotient.
When people talk about the Pep era, there is a lot of reminiscing about the art but not the science behind it. There was indeed a dreamlike quality with Pep’s Barça but at its heart, it was pragmatic.
Pragmatic, you say? Yes.
As Iniesta said in 2012, though he was technically talking about Spain, it also applies to Barça in my eyes:
The other thing is that we play the way we do because it suits us. We don’t have the players to pull it off playing a different way. People talk about ‘pragmatic’ football; well, for us, this is pragmatic. It’s the way we like to play and it’s the way we believe we have the best chance of winning.
In her brilliant article from last year which I highly recommend you re-read, BFB’s Linda (@blackwhitengrey on Twitter) noted:
Pep Guardiola was a firm believer in the permanent revolution. Not as Trotsky or Mao would understand it, but in the sense of never waiting around to be figured out. In a post now lost in the mists of time, I argued at the beginning of 2011/12 at the now defunct Spanish Football Info that Guardiola’s tactical tinkering was driven by the need to keep ahead of the competition. A theory of the game, like any other theory, is weakened by an insistence on permanence and dogma. It grows stronger through being questioned and tested, and evolving to meet the challenges posed to it.
The style and philosophy of Guardiola’s Barça was no less coherent for all the changes he implemented throughout his four year tenure: The false nine, an idea he tested in his very first pre-season and later put to use in the biggest games of that season; the holding midfielder as sweeper-centerback, which found its perfect vehicle in young Sergio Busquets; going from 4-3-3 to 4-2-4 to 3-4-3 to whatever that was against Santos that involved a team made up primarily of midfielders; and increasingly, towards the end, attempting to add more verticality to the side’s forward play.
Ye olde tika taka dogma
“The problem with using a word is that everyone interprets it differently” – Johan Cruyff.
People are lazy. That’s true for me and it’s probably true for you too. (Unless it’s not, in which case, I’m sorry.) If there’s a convenient chronology of ideas that have similarities between them that has spanned over years, what they’ll do is take that and create a narrative with it, often ignoring those pesky details that get in the way of the One True Way they’re trying to construct.
So when you have the related but distinct ideas of Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and the Dutch Total Voetbal, Frank Rijkaard and Luis Aragones with the Spanish NTs of 2006-08, Pep Guardiola and Vicente del Bosque with Spain 2010-current, they get amalgamated and packaged under the same label: tiki-taka. This is exacerbated further by taking this tika-taka and claiming it is the Barca philosophy.
Barca’s philosophy is this: we own the ball. We do quick, instinctive and intelligent things with it, and when we lose the ball, we win it back as quickly as possible. Within that, sometimes there will be short passes, sometimes long passes. Sometimes there will be a quick three pass sequence to a goal, sometimes twenty passes. Sometimes it will be more vertical, other times more horizontal.
What I think has happened is people are mistaking the radical tika-taka of Spain 2010-12 as Barça’s philosophy. It’s not surprising given how many Barça players play for Spain, but one thing you should keep in mind is that just because something is similar, doesn’t mean it’s the same. Barça is not Spain and Spain is not Barça, even if Xavi plays for both.
While Spain has used possession as a defensive technique to rest their players during the rough-and-tumble of a game, Barça largely does not (unless it is a tight or otherwise brutal game). And while it’s true that Barça have always favored possession football, keeping the ball, these long passing sequences that you see now are an anomaly. It hasn’t been this way for Barça for thirty years, ten years, or even five years.
Take the famous 2005 Clasico at the Bernabeu when Ronaldinho got a standing ovation. All three of those goals were scored in what would be classified as “direct, counterattacking football” of the type that confounds “tiki-taka” purists today. It’s like Rafa Marquez never played for Barça.
The indignant cries of a loss of identity when someone plays a long pass or doesn’t have 60% possession is a little rich considering that every Barça preceding this one has played a comparatively more direct style — even Cruyff’s Dream Team.
Football is about systems and the players available to play those systems. The team changes as the players change and therefore the systems change as the team changes. This isn’t a bad thing, but rather the natural course of the sport. The team adapts to the players it has. When Keita played LM instead of Iniesta, he didn’t do the things Iniesta did, because: 1) he can’t and 2) he has his own qualities that he brings to the table.
Some aspects of the style Barça believes in, that is taught through every youth level except Barça B, is something that will not change and is non-negotiable. But others, as Linda says, must evolve to meet the demands of competition. When a philosophy becomes a rigid ideology is when the issues arise.
Change is not only inevitable but necessary
In football today resting on your laurels means you will lose. If you stand still in a race, people will catch and pass you eventually. You have to evolve to keep up with the competition.
But even if you do try to keep the team exactly the same, it won’t work. Players don’t stay forever. Some leave for another club, others retire. The question of the club is how to make it so that the new players coming in can seamlessly fit into the style constructed. Not only that, but how can the team effectively use each player’s unique skills to their maximum?
A midfield of Van Bommel-Xavi- Deco is not the same as Busi-Xavi-Iniesta or even Yaya-Xavi-Iniesta, but different isn’t bad. In this case, it’s actually better. That’s what evolution is.
But you have to have the guts to try. Busi at the beginning made lots of errors (those backward headers, man…) but now? He’s imperious. Probably our best player this year along with Valdes.
With variety there’s potential for innovation. You can update a template without throwing it away. Windows doesn’t stop being Windows because they changed from XP to Vista (ok, bad example because Windows 8 sucks)
if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.
To expect Sergi Roberto to do Xavi’s job is to invite disappointment to egg your house. To expect Tata’s Barça to play like Pep’s Barça is to invite it to deface your lawn.
Song can’t do the job Busi does, not only because Busi is a monster who has supernatural positional awareness, but also because he was signed to be a Mascherano-esque centerback. (Because Arsene Wenger told Tito that Song could play there. Wenger: the ultimate puffy raincoat wearing troll). That hasn’t happened so Tata has moved him further up field to try and use the strengths he displayed at Arsenal. (Songinho, anyone?)
Neither Tito nor Tata now have the players Pep had. Even Pep didn’t end up with the players he had earlier in his Barça reign. But change invites innovation. Who would have thought two of the cornerstones of Rijkaard’s Barça, Ronaldinho and Deco, leaving would have led to so much success? Right now, we have Neymar, Alexis, Cesc, Busi which won’t be the same as Henry, Eto’o, Yaya, Gudjohnsen, but who’s to say it can’t be great in its own way?
“We are now being judged according to a level of performance which is almost impossible to reach. But we’ve earned the right to be judged that way. It’s a double-edged sword – the better you play the better you’re expected to play all the time. When it doesn’t happen then people start asking questions. We’re not complaining, we wish things had gone that well for the last 50 years that the expectations had always been so high. But maybe people don’t appreciate the difficulty sometimes.” – Andres Iniesta
Question of the Day: is playing a more direct style a loss of identity?
Awesomeness of the Day: Cruyff explains his diamond formation.