Immense thanks to Allas for the Sanchez video.
Alexis Sanchez is ready.
Alexis Sanchez is a problem.
Neymar will be something if he ever learns how to play the Barça way.
Alex Song was a waste of money, and isn’t anything approximating Barça quality.
A quartet of interesting statements that raises a complex matter with its roots in a notion that some American sports sides (particularly NFL teams) subscribe to, which is to pick the best available athlete. The thinking is that you can train a player to play a position, but you can’t train ability and talent. So you draft a speedy cornerback, and figure you can train him to run pass routes and play wide receiver.
In the footballing world, are we seeing its contemporary in the “difficulties” that three players, Sanchez, Neymar and Song, are having in the blaugrana?
Song bossed Germany in a weekend friendly. Sanchez stomped on the terra like a midget mastodon against Egypt in a friendly. Brazil coaches say Neymar has “never been better” and is the great hope of Brazil, one of the favored teams in the World Cup. Yet none of the players are that well thought of by many, many culers.
So what’s the deal?
In each case of our misfits, they play very different roles for their national teams, and are pretty much the man for those entities.
— Song is a box-to-box CM
— Sanchez is the playmaker/ball handler
— Neymar is the playmaker/ball handler/scoring threat
When you watch each of these players in action for their national teams, it’s easy to watch them and determine which task, when they are playing for Barça, would be performed by someone else. “Busquets would do that. Iniesta would do that. Messi would be in position to do that. All Xavi, all the time.”
And you wonder about the “best available player” concept, and how brilliant players can look decidedly less so when in the blaugrana. But it’s easy, when you think about it.
Let’s take Sanchez, who is as ready as he will ever be. Someone whose opinion I value said to me on Twitter that Sanchez’s play for the team will never be better, nor will his value ever be higher. Sell. Others believe, only now, that Sanchez’s sale would be an error, but not as many as you might think for a player who banged in 21 goals for us this season past.
But Sanchez is ready. And we know he’s ready not only because his whereabouts are one of the hot Barça gossip items of the summer, but also because it is evident from his play.
When Sanchez was signed for Barça three years ago, nobody quite knew what the club was getting except a player with pace and an abundant work rate. But as with all expensive attacker signings, the expectation was of goals galore.
As Barça snapped up two of the most desirable South American attackers of the past few years, to team with the ultimate South American attacker, it’s worth wondering again about “best available athlete,” and whether that is a viable notion. Yet both wear the shackles of a system that is designed for something very different from what they are best at doing, like hitching a racehorse to a plow and tending the fields.
Barça teaches its players to be calm, conscious and confident with the ball. Make the right choice, think two passes ahead, pass and move, control. Yet with Sanchez and Neymar, we have acquired two players whose operative word is “Wheeee!” This isn’t to say that they are undisciplined, rather that they are unschooled in the Way. “He will be great once he assimilates,” is what we most often hear, in the Barça as Jedi Knight training mode of thought. “He just has to learn what to do with the ball.”
It fascinates me that there is never much consideration of the Way coming to meet a “Wheeee!” player. Sanchez and Neymar both get the ball and start running toward the opponent goal. When they start, it isn’t entirely clear what’s going to happen, but by the time they get there, they will have figured something out … probably … maybe. And if not, “Hey, let’s try this. Wheeeee!”
Culers cringe, as they are accustomed to wondrous woodland creatures capering about with a glowing sphere tied to their feet. Busquets to Xavi to Iniesta to Messi to Xavi to Busquets to Valdes to Busquets to Xavi to Iniesta to Messi to Alves to Messi to Xavi to …
We are accustomed to this. This makes sense. It controls the match, keeps the ball and applies logic to a thing of wonder. And for years, it has worked. So we clap our hands to our heads when Sanchez takes the ball on the right, dribbles, spins, loses it, gets it back, dribbles, spins, then passes it back to Xavi or Messi. Or when Neymar gets the ball, stops, dances the mambo, tries to beat a defender, runs into two others or gets fouled. “Dammit, what’s wrong with him?”
Nothing, is the answer. Against Egypt, Sanchez was running with the ball, making plays along with a cadre of runners. Playing for Barça, he is told, essentially, to go stand in a corner and wait for something to happen. He gets the ball in a stationary role, is surrounded by defenders and looks something of a mess at times.
“Sigh … we overpaid.”
“Song, you go in for Busquets.”
Busquets is a brilliant DM, perfect for the system that Barça play. He is also a unique player, both in approach to the game and skill set. So in the culer template that makes the incumbent also the standard, any player who doesn’t play the position like the incumbent is poor, not Barça quality. Yet using Song at DM isn’t his best position, no more than using Iniesta at DM would be. So in his more natural position, with his national team, he looks the business. Out of position, learning a “best available player” new set of skills, he’s kinda lumpy.
“Sell him. Worst Barça CB ever.”
Neymar is a player who is a complexity. He is the gift horse of Sandro Rosell, a player whose fee was 57m or whose total cost was 97m. Depends on what number you’d like to use, and what your worldview is. Either way for that kind of money, I expect a bajillion goals. The strength of Neymar, more than his goalscoring, is his associative play. Like Ronaldinho, he will get an attacker the ball. In watching the video above, I got to thinking about the strange universe in which a Barça player could have a highlights reel like that one and have people questioning what he brought to the club instead of salivating over next season.
But again, Neymar isn’t playing in an ideal position, nor with ideal partners for his skill set. As usual with an imported player, it is up to them to adapt to the template, right? One of the greatest abilities of Thierry Henry was his ability to adapt to the team, to subsume his skill sets and work within the strictures of a system.
But Henry, Neymar and Sanchez were at different career trajectories. Neymar will eventually leave Barça, for the team that will unshackle him, make him the man and let him run the show, as he does with Brazil. Perhaps even sooner, Sanchez will leave Barça, for a team that will allow him to be the man, playing in a way unfettered by the limitations of a Way. And Song will leave Barça, for a team that wonders why anyone ever tried to play him at CB or DM, and probably raise hell.
And culers will say, “If they had played like that, they would still be at Barça,” ignoring the fundamental difficulty of that statement: being at Barça makes it impossible for them to play like “that.”
Neymar isn’t for sale. It is rumored that the club turned down three “important” offers for Sanchez. Song will go to the first person willing to pony up something between 10 and 15m.
The eventual fate of Sanchez will say a lot about what Luis Enrique is thinking about his football club, whether it is to continue to be built around Messi, or shift to a more egalitarian attack that brings back the days of the best Barça of recent vintage, when Henry, Eto’o and Messi were all a constant danger, each capable of having a hat trick by halftime.
One thing, however, is for sure. Each player is ready for that next level. Compare scrawny Neymar to the bulkier player of today. Compare the Sanchez who thought himself to death to the confident hellraiser we’re seeing today. Compare uncertain CB Song to Cameroon Song, and ask yourself a few questions, which will be fun to debate:
— Should the Barça system be more accommodating?
— Should the team not bother signing players who aren’t going to fit into the existing system, rather than using a player out of position in the hopes that he will adapt?
The floor is open.