An interesting quote from Sergio Busquets should, if it hasn’t already, spark some thinking among those who follow, cover and are otherwise interested in Barça.
Busquets said, simply enough, that the best Barça and Spain are never to return, that tactics and the game have caught up.
This isn’t news to anyone who has been paying attention, or reading the writings of some of us who wonder about the nostalgia, and pervasively perpetual quest for The Way. But accepting that isn’t even the biggest challenge. That hurdle is a much simpler, and rather difficult one:
Accepting THIS group of players and its coaches, and getting our minds around the reality of how this team needs to play to manage success.
Tactical whizzes can and will come up with their formations, notions and suggestions for how Enrique can best optimize what he has. I have the time, patience nor full knowledge to suggest such things. Further, I reckon Enrique already knows what he’s inherited.
What is simplest to understand is that the “best” Barça isn’t going to return because of simple cognitive reality. This isn’t “FC Barcelona, Established in 2008.” As a club, Barça has been around for decades. Its football team has had many different ways of playing, from long balls to run and gun to hitching its wagon to the tricks and flicks of a Brazilian genius.
The past hamstrings us because it forces a false reality. When Tata Martino said that he was going to play Messi on the right in the Argentina friendly against Croatia, some soiled their knickers with ire. There is this notion that Messi is best in the center, that being central and close to the box is the most effective way to return him to his glory days, when he was banging in gobs of goals, pointing to the sky and dedicating another one to the heavens.
Then you watch the home Classic from 2008, where Messi was playing on the right and you wonder if Guardiola was as clueless as people allege Martino was/is. Messi was unleashed as a false 9, and the world figured it out. For a time, Messi had the magical gifts to overcome. Then opponents just kept adding defenders, so the quest for how to let Messi make a difference has to shift, right? Let’s have him be decisive by not scoring goals, but facilitating them. And that worked, for a while, until opponent tactics shifted yet again, in ways that not only expose the diminishing skills of a still-great player, but the shortcomings of an entire team.
Almeria didn’t score that goal because Messi gave the ball away. It scored that goal because Alves was pushed up, Alba was out of position, Rafinha and Rakitic were in or near the box because Messi was playing as an attacking midfielder. Into the acres of available space flowed opportunity, and Almeria took advantage of it.
The best Messi?
I confess to being a tactical neophyte, so when I see Messi in the center of the pitch, I think “Boy, look at all those defenders. They’re hanging out around there anyhow, so why not stack 3 or 4 of them to defend Messi?” And being a dunderhead, I wonder if it would be a bit more effective to stick him on the right instead of the center, where everybody already is? And if the entire defense shifts to contain him, it should leave attacking space for others. Barça has a quality attacker or two.
And it strikes me that for many supporters, the objective is to return Messi to the goal-scoring wonder that he was, rather than returning Barça to the excellent, world-beating football team that it has been in recent history. Those two goals aren’t as compatible as they would seem. More simply, in a world in which Neymar and Suarez also exist, should the world still revolve around Messi?
Even as smart people scoff at superstar signings, it was one of those superstar signings who turned dropped points into a win against Almeria. Because Systems don’t always work. And the system shouldn’t equal Messi. My response to “Messi doesn’t touch the ball enough,” is “Who does, and what potential exists for that other someone to help the team achieve its objective?”
“Of COURSE Messi isn’t going to be excellent. He has to do everything,” is the most current mode of thinking, and you know what? He does have to do a lot on the pitch. He rolls back to midfield to get the ball, charges forward at a waiting defense, where he has to either make the right pass or try to beat 3-4 men to reach a point where he can hopefully finish. Little wonder he’s tired, and his finishing is off, he doesn’t have energy to press, etc.
So what’s the answer? Does Mascherano make a long pass to get the ball forward, to keep Messi from having to do all that work, since midfielders are preoccupied buttressing the frailties of fullbacks? That might be one possible answer.
Does Messi move to midfield to get the ball and bring it up because of dictated tactics, or because he wants the ball, is starved of possession by an opponent taking advantage of a broken system and decides to go and get the damn thing? Dunno, but the question is worth asking. The perception of coaching and coachability is malleable in the minds of some supporters. Some players do the things they do because they want to. Others do the things that they do because the coach is stupid. It depends on the player and the coach.
Orders vs whimsy
Under coach after coach, Dani Alves pumps crosses into the box. If the player is doing it himself, it’s suspected that a coach would have said by now, “Hey, ya big dummy. Stop firing skyrockets at mushrooms.” He crossed under Guardiola, Vilanova, Martino and now Enrique.
Further, there are decisions that a player takes within a match that are his own, and he tries to take those decisions within the tactical framework of the team. But other times, he says “Wheeee! Let’s do this!” and freelances. You can look at the two Neymar situations in last year’s home Classic. The first goal was the system working. The second goal was “Wheeee!”
Tactics also change during a match, based on the players on the pitch, so the role of a player will change. So all that aside, what we do know is this: Barça is a broken team right now that has never, ever been easier to attack. It’s weak in the air, weak on set pieces, weak on flank defense, susceptible to the counter and weak in midfield defense.
Further, because ALL of those weaknesses exist at the same time, it’s even complex to think of ways that you can counter them all, like playing a game of tactical Whack-A-Mole. It’s easy to play fantasy football, and suggest buying this player or that player to resolve the complexities. But we have what we have, and it is forcing a regrettable realization:
Back when Guardiola said “We’re crap without the ball,” acknowledging that Barça wasn’t a defensive colossus, the situation that prompted his admission has gotten worse, rather than better. So as with all other coaches since Guardiola, Xavi becomes the answer. Defending through intelligent possession. Sighhhhh, right? After all this time and all these years, Xavi is STILL the answer? What the hell happened?
Board, neglect, no transfers, blablabla. Done.
But with the players that we have now, can a Barça exist that will allow the team to be competitive on the European stage? If you look at the hypothetical XI of Bravo, Alves, Pique, Mathieu, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Suarez, Neymar, you would say yes, right? It’s only when you break that system down individually that you wonder about the possibilities.
What a mess!
Not sure if anyone has gone back lately to take a look at the roster Guardiola had for the Treble season, but it was stacked. That team could (and did) play any number of different ways. It could be quick, physical, play possession, go over the top, counter and play long ball. Its mids were Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Keita and Toure Yaya. Are you kidding me?
Today, those mids are Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Rakitic, Sergi Roberto, Rafinha. There are more of them, but the quality of the starters has not only dropped through aging. Look at the backups. One is still developing, one nobody is at all sure about, and a fragile Alcantara Brother.
“Enrique is playing all those long balls. He’s stupid.”
Maybe. Or maybe he’s wondering about his slow, diminutive mids battling for possession with a strong, fast opposing press and losing possession in a dangerous position. Maybe he figures “Hell, you have three attackers, all of whom can hold up play and make individual magic. Get ’em the ball.”
Maybe the days of the elegant, inexorable Barça build to a logical goal have gone the way of the dodo bird, of necessity as much as tactical whim. I would LOVE to see pretty triangles, frustrated opponents and capering Sprites. Who wouldn’t?
In the real world, an opponent can attack the flanks, Alves in particular. So to prevent that, you shade Rakitic over that way, since Alves is way up the pitch, pumping in corners. By shading Rakitic to the right, essentially as a FB, you give Busquets a huge area to cover, since your other midfielder is slow and not at all physical, essentially functioning as a turnstile for an opponent counter. Or you need your mids to dash into the box as support for your attack, which means that if you lose possession, the only thing standing between you and a conceded goal is a slow, gangly non-DM and a pushed-up back line, presuming you have a human being as a keeper, and not a 9-foot-tall octopus.
In all the talk of a return to systems and a Way that is lost, it’s all theory. It is fundamentally absurd that a football team that has the money to pretty much buy almost any player, has let things get to a state in which a 35-year-old legend is the Answer. But without acknowledging the reality of how things are, it’s impossible to get to a point where they can be discussed rationally.
The Barça XI has so few players with legitimate up sides.
Messi: Changing, trending down
Xavi: Gold watch beckons
Iniesta: Trending down
Busquets: Trending down
Mascherano: In his prime, for now
Bravo: In his prime, for now
Alba: In his prime, for now
Neymar: Trending up, with a massive potential
Suarez: In his prime, once he gets match fit
Pique: Trending down
If you’re Luis Enrique, what the hell do you do, particularly in the context of a looming, two-window transfer ban? Dunno, but it strikes me that all the theoretical yammering about Systems and The Way misses the point, which is that we are going to war with a cadre of players who are in many ways like wooden tennis racquets in a world of space-age composites. That the bosses have known we needed to buy new racquets is neither here nor there.
The question is, what are we going to do right now, at this moment, with this group of players?
With all the weaknesses, the biggest strength of Barça is that it has the best front line in football. Period. It’s getting the ball to that attack that is the problem. As detestable as lumping it forward is, might that be a viable option? It was for Guardiola, when he had Rafa Marquez slinging long diagonals to the feet of Eto’o or Thierry Henry. So why not Mascherano and Neymar or Suarez?
Why not, as a question, always works. Add me to the list of people saying that Enrique needs time. But rather than saying he needs time to implement his system, maybe he just needs time to try to figure out how in the hell he can be strong, when there is so much around him that is weak.