“Why aren’t people happy with your team?”
It’s an interesting query that I had to deal with the other day on Champions League day, which is pretty the only time that a Prem-centric universe pays attention to those little guys from Spain. It was a struggle to come to grips with the answer, but finally came the distillation: the team is winning, but it isn’t winning in the right way.
What makes the above summary even more interesting is comparing the away match at Granada this year to last. Barça lost away to Granada last season, as it pranged the ball around in a half-assed tribute to a Way that used to be, patient midfield play in the form of a stylistic white flag from its then-coach, Gerardo Martino.
This year, Barça won off of the strength of three goals rooted in a dynamic brand of football. Yes, the passes came from a midfielder, but rather than the possession-based probing, the waiting for an opening and keeping the ball until one came, the pass reacted to the run of a dynamic forward, and struck.
WhoScored.com had Messi as MOTM, a selection that was as hilarious as it was myopic. Rakitic was MOTM in a walk for this watcher as he played a superb, dominant, all-pitch match. He was involved in all three goals as well as defense and possession, he was brilliant along with Suarez, even as the team wasn’t. Even more interesting is his midfielder display at a time when again, some observers of the team are suggesting that Enrique isn’t doing things in the right way.
Sergio Busquets had something very insightful to say on the matter, in a recent Guardian interview with Sid Lowe:
“ … at first under Guardiola, teams didn’t give us so much respect; they played openly. Now 95% of them wait, shut down, and counter-attack. It’s more difficult to play one-touch [so the new style] is partly a reaction to other teams. It’s a mix now. Team-mates are not as close to me, which has advantages and disadvantages. There’s more space and a lot more counter-attacks. We have players that can change the game. Messi, Neymar, Suárez … ”
Do you perform the same task in the same way irrespective of the personnel in place? Farmers don’t hitch carts to thoroughbreds. They have plowhorses for that. Change, and adaptability to change in a footballing world that reveres the past is something worth considering. The game respects the views of past greats on a game that they only see in the stands or on television. And people listen, rather than saying “But things are different now.” This is in part because there’s really no way to catch them out, but also because people want the past.
Just as old people want to be young again, culers cherish the days of the Capering Sprites and the lovely midfield triangles, elegant dissections of mostly willing opponents. It was only when those opponents decided to rise up against the oppression that complexities arose, and coaches took a shot at attempting to solve them. Tito Vilanova opened up the attack to make the game more vertical, a revolution that was interrupted by his illness.
Tata Martino came in and cranked the volume on verticalidad, a move that got him little more than scorn that reached its hilarious, absurd culmination in a 4-0 pasting of Rayo that was “bad” because the team lost the possession stats. And Martino, chastened, backed off the revolution that saw Barça roar into the break a record-setting side, and went back to plunking the ball around midfield against opponents who probably couldn’t believe their luck.
Luis Enrique came in, and didn’t give a damn what anyone said. He had a notion, wanted to not only build a Barça that was adaptable, but also build a Barça suited to the strengths of its attackers. He ignored the dogmatic ruckus raised by those who cherish the midfield elegance of bygone days because like Busquets, Enrique understands that the game has changed, that opponents are no longer willing to stand around and marvel at Xavi and Iniesta as they make curlicues. And even if they were, Xavi and Iniesta can’t make those curlicues any longer. They can no longer meet their own sepia-toned standard as time does what it does. But even beyond that, opponents force an adaptation that a team would be foolish not to undertake. It isn’t wrong to bang a ball to Neymar and let him do his thing. It’s just a different way of responding to a stimulus.
There were a few Xavi comparisons made to the Rakitic performance today on social media, comparisons that I desperately wish hadn’t been made, because Xavi isn’t the point. Xavi is a brilliant player and a true Barça legend. But he isn’t and shouldn’t be a reference because he is, like he and Capering Sprites, a wonderful one-off that culers should blow the dust off of and unveil to remind people of a more beautiful, stylistic time.
Change is always necessary in response to a stimulus, and resistance to it is illogical. Many scoffed at Enrique for adapting to opponents, suggesting that “Barça has its style, and people should adapt to us.” Opponent after opponent did, and that was the problem. Adding to that is that at this point in time, Barça has the best, most dynamic attack in world football. To misuse that attack in service of a Way would be absurd and frankly, silly.
Look at today’s first goal. Alba banged a lovely, long pass for Suarez to run onto. Suarez just banged the ball into the box, something that I wish our attackers would do more often, a speculative spear of a lash at the ball that essentially said, “Something cool could happen here.” In the ensuing consternation, a defender made the wrong play on the ball and Rakitic slammed it home. A long pass and a cross.
The second goal was even “worse,” as Raktic again worked a give-and-go with Suarez that culminated in a lobbed ball over the top for Suarez to run onto. Then he finished, as the Footy Gods wept.
Speed, pace, versatility and dynamism are never, ever bad things, even at the expense of misguided notions of identity. What did people think of the long runs and dynamic passes over distance of Ronaldinho, or the long passes out into space for Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o to run onto? What did they make of Guardiola’s defenders, banging long, attack-starting passes out of the back? It’s worth wondering again. The short, triangle-based passing game was every bit as much a reaction to a stimulus as the way that Barça plays now is. An old person’s life isn’t “wrong” because they aren’t 25 again.
Granada, at home, came out ready to fight. Ray Hudson described it as an alley fight, which was very apt. They pushed, poked, charged, fouled and tried to make life as difficult as possible for a team that was coming off a high-energy midweek display against a top-quality European opponent. It was a team that Granada suspected wouldn’t be at its best, and it wasn’t.
As intricate and lovely as the system of the recent past was, complexities arose when the team wasn’t functioning at its best, as the interrelated parts didn’t mesh. At Granada today, really only Rakitic and Suarez were standouts. Xavi was invisible and most ineffective because this wasn’t his kind of match. That was the opponent’s fault, rather than anything having to do with anything that Enrique did. Messi was off. Neymar was dynamic, but not as effective as he has been in the past. And still, Barça won.
That Barça won today in that very different way was no more “wrong” than when the team Barça defeated Atleti by, in essence, playing without a midfield. These situations are just part of the game, which is different from day to day, match to match, minute to minute. Adapt or die. It has been noted before that Barça is less secure and more dangerous this season. There is something about having the ball all the time that reassures. Even if they won’t let us score, at least they won’t score.
But it’s really a question of method vs results. The bottom line for many is that a successful team is objectively doing things the right way. It is only in the subjective realm that things such as not playing the right way enters the picture. The challenge is in defining that right way, applying a model or template to the way that a set of athletes goes about its business. That’s a challenge, because a team and its coaches are always going to adapt. The triangles came about because of a personnel change. Messi as false 9 came about because of personnel change. If a team could keep on winning by playing the exact same way all time, why wouldn’t it?
At what point is the system flawed because of what it is, rather than the people tasked with executing it. And what is the sin in changing that system to adapt and potentially triumph over a new set of demands.
That, of course, depends on who you ask. Granada for example, isn’t all all pleased with the Barça adaptation.