What’s our hurry, aka “What does a “Barça midfielder” look like?”

Harold Miner.

Now only the most die-hard fan of American basketball will remember that name. He blasted into the National Basketball Association carrying the nickname “Baby Jordan,” after the already-iconic Michael Jordan.

His NBA career lasted 4 years.

A comment in the last thread noted that Ivan Rakitic, for the commenter, has for the past two matches “looked like a Barça midfielder.” Isco is the “heir apparent” to Andres Iniesta, and we know this because there are many articles that tell us he is. Marc Bartra is like unto Puyol, and Thiago Alcantara would have been the next Xavi, had that mean ol’ board not sold him for a few shiny trinkets and a friendly or something.

Standards are a fascinating thing. The Xavi comparisons for Rakitic were cringe-worthy for so many reasons, mostly having to do with athlete iconography. Returning to the hoops analogy, the reason there is, can not and will never be another Michael Jordan (sorry, Mr. James, or do you prefer King?) is because the truly amazing athlete doesn’t come along that often. When one does, it is a stupefying amalgam of talent, drive, durability and luck. Those players are coachable, usually mean in an unrelenting way and would run over their own mothers to get to that next level.

Sebastian Vettel might win as many F1 drivers championships as Michael Schumacher, but will never be the “next Schumacher.” Football has and will bring us many “next Messi,” but does anyone honestly think such a thing will happen in any of our lifetimes? Watch the player, and answer that question. Does the fact that there is a “next Messi” more often than there is a “next Ronaldo” mean anything?

So what of the notion that an athlete becomes more valid if he is defined by an existing template or parameter? Messi and Ronaldo are two very different players. You can’t compare them, making efforts to define which is “best” doomed to adolescent bench racing. Iniesta simply is. Why the need to replace him? When the one that we have goes, let him go. Next Xavi, next Puyol, next whatever. Hell, there’s already a next Neymar even though the current Neymar is still developing into something. The Barça teams of the recent past weren’t great because of any sort of magic. They were great because they had a group of iconic players working at something close to their prime.

We snarl at the board for letting opportunities go, for not building the team in a way commensurate with the designs on excellence that we all think the Barça legacy deserves. But how, exactly, is that supposed to happen? What goes on when Puyol leaves? How do you replace a Xavi? He isn’t some aging athlete, clinging to faded glory like a life raft. He’s still one of the best midfielders in the game on his day. If he were that easy to replace, he would have been.

It’s taken Barça how many years to find an attacking trio something like the equal of Messi/Eto’o/Henry? Great teams are irreplacable. If greatness was that easy, it would happen more often. So it is with players and notions of conforming to some sort of template.

Standards are an odd thing. The Rakitic looking like a Barça midfielder statement intrigues because of the curiosity sparked by that idea. Is it an idea or a person? Does that mean Xavi? Does that mean a mixture of passing and vision? What does a Barça midfielder look like? Deco? Guardiola? Keita? Iniesta? Xavi? What are the attributes of this being? Balance, vision, passing skill, that remarkable gift to almost be able to see into the future, know what to do with the ball and exactly how to do it.

Is that a Barça midfielder of necessity, or just an excellent midfielder. After all, that description could encompass Modric, Isco, Alonso, Kroos, Scholes, Pirlo.

The shorthand that athletics uses to define can also limit. Isco isn’t the next Iniesta. Does the nomenclature make an implication by association? Yep. Like it or not, it does. And that association makes it difficult for a player to meet that standard. Even Iniesta can’t meet his own standard. How is another player supposed to?

Our game isn’t just played with speed. It’s also evaluated with speed. The age of social media and the race to be the first with an online opinion makes that speed like something even space ships can barely keep pace with. Crises come and go, player careers spark into life and then ebb in mere weeks. Just as quickly as media outlets and supporters build them up, these things are torn down. RM is the best team ever, like Guardiola’s sides. Now they’re in crisis. Now they’re back. Whoops! Hang on.

Barça is a mess. Wait, the team is … nope. Crisis! Hang on … 11 in a row. Crisis over. Nope. Lost to Malaga. Crisis is back.

That same race extends to players. As a music journalist in my day job, I always caution my writers not to use another band to describe the sound of a band. “This latest song is like Modest Mouse meets Deadmaus.” Well, what the hell does that mean? Even if you use a band that you know to be part of the average person’s lexicon, “This track reminds me of if the Beatles had written a song for Michael Jackson,” what does that mean, exactly?

So even as we understand a phrase such as Raktic is looking like a Barça midfielder, what does it mean? Can Rakitic look like a talented midfielder who is starting to develop a rapport with his teammates as his role becomes more clearly defined? That’s a mouthful, but sure. Is he a prototypical attacking midfielder? You betcha? A bargain at 18m because of the skill set that he brings to the position? Absolutely.

Let him be. Sergi Samper probably doesn’t want to look at newspapers these days. Xavi, Guardiola, blabla, etc, etc. Lord today. We have all watched him play, and see an unusually talented midfielder with grace and balance, an eye for the right pass and when to make it. He reads the game beautifully, and is still developing. So there he is. Eric Bailly had a standout match for Villarreal in defense today, and his name is already coming up in statements such as, “I would take him over Musacchio, or (insert defender name here)”

What this world we all frolic in needs, it seems, is calm. Things are what they are. After we have had a wonderful boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, pet, etc, do all subsequent ones become defined by that one? Can you imagine a guy saying to a woman he’s dating, “I’m pretty sure you’re the next Babette, but I will need more time to figure that out.” Bonkers, right?

Just asking.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

10 Comments

  1. IamXavi6
    March 1, 2015

    Harold Miner, couldn’t be finer…

    NBA Jam, 1993\4…

    Mind you, you can same the same thing about what…Freddy Adu..wasn’t he the great hope of U.S Soccer???

  2. March 1, 2015

    Since I wrote two comment threads ago that in the Granada match Rakitic finally looked like a Barça midfielder, I’ll answer your question with the caveat that I’ll look forward to Jim’s answer as well because he described Rakitic in the exact same words although he somewhat generously included the previous CL match as well. The comparison to Xavi is yours alone, I think neither Jim nor myself made a direct comparison to any specific player.

    The keyword for me is “quality.” Rakitic is the typical player who is decent at all facets of the game without being great at anything and he has, up until recently in my eyes at least, not shown that he is of enough quality to be a regular starter at an elite football club. I certainly like some of the things he brings to our team, but it is in particular his lack of speed of thought and his imprecise passing that have betrayed him consistently during these first thirty something games he’s played for us.

    Has he shown his true level in the last game or two? I’m not sure whether at his age he can make that jump and if he can improve those characteristics that separate the elite midfielders from the merely good ones but who knows, if he can keep up the good form he is showing I’ll happily eat my words at the end of the season.

    I also recognize that with Luis Enrique’s setup maybe Rakitic will not only suffice, but that his qualities might complement his teammates better than say, a player like his countryman Modric, who is a level higher and, albeit coincidentally, also a player more in the modern Barça midfielder mold of nimble dribbling and precise passing. This is indeed possible. Maybe our three star forwards are so otherworldly that our midfield needs to be of more earthy stuff. But that does not make him look like an elite midfielder you’d associate with a club like Barça.

    • Inamess
      March 2, 2015

      Levon you beat me to the punch on many of your points so forgive some redundancy below.

  3. bhed
    March 1, 2015

    I see it basically as a type of shorthand, with the plusses and minuses that entails. Rough analogies will of course be somewhat inaccurate, but can be an efficient way to roughly communicate key information. I read the original quote just as a way of saying he’s starting to look more involved, confident, and dangerous.

    As a former (woeful) musician, I’d actually get annoyed when people from other bands would twist themselves into knots trying to avoid mentioning any influences when describing their sound. Unless you were Sonic Youth, everybody sounded bit like someone else, and I just wanted to get a rough idea of what they sounded like while we were all still young!

  4. Inamess
    March 2, 2015

    Another good post which raises good points of discussion:

    1) Does asking if Rakatic is a “Barca midfielder” a useful question? Depends how you define “Barca midfielder” in this case. My understanding was that the phrase was used to question whether Rakatic can be an effective player for Barca. The club has such a troubled record with its transfers that it is almost always worth asking: Is this player’s talents compatible with the team? Up to Rakitic’s good performances this week, I would say that Rakitic was not an effective “Barca midfielder” since there were not many games in which his obvious talent was evident within the play of the team. To demonstrate this point a little further, lets look at the fates of Ozil and Di Maria at RM vs Fabregas and Sanchez at Barca. Few would now argue that the former two are better players than the latter, but the reason many would have thought so is because it is easier for a player to demonstrate his talents for Real Madrid than Barca for all sorts of reasons that would be too numerous to list. It is one of the complexities of our club and one that has given us a disadvantage and headaches in the transfer market.

    So one reason that we might fall back on certain “prototypes” is that it makes us feel more confident that a player will fit in. “Thiago is like a combination of Iniesta and Xavi” sounds great not just because Xavi and Iniesta are/were world class players but also because we know they fit in very well into our team. So for a physical midfielder who is also good on the ball: “Song is like a Yaya ” didn’t work because in actual fact Song was not like Yaya and it was just unfortunate that what he brought to the team was not something that Barca could use. “Rakitic is like a combination of Cesc and Keita”. Well that sounds like something that Barca can use as long as this assessment turns out to be accurate and it is the right combination. Let’s hope!

    2) Are Barca fans and Real Madrid fans over-reacting to their team’s losses? Here I suppose it depends on what type of fan you are. Fan’s can fret about a loss or not. Assuming many types of fans are equally devoted it depends on your perspective. I look at the results of Barca and RM each week as a indication of our likelihood for silverware in a particular competition. So what do the results this week indicate in terms of La Liga. Before this week RM had approximately an 80% chance of winning La Liga and Barca a 20% chance. As a result of this weekend this likelihood shifted to about 60% for RM and 40% for Barca. Is this a cause for celebration for Barca and despair for RM? Well for Barca fans it means we doubled our chances and that’s great news. The complication is that with a different scenario the odds could completely change next week. So like there are long-term and short-term investors and gamblers, there will be fans that are more and less reactive to particular results. Neither perspective is more “rational” or “irrational”.

  5. Huckleberry
    March 2, 2015

    With 27 Messi should start taking care of his financial affairs or listen to better advisors…

  6. Jim
    March 2, 2015

    This isn’t easy for me to say ( as I’m sure some of you will realise ) but I really have nothing useful to add to the excellent replies above. That, however, probably won’t stop me saying something lengthy anyway 🙂

    I haven’t compared Rakitic to Xavi as a player because even a cursory glance would tell you that they aren’t the same type of player, leaving aside relative merits. It’s also pretty hard pinpoint what makes a “Barca midfielder” but for me it’s a combination of firstly total comfort on the ball ( the would I pass to you when you’re marked by two men just to get me out of bother, test ?) Secondly, the belief that moving the ball about quickly without losing possession is vital to control of a game and the ability to do it. This includes the sense to not always play the obvious pass as opponents press harder and the ability to carry it off. Third, The innate vision and ability to be closely marked and twist your way out of trouble by turning the right way ( for me, that’s the “Lionel” test, after a player I used to struggle against. )

    I’m afraid the above are right off the top of my head because I was reluctant to leave it at something as cliched as a poetic calm about your play. With regard to Rakitic I don’t know if he’ll make it longer term at Barca and wouldn’t draw any conclusions until next season Up until the last two games it has been hard to judge as he doesn’t spend much time involved in the game. Up until that point what I think I’ve seen is someone involved on the periphery of games, chasing and defending but not very pacy, just really a wall for the ball and not taking much responsibility for controlling the game. It hasn’t mattered because the front three when they’re onsong can take apart defences on their own but there’ll come a time when it will.

    However, in the last two games ( I did think he improved in the CL tie, Lev, although part of my comment as you’ve probably rightly guessed was lest I be thought a curmudgeon, as I thought City stood too far off us, allowed us to play and as soon as they pressed we struggled ) he has shown a bit more for me. I thought the cushioned pass over the defence to Suarez was excellent. I think Levon’s point about whether he can raise it consistently is a good one as is the idea that maybe it doesn’t matter because under LE the midfield will become more of a hot potato outfit just shuttling the ball on to the forwards. As I’ve said before, though, for me I like all sections firing and doing their bit.

    Second tie with MC will be really interesting now that their whole season rests on it. You have to think they’ll come out with a hard press and that’ll show us what our midfield is made of.

    • Jim
      March 2, 2015

      Having just re-read the above, ( I know, best to do it before posting) just wanted to say I don’t want to take anything away from the City result or performance which were excellent given the context.

  7. Tata2
    March 2, 2015

    Spot on about Rakitic. He has rather struck me as Sergio Roberto upgrade just acting as a wall for passes and not taking on creativity responsibility. He’s not also always assured in position when pressed but I hope this changes as times go then again I wasn’t his ardent follower during is sevilla days so I might never know. For the City return leg, expect a midfieldless game from us (copa Del Rey style) when city engage the press gear. They will suffer more than we do, you can’t come out to press and not leave your backyard open. It will be interesting when they come to engage us in a midfield battle and they are disappointed to realize that we aren’t interested in it.

  8. Cyclops
    March 2, 2015

    well, talking about replacing a midfielder, i think that depends on your definition of what a replacement is.
    if its about, say replacing a xavi for instance, with a player who’s got exact strength and weakness and dosnt have anything more or less than that, that would b really bizzare..cause then, probably the replacement, might even hold his eating knife, when slicing his fried chicken, same way a xavi would..or maybe lap at stray drops of coffee, same way a xavi would..now thats the height of absurdity..guiness book of records should probably be alerted about that-absurdity of the century(or millenium?)
    But then its definately possible replacing a xavi, with another player who’s awfully close to having same talents/strenght..if xavi, for instance has got 10 distinct strenght, its possible to find a replacement, with at atleast 8 of same strength..hence you can get a replacement for a brilliant player, thats just only a notch lower than the replacee..or maybe two notches lower, or thats even yards better than the replacee- which logically will be more preffered..point is, it so possible to replace a player, say xavi, with another player who’s so painfully close to giving you exactly what xavi would have given you
    hence, i think all the talk of players like xavi comes once in a century, is at best being lazy, really.sure its not possible to get another xavi, with like for like strength/weaknesses-that’d be weird..but who wouldnt like to get an upgrade on xavi(if they can be any upgrade) at worst, getting a player who’s just notches lower than xavi, will be met with equally much satisfaction.
    so i think just saying, ‘bah! xavi’s a one century player, lets move on’, is simply being incredibly lazy..or maybe its a case of feeling so sorry for a departing xavi era, that you just console yourself with the notion of whats gone’s gone, nothing can be done about it- kinda like trying to block misery and despair with denial.
    face it guys we can get either a ‘near xavi’ or an ‘upgraded xavi’..take the guardiola and xavi comparison for intance, anybody will gladly take one as a replacement over the other..only difference is they happen to play the game at same time.
    i think its simply wanting less migraine, ‘xavi is gone, case end’
    there’s a certain Joa moutinho, who’s currently one of the best if not the best CM around now..and i bet ya, there’re dozen of such talents out there..but do the board care? hell no, the xavi’s gone dogma’s less tasking..so there will just cling to it with both hands & feets and look the other way, while making horrendous transfer season in & out..a board concern with replacing its best players, should be scouting for the likes mountinho, placing them in the la masia..and say we get dozens of such players introduced into la masia, chances of finding a near-xavi replacement drastically sky-rocket..then there’s oliver torres-such a fine mids. heard he’s got connections with FCB..yet there’s no mention of his name in FCB sphere….

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