After the cheering stops … no sooner have the echoes of the exultant roars of the very last goal dissipated than the ripping at the carcass begins.
Cruijff likes the result, but didn’t like the football. Various post-match recaps describe Barça as more RM-like than RM. Another says that this Classic put the knife well and fully into tika taka, and assuredly killing off that phrase wouldn’t be at all bad. On Revista the topic is the RM resurgence, how they look like a good team again with Luka Modric back.
Which side of the 2-1 scoreline was Barça on, and has it really come down to theoretical football? In the wake of everyone and their mamas talking tactics and formations, it seems that Barça didn’t really play football before 2008. In those Dark Ages the team stomped around the pitch like mastodons, working off cave drawings instead of actual formations.
In the wake of a Classic that Barça won to go 4 points ahead of RM, hunks are being flayed from the team’s hide from all quarters. It doesn’t even matter that the beast isn’t wounded, or damaged in any way. It COULD have been and WILL be.
The Great Barça debate can really be distilled to a question of taste, and does different equal less good. Chocolate is different from vanilla, which doesn’t mean that chocolate is bad. The Luis Enrique era is here, and it’s safe to say that it has riled a great many culers, pundits and observers of the game. The very valid ask is, of course, why?
Football has a rather debilitating habit of defining goodness by an incumbent. Mascherano isn’t good because he isn’t Busquets. Mascherano isn’t good because he isn’t Pique. Rakitic isn’t good because he isn’t Xavi. Rafinha isn’t good because he isn’t Iniesta. Enrique Barça isn’t good, because … why?
It’s the equivalent of footballing Goldilocks. Last season it was, “Our defense sucks. We give up all those set piece goals and we don’t score any.”
This year, the coaching staff has shored up the defense, and the team is scoring set piece goals left and right. “Ugh. A set piece goal. Are we Stoke?”
It is almost as though it doesn’t matter what any coach does who isn’t the “right” coach … no good. Enrique has wrought changes that have, potentially, made Barça more competitive in Europe and for trophies. But the operative word here is change and the idea that change is bad, particularly from an aesthetic worldview.
Tika taka has officially become a cult, and in ostensibly honoring Pep Guardiola, a footballing pragmatist, people are building a shrine to a notion he disliked. So we often see, these days, “lack of control,” or “possession without control.” The implication is, of course, that the old way — Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets making triangles and confounding opponents — was better. It was controlling and reassuring. A preference for this old way also means ignoring the diminished results that it brought, for both Spain and Barça, both of whom hitched their wagons to the micro-possession game. Because Enrique has unhitched that wagon doesn’t make him wrong. It might not be to your taste, which is a fair assessment.
“My kingdom for a 9. Messi needs a 9 in front of him.” “No! Oh, wait … we meant our kingdom for a midfield, and btw you’re using that 9 wrong. Play tika taka and let that 9 run around. That is “right.” You misheard us.” “We were kidding when we said we wanted to score from set pieces. That’s impure. We just want to not concede from them.”
As Enrique said post-Classic, that second goal is exactly why the team bought Suarez. It is a striker’s goal. Ancelotti said that the Barça counters were devastating, and that sound you heard was the Earth, shifting on its axis. When an RM coach is saying that the Barça counters were too much for his team, that’s just crazytown.
Are there legit flaws in Enrique’s system? You bet. Identify them rather than snuffling at it because it isn’t to someone’s liking. Barça still needs, from time to time, a doddering legend with dodgy Achilles tendons. That means somebody screwed up. And don’t dare bring up Thiago, who chose to leave the club. No, there should have been a succession plan beyond that. Busquets is the only player who can do what he does. So if everyone else is inadequate, what happens when Busquets is tired, or injured?
Yes, a chickenshit board who feared the villagers with their torches and pitchforks impeded any viable succession strategy. As a consequence Enrique has to piece stuff together, with a little bit of new school and a little bit of old. It happens.
Dani Alves is still the team’s best RB, and nobody on the roster is even close to being able to do what he does. These things exist, and there isn’t anything that can be done about them until July, and even then only 114k or so voting socis can do anything about it.
FC Barcelona plays attractive, possession football. It still does, at times, even if these days the show is closer to Rijkaard than Guardiola. It has been said before and is worth saying again that a tactic shouldn’t be confused with a system. Possession football is the system, that thing that came to be called tika taka was a tactic. The acolytes, weaned on the results gleaned from that tactic at its apogee, find everything else wanting and results unconvincing. Winning, but not in the right way is even more problematic than losing, unless the wrong coach loses, then he didn’t win. He sucks.
In his excellent post-match breakdown for the Guardian, Sid Lowe addressed the attacking style of the entorno:
The debate continues, even in victory, and at times it is nasty, self-destructive and self-interested.
This isn’t just Barça supporters who wallow in this perpetual state of disgruntled joylessness. We see it in every league, this malady endemic to successful teams. If Cruijff doesn’t like the football that was on display, he can go stand in that long-assed line with the rest of us. Because football isn’t always about beauty, about elegant curlicues and triangles working their way inexorably up the pitch. Sometimes, it’s about getting shit done. It’s a set piece and a long ball, two goals worthy of that proverbial winter’s night in Stoke.
Barça got shit done against RM. Further, at the end of a week that many characterized as season-defining, a week in which all of the doom scenarios were spelled out in so many ways by so many, Barça emerged unscathed. City had the potential to mount a remuntada, and RM … well, they have all of their horses back, don’t they, and their midfield is better than ours. Worry, worry, worry.
So Barça beat City, then topped things off by not playing well and still beating RM for the simple reason that they were tougher and stronger than their opponent. It was an exceptional win as the team displayed grit and resilience. It even displayed the kind of football that people despaired of seeing, but it’s essential that you ignore the last 20 minutes of the match to make the point still relevant, when the Chicago Penya was shouting “Ole!” as another passing sequence kept the ball away from the RM players who were left clutching at shadows.
There wasn’t beautiful football only if you stopped watching about 70 some-odd minutes in, Maybe some people did. Hope they get caught up with the rest of the match but even more importantly, I hope that the stuff surrounding this team will stop eating itself.
— Enrique is the right choice.
— Enrique is arrogant.
— Enrique isn’t managing the squad right, rotating too much.
— Enrique out!
— Okay, Enrique might be doing something.
— Etc, etc, etc
And whether the reactions are rooted in survivor’s guilt, or just the need for attention by calling out varied and sundry indicators of doom, it begins.
“We still don’t have a midfield.”
“Stupid Neymar needs to stop worrying about his hair and Instagram.”
“Another team with a powerful midfield almost beat us.”
“I don’t like how the team is playing.”
It’s an odd sort of sadness that pervades at Our Lady of the Perpetual Unhappiness. It’s like a bride sitting at her wedding, weeping into a satin handkerchief as she observes, “He’s just going to get fat, and will cheat on me at some point, and look at that mole by his ear … now I will have to deal with hospital visits, and don’t even get me started on his job.”
The challenge now is that the team is in the Champions League quarterfinals, and four points up in the Liga, with 10 matches to go. What can you do when a team is playing well and winning, not playing so well and still winning, threatening to make fools out of eejits like me who predicted no silver for the squad this season?
Go to church, the church of the midfield triangle, and declare the team and its coach heretics. You say that Messi fixed things himself by moving to midfield in the second half, an assertion that necessitates ignoring all those times that he was frolicking in the middle of the pitch in the first half. Obstinacy will have its way, after all.
We should ignore the fact that Neymar and Messi contributed to defending in the second half, and let’s ignore the shortened lines as well as Barça began to successfully press RM into its own end of the pitch. If you are going to reach a conclusion, ignoring data that doesn’t support a desired solution is essential.
The entorno wins again, and as with Rayo Vallecano and the horrible 4-0, a win becomes tantamount to a loss. Wrong way. It’s worth going back in time for a sort of retroactive history as we clean up the record.
— That Messi header in the Champions League final against United? No. A long pass for a header? What are we, Stoke?
— Those Ronaldinho runs through the defense and shots from distance? No.
— The famous Messi run through the Getafe defense for a goal? Jesus, why not stop and let Xavi set up a play?
— Both Henry goals in the 2-6 Classic? Nope. You’re kidding, right?
Who doesn’t want to see 47 logical passes completed perfectly, resulting in an eminently logical goal? I love that stuff, but you know what? Those aren’t the only goals that are “good.” Play such as that isn’t the only play that is “good.” What I wish culers had the gumption to say is “I want my team to win. I would like beauty, but my desires start with a win.” Admit that. Or even more honestly, “I don’t care if the team wins as long as it plays football the right way.” Paco Jemez wants to buy you a drink. He has free time, since his Rayo squad isn’t playing midweek football in any competitions.
In post-match remarks, Mascherano said that “Football isn’t only possession.”
After the match, Enrique said, “You have to have (different) resources; that’s very important. … but your opponent plays too and we have to interpret what we need in a game.”
Every coach knows what needs to happen for his team to win. Dependent upon the quality of his players, he might even be confident that those very things will happen. But if the way that you mapped out isn’t as effective as you would like, a smart coach will also make adjustments. Coaches aren’t judged for beauty and execution, like a gymnast. A coach is judged by winning and losing, by trophies or failure.
A coach looks at his available personnel and decides how he is going to play, based on those personnel. The Barça midfield is deemed nonexistent or improperly used. When Xavi and Iniesta, diminished, are still on the roster and nobody even considered a succession plan, what is a coach to do? Keep playing in the exact same way that garnered his predecessors increasingly less silver, with core players who are that much older? Sure. We came so far for beauty, what’s another silverless season? More importantly, how many passes did the team complete, and were the triangles perfect?
Players from Pique to Busquets to Mascherano have had to defend the way that the team is playing, something that I can only imagine inspired bewildered head shaking and questions like, “Wait, we won today, right?”
Pragmatism wins championships sometimes. Execution wins matches. Players have to execute a tactical strategy that is excellent in a vacuum. “This should work.” The opponent decides that it isn’t going to be allowed to work. What next? “Keep passing, keep making those triangles. They will crack.”
If they don’t, is the team consoled by the fact that it played a certain way? Theory is lovely. It’s also the province of people without that much skin in the game. Supporters can afford to be pure. Nothing is really on the line for us except sadness if the team fails. We aren’t going to be sold or fired. Our strategy can be pure, unburdened by the reality of consequences.
But Frank Rijkaard wasn’t fired because his football wasn’t pretty. He was fired because of a pair of trophy-less seasons. If Tata Martino had found those 5 goals that the team needed to be in with a shot at the Liga, Copa and advancing in Champions League, would Enrique still be coaching at Celta? Negative results put the presidency of Joan Laporta to the test of a referendum. Nobody gave a toss about footballing beauty. The team was sucking. Whose fault is it?
Results are the end, pragmatism is sometimes the means. This season is an opportunity for the entorno to grow up. I love beauty. But I would be hard pressed to find any passing sequence, any collection of dribbles and elegant flicks and backheels that is as pretty as seeing Barça 2, RM 1. Not sure what that makes those of us who find joy and satisfaction in such a base pursuit as results, but count me in.