My wife says that I am like a dog. Not in the Messi sense, but in the almost complete lack of history. It’s like when you go out the check the mail, come back and your dog does a happy dance: “You’re HOME! I didn’t think you were EVER coming back! This is the best day ever!”
That lack of history in many ways makes life happy, and complex. Its obvious roots are in the “be here now” worldview that shapes my life path, the lack of a desire to carry the burdens of the past around. But in a more practical sense a lack of history is, in theory, liberating. It also makes me rather ill-equipped to properly assess many aspects of FC Barcelona, in a way.
Does history provide context, or does it hamstring? Can a respect for history veer into a reverence that blinds? This question is in many ways at the core of the debate that culers are having about the direction of the team right now.
When I evaluate things, it is in their own context. So Pep Guardiola is the best coach the team has ever had. Tito Vilanova had an extraordinary season at the helm, given everything that transpired. Tata Martino did a better job than I could have expected, given what he had to wrestle with. Luis Enrique is still a work in progress, but steps are being made in a promising direction.
Those with a stronger sense of history suggest that things aren’t right, that there used to be a better way of doing things. So the lack of a sense of history made me go back in time to watch Barça goal compilations and frankly, I am appalled. There were long balls, set piece goals, goal-mouth scrambles, Marquez bombs from (shudder!) the back line, even counterattacking goals.
And I didn’t know what to think, because I expected to see flawless goals at the terminus of 437 flawless little passes. So the search continued, into the perfect years. The first 3 Barça goals scored in the Treble season? A penalty and two set piece headers. My earth shook on its axis. Of course, that Treble season also featured some exquisite goals that came at the terminus of beautiful, linked team play. There were many different goals.
Then I went to this season, the one that history says is wrong, that has divided culers in a way not seen since the Yaya/Busquets debate, and I saw pretty much the same thing: set piece goals, beautiful team goals, counterattacking goals and the like. And this led to consideration of exactly what the complexity is about this team, this season and this coach that so riles culers. Of course it’s many things: there isn’t the sense of absolute control of a game that existed in the heyday of recent Barça sides; the midfield wizards aren’t working their magic in the same way (even as they are working magic of a different sort); this Barça is more RM-like in that it is evincing fight, coming back, battling for goals and counterattacking.
And it is worth considering, as people wrestle with their complexities about this Barça, just what tradition means for this football club.
Barça has its roots in attacking, possession-based football. Everything else is a tactic. The manner of play that came to be called “tika-taka” was a tactic born of the players that were at Pep Guardiola’s disposal, in part players that he requested. The sale of Toure Yaya solidified that commitment to that style of football. Had Guardiola inherited a team of strong, physical players who could run like the wind, it would have been very interesting to see what kind of style would have developed. That he was an innovative coach is without question, even as for me, it’s worth asking about how things might have developed with a different set of personnel.
At its fullest flower, the style that the Guardiola teams played was exquisite. But the team didn’t play that way all the time, just as the current or past teams didn’t play in a single way all the time. This team does at times seem “broken,” never more so than the two matches after the international break, La Real and Celta. It didn’t surprise me, and an excellent post-match by Rob Brown here made it clear exactly what the complexities were.
There were trends that manifested themselves in that match, just as there have been in previous matches this season, most of them rooted in a lack of team cohesion. But think about how Barça might have looked had Eto’o, Henry and Messi decided to not track back and help defend. It would probably look pretty much like the team did against Celta. Scrambling mids and a defense doing more work than it should. And without knowing what Enrique’s orders were, given the maddening stretch of matches coming up, it’s a bit difficult to draw any inferences from this match (or La Real, for that matter) except that the team found a way to get it done.
History is an extraordinary thing. It can hobble or elevate. It shouldn’t be ignored, and should be respected rather than revered. It is the reverence that makes things messy, and can often lead to a misinterpretation. To my view, based on what I have seen over the years of following this football club, Enrique is playing Barça football. He isn’t playing Barça football like Guardiola played it, or like Rijkaard played it, even as many of the characters are the same.
We can only wonder what Barça Twitter, had such a thing existed back in the day, would have thought as Ronaldinho joga bonitoed his way to golazo after golazo, or Rafa Marquez dropping those bombs from the back line (Pique tried to emulate him, with Guardiola’s blessing). It’s one of the complexities of history. A football club has legends, great players and coaches who helped shape its legacy. But because a club is a living, breathing organism, it has to adapt or die. Sometimes if you take the stifling view of history, it becomes difficult to adapt. It also becomes difficult to see things as they are, rather than how they are defined by history.
There are so many analogs between this Barça and the best Barça of recent memory, right down to the well-worked set piece goals. Instead of Henry/Eto’o/Messi it’s Neymar/Suarez/Messi. But things are also different. History doesn’t just include victory parades, speeches and joy. History also includes ineffective triangles just outside an opponent’s box, a 7-0 Champions League beatdown and Jose Mourinho dancing with joy on the Camp Nou pitch. History includes opponents who figured out the pretty triangles, a failed Ibrahimovic experiment and efforts to solve the challenges presented by the modern game as rivals adapt. Players are faster, the game is faster, defenders are faster. A whole system of play has been born to combat the beast mislabeled tika-taka, and a team has to move faster in response.
It must be said that Enrique’s Barça as it stands isn’t anyone’s ideal, not even his, if you were to catch him at an honest moment. But it’s what we have. History also includes culers clamoring for a Plan B as triangles washed away ineffectually against the sides of a bus. History includes culers wishing that the team could score from set pieces, and didn’t concede so damned many goals from them. History contains a lot. If we learn anything from history, it is that the mistakes of the past shouldn’t be repeated. We should listen to history.
In the bones of this Barça would seem to reside a Plan B and C, set pieces and freelancing as the team can create goals against the run of play, or against an opponent who has parked it in front of goal. History will ultimately define whether this is a good thing, based on a retrospective look at this team’s trophies, because that is also what history does.
What I wish that history didn’t do was hobble. As I said in the Celta match post, the past doesn’t interest me. The present does. I hate band reunions, keeping sentimental things and looking backward, even as history also defines us. My ancestors were part of the Great Migration. So I know about this history, its roots in the Civil Rights struggle and those battles. I understand the history even as I know that black folks these days exist in a different time. That’s history and how it informs the present.
But there are black folks who are still defining themselves by the ghosts of the past. In that sense, history hobbles. In a less-weighty sense, history is hobbling the worldview of culers. Barça is festooned with greats and legends. I often wonder why a coach like Rijkaard doesn’t inspire devotion. He came in with Laporta, struggled at first then won two Ligas and one Champions League. His record is of course sullied by two silverless seasons and losing the locker room, a situation exacerbated when he lost the services of Henk Ten Cate, but Rijkaard was one hell of a coach. History and legends galore. Cruijff, Koeman, Rivaldo, Henry, Eto’o, Guardiola, Samitier … I’d even include Helenio Herrera in that list not to mention many others, who culers should respect. Each and every one of them had their influence on the club and its team. What’s also interesting is how many of them changed things, innovated in ways that came to redefine expectations.
Cruijff of course is the linchpin of the thinking about current Barça. Henry was a truly unique winger, just as there will only the one Eto’o. Samitier got the club’s second Liga crown and snagged Kubala. Rijkaard ushered in joga bonito, and Herrera was the first consumptive, high-energy, fast burnout coach. Guardiola adapted what Cruilff did and elevated it, emphasizing the midfield because with an in-prime Xavi, Iniesta and an exploding Busquets, you’d be a fool not to. So he sold Toure Yaya and hitched his wagon to brilliance, coupled with Messi, who took off like a rocket.
Just as the Rijkaard joga bonito adaptation fizzled, so did the short passing triangles, leading the team to need another innovation. Vilanova tried it and his season was derailed by sadness and tragedy. Martino tried it but ultimately he lost his backbone as his verticalidad revolution fizzled. Enrique is next, with the opportunity to adapt how the team plays. With a front three of Messi, Neymar and Suarez, he would be as crazy to discard their gifts as Guardiola would have been not to lean on Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. So he is trying that, even as there are flaws.
The question is, how should history tell us to treat what Enrique is trying to do? That is also the challenge, because history is related to its evil twin, nostalgia. We remember crappy relationships in a rose-tinted way, thanks to nostalgia. That same secret sauce helps that aging rocker not seem as past it as he is. Nostalgia also helps us remember only the good things, and find anything else wanting in that context. That is a danger. So when we see that “Enrique is changing everything,” it runs into the ocular evidence of that second half against RM, when Barça controlled play with triangular precision, or seeing out the victory against Atleti in that same way. Nostalgia can make versatility seem an aberration, as well.
A lack of history can be a good thing sometimes. When you shut down your computer, the short-term memory is dumped. In a way, that’s how Enrique coming in was for many culers. Irrespective of the way that you judge that notion, it’s easy to wonder whether that capability is what divides the camps. Some folks look at Barca and see a team that is trying to adapt to the shifting demands of crafty opponents. Others look at this Barca and see a team that has lost its way and strayed from the base. Time will tell, of course, and what is history, if not the passage of time and events?