A joint post in which nzm and Kxevin examine the idea of a loss of identity, and what that might mean in the Barça context.
Kxevin: Change doesn’t mean loss of identity
Barca has lost its identity. This is a phrase that has been bouncing around as much in incorrect contexts as the misguided applications of mes que un club. A recent bit of paff even suggested that the Pedro sale indicated a “loss of identity.”
We have been hearing this “loss of identity” business so often inside and outside the culerverse that it’s worth taking a swing at the etymology of the phrase, even as we ask whether Barça has indeed lost identity or is it just different.
A very recent piece on defensive midfielders by Mike Goodman (which is brilliant and very much worth your time ) lavishes praise on Sergi Busquets, while also making it clear that a lot of his success is because of the system that he inhabits. Then I got to remembering a tactical dissection by Michael Cox of Zonal Marking fame, in which he broke down Thomas Vermaelen (also worth your time), and read an illustrative passage:
“Perhaps he is used to playing alongside more of a sweeper who will cover behind him”
Was Vermaelen so exceptional on Sunday because he had precisely that in Mascherano, a modified DM who had his back, giving a previous clunker precisely what he needed to thrive? In a deeper sense, returning to the Goodman piece, he argues that the reason Arsenal haven’t signed a good DM isn’t as much their market tactics as the team’s overall tactics – the way they play makes being a good DM there close to impossible. Which kinda makes you wonder about Busquets and how he would do there, or at clubs other than Barça.
There is often an arrogance when a team has an extraordinary player that makes supporters of that team presume that said player would be extraordinary whenever, wherever. We have all seen the speculation about whether Messi would have the same success in the Premiership. Institutional arrogance rocks! But on a very different tack related to the prattle about Barça and its loss of identity, what if a lot of the reason people are going on about this is because Barça has of late shifted from players who are in many ways specific to the club and its system to players who would be good anywhere, adapted to the Barça system?
It’s easy to think that Xavi and Iniesta would be brilliant at any team in the world. David Silva thrives in the giant, man-sized Premiership after all, and his entire career has been played in the shadow of his Spanish superiors. But there has always been the illusion that Xavi and Iniesta are Barça archetypes, players who buck the mold of the fast, physical midfielder and excel despite their lack of physical attributes. There is the story that Xavi was considering leaving the club because he didn’t meet that stronger, faster standard before deciding to stay and becoming the best controlling midfielder in history. A typically Barça player thriving in a typically Barça system that was transplanted to the Spanish NT, which then thrived in that typically Barça way.
Busquets is another example. In the Goodman piece it is quite correctly pointed out that what you have to do depends largely on your teammates. We have all seen what happens when Busquets has to try to control too much space. He and the defense become much more vulnerable, and the tactical errors of the coach whose system makes him cover more space are pointed out, correctly so. He becomes a player out of context. There is a situational specificity to Busquets and what he does. Transplant him to Arsenal, and what happens?
You could argue that such situational specificity reached its apogee in the 2011 Champions League-winning team, which might have been the pinnacle of the modern-day Barça identity as perceived by the aesthetes. The lineup was: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Villa, Messi. Abidal was the closest thing to a stud among them, and he was a rail-thin cancer survivor. Valdes was a sweeper keeper before such a thing became cool. Alves was a winger in effect. Pique a mid playing CB. Mascherano too short, Busquets not physical. Xavi and Iniesta’s physical limits have been covered, and Villa was on the wrong side of useful. Pedro? Role player. Everybody was wrong, yet it was all so right, a perfect identity, or at least the notion of one.
That team destroyed Manchester United in a performance that is still one of the best that anyone has seen, revered because it makes football, a game played by athletes, into successful theory. A bigger, stronger, faster opponent led by a legendary coach from a powerful league was almost reduced to bystander status by a cadre of wee technicians operating within a flawlessly executed system. It wasn’t a single, well-aimed shot from David that felled Goliath, but rather David climbing onto a ladder and even though Golitath knows what is coming, socking the giant in the nose time and again, until he is felled. Little wonder people consider that Barça team the best, even better than the first (still weird to type that) treble Barça, a team that is interesting to consider because like the current Barça, it is a more universal side.
Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o could play anywhere in the world and excel. So could Toure Yaya, the Cote d’Ivoire Colossus. Alves hadn’t yet been fully assimilated, either. It was a more universal team that was exceptional, but didn’t have the same sort of identity as the 2011 double winners, the team that also delivered the legendary Manita, a drubbing so complete that Real Madrid’s best player — a physical specimen who could run fast and jump high — was reduced to impotent fuming as capering midgets passed the ball around him. Jeffren scored a goal, as proof that it was the system more than the players.
From those days to now, universality has returned in the form of a team that has to compete in a bigger, faster world that has figured out how to stymie the wee technicians. It’s Rakitic, Turan and Vidal, Neymar and Suarez, players who shred a system rather than relying upon one with Messi, the ultimate system buster. Is the identity loss related to this perception, this notion that somehow the team is less extraordinary because it is less aesthetically pure, even as it has become more potent?
Busquets is an avatar of excellence as everyone marvels at what he does. But he can do that because of the pace of Alba, the force of Pique and Mascherano as the Barça back line plays up near the halfway line. Rakitic functions at times as an RB, Neymar and Suarez do defensive donkey work to harass and funnel opponent breaks toward the center of the pitch, where Busquets can telescope a leg and resolve matters. He is as pure an example of situational excellence as exists. This isn’t to say that he wouldn’t be a great DM at another club, but that Barça and the way that it plays elevates him to maximum effectiveness. But imagine Busquets at a different team, as its defenders hunkered down in their own box, one midfielder went on a run while the FBs occupied more traditional roles and suddenly Busquets had in effect all of the midfield to cover. What then?
FC Barcelona hasn’t lost its identity, but illusion has been dinged. That institutional arrogance of a system that doesn’t care who the opponent is, played by “athletes” who are undersized and who buck all tactical trends has been replaced by an attack, a way of playing more in keeping with the necessities of modern times. It’s the guy with the Deux Chevaux swearing as the sports car whips past him on a two-lane road. Damn modern conveyances!
In looking at the current Barça roster, it takes work to find purity in that 2011 sense, the aesthetic archetype. The roster has changed because the system has changed, and the system has changed because the world in which it exists has changed. It’s okay to resist that, to yearn for a different time and place in which things were more “pure.” But as we sit around as listen to coots like me talk about how things aren’t as good as they used to be, young people scoff, “Things are different now, gramps.” It also makes all this talk of a loss of identity, by culers as well as non-culers, a lot more difficult to pinpoint as anything much more than a resistance to change.
nzm: The club is losing its way off the pitch
Personally, I pooh-pooh the talk of Barça losing its on-field identity, because it didn’t have one. Because it’s impossible. What team does have a long-lasting identity on the pitch? I’d wager those bemoaning the loss of identity are those who started following Barça during the Pep era & have done little to learn about the team and how it played before that time. Also, the media built heavily on that Barça style during Pep’s time, convincing most fans that the Pep style was how the team had always played.
Teams must adapt to play in a way which utilises the players that it has. As the “golden era generation” of La Masia ages or leaves – Ini, Xavi, Puyol, Valdes – that style of play also diminishes, because there are no players who play like them – before or after.
As far as Barça inventing tiki-taka – that’s largely accredited to Aragonés, who used the Barça spine of his NT players to develop the Spain team around the short passing style. Guardiola saw the effectiveness of Spain’s NT, took that template, culled out the players who couldn’t do it – Deco, Ronaldinho et al – and developed the team to play in the tiki-taka way, utilising players who could play like that. It’s why La Masia players were somewhat more effective during Pep’s tenure, because they could play the short-pass, one-touch game. Where Pep came unstuck was choosing players of the wrong temperament to further develop the tiki-taka into a more direct, vertical approach. Ibra perhaps the most glaring of those examples.
In Pep’s last year, you could see the wheels coming off, as teams developed a strategy to counter the Barça playing style at that time. It usually involved the Mourinho approach of bus-parking, or 10-man defences sitting deep in rows of 2 – absorbing the Barça attacks and hoping for the quick counter-attack goal.
In Tito’s first year, he inherited that team of tired players and also a body of players who weren’t capable of adapting to the vertical, direct approach that Tito wanted to develop. Tito’s illness and injuries aside, Heynckes’ Bayern was the first team who really learned how to take Barça apart. They attacked down the laterals, cutting in towards the goal behind Busquets and the Barça midfield, where their multiple attacking forwards then only had to deal with 2 panicking CBs and struggling lateral backs. Busquets and the midfield were effectively taken out of the game. Heynckes had identified the Barça midfield as the danger, and found ways in which to nullify it.
As the team tactics changed, so must the team’s personnel. Zubi’s purchases now aren’t looking too shabby – not that any of his detractors would care to admit it. I’d be interested to see Song in this team now, because I think there is a fit for him in a midfield with Mascherano & Rakitic, but the slack has been taken by Sergi Roberto and Rafinha.
In my soci opinion, the biggest loss of club identity has happened off the pitch. The closing of sociship, the shirt selling, the shirt designs, the decisions taken without soci consult, the increasing focus on the football team while further marginalising the other sporting disciplines, the multitude of social, ethical and moral gaffes made by the Board. The lack of any reasonable attempt to explain Board/managerial decisions before they take place, instead of reacting to or ignoring any negative feedback after the events. Plus a marketing department which must contain teenagers who think that developing childish Mobile Apps and posting inane tweets/hashtags is the cool thing to do. Meanwhile, online voting, an online magazine and no WiFi in Camp Nou, as indicated was coming, have not materialised.
Today, I despaired at the sight of the official team photo – taken at the CEJG against a backdrop of apartment buildings. What the hell? What about in front of the green bushes at the CEJG – or even better, at Camp Nou. For one of the biggest teams in the world, they sure get a lot of things wrong. They would do well to look at the brand-building and constructive social media of clubs such as Atleti and Valencia.
My personal feelings of loss of identity don’t come from what’s happening on the pitch – it’s that I find little with which to identify at club level. The mes que un club feeling, the pride of Unicef on the shirt, the lack of a charismatic leader at the helm. There is less and less to feel good about as a club soci, than as a team fan. It’s important to distinguish between the two, and not transfer feelings of what’s going on within the club to what’s happening on the pitch.