Barça on the precipice

When the Sandro Rosell board assumed power at FC Barcelona, it was faced with something of a quandary. Not how to get the smell of brimstone out of a room, but rather how to take a club that has always been considered something of a cottage industry, and make it a fully modern entity.

The barrier, of course, is the misunderstood “mes que un club,” and the many different things that the club means to its many different followers. For some, the club is indeed a local concern, for us by us. For others, the club is an international drawing card, a footballing powerhouse. For still others, it is this thing to be frozen in amber at its apogee.

Recently, a number of fascinating things have happened on different levels, all conspiring to roil the cauldron of what people think about the club and the direction in which it is headed, as well as the direction in which it needs to be headed.

Just out is a club-sponsored film, “Josep Sunyol: A Brave Cry,” that tracks the life and history of the late and iconic figure who was assassinated during the Spanish Civil War.

“We don’t understand how this figure has been forgotten for so long”, club vice president Carles Villarubi said. “With the documentary, we wanted to repair that injustice, starting virtually from scratch.”

This is of course, mostly the same board who many, including myself, have railed against for wanting to besmirch the legacy of this club, such as it is, even as on many levels they also continue the club tradition of boards that members want to throw shoes at. The stance is clear: the club is Catalan and wears its Senyera proudly, from Quixotic battles against UEFA fines for supporters waving independence flags, to clear support of the region’s right to decide its own future to this film.

It puts a spike in the ire of the accusers, and whether artfully done P.R. gimmickry or legitimate embracing of history, legacy and Catalanisme, the actions of the Bartomeu board are causing many to reconsider views about the club and how it is being run.

Make no mistake, there is danger afoot if the club doesn’t manage to produce the staggering sums necessary to continue to field the best football team in the world. The renewals of Busquets, Neymar, Messi and Suarez alone look to be massive. There will also be the stadium project as well as the other, well-compensated pieces of that team. The necessity of bringing the club into the modern era has never been more acute than it is right now, if only because of the immense sums the modern game represents.

And then there’s that damn football team, which brings us to another way that notions are being assaulted. A trip to Las Palmas was in the cards for the weekend, and a victory would mean putting pressure on the second and third-place teams in La Liga, who would play a day after Barça. And after Miss Las Palmas whacked a ceremonial first kick and some dude dressed as a woman stalked the stands, there was a match to be played, one in which not even the most generous, rose-colored culer would suggest that Barça played anything other than mediocre.

The match played out as so many matches have of late, the opponent coming out and pressing, creating stress if not actual danger, until Barça bangs in enough goals to win, and the “Fin” rolls across the screen. It’s like the weekly police TV series in which you know the cop is going to solve the crime. You can even pretty much tell how, but you still tune in because — well — it’s entertaining.

Barça was always going to win that match, one in which the final scoreline was deceptive, as Luis Suarez couldn’t finish a cup of coffee, spurning chance after chance. As if to make him feel better, Neymar scuffed a couple and for the most part, Messi didn’t even bother waking up all that much. They didn’t really need to, because the match was in control. Luis Enrique called the display “effective.” And there was Quique Setien, coach of Las Palmas, who summed up the same old show:

“Due to Liga lead, Barça relax against weaker teams. But when needed, they start playing their normal game.”

In the second half, Barça came out of the locker room and exerted control over the match, a control that would have been iron-clad had not individual errors crept into the mix. But even then, there was sufficient individual quality to snuff out any real danger, and it was another win in the books, an unbeaten streak that stands at 32 matches and counting.

Despite all of this, the Guardiola teams are still an unassailable standard, one that vexes many an observer, who pops into various social media, comments during the match broadcast or writes pieces about how dodgy Barça look, and how poor the team’s display was. Just winning isn’t enough, and it never has been for this team and its supporters. But this new, modern, pragmatic Barça is forcing the “frozen in amber” crowd to look again.

A long ball to Suarez is slotted home, or a lightning counter finds Neymar feeding Messi, who slots home. For a while, a long while, those kinds of goals were considered “impure” by many observers, as when the Tata Martino Barça won a match 4-0, but lost the possession stat so things were a disaster. There is a way of playing attendant to the Blaugrana. Win, and win beautifully is the mandate, until recently.

With enough winning, enough “ugly” goals such as the Neymar putback for the winning margin vs Las Palmas, aesthetic gracelessness takes on a beauty of its own, as culers point to the league table with pride, and stick their chests out. Instead of gushing about the 48 flawless passes and the ball that is walked into the net, they talk about the one-touch control/shot of Suarez, and how quickly the Luis Enrique Barça can hit back at an opponent.

But this is now a Barça team that understands the necessity of doing just enough, of winning and going home. In a recent interview, Xavi spoke about the tension that was present during the Guardiola years when the team didn’t play its usual champagne football, about the lack of adaptability. This current team doesn’t ever seem to feel tension because it has a number of different plans and methods of attack and defense. It is a less-flawless beast because it can be but more importantly, because it has to be.

The show doesn’t matter. There won’t be an asterisk next to the Las Palmas result because the team wasn’t beautiful. The three points will go into the book, and that’s that. This has happened now for 32 matches, through a match every three days, a mess of a pre-season, travel abroad for a tour, from there for the UEFA SuperCup then back home for the SuperCopa. The first part of the season was jammed with matches, and the farther the team goes in the various competitions, the more matches there are. Shortcuts must be taken, and this is a group that doesn’t mind taking them, glittering legacies of flawlessness notwithstanding. It just keeps winning.

So does Barça B, for that matter, having notched its sixth win in a row on Saturday as well as keeping a clean sheet. About a month ago, Barça B was roiled with a series of players being released from the club. There was talk of tradition being besmirched, of Masia being spurned for a newer, shallower worldview that was at odds with club tradition.

La Masia is supposed to promote players to the first team, and the B team is supposed to be, in effect, the next level of La Masia. What happened with the releases was an admission that others made clear. Xavi said that La Masia isn’t as fertile as it has been in the past. Luis Enrique said that nobody was really good enough to be promoted. And the team underscored that by finding its way to Segunda B, then the relegation places of that division. Something had to be done, and the jettisonings were part of that admission as players who weren’t good enough, and were never going to be first-team material were sent packing, replaced by older, more experienced players. The same thing happened in 2007, with the same result: the team is climbing the table, winning matches and looking good, and the Masia gems combine with the vets to win matches.

But again, what of purity? What of La Masia as a football factory, a place turn turns out sparkling gems for the first team? That role is unchanged, even as the class that peopled Barça B wasn’t in the glittering gem category. There were four Masia players who featured in the team’s sixth straight win. Whether this is bad, good or just part of the process, depends upon a worldview.

Barça B needs to be successful so that the players are at a level sufficiently high to sharpen their skills for potential graduation. The Masia-stocked Barça B wasn’t at that level. So far, the retooled Barça B is. And when Masia talent catches up to notions of effectiveness, homeboys who are also going to be able to win matches and earn promotion to the first team, practical approaches need be taken.

Even as traditionalist notions of the club and how it should be are under assault from three different directions as the board continues its efforts to make the club a fully modern entity, the club will always be what it was. “Mes que un club” isn’t tarnished because Barça can be a modern club with skyboxes and purchased superstars, and still represent everything to a supporter. “More than a club,” indeed. Barça is, and will have to continue to strive to be, all things to all people, an impossible task.

But what is interesting is that people are beginning to come around to the idea that maybe, just maybe, there is a different way of doing things. There is, after all, fertile ground in the middle as well.

By Kxevin

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.


  1. Thanks for a very interesting article! Sponsoring a film about Josep Sunyol seems very much like a PR project, but the problem of how to keep the world’s best players at Barca without going bankrupt is very real.

    …aaaaand a Liga win is becoming more and more probable, with RM dropping points taking them 9 (effectively 10) points behind us. That’s a lot of points for a team which draws from time to time but hardly ever loses. No disrespect to Atlético of course, but I don’t think they will be able to compete with our team with regard to having fresh players at this busy stage of the season. I wish them very good luck in the Champions League though.

  2. This goes to show the immense work this team has been doing. Madrid just played a mid week game after a long while and it affected them and here are our boys playing after every two days week in week out and we are still managing to get those vital wins. For me I rather we manage those scrappy wins so we could wrap up la liga as soon as possible or have a healthy lead and focus on UCL. I hope EE beats Athletico to stop them from breathing down our neck…

  3. I love what they did to Barca B – and this reflects the pragmatism that permeates LE’s Barca, too. No free rides, when fostering a winning mentality. A team like this will be much more effective in bringing out the few that will actually make it to the first team. We are very lucky if even one player every other year comes through – Samper has the chance, and seems to be doing really well in the environment (from what I’ve read).

    It seems like a reality check, waking up from the dream of having a dream team of Masias who cost nothing to buy, to the reality of having an expensive team of superstars who where many key players were bought to the club. It is a different game. I wonder what happens when Messi fades – he seems to be the greatest pull to this team: players want to play the the GOAT, because he is the best, and won’t go trophyless for more than one season… if Neymar stays, maybe he can assume some of that – but this is a unique time, let’s not forget it.

  4. Sorry, OT here

    Barca96..yeah obviously the Arsenal’s match was actually an FA cup tie..i guess apart from the tendency to label all Winless match as Points Dropped(regardless of the competition)i was(subconsciously)hell bent on juxtaposing thier case with ours(tho’ again obviously it was different competitions played by both teams)and prove that where they faltered we triumphed, taking whatever consolation there’s to take from that…
    Having said that, i think we shouldnt read anything from their game…Some say it would be a false sense of security if they try glean any hope from our performance against Las palmas, but that applies to us too, if we try to take much from their Match…
    Arsenal can be much better than that i can assure ya
    Tho’, i’d have preffered they won that game, hate scenarios where opponent that i’m fairly sure we’d beat gets a supposed boosted inspiration from playing a Bad Game, and start singing the song of Back Against The Wall when facing us

    But my opinion if anybody cares is, that Match is gonna be a real tough one..A very close and cagey match i’d say..I expect them to come flying out of the blocks right from the very first seconds, closing down spaces harrying our players, giving as good as they get..i expect the scores to be very very close, like..i’d go for 0-5 Barca…….

  5. An enjoyable interview with Piqué at group 14, and stressing the point of a maturing Messi: “In recent times what I’d highlight the most about Leo is his solidarity. If he was missing something this was it. For a person like him it could have been difficult, but the way he has embraced Luis [Suárez] and Neymar is outstanding.”

  6. A win, even if it was scrappy, is now looking like a very important win enroute to the liga, looking at EE dropping points after their first midweek game. This new liga fixturing of having games played in the after noon sun is not a good thing for the big teams, who were used to having to play under flood lights. I was afraid for us too, but we are somehow hanging up with our squad rotations and the effectiveness of the front 3.
    I saw only the last 5 minutes of the Malaga RM, but went crazy glad about the result. Was more glad about that result than our 1-2 win.
    I know this wont happen because of the catalan issues and all, but, Is it possible for us to do some disrespect by starting with our second string side for the home el classico. I would love it if we show Madrid media, what real disrespect is.

  7. Less than 24 hours now till our first real test in the CL. Starting to get a little uneasy. Arsenal are a step up in quality from most of our games.

    I know we’ll score but what are they gonna do ? Press high ? If so, can we pass our way out ? Sit back and counter ? If they counter we need defensive discipline so we’re not caught short ‘cos our so called gala midfield must be the slowest in the CL. You add a Pique and Masche ( I’m assuming) at CB and you have a really slow centre to our side. Can’t rely on the FBs to get/stay back. Although Alba’s passing wasn’t great last game, apart from the assist, his positioning wasn’t bad and he certainly didn’t deserve the slagging he got in some quarters. Wasn’t impressed by Masche’s offside line holding either or the fact that somebody (LE?) sent him up for corners. Why ??? And how did we get caught with one defender from our corner ? If he plays we need him staying at home and on his feet where possible.

    Masche or Mathieu ? ( the latter for me. We need pace, height and discipline. I know, it’s not gonna happen. )
    Rakitic or Sergio Roberto ? ( Again, the latter. Ball carrying through their press might be important and he’s quicker than Rakitic. )
    Alves or Vidal ? ( easier one for me this as Alves still shades it, actually by quite a bit)

    Thoughts ?

    I still reckon we’ll win both legs but it’d be a good night for walking Messi to send his other half. Now all I need is a bar somewhere in Honolulu to watch the return as I’ll be on the American leg of my jaunt to see my daughter in Oz !!

    1. Apologies, Jim, but exactly why and how is Masche always culpable for every goal concede in your view? Though it’s commonplace to have a refractory aversion for some players in one’s team, for whatever reason; the aversion becomes superfluous when it crosses the purview of objectivity.

    2. Whether or not I agree with Jim, he consistently explains his views. Probably the best commenter on this board at explaining and providing evidence as opposed to just casting aspersions. If you went back and read jims comments in the threads following each match you could answer the question yourself.

      At least 2 away goals for our boys tonight.

    3. Beware, long post follows. Might help pass the time before the game tonight. . . .

      Absolutely no need to apologise, Dar. It’s all just opinions. If I put up something suggesting a player could have done better then others are perfectly at liberty to point out where I’m wrong. It’s all done in such a civilised manner here it’d be pretty difficult to take offence anyway 🙂

      With regard to Masche, I didn’t really make myself clear either here or in the last post because I’m aware I bang on about it at times but looking around the internet Alba seemed to be getting a hard time on the goal and in the first half hour in particular. I don’t think that’s entirely fair and this is why.

      If we stick to the first thirty minutes ( I actually thought Masche played well when he was moved forward and for me that’s his position ) here’s what I saw.

      First 3 minutes – Masche played four passes – three of them lost possession for us.

      7:15 – just outside our box lost possession from a poor pass again.

      9:33. – their goal ( where many seemed to think Alba was at fault). If you pause it at this point Alba is returning to position having gone out to challenge man on ball. If you look at our offside line Masche is a good three yards deeper than anyone else. There is a very dangerous ball on played straight between Alba and Iniesta so it’s imperative, given the guy won’t be offside, that Alba gets goal side. By 9.34 he has just about achieved that but needs to get properly goal side to block his path. Masche is still playing the two attackers in the box on. Fine if he’s gonna stay there ( I sometimes think we try to hold a very high line when simple defending would do) but watch what happens. Just as Alba gets fully goal side Masche shoots forward five yards to close down the free man just outside our box. If he’d moved up earlier he’d have made that block no problem but he doesn’t and his sudden sprint without warning leaves Alba stuck goal side and unable to get out in time. Goal.

      14:52 – our corner. Both CBs are up. Not blaming Masche for this – he wouldn’t be there without LE’s say so, but what is the point ? He’s at the front of their six yard box along with Alves !!! However, I’m more interested here in the response to trouble brewing. Watch Masche’s reaction and compare it to Mathieu who is in line with him. Mathieu smells trouble first and does something about it. Masche gives up within ten yards while Mathieu is back on the edge of our box and able to cover any square ball by the time the shot goes in. Again, look at the ground Alba makes up to put him off but he shouldn’t have been left there on his own. That’s Masche’s strength, one on one tackles.

      18:44. Loses possession again with long ball straight to their keeper.

      21:30. A Slo mo of Masche’s tackle inside our box. No, I didn’t think it was a penalty but he was attempting to tackle from behind and he kicked the guy’s leg rather than the ball. No good can come from hacking away in that position and you will give away a penalty to a better diver. He is no danger facing away from our goal surrounded by our guys.

      22:30. They have the ball in our half. Mathieu has his man but is letting him run offside. Masche is coming across much deeper than Mathieu and takes over that marking but a couple of yards deeper than Mathieu. Meanwhile, Alba sees that the wide guy is starting a diagonal run behind the CBs. Because Masche ( and maybe Alves) are deeper and risk playing him on Alba can’t take that chance. You can see him holding the line as long as he can and he actually stops moving back but when the guy is on he has to chase. Quite telling is Alba’s reaction to this. He knows they have been all over the shop with their defensive line and gives his mates pelters, a very unusual sight for us.

      31:54. – to end on a positive note. The offside trap beautifully executed by Masche, Mathieu and Alba. Notice Mathieu holding Alba’s line exactly because the guy is behind Alba and when Alba starts to run back Mathieu immediately responds in case the guy is onside.

      Yes, Masche also did a lot of good in the game which I haven’t covered but for me he creates uncertainty almost every time he plays there. I would exempt from this, as I’ve said before, the last few games of last season where I’ve already said I thought he was excellent.

      Sorry, again, about the length. I should be exiled to Twitter and 140 characters 🙁

    4. Alves and Alba were poor against Las Palmas. If Alba doesn’t screw up the offside trap, they don’t score. It’s a simple question of position. Hold the line and it doesn’t matter what your attacker does, or what ball is played. It was a gorgeous pass from the Las Palmas attacker, to give full credit, but if Alba is in sync with his back line mates, it’s a pretty pass for an offside goal.

    5. He holds the line there’s an easy pass inside him to his man, who would be clean through on goal because of Masche’s positioning. ( It was incidentally Alba’s second man to cover in the move. )

      Why was Masche not moving the line up to play the scorer off ?

    6. Agree with you on the OT. Like you, I really do have a crippling aversion for offside traps. Too much risks, especially with the requisite synchronization of the back line for effective execution.
      On towards the big game.
      Another time for debate.
      Best of luck to us.

    7. No worries. I feel the same as with all the CL ties in recent years; excitement.
      I know my boys will fight. They always do in these games.
      Years before maybe there was a nervousness but maybe not as we didn’t expect our team to win every game. We just tuned in for the magic and the entertainment.
      Enjoy the match guys!

  8. Interesting Jim, coincidentally I was also wondering how we will overcome the press cos our passing (especially at the back) has been terrible. So we that in mind, are we gonna play a midfield-less game until Arsenal tire out in the second half or just improve on our passing at the back cos the current anti-barca tactic is swarm them high and press them hard in their half until they loss the ball them create scoring chances. This is a game where we would need out front 3 to convert any thing that looks like a chance cos I have a feeling we would be punished if we dont

  9. Arsenal is playing a very clever and strong game so far. Defensively, they look stronger than I would have given them credit for.

    But our team is playing rather well too. It seems everybody on both sides brought their best game tonight, can’t wait for the second half. We were getting there towards the end of the half and I think a lot more chances will be had for us as the game goes on.

    1. Also, did someone say “terrible at passing out the back”? Because while I agree this has been the case in some recent games, this time our team is doing it like it’s 2011.

  10. Yeah, I’m happy so far. Defence not taking chances so if we can keep it like that we’ll eventually take one. All about not getting caught short of numbers on a break.

  11. The difference between last season and this is that we would have scored at least two from the chances created.

  12. You really have to feel for Arsenal defenders and midfielders playing against Messi. They did very well against him, blocked his passing lanes, took the ball off him when he tried a dribble time and time again. He didn’t pose much of a danger…

    In the end, he scored two.

    But I would have a very hard time finding any Barca player who had a below average game tonight. Ter Stegen, Mascherano, Rakitic, all the others…great performance. Neymar and Suarez were wasteful with their few chances but the excellence of the first goal more than makes up for that. This was the best game of the season for me so far, even better than the 4-0 against RM because the opponent played better this time.

    1. I remember Masche giving away a ball in a really bad spot, could’ve lead to a goal scoring threat with a better attack. But he did make that blazing challenge which few would’ve dared, so he is even I guess.

      Iniesta was over-burdened with defensive duties beside Busquets, which kind of impairs his true skills. Rakitic was good but he ain’t no Turan at his best, we need to get that guy Turan into the mix in big matches. Of course, it means that Iniesta has to defend even more!

      Busquets was awesome. I didn’t see him much, which must imply that he had a superb game.

      Ter Stegen did well with the saves but the impressive part is his confidence with the ball at his feet. I live for the day when he tries to dribble past two strikers and pass the ball directly to Messi (bypass the middlemen)

      Alves and Alba were ok, nullified by the wingers (but who could stop Alves from spraying crosses all over my head?)

      I will not say anything aout MSN because they are pretty mediocre, you know.

  13. This game was all about being champions, about a wise guy who has been there and done that.

    This wasn’t slashing and firing, this was about having the maturity to compete at the top level.

    This wasn’t the 0-4 Barca that showed up but a tired warrior, using all his experience to beat an energetic young rebel.

    This was the best Arsenal could have given, it was their best performance I have seen. On the contrary, we were below the standard we could be. Barca took all that it got and taught them a lesson in persistence. Because in the end, even if Arsenal were on same level as Barca for most part of the game. Barca came out unscathed.

    It is almost like this Barca has a cheat code (MSN) and it was just waiting for an opportunity to use it and finish off the opponent with a ferocious move.

    My only regret is that we were tired and so I couldn’t see the magic these guys are capable of when they are really fresh.
    And there is also concern that the same tiredness will affect the results going forward, somethings got to be done, like using Turan and Vidal more, and rotate the MSN in the league.

    2 away goals and a good nights sleep. Did I mention that Messi is the GOAT?

  14. I remember thinking why on earth Pique made that challenge,and that badly, but all is now clear. bT have just shown him speaking to LE immediately after the second goal and seconds before the challenge. Not entirely sure I agree with that decision but Mathieu can start polishing his boots now. Only problem is he won be as good as Pique in making sure he gets his head to everything.

  15. This is about the most efficient and relentless barca I have seen in recent years. Under Pep, that counter doesn’t happen, the ball falls to xavi and he does a 360 and arsenal recover then we start passing again until we play a dour 0-0 draw or even concede on the counter. Not to discredit Pep, but I feel our ability to play in different ways has made us unplayable. Whether you park the bus or not, we are still gonna win anyway. Arsenal where defending with a their lives in their half then suddenly they decided to come out to attack a free kick and seconds later Peter Cech is picking the ball out of the Net. The first goal really showed how lucky we are to have the MSN, Suarez does well to hold onto the ball and releases Ney, Ney now drives further and but doesnt pass to an open Messi when 9 of 10 players would have passed. He drives forward and by now we all (including the Arsenal defence) expecting him to shoot, and what does he do? he passes to Messi faking and taking all arsenal defenders at the scene and Peter cech out, Messi doesn’t shoot immediately and further makes a fool of the defence and calmly slot. Now sub each of Suarez,Ney and Messi with out players in that situation and see what happens

    1. Arda can play the return leg. He got a red card in his last match for Atletico (QF last season), so he had a one-match ban. It’s all over now.

  16. One of our commentators over here mentioned that he was not registered at all for this season, but you’re correct with that info, now i remember that detail with the red card. Thanks.

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