Art Blakey. Wayne Shorter. Lee Morgan. Barney Wilen. Bud Powell. Jimmy Merritt. Walter Davis.
These aren’t footballers, but rather jazz titans who collaborated — more like a musical cage match — on one of the greatest live jazz cuts in the history of music, the titanic 1959 reading, live of Paris, of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia.” You can see it here. Each player steps up like a gunslinger, full of confidence and the knowledge that he is the best — the absolute best — and is ready to throw the hell DOWN.
That, right now, is this Barça. Wayne Shorter steps up, blows the walls down and steps back like, “Work with that.” Lee Morgan enters with a staccato blast and answers. Behind it all is the bandleader, the best drummer in jazz, Blakey, dropping tom-tom bombs like a drunken fighter pilot. Jazz has “cutting contests,” where a group of great players gather on the same stage and try to break each other’s spirit, but only temporarily. They’re as good natured as they are cutthroat, and the biggest winner is the music.
We can’t say, a la Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, that this team is Luis Enrique and the Football Messengers. Even though they make beautiful music, there is still this overriding, absurd perception that this team isn’t innovating, isn’t making real magic. But make no mistake about it, this season we are going to be witnessing a football cutting contest. Just look at Arda Turan.
Last season, he was a mess. It wasn’t just the six months of functional idleness. As a brilliant piece pointed out, at Atleti, a team of players hurtling hither and yon and putting the boot in, Turan was their elegant pause. He trotted while his teammates ran, they hoofed and he dished out contemplative slide-rule balls. At Barça, however, even the keepers are like that. In a team filled with intelligent footballers, Turan went from the cool kid to just one of the kids. Some adjustment was required.
While the long knives came out, Turan worked. He was the first player back, and had a specialized diet and fitness program. When the pre-season started, people muttered under their breath, for he was already unfashionable, “Turan is looking pretty good.” Then he improved, banging in goals, working with making MSN into MST. “Well, it’s pre-season.” Then the jams continued to be kicked out in the Spanish SuperCopa, then in the Liga opener against Betis.
Whether it was a question of adaptation or position is still being answered, but when Turan switched to midfield against Betis, he was still dynamic and incisive. It’s easy to speculate about what might have happened, but when Barça signed Andre Gomes and brought back Denis Suarez, how much of a kick in the pants does a professional need?
Great football teams should be constant cutting contests, constant pressure. The XI should be written in ink, but not etched in stone because players should be on the come, lineups should vary by opponent and rotation is crucial. Playing time is precious when you have 22 players, all of whom could start for almost any team in La Liga. It’s brutal, but it makes everything and everyone better. Even the ones who can’t cut it psychologically improve the team by allowing themselves to be shuttled off to the margins. Excellence has no time for the weak.
There are only two positions that aren’t going to be up for grabs, those of Messi and Luis Suarez. But that is more a question of their stratospheric quality than anything else. Even if the rumored Paco Alcacer transfer happens, that will still be true, even as Alcacer is good enough to keep Suarez looking over his shoulder and concentrating enough to stop flubbing those easy chances he gets so often. Ter Stegen, you say? There is a reason that Luis Enrique wanted three quality keepers on the team.
It’s a safe bet that the Barça players see their hardest matches in training, which not only prepares them well for matches but keeps the overall level of preparedness and execution high. Messi is running at Pique and Umtiti in training. After that, everybody else is manageable. Iniesta ghosts past Rakitic in training. What challenge is there in corporeal beings?
On the jazz stage, players go for the jugular as an appreciative audience gasps and applauds in admiration. That was the case at the SuperCopa and Betis matches as the team danced and capered, playing many different ways at once, dependent upon personnel. Direct and dynamic, possession based, a hybrid of the two and all points in between. Whenever the TV coverage showed the bench, Luis Enrique was smiling and conspiring with Unzue, like a bandleader tasked with “leading” a great band who quickly finds that the most useful task for his baton is flicking at flies.
In many ways, Luis Enrique is like the great conductor Carlos Kleiber, who trained his orchestra to the point where they didn’t really need him during the concert. He would freqeuntly turn to the audience during a symphonic performance and smile, arms folded across his chest. Asked why, he would say that his work was done in rehearsal and if he did it properly, what was the real value of him waving a stick around?
Luis Enrique trains his team, then sends it out. That was as true last year as this year. The difference is that this year, the depth runs into the fathoms. The only thing that kept Barça from consecutive Trebles was fatigue and a lack of depth. This summer, the technical staff addressed that. There are now two complete XIs to call upon, and a group of athletes scrambling to shove their way into the chosen one. Three keepers, midfield is like a metro station at rush hour and there will be four forwards. Top-level football isn’t for the weak, nor should it be. In an ideal team, every last player will feel that at the end of any given training session there is the potential for a lost slot in the XI.
Most likely XI: Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Raktic, Iniesta, Neymar, Messi, Suarez
But look at who that leaves out: Umtiti, Digne, Vidal, Gomes, D. Suarez, Rafinha, Alcacer/Munir, Turan, Mathieu. Add a keeper and one more player, and that’s an XI most coaches would be thrilled to go into battle with.
Recent transfers out were Claudio Bravo, Douglas and Sergi Samper. They all left for different reasons, all falling afoul of the Barça cutting contest. In the heady early days of the Pep Guardiola tenure, culers sighed as it seemed he was destined to never repeat an XI. “The players are unsettled,” blablabla, was heard before he settled on a team. Luis Enrique repeated this practice during his first season, and while people thought it was less charming, it was just as effective. Both coaches won trebles in their debut season. As the XI became more settled in second seasons, fatigue became a factor. Whether Barça limped or strutted across the finish line to a double will depend on who you ask. But consider what might have happened last season had Luis Enrique had the kind of depth that he now has, at his disposal last season.
But there is danger. In a team filled with great players, everyone should be equally unhappy. Everyone should want more playing time, not get enough and be determined to scrabble for the playing time they get. That is a perfect system, and the manager is so named because he manages expectations and egos, wants and needs. Last season, too many players got more playing time than they could ultimately manage, even as it was as much time as they wanted. What player doesn’t want to know that the XI will start with his name? But that’s often a consequence of a lack of depth.
This year there is depth, and danger in that depth, particularly as young players kick and claw at the door of the XI. We hear the recording such as “Night in Tunisia,” and are thrilled at the result of great players making each other better by trying to prove that he is the best. We’re lucky in that week after week in La Liga, we can see the result of a football cutting contest that takes place on the Barça practice pitch. We know it will make beautiful music, even if not every track will be a masterpiece.