Pep Guardiola sows chaos even when he’s just sitting at a press conference.
“There were a number of things which Lucho and his team do better than I did during my era at the Camp Nou.”
What a statement to unpack for so many reasons, most rooted in the dogma and wretched subjectivity that holds a fanbase in place like a millstone the size of Stonehenge.
Once, while making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a friend gasped. “What are you doing!”
“Um, making a pb and j?”
“No, what are you doing?! Why are you putting peanut butter on one slice, and jelly on the other?”
Is there a right and a wrong way to make a pb and j? Depends on who you ask, apparently. Putting both on one slice would have struck me as odd. What’s most fascinating about the incident is that there is a right and a wrong way for everything. You should make some time to read this very thoughtful piece at These Football Times, written by Jamie Hamilton. It asks the question, “what is good football,” then stands that notion on its ear.
For Barça supporters, there is no question what “good” football is. It’s rooted in that Cruijffian ideal that is drilled into future geniuses before their testicles have even dropped. It’s no less a religion than the Commandments inscribed on the stone tablets of Biblical lore.
Thou shalt possess the football.
Thou shalt exalt thine migratory, passing keeper.
Thou shalt hold nothing before the midfield.
Thou shalt have more of the football, for this is divine.
The run doth dictate the pass.
And then came Luis Enrique. When he was brought on as Barça coach the oracle was consulted, and he saith unto us, “Luis Enrique will do better than I did.” The believers scoffed and snarled at such an impossible thing, because mes que un club is also mes que un results. And that is the dilemma presented by both of these statements from Pep Guardiola. They force a fundamental rethink of what is, in fact and in subjective perception, good. Barça doesn’t play good football these days, many culers will assert. When asked what good football is, they will reply, citing the Barça Commandments and explaining why the Luis Enrique Barça worships false idols. This is true, even in the face of the rather sparkling results achieved by this group of athletes.
Atleti, of late, has become the bane of Barça’s existence. When Luis Enrique became coach, it was accepted culer belief that he wasn’t a good enough coach to lead his charges to victory against Diego Simeone’s warriors. That first go-round, at the Camp Nou, was fraught in a way that it can only be in the culerverse, complete with visions of the Sack of Troy, as Catalan maidens clutching footballs are slain before the Camp Nou altar. But Luis Enrique had a plan.
Simeone came out ready to stomp the terra, ready to battle Religious Barça. But the Heathen King dared to have another view as he wondered, “What if we just bypass the midfield, where all those guys in red-and-white striped shirts are?” Barça won 3-1 and after the match, supporters scoffed. “Where is the midfield?” “What of positional play?” “Sure we won, but at what cost?”
Luis Enrique didn’t care. In building his Barça, the one that Guardiola says does some things better than his edition, he has built a Leatherman tool. It’s a device that can do lots of stuff, from playing the game in a way that would make even the most devoted Cruijffist smile to raining thunder from the heavens in a fashion that would have Harry Redknapp nodding in approval.
And all of them are good football in a sense, one that is again subjective. When you evaluate a concert, what makes that show good? For a critic like me, it is how good was the band at being the band? It’s remarkable how many bands are crappy at being themselves. But goodness comes from accomplishing the task. Good football meets a need within the paramaters that it establishes when unpacked. So the 3-1 Atleti win was good football because it met its tactical goals with style and aplomb. It wasn’t traditional Barça football but that, in and of itself, is only a bad thing to some. The Inter Champions League semi-final victory against Barça was good football in that context, even as it was aesthetically unpleasing. Atleti’s Champions League semi-final win was, for them and their coach, good football. It was successful, and fulfilling within its own context.
Subjectively, good football means something rather different for a Barça supporter. We are, as a group, one of the most dogmatic bunches in world football. A mere win isn’t enough. There must be possession of the right kind, positional doctrine and beauty — so much beauty of a kind sufficient to make the Gods weep. Woe betide the blasphemer who gets results without aesthetics. Guardiola’s Barça played good football. Vilanova’s Barça was, every now and again, capable of doing this. Martino’s Barça? Nope. Ugly.
The best football is, of course, good football that also brings good results. The reason the Guardiola teams will always and forever live on in culer lore is because they hewed to every tenet of the Cruijff dictates — presuming that you, of necesssity, ignore the Guardiola treble team, which blasphemed. The second Manchester United victory is, and will always be, one of the most exquisite football matches that any of us will ever have occasion to witness. I have kept it on my DVR, dubbed it to a DVD, downloaded it to my tablet. Whenever I want to see it, I can.
Yet that match wasn’t just glorious and successful. It was the apogee of a doctrine, the ultimate in good football as interpreted by Barça. Inter Milan doesn’t play good football. Neither does Atleti or Real Madrid. Manchester United? Pah! Don’t make me laugh.
And yet, to supporters of those clubs, their teams can, and do play good football for the same reason there is chocolate and vanilla, sports cars and trucks. In the vast variability of the world, the concept of universal good isn’t supported by any tenet of philosophy, worldview or even religion. If you give a homeless person money and they use it to buy drugs, have you done a good thing? Prima facie you have in that you used something of which you have more than enough of, to however temporarily, alleviate the suffering of another human being. Are you responsible for not having foreseen the result? Should that trepidation temper your empathic benevolence in the future? How good are you now?
For many, goodness denotes purity. For others, goodness is the goal attained. For still others, goodness is the pursuit. The true culer is the one who, in the wake of a loss, says, “But the football was so beautiful.” Into that strange world walks Luis Enrique, with the imprimatur of the greatest Barça coach ever, who underscores that blessing with words.
Those words are complex because they slash at the very nature of good football by a fanbase that had hitherto believed it understood this notion. “But … but … if these Luis Enrique teams do some things better than the Guardiola teams, what are those things, and what of my concepts of goodness?”
Good isn’t rigid. Good is malleable. Good is swathed in shades of grey. Our do-gooder, when next confronted with a needy person, hesitates. “What if this is another druggie?” Perhaps they see a picture in the paper of a person killed in a store robbery, trying to get money to feed a family. The sense of good felt by not once again facilitating someone’s descent into substance-abusing madness is, once again, tempered. Good is never always thus.
Of the Guardiola statement, what are those “things” of which he speaks? One person said, in a reply to a post of the quote, “Winning without possession?”
For me, the Guardiola quote is one of the most wonderful things that he has done for Barça football because of its benevolence and clear-minded adherence to the notion of intellectual growth. If you need to build a woodshed, and one workman had screws and a hammer while the other has a screwdriver and nails, each will need to devise a different way to erect that shed. Guardiola’s Bayern Munich played differently than Guardiola’s late-period Barça, which played differently than Guardiola’s middle and early-period Barça. Guardiola’s Manchester City will play differently than any of his other teams, even as the roots of its fundament will be the same.
Like Luis Enrique, Guardiola is a pragmatist. All coaches are, even the ones who supporters convince themselves aren’t. Coaches look at what they need to build, the available tools they have and go from there.
Luis Enrique’s Barça can do some things better than Guardiola’s Barça because of evolution, that thing that makes an entity adapt to meet a different set of challenges. Even as the 7-0 Bayern result can be explained away somewhat by injuries and a psychological mess of a team, that demolition was also perfect because it dropped the curtain on the religious aspect of the Barça defition of “good” football. The Bayern win was more than a smash-and-grab. It was a dismantling that ripped at every tenet of the Barça doctrine. It didn’t care how much possession Barça had, wasn’t all that interested in midfield dominance and disrupted positional football through intense, physical pressing all over the pitch. And the organism had to evolve.
The notion of Luis Enrique as Darwin is weird to consider, even in the wake of the Guardiola imprimatur. What this all means for our idea of good football is perhaps it’s due for a rethink — maybe, just maybe. Maybe there is more than one good even as there isn’t any good, really — that what is bad can be good for someone, just as what is good can be bad for someone else in a world where nobody is right.