2016 in review, and a look forward

What was 2016? What will 2017 be? We tackle the topic at Barcelona Football Blog with, as usual, some stuff to contemplate as you get your eyes ready to feast on the second half of the Barça season.

Isaiah

2016 sucked. It was the type of year that you show the middle finger on Dec 31 and turn your back on when Jan 1 hits. I went to bed early instead of staying up to see the fireworks and hoopla—apparently Mariah Carey gave a fantastic performance or something?—and when I woke up it was 2017, which is a year where things are going to go better than they did before. The Club World Cup, the latest Clasico, the stumbles in league, the kind of shambolic tactical crapshoot that is the hallmark of teams under Luis Enrique. If you’re lucky, you’ve forgotten that awful European Championship and the self-flagellation of having watched the Champions League final.

And don’t get me started on the Copa del Rey which—wait. We won that. But the league—no, we won that too. Huh. And the Supercopa was a crushing victory for the good guys. Oh and a pretty difficult Champions League group ended with 5 victories? Huh. That’s…not the script for last year. Two titles doesn’t make for a bad year, does it? Tactical cluelessness from the manager usually doesn’t yield more than grumpy players and fans. But we scored 112 goals in the league, enjoyed a Copa del Rey campaign that included some great songs from Cadiz, and got to the quarter finals of the Champions League. Yeah, that loss to Atletico Madrid in April was tough to stomach because it felt like the team was Happy Gilmore close, but it was a fair loss and that’s a result you can take.

It’s just another example of how those who are detached from reality can have skewed perspectives thanks to stories found only on the Internet. If you want, you can believe that free and fair elections were tainted by mass voter fraud or maybe you’re more likely to believe that Lucho has never seen a tactics board in his life. He’s just somehow failing upwards. You know, as one does. For a whole career. Look at Pep, he’s a bald fraud and he’s being paid infinity million pounds a year to run Manchester City into the ground. If FAILegrini can win a league in England with Mario Balotelli and Pep can’t even beat Leicester, how can you say Lucho is anything but a soon-to-be-bald fraud?

Counterpoint: 2 league titles, 2 Copa del Rey titles, and 1 Champions League in 2 full seasons.

That’s kind of the thing about 2016, though. It has felt like we’re fighting the same battles every few days. One moment it’s aaaargh, how could we lose to Celta Vigo!? and then the next it’s wow we crushed our Champions League group. It can be frustrating to watch Paco Alcacer not score for like 18 straight seasons or however long it’s been since he joined the club last summer while Neymar skies his chance at glory in el clasico. Yet it’s also Messi and the goals and the dribbles and the oohs and aahs. We ended on a high note against Espanyol and Hercules, at the very least, but it might comes as surprise to some to learn that the team hasn’t lost in any competition since November 1 and not in the league since October 2. It’s just that Real Madrid have yet to lose at all and their only dropped points in the league since October 2 were against us. They have a 3 point lead with a match in hand in La Liga, but they actually came in second to Borussia Dortmund in the CL despite never losing. They’re living dangerously through late, late Sergio Ramos equalizers, but that’s the sort of thing that will happen.

Eventually they’ll regress to the mean and we’ll be there, fully healthy Andres Iniesta in hand, to say hello. Because, well, the mean for both teams is so high that even minor slipups are considered death knells and that’s just a bit absurd. A little perspective in 2017 will go a long way to helping have a better year than you thought the one that just ended was. Here’s to going forward with heads held high, even if Lucho maybe shouldn’t ride bikes down mountains during the season. Just in case.

Now imagine 2016 without the magic of Barça. One shudders to consider it.

Kxevin

The year that passed was a year of injury, loss and a lack of understanding precipitated by a lack of vision.

Was it a portent that the season began with the team’s No. 1 keeper injured, which delayed the departure of Claudio Bravo to Manchester City? In retrospect it seems so as Barça had to deal with key injuries, all of which affected the way the team did and could play.

First Ter Stegen, then Iniesta was lost for a couple of weeks with a knee knock, which changed midfield play for Barça. Umtiti suffered knee ligamant damage. For anyone wondering what the bother about that was, just look at how Ter Stegen plays with and without him, and how Barça build from the back. Then Messi went down with a groin injury against Atleti, and no need to explain what the loss of the best player in history does. Finally Iniesta went out for eight weeks with knee ligament damage.

Starting the season with another big influx of transfers meant that the team was already going to have some clunk, which we saw against the likes of Alaves and Celta Vigo. But with key injuries to the spine of the team, that meant that the clunk would become something more significant as the team, looking to learn how to play in a new way and play that system together, was absent key parts.

You can’t develop a way of play without the architect, something for the likes of Denis Suarez to emulate. That takes Iniesta. When he returned from his injury and people attributed the immediate improvement in the way Barça was playing to that one thing, it was necessary to ignore a few other things, including the tactical changes that were always ongoing but were absent the architect. Spaces closed, lines tightened, spaces that passes had to travel diminished.

The great myth is that a system of play doesn’t need great players has propagated around not only Barça, but Pep Guardiola, still the club’s talisman for many, at Manchester City. As Guardiola said in a recent interview, his system worked so well because of the players he had, which is something the world is seeing at City. At Barça, Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez can come in, but they aren’t Busquets or Iniesta. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a system, or a way of playing that is being implemented. It just means that the person best equipped to drive the car is absent.

2016 was an odd year in that two essential elements of success for Barça, Luis Enrique and Neymar, were misunderstood and disparaged in ways different but the same, both related to not really seeing anything except what people wanted to see, like the elements that drove elections, Facebook rants and social media chatter.

To believe that Luis Enrique was destroying the team, you had to ignore the elegant midfield play that destroyed opponent after opponent in the early season (before the first international break), hanging gaudy scorelines for folks to gawk at. It’s also necessary to ignore the similarities between Luis Enrique and Guardiola teams, the tactical malleability in attack, the ball movement as a means of aggression, before Guardiola had to compromise thanks to transfer glitches.

Barça is playing some fantastic football. It was before Iniesta was hurt, was at times while he was hurt and is now that he is back. Looking only at the things that buttress a supposition, however, leads to other conclusions. Neymar has the same difficulty.

Sport trumpeted that Neymar is having his worst season in front of goal since he was an embryo. Of necessity, this needs to ignore the other ways in which Neymar is helping the team to become the highest-scoring attack in Europe so far — assists, key passes and dribbles that lead to something (as opposed to the usual completed dribbles stat). Neymar is an accelerant, that thing you douse something with to start or intensify a fire.

Arda Turan has been brilliant this season. He started out great, and in almost every instance he has been used, good things have resulted. He has more goals than Neymar, leading many to wonder why he doesn’t displace Neymar, based on form, an observation that only makes sense if all you look at is goals, like the people who suggest that Ronaldo can hold a candle to Messi.

During a recent match, Neymar ran down a ball that he had no business getting to and, on the move, clipped a tidy backheel to Sergi Roberto, resulting in a Barça scoring chance. That is the kind of stuff it’s necessary to ignore. Or the space that he creates for Messi and Suarez becuse he occupies 2-3 defenders every time he has the ball.

Luis Enrique and Neymar are rather typical of the strange way a fanbase and entorno treat a team that has done nothing more than continue a road of unprecedented success that began in 2005 with Frank Rijkaard and Ronaldinho. But the misunderstanding that permeated all aspects of discussion of this football team, as Isaiah notes above, paralleled the global discourse. If Barça is of the world, why wouldn’t it fall prey to the same malaise?

When Barça drew at home against Real Madrid, the result was the focus, rather than the football, rather than the team that played more than well enough to win, rather than the errors that led to the Ramos header to equalize. But some of us watched that match and rubbed our hands with glee, because the signs were abundant that Barça is on the way back, even before Iniesta made his sparkling return.

This brings us to 2017, and a team that is poised to resume its building to something exceptional. Can Real Madrid continue to ride the extraordinary luck that finds them, in effect, six points ahead in La Liga? If they do, good on them, even as it isn’t just luck that finds them pulling out result after result. But they have some difficult matches on the horizon, at places where Barça has already been. But we can’t worry about them. Because whether people like them or see them, there is stuff happening at Barça:

— Ter Stegen is finding his feet
— Umtiti has become a key player
— Andre Gomes is assimilating faster than predicted
— Denis Suarez is progressing rapidly
— There is structure and a way of attack, that can shift to take advantage of a gap

This is team than can win another treble, or nothing at all. It’s also a team that, even as so many will use those results to prove a point (after spending time saying that results don’t matter), is exceptional and beautiful to watch. And that’s why we bother with sport, those moments that elevate our spirit and make the day a little lighter.

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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.

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