Once upon a time, there was a happy, tranquil village. Silver flowed from the mines and confetti rained from the sky as talented woodland creatures heralded a bounty of pleasure.
Culerville was a wonderful place where year after year, prosperity was the norm.
Then, suddenly, there was a rumble in the land at the power of another regional army — the iron-fisted reign of a white-shirted, jackbooted tyrant, hair gel slicked down as evil settled in for a long winter’s reign.
And there was panic in Culerville as denizens yearned for a return to the tranquil, prosperous days of yore.
“Whither our sprites, whither the magic,” cried the villagers. “Why can’t we be like them, where are our new heroes. Let’s go and recruit some swordsmen, to save us from the evil warlord.”
And thus began the quest for the Magnificent Eleven, two sets of perfect, glorious swordsmen who would hold the assailants from Galactico City at bay and keep Culerville safe. But Culerville already had magnificent swordsmen. So each and every time the villagers would approach a fellow talented at scything down opponents, he would say, “But you use your swordsmen all the time. What is there for me to do for you? You pay me by the kill, but I must get in the fight in order to be paid.”
And the quest continued.
Sam Marsden wrote an excellent piece that lays out the transfer dilemmas that Barça faces. Players such as Kevin Gameiro said, in effect, “What am I going to do at Barça? Watch Messi play?”
The roster of players cited by supporters as people the club can’t attract missees an important point, which is — well — reality. There were clamors for Kroos, but what was he going to do for Barça, when Xavi and Iniesta were still present and Rakitic was more useful in the Luis Enrique tactical context? He could go to Real Madrid and start. Gabriel Jesus was rumored to be in the Barça orbit, but with MSN up front, what was he going to do? Play solitaire like Pedro did as the Trident laid waste?
Ah, but Real Madrid can attract those types of players, that kind of enviable depth that makes Culerville residents quake in fear. But how legitimately deep was that team? Zidane rotated Ronaldo and Benzema, helped by an injury to the latter. Bale being injured was great luck, as it gave Isco the opportunity to show what he could do. Asensio is on the rise as well. Culers said the same things about the Bayern Munich side that Barça dispatched, and the same thing was true, that those teams are a much tighter sine wave of talent than the peaks and valleys present at Barça. The best players at Barça are so good that there aren’t useable subs.
Who can come into the Barça XI and maintain the level set by an incumbent? That short list of players is short-to-nonexistent. So now what? The club buys someone who is willing to come. They play and because they aren’t at the required level set by an icon, they are a wasted transfer, the board is stupid, the coach a dummy, etc, etc, ad infinitum.
The reputation of Ronaldo aside, an argument could be made that Real Madrid are almost as effective when he’s out because of his role on the team, which is to score goals. Remove Messi, Suarez or Neymar from the Barça XI and what happens. The machine is diminished. So supporters want the big three to play all the time, or the coach is an idiot for rotating. But the club also sucks because it can’t attract the kinds of players who can capably sub for the three best attackers in the game, one of them the best player in history.
We can’t have it both ways. If you want Messi to play all the time, if you want Suarez to play all the time, accept that Paco Alcacer, who doesn’t exactly suck, is going to be the apogee of your transfer quality reach. Not Suarez, but not terrible, either. Neymar? What left winger in world football can do what he does in attack, possession and defense? We snarl about the chances that Suarez misses, but he’s still the best 9 in the game. Who replaces him?
Real Madrid got lucky with injuries this season, as key players such as Modric remained mostly intact. The years that Modric had injury troubles RM struggled because they, too, have some irreplaceable players. Modric is one. Ramos is another.
When they wrecked Juventus in the Champions League final, there were screams about how easy it looked, about why couldn’t Barça be like that against Juventus, cries coming from many of the same people who also resist the adaptations that give Barça multiple ways of attacking. You want a deliberate style based in midfield control? Okay. So does Juventus, as it makes it so easy to defend. “Let them pass it around, deal with it when they get too close for comfort.” It’s illogical to admire the way that Real Madrid played against Juventus, wonder why your team can’t do that then complain when a coach tries to get it to do that.
Real Madrid is rolling in Champions League clover, and people are freaking out. But the difference is a few goals here or there, in Champions League and Liga. A quality Twitter account, Church of Soccer, sent an interesting stat my way. In the last four years, Barça and RM both have 362 total points. A win becoming a loss would have changed the final result in all four seasons. In Champions League, RM drew Atleti, Barça drew Juventus, the one team in the draw perfectly set up to defend what Barça does. If Barça draws a different opponent, they almost certainly advance. Or if Barça plays to form. An advocacy of transfer calm isn’t out of line because overreaction to the Barça dominance is what Real Madrid did, and it left them flailing. “Buy him! No! Him! Him, too!”
The biggest transfer Barça can pull off is a coach willing to tell the big three, “We need you for the key times. We shouldn’t need you for the minnows. Rest and get strong for when we do need you.” That same coach will commit to rotation, to give those players the time that builds confidence that makes them useful. And the knife-sharpening entorno has to be able let that happen without Twitter rants, or rumors of fallings out between that coach and key players, or panics when rotation comes — basically, everything that accompanied any changes this season past. Barça is a lot closer to being right back in the driver’s seat than its supporter base is to accepting that reality.
The second biggest transfer Barça can pull off is an entorno that understands the notion of history. Guardiola unleashed a Barça that was right coach, right players, right time. You can’t go back to that. Not now, not ever. It isn’t as simple as buying a Xavi replacement, an Iniesta type, stroking the ball around midfield and watching trophies come again. The game adapted, the game moved on. Guardiola did the lovely triangles to massive success. His next innovation was Messi as a devastating false 9. The game adapted again, because other teams and coaches don’t exactly suck. Football is always a moving target. Adapt or get left behind. We have to accept that it isn’t 2009. We don’t have prime Xaviniesta, or Abidal, or Puyol or Alves. We don’t have a game stunned by what Barça unleashed. How can we look forward when we’re so busy looking back?
Those times were glamorous, and wonderful. Barça football was celebrated, American newsmagazines were doing shows on La Masia and everything was right in the world. Nostalgia is history, bathed in a rose-colored glow. It leads to band reunions, unfortunate dalliances with past mates and perpetual football supporter disillusionment. It also leads to panic, and the idea that a return to the past will bring about the same success as it did in the past. It also leads to an inflation of an opponent’s success, and a misunderstanding of the natural cycles of football.
If Real Madrid was that fantastic, they wouldn’t have drawn and lost against Barça this season. That team rode luck and supreme self confidence to a double as the coach convinced them that they had to worry more about beating everyone else than beating Barça. So they did. Next year? What happens if it’s their turn in the injury barrel, if Modric goes down with knee injuries or Marcelo gets taken out through a horror tackle. What then? What if they underperform at key times, as Barça did this season? Then their fanbase is panicking, and ours is crowing. Margins are that slim.
Real Madrid had a great season. But a great team, with massive depth and ready to become a juggernaut? That’s a difficult thing to swallow primarily because of how close a damaged, inconsistent, often out of form Barça came to them. Yes, Barça has problems to solve. But they’re along the lines of buying a couple of new chairs, rather than a gut rehab.