Football isn’t static, even as the needs of many people who follow the game are. Barça sits in a peculiar situation as a team that has had, in effect, two Best Seasons Ever.
In both those seasons, under two very different coaches, the team won everything. As in “give us all the trophies.” Yet what is unique about the second Best Season Ever is that nobody wants to return to that one, because football isn’t just about results. It’s also about feeling. Between rumors of a blood feud between superstar and coach, suspended strikers, the notion of right result, wrong method and the idea that the wonderful season led to the continued reign of a board that many detest, all serve to taint a remakable endeavor.
Commonly heard in the second Best Season Ever was, “There is no midfield.” That made anything that happened in that archaic hothouse null and void, like the 4-0 defeat of Rayo under Tata Martino that was treated as a loss because the winning team lost the possession statistic. That mood permeates the current season, one in which the team is off to a sparkling start, blasting out of the gate in a way that few anticipated. The team looks good. Solid. Calm. Effective.
What is most commonly heard about this team, as it was with Luis Enrique’s, is it needs a controller. Xavi. Prime Xavi. A nonexistent analog. On Twitter, Total Barça raised an interesting question:
With the current team in mind, if you could have any former player in his prime, who would you choose?
It won’t surprise anyone that Xavi was dominant. Why Xavi? The controller. That need is rooted in what is, to my view, an archaic notion of how Barça is supposed to play. What is also fun is that both Best Seasons Ever had in common the presence of the ultimate controller, Xavi, even as he was used differently.
Football is a constantly changing organism that forces those who make a living from it to adjust. Under Guardiola, Barça evolved from a treble team that had more in common with Luis Enrique’s side than many would care to admit, to a footballing avatar in the team that destroyed Manchester United in the Champions League final. That team was a perfect distillation of theory, tactics and talent. That group not winning another treble was a vile injustice, even as it began to show signs of nearing the end of its shelf life.
The best coaches and players are always a step ahead of the game. Guardiola tinkered as he tried to anticipate how football was going to adapt. Messi as false 9 was one way. Tastes of a more vertical style was another. The Fabregas experiment, a moving, deep-lying mid who could pop up in the box to score was another adaptation (one with echoes in how Messi plays now). Guardiola understood that today’s genius tactic is tomorrow’s beatdown.
Low blocks, a flooded midfield with a five-man back line, the game constantly looked for ways to thwart Barça, and Guardiola tried to adapt. Eto’o for Ibrahimovic, Txigrinski and his long passes from the back. When Guardiola left, coaches tinkered as supporters dug in their heels about a way of play, that was in reality a tactic. Barça plays attacking, possession football. There is room for many tactical adaptations within that principle. Guardiola experimented. Tito Vilanova had his own wrinkle, one that life and tragedy denied us. Tata Martino came in with his own ideas and the team thrived until midseason, when a return to the past was desired, allowing us to see why Guardiola was always tinkering. The target moved.
In many ways, the ultimate indictment of the past was the Bayern beatdown. Barça had The Midfield of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta. It did everything in terms of possession and manner of play. And the aggregate was 7-0 to Bayern. What happened? Yes, the team had some physical things going on with a not-fully-fit Messi. But even with a fit Messi, many believe Bayern would still have advanced. Why? It was the pefect team to counter the Barça Way. Everyone was fast and physical, wing play predominated and Bayern could jump the passing lanes. When you note how many of the Bayern attacks came down the side of Jordi Alba, it won’t surprise anyone that my answer to that Total Barça question was Abidal.
“Why no controller?” In the context of this team, in which Messi and Busquets have evolved into a dynamic, controlling hybrid and Iniesta has become a modern adaptation of his former brilliant self, of what value is a controller? What does he control? If you put Xavi into this current Barça side in place of Rakitic, what happens to the play?
Messi moves forward and Iniesta’s role changes, as does that of Busquets, who slides back a bit on the pitch. Xavi controls the ball while Suarez stands around and glowers, waiting for Xavi, as Xavi waits for the movement that would dictate his pass. In a game that has moved to wings inward, Suarez’s best season came before opponents figured out how to control Neymar and remove his playmate.
Xavi’s role evolved under the different Barça coaches until in his last season he was a means of defensive match control. Keep the ball and let’s see this out. Most of this was because Luis Enrique wanted to get the ball to the best attack in football. That worked, even if it was a bit wild. Barça easily handled Bayern Munich that year, coached by Guardiola, and a lot of people didn’t know quite how to deal with that.
The next season opponents adapted to the tactical notion of getting the ball to the best attackers in the game, and the results diminished as Luis Enrique tinkered, never arriving at a suitable result. In his last season, Luis Enrique tried his Ibrahimovic experiment in acquiring Andre Gomes and Paco Alcacer, an experiment that didn’t work much better than the Ibrahimovic one.
As with Guardiola, results trailed off as opponents adapted. What made Guardiola’s time different is that the team won two Champions League titles, and had two periods of magnificence. Both of those teams had a controller, even as Xavi operated differently throughout Guardiola’s time at the helm, as well as for other coaches. Toward the end, under Vilanova/Roura and Martino, Xavi’s control was diminished by static attacks, thwarted by physical midfields and defenders who rode the passing lanes, denying him anything to do with the ball rather than denying him the ball. In other words, the Bayern theory, but without the talent to raise hell once you got the ball to attack Barça.
Luis Enrique watched that Bayern demolition. That’s why he built the Barça that he did. Guardiola watched it. That’s why he built the Bayern that he did, and has built the City that he has. It’s worth considering that in both instances, even with Thiago Alcantara at Bayern, Guardiola didn’t build a Barça analog. This is particularly true at City, where he spent hundreds of millions in building a dynamic unit that can play through wings or midfield with equal facility.
So what of this need for a controller at Barça? Is it a real need, or a desire based on a fondness for a tactical wrinkle introduced by a club legend?
It’s worth considering what a prime Abidal would do for this team, in place of Alba. With sideline-to-sideline range, would the pace difficulties of Sergi Roberto and Pique be as significant? In cases of lost possession and a quick opponent counter, given that both Messi, Suarez and possibly Alba are caught up pitch, what of a calm, pacey eraser to keep Umtiti from having to choose between multiple layers of danger. Umtiti is a hint of it, and look at what he does. He is leading La Liga in passes per match this season, having assumed the Pique attack starter role. What would an Abidal do to enable a two-headed CB hydra. Now imagine Busquets not having to chase speedy mids, or the damage of Iniesta knowing what to do with an opponent counter yet not being able to. Abidal steams in, resolves the issue and gives the ball back to Iniesta, its rightful owner.
But we should differentiate controller from midfield reference, something that Barça does need. At present, too many times there isn’t a midfield reset button. Alba or Semedo get pinned on the sideline, or Messi or Suarez run at a defense. Raktic is following up that run and Iniesta is also moving as Busquets slides up, yielding a midfield that is more like a single-point solar system than a unit. The “where is the midfield” question is valid. One adaptation that Valverde has tried is Sergi Roberto as an RB-cum-RMF, as a migratory reference point. This works most of the time, but when it doesn’t, whoo, boy.
The team needs a mid who can keep the ball even in a hurricane, while the attack changes shape. A controller? Not in the Xavi sense. Busquets is that perfect player, but he’s the DM. So now what?
The idea of a controller was perfect for its time. Messi was farther forward, the team didn’t have a traditional 9, the game hadn’t yet adapted to the way Barça played. Messi is different now. When Dembele returns, how likely is it that we see a front three of Dembele/Suarez/Deulofeu, with Messi behind them and Iniesta/Busquets behind him. THAT attack would require that midfield reference point, the human reset button, but that role would be met by Iniesta or Busquets, or a pushed-up Umtiti. So what of that controller? Is it concept, nostalgia or reality?