Iniesta, tribes and liking football

Yesterday in the busy world of social media, left reeling in the wake of the massive Phillippe Coutinho deal, two things happened almost simultaneously, both involving highly respected journalists as supporters reacted to the news of the day, based solely on tribalism.

While discussing the Coutinho transfer, Michael Cox Tweeted the following:

Liverpool have got an extraordinary deal. He will be perfectly suited to Barcelona, where he can float around and be pretty without either controlling games or deciding them – a la Iniesta.

And people lost their minds. “He doesn’t rate Iniesta,” and the like went flying about. Without claiming to be some sort of sage, anyone who read the Tweet and understands how Cox approaches the game, which is purely from a tactical worldview, understood exactly what he meant, which he later explained in the responses, but the SS Tribal had long left the harbor.

He meant, obviously, that Xavi and Busquets were responsible for the controlling while Iniesta was the associative elegance, the catalyst who worked in half-spaces and drove defenders insane. From a tactical sense, this makes perfect sense. But on the SS Tribal, it became, “He hate Iniesta, he said he isn’t decisive, doesn’t matter as a player.”

Cox is among a group of agnostics who view the game from a particular place. Just as I am not a fan of any player, Cox sees the game through a tactical prism. Much as the professor says something potentially outrageous in the form of a lecture thesis, tactical notions can sometimes upset supporters who like a player.

We all know that Iniesta is fantastic. We also know that his light shines on a career of exquisite “almosts,” moves that would have been the greatest thing ever if only that last defender hadn’t … if only his force field wasn’t in place in front of goal …

Iniesta’s most amazing moves are to find space so that he can liberate a teammate with a tasty pass. He isn’t creating assists or scoring goals, isn’t deciding a match in the same way that Messi does. This doesn’t mean that he isn’t a fantastic player, or every bit as essential to the team as any other superstar. But from a tactical sense, Cox wasn’t wrong about Iniesta.

But in a world where tribalism means that you can’t say anything even allegedly negative about a member of the tribe. few looked at the Tweet as a simple expression of a tactical notion. It was an assault on all that is holy, and people reacted in the expected manner, because football is running out of space for the agnostic, for the journalist who views the game through a prism unaffected by fandom.

In another Twitter conversation I ran across, Independent football writer Miguel Delaney noted:

Media – fairly – get a lot of stick, but too much modern football support is hair-trigger responses, looking at whatever latest development as “how can I respond to this to make me feel best about my club”. Too many people view everything through the prism of their club.

And football support was never about that. Turning up regularly and shouting abuse never meant a dislocation of logical thought.

Think about your club analytically. In many odd ways, Barça has become like a church. People come to it, don the colors but you almost wonder if they actually like football.

On any given weekend, my home man cave will feature the sounds of Liga, Prem, Serie A, Ligue 1, Bundesliga, Eredivisie and anything else I can watch: Brazil, Mexico, even Ecuador pro matches sometimes. It’s what an addict does. On Twitter, I have exchanges with people who I even wonder if they watch Barça, even as they say they support the club. Perhaps they come because of Messi. He, like Ronaldinho, draws fans to the club because of his otherworldly magnificence.

But football voraciousness, coupled with a journalist’s curious mind and being player agnostic, puts me in a weird place in a world of tribalism.

In 2014, people were starting to ask questions about Messi. Physical ones about a lost step, etc. We hadn’t yet figured out that he is a football vampire who doesn’t age. So purely in the spirit of an intellectual exercise, I asked if people would be willing to sell him to acquire Oliver Torres, Ilkay Gundogan, Jackson Martinez, Kun Aguero and Marco Reus. At the time, those were five of the hottest names in world football, and Barça supporters talked constantly about them, and how they cuold improve the club.

The first response, from someone who interacted regularly with me on Twitter, understood the question and why it was posed, and dealt with it in that vein. As the ripples spread in the game of social media telephone, it became, “That guy wants to sell Messi for Jackson Martinez,” a notion that persists in corners of Twitter today. Tribalism of the same sort that has people attacking Cox for allegedly slagging Iniesta.

Discussing anything is an intellectual exercise. Without approaching it in that fashion, it is difficult for a discussion to even take place. Prima facie, five players for one should have sparked an intellectual exercise. Where would you play them? What might be a potential XI? Instead people circled the wagons. And it’s a good thing I wasn’t running Barça, because it would have been the stupidest move in the history of the club. But it was also never going to happen, so what was intellectually wrong with a bit of speculation?

Football is an amazing game. It can transport you from amazing highs to gut-wrenching lows, if you let it. But even aside from your club it is endlessly fascinating, the cut and thrust of games, the signatures of different leagues, how individual players who are excellent but making their way through a lesser division make magic. It’s all amazing, even as it is, most of time for me and others like me, a passionless intellectual exercise.

Once, in a high school physics class, our professor explained how it might be possible for you to throw a rock into a pond, and have that water surface reject the rock, pinging it back at you. He did the math, and explained the theory. We were focused on, “Wait … you can’t throw a rock into a pond?” We stopped thinking right there, because something was said that essentially hamstrung our intellectual curiosity. We formed a tribe whose religion was calling bullshit on what Father Nicholas said.

He didn’t say it would happen, or even might happen. Just based on the laws of physics and math, a series of occurrences could, theoretically, make this happen. But we stopped listening, just as people stopped listening to Cox, and people still Tweet at me about wanting to sell Messi for Jackson Martinez.

But our lives, many of the great things in them, are governed by flights of fancy, intellectual and otherwise. The player who decides to hit and hope and score a golazo. The time you got up the nerve to approach a stranger at a party, and found a life partner. Talking to someone about another thing and discovering a lifelong friend. Our minds are amazing things, if we leave them open and accepting.

You aren’t supposed to not be a fan of players, like me, or view everything through a tactical lens like Cox. But you are supposed to allow those things to happen, understand that a journalist covering a team isn’t a fan of that team, allow a great many other things to happen and take them for what they are — this amazing part of a massive tapestry that is a game so many of us love. It isn’t about anger, or tribalism, or defending an opinion about something that doesn’t matter anyway. It’s about football and intellect. And that is pure.

Categorized as Thoughts

By Kxevin

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.


  1. I used to find your constant references to twitter annoying, but after reading comments on barcablaugranes for a few months I now understand where you’re coming from 😛

  2. Some of the twitter responses are ridiculous, but it’s obvious Cox feels that while Iniesta looks good on the field, he doesn’t contribute much, or at least not near as much as others believe.

  3. Quite interesting. Some years before I remember saying something similar in this space. remember barca96 agreeing with me then..:)- Still I cant even imagine our team without Andres.
    Paulinho seems to have a better knack for goal than even CR7. I must have been stupid to think CR7 had the best knack for goals.. ha ha.

    JIm, I hope you are reading the Xavi interview transcripts on Diana Kristinne’s twitter page. I cant wait to see Xavi as a coach.

    So sorry for Samper. Hope he will get to play next season..
    I really wish there was an article on Valdes.. Wishing you all the peace in the world Victor.

  4. I just went to see Michael Cox comments and yes, he is saying that doesn’t find Iniesta to be that important on Barcelona’s matches:

    “Think he gets away with more poor or average performances (without criticism) than any other player around.”

    “Just don’t think he controls games, or wins them. He’s a very talented player and occasionally brilliant but often floats around on the periphery, for me”

    “His big-game record is largely excellent. It hides his inconsistency and (relative) underperformance over the course of a season, a la Zidane. He’s not in the same league as Messi or Xavi, two of the best of all-time, and Pep’s Barca depended on Alves and Busquets more too.”

    Take those statements as you will. At the end of all, he states that it is his opinion. I think he underestimates Iniesta (I still think that had Iniesta been on the semifinal against Inter on 2010, Barcelona would have advanced to that UCL final and win it, again)… he also states Alves’ importance on Pep’s team… sure thing, but, in fact, every player was important for that team: Pedro, Puyol, Abidal, etc… were important.

    As for Coutinho, yes, Liverpool got a great deal out of him. He will be helpful to Barcelona as well, but perhaps will take him a while to adapt… I’m guessing that by the end of this season he will be fully adapted to the team.

    Finally, addressing many Barça fans’ rants against these transfers… I’m guessing that more than the transfers themselves is that they go against the image the team projects. Barcelona fans always have taken a prideful stance against RM supporters because Real Madrid builds their team mainly out of big signings and spending lots of cash.

    Now with Coutinho and Dembele signings being two of the most expensive transfers in history (at least until this moment) Barcelona’s fans can’t say to Real Madrid’s supporters that their team is just about big signings with a totally straight face.

    Here’s the dilemma, though: if the board doesn’t sign players or go for low-key signings they are gonna get blasted for “not giving a damn” about the team and not doing the necessary to win another treble.

    1. Interesting comments from Cox, and something to think about.

      For me, Iniesta still controls the game better than anyone else in our squad except Busquets. He is also still one of the best in our squad at going past opponents, clear second only to Messi. And he is the best passer in our squad along with Busquets and Messi. For me, that makes it hard to regard him as anything but brilliant (unless you would think that the squad is poor overall, but results argue otherwise). He has been less consistent than Xavi, but that applies to pretty much anyone.

      For me, some of the criticism seems to come from the lack of a clear role – he isn’t the best dribbler in the game, and neither the best controller or the best assist-giver. But he does all of these things exceptionally well, making it exceptionally hard to play against him because he could out-control you, out-pass you, or just go past you if you decided wrong. Also very good at taking the ball off opponents. Overall, I think it is partly a matter of taste whether you put a player who is the best at a certain skill over someone who is very good at many skills but not best at one.

      The games that summed up Iniesta best for me were the Clásicos against Mourinho RM when they employed ferocious pressing at intervals. Their attack line was frightening at that, but whenever the ball found his way to Iniesta I thought “it’s ok, he’s not going to give them the ball however badly he’s outnumbered”. And he usually didn’t. That skill on its own is extremely difficult to execute, and valuable.

  5. Hmm, just my take on things but . . .

    I’m sorry but saying of a football player that he can “float around and be pretty ” is a downright insult in my book. If he meant that Ini was “the catalyst who worked in half-spaces and drove defenders insane.” then that’s what he should have said. if he is incapable of writing what he means then maybe he shouldn’t be writing. Don’t know about his grasp of tactics as I haven’t read any of his stuff but I can understand the reaction to that comment even as some fans do go overboard with the vitriol at times.

    I’m out of my depth here as I would never dream of having a Twitter account but surely the whole point of it is that it is full of hair trigger responses ? Do many agonise over 140 characters other than to see which words they can abbreviate ( ugh! ) I would agree that some think their team ( board? ) can either do no right or no wrong – insert as appropriate. Don’t know about anyone else but part of the thrill in sitting with your home support is getting carried away and either giving abuse or trying to persuade others that abuse of a player is misguided. It’s not clever and it’s not meant to be. It’s about the emotion of the moment. ( I had a sudden vision there of sitting, calculator in lap working out the passing stats before hurling invective at my team’s playmaker ! Or indeed, my striker for missing a chance . . .

    Finally, I’m not having a go at those whose job it is to make sense of a match and write about it. I LOVE reading good articles about football which rise above pure match events although on a personal level I do like my writers to have a slant for an article. Favourite in the old days was, by a mile, Hugh McIlvanney and these days there are a few. I’m slightly ashamed ( don’t know why ) to admit that I quite like Henry Winter’s style of writing. Graeme a Hunter for me is pretty observant without being a great writer while Sid is a great writer without ever saying anything I hadn’t thought of first. What I would say though is that there is no guarantee that anyone who says they approach things from an objective ( agnostic? ) viewpoint have any greater access to the truth than fans. You only have to look back on the best headline ever in the history of football writing – Matt Lawton’s ” Best two players in the World . . . And Xavi” He still gets stick for that one and rightly so. I do, though, agree with Kxevin that there is room for all sorts of views and approaches towards football and none should be dismissed out of hand or result in abusive comments. I think we do pretty well here in that respect.

    And so to Iniesta. Anyone who thinks that he was any less valuable to that Guardiola side and its control of games / possession than Xavi is mistaken in my opinion. The whole premise of that team wasn’t that they would kill you in a moment but that they squeezed the hope out of you over time. Yes, Xavi ran that but Ini as Kxevin rightly says ghosted into the spots that hurt them, kept the ball when nobody else in the world could have and dealt out the message that it doesn’t matter what you do you cant get this ball. That is what killed them in the end and led to Wayne Rooney throwing up his hands in despair in the middle of a CL final , surely in its way the greatest tribute a side has ever received from an opponent while the game is still going on?

    Yes, Iniesta could play the Xavi role quite well – I saw him do it in person at Hampden years ago for Spain when Xavi was unavailable. Scotland couldn’t lay a glove on him and everything went through him. His genius was in keeping the ball under extreme pressure then releasing a pass which flew across( never leaving) the ground with just enough curl to deliver it to the correct foot of the receiving player. The Scottish fans ( we were near the tunnel ) rose to applaud him AT HALF TIME ! And to be fair I didn’t know whether to laugh in disbelief or cry that I was seeing genius. It’s just that Iniesta’s natural genius lies elsewhere and he hasn’t been asked to do it while Xavi was with us. Then after Xavi LE decided to burden him with too much work to do defensively so he couldn’t. We’ve seen glimpses of it this season and we all know how relieved we are when he plays as we know the midfield will flow but the real test is when we meet a real press which we haven’t yet. Most likely the hardest will be our next meeting with AM so we’ll see.

    Fotobirajesh, thanks. Yes, any thoughts of Xavi are always well worth reading. He can now say what he thinks although you can still see him filtering some of it. Like you I look forward to the day he returns as coach. I just hope a crisis doesn’t force it too soon. I can see us suffering the day Messi gives up and the need to turn to a saviour rather than a coach and that wouldn’t be the best circumstances. He needs to make his mistakes elsewhere.

    Victor, I’ve not seen the rants against the big signings so I’m confused. Are they saying we should do an A Bibao of sorts and only play La Masia graduates ? Or is it a board squandering our money issue ? Either way I doubt the board will lose much sleep over it. For me, Barto has had a string of crises to deal with since he took over and has hardly put a foot wrong. Not only that but he’s done it while still managing to show his human side. Even this season we’ve been told Messi is refusing to re- sign, we’ve had a vote of no confidence driven by I’m not sure who but fanned ridiculously by the Twitteratti, we had the most expensive player in history leave us in the lurch at the last minute, our world class CF injured from the get go , a gubbing from RM and a new coach who didn’t have universal approval. And look where we are now ?

    Btw, what of the game ? I enjoyed it and some lovely moments ( did anyone see the rocket fired at Iniesta and it settle on his foot ? Or the impossible cul de sac where he took three quick touches and the ball flew to a player while the three opponents were still looking at Ini ? Just great technique from Suarez on his goal and another for Paulinho ( with a great dummy from Suarez ). I was so glad we managed a clean sheet for amass he’s last game.

    Two small negatives. I’d have taken Masche off a couple of minutes from the end to allow him to say goodbye. Also, did I miss it or was there no t shirt support for Samper ?

  6. Sorry, meant Masche’s last game in second last para.

    Good grief, looking at the above I have too much time on my hands ! I think I should be punished by being limited to 140 characters for a couple of weeks.

    1. I hear they are allowing up to 280 characters a tweet now. So if you chain them, you would only need something like 15 tweets for the above post. By the time you wrote the last one, people would have forgotten about the first already ; )

      In the interview, Xavi comes across as both a possessed man (no surprise there) and a harsh but fair judge of players. For RM, doesn’t rate Isco, Asensio or Casemiro much, but is impressed by Modric and Kroos. Whenever I read his interviews, I get a glimpse into the world of footballing space-time (as he calls it), and the complexity going on in his and great coaches minds. Makes me a bit sad to then see so many media reducing it all to single players and their “form”.

  7. I think I’d also probably have forgotten what I’d written, Georgejorge – and probably no great loss. However, not gonna happen. Had too many run ins with Twitter in my previous life as a senior manager in a school and saw the nastiness it almost encourages. Far too easy to react quickly, blast off an insult and repent at leisure.

    Yeah, any insight into that mind of Xavi is worth its weight in gold. He should be made to play with a head cam so we can at least get an inkling of what he’s looking for and sees on the pitch. Like you I hate folks pulling what they see as the more lurid bits from what he says.

  8. As much as I too baulk at the sums Barca is having to pay for players like Coutinho and Dembele, I can’t help but be optimistic about the variety of options we will have once we ship out Deulofeu, Vidal, Denis, Masch, Arda and Rafinha. Of these people Rafinha is the only one I’ll be inclined to keep as we have seen flashing moments on what he can give us when he is not injured. Masch of course is another I’d give a lifetime contract and coaching position, but he has other plans so we have to say goodbye and do so in the best way possible. The most under rated player who has been the most terrific servant for Barca and one that has filled in the void left by Carles Puyol admirably.

    And when we do sell and I do mean sell, NOT LOAN the afore mentioned players we are starting to see just a few additions that are required that would really sort the Barca squad for the foreseeable future, namely in positions like Striker, Backup full backs and central midfield.

    Let us take a look at what the squad can look like in the upcoming season..

    GK [2] –
    Marc Andre Ter Stegen, Jasper Cillessen

    FB [4] –
    Nelson Semedo, Jordi Alba, Lucas Digne (or new backup LB / promotion), new backup RB (promotion?)

    CB [5] –
    Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti, Yerri Mina, Thomas Vermaelen, Marlon

    DM [2] –
    Sergio Busquets, Paulinho

    CM [3] –
    Ivan Rakitic, Andre Gomes, Alena

    AM [4] –
    Andres Iniesta, Philippe Coutinho, Lionel Messi, Sergi Roberto

    FW [2] –
    Ousmane Dembele, Arnaiz

    ST [3] –
    New striker, Paco Alcacer, Luis Suarez

    But that is still 25 players. probably one two too many.
    Assuming that the back five picks itself:
    Ter stegen, Semedo, Pique, Umtiti, Alba,
    that leaves us with room for the front 6 to line up in a variety of ways.

    Option 1: [4-1-3-2]
    ————- Busquets ————–
    — Dembele — Iniesta — Coutinho —
    ——- Messi —— Suarez ———-


    Option 2: [4-1-3-2]
    ————- Busquets ————–
    — S.Roberto — Messi — Coutinho —
    —– Dembele —- Suarez ———-

    Option 2 is a bit more stable as it features legend and adds a bit of defensive solidity on the right. Dembele will also be totally unleashed as opposed to option 1 where he will have to defend more.

    Paulinho and Rakitic then become the ultimate closers and squad players that will serve us more than well in relatively less important games and those that we need to finish off securely..
    This would be the best plan going forward.. Hope that Valverde has similar ideas..

    Keep calm and Visca!
    Good times ahead.

    1. This would be how I rebuild the squad.
      GKs: Ter Stegen, Cillessen.
      DFs: Pique, Umtiti, Vermaelen, Stefan de Vrij, Alba, Digne, Semedo.
      MDs: Busquets, Iniesta, Rakitic, Roberto, Paulinho, Samper, Coutinho, Arthur (if passport issue solved)
      FDs: Messi, Suarez, Dembele, Paco, Werner/Mertens.

      How can we achieve it?!

      I would argue we had 100+m for last summer transfer. But if we still go by the usual 60m for every summer transfer, including the left over from Neymar, one can assume we have 100m to spend from last summer. My plan, between now and the coming summer both in terms of incoming and outgoing, would be more radical than most would like to.
      I would let Arda (now, free), Masche (now, 10m), Rafinha (summer, 15m), Vidal (now, 10m), Deulofeu (now, 15), Denis (summer, 20), Munir (summer, 5+), and Gomes (summer, 40m+) go. This equals 115m+. I know, considering our history…, this could be a little bit optimistic…

      Assuming Coutinho’s transfer is done with 120m + 30m add ons, it more or less can be covered from those sells ignoring the add ons.
      Now, if club can make a little more effort and budget 100m for this summer, we will totally have 200m between now and the coming summer in addition of Coutinho. With this money I would buy Stefan de Vrij’s, his contract with lazio is to expire this summer, for ~15m, De Ligt for ~45m, Arthur about ~40m, and Aouar of Lyon ~30m. Still we would have 70m left. With this, depending on Suarez’s situation on the coming months and if left side issue after seeing Coutinho remains the same, we can spend on Timo Werner or Fekir or Mertens( if we decide to go cheap and short term for different reasons). The Belgian costs only 28m.

      We can leave De Ligt and Aouar ( and Arthur if the passport issue couldn’t be solved, loan him to a Spanish club) in their clubs for one more year to gain more experience and have Alena in the first team. If Abel Ruiz shows a considerable progress in the coming months for Barca B, buy Mertens and keep Paco for a couple of years to bridge the gap and groom Abel. This would leave us with extra 40m which we can use to get Frankie De Jong of Ajax.

      Give Alena, Oriol, Arnaiz and Abel Ruiz more minutes…If Marlon and De Ligt developed in to great CBs, we can bring Yerry Mina in the summer and can do some business in a couple of years…

      With this we can have quality and depth in back 5, quality + promising midfield combination and depth, strong attack with aging striker which possibly can be the next issue to solve in a year or two. And reduces wage bill substantially.

      No Griezmann, please!
      If club believes we can afford both Coutinho and Griezmann, getting Mbappe instead of the Frenchman would have made much more sense. As much as Paulinho’s transfer turned out to be positive, I would have combined the 40m we spent on him, the supposed 100m for Griezmann and the 12m on Deulofeu and bring Mbappe. This would be more than enough to cover the 140m basic fee PSG agreed to pay, and him and Dembele would lead our forward for more than a decade.

  9. Been a long time reader of this blog, this will probably be my first comment on this platform
    I’ll first like to thank kxevin for the great pieces he is always sharing with us IM A BIG FAN, K!!
    Now to my submission, I’ve not always understood the reason why so many will think to axe so many current Barça players and slag as not being up to par. When it’s the like of Arda and Deulofeu I totally agree with them leaving, but what I don’t understand is the talk about A. Homes, D Suarez, Rafinha, Digne and whoever has been mentioned .
    In my country we are very passionate when it comes to football especially European club football and it’s saddening that so little understand that it isn’t an easy sport.
    On Suarez Jr, in my own opinion he’s good not just polished like we’re used to all he needs is time (Iniesta and Xavi got a lot of it) to develop his game. A gomes should also be given time at least two more seasons, sometimes we see flashes of brilliance in his game which seems to suggest that he’s still apprehensive about impressing the manager. Rafinha is pure energy waiting to be unlocked and unleashed. Digne is just what he is A good backup, deulofeu tries too hard. his is a case of media hype he’s good but just average player good (he just can’t cope with the Barça style of play).

  10. I think the team well balanced now all we need is for some of the loanees to return and we’re set
    EG: Munir for deulofeu, Marlon Santos back, and just promote arnaiz if Munir falters and nurture the B striker one or two cheap buys won’t hurt too
    Visca Barça!!!

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