Barça is headed for a difficult future.
There was a Busquets v Chelsea compilation floating around Twitter after the match, and people spent a lot of time commenting on things from various bulwarks of perception. But what really struck the eye, particularly in that match as Chelsea was working and pressing so hard, was the confidence that teammates had in Busquets. They spanked the ball to him at all kinds of positions and angles, moments where he was covered and didn’t care, because they knew that not only would he control the ball, but that he would choose the right action once he moved the ball on.
Rafinha, on loan to Inter Milan, came on as a second-half sub in their last match. Serie A is more open, but also with more pressing and physical nous behind the pressing. Inter players were, because of how their control templates are set, looking to pass the ball to open teammates. A Barça devotee’s perpective is different. It’s “He’s only covered by two defenders. Get him the ball.” There were a couple of moments where a teammate seeking to bail out, spanked the ball to Rafinha, who controlled it, moved it on and moved to receive the next pass, one that never came. He is a player from a different planet, and you hope that Inter catches up with his speed of play.
For the Chelsea goal, because Iniesta’s control was so absolute, even after sprinting for a ball from almost midfield, he had an eternity to make the correct decision and take the exact right action.
Many teams work on rondos. But Barça players, described as those developed within the system, play differently. Their control is different, how they see the game and move without the ball is different. Most crucial to this is the confidence that teammates have in their ability to control the pass. Hit it hard, even to a covered player, because there is certainty that the teammate is going to control it. Iniesta is used to it, so is Messi, Pique, Busquets, Sergi Roberto. You see it in Alena as well, and the time away from Camp Nou didn’t kill that instinct in Jordi Alba.
As those players move on, Barça will, of necessity, barring any sort of lightning strikes of world-class talent coming from La Masia, have to rely on transfers. The problem is that transfers don’t have that quality. They can’t, because it is almost impossible to get unless it is trained into a player. Umtiti has some of it. But if you look at the rash of transfers that has come in, the closest to having that kind of control is Coutinho, and even he needs space. A Masia player doesn’t think about the defenders, because he knows that as long as he controls the ball, everything else can be managed. A transfer thinks about the defender, and taking the ball the right way, and what to do nex … crap.
Observers scream about Paulinho’s touch, but in the Barça context, Rakitic is deficient. So is Gomes, Alcacer, Suarez, even Neymar came up short in that key quality. Passing is related to that quality. Transfers don’t hit their passes hard enough, because they aren’t used to playing with players whose control is absolute, who understand that passes are hit hard because the ball is less exposed and it gives your teammate more time to deal with it. Control is the one thing they aren’t worried about.
Transfers hit passes soft because they are living in their own context. Why would you hit a pass as hard as you hit a shot? What’s wrong with you? They they watch Messi, Busquets and Iniesta work and think, “Oh.”
Gomes is still hitting passes too soft. Paulinho will take some catching up. For all his “honorary Masia” status, Denis Suarez is too tentative. Dembele doesn’t have the necessary control. When we talk about catching up to the speed of play, this is a lot of it, where player and ball move in a way that provides extra time. Control, pass and receive. The location of the pass is without question, because the player already knows before he even gets the ball. How hard that pace of play is can’t be underestimated. Nor can knowing what needs to happen next. When Iniesta ran that ball down, he knew what to do. 99.9 percent of mids or attackers would have passed it to Suarez. He’s open. Ish. Iniesta knew Courtois would have closed the pass down, and it was left-footed shot for Suarez. Where was the lefty? Messi, running in all alone. Easy.
Only if you’re a Masia player. We see the game differently because of how the Barça core has trained us. We see players on other teams in other leagues miss passes that history has taught us is the right pass, the right action. Those players comprise the future transfer talent pool.
The current gala XI is Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Paulinho, Rakitic, Iniesta, Messi, Suarez. The only young Masia product is Sergi Roberto. What happens when the older ones move on? Rondos only get you some of the way toward being able to evince the kind of ball control that enables Barça football. Once you start having to consider who to pass to because of the possibility they might have a defender nearby, the game changes. And while certainly, going boldly into that uncertain future isn’t somethihg anyone is willing to embrace, there is no time like the present to start thinking about it, and having to sleep with the lights on.