Have you ever assembled something from IKEA? It’s the easiest thing in the world, but it requires something of you: Shut off your brain.
Anyone who says that IKEA stuff is difficult to assemble, is probably saying that because they are thinking about it, instead of just looking at the pictures and doing that. When you think about it, it’s the same thing as coaching a rigidly structured, verging on hidebound club as FC Barcelona.
Now if you’re a coach with ambition and new ideas, you throw out that book because you Know Better. And you can know better if you have the three best attackers in the game, in Messi, Neymar and Suarez. But once people figure it out, then what? Now that you have thought yourself out of doing what everything is set up to do and you color outside the lines, now what? For one, the trophies dry up. For another, nobody is happy with you, nor should they be.
Enter Ronald Koeman.
Not since Pep Guardiola has a Barça coach interited a team better suited to play Barça football. And even if that Guardiola team was a once-in-a-lifetime cadre of greats, there are positional analogs if not direct ones.
Abidal/uh … um … okay, yeah never mind
And there are instructions in videos of the Guardiola teams. Dummies like me have suggested that people figured out how to play that system, but that isn’t really the case. Personnel changed, effectiveness was lost, Guardiola had to adapt as changes came. Henry left, and that changed so much. Ibrahimovic or Villa just didn’t do the same. Nor did Pedro. Tello, oddly enough, came closest. Same with Eto’o. When he left, the value of what he did became clear.
Barcelona has an entire structure devoted to making cookies. Sweet, tasty little cookies. Technically perfect cookies. You eat one, and there’s another, Tasty, technically proficient. There is even a factory whose job it is. Make cookies. Thiago, Rafinha, Alenya, Puig, Collado, Jandro.
When you watch those Barça teams, the reason they could do what they did is because everyone functioned at such a high level. Xavi spanked you a pass hard enough to clear the defender, but not so hard that you can’t control it, if you’re good enough. If you’re not, you shouldn’t be out there. Not in those colors, not on that pitch. The ball whizzed around the pitch at a single touch, because everyone knew where everyone was, and knew that no matter what they did, how they hit that pass, their teammate would control it.
Looking at Messi and Pedri, it was difficult not to get startust in your eyes, not to blink and realize that those aren’t rose-colored glasses, but a beautiful sequel to a hit film. Pedri doesn’t make the game look effortless because he’s particularly gifted. Yes, he’s talented, and remarkably so. But there are lots of mids as talented as Pedri. What makes him different is how he sees the game, like he’s watched the video already. He knows where to be. He’s fearless. His technical skill is such that he knows when to control and when pressure is such that he needs to one touch. He never takes any more touches than he needs, and can always deal with pressure.
A favorite Twitter follow, Zito Madu (@_zeets) said that Pedri reminded him of Iniesta. And that led to a very interesting thread about that very thing. Sid Lowe wrote a lovely piece about Messi and Pedri, and it’s all just so obvious.
Messi has said that he is energized and ready again, that the lingering rancor of the summer is gone, like the unctuous grin of the man who has left the club with one foot dangling precariously over a precipice. When Messi gave his Goal interview, and talked about it being time for a new project, for younger legs, you got the feeling that he honestly didn’t see himself as part of it. Turns out he might have been just a few delicate, high-wire 1-2s with Pedri, to watch a CB confidently striding up the pitch with the ball at his feet, to see a young, quicksilver attacker with a hard, flat shot that he can get off in a snap, or being fed by a soul-snatching right fullback — just a few things away from saying, “Hey, this is pretty cool.”
But then there’s Koeman. When everyone is fit, there is an XI that is so obvious, any of us could pencil it in:
Dest Pique Araujo Mingueza
Dembele Messi Fati
And how would they play? DUH! Everybody in that XI has the technical skill and grace to play fast-moving, high wire football. You don’t need to think about it. The people are already there.
Unless you’re Koeman.
If you’re Koeman, you don’t like the natural order of things. You want a double pivot. You want more defenders than the law allows. You think a 4-3-3 in an anchronistic toxin, and you try everything except once, just once, what you should try. Messi and Pedri reverted, with help from Pjanic, who was playing a bit like Busquets used to before he became overly fond of the filigree, and looking to draw fouls instead of just keeping the ball moving like a metronome. Tighten the lines, keep the ball, make the runs, raise hell.
Ah, yes … Mingueza, and not Alba. What the team has missed ever since the departure of Abidal, is Abidal. If your CBs are doing work like DMs, if your right-sided FB is making like a winger, you need a defender on the left. Not another winger. You need a quick, fearless player with range, who challenges on defense rather than shrinking, facilitaring attacks. No manager wants to tread in another manager’s footsteps. But at FC Barcelona, they aren’t footsteps. They’re tradition. Most crucially, it is what the players know, what they have been trained to do. The newcomers come to Barça because they watched those teams, they love that football and came to play football like that. Let them. Stop trying to read instructions that aren’t there, putting screws in holes in which they don’t fit. Just look at the pictures, and build something wonderful.