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Luck, La Masia and winning the lottery

Not a return. Just a guest post, precipitated by events.

Let’s build a mountain, an unassailable fortress of a mountain that will make even the most staunch Sherpa quake, and retire his crampons.

That mountain will be made of dudgeon, and shall be christened Mount Nonsense, a sentiment that caused the mountain to spring, fully formed and colossal, from the earth.

“La Masia no es toca.” They are stupid for messing up La Masia. People for whom La Masia might as well have been a Barcelona restaurant chain 5 years ago, are how hoisting everything on that pillar. From atop Mount Dudgeon, people scream about La Masia being ruined, many of them because of the mistake that assumes reality from a once-in-a-lifetime event.

There is a man in Florida, Richard Lustig, who has won the lottery seven times, netting more than a million dollars for his exploits. He even has a series of infomercials that tells people how to do it. You might as well advise on how to get struck by lightning. The amount of luck involved in winning the lottery even a single time boggles the mind.

On the current FCB roster are: Sergi Roberto, Busquets, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, Bartra, Pique, Alba. All are products of La Masia, and are the equivalent of Barça winning the lottery eight times — nine if you count Xavi, ten if you count Puyol. Talent like that coming out of an academy in its entire history, never mind a fairly compressed period, isn’t normal. It’s as far from normal as I am from being Queen of England.

Of the hundreds and hundreds of “gems” that get washed in the gold pans that are La Masia levels, the great majority of them are fool’s gold, the kind of stuff that isn’t legal tender in the nicest establishments. These semi-shiny trinkets might get a man a glass of wine in a small-town bar in a place like Gijon or San Sebastian. But in the big-city bars they just laugh at those dull nuggets, and ask you where the real stuff is.

High on the sins of the current board is La Masia and how it was mismanaged. Talented players are leaving, the wrong coaches being appointed, the wrong men being placed in positions of power. This is being called mismanagement, and it is. But is it the entire reason gems are no longer being culled from the mines at La Masia? We can’t excuse the errors they have made. The transfer ban was mismanagement to an appalling degree. Making Eusebio coach, then following that up with Jordi Vinyals, was mismanagement. But it’s worth applying a bit of perspectiveDo those errors make a player less talented, even as they might hinder his development in a way that makes first-team ascension more difficult? No and yes.

Gerard Deulofeu is off to Everton for a fee that has people calling Barça management stupid as a massive talent scuttles off to the welcoming arms of the Premiership, and a coach who always understood him. Six million is too low, scream the hordes, who are wondering how Chelsea can sell an unwanted bone like Juan Mata for a treasury, forgetting that Mata is a cherished member of the Spain senior team, rather than a head case who has failed under two different coaches.

It’s also easy to forget the low buyback fee, a number that if Deulofeu becomes something of what his talent suggests, would be a bargain many times over. But as fans tackle the ascent of Mt. Nonsense, it’s easy to dig those crampons into the bones of washed-up Sherpas as folks scramble for a summit that becomes higher by the hour. You can just see the summit, and then … “Selling Montoya is stupid. He deserved a chance.”

Is Masia not producing gems because of mismanagement, or talent? Within a season, Sergio Busquets became preferred to a man considered one of the best DMs in the game in Toure Yaya, who was subsequently sold to Manchester City. Pep Guardiola was, in the eyes of many, stupid for that, for elevating a bean pole to primacy over a man mountain who crushed all that dared stand before him.

Most of those same people are now hailing Busquets as untouchable, and a genius. Stupidity has a shelf life, measured in the distance that it takes a pass to travel, the microns between a keeper’s scrabbling fingertips and the goalpost as a shot squeezes between. “Did I say stupid? I meant genius!”

The first team of FC Barcelona is a murderers’ row of grim-faced thugs, talent that starts for national teams, captains those teams and isn’t interested in suffering fools or lesser talents willingly.

Trying to shoehorn its way into that lineage is a young player from La Masia. Is he good enough? How good does he have to be to make it into that charmed assemblage? Pedro wormed his way in, like Busquets, but he didn’t do it with goals. He did it by being willing to ram his head into a brick wall with the exact force his coach told him to. Questions are for the weak. Wham! Pedro isn’t a sub because of anything that he did. Pedro is a sub because Neymar is one of the best players in the world, where Pedro is an excellent role player. The reasons for Bartra not starting range from stupid coaches to not giving him enough time to shine, as if a coach would voluntarily suppress a player who could help the team excel. That time is there to be taken, in training, and Bartra, talented though he is, hasn’t done it yet. Take your chance. Would Vermaelen and/or Mathieu had been purchased had Bartra been that convincing? Valid ask.

La Masia doesn’t have to be touched by anyone. The real world does that just fine. Deulofeu, Krkic, Gai “next Messi” Assulin, Gio Dos Santos, Victor Sanchez, Isaac Cuenca, Jonathan dos Santos, the list of players who were good, but not good enough is a long one, forming the spine of many a lesser club in lesser leagues or small markets, teams that appreciate those gems as their bars accept less-shiny trinkets, happily.

The role of the Barça academy is huge. But that is true for any club that has one. La Masia isn’t any more or less special than the Arsenal, United or Chelsea academies. The job of an academy such as La Masia is to make professionals. The overwhelming percentage of those players will not be good enough for Barça. Remember when Dongou was one of the best players anyone had ever seen? La Masia is an important plank of success at FC Barcelona because a strong academy is essential to the club and its future. La Masia makes role players as well as superstars. It also makes carpenters and journeymen. It makes all of these far, far more often than it makes an Iniesta or a Busquets. It’s like the above Mr. Lustig having a bill come due and deciding, “I’ll just play the lottery.”

What if you win a Dos Santos instead of a Busquets? What if you win a Muniesa instead of a Pique?

The glory days, or even this Barça XI would have been impossible to assemble in the market. Messi alone would break the bank. Then being able to afford Iniesta and Busquets? No. You raise talents like that, and promote them. But not every talent is like those. The mistake would be to assume that a presidential candidate, or anyone at all, would be able to better oversee having the next Busquets come out of La Masia. As many mistakes and dunderheaded errors as this board has made, Sergi Samper is still Sergi Samper, and will be promoted to the first team. Talent. Adama Traore is bursting at the seams. So is Grimaldo. Talent will do what it is going to do, which is find its way to the top of the pile. Then talent has to stay there. Deulofeu has as much raw talent in one leg as Pedro has in his whole body. Why is one at Everton on a last chance, while the other just renewed at Barça? Talent gives you a chance. Now do something with it.

A club needs to believe in its academy. It needs to nurture, support and make sure that academy provides a sure path to the first team for players who are deserving of that exalted position. It also needs to provide the structure and the guidance for those players to have the best chance to excel. It is here that the former board failed miserably. Talents are leaving. Whether it’s because of the transfer ban or the cruel math that a youth player has to perform is another matter. But talent will find its way out. Seung-Woo Lee isn’t staying because of anything other than his clearly defined path to the first team, the stupidity of the actions that resulted in his ban notwithstanding. Fabregas wasn’t stolen. He left because he did the math, and knew he wasn’t good enough to compete with what La Masia had.

The mistake is to believe that a player deserves a first-team spot simply by virtue of coming from La Masia, and shame on a coach who doesn’t give him that opportunity. The other mistake is to assume that being at La Masia means first team is beckoning, and it’s a tragedy when a youth talent leaves.

Montoya is an excellent example, promoted under Guardiola. Enrique is his fourth coach, and he still hasn’t wrestled his way into a regular substitute role. Because Dani Alves. Montoya is good. He isn’t that good. Is he better than a punt of a player in Douglas? Enrique apparently wants to keep Douglas. Montoya is at Inter Milan, for no other reason than he wasn’t good enough. He said he left because Alves renewing and Aleix Vidal being bought made his decision clear. Indeed. Douglas will have his chance to be good enough or be jettisoned. That’s what football does. Here’s your shot. Be good or be gone.

Did Montoya deserve more chances, or should he have found a place where his talents can net him a first-team spot? What makes Montoya different than Jonathan Dos Santos? Both are talented, but not talented enough to crack the Barça first team. Both are talented enough for other teams, ensembles not vying for that highest rung of the competitive ladder. Would more playing time have given Montoya that needed edge, or just prove how good Alves truly is?

Jonathan Dos Santos is, along with his brother Gio, playing fine football for Villarreal. Is that a success or a failure for La Masia? Put another way, is Masia success defined by whether a player makes it at Barça, or whether he becomes a professional footballer somewhere in the world?

In America, big-time college athletics produces football and basketball players galore. A fraction of those talents make it into the professional ranks. What of the rest of them? Is the job of a college to provide athletes, or prepare its youthful charges for the rest of their life, whatever that might entail?

La Masia is a life school, not just a football school. It isn’t failing because it isn’t producing first-team talents, not if it is giving its players an education and a future, even if that future isn’t at Barça. After all, Villarreal needs midfielders, too.

Posted in Analysis, Elections2 Comments

Bartomeu and Laporta, more alike than anyone cares to admit

And then there were two …

Now that Joan Laporta has declared for the elections and we know that Bartomeu is already in, the two 1,000-pound gorillas are set to square off. Yes there are other candidates and the most interesting platform is that of Origen FCB, but reality is that there are only two candidates who have a viable shot at this thing, barring any compromising photos or new court proceedings.

What is absolutely fascinating is that there is, in reality and dependent upon the lens you use to have a gander, very little to choose from between them.

Laporta can say, “Do you want more of this?” and show a photo of himself with treble trophies.
Bartomeu can say, “Do you want more this?” and show a photo of himself with treble trophies.
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Posted in Analysis, Elections, Thoughts25 Comments

A salute to the forgotten man of this treble season, Andoni Zubizarreta

zubizarreta

It seems appropriate to take a moment to give a shout-out to the man who made so much of this Treble season possible, a forgotten man by many culers in their Triplete zeal but who was essential, a man who got shout-outs from the likes of Xavi, Rakitic and Puyol for his work.

No, not Luis Enrique, but Andoni Zubizarreta.
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Posted in Analysis, Thoughts, Transfers74 Comments

Sports, failure and a collective psyche

The Copa America match that featured Argentina vs Paraguay was, for this neutral, endlessly fascinating throughout, and entertaining after the final result.

After the match, of course, it was the expected, “Tata Martino screwed up.” But a very interesting Tweet from a pair of hyper-intelligent minds (and BFB mods) got me to thinking:

“What really gets me about the last 10 years as an Argentina supporter is the repeated self-sabotage. Bad subs, Maradona, the Tevez issue …”

And the reply:

“Is there a common denominator, or just history repeating? Different coaches, different players, similar patterns.”
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Posted in Analysis, Copa America, Messi, Thoughts21 Comments

Barça 3, Juventus 1, aka “This team stands on its own”

“I don’t know if I will stay, but I am happy at the moment.”
— Luis Enrique

“I haven’t yet decided my future.”
— Dani Alves

Those two quotes seem an odd way to start a piece on a glorious, history-making day, but they are also the perfect way to conclude the uncertainty that came to define this season, one that has ended in glittering, celebratory fashion. Having just cleaned up the streamers and confetti from the last celebration at the Camp Nou, came another one. And now, another one.

People will line up to recreate history and flay a chunk off the carcass of this team, linking it to Barça now that it has had success. But for me, this is a team that deserves … that has earned the right to stand on its own.

Rijkaard had his own wonderful period, and so did Guardiola. But really, the era that each Barça trainer embodied ended when they left, when their team tasted failure. In hitting the reset button two times after Guardiola, only Vilanova could be said to be something of a continuation, but even he set about revolutionizing the way the team went about its tasks.

Enrique came in and did his own thing, even as you can point to the similarities to the first Treble season:

— First-year coach
— Exceptional success
— Attention paid to fitness and psychology
— A dynamic front three that stretched the pitch

You can even point to parallel goals between the two teams, the first a ping-ponging paragon of unselfish perfection that essentially walked the ball into the net (Rakitic/Iniesta); the second an aggressive, out-of-nothing scramble (Suarez/Eto’o); the third a bust-out and slot home by the left winger (Henry/Neymar).

The parallels are so easy, so seductive and yet, do Luis Enrique’s Barça team a disservice. This team came together, forged on the anvil of adversity real or imagined (same effect). It played its own way even as it followed many of the Barça tenets of attractive, attacking, possession football. But even if you don’t presume that the Guardiola era ended when that great coach left the club, surely it ended psychologically when Barça put Guardiola’s Bayern Munich side to the sword.

This has been a season of exorcism, from the unparalleled joy after a season of heartbreak last year, to paying back debts to teams owed them (Atleti, Bayern) to setting off on an astounding run that found this Barça a true champion of champions, adding the champion of Italy to the other notches on its gaudy belt buckle. It has also been a fairy tale, as Xavi, a selfless legend who completely devoted himself to the club that he loves, gets to go out with a treble, the shrieks of the Camp Nou crowd ringing in his ears and now, today, one more chance to hoist a piece of silver as the Capita of the FC Barcelona football team.

It is just one more aspect of a fairy-tale season.

In making history, this Barça team was like itself in that it wasn’t at its best, but found a way to win a match that it had to. Messi wasn’t anything approaching his dynamic, all-pitch best, even Luis Suarez seemed somewhat overawed by the moment. This was a day for the other guys: Iniesta, Rakitic, Neymar, Busquets, Alves, Pique, putting in work to ensure success. Today as with the rest of this season, Barça played and won as a team.

Culers were warned that Juventus wouldn’t be pushovers, and they weren’t. Its legendary keeper, Gigi Buffon, came up colossal on three separate occasions that would probably have found other keepers lacking, leading to a second half that would have been all over but the shouting and trophy presentation. But he kept them around, and when they scored a quality team goal, it was suddenly game on, and tucker and pucker time for culers.

But just like the match in which the only goals were set pieces, or a late, late goal was forged from an ugly scramble on the goal line, this team managed to find the back of the net as it almost always has. 60 matches, 50 wins, 4 draws and 6 losses. That is an amazing record that is not only the best by any coach in Barça history, but a gauntlet that the team has thrown down for itself. Nowhere to go but down, drowning in a miasma of expectations and resurrected #luchoout hashtags.

That time will come later. For now, let this team be on its own, let it dance, and sing and get drunk atop double decker buses, make speeches at the Camp Nou and do all the silly stuff that victors do to celebrate with their supporters. They have earned it, just as they have earned the right to be champions on their own. This is about Enrique and Barça football. Be proud.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Messi, Thoughts32 Comments

Did this season, this Messi, begin with a simple look?

trophy

A look. A lot of things begin with a look. A friend had an Aussie named Jazz, and if another dog looked at Jazz and held eye contact, it was on.

An award-winning portrait captured Lionel Messi during the World Cup final ceremonies, looking at the championship Cup trophy. In his face you can see longing, a bit of anger and more than a bit of determination. Fast-forward to the current Barça season, when people who observed Messi early on, said that he was “connected.” It’s not all that difficult to wonder if a season as the ultimate team leader and undisputed best player in football was born from that moment of global failure.

As with the famed “Messi es un perro” article, like my friend’s Aussie, if you cross Messi, it’s on. Foul him, and you can expect a dribble. Attack Neymar, and watch him rush to his teammate’s defense. He is as likely to eviscerate you with a header pass as a mazy slalom solo goal, and he has mastered the diagonal rainbow to a rushing Jordi Alba or Neymar. Messi’s focus this season has been preternatural and complete. He’s an indispensable part of Barça, and an immense ingredient to the team’s success, even as you can and should take issue with those who lay it all at his feet.

Messi is disarming. You watch him score goals such as the one that he did against Athletic, and you can’t process it. He does things that ordinary players don’t even have the ability to consider. In thinking about Lionel Messi, when contemplating he and what he does, you have to think of the many great athletes who came before him, players who defined a game in ways that leave it forever changed. Those greats weren’t just great because of performance. They were great because their regard for boundaries was meaningless because their skill set gave them a different set of restrictions. When Tiger Woods hit some of the shots that he tried, in his prime. When Michael Jordan drove to the basket against the Lakers in the NBA championship, switched hands in mid-air to avoid the defense, then made the layup. Great players have a different set of tools.

When Messi was making the move that made Jerome Boateng fall over, or dancing around the Athletic defense as though they were stationary training pylons, he isn’t thinking, “I’m doing something great.” He’s thinking, “The goal is that way.”

In the wake of moments such as the Messi goal, people ask great players what they were thinking, what was the rationale for the move. Inevitably, those players are almost struck dumb and the world is amazed by the simplicity of the response. Jordan didn’t do that move for posterity, he did it because he had to score that basket and the first path was blocked. Messi took advantage of Boateng expecting him to go left. Woods had to get to the green in one stroke. It’s simple, when you think about it. “Well, this has to happen.” It’s just that the brains of great players work differently.

At an Indianapolis Formula One race I had the pleasure of watching Michael Schumacher, who had to run a series of laps at qualifying effort to consolidate a strategy. To watch him hit the same corner apex at the same spot, so flawlessly that a sheet piece of white paper would have been perfectly blackened by the end of that stint, was a marvel. A friend who races cars turned to me and said, after about the seventh or eighth lap, “That’s impossible.” The greats have extra stuff. They see their world differently. It isn’t that other players can’t see the passes or runs that come so naturally to Messi. They don’t even have the same kind of eyes.

Messi, therefore, dominates discussion in a way that is correct, with caveats. When Jose Mourinho waxed rhapsodic about Messi, saying that he is the eternal difference maker, the response to that is “Well, duh!” Having a player like that changes everything. Messi is like a nuclear deterrent, except the other nation has only conventional weapons. All you can do is hope that he isn’t all THAT interested in your destruction. You gaze carefully, cautiously at his visage as you shake hands pre-match, hoping that you don’t see Messi murderface. If you do, just turn around and walk back to the locker room, first asking the ref if you really have to go through the full 90 minutes.

His influence is so outsized, so astonishing that it’s easy to forget what Barça is like without Messi, in part because Messi always plays. Every match, every big match, every borderline meaningless match, Messi plays. He’s like a utility, really, a wonderful everyday service that you take for granted. Think about opening the tap and having fresh, clean, drinkable water come out. Are you KIDDING me? That’s Messi, an astounding thing that has become almost commonplace. It takes goals like the Athletic effort to make people remember. “Oh, yeah. He isn’t from this planet.” But his omnipresent brilliance can also tend to make people overrate him and underrate his team. Jose Mourinho said that Arsenal could win a Champions League with Messi, an assertion that is absurd even as you can agree with his belief that Messi is the ultimate difference maker. Plop Messi into that Arsenal XI and he’s still playing with players who aren’t at that absolute level.

In 2014, Messi tore his hamstring on 10 November in a 4-1 win over Betis. He returned to action on 8 January as a sub in a Copa match vs Getafe. During that period, Barça didn’t exactly suck. If you look at this season, the Messi-less XI would be Bravo, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Suarez, Neymar, Pedro. That team would beat most teams on the planet. What Messi does for a side is add a level of the capricious, the impossible, the pass or run that come out of nowhere to facilitate a goal scoring foray. He also freaks everyone the hell out. He gets the ball, and defenders just think, “!!!!!!!!!”

But as tantalizing as it is to think of Messi as essential, and credit Barça’s success to Messi, both worldviews are erroneous, assertions rooted in his omnipresence. It’s easy to say that Barça wouldn’t be in the Champions League final without Messi because the notion doesn’t enter the realm of the possible. He’s there. He’s always there. He had a hand in all the goals that built the insurmountable lead. It’s Messi, always Messi, a player whose durability and endurance is as amazing as his output.

People who coach him have the same problem that Phil Jackson had when he had Michael Jordan. “You have Jordan. Duh.” Then Jackson went to the Lakers, and it was “You have Kobe and Shaq. Duh.” There is no answer for the superstar, nor is there consideration for the difficulty of properly utilizing the superstar. Like Messi, Jordan wanted to play all the time. Pickup games, practice games, street ball, Jordan always wanted to play, and win. He got angry when subbed just as Messi does. And just like Messi, he was capable of taking over a game on both ends of the pitch. Defend, make the steal, lead the break, feed the guard, dunk the ball. And like Messi, when Jordan wasn’t there, during his baseball foray, the Bulls didn’t win, which proves that he is essential, right? Well, maybe.

Of Messi, Enrique said, “Messi is the best in the world, probably in history, but his environment is extremely beneficial for him.”

It’s easy to pooh-pooh that as a coach sticking up for himself and his team, both of which are buttressed by the best player in history. But it’s a fair ask to wonder how many defenders Messi would be running at if the forwards were Pedro and Munir instead of Neymar and Suarez.

Pedro plays on the left wing, like Neymar, but that’s where the similarities end. Munir moves constantly and intelligently, just like Suarez. That is where the similarities end. Pedro and/or Munir aren’t going to kill you by themselves, like Neymar or Suarez will if given a sliver of space. Because defenses have to account for their presence, Messi gets space, more space than when he was playing in a more tactically limited system, with Pedro and Sanchez. Teams reacted differently to the Neymar/Sanchez combo, the preferred duo when Messi was out because there wasn’t one man to key on. Sanchez thrived as did Neymar, because defenses relaxed. There was more playing space, and the goals still came. With the return of Messi the middle got congested again as opponents set up to stop him and only him, again as with Jordan, where Chicago Bulls opponents said, “If John Paxson and Scottie Pippen can beat us, go right ahead.”

What is unlike Jordan is that Messi has never played on a mediocre team. He didn’t have to prop up any Granville Waiters, Luc Longleys or Bobby Hansens. Messi’s trophyless seasons were more attributable to underachievement by top players than low-quality teammates. Messi made his debut in a side with Ronaldinho, and was there when Guardiola’s Barca hit its imperious stride. Put Messi on, say, Levante and feel free to speculate about what might happen.

None of this means that Enrique’s comment or this post intends to diminish Messi. That is impossible. Nor is it the equivalent of “Well, let’s see him do it on a rainy winter night in Stoke.” That’s stupid, because a swan doesn’t have to wallow in the mud to prove that it is a swan. Beauty is its own standard. So is sporting excellence. And in a weird way, just as the effect of Messi is overrated by some, the effect of his presence is in a strange way, underrated. Put Messi on the pitch with his leg in a cast, and he will still occupy defenders. Because you never know. That’s what genius does. So Barça can win matches even when Messi isn’t fully present or off form, because he’s there. He is that anomaly that makes everything around him better, more glittery, like a human disco ball.

Chiellini has said that Messi wouldn’t score goals like his Copa goal vs Athletic in Serie A, which is an absurd statement by a player who should know better, not because of the potential for winding up, but because unless Serie A is being played by non-humans, the statement is invalid. Messi didn’t score that goal because of crap defending or poor keeping. Messi scored that goal because he became a living, breathing cheat code. He made Jerome Boateng fell over, THEN beat the best keeper in the world. There is a video of Messi owning great players. And while you can certainly quibble about the ultimate “great” qualities of some of the players in the video, you can’t argue with the fact that Messi is facing off against the best players in world football, and making them resemble pub league dilettantes.

As this Champions League final winds up and the match progresses all eyes will be on Messi, awaiting magic, that next moment that will suck the breath out of a stadium. But what makes Messi great is what he does in between those moments, the way he makes his teammates better — in the way, this season, he is doing everything better. Is it a consequence of Messi that we are seeing the best Messi ever, or is Enrique right in giving his surroundings some of the credit? Give Sandro a pass that Suarez controls easily, and what happens? Without Neymar making space or having the skill to play at the same hyper-speed as Messi, what happens?

But even beyond all that, this is a leaner, meaner, more complete Messi who, at 27 years of age, can still improve. He is more determined, more captain-like, more willing to do anything to help his team achieve the ultimate success. And after what seems an eternity ago, as the best player in the world stared at the ultimate prize in football, don’t you wonder if the genesis for this season, for This Messi, took shape right then and there.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts18 Comments

blitzen awards, the “I’m in Barcelona, suckas!” edition.

How do you like me now?

How do you like me now?

Tapas d’Oro: Italy has it’s “Golden Tapir”, which is awarded to celebrities who have failed spectacularly or done something humiliating. In 2012, after his season in charge of Roma, it was awarded to Luis Enrique as the “worst coach of the year”. Being Lucho, he accepted it with good humour and even displayed it on his mantelpiece at home. It’s probably safe to assume that he used it as a personal motivation to improve. So we think it’s only fair that after a season where his every move was scrutinized, nitpicked, and criticized, when #LuchoOut was trending on twitter, and when he was accused of “betraying” the style, the players and the fans, that Lucho be awarded the best and most delicious tapas that Barcelona has to offer, and which he can eat from his shiny new silver bowls.

The Golden Setpiece: This award, which is modeled after Mathieu’s head, goes to Juan Carlos Unzue. Lucho’s assistant coach and BFF has worked a minor miracle with what was previously the weakest part of Barça’s game: set pieces. A former goalkeeper himself, Unzue has brought his experience to the team and drills them relentlessly in all kinds of scenarios, both in defense and attack. Cules’ usual response when the team concedes a corner is to dive behind the sofa and cover their ears, but no more! Under Unzue’s guidance the team has conceded only 7 goals from set pieces all season–half as many as last year! And this considering our defense consists of a clown, a green kid, an old man, a misplaced midfielder and a couple of shrimps. Amazing!

Miss Congeniality Award: I wasn’t in favour of signing Luis Suarez, and I still have strong reservations about him, but he has shown a perfect attitude all season, and that has earned him my respect. He has obviously worked hard on controlling himself on the pitch and gets along well with the other players in the dressing room, and I am happy to say that I have no complaints in that regard. Well done, Luis!

Wash That Man Right Out Of Our Hair Award: He’s had the Board in a lather for years, but they still haven’t managed to scrub out that troublesome Dani Alves. This could be the year, though, as the Unique One’s contract ends on June 30th and so far there is no agreement between the two parties on a renewal. One the one hand, Dani says he hasn’t been shown proper respect for everything he has done for this team (and he is right, considering the club didn’t even pretend they wanted him to renew until after the FIFA ban was confirmed in January). On the other, the conveniently leaked details of the offer the club has made seem pretty decent (if true, of course). Dani himself says he won’t make a decision until after the CL final. Will he go out in a shower of glory, or settle back into the team for a good long soak?

They Also Save Who Only Stand And Wait Award: Jordi Masip, who has not had the season he was expecting to. After a very good season with the B team, he was promoted and slotted in as our backup to the excellent Ter Stegen. Instead, he found himself dropped to 3rd choice after Luis Enrique insisted on signing Claudio Bravo. It’s a shame, because he is a very good keeper in his own right, but based on their performances there was no way he was going to bench either Ter Stegen or Bravo. He accepted his position with good grace, and was rewarded by playing two games (one in the cup, one in the league IIRC). My hope is that he will move on this summer to a team where he can play regularly. He is too good to be a backup all his life.

That Old Black Magic Award: To Thomas Vermaelen, who unselfishly sacrificed almost his entire season to serve as the team’s very own injury-laden Picture of Dorian Gray, thereby keeping the rest of the players in a remarkable state of health and fitness. Seriously, I can’t remember a season when we had so few injuries. One might be inclined to credit Lucho’s training methods, his medical staff, or his (controversial) use of player rotation, but I think we all know who is truly responsible: Voodoo Vermaelen and his little bag of pins and needles.

The Silver Bootstrap For Most Improved Performance: Last season was not Pique’s best. In fact, it would be fair to say that we hadn’t seen the best version of him for several years. And after a few diffident on-pitch performances and some questionable off-pitch behaviour, it was starting to look like 2014-2015 would be more of the same. Lucho even benched Pique for three games running in an attempt to shock him into a reaction. Well, it worked. Whether it was because of being benched or whether Shakira gave him a talking-to at home, at some point Pique gave his head a shake and determined to get back to being one of the best defenders in the world. Since some time in November Pique has been the linchpin of the best defense in the league, and turned in one phenomenal performance after another. On the pitch he oozes calm and self-confidence, along with his usual buccaneering spirit and willingness to get forward. No coach in his right mind would bench him now. Poor Bartra can barely get a look-in. So a well-deserved award to Pique for taking himself in hand, and let’s hope he continues in this form for many years to come!

participactionThe ParticipAction Award For Good Attendance: Every Canadian of a certain age will be familiar with this little pin, which was handed out to schoolchildren as part of a government fitness program. Everyone got one for participating, even if their fitness level was so poor they couldn’t even qualify for the bronze level patch. It was basically the “You tried” of Canadian junior high school gym. So this one goes to Douglas, who was sidelined for almost the entire season for reasons as diverse as “adapting to the style”, “injury”, “bought for next season, not this one”, “injury again”, or possibly even just “not being Dani Alves”. To his credit, Douglas has not complained (not spoken to the press at all, in fact), has made friends in the dressing room (he’s that guy in the picture you always think “Who’s that?” when the Brazilian players are out & about), and although his few minutes on the pitch were not exactly stellar, there has been no hint from the coaches that he has any problems in training. I still think his signing was extremely fishy and he will more than likely be loaned out this summer, but he deserves recognition for being a good team player and not letting the jokes get him down.

(Blau) Elefant In The Room Award: I think by anyone’s standard that we can all agree this has been a successful season. The team is playing spectacularly, the dressing room is healthy, and at time of writing there are two trophies to show for it, with a third as a distinct possibility. Even if Barça don’t win the treble, this is still a season to celebrate. So why are some of us feeling a bit ambivalent about the team’s success? It’s because these trophies may come with an unfortunate consequence if they help Bartomeu and the current board get reelected. All the controversies, missteps and downright criminal acts by this board may be blown away like chaff before the glorious trumpet call of victory. Worse, this board will take the credit and use it as a platform to get the members onside. After all, they appointed Lucho, didn’t they? They bought Rakitic and Suarez and Ter Stegen. How can you vote against them when they have so obviously had the best interests of the club at heart all along? We will see what happens when the elections come in July, but if FIFA delegates can resoundingly reelect Sepp Blatter in the face of the enormous scandals and criminal charges hanging over that organization, I don’t have a lot of hope that the Barça socis will do otherwise.

The Oscar Hammerstein II Memorial Birds Gotta Fly Award For Showboating: Neymar has been getting a lot of flak from the press and from opposing players for “showing off” with unnecessary little tricks and flicks. Most recently he attempted a “sombrero” over the head kick near the end of the Copa del Rey final, which incensed his opponent and led to an argument involving players from both teams. The claim is that tricks like this are offensive and disrespectful to the opponent, with the implication that the player considers himself “too good” and wants to humiliate the other. While there is certainly a level of arrogance or vanity in attempting these tricks, I think the amount of anger directed towards Neymar is out of proportion and based mostly on his personality. When Ronaldinho does things like this everyone praises the joy he takes in the game. If Neymar was messing about like this when the team was in need of a goal or someone was waiting for a vital pass, I would be first in line with a pitchfork. But trying a flick for the fun of it at the end of a game we have dominated from start to finish? Fill your boots, kid. You deserve it.

Elvis Has Left The Building Award: With 24 trophies to his name, and possibly even one more to come, Xavi is now the most decorated Spanish player of all time. After 17 years with the first team, Xavi played his last game at the Camp Nou, coming on for the second half of the CDR final. Many writers and journalists with more talent than myself have discussed his immense career and the impact he has had on the modern game, not just in Spain but around the world. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that Xavi is the most important and influential Spanish player of all time. More than that, I would like to express my personal gratitude–I started following Barcelona because of Xavi. He’s the one who taught me that football can be a lot more than just some players running around after a ball. Every moment watching YouTube highlights set to awful emo music, every patchy stream that cuts out right before a goal, every sketchy download that might just be carrying a nasty virus–that’s all ultimately been because of Xavi, and it’s all been worth it. Thank you, Maestro, for all the beautiful football. I’m so happy you are leaving on a high note. I hope they appreciate you where you are going.

Gracies, Maki!

Gracies, Maki!

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, La Liga, Messi21 Comments

Knowledge is power, aka “The secret of my success”

Anyone looking to understand the success of this FC Barcelona season really only need pay attention to about two minutes of the Copa final to understand, even in a match filled with such moments.

At 0-1 down, Athletic began to play with more urgency. They pressed, they got the ball into the Barça end. But just when the announcer said Athletic was getting into it Barça pressed back, bullying Athletic back into their end. They then pressed the ball free, played a series of exquisite one touches and it was 0-2.

Barça plays football that seems almost telepathic. Other teams train as hard, work on possession and all of the same stuff that Barça does in its trainings. Other teams work on fitness, do all of the same things. There is talk of triangles, but every team in top-flight club football will manifest triangles at some point. So what is it about the automatic behaviors, the knowledge of self and teammates that makes these things, when applied by Barça, unstoppable? Knowledge is power, naturally. But in the right hands, knowledge is unstoppable. Yet part of knowledge is belief.

When Barça went out in the Champions League semis to Chelsea in part thanks to appalling finishing, I noted in my match review that Chelsea was defending so well and so physically, they made panic set in. Calm players became rushed because a challenge was always expected. Time was pressing.

Strong teams put a timer on you that is as much psychological as real. When Messi scored a goal like he did, Athletic worried about when it would happen again. You are facing a team that is fitter, runs more, moves better, is more technically skilled and completely unselfish. It’s also a team whose default setting is to keep the ball. You forget that the goal was a bolt out of blue. The guy who is struck by lightning, instead of thinking “TWICE in a lifetime? Sheeeit,” heads for home when the skies cloud over. It’s suddenly all that he can think about.

Athletic is stressed, Barça is calm, considered and understanding of the necessity of possession. Neymar takes a pass, feints, surveys and seeing nothing, passes back to Busquets for the reset. And it starts again. The sequence I refer to at the beginning of this post is an extraordinary thing, that bears an in-depth dissection.

34:27: Mikel Rico worked the ball loose from Alves. They made some passes, applied a bit of pressure.

34:44 A brilliant bit of influence play from Busquets forces Athletic to pass back into their end. When that happens the Barça back four is sprinting forward as is the entire team. They already know. The ball is where they want it now, in the opponent half.

running

More crucially, Athletic players are walking or trotting while Barça players are running. And it isn’t even halftime.

The Athletic keeper punts it long. Alves controls and at 34:52, not even 30 seconds after Athletic had life, Barça was back on the attack.

35:55 The ball is in the back of the Athletic net.

One of the keys to that goal happened about 40 seconds before the goal was scored. Jordi Alba was on the sideline, being charged by a pair of Athletic defenders. Neymar runs in to provide an option and as quickly as he gets the pass taps it to Iniesta, who is already off and running into a gaping hole on the Athletic wing. Panic.

“Always options,” said the matchcaster, which is exactly the point. Then as now, it is crucial to always have a safe haven for the ball. Pam! Pam! Pam! A trio of Alves, Rakitic and Messi ping-ponged the ball into the box. When Rakitic played the pass to Suarez, you can see Messi looking at the linesman in case there is an offside flag. He knows. Rakitic, when the pass is slid to Neymar, is already celebrating. He knows.

Pity the Athletic keeper. Messi, Suarez, Rakitic and Neymar are running at you, and your defenders are mostly behind them.

goal

Craig Burley, the ESPN color commentator, said “In terms of football, in terms of soccer, in terms of quality, it doesn’t get much better than what we’ve been seeing.

“And that’s the thing about this Barcelona front three they’re full of big egos, they’re full of quality, they’re full of stars, but they’re unselfish. They’re team players, and that’s why it works.”

Suarez looked up and fed Neymar for the sure thing. Neymar made a remarkable run in and across the box, looking to pass all the time. For the second goal, Suarez could have taken the shot with a reasonable degree of confidence but the keeper was facing him, waiting. You never know. Slide the ball to Neymar, and you DO know. Rakitic also had the open net. He saw Neymar coming, and he knew. Everyone knows.

When Pep Guardiola assumed the reins at Barça he famously said “Run, you bastards, run!” It is not known what Enrique said, but a safe bet is that it was “Play as a TEAM, and we will win.” It’s a batch of the best players in the game, sacrificing for each other and the team. No idea how you beat that.

Every player has a tendency. A striker in the box can be played to shoot, because that’s what strikers do. With Barça, the other two superstars are bursting their lungs to get into position, to provide options and suddenly the defenders have no idea. Messi, Suarez, Neymar … um … Sacrifice is an extraordinary thing. The run, the extra pass. Everybody is, suddenly, Xavi.

At the opening of the second half, Messi is smiling and laughing. He knows. The confetti was ready, the families were on hand, the banners were ready. Yes, teams plan celebrations all the time, then have to put the things in storage for a time, possibly forever. Did Athletic have their celebration stuff all ready? Good question, but as they lined up to face a nasty footballing side at the peak of its powers, you have to wonder.

What’s worrying for opponents is that Busquets is 26. Messi is 27. Neymar is 23. Rakitic is 27. Suarez is 28. Pique is 28. There are more years of this, assuming none of the odd things happen that derail dynasties. In the past, if Messi took a knock, then what? Now, Pedro comes on, Neymar moves central and there’s also Suarez. Business as usual, without the absurd bits of genius from the greatest player in the game. That Messi goal was crazy, but it’s easy to forget about the chances created before and after that goal.

Always options, always on the move. Working. In the 52nd minute with a 0-2 lead, Inkesta and Busquets combine to steal the ball from an Athletic midfielder who swore he had more time. His head goes down to look the pass in. He looks up and Busquets is in the way. He dribbles and Iniesta reaches in with a boot to take the ball and start the other way. It’s a little thing that sows stress and confusion. What do you do when you have no time? More crucially, you have no time but your opponent seems to have all the time in the world.

Athletic have a set piece at 55 minutes. Rakitic takes the ball just outside the Barça box, and hoofing it never occurs to him. Instead he slides a perfectly weighted pass to Neymar, who rolls it to Busquets and keeps running because he knows that Busquets is going to flick the ball to him in stride. And the attack can resume, the relentless task of destruction.

What makes this team extraordinary, as Graham Hunter so correctly notes in his excellent Copa post-match, is that it is a team. It’s facile and lazy to reduce this season of success to Messi, even as Messi changes everything. As Hunter puts it:

“Yet the thing that deserves emphasis is that this Barcelona team does not and cannot win by Messi alone. He is the lead violinist; he is the soaring solo soprano voice, true. But the orchestra must also be in tune. They have been working hard. They have been sharing the concept of “we want it all, we want it all” until it becomes a mantra.

That was sufficient today. Barcelona’s mega talent mixed with 10 months of utter dedication. They had a target, it was the treble, and because they worked like Trojans, it’s now in sight.

It would be unseemly, unbecoming to assume victory in Berlin. Juventus is an excellent footballing side that has been working on nothing except ways to stop Barça, because it isn’t enough to stop Messi any longer. Because he is the best player alive who inspires sonnets of rapture, it’s easy to forget that Barça is absolutely loaded with talent. Just because they play with Messi all the time doesn’t mean they can’t play without him.

Athletic is a very good football team. Barça isn’t strolling matches because its opponents are in some way inferior. Popular is the act of futility that transplants Barça into the Premiership, to suggest that they wouldn’t have it as easy, that somehow the talent would be diminished because of location. And this argument is being made by coaches of teams who will be watching the Champions League final on TV. RM, City, PSG, Bayern, Atleti — these are championship teams that have all been dispatched in various ways by Barça this season.

For me, this has happened because a coach got an extraordinary group of players to forge itself into a unit — a complete unit with one thing at the forefront: winning. It doesn’t matter who scores the goal, who blocks the shot, who gets the assist as long as Barça gets the full points. A great team that also understands sacrifice will be pretty tough to beat.

Posted in Analysis, Copa del Rey, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts7 Comments

Athletic Club 1, Barça 3, aka “Paid in full”

messi

Paid in full.

You wonder if somewhere there isn’t a cosmic ledger marked “paid in full,” as the cosmos finally determined that a team, a club and the people who love it had suffered enough.

On a lustrous Saturday when confetti rained down at the Camp Nou as Barça celebrated taking another step toward repeating an unprecedented accomplishment again, or something like that, my mind turned to the past, the days that I contemplated this team and wrote about it through a veil of tears, those times when I wondered whether the unspeakable joys of the Treble and follow-up successes had a price in pain.

I thought of Puyol, and Valdes, and Abidal, and the Iniestas struggling with their loss. I thought of the biggest loss of all in the team’s devoted Mister, now and forever. I thought of trying to sustain a moment of silence and wondering if sobs were cheating, and Mascherano laid low with grief.

I thought of all that pain, and those professionals trying to work their way through it. I thought of a fan base riven by the standards and demands of the past, of distrust of something new, of hashtags and snarling rips at new signings, crises and entornos, and it’s now all summed up in three very simple words:

Paid in full.

In the here and now, there is only joy. That cosmic ledger is wiped clean. For me, the Champions League final doesn’t matter. Yes, I would be overjoyed if the team won it, but today’s match was so symbolic of what this team has had to endure and how it has come out of the other side of the fire, that for me there is only joy.

team

When Luis Suarez came to FC Barcelona, hard hearts including mine were vehemently, vociferously against the move. Whether irony or symmetry, a second chance has helped deliver something joyful to an emotionally battered club. The “Wheeee!” with which Neymar plays became the battle cry of a team that wasn’t interested in anything that anyone had to say about anything that it did. It didn’t care for bleating about possession stats, or candles lit at altars of The Way. It didn’t care that it scored all of its goals in a match off set pieces, it didn’t care that counterattack goals worked or individual brilliance, that beautiful thing turned into something ugly by misguided pundits, was necessary at times.

This team only cared about one thing: coming together in a way that would find it a powerful, nasty, at times brutish fist that was also capable of unspeakable beauty.

At the beginning of the match today, someone at the Chicago Penya asked me what I thought and I said “a 3-1 win.” And it was weird to think that, because being culer is to embrace uncertainty and a sense of impending doom. I programmed enough recording time for extra time and a penalty shootout onto my home DVR, because that’s culer. But then there was the confidence, the belief in a team that has truly done something extraordinary this season in rising like a phoenix from its own ashes.

It was an exquisite, controlled display from a team that at one time was considered incapable of either quality. It was a goal of jaw-dropping brilliance, a goal that every time I watch it I still find it unbelievable, a goal that is pointless to describe, because you can’t. It isn’t that you don’t have the words. There are always words. What our language lacks is the capability of capturing the emotion of seeing something unspeakably brilliant. It’s almost like light bulbs explode in your brain as you try to process it, that weird silence right before you scream in delight.

Maybe it’s that absence of sound, motion or anything, when the only thing filling your brain is flashes and exclamation points that is the best way to describe the feeling of that Messi goal, one that I believe is the best one that he has yet scored.

There is of course the legendary Getafe goal. But with that goal, he was Messi, a young talent with running space. He wasn’t the player that teams devised an entire system around stopping. The Athletic defenders did everything right. Everything. Men were where they were supposed to be, the keeper set up so that the only available shot was something impossible. None of it worked. Nobody scoffed at individual brilliance then, fittingly, nor should we ever. Individual brilliance is something to be cherished, marveled at and captured in any way that we can. It doesn’t happen often, and that Messi goal was the epitome of the beauty of individual brilliance.

That shot going in typified this season in many ways, as the impossible happened once again. A season that was considered lost in winter is soaring toward a blissful apogee in summer. It was even a season of wishes granted, as Xavi said that he wanted to lift a trophy with Iniesta again. It’s everything all at once, beautifully.

xavi

Athletic Bilbao played an excellent football match today, about the best that they could offer. But Barça, at this point in time, is a collection of many players who are the best in the world at their position, playing at the peak of their powers, buttressed by peak fitness and tactics that suit their strengths. They are playing with verve and confidence, solid at the back and irrepressible at the front.

This team is also nasty, like its coach was as a player, a group that is not interested in taking prisoners even as it is pragmatic, working only hard enough to ensure that the job is done, because energy must be conserved for the next task. Give a Barça player a hard foul and you can expect to get cleared out at some point, by someone. Because that, too, is this Barça.

This team drives opponents to distraction. Arda Turan threw his boot in rage. Today, after Neymar tried a sombrero to get out of a tight sideline pickle, the Athletic players detonated and a row was on. From that point on any chance they had of finding some miracle to get a scrambled goal or two and a glimpse of hope was gone. Neymar wound up yet another opponent who ended up focused on the wrong thing as time and the match dwindled.

Enrique said that if he was an Athletic player, he would have had the same reaction, a statement that many viewed as being critical of Neymar’s move. But from this chair it was a professional’s admission that no professional likes to be owned like that. It makes them angry. Duh. But the ensuing row also meant that Barça had won the psychological war as well as the physical and ball skills one. It was a complete victory over a proud opponent, a 3-1 win that seemed a much larger margin, so complete was the control of this Copa del Rey final.

So many writers speak of this Enrique team being so very different from the Guardiola teams, but for me, even as points of comparison are invalid because both teams played Barça football with their own tactical variations, the teams are more alike than anyone will care to admit, because that sort of thing isn’t fashionable. But both teams controlled matches and opponents, both teams scored goals in a variety of ways, both teams had a dynamite front three that used its skills to destroy.

This isn’t saying that Enrique is as good a coach as Guardiola, or any of the stuff that will have villagers scurrying around with their pitchforks and torches, something that has been all the rage in this divisive, too-often nasty season. It is instead an observation that the past Treble-winning side and this potential Treble-winning side share similarities both physical and psychological.

Football is about highs and lows, about fan bases that believe they are owed some joy, that winning is something that is due after a certain period. But that isn’t true. Fate doesn’t care about any team or player. It only seems that way. A team can lose and keep on losing, just as a team can win and keep on winning.

But when the kind of heartache that has buffeted this club takes up what seemed at the time to be permanent residence, the kind of joy and beauty represented by unstoppable goals and victory celebrations is something that is to be cherished. These are great players, doing great things. And it is wonderful, for a change, to have our tears be those of joy.

confetti

Posted in Analysis, Copa del Rey, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts18 Comments

Deulofeu isn’t making it. Whose fault?

Gerard Deulofeu. It’s difficult to think of a more talented player to come out of La Masia in recent years, but there is also a problem, outlined here in the very good Sid Lowe column about Unai Emery. It’s worth exploring his complexities a bit in a quote from Emery about Deulofeu:

“He has incredible qualities but lacks others. Put him out there, one on one and … pfff,” Emery says, blowing out his cheeks in admiration. “But make him play football with team-mates, on a big pitch, and it’s hard. He doesn’t have the maturity or capacity for sacrifice yet. I told him: ‘There are players here who aspire to a contract like yours, men with less talent but more hunger. Iborra, Carriço, Vitolo. They know what it costs. You haven’t experienced that. When you do, you’ll grow. I hope you get that. If not here, somewhere else.’”

This isn’t the first time that Emery had some words for Deulofeu directly. Earlier in the season when left out of a match squad, Deulofeu Tweeted “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” In response, Emery posted, “You can have the wood of a champion, but you have to shape that wood with effort, work and humility.”

When Luis Enrique took the decision to send Deulofeu off on loan (again) it was one that didn’t sit will with many culers, and it still doesn’t. The question of course, is whose responsibility is the shaping of a footballer, and what is the obligation of a first team as it pertains to a young talent?

A player is born in La Masia, where he develops the habits that are expected to take him through becoming a full-fledged professional. Those wondering about those habits, you can see them in players such as Iniesta, Messi, Xavi and Pedro. It’s work, it’s being a professional with all that the word entails.

Deulofeu is a more complex case. When he was sent on loan to Everton it was with an eye toward developing him under a coach known for getting the best out of young players. After a year in which he suffered an injury, he still hadn’t cracked the Everton XI though he was viewed as an impact sub, and returned to Barca when many felt that another year at Everton would have been better for him.

He did some of the pre-season with the first team, then the rumor popped up that he would be leaving on loan for unspecified reasons. When a player goes on loan, the motivations are many: the team wants to get the player consistent playing time, which isn’t going to happen if he stays; it’s a shop window for interested clubs; the player isn’t going to make it at his home club and it’s a chance to get him out of the pressure cooker.

In the case of Deulofeu he went to Sevilla, got playing time then suddenly stopped being included in match squads. Aside from unspecified buzz about attitude problems, nobody really knew what happened. The Emery Tweet was really the first word from the coach on what the situation might be. His comments in the Lowe piece made things even clearer. Deulofeu is not doing what he needs to do to succeed.

There are many reactions to that. Some believe that Deulofeu is a young player, with talent that requires special treatment and nurturing. That is the job of the club and its first team. He should have been kept at Barcelona this season so that he could learn from real professionals, betters who he understands the necessity of deference.

Another view is that as a professional footballer, his career is on him. He knows what he has to do because two different coaches have told him, and it’s up to him to do it. I’m somewhere in the middle of the two camps. I also wonder if Deulofeu had stayed, where and how often was he going to play? Could he have been another attacker for Enrique, or were his liabilities on the other parts of the pitch too significant?

Let’s not forget that Deulofeu came up in a broken home so to speak, under the aegis of Eusebio. That team was a mess, even as it was a successful mess until the doors came off and Eusebio was sacked. Deulofeu, because he was an immense talent, could do what he wanted. Like an adorable puppy who becomes a big dog that poops in the house, he didn’t learn things such as judgment, working within a team’s system (did B really have one?) and acquiring skill sets such as tracking back and doing the necessary donkey work, things that endear a talented player to a coach.

Then he went to Everton where he was showing signs of progress, then got injured, etc. When he returned to Barça, Enrique pretty much said “Holy crap!” and shipped him off to Sevilla, where Emery said “Wheeee,” and then “Holy crap!” And that’s where he is now.

Two different coaches have said to him, “This is what you need to do.” So at what point does a player have the responsibility for making his own way? We see it all the time when supporters are talking about a player who they feel is getting screwed, and deserves playing time. But playing time is earned by making it impossible for your coach to NOT play you. Pedro isn’t at Barça because he’s nice to puppies. He’s there because he does exactly what a coach tells him to, to the maximum effort. Neymar is tracking back like a demon these days, and covered the most distance for Barça in the Champions League tie with Bayern Munich. And don’t forget that he came to Barça as a YouTube show pony. He learned quickly, because he had to. To be sure, being on a team with examples such as Puyol, Mascherano, Xavi and Iniesta helped, and there was also Messi to show him how it was done.

True, Neymar wasn’t some Masia graduate struggling to find a place on the squad. But he was going to be a star without doing what he did. He understood from the examples set by veterans. Neymar came to Barça when he was 21, same age as Deulofeu is now. Is there anything to be learned from comparing the two players, or is Bojan Krkic, a Masia graduate who was promoted when he shouldn’t have been, a more correct analog? It’s easy to forget the “Boy of a Thousand Goals,” who is now the man of a few goals at Stoke, recovering from a serious injury. When Krkic forced his promotion, a lot had to happen for him to make it at Barça. It didn’t, and he went on perpetual loan, where coaches said some of the same things they are saying about Deulofeu, to eventually land in Stoke.

Deulofeu’s talent is without question. He has pace, a wicked shot and when inclined, is able to pick out the right pass. But he also doesn’t track back much, can be selfish and his decision making is suspect. Is this a nature vs nurture question? Had Deulofeu come up in a better B system under a coach such as Enrique or Guardiola, would he have become a better professional? As we all know, players react to praise differently. Some say, “Yeah, whatever … don’t believe you,” and resume working their butts off. Others begin to think, “Hey, everybody says this, so … “ And an entitled youth player is born.

The other complexity for the Deulofeu situation is that at the first team there is no time for young players. The team has to win or the world ends. People point to the recent examples of Pedro and Busquets, but both were players who were very close to being ready to play in a high-flying, hard charging team. Enrique came in having to deal with the pressure of needing to win. Pressure from the board, from the team, from himself, the supporters and the entorno. The calm, nurturing environment necessary to bring a young player along didn’t exist and was never going to this season, to the fault of no one.

Given that situation, however, sending Deulofeu on loan was, for me, the correct decision. He wasn’t going to get the playing time that he needed to develop, so Sevilla was worth a shot as Emery is excellent at getting a lot from young players. He got his shot, and didn’t take it. Emery has all but said that Deulofeu will not be back with Sevilla next season. Is there fault? At this point, you have to say that, mitigating circumstances aside, it’s on the player. Deulofeu knew what he had to do, and didn’t do it.

What’s next? He’s 21 and talented as hell. He will get another shot at Barça, but it will probably be his last shot. We never heard it said explicityly, though Enrique intimated that Deulofeu was lacking key qualities. Emery made that very clear. From this point on, the rest is up to Deulofeu.

Posted in Analysis, Thoughts73 Comments

Dani Alves and the duration of an athlete’s time at a club

Let’s begin at the beginning:

If Dani Alves had come from La Masia, his renewal would already be finished. Whether this is a good thing is another question. But because he isn’t, his case is really an excellent one as it lets us sit back and reasonably think about progression, and precisely when it is time for a club to allow an athlete to move on, or when an athlete should decide to move on. The reasons aren’t always sporting.

We forget that athletes are human until they evince human qualities. Dani Alves is one of the favorite whipping boys in the Barça XI. Cules talk crap about his defending, his crossing, his clothes, and have for some time. It is only now, when they think that the club only has crappier alternatives that Alves must be renewed at all costs.

The loyalty question is interesting. Dani Alves isn’t definitely leaving. When asked if he had ruled out staying at Barça, his answer was “Right now, yes.” He also said that the club knows what it has to do, and that its offer is way behind that of others that he has received. And the telling quote, for many: “I am with the team 200 percent. The club, about 10 percent.”

That quote draws a very clear distinction between the club and team, that the two are not the same. Further, if Alves feels that way, you can probably surmise that more than a few players who would never say such a thing at a presser are also feeling the same way. This obviously has the effect of damaging the board a bit before the elections in the eyes of some, but it’s a safe bet that the conservative socis aren’t that fond of Alves and his antics anyhow.

“I am a Barça player until June 7.”

In the wake of the Alves press conference, the words most often heard are “Douglas” and “Montoya.” Culers firmly believe that these are the only two RB option the team has to consider and for that reason, Alves is priceless. “At any cost” is another phrase being tossed about, one that we should look at a bit.

Alves wants big money, and a guaranteed 3-year contract. Barça would be stupid to give him that. If that means that he leaves, then so be it. The succession planning for that position has been poor for years, because clubs tend to believe that because a player likes winning and playing with a great team, that he can be left hanging until they are ready. Alves has surprised them, but I am not sure why. An athlete, like anyone else, wants security. Xavi isn’t going to Qatar for humanitarian reasons. Dude is going to get paid. Alves wants to know that when he hangs up the boots in a few years, he will be set. There is no shame in that game, and anyone who begrudges him that avarice is misguided.

Football usually isn’t about loyalty. It’s about money. The board has calculated, for the moment, that it would be too expensive to keep Alves at the terms the player wants. Alves has decided that it would be too cheap for him to stay at the terms the board wants. At with any negotiation, the ultimate value of something is what each side determines the worth is.

From my seat, the Alves presser is kinda bullshit, because it was supposed to be about his future and the decision. Instead it is a bold-faced (albeit entertaining) negotiation ploy. It isn’t a distraction, because the team knows what it has to do. But if Alves hasn’t decided, he shouldn’t have had the presser. Sit tight, let your team work, and make a decision. There’s plenty of time for pressers after the two finals the team still has to play.

This was a negotiation ploy that a daring player pulled off, and hats off to him for it. We bought it. During that presser, he said that he is happy to be working with Douglas and Montoya, but Enrique chooses him because he works harder. Again, it’s a negotiation ploy. He knows the qualities of those players, and he knows what a fanbase thinks about those players. No shame in using that perception to light a fire under the club. “If they don’t renew me, you will have Montoya and Douglas,” is what he has said in effect.

Alves said that he was having the presser because a lot of nonsense was being said in the media. But there are easier ways to manage that. The only thing being said about Alves is that he was leaving the club, with PSG the most likely destination. So you find a favored journalist, and give him the quote that such a thing is rubbish. Done. Instead he holds a presser that rather blatantly capitalizes on the negative perception of the board in many eyes, say that he doesn’t feel valued.

“They said I only think about money, but it’s not like that.”

Okay. But then don’t mention that Barça’s offer trails the others, discuss the intangible things that you feel should be part of that offer. The simple fact of the matter is that Alves is on the fence because the club isn’t offering him enough money or a long enough guaranteed contract to stay.

“I am not thinking about money, but about what I do being valued after everything I have done, everything I have achieved for this club.”

Let’s return to that Masia question. The only reason culers are wanting Alves to stay is because a better alternative isn’t clear. If Montoya had panned out, folks would be helping Alves pack his bags. When Alves wasn’t playing all that well, people were ready to pack them for him anyhow. He is a cause celebre at present mostly because he has raised his game at contract time, as many athletes do. Can he sustain that game? Interesting question. Play for pay is an interesting idea. Teams hate guarantees because why should a player keep working hard to prove anything? Players love guarantees because security is good.

Victor Valdes left the club, it seems, for many of the same reasons that Alves is thinking about leaving, that much-heard “respect.” For Valdes, it wasn’t about money. He got paid, but left the club for some reason only he knows. What is the Alves motivation? If it’s respect and damage done, this presser is, like the Valdes one, cut and dry. “See ya later.” Is it for Alves, and how different would the perception of the player have been from supporters and the club over time, if he was a Masia product instead of a paid transfer from Sevilla, and again, would his renewal have been done if he was a Masia product?

Keep Alves at any cost? What would the cost have been to keep Xavi, and would it have been worth it? Xavi has a guaranteed, 3-year deal for a metric shit ton of money, when he has maybe another season of top-flight football in his legs. It’s worth asking how culers would have felt had Xavi stayed for big money on the same deal as Qatar, playing in spots and essentially hanging out with the team his last two seasons. Xavi didn’t want to do that because of how he feels about Barça, but also how he feels about himself.

“I do not have the feeling that the club values what I have done for this club.”

Again, there is that distinction, and the message is clear: I have been dissed by this board, a group that is on the hot seat for many socis. Alves also mentions that he has been contacted by a presidential aspirant, but that his mind will be made up long before the election. So why mention it, except to stoke the flames that are already engulfing a hot seat? Alves says that the question isn’t contract duration, then what is it? Is it as simple as Bartomeu having him over a dinner? Does he want a mini statue?

“I still want to stay here, but not at any price. And I’m not talking about money but about respect.”

Alves is brilliant in how he worked the situation, but he’s also a little desperate. If he had the offer from another club that he wanted, he wouldn’t have had the presser. He would have taken the offer, told his teammates and had his presser after the season. Valdes didn’t have a presser saying “Well, I’ve been dissed, etc, etc.” His presser said “I’m leaving, and that’s that.”

Alves would like to stay, but should he stay, purely from a sporting perspective. What’s the cost? Recall the last year at the club of Thierry Henry and how that sat with culers. Alves would be making one hell of a lot more than Henry, but his shelf life as the kind of RB that he is, is limited. We already saw cracks in the armor, until a tactical shift allowed him to return to being a very effective player. Would the praise for Alves’ play be as high if he had faced Ribery? Good question.

“[The club] just started talking to me about this 3-4 months ago, because according to them I’m playing better.”

Well, that’s true. Why should a business entity give an employee not meeting standards a raise? This isn’t all about the board, though a club’s supporters often side with a player, particularly in the case of a board that for so many is on bad paper? Players want more money, but if a club tries to take money back when his performance lags, that would never happen, nor should it. Everyone seeks the best deal that they can.

From my seat, keeping Alves has to be weighed against the cost potential. If not having Alves as RB would cost the team a chance at ultimate success, then it’s worth it to renew him. If not, he can leave. It’s that simple, really. All of the other talk about respect, etc, is just clouding the waters. What is the real cost of Alves staying or going, and can the club bear the brunt of it?

This isn’t about the board, even as my views on that entity are well known. It’s about an employer making the best decision about an employee, and that employee seeking the best possible deal for himself. All the rest is blather. Today’s presser was well played by Alves. It basically said, “I want to stay, but it’s up to the board.” Yes, that same board that is facing perception problems, difficulties that would be washed away in a blizzard of confetti were the team to win the Treble. So Alves knows it’s now or never, and he took his shot.

“Loyalty” and “respect’ are often bandied about in conversations about players and teams. What isn’t often discussed is when it is really time for a player to move on. A club’s ideal is to sell a player a season before his performance drops, for the maximum fee. That rarely happens. A club nightmare is for a player with value to leave on a free, because they don’t get paid. A player with minimal value but a big contract would love to leave on a free, because any transfer fees can instead go into the salary kitty. And in the end it all comes down to money.

What Dani Alves does as a player and bon vivant is brilliant. If he isn’t at the team next season, it would be a loss. But his situation makes us face a very complex question about what a player has left in his tank. In other words, is the real Alves the last few months, or the time before that? Sport is “what have you done for me lately?” Contracts are “What can you do for me?” A veteran player, especially one of Alves’ age and type, sits at the complex nexus between those two realities.

Xavi was excellent as a bit player, but not a full-time starter. He had reached that point. Alves isn’t at that point yet, but how close is he and how much money is it worth to find out? That is the question at issue here. All the rest is blather and entertainment.

Posted in Analysis, Transfers/Transfer Rumors36 Comments

Barça 2, Depor 2, aka “What have we learned?”

xavi

It has been about Xavi all along. This whole season, the twists and turns, everything we have learned and experienced, from Enrique convincing him to stay to his coming to terms with his new role and executing it flawlessly has been about the Maestro teaching all of us, from the newest culer to the most wizened denizen of the entorno, something wonderful.

Patience.

So many things make so much sense when we try to reason them out.

At the beginning of this season, my reasons that Barça wasn’t going to win any silver this season, but would be ready to rock and roll next season made perfect sense. New coach, new system, new things to learn, a big batch of new players to integrate into an unforgiving system as well as having a key part of that system essentially unavailable for the first half of the season. It just didn’t make sense to believe that team would win silver.

Couple that with major rivals who had improved in the summer, who were loaded and ready for bear and there was just no rational way to believe that the team, as it sat before the start of the season, was going to win stuff.

Lesson learned.

That team, the one that a great many supporters believed was not up to it, poorly run and had lost its way, took part in a glorious celebration of the Liga championship today, at home, on a day that made everyone happy. Xavi got to ride off into the figurative sunset having hoisted the trophy. Depor never stopped fighting, and earned the draw that allowed them to avoid the drop, fans got a party. It was a day on which everybody won, even tissue manufacturers as culers needed piles of them to soak up the tears.

In a sport where change is necessary and turnover almost guaranteed, it boggles the mind to think of a player battling for the same club for his entire career, essentially. Yes, Xavi is headed for Qatar to perform his duties there, but it isn’t the same. It isn’t putting on the Blaugrana and striding into battle, or clashing for his national team. And there was Xavi, more than 700 matches and more than a decade in the colors, shedding tears as he waved goodbye (for now).

To cap the lessons of the day and season, how fitting was it that a player who was struggling in the face of more fashionable midfielders back in the day, overcame all of that to become the reference. It was the value of patience, of not rushing to judgment, of keeping the view on the long picture. The game came to Xavi, and Xavi owned it.

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Patience is something that was in very short supply this season, one that has turned out pretty wonderful by any standard. And it isn’t a news flash to state that this was an exceptionally difficult season to be a supporter of FC Barcelona. It was nasty, divisive and angry, savage and impatient as a group chafed when something magical somehow came to be considered some sort of birthright.

The team wasn’t playing right, nor with the right players. Formations were wrong, what it was doing was wrong, the results were a sham, an empty triumph as they weren’t achieved in the right way. A fanbase spent the season at each others throats in an odd sort of Crusades.

The Guardiola Treble season was this thing that rushed past before anyone really had the chance to figure out what was happening. The team kept winning, kept doing wonderful things on a football pitch and suddenly, soci cards with 6 cups on it were being mailed out. “Huh? What?”

This season, when the team has the chance to make history again by performing a feat that few teams have ever achieved, never mind achieving twice, we’ve all been too busy fighting each other to fully enjoy it. And it’s a shame. Winning is the most wonderful thing that an athlete can do, and the most wonderful thing that a group of supporters can have the opportunity to witness. And at the risk of being branded a fool who only cares about results, winning is wonderful however it happens.

That is so easy to forget as a once-in-a-lifetime group of players led by a wee Argentine genius makes us forget just how hard winning is. Last year, even with a temp coach, a pile of injuries and enough psychological trauma to have any normal human sitting in a corner blubbering, this amazing team came with 5 goals of being in for a shout at a treble. Again. Five goals.

The coach who got them so close is all but forgotten. He came up short, had stupid BBQs when he should have been running the players hard, etc, his achievements washed away in a blizzard of misunderstanding. With so much talk about how the board is wasting the careers and time of great players by not giving the team all of the tools that it needs to succeed, it sometimes feels like we, as supporters, are wasting time fighting and staking out space.

“If you want to win like that, go ahead … ”

I want to win, and I don’t give two shits how. It’s hard to explain how happy winning the Liga made me. It’s silly when you consider how the exploits of a group of athletes brings so much joy and despair in equal measures, but that’s sport. It was a triumph that came in the face of a world being against the team that I love. Not just rivals, but many of its own supporters.

No, this isn’t telling anyone how to support a club, or calling anyone out for being insufficiently culer, or any of the other stuff that warring factions have hurled at each other this season of staring into a nonexistent abyss. It’s more an observation, and a plea that has roots in a personal observation.

My wife and I don’t fight. It isn’t that we don’t have conflict, or don’t believe in fighting. We just don’t believe in wasting even a second of time doing anything other than loving each other as much as we can, of recognizing that the time you waste is gone forever. We have always been that way, even when younger. We don’t, as humans, have time to waste. The ticking of seconds brings all of us inevitably closer to the end of our lives.

That realization tends to make me seem rather silly to some folks, as I leap up from my office chair in the mid-afternoon and shout, “Shake break!” It’s an occasional ritual where I go to get a chocolate milkshake. Why? Because it makes me happy. I rearrange my days so that I can ride the train home with my wife. Why? Because it makes me happy. Life should be filled with as much joy as it can possibly be, and sport is part of that joy.

enrique

Hell, in many ways a goal that is scrabbled out in the 93rd minute from a broken play against a parked opponent brings even more joy than a 7-0 destruction. That sense of having overcome adversity is magical, and unifying. You hug a complete stranger and dance around the room for no other reason other than your joy needs to have a bulwark of humanity to splash against. It’s more fun watching matches with the Chicago Penya because of that, because of the shared experience of loving Barça.

At the end of a Liga season during which so, so much has been found wanting, I learned a lot, and not just how happy being wrong can make me. Most of what I learned was patience. New signings arrived, and were deemed inadequate before they had even had the Camp Nou presentation. Rakitic wasn’t Kroos. Bravo wasn’t Keylor Navas. Mathieu was a year too late and overpriced, as we could have gotten him for less last season. Rafinha isn’t Thiago, and why did they have to sell him. Vermaelen is a waste of money, Douglas a corrupt payoff to Traffic. Ter Stegen might be fine later, but he’s young and error-prone, just you wait. Suarez was the only signing that anyone liked.

Patience lets things unfold, patience waits before making a judgment. What if Xavi had thrown up his hands, and skulked away from Barça in failure? What of the joys we would have missed? The career of Xavi is one long, glorious paean to patience, and not just in persevering at the club that he loved. The way he plays is patient, from the constant looks around even when he doesn’t have the ball so that when he does have it, he can extend time and be patient, because he already knows how the world is around him. It’s the first touch that caresses the ball with absolute certainty, extending time because of all the things he has to worry about, knowing where the ball is isn’t one of them.

Patience, always patience. Pep Guardiola didn’t receive much notice or belief when he said that Enrique would do great, would do better than he did, even. And why should he, really? People who don’t know, know better and I was one of those people. You wonder if Guardiola looked at what the team had and what it acquired, understood how Rakitic was going to develop, what Bravo had, the look in Messi’s eye and what Enrique did at Celta, and knew in that way that people with vision understand. Was the wonder of this season’s Messi forged in that painful, longing look he gave the World Cup trophy? Dunno.

Guardiola was patient as the Barça coach, as he is now as the Bayern coach. It takes time to build a system, to create the automatic acts being performed by the right people. Many believe the 2011 Barça squad was better than the Treble-winning side because that team was the epitome of this, an organism functioning at its highest level. Treble Barça was a lightning strike, but that double-winning Barça was a rollercoaster ride of constant beauty as momentum swept a delirious fanbase along.

But it took time to build that juggernaut. And patience.

In two weeks’ time this season will, for better or worse, be over. And I can honestly say that I have enjoyed every second of it, every goal, every win. It has been a season not stalked by tragedy and heartache. But more than all of that, I have learned a lot from people who are smarter that me, people who are even more patient than me, not only because that’s what we’re supposed to do. We are supposed to cling to joy even as we understand that joy, by its very nature, is fleeting.

But if there was one thing I could change about this season that has been joyful almost from the first clean sheet to the title celebration today, it would be the anger, the joyless quality that permeated so much of this year. The team triumphed because at some point in time the players realized that the entire team, from coaching staff and equipment manager to players, were all in it together. They might agree or disagree, but if the boat was going to reach its destination, everybody was going to have to pull on the same oars, just as hard. Xavi helped forge that bond, even as your mind says “Of COURSE he did.”

Xavi is leaving because he feels that it is the right time, and not athletically. He has been, in every way, Capita this season, in preparing the team for his absence. They are together. That unity has been the most exquisite thing about this club, even when it leads to things that make us scream, like players foregoing shots to pass to a teammate. I don’t know if this team will win the treble this season. But I know that great players united can’t be defeated. They might lose a match, but they will never be defeated. You get the feeling Thomas Vermaelen is going to get a lot of hugs and SMS messages after his almost heartbreaking quote, “I won the Liga title but I don’t feel like it’s mine. These players aren’t just the best in the world but excellent people.”

And as culers, we should strive to reach the same heights as the players we so enjoy, and in many cases, revere. Because that makes the beautiful game even more so, and who doesn’t love beauty.

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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts15 Comments

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