Posted on December 2014.
Andres Iniesta has made me cry.
I’m probably not alone in that admission and the reasons vary, in the ways that pieces of art come along to remind us of our most noble capabilities as well as our abject frailty.
He is a beautiful man with a good heart, a player who looks exactly as he must — slight, pale, almost subliminal — to be what he is. At his best he doesn’t seem fettered by temporal constraints, preferring the aesthetic of a hummingbird. He seems timeless, an avatar of beauty and a reminder that at its absolute apogee, athletics is art.
The heartbreaking thing of course is that like Barça, even as we want to freeze That Iniesta as a cherished amber reminder of beauty indescribable, time passes. Athletes age. The man who moved like a ghost with a football glued to his feet is now, like many parts of the team that he so symbolizes, on the wrong side of an unrelenting standard.
Sport craves nostalgia. It wants us to go back in time, when our heroes were fit and flying, when the outcome of a match is never in doubt. The tenuousness of now is dangerous, which in part explains the fondness of sport for history, rankings, reverse time travel. Its supporters need that, for if Iniesta is old, if Xavi is lesser, if Puyol is retired, then what about us? Sport, and the veteran players its devotees cherish, resists time because it must, as we must.
So perhaps it’s time to wonder about the larger changes, the nasty necessity of keeping a team powerful, and ask, in a symbolic way, “What of Iniesta?”
Ruthless or heartless?
Bill Belichik, head coach of the American football New England Patriots, must have a heart of stone. It doesn’t matter what you have done for the team, or how beloved you are. If he decides you are done, that’s it. They had a beloved wide receiver, Wes Welker, who did it for that team, time and again. Tough catches, big plays, key touchdowns, concussions. When Belichik was done with him, that was it. Welker was discarded without a look back.
World football, in particular European club football, is fascinating in that it defies athletic logic. It reveres its elders, wants to keep them. Respect. In American football, athletes who retire from a club are rare. They usually, battered and broken, decide after trying to hang on to one team too many, that’s it.
Bill Belichik (and probably Jose Mourinho) would have found new homes for Xavi and Iniesta years ago, their lingering quality notwithstanding, because a team has to move on. The Thiago departure is often laid at the feet of Cesc Fabregas, rather than the icons who forced Fabregas to play roles outside his comfort zone, the almost single-named Xaviniesta. Like a passing hydra, pam, pam, pam, they tapped teams into submission.
But in the here and now, as culers scream about Krooses and Iscos lost, it’s worth asking the cost of those opportunities, and how comfortable would everyone have been with selling Iniesta two years ago, during the difficult contract negotiations. We recall the rancor, the rage at the club as it made one of its jewels dangle, the unfathomability of doing anything except renewing Iniesta.
And yet, what if the club had decided that age and salary coupled with a potential transfer fee forced the decision to sell, to go for an Isco or a Reus, a fit Gundogan of a fuller commitment to Thiago Alcantara. What if Xavi was surreptitiously shopped around? In asking a team to progress and remain powerful, these are questions that the people who run it have to deal with. Supporters don’t really matter, except as potentially disgruntled voices in the wilderness.
New England Patriot supporters understand how Belichik is. They understand that no matter how much they like a player, they will come and go. Imagine what might have happened in Barça land two seasons ago, had the club announced the transfers in of Isco, a new role for Thiago and Fabregas and the sales of Xavi and Iniesta. Might we have been nodding sagely at the now-present signs that Iniesta is past it?
Catching up to the uncatchable
In the now of a world made stark and bitter with doubt, the impossible has become the accessible. No need to kick Iniesta any longer as he wrestles with what most assert to be form complexities. “He always starts slow.” Meanwhile, the “What if it isn’t form,” is this thing that sparks in moments of weakness.
“The inevitable Xavi,” so perfectly described by Ray Hudson, is now a man stranded by forces who have figured out that the most effective way to break a triangle is to remove one of its points. Iniesta turns in search of the “Pam, pam!” symphonic grace of No. 6, and there is yet another defender.
Iniesta isn’t ageless or timeless, but instead a man seemingly searching for something lost, as is his team. Does it happen so fast, we wonder, without fully grasping that 5 years is, for many players, a career. It’s the time it takes to surge, peak and begin to decline, the tine it takes for mortality to do what it does.
“What’s wrong with Barça?”
Nothing and everything, like the answer to an equation embedded in the binary bits of an old, damaged hard drive. It looks like a normal hard drive, but inside those 1s and 0s aren’t connecting as they should, as they used to. There is nothing wrong with Barça in the sense of reality. We age, become less than we were, teams as people.
This is true even as an impossible moment has become a baseline for the quest for answers, solutions to the dilemma of why a great team isn’t any longer, questions and quests that become increasingly shrill and fraught. Like most answers to difficult questions, it begins with a full, unblinking look and even fuller honesty.
After that look, there are decisions. Hard ones. Unthinkable ones. Weird “What ifs” that make us cling to the past, seeking solace in the answers to questions we already know the answer to.
“Oh, that Manita. What happened to this team,” even as we all know. “Enrique is tactically over his head, and what’s up with his substitutions.” The ingredients for the cake are the same, but the salt is tangy, the yeast doesn’t rise as quickly and the flour has a bit of a sour tinge to it. That cake ain’t gonna bake up the same.
So what, then?
What’s funny about this Barça is that the answers are always in places we never think to look. Blaming Enrique for a slack midfield doesn’t look at fullbacks or attackers who move less. Asking why it’s easy to get at Enrique’s defense and slagging tactics looks there instead of the midfield. The lost keys that you are certain are in a jacket pocket, might be laying in a neighbor’s driveway.
“Rakitic isn’t what he should be.” No, because Alves isn’t what he was. So in a system that has to get width from somewhere Alves becomes the adventurer, Rakitic the defender and Busquets the finger set to be jammed in that dike of myth. In football dominoes, frailties are a collapsing collection of conundrums, all unsolvable. But what if Dani Alves had been sold that difficult contract summer? How would the team look? How would it be performing?
Alves moves, Rakitic covers, Xavi moves, the base is loose so Messi is starved of possession and moves to get the ball, Neymar follows Messi and suddenly, nobody is where they are supposed to be. “Enrique is stupid. Look at Messi in the midfield to get the ball.” It’s obvious when you look at it, when you realize that gods become mortal, and if you’re a coach, what do you do? No, this isn’t to absolve Enrique of blame. The objective is to take a macro view in the hypothetical of one man’s fevered brain.
Boards and presidents who wish to retain popularity understand the difficulty of turnover. “They would kill us if we sold X player.” And they would. But that same group then struggles to understand why the team isn’t better, why the cake doesn’t taste the same, in that desire to have it and eat it, as well. Don’t sell him, but build things around him so that we can’t see the decline that is occurring, because it has to.
Culers fight, snark and snarl about the Answers. Because they’re right there. Can’t you see? But when you ask what a coach can do, what are the moves that he makes, everything comes back to a similar problem of a key player on the wrong side of time. How heartless should a big football club be in pursuing excellence?
Backward to the future
This year, Barça is playing fast and aggressive, or at least trying to. But at times, for unfathomable reasons, players revert to the past. Busquets stops the ball, and side passes to Xavi. The outlet pass isn’t made to a streaking attacker. La pausa is a thing of beauty, properly applied. But sometimes, slowing play kills an attack.
Barça plays attacking, possession football, as differentiated from tika-taka, which was a tactic within the overall dictum of possession football. And it worked, for a while, but beginning with Guardiola, Barça coaches began to realize that the days of lovely triangles inexorably rondoing their way toward the opponent goal were numbered.
Guardiola wanted to play faster. Vilanova tried to play faster and more vertical, beginning an evolution that was disrupted by his illness. Martino tried to play faster and more vertical for many reasons, but in a situation known only to him and a few others, backed off of his revolution.
But the way opponents attacked Barça, of necessity, forced an evolution in the way the team played as fast wingers and physical midfield pressure created imbalances that our players didn’t have the pace or physicality to solve. Standard thinking is that Bayern was the first team to find Barça out, but I dispute that mostly because Bayern beat up on a mess of a Barça side. Atleti last season was much more emblematic of the kind of “new” attack that the team faces, and PSG this season. Lucas raised hell because Barça has no answer for him. Atleti single-handedly kept Barça from Liga and Champions League success because Barça has no answer for a fist.
Physicality became an issue as the team evolved into a collection of diminutive specialists. One of the more fascinating things about that Treble side and something lost to the sands of time as people discuss the wonders of Guardiola and that attack, is how good AND physical that team was. Eto’o and Henry were up front for strength and pressing. With Alves, Pique, Puyol and Abidal, that back line could outrun, out position and out fight you. Add Keita and Toure Yaya to that mix, and there was fire behind the flair. That group was fast, powerful, strong and technically gifted.
If you look at how the team evolved over time, all the meat was stripped from the bone. Players like Abidal, Keita and Yaya went away, replaced by the likes of Alba and Busquets. So when it came time for fight, the team was undermanned and capable of being bullied, not only on set pieces. Diversity of scoring attack became Messi. What happened was the things that were celebrated are also millstones. We celebrate Messi runs at a defense instead of thinking “Hey, what if he didn’t have to, what if he didn’t need to score 50 goals a season?”
In the here and now, a player such as Blaise Matuidi can stomp the terra with impunity. Against PSG away and Rayo Vallecano, we saw the midfield overrun. Because Rayo couldn’t generate the same kind of pressure up the flanks as PSG could, the match wasn’t as complex as it potentially could have been. But watching it does raise some interesting questions about who the best potential midfield might be and further, should the team have midfields for different opponents?
If a team is, for example, going to sit back, you will need players good on the dribble and capable of picking out a pass. The arguments for Xavi and Iniesta are clear, as the threat of a counter or aggressive midfield pressing approach will verge on nonexistent. But would a better midfield against PSG, particularly in the Messi as 10 context, might have been Rakitic/Busquets/Mascherano?
Some are noting that Rakitic isn’t playing the same kinds of through balls that he was at Sevilla, or getting as involved in the attack. It’s because he’s busy covering space for Alves, so that Busquets doesn’t once again have a gaping maw to cover in midfield.
Also worth noting is the contribution of the fullbacks to how the team plays overall. Alves and Alba were both problems in that PSG match, problems that cry out for a solution. As Alves bombs forward, the right side of the team has to compensate for an FB that is a defensive player in name alone. So the argument is raised for Pedro, who can track back and Rakitic, who becomes more DM than AM as he drifts over to protect the Alves space.
Meanwhile for a very different reason, Busquets is saying “Not this again,” as he tries to fill acres of space by his lonesome, which further contributes to the midfield being overrun as Xavi and/or Iniesta are behind the counter, chasing. Last season, Fabregas in the midfield presented the same set of complexities, a slow AM getting caught out. This season, the additions of Rakitic and Rafinha should add some muscle and pace to the midfield, which brings us back to the Iniesta question, which is very different from the Xavi question.
For some time, people like me have been asserting that the most logical Xavi replacement type is already in the squad in the person of Iniesta. In hindsight that talk seems rather short sighted as we just automatically assumed that Barça would be able to keep playing in the same way for time immemorial, as compliant opponents did our tactical bidding. Well, Bayern Munich said “Screw that noise,” and other opponents have followed suit to the point where the team is likely to see one of two options: two banks of 5 behind the ball, or from better teams, a physical, forward press and attacks up the wings.
In the former case, Luis Suarez was supposed to assist that bus complexity, in those innocent days when getting a quality 9 was the answer. As for the latter, it’s worth asking about available personnel and preferred personnel. It’s also worth asking whether the struggles of Iniesta are simply down to form.
Fullbacks in full
Remember the nostalgia of Jordi Alba being a problem? As our diminutive LB has taken off like a rocket, the difficulties shift to the right.
Because Alves is Alves, you have to play Pedro to cover even though his attacking form is crap, and you lose the full capabilities of Rakitic because he has to function more as a DM than AM. I suspect that in Enrique’s ideal world, Cuadrado would come in and Montoya or Douglas would work because then what your RB needs to do is not let anyone get behind him, and not screw up, essentially. When the Cuadrado deal didn’t happen, nobody was happier than Alves … not even Fiorentina.
But the problem at RB persists, as the way that Alves plays still creates an imbalance, which is even more true now as he doesn’t have that Energizer Bunny pace any longer. Is the answer Adriano, who has yet to have a bad outing at RB? Is Douglas going to blossom? And what of Montoya, who is on the way out, even as rumors that the club will block a sale linger.
No sympathy for old men
How different might the Barça XI look in the hands of an aggressive, fearless sporting department backed by an equally fearless board? It’s interesting to consider, isn’t it? You can think of name and possibilities, but let’s use just a few of them in a heartless XI: Bravo, Cuadrado, Marquinhos, Bartra, Alba, Mascherano, Thiago, Isco, Messi, Neymar, Suarez.
Fabregas and Kroos are on the bench, Sergi Roberto is somewhere else, as is Pique and Pedro. Sanchez is still with the club, because its coach has made it clear that he is an integral part of things, and part of getting Messi more quality rest and rotation will be featuring Sanchez in a role better suited to his qualities.
The 3-4-3 is, rather than an aberration a tactical reality as Barça has changed form from a collection of icons in both players and thought, to something rather different. The adherence to triangles and trappings of the recent past becomes something more dynamic.
That’s just one possibility.
Barça has many problems right now, all of them rooted in inaction, from actual inaction to a desire for inaction as people don’t want precious things touched. The consequence is that this Barça, the team seemingly being run by an inflexible tactical waif, has a host of personnel problems. These difficulties, assuming nothing magical happens with the CAS appeal, will exist for the next two transfer windows.
Promotions loom, but those players will take time. Even as some salivate at the notion of Samper at the base, and Adama in that theoretical Cuadrado role, both are young players who will take time to adapt. Deulofeu can return to activate wing play on the right, and Denis Suarez can return to bring some mobility and attacking flair to the midfield.
A lot of things can happen. But in the here and now, Barça is a team trapped between worlds, a limbo epitomized in many ways by the situation of the man who used to be one of its brightest stars. Iniesta is almost there but not fully there, because of time. Barça is almost there but not fully there because of inaction, a lack of risk that resulted in a lack of access to some players, and other players getting tired of waiting. Couple all of that with the decision to bring on a coach who might not be the right man for the job even as he is the perfect man for the job in terms of heritage and political necessity, and it really shouldn’t shock anyone that Barça is where it is.
What else could possibly have happened?