Archive | Barcelona

No Liga For Old Men

no liga for old men 1

 

 

Lou looked at the screen hard and then he clicked on the mouse and he paused it. He sighed. It’s one thang to believe in your players, but it would be nice if they helped him some. Or helped theyselves, rather. He had to believe in em cause they all he got. Ain’t nobody else comin for another two years at least. I guess he had ol’ Sander and his boys to thank for that. Four matches it been. Four matches up against em ropes. They got knocked on they butt in the first two and then the last match ref damn near counted to ten. He wasn’t sure if they’d of recovered from another loss. Ain’t knowed any other coach ever recover from three league losses in a row. Not at this club that’s for damn sure.

He looked out the window. Truthfully, international break couldna come at a better time. Take a moment and hit that ol reset button. Mentally speakin, that is. Of course he ain’t have a reset button hisself. Ain’t got no off switch neither for that matter. Just the other day his wife called him stubborn as a mule, and she’s usually right. She was smarter than him anyways. He never was afraid to admit as much. Not that she’d know what to do about his right back situation. Danny ran more with his mouth than his legs. The other two he’d look at em play and he ain’t know what to think. I mean, what on God’s brown earth was Anthony thinkin when he brought him Douglas. He ain’t never even heard of the boy and on most days he wished he still ain’t. He backed the move when they asked him of course. Ain’t like they gave him much of a choice. Besides, a man ain’t nuttin without his loyalty. But loyalty don’t mean he gonna play Martin. He knew the boy when he was still runnin round the Mini and he liked him but ain’t no room for feelings in this here game. Now he wanna go try his luck someplace else. Heck, it’s a free country last time I checked.

He always knowed there’d be times like this when he took the job. Just never spec those times to arrive so soon, I suppose. One minute you on top of the world and the next the world’s on top of you. Leo started out on fire, too. Ain’t never seen a boy play ball like that. Some tryna say Ronald’s better, but he just ain’t man enough. A grown hombre don’t go round throwin fits whenever he feel like it, but I ain’t sayin nuttin everbody else ain’t said already. Besides, Lou had his own to worry bout. Leo ain’t put no ball in the net for three games now and that ain’t happened for a long time, especially takin into account he ain’t gave no assists either. Then again, these’re thangs fans worry bout more ‘n a coach. Sure, the Flea ain’t as good as he was a coupla years ago but nobody ever was and maybe nobody never will be. He still pretty darn good.

He drummed on his desk with the tips of his fingers. Silver Junior doin good, too. Better’n a lot of folks thought he would. Of course people round these here parts don’t know much and I know that much. Ever time Lou looked at Junior he felt old. Not tired, mind you, just plain old. When he was a child only sailors had tattoos on they arms and maybe on they back. These days kids walk round with tattoos on they necks like they ready to take on a seamonster. You can hardly see they skin. They wearin more gold than the queen of England, too. Blang blang, they call it. His grandpa had a watch. Nuttin fancy or nuttin just a watch. Wasn’t no gold or silver. You saw a boy wear diamond earrings in those days, well nowadays you can’t even say out loud what you thought of boys like that. Thangs done changed and then some. And that rap music they listen to, always yappin bout smackin some bitches. He just didn’t understand em and he ain’t sure he wanted to either. Still, he liked the kid more than he cared to admit. He just ain’t wanna show it, is all. Ain’t nuttin good can come from someone that young with the world at they feet. Just look at Jerry. That boy done had too much and too young and now he ripe for some pine, if he’s lucky that is. Hale, the other day he on his cell phone stead of watchin the game so he told him you wanna play fuckin Candy Crush you can kindly do so from the stands and that’s where he sent him. Not that he had any thang to say to no reporter bout that. Already they fishin for a story and those press boys’d be on him like a pack of bloodhounds on a sore wound if he slipped one word too many. Lou let out another sigh. Cell phones and pop stars. In his days a man was happy if his lady had all her teeth. No guarantee she’d still have ‘em after a coupla years of marriage but that’s a whole other story right there.

He paused the screen again. Up by one goal in injury time and two of his forwards ain’t track back for the last play of the game. He looked at it but he didn’t believe it. They just standin there like it ain’t no thang. Not even his new striker, and Lou liked him. They shared more than just a first name. Boy had scrap to him. A born winner, just like his own self. Only winning two leagues outta eight seasons don’t change a thang. It’s all in people’s mind anyhow and heck, ain’t nobody countin. Everbody know you either play hard or you don’t play at all. Why the hale they strollin? They sure make it harder than they need to. Ain’t easy to set your best on the bench and even less so when you losin. Used to be a boy don’t play he work harder. Now his agent’s on the phone faster’n you can say Ee Pee El and y’all know these numb nuts will sell em for a dime on the dollar, too. There just ain’t no percentages in that game.

He wondered what happened to his midfield. That’s a problem right there. Xavier’s an old dog. He can’t rely on him two games ever week and Andy ain’t exactly the ghost of a coupla years back neither. You gotta face up to that. He thought that if they can’t control the midfield they might’s well bypass the midfield and that’s why they brought in Evan for what looked like a bargain and he knowed Ralphy from last year and he liked his attitude and his directness. Now both started out well enough but the boy Evan lacked confidence right now and neither one of em’s brangin what he hoped for. Not yet anyhow. When he played em together they couldna keep the ball not even for two touches and you know how folks are sensitive bout they possession round these parts. People’s sure fast to turn on they team but hale, it’s easy lookin from the outside in. He had some players that’re too old ‘n others that’re too young and maybe a bunch that’re really good but no longer great or maybe not great yet. The sum can be greater than its parts, they say, and he believed it to be true. That don’t make the opposite false neither. He knew he had the tools but was wonderin bout the parts and how they fit. It was gettin dark outside but Lou would stay in the office until late again. He looked back up at the tee vee screen.

And he sighed.

 

 

Posted in Barcelona75 Comments

This Is A Call For Patience

It was a terrible day in Barcelona when Pep Guardiola signed his contract as Barcelona manager.

Wait, what?! Yeah that was severely exaggerated, I admit.

Before you shoot my head off, here is what I have to say:

Pep signed in 2008 and gave the world the impression that coaches can handle a group of players and directly lead them to glory. Mourinho gave people the same impression with Inter. Let’s go back to Pep.

He gave the team a few years of memorable football and success. As Barcelona fans, we will never forget him and the glory he has brought us. But life in FC Barcelona existed before Pep and will exist after Pep. And the illusion that Pep created should be forever erased from people’s minds. This is what I always say: Pep was the exception, NEVER the rule.

So what is the rule, anyway?

The rule is coaches won’t succeed from the very beginning and any coach in the world says that. He WON’T implement his style of play perfectly from the very beginning. His players WON’T understand every single detail he wants. He’ll seem clueless in some stages. That’s called starting a team from scratch and trying to make it your own.

Luis Enrique’s Barca is a perfect example on that.

  • Here you have a group of talented players that were part of arguably the best team in history and these players themselves have improved in certain aspects of the game and deteriorated in others.
  • You also have a set of newcomers from the summer transfers.
  • You have a coach who is inexperienced yet is knowledgeable regarding the team’s style of play.
  • You have a conflict in the style of play itself between players like Xavi-Busquets and one of your newcomers, Rakitic(who didn’t exactly play the ‘Xavi way’ back in Sevilla)
  • You have an entirely new defensive line and goalkeeper.You simply lack communication and chemistry.

And this is where other coaches come into the picture.

First up, Mr. Simeone:

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Simeone joined in the end of 2011. Atletico Madrid weren’t considered title contenders back then. Months passed and Atleti suddenly became Europe’s second best team and league champions running up against the two football giants: Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Simeone had less talented players than Barcelona and Real Madrid that’s for sure. What made his team who they were was the sense of unity and chemistry between the players. It took time, but they got there.

Next up, is the great Klopp.

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Similarly, Klopp took the club to a sixth place finish in his first season in charge, and a fifth place finish in the season after that, before leading the club to successive Bundesliga titles and a Champions League final. Klopp didn’t have players with massive price tags. But over the years he implemented his ideas. His players GRADUALLY learnt them. By 2013, Dortmund were playing the most beautiful and most effective football in Europe. Well, here is a fact, Klopp joined in 2008.

Mourinho, although not exactly a great example on unity, can also be used to describe a transformation over time:

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Mourinho had a team packed with talent. Yet, the special one was crushed in a famous 5-0 defeat in the Camp Nou. Mourinho took his time and created a force. This force went on to defeat Barcelona in the Camp Nou and claim the league title. From being crushed 5-0 to making Barcelona look absolutely clueless(under PEP and Tito), we can surely say that Mourinho learned from his mistakes and worked to correct them.

All these coaches had some things in common:

  • They all looked tactically defeated in their beginning stages.
  • The players did not connect the dots the way the coach wanted them to.
  • They all eventually succeeded in one way or another(Although I know Mourinho’s Real Madrid is a bad example here).

    Well, in defense of the special one(and I don’t do that a lot), he did fail in his first year with Chelsea once he returned but look where he is now in the premier league…And the examples of coaches who suffered at first then succeeded are countless. I am sure you have some in mind.

    I always say: Being Barcelona’s coach is the toughest job in sports. You are the face Barca fans see after they wake up from a wonderful dream.

Enough about coaches!
What about the players? There is this misconception that players automatically find their perfect spot in any team they’re in and automatically blend in.

Players need to adapt to their environment even beyond football. So how can I expect, for example, Rakitic to excel from his first few months? Players who directly adapt are very lucky but not everyone is lucky. Some face difficulties and should gradually overcome these difficulties. Actually Rakitic is doing better than many(including myself) predicted. How can I expect Rakitic to be automatically used to how Lionel Messi functions? How can I expect Suarez, Messi and Neymar to click from the very beginning when they all have different approaches yet are all talented?
And HERE is the point. It is rarely ever about talent if you don’t have *again* communication and chemistry.

These players should get to talk. These players should get to understand each other.These players should develop player telepathy and it’s not developed over a few months.
*Player telepathy is a concept I made up(I don’t know if it exists) to describe what players feel when they are extremely and amusingly on the same wavelength. Xavi and Iniesta are a great example.
Which foot do you prefer to receive the ball on? Are you good in the air? If so, can I depend on you to receive certain tough passes? How fast are you? If I ask you to physically battle a player for the ball with my pass, will you do it or should I avoid passing for now? And these endless small details define a player and a whole team.

It is terrible to treat players like chess pieces. They have minds and they need to adapt to an environment, a style of play, and players they did not know before. This is never easy.

So there you have it:

A new coach, a new team formed of newcomers and players so deeply related to a previous style of play.
Van Gaal said in the beginning of the season: “Buying new players is easy. Making them play the way we should be playing is the tough part.”

Time is all what is needed to create a functioning team. We are blessed with the ability of purchasing the services of any player we wish to have. That does not mean we will succeed from the beginning. That does not mean the coach will implement his full ideas from the start. This surely doesn’t mean the players suddenly become connected together efficiently once they put on the same shirt because that’s never the case.

Finally, this is not to defend Luis Enrique. Luis Enrique could end up failing badly here. This is to defend any coach in the world who first arrives to a team(specially a team WHO HAS BEEN LIVING OFF A DREAM, I’m sorry I didn’t mean to shout) and suffers setbacks. This is to defend every player in the world who doesn’t automatically & magically fit into his team from the very beginning.

This is a call for patience.

 

 

 

Posted in Barcelona90 Comments

Talkin’ bout a crisis…

 

Three months ago there was all this optimism. With Luis Enrique as our new coach, those little bastards will run, run, run.

Two months ago there was all this optimism. Messi’s back (back!) and we haven’t seen him play like this for years.

One month ago there was all this optimism. We’re undefeated and Claudio Bravo’s unconceded*.

A fortnight ago there was all this optimism. Luis Suarez is set to play and we will go to the Bernabeu with the best attack ever.

………………….

Where did it go?

Where did it go?

It has been replaced with negativity. Ain’t that a surprise, have you only been a culer since yesterday? In the City of Counts two consecutive losses means crisis, and crisis talk goes something like this:

Lucho doesn’t know what he’s doing. Messi just stands around with his thumb up his butt, Neymar doesn’t track back and neither of them can play with Suarez who obviously doesn’t fit. Rakitic can’t run our offense and Xavi can’t defend. Besides, it’s getting cold outside. If Iniesta is old but not as old as Xavi then why does Busquets play like their grandfather? Mascherano is too short for a defender, Matthieu too pale and Jordi Alba too fast – did you see how he ran past the ball? Totally inefficient. Oh, and let’s not forget that Dani Alves is guilty. Of everything. Put Pedro in goal, he might have short arms but he’s gritty and plays like he wants it and at least he won’t play as a forward because he sucks.

………………….

Take a deep breath. In. Out. Another one. Calm. Down.

………………….

Let’s talk about the match against Celta De Vigo first. Culers are like, we had no midfield but I’m like, if you create 10 good scoring chances and give up only two, who cares about a friggin’ midfield? Control is the word on everybody’s lips and a lovely word it is, but I’ve seen us control a whole lot of games over the last five years in which we gave our opponents two chances to score, even at our apex with a young Xaviniesta and Puyol and Abidal lording the back line. In this beautiful game four balls on the crossbar, a couple of very fine saves and a goal line clearance frequently leads to your team remaining scoreless. It really sucks when it happens, but it will happen from time to time and more often than not missing many opportunities at one end comes with an added doodoo bonus of your opponents taking advantage of their one and only chance. In this particular match, control was not an issue.

………………….

Should we be worried? What we should be doing is change our evil ways and combat global warming so that 75 years from now a future generation won’t have to build a new Barça stadium in Girona, but that’s a topic for another time and another blog about indeed, a very serious (and real) crisis. As for the crisis at hand, there are things I like about our team and things I don’t like and, unlike most of Barcelona right now, I’ll talk about both.

………………….

It is too early – way too early – for the “Luis Enrique doesn’t know what he’s doing” talk. The idea of a man who’s had such a long career as Lucho during which he played pretty much every position bar goalkeeper can be as clueless as some like to make him out to be is laughable. He might very well not be the Messiah, but then messiahs don’t come around all that often. As it stands, I’ve seen two bad matches so far this season, one of which we lost**. I’ve also seen some pretty good ones. I’ve seen things I like (he seems to run a meritocracy) and things I don’t (he doesn’t rest Messi). I still think he is the right coach at the right time out of the options that were available to us.

I don’t like that I’m stopping to like the transfer that I didn’t like at first but then started to like after the first month. For those who can’t follow, I’m talking about Rakitic. I’m not even all that bothered by his imprecise passing (just a bit bothered), because this was a fully noticeable fact even during his honeymoon period with us when he took home all the plaudits. Besides, next to Xavi and Iniesta everybody is a bad passer and there are things Rakitic gives us that the aforementioned won’t. More worrisome is that he has played without confidence ever since the PSG game, making not only bad passes but bad decisions as well. Disappointingly I don’t like too much either what I have seen so far from his partner in crime last Saturday, a player I was looking forward to like a whole lot, Rafinha, but I do like that their coach defended the pair by saying that they did what they had to do in order for the team to create chances. It’s worth repeating that the team created chances by the truckload.

I like what Luis Suarez brings to the team. I don’t like the impatience that surrounds him, as already there are voices saying that Messi, Ney and Lucho can’t play together. I’ll admit to having been concerned about this also, especially when the deal was just announced, but to be honest the signs are encouraging. It’s normal that it will take our forwards time to gel and it looks like they will. I like how they switched positions sometimes and it will be exciting to see how they develop a feel for each others’ movements.

I like that Mascherano’s our best defender right now – good for him – but I really don’t like that Mascherano’s our best defender right now – bad for us. I think I’d like Masche in midfield a lot better. I like how Mathieu gets the ball but like less what he does after he gets it. I like that Piqué is not a guaranteed starter but I would like it even more if he fights his way back into the line-up.

I really don’t like that Dani Alves and Sergio Busquets lacked the grit to prevent a very preventable goal. I won’t blame Mascherano here, because getting mad at Masche for losing an aerial duel is like blaming a hyena for not being more like a lion. Speaking of Busquets (who I like) he could lose his spot one of these days and speaking of Dani (who I also like) I never understood why the hell we didn’t buy Cuadrado but that’s like in the past so yeah, we’re screwed. I like that we finally have a coach who sees that Montoya is not good enough but I would have liked it even more if he were. I also wonder if Douglas will ever be liked.

There’s a whole lot more I like and dislike, but far am I from wanting to take up too much of your valuable time. Let me just say that I like love watching this team play and I don’t like the overreaction when we lose a game or don’t play well for 90 minutes.

………………….

People forget, mainly because by now we are used to it, that draws are the new losses and losses are the end of the world. Blame the unprecedented success of our 2008-09 season that drove M*drid over the edge and made Flo spend more money on players than Berlusconi on underaged hookers. Okay, bad example, and anyway I would not change our 2008-09 season for anything in the world, but I did enjoy the games more before, say 2010ish, than after, if only because it was okay to lose points every now and then. Watching sports was never supposed to be a “relaxing” experience to begin with, but a feeling of doom and dread because after two months into the season we are two points behind the leaders should not be what it’s about.

………………….

Take a deep breath. In. Out. Another one.

………………….

Let’s enjoy the season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* I know “unconceded” is not a word, but it should be and damnit, if I were a professional sports writer I would turn it into one.

** RM away was pretty dire, and the goalless draw against Málaga was dreadful stuff.

Posted in Barcelona112 Comments

The ‘Illegal’ Pass Into Space.

Since the beginning of this season, and definitely the seasons before, the ‘Xavi style’ of attack has minimized the risk Barcelona players take when approaching goal. There is hesitance in the style of play. There is a lack of confidence in the pass.

I call it the Xavi style but Xavi is definitely not the only man responsible for this mentality when approaching the opponent’s area. In fact, Iniesta has his share of it as well. And when zooming out of just blaming the players, you notice the bigger picture. Any player who plays in Barcelona’s midfield will suffer the same change in mentality because of how dominant that style of play is in training. You can call it a belief if you may.

“Always pass to the player’s feet, never into empty space”

Who suffers the most from all of this, though?

Neymar: The man has been on great form recently. But one of the main reasons his danger is minimized is because he doesn’t get to run the way he has always been taught. When our midfielder has the ball and sees Neymar running into empty space you can actually notice a look of hesitation on the midfielder’s face. That is, of course, before he rotates his body left or right to look for a safer pass. And Neymar’s hope, along with our attempt of scoring a goal, is crushed.
It is worth pointing out that Neymar is possibly one of the best players who move without the ball and playing to his powers will be crucial for his development and Barca’s success.

A great example on all of this is Neymar’s goal against Atletico Madrid last season in the Champions League:

Neymar 1-1 CL QF

Iniesta’s pass to break the entire defense was one of his best. However, if he just hesitated and turned around like many Barca midfielders do we would have wasted yet another Neymar run.

Suarez: The same things that apply to Neymar apply to Suarez but there is something worth adding about Luis:

Suarez has the ability to physically overcome other defenders. Whether it’s a ground pass or a long ball, Suarez is Barca’s missing physical link in attack. He is the typical striker everyone talks about(with great vision too but that’s another issue). He’ll fight for every ball. Let’s just say if a defender and Suarez were running after a ball with equal chances I’ll have my money on Luis. But again, if we don’t ever provide that ball into space for Suarez then we’ll be minimizing his danger.

Multiple times this season Neymar has waited for midfielders to take that risk and trust in themselves and in Neymar himself but they rarely did.
Actually, Messi has been practically  the only one encouraging Neymar to run into space which lead to the connection we see between them. Because beyond just football, Neymar knows that Messi will push him to the edge while other midfielders won’t. And Neymar, thankfully, responds in a very impressive way to each time Lionel gives him an opportunity.

This has also affected Suarez in his first ever match for Barcelona. He waited for a through ball 2 or 3 times and never got what he wanted.
This kills a player’s enthusiasm. Because, put yourself in their shoes, the constant feeling of rejection is not what a forward wants.

The midfielders:
Yes, the midfielders suffer from not taking a risk as well. They minimize the possibility of being chance creators which is the basic confidence boost to any midfielder in the world. It is almost as if the midfielders enter the field with the intention to pass left of right until the forward pass seems 100% safe and TO THE FEET. By doing so, they minimize the time spent on creating chances and maximize the time spent on just passing the ball around endlessly.

Some may argue: “what about the counter attack if we lose the ball because of a risky pass?”
That’s just looking at the glass half empty.
Because what about the amount of chances these guys upfront  are capable of scoring? They already proved their skills. Time to give them what they need.

Problem here is if Barcelona had mediocre midfielders everyone would understand the need for safety. But Barca can go up against almost any team in the world and say: “we have better passers than you”. With that said, being great at something means you have to utilize it.
We all know that our midfielders can play the safe pass perfectly. They only need to remember that their passing talents never stopped there.

Posted in Analysis, Barcelona, Tactics, Thoughts29 Comments

Talkin’ bout differences…

I still remember the first time I went to the Camp Nou. It was in the fall of 2004 against Deportivo de la Coruña. Ronaldinho did stuff I couldn’t quite understand from my seat in the third ring on the southern side of the stadium. Giovanni Van Bronckhorst goofed up and gifted the lead to our opponents. Xavi and Eto’o restored peace and calm in the stadium.

There’s a huge difference between watching a game from 100 yards or watching it from 100 miles. From 100 yards you see the whole pitch. You watch the TEAM play football, how they move and where they move. Sometimes (in my case pretty much always) you sit so high up that the “how they move” is often the only way you can recognize an individual player. Of course if you watch the game from 100 miles or, in my case, 1500 yards, the game is shown from the perfect spot in the stadium and you have instant replay, multiple angles, high definition close-ups and even, gulp, goalline technology.

So what’s a fellow to do, when a colleague offers him his father-in-law’s soci card for a seat that would have cost 130 euros to a mere mortal? Note the difference.

On TV, Munir looks promising but, his debut aside, largely ineffective. On the pitch oh boy that kid runs his socks off. He’s still not all that effective but he runs a whole lot more than I realized during the previous games. On TV, he missed a chance in front of an open goal from less than a yard out before getting wrongly called offside. In the stands, about a 100 yards from the action, we were pissed off at the wrongly disallowed goal.

In my row, speaking about wrongly disallowed goals, we were fuming when Messi’s first (or was it 400th?) was canceled for offside. Hijo de puta, we roared. Only in the Camp Nou do the refs still screw the home team, we grumbled. In the Bernabeu they gave two penalties for nothing last week, we complained. Granted, watching the game in a bar we do the same. Until the slow motion replay puts us in check and shows us that Messi was indeed offside by a few inches. Of course in the bar a beer is one euro and it gets brought to my table faster than I can say cerveza. At the Camp Nou it’s three fifty, and I have to stand in line to buy it and they don’t give me free tapas. I digress. Let’s get back to business.

On TV you see what a brilliant passer Xavi is and how he has become really slow on defense. From the stands you see this even better.

On TV, Claudio Bravo acts like a goalkeeper. In real life, the person who is supposed to be our goalkeeper hugs the midfield circle line every time we take a corner. Why is beyond me. Predictably, it was not long before a Granada player tried his luck from his own side of the pitch. Watching the highlights on TV, the commentator said that Bravo had the situation under control. Control is clearly a flexible concept, no matter where you watch the game from.

From where I was sitting it was far from clear how Neymar’s first goal went into the net. It looked like he got lucky and it was ugly as hell. The slow motion would later show he shot it in between the defender’s legs on purpose. He often does this, just like his clasico goal last season, or the mind-blowing assist to Alexis against Espanyol. He tried it again in the second half and found his shot blocked.

On TV, Matthieu played brilliantly from the back and snuffed out a lot of counter attacks. This was pretty much what we saw also and we applauded him accordingly.

On TV Rakitic received a standing ovation as he came off. In the stadium some people stood up and applauded. On TV you hear a lot of singing. In the stadium you see it’s just a group of 100-15o supporters that stand behind one of the goals. On TV you hear the independència chant after 17 minutes of each half. In the stadium you hear it too, but you see plenty of people who don’t participate.

On TV, spectators saw Sandro play a long ball to where no player was standing. In the stadium we saw him play that ball to literally the only spot on the pitch where no player could get to. We applauded him for it because, well, at least he made us laugh. The boy can sprint, though, and it’s fun to watch him run onto the field when subbed in.

In the bar as in the street, people acknowledge Sergi Roberto isn’t Barça quality and will most likely never be Barça quality. In the stadium they support him. Even I, Sergi Roberto-doubter par excellence, have to admit he had a good thirty minutes on the pitch.

That’s it mostly, except for one more thing. On TV. In a stadium. On a Playstation. In a dream. Wherever. Lionel Messi is the best player I’ve ever seen. Truly blessed, us culers are. We can worry about whether or not we’ll win or lose a given game, cup or league and that’s normal. But having Messi on your team is not. We should cherish these years like no other.

Posted in Barcelona84 Comments

Once upon a time in Catalonia

Note: This article was written some time ago to be published when Suarez’s signing was made public. Things got in the way, and five weeks later our new number nine will soon be presented in front of a full Camp Nou at the traditional Gamper’s Trophy. What the hell, I might as well…

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THE PRELUDE

Little more than nothing in this article will not have been said already. As if you need reminding that Luis Suarez, the man with the mind and teeth of a Tasmanian devil has landed in Barcelona and will represent the club we love. Family man. Despicable jerk. Great teammate. Selfish superstar. Winner at all costs. Cheater with no shame. Worth 81 million euros. Not worthy of our shirt. You’ve heard it all. He splits opinions like left wing politics. The only clear consensus is that he’s a brilliant striker.

Even before he arrived at our club, culers were divided. Of course, culers are always divided, but not like this. Excited. Depressed. Proud. Embarassed. Making accusations. Making up excuses. Supportive. Disgusted. Some of us feel all these emotions, and more, at the same time. It’s only natural. Most hearts have dynamic IP addresses and we’re still trying to find out if what we purchased is the next best thing since Google Glasses or a nasty virus that will cost us a lot to finally remove.

THE GOOD

For his previous club, at least, Luis had a brilliant season. Not a lot of people expected Liverpool to even make the Champions League, but with 31 goals and 12 assists, he led a young and exciting team to within a “we will not let this slip” moment from the title.

He can shoot with his left and his right and hit it with power or finesse. He thinks quick and runs fast. He’s a good passer who involves his teammates*, but he can take on his marker with guile and swagger. He’s dangerous on the counter yet give him the ball in a small space and he worms his way through defenders before they can say “cheater.” He’s a hard worker who’s got “I want to win” etched in his heart.** A lethal scorer, his goal repertoire is as colorful as a Brazilian favela. Headers, lobs, tap-ins, 40-yard screamers, one-on-one finishes, volleys, low hard drives, rounding the keeper, free kicks, from solo runs and tight angles, penalties. You name it, he’s scored it. He’s a complete striker, seemingly without weaknesses. Really, what’s not to like?

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THE GOOD… OR BAD?

On paper, an attack featuring Leo, Ney and Lucho is salivating. F.C. Barcelona might very well have found the third man of what would make for the most naturally gifted front line to ever grace the fields. But does the most gifted mean it will be the best? Let’s examine that for a moment.

After Groningen, Ajax and Liverpool, this will be the first time in Europe that Luis Suarez is not “the man.” Every club he has played for revolves around the bucktoothed striker. Only for his country he played a comparitively modest role next to Diego Forlán some years back, as they formed a forward tandem that reached the semifinals at South Africa 2010. Of course, a club as big as Barça will always look to add the best players, whether from other clubs or from the Masía. It’s rare to represent the club at its highest level without having been “the man” somewhere else. But sometimes, too much can be too much.

Although he won’t occupy the space Messi and Neymar love when they drop into the midfield to assume playmaking roles, his natural game does demand protagonism. He’s always been the focus point of his team, a player who wants the ball – a lot. When we bought O Ney, Cruijff famously said that you can’t have two captains on one ship. Getting the best out of a Neymar and La Pulga combination is quite a challenge for the best of coaches, so now we have three?

I absolutely agree with the need for a striker, but would it not have been better to get a slightly more modest talent, like Higuain or Mandzukic, who would leave our two superstars with more space to run the team, similar to how Karim Benzema is the perfect B to M*drid’s CC? When Florentino Perez was adding a Galactico every year, did it not get to the point that every summer move instilled laughter rather than fear in the hearts of culers worldwide? Are we not making the same mistake right now?

And what about the overall balance of the squad? Will all three defend? Will Suarez get frustrated when he sees Neymar and Messi defending less? Will Neymar get frustrated with Messi, for that matter? Will Rakitic succeed where Cesc has failed? Wouldn’t it have been better to spend at least some of those 81 million euros – 81 million euros – on say, a defender? Suarez might very well be a better player than Alexis, but taking into account the amount of work the Chilean puts in and how well he has finally adapted to playing on the wing, will he be worth having sold Lexus for?

One thing’s for sure, the purchase of Lucho raises a lot of questions. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t any answers. Some culers, and I count myself among them, have been making the argument for quite some time that Messi should move to a playmaker role. If you put Suarez in front of him, and heck, Pedro on the right, we’ll have, for the first time since Eto’o left, two attackers who can make runs that invite through balls, a characteristic which has been lacking in our squad for some time now.

No matter how you look at it, from a purely tactical point of view, this monster move by the board represents a huge risk. But don’t worry. If it works, the board is a genius for signing him. If it doesn’t, they’ll blame Luis Enrique. Or Lionel Messi.

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THE BAD

For perhaps the first time in football history fans are unanimously satisfied that their club sold its star player at the heights of his powers. Think about that for a second. Luis had just come off of his best season ever during which he was absolutely integral to his team’s title run. He made the crowd oooh and aaah with his flair and unpredictability. Liverpool hadn’t had a player like this since… Maybe they’ve never had a player like this. He’s at his prime, at a moment where if his club had continued building the team around him, who knows, maybe they could actually win their first league title in over twenty years. And yet, 99% of Liverpool fans were glad to see him go.

What does that tell us? I could just say “enough” and leave it that.

I have to be honest. I find it incredibly hard to dislike Luis Suarez. I’m talking about the person here, not the player. He has always come across as likable in his interviews. He takes his job seriously and he gives his 110%. There’s the fairy tale story of how he was motivated to the core to play in Europe, which is normal for South American football players, but with the twist that his main motivation was to be closer to his girlfriend who left Uruguay for Barcelona when Luis was fifteen. How can you not a story like that? Girls, say “aaaaaaw”. Funnily enough, as despised a figure he has become, I think I would’t have disliked him even if he had signed for M*drid.

It’s tragic therefore that he betrays himself so often and that he always ends up repeating the same mistakes. Just when the world falls in love with him he’ll bite someone. Again. Or demand a transfer two weeks after he declared his never-ending loyalty. It’s moments like these that make you realize that the man is his own worst enemy. It makes you grunt, scream, roll your eyes so far back your head hurts. And it makes the press and a large contingent of (especially Anglo-Saxon) fans vilify the man.

So when he dives to get an advantage he is bashed over the head with the proverbial sledgehammer – but when Stevie G. does it the public hear no evil see no evil. When he batted the ball out of the goal mouth to deny the first African semi-finalist ever fans call him a despicable cheat, knowing (I suspect or I hope) full well that he did what every player would have done in a similar situation, which is of course what every fan would have want their player to do. Ooooh, they say, and he had the gall to laugh when Ghana missed the resulting penalty and kept hope against all hope of advancing alive.

Is he the devil incarnate? I know I’d rather be bitten in my shoulder than have my leg or back broken, but while people call him an animal and inhuman and they mean it, too, in my view biting a man on a football pitch is just weird. More than anything it’s plainly bizarre. A four-month ban for club and country for an offense which Chiellini probably didn’t even feel anymore the next day seems unjust to me. The Italian defender himself said as much, and other players have gotten away with a lot worse during this tournament, under the all-seeing eye of the camera, no less.

You can’t have a team of only nice guys, said Cruijff, who would know because the Clockwork Orange of 1974 featured players who would saw off an opponent’s kneecap for tugging at Johan’s shirt. Except Barça did have a team of nice guys, and they were arguably the best team the world has ever seen. They were the exception rather than the rule. I’m too young to remember if there were many complaints amongst culers when Hristo Stoichkov stomped on a referee’s foot shortly after arriving in Catalunya. I definitely don’t want Suarez to gouge anyone’s eyes while wearing our shirt.*** His hunger and aggression, however, if channeled correctly, can prove a catalyst to bring back those intangibles our team have lost. Likewise that same hunger and passion can see him banned for life. Especially his hunger.****

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THE UGLY

It’s funny how we don’t pay much stock to the rumor mill. Every summer another target, and every day new names find their way to the headlines of SPORT and Mundo Deportivo. What’s even funnier is how from the first day Luis Suarez graced the local covers, that sinking feeling started surging, that “oooooowwww I know this ain’t no rumor” feeling. Presidents come, presidents go, their strategy remains the same. “The whole of Barcelona wants Luis Suarez” blurts SPORT. “Culers undivided in their desire to see Luis in our colors” claims MD. Things of that nature. ***** 

Try as they may, culers I speak to in the city of Barcelona are not convinced. Many say he’s not worth the risk. The smart ones – rare and in between – wonder how Messi, Neymar and Suarez will play together. The ones who love our club because the values they thought it represented are disgusted. Of course many also think, as is inevitable, “what if it works?” All in all, he might not be as disliked here as he is in England, but culers are nowhere near as close to ecstatic as we are being told that we are.

It’s just another thread of the carpet of deception that’s been laid out in front of us week in and week out. If the board wants to buy a player, by all means buy him. If our new coach loves him, all the better. They want to take that risk, then take the  risk. Just don’t tell us it’s what we all want. Don’t take us for the fools that only half of us are. Is that too much to ask for?

FIVE WEEKS LATER

So now we’ve had a good five weeks to get used to the idea that Luis Suarez is a Barça player. For many, the original disgust has died down. I personally remain more disgusted with MD and Sport for their “FIFA ban injustice” campaign than with the original offense that caused it – not because I don’t think the ban is injust, but because the fact that our board knew full well he was banned before they packed a record amount of money in a record amount of suitcases and sent them Merseyside. I still don’t see quite clearly how our superstar frontline will work together, but that doesn’t mean I’m not carefully optimistic. I know we’ll see some good football and, although it would be presumptuous to count  on anything, I hope we’ll get to celebrate a trophy at the end of this season, too.

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* Ironically the season that finally saw him win the golden boot coincided with the first season that he impressed for having left his selfish play behind.

** The facet of his game which epitomizes his will to win is the way he dribbles. He’s not a close dribbler, like Neymar, Messi or Iniesta. Nor does he blast by people like C. Ronaldo, Bale or Robben. No. When Luis Suarez dribbles past his marker, the ball will hit his opponents legs and sometimes even more than once. How does he still get past them? Call me dirty, but I like this man’s intangibles…

*** The eye-gouging, to me, is a lot worse than biting and it amazes me that it didn’t cause even a tenth of the uproar. I didn’t even know he committed the act until the video went viral. Following the same train of thought, a video surged of Jermaine Defoe biting another player. You guessed it, he did not get banned seven games for his first offense. Hypocrisy some? For sure. Not that it makes Luis look any better, though.

**** The more I hear and read about it, the more I think the ban is disgraceful. FIFA actually had the police (!) come and get him from the Uruguay training grounds. The idea of a player not being allowed to train with his teammates or even enter a stadium is absurd, as is the fact that they punish Liverpool for something their player did at a tournament in which he didn’t represent their club. Never mind them, they’re laughing their butts off for finding a suitor who coughed up 80M. They don’t have to worry about that nutcase anymore. His next transgression, and there will be a next transgression, he’ll be lucky if they allow him to play FIFA on his Playstation. Watch a game with his father-in-law. Talk about football at the dinner table. Pass the ball around in his backyard with his daughters. Walk on grass. He’ll be the first ever football player to go into hiding. A pariah, playing illegal pick-up games on the parking lot of a seedy bar at three in the morning on a Saturday. It won’t be long before he undertakes extensive plastic surgery and signs up for the Pyong Yang Red Stars. You heard it here first.

***** One of the most ridiculous “advantages” they keep writing is that because of his wife and in-laws, Suarez will adapt to the city very quickly. You know, because Barcelona is such a notoriously difficult place to adapt to for professional footballers. And while I’m at it, another disgrace is how Barto, Zubi, SPORT and MD are the only ones who tried to sell us his (read: his lawyer’s) apology.

Posted in Barcelona34 Comments

Immortality

 

6 Ligas

2 Copas del Rey

6 Supercopas de España

3 Champions Leagues

2 UEFA Super Cups

2 FIFA World Cups

1 Olympic Gold Medal

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Posted in Barcelona, Player Profiles, Preview80 Comments

Myth vs Reality

Disappointed by the season? Ready to kick some internet ass and spray your opinions throughout the four corners of the cyberworld? You gotta do what you gotta do. But first, let’s separate the bull from the crap, the pimp from his hoes and hit the judge with its own hammer. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, with no further ado…

 

Myth: We had a bad season.

Reality: Any culer worth its salt knows we didn’t. You don’t even have to be that old. Only seven seasons ago we ended third in the Liga with a whopping 18 points below Real M*drid. That was pretty bad and guess what? We still reached the semi-finals of the Champion’s League, a competition we didn’t even participate in five years prior. In the Gaspart years the club spent boatloads of money to be only equaled by an incredible amount of frustration felt by its followers. As a fan of F.C. Barcelona since Cruijff took over, I’m not even an old-timer. The old guys don’t remember the bad seasons as much as they remember the occasional league championship every decade or so. To sum it up, the only way this season qualifies as “bad” is when we compare it to the most successful period any club, not just ours, but any club in the world has gone through in the last forty years of the game.

Myth: Pinto sucks.

Reality: He’s our backup goalkeeper. Let me repeat. Backup!!! How many squads have had such a good backup keeper over the last five years? Really, people need to wake the hell up before they judge. Even the newly crowned champions of Europe almost lost out on their décima because of a horrible mistake made by their backup goalkeeper. When I think of how Pinto has played since Valdes’ injury, I don’t remember him costing us even one goal. He has induced the occasional heart attack, for sure, but he has not cost us. To a lot of fans he has been our most entertaining player of the season. Culers giggle and laugh in bars throughout the city whenever he goes on one of his crazy dribbles. Give that man a one-year contract. Let him be the third goalkeeper and tutor a young Marc-André ter Stegen and Jordi Masip. Not only because he deserves it, but because it’s the smart thing to do.

Myth: Neymar and Messi can’t play together.

Reality: The truth is we haven’t got the faintest idea. While true that they rarely looked good together, that can almost be said for the team as a whole. Besides, Leo was injured for two months and when he came back Neymar got injured. When Neymar came back, the team collectively slumped and our coach seemingly gave up on coaching his squad. I say seemingly because we don’t know that either. What I do suspect is that the team will be better off with Messi as a no. 10 and a selfless striker who moves around a lot and doesn’t need the ball at his feet. Higuiain would be perfect in that regard. Mandzukic intrigues as well. Time will tell, and whatever the technical team decides, it’s up to our new manager to make it work.

Myth: Tata was given a raw deal.

Reality: He knew what he was coming into. We had a bad board then and we have a bad board now. You’re gonna tell me he was unaware that SPORT and MD print their dailies with poison instead of ink? Without any European experience, Gerardo Martino was given the chance to lead an extraordinary group of players who had won it all and then some. That was precisely the challenge: how the heck are you going to keep them winning. He failed, and I don’t blame him. Without a proper pre-season, no reinforcements, and the drama of replacing a manager who fell out with cancer, this was a damn near impossible task. But let’s not kid ourselves. A lot of coaches would have signed up for that deal, regardless of the circumstances. Heck, they dream of that chance to come along. And the majority would have won squat, just like Gerardo Martino. It doesn’t make him a bad coach. But it definitely does not make the board wrong for replacing him with Luis Enrique.

Myth: If Lucho chooses to play a vertical game, Cesc will flourish.

Reality: It’s true that Fàbregas plays better when we play more vertically, but he has only ever really flourished at Arsenal. Why? Because he was the best player on a team that was built around him. A squad that features Messi, Iniesta and Neymar will never be built around a less godly talent such as Cesc. And if he doesn’t have the freedom to go where he wants on the pitch and do what he wants, the attributes that made him such a great player are severely compromised. Has he ever looked anywhere close to great in a big game? He has been back at F.C. Barcelona for three years now, and has had plenty of opportunities to shine. We all know he can. Just not at his boyhood club.

Myth: We should abandon our style.

Reality: We play a formation of 4-3-3 (of which 3-4-3 and 4-2-3-1 are merely variations). We´ll never hoof it up the field or sit back and lure on the break. Our game has always been based on technique and passing, possession and offense. That’s what makes us us, from the Masía to the B-team and all the way up to the first team. A bad season or two (or three, or thirteen) changes not a thing. Football goes through cycles… Period. During those cycles, Barça will always be Barça and should always play like Barça. A closely related myth is that Martino betrayed our style. All because we actually scored some counter goals and even had less than 50% possession once on a potato field ploughed through by the caretakers of Rayo Vallecano, press and fans were aghast at what they considered “counter attack” football. Never mind the fact that during that same first half of the season that this particular criticism was continuously uttered, Barça actually maintained possession of the ball for 67%.

Myth: Dani Alves can’t cross.

Reality: Ok. How do you explain that during our last two games against Atletico Madrid, an awesome defensive team featuring a goliath duo of Godín and Miranda, Dani found the heads of little Messi, Xavi, Neymar, Pedro and Alexis? Not to mention the fact that our season winning and wrongly called offside goal came off of his cross also. Claiming that Dani Alves can’t cross because he sometimes mistakes the corner flag for a head is like saying la Pulga can’t score because he sometimes shoots straight at the keeper. You can argue that he shouldn’t play as many crosses because our players aren’t the most naturally endowed physical specimen to knock in header after header, but you are very much mistaken if you think he’s not a good crosser of the ball.

Myth: Our players didn’t try hard enough.

Reality: Get real. A sports team can’t just keep winning forever. Impossible. And neither can Messi. The same fans who proclaim him celestial for a standard of play that saw him pick up a historic four balons d`or in a row (and let’s not forget, saw our team haul in a historic number of prizes in the process) are dragging him through the mud now that he has “only” scored 46 goals this year and co-led the team in assists. If his winner in the last match of the season had stood? Our God and savior. But it didn’t, so let’s treat him like crap and doubt his heart. Another travesty is the comparison being drawn in some quarters between this group of players and Frank Rijkaard’s guys in their mister’s final year. Are our stars out getting bent four nights per week? Do they skip training en masse? Did they… get fat? No. They fought for the league title until the last minute of the last game. So what if they didn’t win. They made this culer proud, and I’m convinced they will do so next season as well. Visca Barça!

 

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The Boogie-Woogie Barça Boys of Company B

FC Barcelona announced on Thursday that Eusebio Sacristan has accepted a one-year renewal of his contract that will keep him at the club as coach of Barça B until the end of the 2014-15 season. This seems like a good time to take a look at how the youngsters have done this year.

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Barça B played their last game of the season on Saturday and finished in 3rd spot in the Segunda table, with 66 points, behind promoted teams Eibar and Deportivo La Coruna. Normally this would be a playoff spot to put them in contention for promotion, but of course the rules forbid a B team from playing in the same division as their parent team. Still, third place is a very strong finish to a season in which the quality of the team’s play varied significantly. Indeed, at one point the B team drifted down almost into the relegation zone, prompting the then-VP Josep Bartomeu to remark that it wouldn’t be “a tragedy” if they were relegated, much to the fury of many in this space.

So how does one judge the success of this season? A third-place finish would seem like an excellent result to most, wouldn’t it? However, we must also take into consideration that this is a B team, the stated purpose of which is to develop youth players, to give them the skills and the experience they need for their adult careers, and to provide them with opportunities to prove they have what it takes to make the first team.

Eusebio started the season with a much younger group than has been the case for the last few seasons, as several of the older players left or were promoted, and a large crop of youngsters from Juvenil A joined as either full or partial promotions. There were predictable growing pains as the team struggled to gel on the pitch, and results were less than brilliant. In one especially grim stretch, they lost 7 out of 8 games. The lack of cohesion on the field was only exacerbated by a rash of injuries that kept several key players out for weeks. The one bright spot was the 3-0 demolition of RM Castilla* in the mini-Clasico–unfortunately they turned the tables on the return leg and beat Barça B by 3-1.

After the Christmas break, results began to improve, helped immensely by the return of LB Alejandro Grimaldo after recovering from a leg injury that kept him out of action for a full year. Centre-backs “Macky Frank” Bagnack and Edgar Ie also returned to full action and formed a very solid pairing at the core of the defense. Forwards Adama Traore and Munir el-Haddadi were both still technically registered as Juvenil A players, but spent most weekends with the B team. As they were trusted with more minutes on the field, their performances continued to improve, and the goals started to come. With players like Sergi Samper, Javi Espinosa, and Edu Bedia taking control of the midfield, the B team embarked on a 9-week unbeaten run (7 W, 2 D) and looked set for a top ten finish at the very worst. The Segunda league was extremely close this year, with only 20 points separating champion Eibar from 18th-placed Alaves, so every game, every point was vital. Despite the odd setback, the B team diligently worked their way up in the standings to finish a more-than-respectable 3rd with the youngest team in the league. As a manager, Eusebio has come under a lot of criticism over the last few years, not least from myself, but this result is something he can be justifiably proud of. Eusebio will never be known as a tactical genius (some of his in-game substitutes are downright baffling), but to his credit he appears to have learned from some of his past mistakes (such as indulging in outright favouritism) and IMO has improved as a manager. I won’t say I’m happy that he was renewed for another season, but I think the current B generation is so packed with talent that they would succeed with almost any manager.

Who’s on First?

The most disappointing aspect of this season for me, and most likely for the players as well, was the scarcity of call-ups to the first team. B players were called up to practice with the first team fairly often, but only 4 players were actually called up for games–Dongou, Adama, Patric, and Sergi Gomez–and these received a grand total of 72 minutes of playing time in all competitions between them. Dongou accounted for most of that time. This is in stark contrast to the 1432 minutes B players received last season and 2298 the season before (Guardiola’s last). To me, this represents a failure on the part of the club, a waste of valuable resources, and an error on the part of the first team manager Tata Martino. To be fair to Martino, he clearly started out with good intentions. Dongou and Adama both impressed him in preseason, and Bagnack was even taken along on the ill-fated Asian tour. But as a new manager from “outside” the club, Tata was under huge pressure to impose his vision on his players and to get results, and any plans he may have had to give youth players a look-in were put on the backburner. It is understandable, but unfortunate, since the best opportunities for B players come in the early stages of the Copa del Rey and the group rounds of the Champions’ League. Tata was having an excellent run of results at the time and apparently didn’t want to bring any unknown elements into the mix. Then in the second half of the season when results dropped and injuries began to pile up, it seemed like he had discarded the option of calling up B players completely. This led to the ridiculous situation of playing Busquets as a CB when Puyol, Pique, and Bartra were all out injured, instead of calling up Sergi Gomez or Bagnack as a replacement. Busquets is one of the most talented players in the world, but a CB he is not.

Still, it isn’t really fair to blame Tata entirely for this apparent lack of trust in the youth. There were plenty of factors that need to be considered, many of which were out of Tata’s control. He was hired to manage the first team and to win trophies–and the pressure he was under to do so should not be understated. He was from outside the club and did not come through the youth system as a player or coach, like Pep and Tito did, so he was not inculcated in the mythos of “La Masia”. He did not have the benefit of having watched the B team players develop over the past several years and knowing their strengths and weaknesses. And of course, Eusebio was having his own challenges with injured players and inconsistent results and may well have resisted letting his most important players be called away. We will never really know all the reasons that so little use was made of the youth players, but I can’t help but feel that things could have been managed better. 72 minutes falls very short of what I would have hoped for.


Bojanization and You

At the end of every Barça B season the question on everybody’s lips (well, on mine, at least) is “Who will be promoted?” As of this writing, only two players have been officially promoted: GK Jordi Masip, who will be the 2nd or 3rd choice keeper for the first team next season, and midfielder Denis Suarez, who will most likely be sent out on loan (although you never know, Lucho might like to have a look at him first). Several of the senior players are at the end of their contracts and will not be renewed or have been offered renewal with the B team only and have chosen to leave. Of the players left, the most talented ones are too young to be considered for promotion yet and the older ones are just plain not good enough for the first team. What does all this have to do with Bojan, you say? Well, there are some who say that if a player has excelled in the B team he should be promoted regardless of his age, that age is just a number and if a player is talented enough he will succeed in the first team regardless. Personally I feel this view is shortsighted and does a disservice to young players. Talent is very important, of course, but talent will only get a player so far if he has not been given the proper tools and training to make the most of it. A young player needs regular playing time to gain experience and develop decision-making skills on the pitch. Why promote an 18-year-old only to leave him sitting on the bench or playing the last 5 minutes of a game when he could be playing every week on the B team or be loaned out to another team to experience different challenges? Yes, Messi was promoted at 17, but Messi is a unique case and it would be a mistake to judge anyone else’s situation by the same standards.

A better example is Bojan Krkic. In his youth career, Bojan scored something like 1000 goals (I can’t be bothered to look it up, but it’s somewhere around there). He was the Golden Boy, the Next Big Thing, and he debuted with the first team at 17 years & 19 days, the youngest ever. His “people” pushed for early promotion, and since the first team was in a bit of a bind with injuries, the club agreed. Expectations were sky high, and for a while things went very well. He played a lot, he scored some, it looked like the world was his oyster. But at some point the pressures of being expected to always play at the highest level took their toll. Bojan was called up to the Spanish NT squad for the 2008 Euros, but he withdrew, reportedly due to having a panic attack. Over the next 3 seasons Bojan struggled with inconsistent performances, sometimes showing flashes of the old brilliance, but often looking lost and uncertain. Eventually he was largely relegated to the bench. His career has never really recovered, and he is still only 23. Some might say that Bojan just wasn’t good enough and wouldn’t have made it at Barça anyway, but I disagree. Bojan was and is a very talented player. But as a youth player he was so overhyped and pushed forward as the next homegrown star that it became almost impossible for him to live up to that. If he had been left to develop more slowly, either in the B team or being loaned out to another club, he may well have matured into a very different player. This is why exciting young players like Adama, Samper, and Munir need to be managed so carefully. They are all potentially first-team material, but promoting them now after only one season with the B team would be a huge mistake.

Revelation of the Season: Midfielder Denis Suarez. Perhaps not really a revelation, as we knew he was very good when we bought him from Manchester City, but he been one of the stand-out players this season. He has a great touch, reads the game well, and is just a very intelligent player all-around. A very good buy for us. Runner-Up: Munir el-Haddadi. Technically still a Juvenil A player, he didn’t get any minutes with the B team until quite late in the season, but he had already shone in tournaments, including Juvenil A’s victory in UEFA’s Youth League, in which he was the top scorer. At only 18, Munir is still a raw talent, but he is fast, technically skilled, and has a real nose for the goal.

Flop of the Season: Winger Dani Nieto. Although he made plenty of appearances, especially in the first half of the season, and scored 6 goals, most observers seem to agree that he just does not have the quality a Barcelona player needs. His first touch is poor, and his link-up play is lacking. He spent much of the spring warming the bench. Runner-Up: Ilie Sanchez. Sadly, the Barça B captain had a poor season, mainly due to being played out of his natural position as a defensive midfielder. He was forced to cover for injured CBs, and it was pretty clear that it was not a good fit.

Comeback of the Season: Edgar Ie, who has been almost permanently injured for two seasons, and in between knocks struggled to find playing time. It wasn’t until the second half of the season that he began to feature regularly, and showed his quality as both a rock-solid CB and a marauding RB. I would love it if Lucho took a closer look at this player in preseason. Runner-Up: Jean-Marie Dongou. The striker went through a dull stretch in mid-season when he was not scoring or playing particularly well, and was overshadowed by up-and-coming talents Adama Traore and Munir el-Haddadi, but by the spring he seemed to have regained his confidence and was raising havoc on the pitch again. He finished the season with 9 goals.

Season MVP: GK Jordi Masip. Eusebio’s first-choice keeper, Masip had an excellent season bailing out the often leaky defense in front of him. He has looked assured and confident in goal, and has earned his promotion to the first team. I hope he gets some real opportunities to shine and can help Ter Stegen learn how a Barça keeper needs to play.

Most Likely to Make the First Team Someday: Adama Traore, Munir el-Haddadi, Jean-Marie Dongou, Sergi Samper, Alejandro Grimaldo, Macky Frank Bagnack. I would love to add Edgar Ie to this list, but somehow I doubt it will happen.

Most Likely to be Sold for Pennies, Then Bought Back for Millions: Macky Frank Bagnack. Because that’s what we do, sell CBs.

Most Likely to Have a Solid Career as a Second-Tier Player With No Pretensions of Grandeur: Sergi Gomez (22). There are reports that Almeria may be interested in taking him on loan.

Best Player Leaving on a Free Transfer: Midfielder Javier Espinosa (21), whose contract expires this month, reportedly has offers from Valencia and Villarreal. Criminally underused in the previous two seasons, he did become a regular starter this year. Latest word is that FCB offered him a 2-year renewal with the B team, but he unsurprisingly turned it down. I wish him luck wherever he ends up.

Most Likely to Be Forgotten About Completely: Agostinho Ca. Bought at the same time as Edgar Ie, his time at Barça has been blighted by multiple injuries, and he has only ever played a handful of minutes. Currently out on loan to Girona, his contract expires in 2016, and is not likely to be extended.

So was this a successful season for the B team? I think even the harshest critics of Eusebio will have to agree that it has been. Third place in the league with the youngest squad is an excellent result whichever way you look at it. Some players may not have had all the playing time they deserve, but it was a drastic improvement over the previous few seasons. With former Barça B coach Luis Enrique now in charge of the first team, I think next season will provide a lot more opportunities for these talented players to develop.

*Speaking of RM Castilla, they finished the league in 20th spot, and have been relegated to the Segunda B, taking with them former Barça B player Kiko Femenia. You remember Kiko, don’t you? We bought him for the B team from (also newly-relegated) Hercules to great fanfare and talk of future opportunities with the first team. Pep Guardiola called him up in preseason, played him once or twice, and was unimpressed. He continued to impress no-one over the next two seasons, then left in a snit claiming the club had never given him any attention or support. Zubi was famously quoted as saying the club had done everything for Kiko except “play the football”.

A few updates, mostly via the reliable Gerard Romero:

Javi Espinosa will join Valencia this week. He rejected offers from Villarreal and Porto.

Captain Ilie Sanchez is heading to Germany to join 2nd division team Munchen 1860.

Carles Planas has offers from Spain, England and Germany and will leave the club.

Sergi Gómez and Patric Gabarron have offers but are considering whether to stay one more year at Barca B or transfer out.

And from rac1: Denis Suarez will join Sevilla on loan next season, as part of the (as yet unconfirmed) transfer of Sevilla midfielder Rakitic.

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Spain vs Holland: 1 + 5 conclusions



Holland’s victory over Spain was described in both countries as a historical result, and not without reason. Never before had a defending World Champion gotten their butts handed to them in such an all-encompassing manner. Sure, France didn’t manage a single goal in the group stage of 2002, and the memory of Cameroon’s upset over Argentina is still vivid more than twenty years later. However, losing by five to one? Daaayumn.

rvp

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. Please beyotch, it’s Robin Van Persie!

Flattering to deceive?

Did Spain really deserve this score line? They were on top for most of the first half, and although their penalty was given due to the fifth arbitral blunder of a two-day old tournament*, most viewers would agree that they deserved to be up one nil towards the end of the first half. Their midfield was in control, Costa looked dangerous throughout and David Silva squandered a great chance to bury the game by attempting to lob the Dutch keeper after Don Andrés carved open the defense like a Brazilian all you can eat meat buffet. Had he not gotten cute, it’s extremely doubtful the Oranje would have recovered from two goals down. Only a minute later, Holland equalized literally out of nowhere, with Van Persie deciding to finally break with his tradition of not showing up in big matches and executing one of the most beautifully headed goals seen in the history of the game. At the start of the second half, every Dutchman alive would have been happy if the game ended in a one-goal draw. Every Dutchman except eleven, that is. Was the fitness of the players the determining factor? The momentum after the second goal, which gave Holland wings on their backs and Spain lead in their feet? Van Gaal’s game plan of putting five Eredevisie players, two players from average EPL teams and a psycho maniac who makes Charlie Manson look like a teddy bear in service of two stars and a has been who plays at Galatasaray? Whatever the case, if you combine Spain’s defensive mistakes with the quality of Holland’s goals, five-one was an accurate reflection of a game that could have gone very differently.

casillas

When sainthood is not all it’s made out to be…

 

What a difference a season makes

With football’s governing bodies conspiring to squeeze maximum profits out of the game by filling calendars so much it’s rare to turn on the TV and not see a live match, it is no surprise that at a lot of international tournaments the star players underwhelm more often than they shine. Bring forth La Furia Roja, whose players have a combined gazillion minutes in their legs versus the Dutch, a team with five starters that had not even played European football last season. Couple that with Brazil’s heat and humidity and you can start to understand why Spain got overrun in the second half. To cite Louis Van Gaal, after modestly claiming he did not expect his team to win by that much, said that the key to Holland’s first game was to arrive fit and well-prepared for the climatic conditions.

Spain’s (and Barça’s) defense

One of the more interesting conclusions one could draw from this game is that it might not have mattered one iota if Barça had bought a much coveted central defender during the last three years. After all, Sergio Ramos pretty much fits the bill of what we need, right? Speedy**, physical and strong in the air. Yet their defense leaked like a zinc roof under a tropical rainstorm. There are of course some mitigating factors. Two goals were completely down to Casillas (of which one the argument can very well be made that he was fouled by Van Persie) and the other three were moments of such individual brilliance that I still can’t believe they all happened during the same game. And let’s not forget that in two years worth of competitive matches  before this one, Spain conceded a grand total of, you guessed it, five goals. Nevertheless, vast improvements under Gerardo Martino notwithstanding, the parallel with Barça’s defense stands. It will be interesting to see how Luis Enrique is going to address the balance of our team.

xabi

Possibly Xabi Alonso’s last World Cup game.

 

Arjen Robben

I can’t stand the guy. He’s arrogant, petulant and generally insufferable, or at least he comes off that way. I don’t know, maybe his mother likes him. Or not. But boy, is Holland lucky to have him. From his defense-splitting pass that put Sneijder eye to eye with Casillas to his sound barrier-breaking volley that La Roja’s captain miraculously kept out, the Dutch winger put up a performance for the ages. Both of his goals were a delight, and although the first one could have been prevented with a bit more solid defending, his second was unstoppable, leaving Piqué and Ramos with their eyes full of dust and turning Iker into a laughing stock. The big reason I considered Ribery’s ballon d’or candidacy of last year misguided was that he wasn’t even the best player on his team. Previously egocentric enough to make Cristiano Ronaldo look like Xavi Hernandez, if Robben had seen the light earlier in his career and combined his speed and technical abilities with the solid team play he has displayed over the last two years, he could have been in the running for player of the year awards throughout a big part of his career.

robben

What’s Spanish for “he got posterized”?

 

Spain’s chances for the rest of the tournament

Disastrous. I had not predicted them to go far to begin with, for the simple reason that they already defied the impossible by winning three tournaments in a row prior to this one, but to lose the opening game by such a huge score does not spell any good. They can keep their hopes alive by beating Chile on Wednesday and do Holland a huge favor in the process. If they draw, however, they’ll be left to hope that Holland lose their next two matches which, although not entirely impossible, must be considered unlikely. Either way, most of the scenarios in which they qualify for the next round will see them pitted against Brazil, a team which last summer’s Federation Cup final proved they do not match up well with at all. Such is life in the group of death, which must be won in order to avoid the host.

xaviniesta

Living legends.

And Holland’s…

It’s safe to say that the manner in which they beat the title holders has at least helped to get some of the stink off a team that was widely despised for having the audacity to for once actually try to win a World Cup at all costs in 2010. Never mind the fact that Manchester United fans the world over are creaming their pants at the prospect of Louis Van Gaal in charge of their club next season***. As for their chances, anything is possible. Winning the World Cup is a tall order for a country that for the first time in more than twenty-five years simply lacks the talent to manage anything near such lofty expectations, but if they can avoid Brazil in the second round they might go on a good run. Very few expected them to even come out of their group, but after an openener like this, anything less than  quarter final would have been a disappointed. Then again, it is not altogether inconceivable that they lose their next game to Australia… by five to one!

aficin-holanda

Go ahead son, make your country proud…

 

*We are three days later and honestly I’ve lost count. The biggest sport in the world in which games are generally won with the smallest margin will also be the last sport in the world to accept video technology. It’s a disgrace.

**  Yes, speedy. While Ramos was criticized for getting outrun for Holland’s last goal, he still clocked 31 km/hour. Problem is that Robben ran 37 km/hour, which is being touted as a record for a soccer player.

* * I still think he would have made for a great appointment at Barça

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World Cup Rules! Part II: The Venue

Excitement during the game at Caffe Dello Sport

A clean, well-lighted place

The World Cup nears its full samba-swing. As the group stage concludes, Spain (this year’s France!), Italy (this year’s Spain!), and England (this year’s Italy!) have been ushered out as Costa Rica (this year’s Paraguay!) steps into the spotlight. And you have invited an Average American and Andrés Iniesta (a little heartless of you, but Andy could probably use a night out) to enjoy a match and, hopefully, increase the chance that you can watch Champions next season on ABC instead of Roja Directa.

cerveza

This should do.

Our next step is to find a place to see the match. As PJ O’Rourke reminds us, the best place to host a party is someone else’s place. If you offer your place, other Average Americans might show up. They will budge Andy off the sectional, dust the linoleum with Chee-To dust and switch the HDMI from ESPNDeportes to EASports. They might even bring WAGs, who will leave your frozen pizza out to thaw into a soggy Frisbee while they chill wine coolers in your freezer.

bbq

Protein, glorious protein.

What about the Fellow Fan’s place? His friends will show up, too, but they’ll most likely be interesting, international friends whose sisters have adorable accents and little, WAG-size jerseys. And they’ll do you better than lukewarm wine coolers and Chee-Tos. If your friend, for example, is from Argentina, you will enjoy a wide variety of smoked meat products. If your friend hails from Mexico, you won’t go thirsty. But don’t ask them about it. You don’t want to propagate cultural stereotypes.

download

You enjoy myself!

A better option is to join a viewing party. There are viewing parties in almost all major cities; in fact, some people have suggested that the rush of red-white-and-blue painted bodies in goofy wigs and oversize sunglasses indicate a rising temperature in soccer fever among Americans. I demur. For one thing, most Americans will rush to any open urban space that promises fried food-‘n’a-stick and open containers of alcohol (Occupy the State Fairgrounds!) Half the Chicagoans in this photo, for example, think they are attending Jazzfest; about 40% are psyched for Bluesfest; and at least two-thirds are going to camp out for the July 3rd fireworks. Ring the White House to ask if anyone’s headed to “The Taste” and watch Valerie Jarrett outpace Arne Duncan from Pennsylvania Avenue to Columbus Drive.

An even better option is a bar. Bars are cool, because they are air-conditioned. Also, they have a variety of seating options so you can look as cool as you feel: the snug (where you stash the WAGs); the stool (where the international sisters perch); and the footrail (where you rest your aching feet after all that standing and ogle the barmaids. Sorry: barms’s. ).

lame

Noooooo …

You want a viewing bar, but it’s got to be a good viewing bar. The VFW is NSFV. TGIF and BW3 are plausible, because they have lots of TVs and spinach-dip appetizers for the WAGs, but there is a risk that they flip the big screen to “TriviaTime!” and refuse to change the channel back. For an international sporting event, an international bar is best. There’s the charming Caffe Dello Sport in Boston’s North End. Oh, wait, maybe not. What about New York’s Manchester Pub, or Minneapolis’ Brits? Er. On second thought. Why not Chicago’s Café Iberico … oh, yeah.

So … ten o’clock, your place?

 

 

 

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World Cup Rules! Part I: The Wingman

imagesAn American soccer fan lives a lonely life. It’s not as if Americans didn’t love them some organized sports. I live in a town, for instance, where middle-aged people ask perfect strangers to “teach them how to Bucky.” Prosperous landowners paint their barns kelly green and yellow. And it’s not as if my neighbors were provincial yahoos. Why, they travel all the way to Milwaukee to see the Brewers, and enjoy bier, wurst, and fromage, preferrably al fresco in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot. Continue Reading

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