Archive | Barcelona

Suarez Hates To Lose

Midway through the World Cup news regarding Luis Suarez joining Barcelona started to emerge. Fans were furious at the fact that we are signing someone with such a terrible character. Let’s just say Luis Suarez is not a person you want to look up to. From Suarez being involved in acts of racism, to actually biting his opponents, the fans had every right to be furious. Not only did the club sign a player of terrible reputation, they also signed a player who was banned for four months.

However, according to Luis himself, his arrival at Barcelona signaled a new beginning. This new beginning meant that all his horrendous acts will be put aside. Luis Suarez considers that he now has a chance at a better life. He believes that his dream came true the moment he put on the Barça shirt.

You could write a movie script about Luis Suarez’s complicated character. The romantic story regarding his girlfriend and how he played football to get her back tells you one side of the story. The other side of the story tells you that he is a psychotic freak of nature.

When asked why he was involved in such hideous actions, Luis Suarez replied: I hate to lose. I don’t know how to lose.

This is a terrible reply. It doesn’t justify his actions. Then again, nothing justifies his actions.

However, this reply brings me to the part I’m interested in and it was never his character. Actually, I was never interested in players’ characters to begin with. This brings me to Luis Suarez, the football player.

Luis Suarez’s ban ended on October 25th 2014. He was directly involved in El Clasico. This match witnessed Barcelona losing 3-1. Unlike most players on their debut, Luis Suarez had a huge impact on the first half. His pass to Neymar led to the first goal. Another beautiful pass to Lionel Messi could’ve made Barcelona have some sort of advantage against a very lethal opponent.

And this is what Luis Suarez is all about.

I remember watching him play for Liverpool hoping I’d see him in our colors. Not many players in the world can make an entire team look good. The last time I checked only Lionel Messi could do that. This, of course, does not disregard what Brendan Rodgers did or what other players were capable of but it was obvious that Liverpool had a player who was on a higher level than the others.

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Regardless of the fact that I hate evaluating players based on stats but the qualities & quantities shown above do not portray a normal player. Suarez is no normal player. We notice so much dominance and completeness in only a very few number of players in the world.

Luis Suarez is not your usual striker. His selfishness is a myth.  He is a playmaker with the ability to score beautiful goals. He’ll lose the ball and fight with every inch of power God has given him to get it back. He is of killer instincts. His intelligence on the field is indescribable. He is always one step ahead of the defender and has the ability to predict the defender’s next move. His technique while receiving the ball to set himself up for a pass or a shot is sensational.

A lot could be said about his talent but more could be said about how passionate he is.

Whether with Liverpool or now with Barcelona, one thing hasn’t changed. He’ll absolutely play his heart out in every single match he is involved in. When he scored a simple tap-in against PSG he was ecstatic. For a second there, he did not care how he scored or against who. All he cared about was the fact that he finally scored in the Camp Nou & in the competition he always wanted to win (his second goal in this competition).

Luis Suarez’s character might not be the fans’ favorite however a part of his character brings back something the fans really needed to see: passion and working your butt off.

Enough with poetry, though. The fans want hard facts and results. Can you blame them?

Barcelona spent around 80 million for a striker whose stats read: 2 goals, 6 assists.
However this does not look so bad when comparing it to others(again, excuse the stat):

 

 

Adapting to Barcelona’s style of play is in itself a challenge to players no matter how great they are. This, of course, is not my assumption. Thierry Henry, Alexis Sanchez and others have all admitted to the fact that players learn a different type of football as soon as they step foot in Barcelona.

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Playing alongside Lionel Messi is the toughest yet most beautiful thing in the world for a top player. It is beautiful because the player finally finds someone who is on a similar mental level. It is tough because the player is no longer the main man and you can feel it. From Suarez’s hesitation in front of goal to his constant need to pass one touch passes he isn’t sure of. Suarez is always in a rush and seems rather shaky on his first touch.

With that said, there is no need to worry about Luis Suarez.  Intelligent players like him always find a way.  He took Liverpool to the top and his impact on that team was no coincidence or fluke.

Scrolling through my timeline, reading news, and opening articles I noticed a certain tone among the majority. Some have already declared him a failure. Many simply disregard that Suarez has been an active Barcelona player for only a month and a half. And in this month and a half he produced moments of absolute brilliance that should remind the fans of what he is actually capable of.

When Suarez first arrived here he said: “I am here to win trophies”.
I am pretty confident that he’ll be a crucial and decisive factor in winning any trophy in the upcoming months. After all, Suarez hates to lose.

Posted in Barcelona, Player Profiles, Thoughts7 Comments

How do you answer time, aka “The problems of inaction”

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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.

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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?

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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?”

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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.

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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?

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Posted in Barcelona78 Comments

Barça saved Barça

Pep Guardiola became Barcelona coach in 2008. Pep guided the club towards years of glory. He created what was considered the best team in history.

It was considered the best team in history for many reasons. That team could entertain, win matches, win trophies, and go out every match day with ridiculous score-lines.

Lionel Messi and Pep Guardiola
There is much more to say about Pep’s team but no one is interested in a history lesson. So, we move on.

Move on? I guess that’s the correct word to describe the rest of this article.

You can’t help but notice how people (not only Barcelona fans) are deeply attached to Pep’s Barça. They link that team with any possible version of Barcelona whether in the past or present. Although this type of comparison may be healthy as it encourages Barcelona to always move forward, it is also the most devastating comparison a person could make about football teams.

Back into history: Pep’s team was not only an exception to football teams, it was an exception to football itself.

Pep’s team created images such as: The goalkeeper can last matches without being involved much. The midfield will always link up perfectly regardless of the opponent and how the opponent reacts. More could be said about what Pep’s team portrayed but the main point is that it was an exception to powerful football teams, let alone football teams in general. No team could dominate a match so easily.

Pep’s team shifted the average score-lines upwards. Football was always averaging 1-0 and 2-1 scorelines. Pep’s team simply crushed that average. We witnessed easy 3-goal differences. We sat back on the weekend to wait for another 5-goal difference against a mid-table team. Pep’s team turned 4-goal differences into a norm. And 4-goal differences are an exception in football, so how would you describe the scorelines with 5, 6, or even 7 goal differences? Ridiculous.

I am sure Barça fans worldwide can describe that specific team (precisely the 2011 team) better than I. Pep’s team took football out of the reality it lives in.

Consequently that team also took football fans, specifically Barça fans, out of the reality of football. Barça fans became so deeply attached to that team, and can you blame them? With all that glory why wouldn’t you be deeply attached?

And here comes the most dangerous part of all.

Barça supporters were staring happily at Pep while he built the perfect Barça. However while doing so, some bricks fell off. By the time Pep left Barça these bricks formed one huge wall. This wall is known as the ‘creativity block’.

A simpler way of explaining it is this: “Do it like that. It’s how it worked before. Don’t think of something different. Different is bad.”

The more ironic part of this is that Pep was and still is one of the most creative coaches in the world. However, he seemed to have left some certain “rules” in Barcelona. He left rules and ideas that were so strict and rigid that creativity had no place anymore. And the moment creativity, innovation, and taking risks have no place is when anything declares failure.

What rules?

From player positions to instructions to a complete style of play, Barça fans and possibly even the people in charge were stuck to the idea: “Well, that’s how it worked before.”

There is a fear of trying something new, even as, again, many disregard that “trying something new” is mostly what Pep himself attempted.

There is a fear of seeing Lionel Messi in other positions. There is a fear of Busquets not being the center of the team. There is a fear of Xavi not being the main controlling force in midfield.

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And the examples about other players and more importantly the style of play also exist.

There is a fear of seeing a long ball and actually not being 100% safe. There is reluctance to shoot from outside the area to break a defense and be more direct (this is changing recently) instead of passing your way through it.

This is not a request to push Lionel to other positions. This is not a request to bench Busquets. This is not a request to stop Xavi from being the main orchestrator. This is not a request to shift play toward constant long balls or endless shooting. On the contrary, these players are doing great and our style of play has been proven effective for years.

However, this is a request to keep an open eye for other options and not be afraid to try them. Because if football was dependent on a set of rules and certain ideas we would never watch it because it would be so boring. In reality, football changes a lot and obviously so do teams.

With that said, let’s move more into the present.

Barcelona recently defeated PSG in a match that witnessed Lionel Messi, Neymar and Suarez scoring. Many might argue that it wasn’t the best Barcelona performance. That’s true. The team seemed shaky on several occasions. However, the team was also experiencing a lineup that made everyone in the world go: “Huh?”

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PSG has a very talented midfield that gave us problems. This, was in addition to knowing that Andres and Busquets are not exactly going through their best periods.

Barcelona conceded first with a goal from non other than Zlatan. However, if Barça fans learned anything from the recent scorelines in La Liga it is that this team has a resilient character. From being down by one goal against Espanyol then reacting, to fighting until the last second against Valencia, Ibrahimovic’s goal was obviously not going to keep this team quiet.

A long ball from Mascherano to Luis Suarez caused Lionel Messi’s goal. Later, Neymar showed his own brilliance with a beautiful shot from outside PSG’s area. Finally, and after a beautiful passing display, Suarez ended the match with a rebound goal after another Neymar attempt.

Luis Suarez

Team needs improving? The answer to this question should always be a ‘yes’.

Formation needs to be used more so that players get used to it? Yes.

Among all the discussions one discussion remains the most intriguing:

“Barcelona and Luis Enrique were saved by individual brilliance, not team display.”

Again, it wasn’t the best team display. It is also worth mentioning that individual brilliance is actually one of the most beautiful parts of the game. The ability of these very talented forwards doesn’t show the lack of the team’s structure in any way. In fact, it only shows one thing: they are world-class players capable of changing any game. That’s what they’re here for.

However apparently Pep disagrees. According to many, in Pep’s era Barcelona scored most of their goals by team play. The players held hands as they passed the ball into the net. This statement is true, yet very inaccurate.

Many, if not most, of Lionel Messi’s goals in Pep’s era or now are based on his individual brilliance. Why stop at goals? When Lionel Messi dribbled 3-4 players and his teammate went for a tap-in, isn’t that also an act of individual brilliance from Lionel?

When did individual brilliance become something that displeases the fans?

More importantly, when did individual brilliance deviate away from manager instructions? Was it only Neymar’s decision to take the shot against PSG? Probably. However it is surely not only Neymar’s decision that he is shooting more this season. Instructions exist too. From hitting the post with a beautiful shot to his excellent goal against Real Madrid, Neymar has obviously been given more freedom. He has obviously been given instructions to do what he sees fit. He is individually brilliant but he has also been given the proper instructions.

Individual brilliance cannot be separated from team-coach brilliance, especially in a team where Lionel Messi plays.

Individual brilliance saved Barça? Not exactly … Barça, being who they are saved Barça.

The ideas of Pep and the past won’t save the team now. Brilliance and innovation were always the two things that kept this club going. They’re the reason why I fell in love with it.

It is safe to say: Barça saved Barça.

Posted in Barcelona, Champions League, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts23 Comments

The Zubizarreta Files, Pt. 1 (2010-11)

Few high profile positions in this world have as many people thinking they can do a better job at than that of the technical director of a huge and powerful football club. With millions (and millions and millions and millions) of euros and one of the world’s largest scouting networks at your disposal, it’s hard to see how you could fail. You just have to watch loads of football and decide which players would improve your club.  It’s easy. Peasy. Simple as. Do you want that piece of cake, because I’m about to eat it.

In comes Andoni Zubizarreta. Zubi was announced as FC Barcelona’s technical director on July 2, 2010. As a player he had enjoyed an impressive career, which included an eight-season spell of saving lots of shots but never penalties at the Camp Nou. After he hung up his gloves, he spent three years as a sports director at Athletic de Bilbao before writing columns for El País and analyzing games for TVE.

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Much maligned and often ridiculed (occasionally by yours truly because, hey, it’s fun), he recently got booed, jeered and whistled by approximately a football stadium full of people when his already not so small face was projected on a giant screen during a tribute video for Messi’s total Liga goal record. In today’s climate it therefore becomes fashionable to ask “how bad has he been so far?” instead of “how has he done so far?” but if I did that, you might ask me “is this a Twitter account?” instead of an article on the hot-darnest most awesomest website dedicated to Barça. So instead, let’s examine his performance, year by year.

In the summer of 2010 Sandro Rosell headed a new board of directors which had comfortably won the elections to take over from Joan Laporta. He thus felt he had the mandate to start with a clean slate and replaced Txiki Beguiristain with Andoni Zubizaretta. Before Txiki left, however, he signed David Villa* (40M) and sold Yaya Touré (30M).

The squad he inherited looked as follows:

 

Barça summer 2010

Zubizarreta’s coach, half man half I don’t know what kind of life form Gandalf is supposed to be, Josep Guardiola, felt right back Martin Cáceres, midfielder Victor Sánchez and Brazilian forward Keirrison de Souza Carneiro did not possess the necessary quality to make it at Barcelona. Hleb had not played for the club for over a year, as he was found lacking character during his first season. This was something Swedish superstar Ibrahimovic had perhaps too much of and he felt uncomfortable with his role in the team. He clashed with his coach and so turned the possibility of keeping him into an impossibility.

All this left the squad, which only a couple of months earlier had been a volcanic eruption and a scandal at San Siro away from reaching its second Champions League final in a row, with real needs at the right back and defensive midfield positions. In a pinch, Carles Puyol could cover for Dani Alves, as could Seydou Keita and Rafa Marquez for holding midfield revelation Sergio Busquets, but these were not ideal solutions, neither in case of injury nor for rotational purposes.

When looking at the diagram above, the need for a central midfielder seems obvious as well. It was felt, however, that Thiago could rotate in from the B-team and that sooner or later Cesc Fàbregas would come home. In the meantime Seydou Keita could ably back up Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta. Another thing to keep in mind is the age of the central defenders: All of Puyol, Marquez, Milito and Abidal would have walked up the stairs to the third floor by the end of September and we all know that the longer you walk on that floor, the heavier your boots become.

RENEWED: Josep Guardiola

RENEWED: Josep Guardiola

Although Barça narrowly missed out on the CL final, there was little doubt who were the best team in Europe. Guardiola had already turned himself into a living legend by winning the sextuple Liga, Cup, Champion’s League, Supercup, European Supercup and the club World Cup. No way was he going to ditch his players after only two seasons in charge, right? Not necessarily. Let’s just say that there are reasons to believe he was not as comfortable with the new board of directors as others. Sandro Rosell’s first act as president to strip Johan Cruijff’s off of his title of “honorary president” did not sit right the Dutchman’s former pupil. After all the two men were still friends and held regular golf and dinner dates. Guardiola has never hid his admiration of and gratitude towards the guru. Still, two weeks after Cruijff stormed the club office to give back his title of honor, Pep signed a one-year extension to his contract and by the end of the season he signed on for another year. It was not the long term commitment many had hoped for, but at least the immediate future felt safe.

VERDICT: Zubi got Pep to commit… but only just.

RENEWED: Dani Alves, Sergio Busquets and Bojan Krkic

RENEWED: Dani Alves, Sergio Busquets and Bojan Krkic

Pretty standard stuff, here. All three players signed extensions that would keep them at the club until 2015. Bojan was the first to put pen to paper, in December 2010. The diminutive forward had not enjoyed the best first half of the season but he was still considered an important talent. Sergio Busquets, who had dislodged the moving man-mountain called Yaya the season before, signed his extension a month later. Dani Alves was last up and signed his in March, an important deal to secure a player whose only competition for the best at his position at the time came from fellow Brazilian Maicon, who pledged his trade at Internazionale.

VERDICT: Zubi got no complaints from me.

Andreu Fontas 2010

PROMOTED: Andreu Fontàs

Having hardly featured under Pep since his 2009 league debut, central defender and Masía graduate Andreu Fontàs i Prat was called up for the November 2010 eight zero drubbing of  Almería and showed great promise. The sharper memories among us will recall his fifty yard pass that led to a goal and the even sharper ones will tell me in the comment section who scored. When Abidal fell ill with cancer halfway through the season, the twenty-year old was promoted to the first team.

Promoted from the youth ranks to the B-team were: Isaac Cuenca, Marti Riverola and a young Spanish Brazilian who went by the name of Rafinha.

VERDICT: Zubi gotta promote at least one player.

OUT (24M): Zlatan Ibrahimovic (CF)

OUT (24M): Zlatan Ibrahimovic

A year earlier, Pep had sent Mad Sammy Eto’o packing because of a lack of “feeling,” upon which Txiki Beguiristain gave him a suitcase full of 56 million euros to pass on to Massimo Moratti along with a Google Maps printout with directions of how to send tae kwon do expert Zlatan Ibrahimovic racing his Lamborghini to Barcelona. As the season progressed it became clear that our coach had received more than he’d bargained for. After a brilliant start, the big Swede became disenchanted both with how he was used on the pitch as how he was asked to behave off of it. A dip in form saw him subbed out at around the 60 minute mark in both CL semis and he eventually lost his starting spot to Bojan Krkic.

If culers hoped Guardiola and Ibrahimovic could restore their relationship, they were badly mistaken. The Gamper Trophy exhibition match gave us a glimpse of what a Messi-Ibra-Villa frontline looked like, but it was presumably during the same 90 minutes that Sandro Rosell agreed to sell him to AC Milan. The final terms were to be a one-year loan which would be turned into a permanent deal for 24M to be paid in three yearly 8M installments. All in all, within one year the club lost its most expensive signing ever for less than a third of the paid transfer fee.

VERDICT: Zubi got Zlatanned.

OUT (15M): Dmitro Chygrinsky (CB)

OUT (15M): Dmytro Chygrinsky

His spell at our club was as short as it was unfortunate. Brought in for 25 million euros and given a five-year contract, the lanky defender went on to play 14 matches in his first season during which he impressed Guardiola and pretty much nobody else. In a decision that was largely attributed to Sandro Rosell, Chyggy Pop was sent back where he came from for 15M. The sale was against the express wishes of the Barça coach, but color copies were hard to come by in those days. Time seems to have proven the former president right, though, as over the last four seasons Dmitro has only played 34 matches. Rest assured that his season at our club has not been in vain. Crackovia watchers will forever cherish his Chewbacca-like appearances thanks to the Ukranian’s difficulty with learning the local language.

VERDICT: Pep got Sandroed.

OUT (Free): Thierry Henry

OUT (Free): Thierry Henry

Had you told me a not often used substitute called Pedro would relegate one of the modern game’s greats to the position of being a not often used substitute, I would not have believed you. Rarely has a player’s performance declined so sharply from one season to the next. The Frenchman went from 26 goals out of 42 matches to 4 goals out of 32. By the end of the 2009-10 season, Laporta declared he would not hold him to the last year of his contract and less than two weeks after Zubizarreta took to office, he was on a free to the New York Red Bulls.

VERDICT: Zubi got nothing to do with this one.

OUT (Free): Rafael Márquez

OUT (Free): Rafael Márquez

Signed in 2003, Rafael Marquez played a total of 242 matches for F.C. Barcelona. Although he was under contract for another two years, the club decided to release him. Chalk that up to letting you go wherever you want for services rendered. Rafa joined Thierry Henry Stateside.

VERDICT: Zubi got free season tickets to New York Red Bulls games for the next ten years.

OUT (Loan): Alexander Hleb

OUT (Loan): Alexander Hleb

Previously loaned out to VFB Stuttgart, it was painstakingly obvious Hleb was not going to come back to his Catalan paymasters. Although once widely coveted due to his stellar play at Arsenal before moving to Barcelona, it turned out impossible for our new technical director to find the Belarussian a permanent home and so, another loan deal was found, this time back in the EPL, at Birmingham City.

VERDICT: Zubi got Hlebbed.

OUT (Loan): Martin Cáceres

OUT (Loan): Martin Cáceres

Martin Cáceres was sent to to Sevilla on a brand new loan deal with an option to buy after having spent the previous year with an old lady in Italy. On May 1 he was attacked by a Danish dog and rushed into the hospital with a lacerated kidney.** Nevertheless, a month later Sevilla took the player from our hands for three million euros. It didn’t pan out the way the club had hoped, however, and at the end of the next transfer window Cáceres was again loaned to Juventus, where he would eventually sign a four-year contract. To make a long story short, a player that Barça had bought for 16.5M at the age of 21 was sold for 3M three seasons later and is currently worth 9M at the age of 27.

VERDICT: Zubi gots to take an Economics 101, and soon.

OUT (Loan): Keirrison

OUT (Loan): Keirrison

in July, 2009, Palmeiras sold 20 year old striker Keirrison de Souza Carneiro move to Barcelona for a 14M transfer fee plus an additional 2M in variables. A teenage prodigy in his native Brazil, he was to be loaned out and gain experience before trying to break into a Barcelona squad that would go on to make history. Zubi’s predecessor, Txiki Beguiristain, had high expectations. Benfica was the chosen among many suitors, but after only a couple of games their coach decided he’d play better from the bench. A park bench, to be exact. High expectations made way for a bit less high expectations. In January of 2010 another loan deal was struck with Fiorentina, worth two years with an option to buy (for 14M). Twelve games and two goals later, La Viola had enough and sent him back to Barça, exactly one week into Zubizarreta’s reign. What were once a bit less high expectations were slowly turning into moderate expectations. It took the Basque two days to find Keirrison a club in Brazil, where he would join Santos on, you guessed it, a loan. Culers were starting to have low expectations about this one.

VERDICT: Zubi got Txikied.

OUT (Loan): Victor Sánchez

OUT (Loan): Victor Sánchez

Homegrown Victor Sánchez Mata appeared in seven games during the treble season. For 2009-10, the defender slash defensive mid was loaned out to Xerez, where he played 25 games and scored twice. Upon his return home, Zubizarreta loaned him out to Getafe. He played 29 games and helped the Madrid club avoid relegation.

VERDICT: Zubi got this loan thing down pat.

OUT (450k): Ruben Rochina

OUT (450k): Rubén Rochina

Brought into the Masía at the age of thirteen, striker Rubén Rochina hung on for three seasons at Barça B, playing 26 games in which he scored 4 goals. In a deal that almost surely caused a tsunami-wave of excitement in the FCB front office, Zubizarreta managed to sell the Valencian to Blackburn Rovers for an actual transfer fee, netting the club a nifty 450,000 euros. He would score a further seven goals in forty-six appearances for the British club, where his stay would be interrupted with short loan spells to Zaragoza and Rayo Vallecano. In the summer of 2014 he would come back to la Liga for good, signing with the Andalusian club Granada. His current worth is estimated at 1.5M.

VERDICT: Zubi sold a player for money. I repeat, for money!

OUT (Free) Alberto Botía

OUT (Free): Alberto Botía

Already a loanee at Sporting Gijón during the previous season, all parties agreed to turn the loan-deal into a free transfer that included a buy-back clause. He played impressively, as his team drew with Barça and beat M*drid during the end of the season. Although his buy-back clause was relatively low and more than a few culers wanted the club to give him a chance, Zubi wasn’t buying it. He went on to represent Sporting Gijón for a further two seasons before the club sold him to Sevilla for a cool profit of three million euros. Sevilla decided to loan him out to Elche during his second year and finally sold him to Olympiakos for two million. He is currently valued at 4M.

VERDICT:  Zubi got nothing instead of something.

Also out for the grand total of zero euros: Jaume Sobregau, Polaco, Iván Benitez, José Manuel Rueda, Víctor Espasandín, Sergio Urbano, Miguel Ángel Luque and Elvis (left the building). Most make a living in one of the lower Spanish leagues with the notable exception of Benitez who is presumably tackling strikers and looking for sponsorship deals in Azerbadjan. Their current combined worth is estimated around the 1M mark.

Newly promoted Barça B members Isaac Cuenca and Martí Riverola were loaned out to CE Sabadell (Segunda) and Vitesse Arnhem (Eredivisie) respectively

VERDICT: Zubi gots to know these players better than we do, right?

IN (9.5M): Adriano

IN (9.5M): Adriano

The real McCoy of utility players, Adriano Correia Claro played both full-back positions and filled holes in the midfield for back-to-back UEFA Cup winning Sevilla. At Barça he would occasionally be used as a winger and a center back, as well. He had kept his love for muscle sprains and tears hidden by playing a respectable 214 games in the last six seasons. Ambidextrous, speedy, possessor of a killer long distance shot, a lively intelligence and a bright disposition, for 9.5 million Adriano was a no-brainer who could back up Dani Alves and then some.

By and by he has done well at Barça so far. While never managing to dethrone either of Alves or Abidal and Jordi Alba, both the team and fans are comfortable when he plays. He has no big weaknesses and an absolute howitzer of a long distance shot. After a couple of repeated injuries, they call him mister glass, but since the club never depended on him to start week in week out, the positives have far outweighed the negatives.

VERDICT: Zubi got a sore hamstring, but it was worth it.

IN (20M): Javier Mascherano

IN (20M): Javier Mascherano

In what turned out to be the technical director’s best deal in his first year at Barça, Javier ‘El Jefecito’ Mascherano left Merseyside for Catalonia after playing hardball with his former club Liverpool, where he was under contract for two more seasons. With Barcelona unwilling to meet the £25,000,000 asking price, Masche refused to suit up in red, claiming that his family was unhappy in England and his wife’s legs were getting milky. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked and Zubizarreta got the club to accept a ‘mere’ 20M euros and the player to take a pay cut.

Initially underused by Guardiola, who was hesitant to employ him in a midfield where only the tikiest of the takiest survived, the coach eventually converted him to a central defender, a position at which he ended up starting the Champion’s League final at the end of his first season at the club. Many thought we had found our new Puyol. A dominant force that snatches up all balls that are played over the ground, those first 12 months as a CB were possibly his best, before opponents figured out his weaknesses for high balls, whether played from deep or from the flanks. Be that as it may, his intelligence, dedication and leadership qualities have made him a beloved figure among all culers, who are sure to lose his mind when (if ever) he scores his first goal in our colors.

VERDICT: Zubi got his man.

IN (3M): Ibrahim Afellay

IN (3M): Ibrahim Afellay

It’s easy to forget how excited we all were about this January signing. A young and talented international from the Dutch school who could play anywhere in midfield and on both wings. Ibi was fast, could dribble, pass and shoot with flair and, with only six months left on his contract with PSV Einhoven, he wanted above all things to play for Barça and no-one else, which led to Zubi snatching him up for such a ridiculously low price BFB’ers immediately nicknamed him “3M.”

While nobody expected him to displace any of the established starters in the second half of the season, we can say he came along nicely, appearing in 26 games in all competitions and earning everlasting culer fondness for blasting past Marcelo and assisting Leo Messi for a crucial semi-final Champions League goal against arch rivals Real M*drid. Pep rewarded him with a couple of minutes in the CL final, an act that broke Bojan Krkic’s heart.

The real heartbreak came a couple of months later, when Ibi’s second season practically ended before it started with a ligament injury that required surgery and a 7-month rehabiliation period.

VERDICT: Zubi got a great talent for a low price.

IN (600k): Saul Berjón, Carlos Ramona & Abrahám.

IN (600k): Saul Berjón, Carlos Carmona & Abrahám.

Saul Berjón and Carlos Ramona were bought for 300k each from UD Palmeiros and Recreativo Huelva. Abrahám Mineiro was picked up for free from neighboring Sant Andreu. Of the three players, attacking midfielder Carlos fared best, playing 55 games for Barça B and scoring 6 goals. He eventually left the club for free to pursue his career at Sporting Gijón, where has played 83 games and scored 13. Winger Saul Berjón was loaned out after his first season in the B-team after which he was let go to Real Murcia. Abrahám only lasted one year and currently represents SD Eibar. The real gem that year was former youth player Cristian Tello, who Txiki brought back from Espanyol the month before he left the club. None of Zubi’s B-team signings went on to impress. However, if you don’t shoot, you don’t miss. With that in mind…

VERDICT: Wherever you are, don’t move! Zubi got the bow, three arrows and his eye caps on.

So, after the ins and outs, the arrivals and the departures, the honeymoon sweethearts and the bitterly divorced, the freshmen and the drop-outs, the newly born and the dearly departed and the fish and the rabbits, Pep Guardiola had the following squad at his disposal. Keep in mind that Afellay arrived after the January transfer window. One could even go as far as saying that Mascherano was a “winter” signing also, because it wasn’t until after a couple of months had passed that Pep decided to convert him into a central defender.

barça zubi

As you can see, Zubizarreta made sure every starter had a quality backup***. Guardiola could also call upon the B-team and used no less than fourteen players. Fontàs, Nolito, Sergi Roberto, Víctor Vázquez, Rubén Miño, Marc Bartra, Sergi Gómez, J. Dos Santos, Muniesa, Romeu, Olazabál, Montoya and Thiago Alcântara all got to play with the first team. Thiago featured most, playing a whopping 730 minutes. This was in part due to the fact that he was the jewel of the cantera, but also out of necessity: Iniesta, Xavi and Keita had to be rotated and Pep liked Afellay more on the wings than in the midfield.

So what about the deals Zubizarreta didn’t make?

Diego Godín (8M), Mesut Özil (12M), Ángel Di Maria (25M)

Diego Godín (8M), Mesut Özil (12M), Ángel Di Maria (25M)

Hindsight makes culers wish Zubizarreta had had the foresight to not wait until 2014 to sign a central defender and Diego Godín would have been a smart pick up. Sold to Atletico Madrid by Villareal at the age of 24 for only 8 million euro, Godín has proven quite the deal for the mattress makers. A Uruguayan international since he was 19 years old, the 1,86 meters tall hard man is one of the best center backs in the business today. The need for this position might not have been so obvious in the summer of 2010 as modern day legend would have us believe, but the club could have done worse than spend eight million on Diego Roberto Godín Leal.

Begging to be bought by Barça after a stellar World Cup, Mesut Özil was one of the summer’s golden boys on the market. An associative player with quick feet and an even quicker mind, the 22-year old Turkish German was in the last year of his Werder Bremen contract and on every fan’s wish list. Possessed with a perfect technique and a 360 degree vision (no, literally), Mesut would have been a perfect fit for our midfield and a possible option at the right forward slot as well. A professed fan of Barça, when our technical director denied all overtures he wasn’t culer enough to resist Real M*drid and Flor snatched him up for a cool 12M. Incomprehensibly, Zubi blew it.

Last but not least, Ángel Di Maria. We probably never had a chance to get the wiry Argentinian winger, due to the Jorge Mendes – Mourinho connection, but imagine we would have let Villa go to M*drid and gotten Di Maria for 15 million euros less. Heck, and I don’t mean any disrespect, but Di Maria would have been worth every 40 million we paid for el Guaje. Anyway, the money was spent before Zubi even got here, so there’s no use crying over it. One can only imagine what could have been.

…………………………………

The final conclusion is yours to draw. This is the first installment of a four-piece series. Coming up will be the 2011-12 season.

 

EDIT: I see how the last segment in which I dealt with Godín, Özil and Di Maria can be read as a conclusion of Zubizarreta’s first year at the club, but that is not my attention. If anything, it’s more of an appendix. The final conclusion is yours to draw, to which the above summary of Zubi’s dealings in the 2010-2011 season is simply an assist.

 

 

* Thank God David Villa was Txiki’s doing. It means I don’t have to analyze and make unnecessary waves by explaining it was not nearly as good a signing as many like to believe… Oops.

** The Danish dog’s name was Michael Jakobsen and he was shown a straight red. For aficionados of the hard foul.

*** People will laugh now, but Bojan was a genuine talent at the time. He was only an iffy referee call from putting Barça in the CL final with a disallowed goal in the dying minutes of the second leg against Internazionale. By the end of the 2009-10 season, he had replaced Ibrahimovic in the starting lineup. He also did this.

Posted in Barcelona81 Comments

Mister Stat Guy, Justice For Leo

My laptop is in front of me, my fingers are on the keyboard and my cup of coffee is getting cold. It’s getting cold because when I first ordered it I sat down to write about Lionel Messi. I thought this was easy…Obviously not.

You see, when it comes to Lionel Messi you ask yourself a golden question: “where do I begin?”

Lionel Messi recently broke the “La Liga top scorer of all time” record.  Nothing is more fascinating than how it all started.

“That chip though”

It goes unnoticed, sometimes, how Leo changed parts of the game. Leo has the ability to execute a perfect chip every time he encounters a goalkeeper. Now if you’ve ever grabbed a ball with a group of friends and headed down to the field to show off your mad skills, you would know that executing a chip with this much ease, precision, beauty, and in that ridiculous repetitive physics conquering  *deep breath* fashion is one of the most difficult things in the sport. As for Lionel, he does it after a few milliseconds from receiving the ball.

It’s almost as if time stops, Leo prepares himself for the chip, executes it, then he presses “play” for you to watch what he is about to do.
Why bother do that when I can just smash it in? I mean a goal is a goal after all… Right?

On paper and for the stat obsessed a goal is a goal. It will just increment the score-line by one. However, for spectators and people who have paid money to be entertained (after all that’s the point of the sport) 1 plus 1 is rarely equal 2.

This leads me to my point.

A letter to mister stat guy

Dear mister stat guy,

I have something to say.

How will you record what Lionel Messi has just done? Do you think a bunch of numbers will represent what he does on the field?

Your book goes something like this: “Lionel Messi, 3 dribbles, 1 chance created”

Does your statement describe that Lionel just made 3 players look like absolute fools after he controlled the ball with an astonishing fashion? Does your statement describe that the thousands in the stadium were suddenly on their feet and the millions watching at home were either giggling or in shock? Does your statement mention that Lionel has just seen a player who is yards away from him, detected his run, and sent the ball with so much precision that the teammate’s run coincided with the ball hitting the ground? Did your statement mention that Lionel had the physical and mental ability to execute these four actions in a matter of 2 seconds? Will your numbers do him any justice?

No, mister stat guy, your statement brought Leo down to the level of other footballers. We can now sadly compare in numbers.

However, these thousands in the stadium and the millions watching at home disagree with what you have to say. They felt the adrenaline. They enjoyed the moment Leo had the ball. They wanted the ball to be given back to him so that they could tell their friends: “Okay, now watch him do something ridiculous”.
Mister stat guy, what did you say when Lionel dribbled the Real Madrid players from midfield to score? I guess it’s something like “3 dribbles, 1 goal”.

But did you take into consideration that this player was psychologically willing to dribble every single one of these top players from midfield in a Champions League semi-final and he actually did it? Did you look past your excel sheet and see the look on people’s faces? You’ll see some guy with tears of joy in his eyes, a woman in absolute disbelief, and a kid who can’t wait to play football to try to imitate what Lionel had just done.

These people are the ones who are truly evaluating the player. You, on the other hand just wrote down “3 dribbles” and “1 goal”. The rest, however, is lost in a silly comparison later on.

Lionel Messi is one of the players whose actions on the field can never be measured in numbers. Flair, technique, thrill, intelligence, cooperation, and ridiculously accurate decision making CANNOT be measured in numbers.

When I sat down to write about Lionel Messi I knew I would not be able to give him enough credit for the brilliance he has shown throughout his career. I knew I would not find enough words to describe him and that’s the reason why this is so short. But I definitely know what makes him great and it was never the numbers. Lionel Messi made you love the sport even more. Lionel Messi kept on impressing the spectators. Lionel Messi built his career on constantly giving hell to the world’s best teams. Lionel Messi is the only player in the world and possibly in history, who you, as a spectator, expect absolutely anything from.
Can you describe that in numbers though?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go grab another cup of coffee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Barcelona, Messi, Thoughts7 Comments

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:

simeone-640-atletico

 

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?

suarez 2



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.

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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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