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Bravo and Ter Stegen: The Importance of Experience In Football and The Need For Something New

For months, Barcelona fans knew that the club was close to signing Marc-André ter Stegen. Obviously, he was regarded as the perfect replacement for Victor Valdes.

Ter Stegen was known as the “next Neuer” and “one of the best young goalkeepers in the world”. I have never been a fan of young player hype because in most occasions everything that was said turns out to be false. However, it would be wrong to ignore that there is something very special about Ter Stegen.

News about Luis Enrique being interested in Real Sociedad’s goalkeeper Claudio Bravo began to emerge as well. Claudio did not exactly have the best record at Real Sociedad.

Many people doubted Bravo because of his errors at Real Sociedad. The club insisted on signing him anyway. While transfer rumors were flying in and out, Claudio Bravo was putting on an excellent performance for his country at the World Cup in Brazil.

So, Barcelona suddenly had two new goalkeepers who are both capable of being starters. Let’s take a deeper look at the two different styles of these goalkeepers.

Claudio Bravo:

Claudio is the ultimate example of a traditional goalkeeper. He does everything by the book. It’s as simple as pushing the ball away when it comes near your goal and catching it whenever you can. There is nothing too fancy about Claudio Bravo. Claudio is 31 years old and he gives the obvious impression of an experienced goalkeeper in his 30s and I am sure the examples in this category are endless. He is a goalkeeper coaches depend on purely for experience and character. Just like many of the older players on the field, he simply yells out: “Calm down, I’ve done this before”.

Experience is an attribute of extreme importance and this importance is gradually fading away because of rising young talents. This, however, is a disastrous mistake.

Many football fans, including myself, believe that having experienced centre-backs and goalkeepers is one of the most crucial parts of setting up a team. As shiny and new as young players may appear to be, chances are they might break under pressure and it happened a lot before. After all, most of the older excellent centre-backs and goalkeepers were once kids and committed several mistakes until they gained the character and experience that these two positions require.

Coaches want to look at the bench when selecting a lineup and seeing mature and confident players they can depend on precisely in defense. All of this brings me back to Claudio Bravo.

Experience factor aside, Claudio is a goalkeeper with excellent reflex and diving attributes. Throughout the season, he has shown that it takes a lot to beat him. Whether it’s a deflected shot, a header, a shot from outside the area, or any other type of danger, Claudio seemed very determined to prove what he is capable of. And honestly, he succeeded.

He managed 55 saves in La Liga this season. With the help of a very organized defense, he managed to keep 15 clean sheets. Barcelona conceded only 17 goals in La Liga this season. Obviously, the defense played a huge role in accomplishing that. To be even more accurate, it is worth pointing out that experienced centre-back, Gerard Pique, has been displaying a perfect mature character while playing. With such characters on the field, it becomes generally difficult for a defense to break.

Claudio Bravo is the traditional goalkeeper you would want to have on your team. However, he is not easy on the eyes. He won’t try to impress you or put on a show because probably he doesn’t even have the skills for it. He knows what he’s capable of, though. And from what the fans have seen this season, he is pretty damn good.

Ter Stegen

Ter Stegen arrived as the future of this club. He doesn’t completely occupy the present because Claudio Bravo is the goalkeeper in La Liga. However, many believe that this is a transitional phase for Ter Stegen and soon enough he is going to be recognized as Barcelona’s main goalkeeper.

Ter Stegen’s style of play is completely different to Claudio’s style of play. He has always been recognized as a goalkeeper who is good with his feet and it was the reason that made him a main target for a club like Barcelona. He crosses with both feet with excellent accuracy. He maintains a very calm attitude when dealing with the ball. He is more focused on how he is going to help start another attack for his team than simply saving the ball or pushing it away.  In many occasions, people tend to trust him much more with the ball.

Ter Stegen previously displayed how great he can be when he is forced to dive or jump for a ball. His athleticism is outstanding. He saved multiple shots that required excellent reflexes as well. Ter Stegen played against attacking giants like Ibrahimovic and Aguero in just a matter of months and has displayed a very confident growing character.

His character makes him stand out. Ter Stegen can shift from being confident to being cocky in a matter of seconds.  Deep down, fans love Ter Stegen because he brings something different and relatively new. He is the exciting young goalkeeper the world awaits. Let’s be honest, everyone loves a young exciting face.

Not so much could be said about Ter Stegen as fans have seen him much less than they’ve seen Claudio Bravo but Marc-André is definitely a keeper. (I’ll get my coat)

There has always been a debate around these two great goalkeepers. On one hand you have Claudio Bravo who expresses pure experience and the traditional image of a mature goalkeeper and on the other you have this exciting kid who adds something new and contributes to Barcelona’s style of play while being excellent between the bars as well.

Who do I pick? I pick both.

Bravo will continue to be the wall Barcelona depends on when the defense suffers while Ter Stegen will continue to grow to represent the unknown future that excites everyone.

 

 

Posted in Barcelona, Thoughts45 Comments

The rest of the season, aka “Dancing the sardana through a minefield”

So. The Classic win was immense, leaving Barça with a 4-point lead in the Liga standings and culers with much rejoicing. But here’s why you shouldn’t be planning that victory parade yet.

The rest of the season for Barça is a nasty collection of collisions. Let’s have a look, and compare to the RM run in later.

5 April, away to Celta
8 April, home for Almeria
11 April, away to Sevilla
15 April, away to PSG in Champions League
19 April, home for Valencia
21 April, home for PSG in Champions League
26 April, away to Espanyol
29 April, home for Getafe
3 May, away to Cordoba
10 May, home for La Real (we owe them one)
17 May, away to Atleti
24 May, hope for Depor
30 May, Copa final

If, and that’s a significant if, given the fixture congestion, Barça get past PSG, the semi-finals are 5-6 May and 12-13 May, putting them before La Real and Atleti.

Many declared the week that just finished, with City in Champions League and then the Classic as season-defining. No. The season-defining stretch is the two weeks from Celta to Valencia. In a dream world, Barça would get through those 5 matches without dropping points. If that happens, expect me to sprout wings and be able to save money on airfare by flying myself to Barcelona for elections this summer.

Celta will be right after international break, and Sevilla will be in their house, where they are unbeaten this season. Get past them and there’s a resurgent Valencia and of course, PSG waiting. RM has a comparative cake walk.

5 April, home for Granada
8 April, away to Rayo
12 April, home for Eibar
14 April, away to Atleti in Champions League
18 or 19 April, home for Malaga
22 April, home for Atleti in Champions League
25 April, away to Celta
28 April, home for Almeria
2 May, away to Sevilla
9 May, home for Valencia
16 May, away to Espanyol
23 May, home for Getafe

The days of the Liga “gimme” are gone, but I don’t think any culer would rather be looking at Granada, Rayo, Eibar and Malaga in league, than Celta, Almeria, Sevilla and Valencia. I’m sure that conspiracy theorists will be having a field day, but picking lineups that can get the job done while preserving key players for key matches is going to be a nightmare for Enrique. The news that Thomas Vermaelen trained with the squad today is of pretty much zero help, because in a system that bases its magic on its three forwards, you kinda need those dudes all the time.

Messi wants to play all the time anyhow. Suarez is actually benefiting from his ban that essentially makes him a half-season player this year. Neymar is the worry point, because his game doesn’t allow him to rest within matches as Messi’s does. He’s either going fast or he’s ineffective. An effective system that incorporates Pedro will need to be devised, and look for Xavi and Rafinha to play increasing roles as the season progresses.

The only consolation for culers will be that RM is going to drop points as well, but we shouldn’t forget that 8 matches ago, Barça was 4 points down to RM in the standings, and people were saying the Liga was lost. So, moderation in everything with the operative phrase of one match at a time. Personally, I will be feeling better about things if Barça can manage to survive the 4-match stretch from Sevilla to Espanyol. With 5 days rest before “traveling” to Espanyol, that should be a less fraught encounter.

What will happen? If I knew that I would put some money down on something or other. I have some ideas, though:

Wins against Almeria and Celta, though the latter will require some energy, leading to …
A draw against Sevilla in their house
Away draw at PSG
Home win against Valencia
Home win against PSG
Win at Espanyol, but it will be close, fraught and nasssssty
Win at Cordoba
Win against La Real (could be a draw if the Champions League semis happen.)
Loss to Atleti
Win to close out the season against Depor

You math majors will see that if RM runs the table for the 10 remaining matches, and assuming a win vs La Real rather than a draw, that would make RM Liga champions by virtue of the head-to-head goal differential at the tiebreaker. But if they run the table they would, frankly, have accomplished something extraordinary. So are you worried yet? Don’t be. One match at a time and as usual, speculation, caveats and quibbles are welcome.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, La Liga, Thoughts40 Comments

Barça aesthetics: The judges have decided to give it a 2

enrique

After the cheering stops … no sooner have the echoes of the exultant roars of the very last goal dissipated than the ripping at the carcass begins.

Cruijff likes the result, but didn’t like the football. Various post-match recaps describe Barça as more RM-like than RM. Another says that this Classic put the knife well and fully into tika taka, and assuredly killing off that phrase wouldn’t be at all bad. On Revista the topic is the RM resurgence, how they look like a good team again with Luka Modric back.

Which side of the 2-1 scoreline was Barça on, and has it really come down to theoretical football? In the wake of everyone and their mamas talking tactics and formations, it seems that Barça didn’t really play football before 2008. In those Dark Ages the team stomped around the pitch like mastodons, working off cave drawings instead of actual formations.

In the wake of a Classic that Barça won to go 4 points ahead of RM, hunks are being flayed from the team’s hide from all quarters. It doesn’t even matter that the beast isn’t wounded, or damaged in any way. It COULD have been and WILL be.
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Posted in Analysis, Champions League, La Liga, Thoughts33 Comments

Luis Suarez and the act of forgiveness

The truly personal piece – even as obviously anything written here is from the writer’s own worldview – is rare for me. My hope is that in banging this out it will help not only me come to grips with a situation, but other culers who are struggling in the same way.

During yesterday’s Classic, I had an awful moment. During the screaming and exultation over what ultimately turned out to be the winning goal, what entered my mind amid the din was, “Why did it have to be him?”

I felt awful for having that thought, for so many reasons, not least of which is my Buddhist belief system which has a very clear view about forgiveness, summed up in this excellent piece at the Dharma Wisdom site.

Its context is essentially, how to forgive the unforgiveable, what is forgiveness and how do we reconcile an unspeakable act with the act of forgiveness. True forgiveness. Here is the best, and most pertinent excerpt from the piece, which is really worth reading no matter your belief system:

Forgiveness can be understood as a spiritual practice and has been taught as such by Jesus, the Buddha, and many other spiritual teachers. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines forgiveness in this manner: “To cease to feel resentment against on account of a wrong committed.” This definition is poignantly illustrated in a well-known Tibetan Buddhist story about two monks who encounter each other some years after being released from prison where they had been tortured by their captors. “Have you forgiven them?” asks the first. “I will never forgive them! Never!” replies the second. “Well, I guess they still have you in prison, don’t they?” the first says.

Forgiveness practice is about liberating your own feelings and finding meaning in the worst of life’s events. You practice forgiveness to be free of the inner violence of your rage, and you do not abandon the pursuit of right action. In fact, you gain clear seeing that allows you to use skillful means in bringing sustainable peace.
There is a misguided idea that to forgive is to accept, that by forgiving an act we somehow condone that it happened, but that isn’t the case. Everyone has done things in their life for which they had to beg, and hope for forgiveness. I have. I know you have. We all have. When forgiveness comes, through direct or indirect action, most of what the person who is being forgiven feels is relief. But shouldn’t the person who is doing the forgiving also feel relief? You release this thing from your heart, letting a wound heal, in effect.

When the club bought Luis Suarez, it was a player with a history: biting, and being found guilty of racist action. I stomped my feet and penned a screed about a board that would do anything to win, even signing an unrepentant bit of skeeze such as this. Obviously, I was against it. Over time, and it’s important to note that this was true even when Suarez was struggling to hit the broad side of a barn with a football, I was struggling with a hard heart because that hardness is essentially against everything that I believe in.

Two years ago at the national track cycling championships, I was the fastest guy there in my age division. In the semi-finals I won the first ride easily. In the second ride my opponent pulled a move that was illegal. I backed off rather than crashing. I protested, and was denied. The feelings that arose in me were intensely negative, to the effect of “We’ll see in this third ride. Somebody is going down!” I felt terrible for that emotion, and withdrew from the competition. It felt like the best action in keeping with my beliefs, and still does because not only is the sport in which I participate supposed to be about joy and fun, but nothing good ever comes from a negative emotion.

So here I sit with Suarez, yesterday’s hard heart and awful feeling rooted in the question, “Why did it have to be him?” On Twitter this morning I noted the existence of that feeling, and someone for whom I have the deepest respect and admiration sent me a message about that situation, a message that made me think and make an effort to come to terms with me and my feelings, rooted in a debate I was having about Neymar. People in Barca Twitter commented that perhaps if Neymar wasn’t so obsessed with his hair and Instagram, he would be playing better.

Now the obvious absurdity in such a worldview is that he was doing the same hair and Instagram stuff when he was banging in goals for fun, so why would it be different now? Further, an excellent point was made about the expectation of a Barca player, which is to come to the match and give his all for the team, that demanding that a player adhere to some sort of behavioral standard was madness and prima facie unfair because of the malleability of said standards. My defense of Neymar was automatic, based in my own sense of fairness. The struggle to come to grips with the Suarez thoughts came hot on the heels of that and have, frankly, left me more than a little ashamed.

I don’t like what this board has done to the football club that I love. Suarez is for me, part of that sense of “anything” that seems to motivate so many actions perpetrated by the board. So Suarez has links to the board in my head and in my heart, links that hinder that act of forgiveness. So many say that Suarez is a good man, a loving father who is good to his children, but that isn’t the point. The point is that he performed acts on a football pitch that are rather reprehensible, and the reactions to those acts.

Forgiveness isn’t easy. It’s different than an apology, an act of contrition which in this day and age too often means “Sorry I got caught.” True contrition exists in the acts after the apology, rather than in the apology itself. Apology is really single-sided. One person apologizes, and it’s up to the other person whether they accept said apology, but the acceptance doesn’t have any effect on the apology, no matter its sincerity. Forgiveness is usually considered to be two-sided. One has to forgive, and the other has to be forgiven. But that perception of the symbiotic act is incorrect. Forgiveness is in its purest form, just as one-sided as an apology. If someone forgives, the other person doesn’t matter because what the act of forgiveness does is removes that little bit of negative energy not only from your heart, but from the world.

Hard-heartedness is, like many emotions, fear-based. As people, we spend so much of our lives in fear. Fear drives a lot of what we do. Fear of being wrong, fear of what someone might say if we deviate from a hard and fast position, fear that someone might laugh at us. Fear is a thing that also hinders so much of what we do, including altering the capacity to forgive.

Sporting joy is pure. It reduces us to canines, essentially, as a dog’s love is unconditional. “This is the best bone ever!” We love our teams. When our teams do well, the joy is complete and glorious in an ideal world. We sometimes weep, sometimes cheer, but there is that rawness that is so unspeakably wonderful. My “why him?” moment intruded, sullied that purity in a way that was tough to deal with, a moment that is now gone. And as we build forts around positions that are meaningless – Suarez doesn’t care what I think – it’s easy to wonder about our stake in them. What’s the emotional investment in denying forgiveness, for me?

Comfort is an odd thing that soothes us at times when we need it. If I had to actually accept that I needed to forgive Suarez, where would that lead? What would happen if he bit someone again, or stood accused of racially abusing another player? Does that mean that I was stupid, and my forgiveness was misguided, that I should have stuck to my guns so that I could then say “See? Told you he would.” That’s all fear-based, and it’s long past time to be unafraid.

You can forgive someone who doesn’t care about your forgiveness except in the abstract. Does the act of forgiving Suarez free my heart to become a fuller, more complete culer, more vested in unconditional love for the club? Good question. It certainly removes a barrier to my fullest immersion in the pure emotion of sporting joy and it also, honestly, makes me less of a prat.

Suarez did what he did. Forgiveness doesn’t eradicate those actions or imply that you accept those actions. But it does mean that you have become, in a small but significant way, just a little bit more human.

Posted in Thoughts27 Comments

Barça 2, RM 1, aka “A tale of two matches.”

mathieu

This is the part where the joy dissipates into a blizzard of muttering, whining and beating on unfavored whipping boys. But I am impatient with that kind of stuff, so permit me to present a wee bit of perspective at the end of a fascinating, tiring, fraught day.

As one of my favorite Twitter accounts posted, Classics are to be endured, rather than enjoyed. If you are a supporter, you don’t enjoy them. You can’t. There’s just too much in it. You fret, you scream, you pace, you sweat, the anguish is almost a palpable thing in the room. But this was an extraordinary match for so many reasons.

This was really a tale of two matches and two very different sets of tactics. Barça started out the match in the wide-open, let’s do this style that lets Messi, Neymar and Suarez do their thing. The danger in that approach, however, was multifaceted. That style of play takes a lot of energy, because there is a lot of running. Spaces are bigger, passes are longer, runs are more constant. The sharpness and awareness necessitated by this style means that if any part of the machine isn’t at all sharp, things are going to look a mess.
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Posted in El Clasico, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Tactics, Thoughts39 Comments

Classic tactics, and just how important IS the midfield today?

Mere hours away now, as that weird feeling starts to build. For me, the left corner of my mouth begins to twitch involuntarily, a stress reaction. So let’s think about some stuff, to take our minds off.

A great many things were different when these two teams last squared off. RM was the best team that anyone had ever seen except for maybe Guardiola’s Barça. Ronaldo was BdO rampant and Kroos was daisy-fresh.

On the Barça side of the aisle there was much uncertainty. Suarez started, even though he was nothing approximating match fit or confident, and Enrique was still figuring out the parts that he had to work with.

My, how times change. Time to look at some key battlegrounds for this one, and try to suss what might happen.
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Posted in Analysis, El Clasico, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts60 Comments

El Clasico: the biggest, most meaningful match that doesn’t matter that much

The big one.

It’s almost time for the biggest match of the season that doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as people think it surely must, the Classic, Barça v RM, top of table vs second place.

You can ladle on all kinds of stuff, Messi/Ronaldo, Bale/Neymar, midfield vs midfield now that Modric is back, that flank battleground that tipped things in their favor as Marcelo ran rampant. TV stations are filling up hours and hours of coverage and supporters of both sides are worried sick, creating all sorts of ways that their team will lose, they all assert publicly as in their own fevered imaginations they are creating victory scenarios.

History needs this match — big, nasty and undiluted by the incessant frequency of recent seasons, when the two Liga giants seemed to be knocking heads every other week. How in the hell is anyone supposed to get ramped up to face a team in the Most Giantest Match EVAR, when just last month you faced that same team in … well … the BIGGEST MATCH EVAH!

This season, fate has conspired to return hyperbole to normal. Two Classics, home and away, unsullied by Copa or Champions League meetings, as it should be for two opponents made bedfellows by history, rancor and shared excellence.

At the beginning of the match, Barça will be sitting with a 1-point lead in the standings over RM, a lead that culers are worried about because they have already forgotten how they deemed their team a downright mess, a crisis-laden lot that would be lucky to finish third in the Liga. That’s in the past. In the present is a Liga that is in the balance, a Liga never won that was declared lost time and time again after an Anoeta assault followed by Malaga madness.

And so it will be again should Barça lose on Sunday.

But the reason that this match doesn’t really matter as much as so many people suggest is that it’s just another match in the standings. This isn’t like the Super Bowl of American football, a hype-fest in which gibbering loons slather a Roman-numeraled gladiator fest with mammoth piles of excess. The Classic is a regular-season match that history and animus makes into something more than it actually is.

Win or lose, both of the main title contenders (but don’t be shocked if Atleti makes that late-season run) will drop points this season. The Classic isn’t going to decide the Liga. The Mestalla is, the Sanchez Pichuan is, a host of other little grounds have the potential to upset the apple cart of expectations. Sevilla has not lost at home this season. Valencia is sitting and plotting, resurgent and rampant under its coach, Laurence Fishburne. There is worry at every weekend, disaster potential made all the more acute by Champions League quarterfinal matches that throw a Wednesday match in before a Saturday match.

The Classic is the big one. Let’s understand that. But it’s the big one for reasons that really have precious little to do with a mere 3 points in the standings. In the past, the situation of the Liga truly was minnows vs giants. When Barça and RM faced off in a world in which draws were the new losses, scoreboard stasis was the only hope that lesser sides had. The Classic WAS the league. Win that, and the lead, standings permitting, would be sufficient to make the victor’s supporters ready to plan victory parade routes.

These days, the Liga isn’t interested in rolling over and showing its belly. Some of this is due to giants hobbled a bit by form and aging superstars. Some of it is the talent assembly line that is Liga academies creating home-grown troublemakers. Pressure, form, injuries, rotation all combine to make the Liga more a gauntlet to be run than a procession to be enjoyed. It’s not only a lot more fun, but in many ways it robs the Classic of its league-deciding import even as the historic aspects of the match remain, and those are sufficient to made us giddy with anticipation.

Just look at the roster, man! Any team would be thrilled to have even one of the names that will be sitting on the bench for either side in this match, never mind the starting XIs. These are the best of the best, players who combine to make an everyday XI seem a fantasy football league where you got the cheat code and an unlimited budget in Football Manager. How can two groups of players of that quality meet, and that match NOT mean everything in the world.

The Classic is a victim of its own hype, and the supporters of each team fall prey to that inflation. It’s 3 points in the standings. Win the Classic and lose the Liga? It’s very possible as each combatant has three or four matches that could prove its undoing, even after this clash that will decide the fate of the world.

So should you worry about the outcome of this match? Well, hell yes, you should. It’s Them, the eternal rival, the Aging Peacock and the Cafeteria Lady, buttressed by the return of the Accountant and He Who Hits No One. RM is a very dangerous football team, made all the more so for having strengths that play to Barça weaknesses, multiple threats that can all scrabble at the lock of a defense that defends more by influence than actual defending.

But you should worry because you hate like fiery Hell to lose to that team, rather than because it will mean winning or losing the Liga, because it won’t. Win or lose, it won’t. Win, and Barça is 4 points to the good, with visits looming to Atleti, Sevilla and Valencia, not to mention the Catalan Derby. If RM win, Valencia is coming to town, not to mention that visit to Sevilla or a faceoff against traditional bogey team, Getafe.

I will bust out my luckiest kit, scream until I am hoarse and fall from things. But it will be because I hate the opponent. Not because I think winning or losing this match will be truly decisive.

What will happen?

It’s hard to say. On paper you have to favor RM, who was sitting at home watching Barça run around and press like crazy Sprites on Wednesday. Around the 40th minute is when that reality might start to creep in, and around the 70th minute is when the advantage might show for the fresher team.

When these teams first met, Barça was still this embryonic force fraught with uncertainty. Neymar scored early, then he and Messi missed bang-on excellent chances that had the potential to make that match a very, very different affair. That’s easy to forget, even as the Potential Game dooms us to speculative Hades. The 3-1 loss was closer and more interesting than the scoreline indicated.

For this match, form is an interesting thing. Some suggest that they are trending down while Barça is trending up. That remains to be seen. What isn’t in doubt is that the two most important players for each side are the secondary superstars, Bale and Neymar. If either has an exceptional match, I suspect his team will win. Jordi Alba will have to be at his Yaya-felling best, and Neymar will have to develop the swagger that he had in the early season, and edge that saw him scoring almost for fun.

Neymar will be Barça’s key player. Messi will be big match Messi. Count on that. The real question will be the effect that Neymar can have on the RM defense that still doesn’t quite know how to deal with his disruptive effect. If he has a good match and scores a goal, it’s easy to see a 3-1 Barça win. If his recent scoring form holds, things become a lot more complex.

An added problem is that the wide-open Barça attack will have to be reined in to keep from playing into RM’s hands. Want to play run-and-gun football? Whee! Let’s do this. The beauty of our team being able to play many different styles is that it will need to shift gears and keep the damn football. This won’t be easy against their midfield, which will feature a fresh Modric just back from injury, and a rested Kroos, not to mention the constant threat of Isco. Culers who discount their threat do so at their own peril.

I love this match, even as it fills my gut with bile and my heart with fear. Rationally, it’s only three stinkin’ points. But the Classic is ruled by irrationality, and that’s what makes it so beautiful, so compelling as a sporting event.

Posted in Analysis, El Clasico, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts21 Comments

Take what you need, need what you take

In my day job at the Chicago Tribune I often work with our film critic, whom I tease with some regularity about his “job.” “You go to movies and interpret what you saw. That ain’t no job. That’s Saturday night.”

He takes it in good humor because he’s a super-nice guy, and he knows I’m kidding. But I got to thinking about interpretation and seeing what we see when a spate of “We still kinda suck” broke out like a brush fire, in Barça Twitter.

Interpretation is fascinating, because of the different experiences that people bring to a situation. You go to dinner and order a steak, with a salad and steak fries. It comes. You eat it, pay your bill, pat your tummy like a sated bear and drive home.

At the table next to you is a dining critic, who orders the exact same dish. He eats it, and in the weekend paper is a piece about the low-grade dog food that caused you to coo in contentment.

Both perspectives are perfectly valid. In a way, we return to the notion of subjectivity always being right, no matter the view. More interesting to explore is the idea of need, as in what do people need from a thing such as Barça. At its basest level, it’s validation. We follow this team and it wins, therefore we are better than you.

Adding layers of complexity to this is the Internet, with its blogs, comment spaces and social media, where suddenly people who until now were limited to haranguing friends with their views on Messi and how Barça is playing, have a forum. It’s fun, but it’s also the profoundest nonsense that too many take entirely too seriously. The professional journalists are working. Everybody else is just wanking.

But that forum also gives us a textbook example of expectation and how it affects what we see. Take as a for instance, when Barça dismantled Atleti at the Camp Nou. Atleti packed the midfield, ready to do battle there on the traditional battleground upon which football matches are won or lost. The midfield. Like the high ground of war textbooks, to win it is to win everything.

Barça bypassed the midfield. Or did it? Necessity or talented happenstance? Dependent upon what you wanted to see, it was tactical nous that outsmarted an opponent by simply bypassing the midfield, or you sighed into your martini at how Enrique has forsaken the midfield, the thing upon which Barça football is based.

It all depends on what you need from the team. Was Pep Guardiola a genius, or a good-but-lucky coach who parachuted into a team that was primed and ready to explode, a coach who couldn’t continue to get results as his team aged and opponents caught on? What do you need? In a recent poll, 16% of respondents thought that selling Messi was a good idea. So is it that 84% of people want to keep Messi, or 16% are crazy? What do you need from the Messi situation?

To be a football supporter is in many ways a prescription for perpetual unhappiness. A win is never just a win, a loss is never just a loss. Right or wrong ways are always part of the debate, again based on what someone wants to see. There is no right or wrong. When the dining critic says that the meal that you just had sucks, it doesn’t invalidate your perceived quality of said meal, or the satisfaction derived from ingesting it. It’s just another view of the same event. Back when I reviewed concerts, my favorite huffy response began, “I don’t know what show you saw, but … ”

“We won, but they got at our defense way too easily. The keeper had to make three saves. If he doesn’t do that, the match probably has a different outcome. We could easily have lost.”

An attacker is on a break and at the last instant Mascherano wins the ball with a slide tackle. One announcer will say, “Brilliant intervention by Mascherano, to win the ball and stop the attack.” Another announcer will say, “Yet another rash challenge where he dived in at the last. That could have been a penalty.” Funniest of all is that both assessments are right and wrong. They are subjective assessments of a reality. Only Mascherano knows what his intention was, and he ain’t talking about it.

There is a need to have Barça be something, represent something. When Tata Martino’s side beat Rayo 4-0 but lost possession, it was as if the scoreline didn’t matter, as something fundamentally off had occurred: Barça didn’t win possession. It is still, to my view, the absolutely apogee of football navel-gazing taken to its most absurd conclusion, and simultaneously the most flawless example of need-based analysis. But that need had a great many layers, all rooted in an extraordinary stretch of football by an excellent team that won everything.

The biggest flaw of Martino for many is that he wasn’t Pep Guardiola. He didn’t play the Guardiola way because he wasn’t Pep Guardiola. He saw the necessity for playing a different way and tried it, but he wasn’t … you know. So the Rayo match was a win that became a loss because of the need that people have to get something from a situation, so the situation is shaped to meet the need.

Xavi is correct when he says that Barça is neither as good as people say, or as bad as they say. Gary Neville, who has seen and played just a couple of football matches during his time, wrote a piece for the Telegraph that was more of an ode, a sonnet to the beauty of the way Barça played against City. Just the day before a Daily Mail columnist, Jeff Powell, wrote a column that in effect called Messi a flat-track bully beating up on a crap City, a never-will-be who hasn’t won a World Cup and isn’t even as good as Cristiano Ronaldo.

Two very different views of the same match, making it important that we think as much about what we need to see as what we actually “saw.” When Messi nutmegged James Milner, what did it mean except that Messi isn’t getting a holiday card from Milner? Interesting question.

So when people hold forth — including, and especially me — with views on what happened at a Barça match and what they think they might have seen, read it, but whistle the Bullshit Song while you do because again, reality is the scoreline. Everything else is interpretation.

Like legal action against the club, “Hey, wait, this team ain’t all that good” pops up right at the times when supporters are most happy and euphoric, linguistic cold water in giddy faces. “Stop that, fools. Things are far from being that good. Don’t believe results.” There is talk of the Treble, talk of a win on Sunday meaning the league, views that meet a need, in this case anticipation of a good event.

You go on a job interview and you think it went really well. You have your office picked out, and wonder how your first day will be. You’re negotiating salary in your mind, and mapping out the best transportation route to your new place of business. Then one week becomes two and you wonder if they somehow lost your phone number. You call, and hear that the position has been filled. And that’s that. Anticipation of a good event led to misunderstanding what actually happened. Maybe your dazzling answers to interview questions doomed you as too glib. Maybe your resolute, business-like quality was interpreted as being dour and sullen, making you a poor fit to be part of that group.

You will never know, but the need leads to an interpretation of a situation. The players are winning in spite of Enrique, or Enrique has created a situation in which the team can play a new, more dynamic way. Take what you need, just don’t misinterpret that acquisition as something other than what it is: your needs being met.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts15 Comments

Barça 1, Manchester City 0 (3-1 agg.), aka “Results are results, but beauty is enduring”

rakitic

Imagine being Ivan Rakitic.

You are the best player on your team, a coveted midfielder who is chased by big clubs. You come to Barça and your aren’t even the best midfielder, never mind being the best player. You practice, you watch, and what must you think. You play a Champions League match in a knockout tie, and you make a run. As you make that run, you throw your arm up to ensure that your teammate sees you.

But that teammate is Lionel Messi. So he not only sees you, but he plops a pass to you so soft and perfect that it feels like you have forever to cushion it with your chest and calmly flick it over the onrushing opposition keeper. You have scored the opening, and eventually match-winnning goal.

Imagine being Ivan Rakitic.

We watch Messi and we marvel at him, but what must it be like to be a player who plays against him match after match, who has to wonder in his head what it must be like to play with, instead of against Messi, especially when he’s in one of those moods, where he wants to win. That Messi is a different Messi. That Messi wins a ball just outside of his own box and leads the break. That Messi runs, passes, defends, battles for possession and uses every tool in his immense bag of tricks to eviscerate the opponent.

Who wouldn’t want to play with that player? He doesn’t preen or pout. There are no on-pitch histrionics. If he gets fouled and doesn’t get the call, he gets up and resumes his business. His face doesn’t change whether he is having the match of his life, or a merely ordinary day. You wonder how that is possible, how when he is having a match such as he had today that he isn’t grinning, turning cartwheels and setting off an air horn whenever he gets the ball. “Woot! Party time!” I can’t remember a more dominant performance from a player who didn’t score. Most touches, most dribbles, most recovered balls by an attacker, most, most, most, most.

When people sit and debate who is the better player, Messi or Ronaldo, a lot of things get thrown about, but the simple reality is that Messi can dominate and completely control a match without putting a ball in the net. It happens often when he is That Messi, a newcomer to the world this season. The talk was always that Messi would, as he aged, develop into a 10 as a concession to a diminishing skill set. But nobody stopped to consider that he would do it in his prime, or that he would embrace the right side of the pitch as a launch pad rather than a jail.

People bring their own notions to the game. “Messi on the right is stupid. Enrique is a fool for not having Messi as close as possible to goal, etc, blablabla.” I, like many, like to write about football. I can even pretend that I know a wee something about tactics. But when someone whose money and ass are on the line makes a move such as putting Messi on the right, it’s probably for a reason. In this case, it has unleashed him. He isn’t running up the middle at a bank of defenders now. He has a fullback and maybe a midfielder to beat. And he has playmates in Neymar and Suarez.

Whatever people care to attribute the Messi “return,” such as it is, to, for me it’s easy as pie: he has a coach who understands, and has made him understand the potential that comes from Messi being on the right. If you are an opponent trying to figure out what to do with That Messi, it’s a problem because like his teammates, he’s abnormal in that good way.

messi

There was a passing sequence that occurred on the touch line that will never make a highlight reel as Barça played out of trouble, out of what seemed to be a Manchester City lockdown. But a flick, a backheel and a couple of one touches later, the ball was in the midfield in space, and City was scrambling yet again.

Much is made of style and manner when it comes to Barça. It is often said that the result doesn’t matter as much as the method from which the result was obtained. That is a statement that isn’t malleable. It isn’t a brickbat one time, then the silence of crickets at others. It’s a constant. This 1-0 match was a beatdown. That it could easily have been 6 or 7-0 for better finishing is, for me, immaterial. Barça played an exquisite match against a top-quality opponent in Europe, in a knockout round, and did it with style.

The result became the thing in some quarters, that the result and the match were somehow poor because there wasn’t a gaudy scoreline on the board. For me, that’s in error, as Barça was exquisite in almost completely controlling an opponent. In a Champions League knockout stage. The moment when Messi nutmegged James Milner and danced around him, leaving the opponent on hands and knees, defeated, typified this match overall. But this was having the cake and eating it, too — the result was the proper one, and the team played beautifully in achieving that result.

Manchester City started the match with 5 midfielders, and Barça still bossed the midfield. Manchester City got set pieces, things that used to be the bane of the Barça defense, but this new team is dealing with set pieces calmly and confidently, having only conceded 4 goals via set pieces (and scoring 11, which is also quite new). And this Barça wanted the ball. So when City had it, passes were contested and comfort was rare as the ball was pressed. Neymar fought for balls, Iniesta fought for balls, Jordi Alba went shoulder-to-shoulder with Toure Yaya, and the big man was felled like a giant sequoia.

City didn’t have a chance.

In the strange world of Barça Twitter, people were acting as though they did, as though that team was going to score two goals against Barça, the way it was playing tonight. On the biggest stage in European football, Barça out-everythinged Manchester City, defending Premier League champion. Outran, outfought, outpassed. Except for the penalty, a debatable call, every reasonable scoring chance that City could generate ended at the defense. And the penalty was saved by Ter Stegen. And that was that, because there was a psychological battle that ended with that deft bit of skill from Rakitic.

When Barça scored, City’s mission didn’t change. It still needed two goals. But the demeanor of the players changed. It must have felt to them like they had to score three times, like Barça could scamper about and threaten Joe Hart at will, while City had to walk a tightrope of kicking little feet with a ball that they never really felt in full possession of. It needed two goals, but City might as well have needed 10.

Method. Neymar finished for crap. But his all-pitch game brought to mind Thierry Henry when he was on the team. He ran, passed, stole, recovered, held up play and was an almost constant thorn in the side of City. If you focused on his finishing, you’d say he had a poor match. But the smart money would wager that Enrique pulled him aside and said, “Nice work. Thank you,” because Neymar put out for the colors. He was everywhere at both ends of the pitch. Again, method over results. Yes, he passed when he should have shot, and when he shot he should have done better with his shooting. But the mission that night wasn’t to score 6, but rather to not concede two.

In this, Neymar helped Barça stay on mission just as Iniesta did, in serving as a pit bull.

neymar

The Ghostface Iniesta was a spectral virtuoso who almost didn’t seem to exist on the corporeal plane as he danced with the ball. The physical aspects of his game were usually the result of an opponent saying “Enough,” and choosing Iniestabuse. Against Manchester City, time and again, he was fighting in midfield, taking balls back, shoving a foot in, at one moment putting Fernandinho on his butt and immediately rushing over to apologize. He probably sent him a fruit basket after the match with an apology card. “xoxo, Andres.”

The season until now has mostly been a focus on what this Barça is lacking compared to other, more idealized Barça teams. It is only recently that people have begun to notice what this team has, rather than what it lacks. People are beginning to evaluate this Barça in the context of a team that wants to achieve something, and they are liking what they see.

On the outside, all that we can do is speculate. Despite the vehemence of anyone’s assertion, the truly inside, in-the-know crowd is small. Everyone else is trying to read tea leaves. All that we have to go on, really, is competition and how the team comports itself, how it plays, the method that it uses to achieve a desired result. And on a night when a storied former coach was in the stands, this Barça separated itself from his Barça, even as some of the psychological characteristics, most notably the fight and hunger, were present. It was magic and magical, a team effort that for many will be lost in the fairy dust of a great player deciding to have his way with a theoretically powerful opponent.

Barça is a team on a mission. The success of that mission will depend, in the end, on so much, but mostly on the ministrations of a man who, like Rakitic, was in a very different situation last year. But this year, he’s putting the keys in the ignition and taking the wheel of a car, even as he, like us, is probably still not sure how fast this thing can go.

enrique

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts57 Comments

Guardiola returns. “Booooo!”, aka “When a friend becomes an enemy”

Pep Guardiola is, for many culers, coming home today.

After all, the coach who led FC Barcelona is returning, to sonnets of praise and rose-strewn paths. Those times were wonderful – Coldplay, weeping, trophies and victory parades – and the memories will always remain. Silver!

The complexity with the incestuous world of football, where today’s star player is tomorrow’s bitter rival is what to do when something like this happens.

To my view, Pep Guardiola is an enemy scout, seeking the best way to destroy Barça, should it come to that. I would sit his ass behind a post somewhere in the 400 section. Whether this makes me a myopic, spiteful little git or culer to the bone depends on worldview. But I will vehemently resist anything that wants to hurt my club and its team, from ill-intentioned presidents to former coaches who now head Bayernsliga juggernauts. If Messi leaves Barça for a rival and I am at a match at which he plays, I will boo, and wish him the finest in complete and utter failure.

And that’s the complexity in a game that lauds loyalty while it necessitates migration. A player starts with a club, reaches the point where he has to consider moving to that next level. This might mean leaving the club he has grown up with, because not every club has a cradle-to-retirement structure such as Barça. And that is where the weird part comes in on so many levels, because football reveres its stars in a way that hardly any other sport does. But migration is the qualm-inducing reality of that reverence as it forces supporters to come to terms with feelings best left unvisited. Rivals must be vanquished, and our heroes must triumph.

On the pitch, supporters have different ways of managing that. Some support the club, viewing players as agents of that entity. Others are fans of players, and remain that way no matter where the player goes. Others still become supporters of a club because of a player, and switch clubs with the player. That rivalry expands to club allegiance. When Chelsea supporters were caught on video committing a racist act against a black man on a Paris Metro platform, it was easy for other club supporters to snuffle indignantly. Players misbehave, and supporters smugly assert that “our” players are better than that. When they aren’t, other complex moments rear their heads as players and coaches shuttle to and fro.

When Luis Suarez was being convicted of racist speak and having Chiellini for a mid-match snack, culers scoffed and jibed. “Oh, the excesses! What a maniac!” Then he transferred to Barça, and “Anyone deserves a second chance” became the phrase of the day. Luis Figo went from hero to pig’s head target. And now Pep Guardiola, the man who said something like “Sheeit! Hit me in the head with a hammer,” when asked if he would consider returning to FC Barcelona, is coming back to take notes on the best way to destroy my team.

I can’t get excited about that. Sorry.

It’s like when players score against their former team, and there is some sort of goofy protocol that dictates a player not celebrating. What the hell is THAT about? It’s one thing to be a Sultan of Sulk like Balotelli, who doesn’t celebrate goals because that’s his job. “The mailman doesn’t celebrate delivering the mail!” I can appreciate that logic a lot more than I can appreciate the “I won’t celebrate out of respect for the supporters.” You just scored a goal! Do you think that not celebrating is going to somehow salve the wound?

When Danny Welbeck scored against Manchester United, the team that jettisoned him because he, in effect, didn’t score enough, that United was correct in that decision is immaterial. He scored a goal, a goal that put paid to United’s FA Cup dreams, and he celebrated. He celebrated like a player who was giddy with the joy of scoring the potential game winner in a big match that could lead his team to silverware. As you placate one group of supporters, what about the ones for the team you now play for? Welbeck grinned, and strutted and enjoyed the moment, protocol be damned.

I like that.

Coaches and players come and go, as they should. When someone is with a club or team they are fully deserving of all the support that fans can give. But when that person decides to leave, especially to a direct rival who was, not that long ago, responsible for inflicting one the most grievous wounds to a club, a team and its supporters, what is the correct course of action? It is here that respect and support butt heads. You’re a crazy culer if you don’t respect and admire the hell out of Pep Guardiola for what he did for Barça. You’re probably even too crazy to form words, preferring to communicate by throwing spoons and grunting.

But in the here and now, he wants to hurt your team.

Football loves the gesture. A player is fouled, and writhes in agony until sacred water from a magic bottle is dribbled onto his grievous injury and like the miracles of Lourdes, praise be! He lives! Opposing players are given ovations for a match well played. Liga opponents cheer Andres Iniesta as he comes off, in respect for the World Cup-winning goal that he scored for Spain.

I’m a churl. When people go, they’re gone. But I also read things given to me such as birthday cards, say “Thank you” and then bin them. Moving on. When I was at the Champions League match that featured Samuel Eto’o in an Inter shirt, I booed the hell out of him. I booed until I felt short of breath, dealt with the dizziness and booed some more. Damn right. He’s the enemy. He kicked ass and took names while at Barça. When he now wants to do the same for a rival, scorn it is. I respect his accomplishments in the colors, but when he dons the tunic of the enemy my respect remains as my rancor builds. I think that makes me a supporter who is all in, rather than some fickle fiend who doth not respect his history.

It also fits my worldview of players and coaches as agents who are there to help the club that I love have success. I am no longer interested in them when they leave. Doesn’t mean Keita, for example, isn’t still Keiteeeee when I watch those moments when he stomped the terra while clad in blaugrana, or that he isn’t an all-around cool dude. But my heart is so full of Barça that I don’t have room for players and coaches, particularly ones who want to break my heart.

So when the camera pans to Guardiola at today’s match, sitting in the stands to make mental notes on how to make me and all culers sad, forgive my lack of swooniness and “Oh, Pep!” moments. He is an enemy combatant who my rock-hard little heart will view as such.

Posted in Champions League, Thoughts31 Comments

Eibar 0, Barça 2, aka “An acceptance of active stasis”

sr

Football is funny, because it likes nothing more than to confound us, to giggle at vehement prognostications and assertions that issue forth from bile-flecked keyboards.

This season has been something of an object lesson in that, no matter its eventual outcome. From notions that Messi is past it, to Pique being a worthless playboy and Enrique being a prat who needs to be fired, to his team not having a snowball’s chance in hell of beating Atleti to the latest, that Sergi Roberto is just a pile of hair and a smile.

Vidal Sassoon started today, in a spot that many speculated he might, in the hole that is usually occupied by Sergio Busquets. That he had an excellent match, including the most passes on the team (91) and a stellar completion rate on those passes (82 of them) was a surprise to many. But it’s just par for the course, when you think about it.

Yes, it was Eibar. As Sergi Roberto himself said, he always seems to play against Eibar and he wishes that Barça played them more often. But the thing about playing in the position that he occupied today is that it is opponent proof in many ways, because that position often operates independently and irrespectively of what an opponent does.

That position dictates tempo, picks out that first ball that starts an attack after taking the pass from a CB and serves as a relief valve. Though that player can be subject to direct pressure as he moves up the pitch, a tactic employed by some opponents against Busquets, as he sits there in the hole, the job is the thing and Sergi Roberto performed it quite well today. There were even some who liked his performance better than Mascherano’s in that same position, though there are certainly a different set of skills that Mascherano brings to the table, along with gobs of destructive force.

When we usually see SR, he’s in one of the more advanced midfield positions, the danger zones in which his skill set: physicality, picking out a nice forward pass come under all kinds of pressure from opponents and expectation. Anybody who fills that role should be named He Isn’t Xavi Dammit. Because when they aren’t, for who is, they are almost immediately deemed a failure. That even includes Rakitic, who continued his streak of excellent play today.

rak

Enrique won’t get credit for the squad management that allowed a tactical and player shift, but putting SR in the hole means that suddenly he has time and a broader view of the pitch, two of the things that can benefit a ‘tweener like him. It took an injury to a key player and a particular set of difficulties — Mascherano being one yellow away from suspension — to create the set of circumstances that resulted in his opportunity, a moment that should give culers pause and reflection.

A player is rarely as terrible as legend makes him out to be, mostly because the people whose job it is to make those kinds of decisions aren’t stupid, but also because the bar is absurdly high, almost jaw-droppingly so. Someone can sub for Xavi, a reference at his position, or Busquets, hailed by many as the best DM in the world. Or maybe Iniesta, Mr. Big Goal. So as SR stepped into the spotlight for his command performance, it was a role that was easy to enjoy as long as you had nothing invested in its outcome, i.e. “He sucks and that’s that.”

This was also true of the team’s performance today, a delicious bit of pragmatism that impressed, again if you let the expectations relax just a bit. This was never, ever going to be glittering football, nor should it have been. Teams have standards, and those standards exist despite the pragmatism of coaches and players. The blessing and the curse of Pep Guardiola is, frankly, those standards. The team played exactly the same beautiful way, and rarely relented, rarely played just good enough to win. Guardiola drove them, harried them and always, always demanded of their best. It’s the stuff that makes for legend coaches and storied team. But it’s also a psychological deep fryer that will eventually produce toast.

Enrique seems to have given the team carte blanche to be good enough, to understand that with the players that it has (large roster that is actually limited at the top, against top teams as is true of most squads) care must be taken if his charges are going to survive the pressure cooker that is this season, one on the perpetual brink.

In a rather surprising development, prompted by a Tweet from someone that really put it into perspective, I have come to accept Walking Messi as a reality of a complex situation. He wants to play all the time, and no coach wants to be the one to risk the wrath of Angry Messi. But much more than my objections to that is a reality that this year’s Barça and its pragmatism have shaped for me, broadening my view to encompass being good enough. This year’s team seems to have one standard: winning. All the rest is theory, semantics and gilded legend.

This fascinates as you watch a match such as Eibar, or Rayo last week, and see the social media hue and cry about things not being pretty and “this half sucks,” etc. But the match was exactly as it needed to be: a few moments of elevation to bring about a desired result, then enough effort to bring the result home.

The first goal, even if you allow that it wasn’t a penalty except in the technical letter of the law, came after one of those sequences of elevated play, a remarkable exchange of passes that found a heretofore staunch Eibar defense suddenly flummoxed and out of position. And Messi took the resultant penalty like a player who now understands that penalties matter. It was a rocket of a shot and an unstoppable PK from a player who until that point had missed 5 of his last 11 penalties.

We can even allow ourselves to giggle at the reality that Messi became pichichi on a penalty, a way of scoring that seems to be disdained by culers who nickname his rival for best in the game Penaldo. That Messi’s second goal came off a submarine header is just him trolling the football universe. Lost in the ruckus over that goal will be the flawless corner from Rakitic, a rainbow that wound up exactly where it had to be as Messi trailed the box ruckus to head home.

And then Barça resumed playing like a team that has not one, but two “season-defining” matches in the space of a week. Eibar hit the crossbar on a shot that really should have resulted in a goal, and Barça kept a clean sheet. Would Enrique have been vexed at the 1-2 scoreline? Probably not as much as culers who have unassailable standards that often butt heads with a shifting reality. Walking Messi is okay but Pragmatic Barça isn’t. Yet both are necessary realities for an ambitious team as once again, good enough to win is fine and dandy.

messi

HolycrapXavi!

When Xavi subbed in for Rakitic, who was pulled with the mid-week clash against City in mind, that was his 750th appearance for Barça. You sit, you think, you try to do math and you struggle with that kind of bonkers reality that a player has played 750 matches for the club that he loves. It’s remarkable.

Even more admirable is that even after those 750 matches, Xavi comes in, straps on the captain’s armband and does What Xavi Does. It’s even hard to explain what that is. Simply enough it’s passing and tempo control. But because Xavi had made it so much more and performs it at a level that will never be matched by any other player, it’s something that you don’t need to explain. It just happens.

It’s like That Run Messi made today. That run, like the way Xavi plays, is an inexplicable reaction to a set of circumstances, rooted in an extraordinary skill set that makes the exceptional just another day’s work.

That’s Xavi, and that’s awesome. Happy 750th, Maestro.

"I don't need that diagram. I AM that diagram."

“I don’t need that diagram. I AM that diagram.”

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts50 Comments

Twisting in the wind, aka “Love, respect and legends”

rsoalves

When a player outlives his usefulness, it’s brutal. And nasty. An exceptionally useful part of a championship team is not any longer and a club has to manage what to do.

And that’s just the club. Supporters also come in to add many additional layers of nasty to the aging process.

There are three kinds of old players:

— Legends, of whom supporters deny any frailty. A 5-minute run of good play against an easy opponent brings the “See? Told you he still has it.”
— Undesirables, who nobody really wanted anyhow so there’s just an odd sort of indifference about that player’s continued presence.
— Damn Shames, players who should be legends but aren’t, and are treated shabbily by club and supporters.

Xavi is an example of a Legend, while Thierry Henry was the most recent example of an Undesirable. Unfortunately, Dani Alves is a Damn Shame.

At present, Alves is dangling in the wind. Barça apparently don’t want him, even though Enrique is on the record as saying he would like to keep him another year. Rumors fly about hither and yon about potential destinations, and many culers bemoan the fact that he’s still with the club even though he is still playing RB better than any other choices available. Every error is a capital crime, every good play a “Hmph! It’s about time!” moment. Jibes about crosses abound and too damned many culers can’t wait for the day that Alves leaves the club, so that someone “better” can take his slot..

For me, Dani Alves is a legend. This status isn’t because he came up through La Masia, or scored eleventy bajillion goals. He’s a legend because he has been an integral part of an excellent football club for an inordinately long time, and gives his absolute best each and every time that he pulls on the shirt. When a player does the best that he can, a coach doesn’t have the right … can’t, really … ask for anything more. “Best” in 2015 might not be the same as the “best” of 2008, but it is what it is.

Dani Alves deserves better than what he’s getting, from club and supporters. Seydou Keita was allowed to leave on a free so that he could have his pick of destinations. That was a lovely gesture that showed how much respect Guardiola had for the player. Meanwhile, rumors about Alves abound, gossip that forced him to take to Instagram to deny. And the rumors are present in part because as far as anyone knows, Barça has done nothing. And that sucks. Don’t leave him hanging. Not cool.

It’s business. Sure it is. But even in business there should be some humanity for a player who has done nothing except play the best that he could, match in and match out, rarely injured or even seemingly tired. Dani Alves, just running from endline to endline. He isn’t the best Dani Alves. But for a time, a LONG time he was, though underappreciated by too many culers, the best right back in the world. He was so good that he was overlooked almost because of that absurd quality. He made it look so effortless and simple, patrolling that side with a ease and grace that made him indispensable to Messi, Busquets AND Puyol.

He became trendy when he began to decline, like that performer whose absolute best work is in the past winning a major award. He became an automatic starter for the Selecao, a long-overdue honor that had as much to do with the quality of and comfort with Maicon as anything else. Detractors focused on his crosses, bits of ambition which even at their best were never paragons of accurate effectiveness. So what. A favorite Alves moment – the match escapes me – was when a loose ball was banged toward the sideline. Most players would have let it go out for the throw. Alves ran it down, turned and started a play that resulted in a goal. Effort. Always effort.

If someone wants to point out that a player isn’t what he once was, cool. But if that player has done what legends do for their teams, respect is still due. Xavi isn’t what he once was, but if the heavens don’t part and angels sing every time you type his name, there is something wrong with your worldview. Iniesta is no longer Ghostface Killah, but he’s still Andres MFing Iniesta. The game and time don’t care, but teams and the people who love them should.

Players sacrifice for the team. We begrudge them coach-approved trips to various places, vacations and the like but we forget how much they sacrifice. Yes, they are richly compensated for their efforts, but they sacrifice. When fathers are at family events, players are at training. Pregancies? They might be able to flit away by quick plane flight for the birth. It isn’t a normal life, and will never be for as long as they are doing what they do.

All that sacrifice, all that playing hurt, and limping around after matches, and recovering from injuries and dealing with stuff that, like Puyol, will affect the quality of the rest of a player’s life and at the end of it all is usually indifference and scorn. And that ain’t right.

“It’s ridiculous that the team still has to rely on Alves. Stupid board.” Okay. Find somebody, even now, who could be dropped in and be a big improvement over Alves. Danilo? Maybe. Eventually. Possibly. Lots of other names are out there, but there are none who do what Alves, when he was rockin’ it, did. So when it came time to think about players, and transfers, the first thing teams do is look at what they have from the context of can that person be improved upon, and how much of a row would it cause with supporters if that person was deemed “surplus to requirements.”

That’s the difficulty of having a collection of icons. For a period, FC Barcelona played the best football that anyone has ever seen. This wasn’t magic. It was hard work in the hands of an excellent coach and a top-quality group of players, every last one of whom would be considered the best or among the best at his position. As people sit, snuffle and deem this or that inadequate, hurl bricks at effigies of sporting directors past and present, the thing worth considering is, simply enough, who in the hell do you replace legends with?

Victor Valdes
Dani Alves
Gerard Pique
Carles Puyol
Eric Abidal
Xavi
Iniesta
Busquets
Eto’o
Henry
Messi

This game hangs onto old players like favored sweatshirts, except when that old player becomes somehow unfavored. Then he is deemed irredeemable, a mess who should have been gone eons ago so what the hell. But the rush to replace icons makes us forget just how brilliant the players whose heads on the block were. If you go down the above XI, is there a player of whom culers would NOT say, “There will never be another … “ Pique for now, but if he keeps on playing the way that he is these days, add him to the roster.

How easy is it to replace a player, and what is the price of an effort to do so? Name a right back that in the upcoming Classic you would be more comfortable with than Alves. Pique is excellent, but there is only one Puyol. The defense hasn’t been the same since Abidal took ill and then left. Xaviniesta isn’t any longer, Henry and Eto’o are long gone. Valdes blew his knee out, left on a free. There will be a time, very soon, when the only players left from the Treble side will be Messi, Busquets and Pique. And that will be weird, but it will also be what happens in the game.

The fate of Alves is unknown, but it should have been decided by now. There shouldn’t be stories about “The club will consider his future soon.” For me, that just isn’t how you treat a legend.

Posted in Thoughts, Transfers/Transfer Rumors48 Comments

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