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The King Is Dead; Long Live the King (Dogma, Plan B and Barça’s Evolution)

Pep Guardiola was a firm believer in the permanent revolution. Not as Trotsky or Mao would understand it, but in the sense of never waiting around to be figured out. In a post now lost in the mists of time, I argued at the beginning of 2011/12 at the now defunct Spanish Football Info that Guardiola’s tactical tinkering was driven by the need to keep ahead of the competition. A theory of the game, like any other theory, is weakened by an insistence on permanence and dogma. It grows stronger through being questioned and tested, and evolving to meet the challenges posed to it.

The style and philosophy of Guardiola’s Barça was no less coherent for all the changes he implemented throughout his four year tenure: The false nine, an idea he tested in his very first pre-season and later put to use in the biggest games of that season; the holding midfielder as sweeper-centerback, which found its perfect vehicle in young Sergio Busquets; going from 4-3-3 to 4-2-4 to 3-4-3 to whatever that was against Santos that involved a team made up primarily of midfielders; and increasingly, towards the end, attempting to add more verticality to the side’s forward play.

Tito Vilanova’s work is a continuation of that philosophy. Much ink has been spilled so far this season on whether Vilanova was diverging from Guardiolismo by implementing a more direct style. Guillem Balague recently made this case:

Tito Vilanova realises that to win games he has to transform Barcelona and make them more conventional, and we are now seeing a side that plays more long balls, doesn’t keep the ball for as long, and defends more than other sides would do (less of the pressure in packs high up the pitch, more of the disciplined positioning and allowing teams to take a bit more of the initiative).

It is generally a more direct style, though this works against the strengths of Xavi and even Andres Iniesta, who need to pause and find themselves surrounded by team-mates to do harm.

Contrast with the following from a Sid Lowe column on Vilanova:

Barcelona still play a 4-3-3 based on possession and swift circulation of the ball. Statistics underline the similarities: under Vilanova Barcelona have so far completed an average of 696.8 passes per game, compared with 709 last season, with completion at 88.6% compared with 88.5%. They have scored 2.86 goals per game against 3.0 last season and taken 12.2 shots compared with 13.0. That control is about protection as well as penetration and they have faced 2.8 shots per game this season compared with 2.7 last year.

Vilanova has changed things; small details, nuances. Barcelona have appeared a little less elaborate and a little more direct, pushing a little higher up the pitch. Against Benfica on Wednesday they utilised the long diagonal to the left to open up the pitch and the only statistic that is markedly different between Vilanova’s Barcelona and Guardiola’s is the percentage of their passes played into the final third – 36.8% now, against 30.2% last season and 28.6% over the course of Guardiola’s time. But then against Benfica the second-half orders were the opposite: Vilanova preached patience.

What I find most interesting about the above two statements is this: although one seems to be condemning Vilanova for ideological impurity and one praising him for sticking to his guns, they don’t, in essence, contradict each other.

In the rest of this post, I’ll explain what I mean.

fundamentalism

Everyone knows that Barça have a very obvious, top-down, self-imposed style. This doesn’t happen a lot in football. Part of the bickering over the cantera in Madrid this season turns on their current lack of a ‘house style’. Castilla doesn’t play like the first team, Mourinho grumbled, and it should.

While us cules had a quick chuckle at the soap opera for once not playing out in our own house, I wonder if any regular watchers of Barça B felt a tiny shred of sympathy for his complaint. After all, it sounded awfully similar to our own complaints about Barça B under Eusebio, who sticks out like a sore thumb because the rest of the system at Barça strives to replicate the ‘house style’.

Having a long-term plan, a clear way of working towards consistent goals, tends to be a good thing for most organisations. Barça decided years ago that it was going to pursue success through a particular style of play. Setting such a course reduced the chances of short term, drastic lurches, which is a valuable check against our natural tendency towards volatility.

As Graham Hunter put it, with typical eloquence, very recently:

Barça play like this because they have for a long time had a dream, they’ve taken a risk. They have risked the idea that a single philosophy — owning the ball, doing quick, instinctive, intelligent things with it, and winning it back as quickly as possible — will endure all the fads, all the trends, all the changes in physique and financing which modern football can throw at it.

Barça’s tendency to go its own way regardless of consequences used to be endearing, back when it led to equal parts glory and spectacular falls. But then Pep Guardiola came along as a passionate evangelist for Our Way and bought incredible success with it. Suddenly the preaching, the perception of smugness, started to grate. The mutterings about “anti-football” and “justice” based on the balance of play became a fashionable thing to rail against.

For better or for worse, the ideology behind Barça’s style was never more obvious and explicit than during Guardiola’s time as manager. At times, it led to decisions that baffled outside observers.

“The perfect image of this game was that after the goal Víctor Valdés continued playing the ball,” Guardiola said. “Real Madrid steam-roller you. Most goalkeepers would boot it. But Víctor kept playing the ball. I prefer us to lose the ball like that but give continuity to our play.” Valdés, he concluded, “had shown commitment to our approach”. “The key was not forgetting our philosophy,” said Xavi Hernández. “We don’t know how to play any other way – and Victor was brave.” [Source]

Remember the context: Victor Valdes had botched a short pass leading to a goal by Madrid in the first 30 seconds of last season’s first league Clasico. Others argue that playing out from the back isn’t as important a skill for keepers as, say, being commanding in the air.* What these pundits fail to understand is that playing out from the back is a crucial trait for a Barça keeper. Without it, the entire system fails.

Barça under Tito Vilanova has not retreated from its commitment to the system. Far from it. Tito might not be the evangelist that Pep was, but in practice he is every bit a son of the system.

When Victor Wanyama scored because tiny Jordi Alba was attempting to mark him at the near post for a corner, for example, it was seen as yet more proof that Barça had, to put not to fine a point it on, disappeared up their own arses.

Here’s what Tito had to say, when challenged about the size of his defense after the game:

“We could sign taller players but I like to have fun when I’m on the bench and this is the way that we play,” Vilanova added. “We have suffered from set-pieces after losing Eric Abidal and Seydou Keita but we can only try to attack more and not let them have any corners.” [Source]

Keep the second part of that answer in mind. It’s important. For now, though, we’re going to focus on the first. If that’s not commitment to Barça’s ideology, I don’t know what is. In comments to the press while he was still Guardiola’s assistant, Vilanova often came off as even more bullish, even more ideological:

“For us, winning alone is not enough,” he told El País’s Lu Martín in 2009, “we have an ideal of youth team players and attacking football, as Barcelona’s culture demands.”

“I have,” he continued, “seen Pep take decisions in which only we believed. It would have been easier to take political decisions, but we refused. We have our faults but being cowards will never be one of them.” [Source]

If Vilanova is every bit the ideologue that Guardiola was, then why are we seeing a more direct Barça this season?

seny and its importance

Catalans even have an expression for what makes them different to other Spaniards, el hecho diferencial – the differentiating fact. They prize sobriety, enterprise and hard work. They reckon that they have their own yin and yang; that they’re a mix between seny i rauxa, common sense and madness. Barça fans maintain that Guardiola is the quintessence of seny. – El Clasico, by Richard Fitzpatrick

In Guillem Balague’s new biography of Guardiola, he argues that far from being the style fundamentalist he was constantly portrayed as, Guardiola benefited from a pragmatic streak. I’ve consistently argued that this is the case. The ideology is very important. It may even be paramount. But it’s not the be all and end all – it has to be validated by success. When asked before the Rome final of 2009 whether, having come so far and played so well, Barça were just happy to take part in the final, his response was vehement. They weren’t there just to take part. They were there to win, because all the plaudits were useless without the titles to back them up.

“It’s not that now we are saying football is a science and playing this way you will always win,” Iniesta says. “The other thing is that we play the way we do because it suits us. We don’t have the players to pull it off playing a different way. People talk about ‘pragmatic’ football; well, for us, this is pragmatic. It’s the way we like to play and it’s the way we believe we have the best chance of winning.” [Source]

Moreover, the ideology wasn’t fixed in stone. Football is ever-changing. However brilliant a system was, there were going to be hundreds and thousands out there trying to find the magic formula that would unravel it. Guardiola knew that standing still was asking to be overrun by history. Some aspects of Barça’s style were non-negotiable. Others could – and must – evolve to match the demands of the competition.

That’s why Barça went through so many subtle little changes from 2008 to 2012, in tactics and in personnel. Towards the end, the possession stats crept up even further, the team sheets were increasingly dominated by midfielders, and it seemed as though Guardiola had become ever more fundamentalist in his commitment to a team with “the most Barça-ish identity of all Barças” (TM Jonathan Wilson). On the other hand, he also asked for the signings of Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas, two players who brought a more vertical, direct element to Barça’s play, and promoted cantera products like Cristian Tello and Isaac Cuenca who offered similar qualities.

In other words, the transition to a more direct Barça currently overseen by Tito Vilanova had its roots in the experiments of last season. Part of this is a matter of both short- and long-term necessity. Short-term, injuries and suspensions have meant that Barça could not reproduce the same degree of control that was so central to previous successes; long-term, Xavi Hernandez, the player who enables Barça to exert total control over games, is not going to last forever. The other part is the conscious effort to evolve constantly, to never be caught napping by an opponent’s innovations.

Vilanova deserves huge credit for the brilliant results Barça have managed this season, during a period of change and experimentation. The shifts have not been seamless, far from it, but there has been visible progress without compromising the core ideology.

the plan b fallacy

Which brings me back to the insistence on ideology. Of course, it’s easy to trumpet an idea when that idea seems to be working spectacularly well. The true test of its resilience is what happens when the difficult times arrive.

My least favourite pundit cliche when it comes to Barça is the bemoaning of ‘the lack of a Plan B’ whenever a major setback occurs. This is often accompanied by a suggestion that Barça could perhaps benefit from having a proper no. 9 to lump the ball at in games where the intricate short-passing wasn’t cutting it. I think Dani Alves gave a very good response to this in the aftermath of the Celtic loss:

“Do not say anything to me about that because we lost the game,” Alves said. “That is our philosophy, which has enchanted the whole world. Barça and football have been united, but when you do not win, of course, the debate about a Plan B returns…The other year we had a Plan B, a big guy with quality, and what happened? He is not here because he did not suit our style,” he said. “What suits us is to improve our Plan A, not to have a Plan B.” [Source]

As Alves pointed out, the ‘Plan B’ argument misses the forest for the trees. What makes this Barça team exceptional is that they make a very difficult style work, and work brilliantly. Conversely, a team assembled to play in Barça’s style is not going to be very good at playing, say, a counter-attacking game based on long balls to a static center-forward. That’s true of any team. Stoke wouldn’t be very good at tiki-taka, and no one suggests that they try it when a game isn’t going their way. It just isn’t part of their game.

To go back to a point I raised above, very few teams have an identity as clear as Barça’s. The demand for a ‘Plan B’ sees this coherence as a drawback, one which keeps Barça from switching to something else when Plan A isn’t working. This just isn’t true.

“We want to have the ball and always attack, but we don’t always play the same way,” said the manager [Vilanova], who added: “Within our Plan A, we have a plan B, C, and D … we know how to win.” [Source]

I argued above that Barça under Guardiola and Vilanova have been and continue to be pragmatic in their implementation of the house style. This has involved the trial of many variations to the basic 4-3-3 template, and matches in which the formation or configuration of players changed 4 to 5 times to best exploit the circumstances. It briefly became an easy game in late 2009 and during 2010-2011, but with the exception of that season, since 2008 cules could have made a game out of guessing Barça’s starting line-ups.

That’s what Vilanova was talking about when he says Barça do have a Plan B, and a Plan C, and a Plan D. When the result isn’t ideal, it’s because they failed to execute those properly, as in the Celtic game, through individual errors like defensive howlers or bad finishing. Not because they “only know one way of playing”.

aura and reality

I’ve argued before that we all simultaneously hold two images of our team in our heads: the glorious, invincible Dream Team of our hearts, and the collection of human beings who actually trot onto the pitch every three days. Most of the time, for most fans, these two images are contradictory. The Dream Team (no pun intended) only ever existed in our heads, when we look back on the past with sepia-tinged nostalgia.

The brilliance of Barça under Guardiola was that the contradictions were resolved. For a time, it seemed as though our team really were that amazing. Through ruthlessly-earned victories, they attained an aura of strength that was hardly dented by the occasional high-profile defeat. The surprise losses, in 2009 to Rubin Kazan, or 2010 to Hercules, didn’t seem to matter. Even a truly damaging defeat like going out to Inter in the Champions League in 2010 felt like an aberration.

At their best, this aura was itself a tool in Barça’s arsenal against opposition teams. As Guardiola said in describing Barça’s approach to the Champions League final in Rome:

“I don’t know if we will defeat them, but what I do know is that no team has beaten us either in possession of the ball or in courage. We will try to instil in them the fear of those who are permanently under attack.

Whether this very usefully intimidating aura can be maintained depends on how well Barça evolves its Plan A.

[*Valdes gets a lot of stick along these lines, which ignores the evidence that he's actually an amazing one-on-one shot-stopper quite aside from being able to use his feet.]

Posted in Tactics, Thoughts45 Comments

Defensive mind, offensive thoughts: Barça – Alavés

This is not a review. I would just like to share some thoughts about the game with you.

2012-11-28 BARCELONA-ALAVES 43-Optimized

 

Alavés do not look like a Third Division side to me. They were supposed to have their butts handed to them in at least one of the two legs, but they simply have too much heart. The away game bored the monkeys out of me. As usual during midweek games I took an extended break from work (smile), but I almost fell asleep during the first half. So bad it was a struggle to get back to my job again. There is something about bringing an almost complete A-team to play a quarter-professional C-team that really fails to get my juices flowing. It’s like watching a UFC heavyweight champ fight a welterweight judoka, uhmmm….actually, wait, I would probably very much enjoy that. But you get the idea. The fact that it took us more than half an hour to score and that for every free kick or corner conceded we still looked worryingly panicked did not add exactly sprinkle the enjoyment factor.

The home game looked to be a lot more fun. And indeed it was. Hooray, we get to watch a midfield tandem of Sergi Roberto and Dos Santos, complemented by his outgrown buddy Thiago de Alcántara who we almost haven’t seen this season due to injury. What’s more, after scoring THAT goal against not-too-long-ago relegated Racing Santander, we could expect Gerard Deulofeu to get significant playing time too, and maybe even start (it was not to be).  Too bad Bartra and Cuenca are injured. And that the great Yaya is no longer with us to romp through Alavesian midfields. But again, even though we started mostly first team players with only one Barcelona B player plus Santos, Alavés kept the score relatively low. It is definitely worth mentioning that we did not play badly, but rather that they refused to go out like that. For that they deserve our applause.

Although neither looked like world beaters, Sergi Roberto and Dos Santos did reasonably well. I really liked Jonathan’s distribution. Still think he will get sold as soon as he allows it. I also believe it will be very hard for us to hold on to Sergi Roberto, who is a lot more talented than he showed in this game. It will probably come down to how much he wants to play for Barça and how much he wants to play, period. I hope he will be patient.

The Villa Situation.  While it is good to see el Guaje get two goals, he doesn’t exactly look thrilled to play meaningless cup games and to either eat pine or get taken off early in the ones that count. Or, in the words of a bad mofo: “You gotta appreciate what an explosive element this Villa Situation is. If he comes home from a half a season’s injury and finds a bunch of youngsters doing some youngster moves in his position, ain’t no tellin’ where he’s apt to go.”*

Adriano Correia scored his fourth goal in thirteen games this season. That is just as many as in the seventy-one games he played for Barça in his first two years with the team. Somebody’s out to prove something. When we also take into account that he played as a central defender for the first time ever in one of the biggest matches of the world, it is safe to say that this role player has played an exceptional role for us so far. Let’s hope he continues to do just that.

Some people are blessed with a chin. Others with a jaw. Yet others with exceptional talent for kicking round objects. Gerard Deulofeu belongs to the latter category. He started off like crap in a wet paper bag. A wayward pass. Some lame dribbling attempts that wouldn’t have gotten past Marcelo’s grandmother. But once he got going he showed some real skill. Kid got more moves than the Rock Steady Crew, and he almost scored a cracker. He has to learn to pass the ball. Hopefully we will bring him slow and get him some more minutes against tougher competition later this season. I wanna see how good he can become.

Were you as impressed with the defense as I was? Yeah, I thought so. Montoya let Borja Viguera nod in an uncontested header and the whole team looked vast asleep when a suspiciously on-side looking goal was ruled off-side. That would have been two (!) goals conceded against a Segunda B (!) team. We might have a comfortable lead in the Liga but unless we do something about our backache that big shiny Champion’s League trophy looks very unlikely.

Speaking of a comfortable lead, I would like to leave you with a question. Is our lead 11 points, or 3? Or better yet, is Atlético the REAL Madrid this year?

 

 

 

*yup, that’s my bad mo-fo

 

 

Posted in Barcelona, Barcelona B, Copa del Rey, Review, Thoughts46 Comments

Defense, aka “Is it offensive?”

“Hello! I’m a sieve. Not to be confused with our defense!”

In the elegance (or desperation, for you cynics) of repurposing, here’s a bit of news: Every now and again, the mods have e-mail natters about various things team related. Sometimes they lead to posts, sometimes not. The dialogue is almost always excellent, in that it shapes and forms notions and future approaches. Yesterday and today, we’ve been on about defense, and I thought it worth bringing to the family for some discussion.)

Luke (yes, you all remember him …) kicked things off with:

What’s wrong with the Barcelona defense?

A. Injuries depleted an already thin unit
B. Numerous players out of position causing defensive formation and positional issues
C. Mascherano regression to the mean
D. Voodoo caused by Real Madrid-loving gods
E. Urge to eat tasty, tasty tacos too great for defenders to care

Discuss!
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Posted in Champions League, La Liga, Thoughts124 Comments

Rayo Vallecano 0, Barca 5, aka “Same as it ever was … NOT!”

“That’s right! All y’all can just bite me!”

To start. No, this isn’t a review. I have watched the match only once, and have a spare half-hour before bedtime for my sprinter legs. So call this a glorified comment, in post form.

Rayo Vallecano didn’t deserve that manita, really. They played their little hearts out at that closet-sized field of theirs, in front of fans who screamed, drummed and sung from the first minute to the last, never letting their players forget what real support is like. Full credit, and hats off were it not so ccccooold here up Chicago way.

But man, they took one in a match that was closer than the scoreline indicated, yet not really close at all. Statistics can be deceiving. You might think, from all of their shots and corners, that they were actually IN this thing even as they never really had a chance at it.
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Posted in La Liga, Review, Thoughts100 Comments

Deportivo 4-FC Barcelona 5, aka “Bonkers Magazine has its October centerforld!”

“Really, I’m not that baaaad!”

Has anyone’s heart rate returned to normal yet? What. A. Match. If I was a neutral, I’d probably be, as many commenters are, raving about what a match it was. But I ain’t. What I am is somebody who spent way too much time on pins and needles, physically and psychologically trying to will this team on.

As if they needed my help.

A pigpile of things were conspiring against this club at the Riazor, including FIFA flu, a Deportivo side flush with confidence in their house, many injuries, players not being at their best and a gullible ref who, truth to tell didn’t have a BAD match, he just went kerflooey at a couple of key moments. And still, it was a victory. Say what you want, blame what or who you want, but it was a victory for a team that is still undefeated this Liga season. And like it or not, you can’t have a goat when you win.
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Posted in La Liga, Review, Thoughts151 Comments

In the aftermath of Internationals, a brief news update

So, our boys scattered hither and yon to take care of International business, and um, this happened:

And that ain’t all.
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Posted in Team News, Thoughts56 Comments

Adeu, Andreu Fontas. Alas, we hardly knew ye ….

“All systems go. Ready for launch, Mission Control.”

Players come, and players go. The club announced today that Andreu Fontas, last seen sitting in the stands next to Jonathan dos Santos, giggling, is going on loan to Mallorca until season’s end. As many of you know, in the case of a serious injury, a club can be granted an exception to the normal transfer window.

Will Fontas return? Good question. Botia didn’t. And nobody speaks of Oriol Romeu any longer. But it seemed that Fontas had the stuff. On the other hand, a club without two healthy defenders to rub together, wouldn’t be sending him away if he had the stuff, right? So who knows.
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Posted in Team News, Thoughts, Transfers/Transfer Rumors123 Comments

Fan support, aka “There’s no ‘me’ in ‘affirmation’”

“No, it isn’t THAT finger …. but it could be!”

Fan (fan) n.: A person who has a strong interest in or admiration for a particular sport, art or entertainment form, or famous person.

During Sunday’s brilliant, almostthisclosetoawin El Classic, I Tweeted that I had heretofore thought it impossible for me to hate Wrongaldo more, but I was wrong. It wasn’t just the repeat of the “calm down” gesture that he made after scoring their first, or the way he grinned and winked at the camera. It the “Oh, my poor widdle shoulder” bollocks, etc. Argh!

Now. To RM supporters, his gestures were brilliant, those of a great player making opposing fans understand exactly what the deal was, and they were genuinely concerned about his shoulder.

Ah, perception.

Recently, as the entire world knows, even folks living under assorted and sundry rocks, Lionel Messi had a shouting match with David Villa. No, this piece isn’t about that long-forgotten hooraw. But some of its roots exist in an adjunct that has been turning over in my fevered little brain, that found its voice in the form of a question: “What if we still had Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and he was the one screaming at David Villa?” And further, does like/dislike color perception? Seems obvious that it does, or does it? Can we ever get beyond how we feel about a player as a fan?

I didn’t get many responses to my “What if Ibrahimovic?” question, but the few that I received admitted that he would, of course, have been scorned, vilified and all of that business that fans do to an “unpopular” player. Recall that Messi’s outburst was attributed to his drive, his striving for perfection and frustration at the efforts of mere mortals as they fall short of those standards. Yea, verily, his screaming at Villa was good said many, including our very own Isaiah, in a much-lauded post.

Yet Ibrahimovic would bring about a very different reaction. So all of this and a great many other things got me thinking about the nature of fan support, and the short journey from fan to “fanatic.”
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Posted in Thoughts134 Comments

Barca 2, Real Madrid 2, aka “A classic classíc, ‘Rashomon’ style”

Doorbell rings, post-Classíc-cule answers ….

Hello, is this the Cule residence?
Yes, who’s there please?
This is the SuperModel Chocolate Ice Cream supply company. We have a delivery.

(Door opens)

Okay, what’s with those shoes? What kind of chocolate ice cream is this? I’m picky, you know. Is that the supermodel’s natural hair color? It’s drafty in here …..
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Posted in El Clasico, La Liga, Thoughts105 Comments

El Clasic, aka “The biggest match EVAH! Until the next one.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the most important player in this Sunday’s El Clasic ….

No, not the one in the foreground, the one in the background, leaning forward as if to say “Who, me?” Yes, you, Cesc Fabregas. Isaiah will be in the house later with a proper preview. But here are a few thoughts to tide you over, and maybe winnow their way into your brain pan like one of those awful pop songs.
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Posted in El Clasico, La Liga, Thoughts46 Comments

Sevilla 2, Barca 3, aka “As beautiful as they are, I HATE matches like this”

The aka says it all: I hate matches like this, for so many reasons, but let’s start out with happy, Snoopy dance stuff: Improbably, we won. And we didn’t just win. We came back from 2-0 down against a gritty, resolute opponent in their house, an opponent who, in that same house, defeated our most bitter rival, an opponent who, for much of the match, came out and played us like an equal, showed no fear and almost got a result against us.

If this club pulls off what I still think will be an amazing feat, winning the Liga, it will be matches such as this one where we will look back in those season in review posts, and say “this was the one. Or that was the one. Or maybe, that was the one.”

This team isn’t just winning, it’s winning in a way that great teams do, not playing its best, with grit, determination and yes, a little bit of luck. We’ve said it before here, and it bears repeating: Last season, we lose this match.

There is a hunger in this group, an edge that wasn’t there last season, an advantage that finds its face in late goals of the sort that kill opponents and make shoulders slump. This team is a killer.
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Posted in La Liga, Review, Thoughts65 Comments

How to Give Yourself a Rating (And Win Friends While Doing It)

When you’re new anywhere and you’re interested in being liked, it’s usually a good idea to hew to the party line, make yourself look humble, and generally not rock the boat. In football, this is a pretty good way of winning over fans. It can become something of a burden on teams that fan favorites are sometimes not anywhere near the best players on their team yet no one will stand for them not being picked (stand right on up, Steve Gerrard). To become a fan favorite, you often have to stress how hard you’re working and how you’ve got so much more to give to the squad. You do have to perform sometimes, but whenever you have a bad game (or string of games), coming out and saying “I have to play harder” is pretty much the best thing you can do.

Alexis Sanchez graded himself in a press conference recently as 5 out of 10. Most cules probably nodded so hard they gave themselves whiplash. And now they’re likely to be less harsh on him. So, good job, Alexis, you’ve given yourself a little cushion in your upcoming couple of performances. Yet, has he also been entirely truthful? He’s not the goalscoring machine some would like him to be (15 goals in 47 competitive matches), but he was never a goalscoring machine: with Udinese he scored 21 in 112 matches; with River Plate, 4 in 31; with Colo-Colo, 9 in 48; and with Cobreloa, 12 in 50. Technically he’s scoring more often than he has at any other time in his career; in fact, he’s scoring at a higher rate than Pedro has scored throughout his Barcelona career. And since Alexis arrived at FCB, Pedro’s performances have suffered a rather steep decline: 15 goals in 56 appearances.

Goals are, of course, not the only way to define players, but it goes a long ways when you finish passed Iker Casillas from what felt live like infinity far away to even up a clasico. Speed, precision, and technique are the hallmarks of Alexis’ game. He’s not overly fancy with his dribbling, preferring to beat people the simple way (by making the earlier run for the pace into space), but he’s no dud on the ball either. Yet the Barça system isn’t designed for him to speed to the corner on a diagonal run and then flip in a cross, so he’s had to relearn the timing and angles of his runs. And he’s done that.

Against Spartak Moscow, Alexis injected spacing, width, and workrate into the front third. His murderous tempo allowed Tello more freedom on the left while also allowing multi-pronged attacks through the middle. Still, he’s fallen over easily a few times and received a bit of stick for that from around the world. He’s missed some opportunities and failed to communicate with some of his teammates. But 5 out of 10? If 10 is Messi and 0 is Hleb, then sure, but direct comparisons to players playing in different positions are hard (can you compare QBs with WRs in the NFL?) and who wouldn’t want to be a 5 on that scale anyway?

Alexis is often talking with teammates about where to go, what to do, which is a good sign. It suggests that both he and his teammates are invested in his contributions to the team. I would rate him higher than 5, but then again, each performance demands something a little different out of him based on his alignment. He’s better as the point forward, causing havoc, but he’s learning to be the wing forward, dragging defenders out of the way.

Whatever he’s done incorrectly, I think he’s made up for it with work rate and footballing intelligence. And also unlike Hleb, who didn’t even bother learning the language, at least Alexis has picked up pretty good Spanish. Did you hear his accent? It’s pretty good!

Posted in Thoughts40 Comments

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