The challenge of holding a minority opinion is whether it stands up to the litmus test of logic.
A popular worldview, supported by many an intelligent football chronicling voice, is that Barça under Luis Enrique is a team that is losing its identity. The latest piece, and an excellent one from Sid Lowe, makes the case as eloquently as any I have seen before and will likely see even as for me, the team has been losing said identity since before Guardiola’s last year, and that loss isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
So in the struggle to reconcile ideas that apparently need fingers on a keyboard to wrap a mind around, here’s a view from an outlier on judgments of Enrique and what/how he is doing in the here and now. It’s a question of not only what you see when everyone sees the same thing, but what is affecting your field of view in how you react to what you see.
The perils of inaction were chronicled in a previous post. Despite the notions that the piece was a call for the sale of Iniesta, what it did was ask the question, what are the dangers of institutional paralysis as they relate to a football team. And further, can such inaction hinder a club from reaching its fullest potential?
The problem with Barça as I see it, from the seeming rootlessness to the other things going on, is institutional. You can’t blame players not executing on the board, but you can make that entity complicit in the challenges that the team faces. And it’s deeper than “Does the team have the right players to compete in the way that the current coach believes to be ideal?” Once you answer that question, the next level(s) become if yes, then why are they not at their best and if no, why does the team NOT have the right players to compete in the right way?
If you take the second answer to be the “correct,” one, meaning the one that hews to your worldview, then it’s valid to wonder not only what other problems are being caused by a — for want of a better word — neglectful board and further, are there ways other than bodies on the bench and pitch in which that seeming institutional rootlessness affects the club.
Everyone laughed (well, Madridistas didn’t) when RM leaped to Ronaldo’s defense yet again over some slight. We giggled, but at the same time we wondered why Barça doesn’t do the same, why there isn’t the realization that the goodwill engendered by an act that might make the club look rather petty to outsiders, is incalculable. Our players aren’t above that stuff. They’re human. Ego. Craving for affirmation. The players didn’t kill themselves for Guardiola because of some magic fairy dust that he had. They did it because they understood that he cared about them. They also understood that at the end of that arc of work and trust would be something extraordinary.
As importantly, they understood that the board was, flaws and all, going to do what was necessary to make sure it backed the players. Signings, locker rooms, private jets, food, no matter. Let’s do this. The net effect was that the psychological governor wasn’t on. “Run, you bastards, run!” “Yes, coach.” The question wasn’t even how fast, because it was assumed that all out was the correct answer. It’s what happens when an institution is working together toward a singular purpose.
FC Barcelona is the club, but as far as the world and the majority of culers (as differentiated from socis) is concerned, FCB is the football team. And that team doesn’t need to worry about a new stadium, using energy-efficient light bulbs or making color copies. That team doesn’t want to be hamstrung by the burdens, real or imagined, of austerity or “administrative oversight.” That team wants the full, unstinting support of a board that has its back in every way, from transfers to calling bullshit on rumors about its star player being involved in money laundering and any of the other crap being thrown at its players. How in the hell is the team supposed to feel about not being able to augment its squad because someone in bookkeeping screwed up? Does the team have a foundation, or a bed of sand balanced on a skateboard?
The institution has been sliding, and that slide continues, the market activity of the summer notwithstanding. The team feels leaderless and directionless in part because the institution is seemingly leaderless and directionless. And that mood, that feeling permeates everything.
Between two worlds
Pique makes a stop at the defensive end and feeds the ball to Xavi who feeds Neymar, who goes running up the wing like a colt unfettered, looks to his right and sees nothing. So he stops, feeds Xavi and the rondos begin.
Barça can come at a team with a collection of attacking talent that is unrivaled. All 3: Neymar, Suarez and Messi are all quick with and without the ball, think exceptionally well while on the move and possess the skill to implement those wildest dreams.
There was a time when “death by a thousand passes” worked, that time before teams adjusted tactically. But a different approach is required, one begun by Vilanova, continued by Martino and seems to have stalled under Enrique … or has it? It seems that right now, everything is under question. Does Barça still attack AND defend with 11? What is the effect of having 3 players for whom the sort of aggressive tracking back reserved for workhorses such as Alexis Sanchez and Pedro, isn’t part of their makeup. So now is Barça defending with 8? How many is the team attacking with, and how does that affect the kinds of players that the team needs? As a coach, how do you try to account for those absences, stylistic barriers and implement a system that works?
You have Xavi. Should you? Now that you have Xavi, how are you going to use him in Enrique’s ideal system, and can you? The team was using other players to function in the role of Suarez. Then Suarez came, and things shifted. What happened? What if that shift was a reaction to the reality of Suarez’s presence? A defense will react differently to Munir than Suarez, so suddenly a plan that made sense on a chalkboard is blown to hell in reality. Maybe. 37 different lineups in 22 matches. Cluelessness? Rotation? Struggling with a system? It strikes me as a perceptional challenge. “Dammit, Guardiola never rotated,” which was the kissin’ cousin of “Whee, guess the Guardiola lineup. What a genius! I can’t figure him out.”
Can there be too many different lineups? Depends on how much rotation there is? If a lineup features the same 10 players but only one varies, that’s technically a different lineup, to be sure. But … Enrique needs to figure out his best XI. Does he? Or does he simply need to know his players, and which ones are best for a given opponent. In the process of figuring all that out, experimentation and in a baser form just messing with stuff, seems to be inevitable.
In other words, it doesn’t surprise me at all that things seem a mess. I expected they would be. Lack of talent wasn’t at the root of my prediction that it would be another silverless season for Barça, but rather the idea that everything had to come together, and this wasn’t going to be the season for that to happen. The questions that this team needs to answer are staggering, ranging from how to solve the right-side defending quandary to what is the best way to implement Alba AND Neymar? You also have the complexity of incumbents who might not necessarily be ideal for a desired system. So how do those players affect what the team is doing? Dynamism vs patience, la pausa vs pell mell running.
And yet something feels different about this group. It feels more fragile, a feeling with roots in more than simple tinkering. Key parts of the machine are older and worn, but there are psychological elements as well. Wins are less convincing, and we all struggle with the exact reasons why.
A number of players will require difficult decisions from Enrique over the summer, depending on what the CAS decision is on the appeal of the transfer ban (another gift from the board). Is Xavi moving on? What if Iniesta’s seeming malaise isn’t form-based? Is Busquets the right player in the right position? Is there an idea role for Messi beyond “Where the ball is, dummy.” So many questions, that in many ways have the quest for their answers obstructed by an ideology that is psychologically tantamount to having chanting dudes in robes saying “You can’t do that. It isn’t the way.”
Dogma and reality
The Way, for me, is winning football matches. It’s much of why I find the entorno absurd. Evaluations should be cogent and rational. Start with objectivity, then ask questions.
Cruijffian philosophy has, for me, become dogmatic and limiting. It’s a lovely tool, improperly used. Guardiola’s teams broke Henry long and banged a pass to him. Rafa Marquez was the king of the long, attack-starting diagonal. Txigrinski assisted Pedro from the back line with a long bomb. There were counters and tika-taka, rondos that had at their terminus a ball in a net, as well as Eto’o doing something crazy and toe-poking a ball home. A worldview and a philosophy are a way of thinking, rather than a straitjacket. And as we think about the club, what is going on and what we are seeing on the pitch, it’s worth wondering whether we are doing it with the clearest mind.
I see a team winning and playing in different ways, and I think “Cool!” Someone else sees that and says “Ugh, where is the direction? What are the Barça principles?” Is there a right and a wrong answer to those questions, or can both people be right, that as long as the roots of how the team plays find a base in attractive, attacking, possession football, is the rest semantics?
It’s difficult for me to say that it doesn’t seem like Enrique has a full grasp on things and the team isn’t playing in a clear, discernible fashion mostly because I didn’t expect it to. It expected things would be a mess. I am, frankly, surprised that the club won its Champions League group and sits second in the table. Does this mean that my expectations have tempered my idea of success/proper implementation? Assuredly.
The biggest reason that I and others have been calling for an exorcismus Guardiolus is because looking backward just ensures that you run into obstacles, and this team has enough of them without being hamstrung by additional baggage.
What Enrique wants to do is win football matches. He seems to be that kind of pragmatist. But he is winning football matches in a world where mere winning isn’t sufficient. Does that make him, like Tata Martino, too pragmatic to coach at Barça? Guardiola was an excellent football coach, a lover and a footballing romantic. He was also driven and obsessive, which made his elegant pragmatism something easy to overlook. But when he would come out with a midfield of Toure Yaya, Keita and Xavi, the plan wasn’t a minuet. Somebody was getting stomped. Horses for courses. There was the recent statement by Guardiola that he used a double pivot and the world shifted on its axis. He won. Everything. Until he didn’t.
I love beautiful goals, footballing sonnets that give me the vapors. But I will take a goal like Busquets’ against Valencia. It all works for me.
I also love the beautiful uncertainty of the game, the fact that you can talk all the tactical stuff you like but when the whistle blows you might as well put marbles in a salad bowl. The game is complex, violent, crazy, amorphous and requiring of immense patience. Results are difficult to come by, much less good results to a degree sufficient to accumulate enough success to warrant a victory parade.
For me, the team is a sine wave. It always has been. For a 2005 there is a 2008. For every 2009 there is a 2013 (minus the tragedy and heartache, pleasethankyou). It’s ups and downs, and balance. It’s an extraordinary group of footballers who are watching time slip away, who want to feel like people value that time. It’s also a fourth coach in four seasons, and yet another new way of thinking. But you know what? If you dump a load of crap on the floor, it’s going to be a mess. Giving the staff time to clean up might not be the worst thing in the world.