Keys to the Clásico
1) Surprising starting elevens.
Martino and Ancelotti chose their starting elevens cautiously. The changes they made in their team’s lineups weren’t bold, but rather reactive. Carletto’s decision to play Ramos in the midfield instead of starting Illaramendi clearly backfired. So did playing Bale instead of Benzema. While Ancelotti is obviously the coach whose decisions are now being questioned and criticized, Tata’s decision to play Messi on the right wing, bringing him back to his roots in order to allow Cesc to play in the middle of Barcelona’s front three, has also raised a few eyebrows. In fact, Cesc was oftentimes more of a fourth midfielder than a false 9.
2) Individual traces of brilliance hid what was an otherwise forgettable Clásico.
Iniesta’s assist to Neymar for the Tello-esque opener, Benzema’s powerful curling shot hitting the crossbar, Alexis’s majestic chip that reminded culés of Romario, and Dani Alves nutmegging C. Ronaldo, all made up for the collective shortcomings of two teams in transition in a Clásico that lacked fluidity.
3) Neymar, Iniesta and Cesc mobility and switching roles.
Iniesta thrived between the lines, taking advantage of Ramos’s poor positioning and Madrid’s midfield struggles in making tackles and regaining possession. Messi was not 100% fit, which was especially noticeable when having to sprint side by side with Pepe, so the Barcelona attack inevitability shifted the responsibility to Neymar. Not shying away from the opportunity, Neymar’s goal and assist proved decisive in the Brazilian’s first Clásico. Neymar, Iniesta and Cesc frequently switched positions, catching the Madrid defense off guard. Neymar would move into Cesc’s false 9 position, Cesc would drop back into the midfield, and Iniesta would temporarily take over Neymar’s position on the left wing, where he played at times last season. These movements explained Barcelona’s first half dominance.
4) Tata’s Barcelona is making adjustments; Carletto’s Madrid is making changes.
Ancelotti is fully committed to the 4-3-3 and to trying to maintain possession, but has yet to convince many in the Spanish capital. This marks a dramatic change from the Mourinho era of counterattacks. In fact, Jesé’s goal was Madrid’s only counterattack of the match, and Madrid had 46% possession, a significant increase from previous Clasicos. This definitely signals a change in intent. The first half’s most important player was Iniesta, but the second half belonged to Modric. As wasn’t always the case in previous Clasicos, possession was a much better indicator this time as to who was dominating the match at any given moment. This was also because, for the first time in recent memory, both teams played a 4-3-3, so different formations weren’t an issue.
There was something missing from this Clásico. There were a few tense moments but it lacked intensity throughout. Ramon Besa, of El Pais, puts it best “this clásico wasn’t a classic.” Had Messi scored his one-on-one opportunity against Diego Lopez in the first half, which would have made it 2-0, the result could have been closer to Barça’s historic ‘manita’ (5-0 win) than 2-1. Madrid responded capably, but lacked the ferocity of a Mourinho side. Both teams are still a work in progress. Meanwhile, Tito was in the stands. Elsewhere, Pep’s Bayern fought to a 3-2 win in Germany, and Mourinho’s Chelsea took advantage of a late Manchester City mistake to win 2-1. With both teams in transition, has the epicenter of world football shifted north? Perhaps. But even if so, it very well may soon be back.
Image Credit: David Ramos/ Getty Images
Will Neymar redefine what it means to be a Barça winger?
At first, culés were divided over whether signing Neymar would be a good idea, since being a winger at Barcelona means something completely different than it does at any another team. Many worried that Neymar would be unable to flourish alongside Messi. Now, it seems, all of these concerns have been brushed aside. They’ve been replaced with the Camp Nou’s thunderous applause that grows more and more deafening each time the young Brazilian touches the ball.
There is no question that Neymar has started the season well. However, Barça will not get the best out of Neymar unless it is willing to change the current role of its wingers. It appears that Neymar will undertake the brunt of this change on his own, though Martino is clearly aware of this and has granted his approval given the immediate results. Still, will Barça succeed in creating a system that gets the best out of Neymar and Messi simultaneously? How smooth a transition has it really been? What will it mean for the team going forward?
Style and first steps at Barça
Neymar is often compared to Pele but his style of play more closely resembles that of Garrincha. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeYyx87NWrU Both Brazilian wingers pause right before making their move. They playfully lure and tempt the defender into a tackle. At Barcelona, however, this may not be the ideal way to approach a one-on-one situation. There’s a tradeoff: waiting for the defender to make a tackle might allow Neymar to get by him, and give other players more time to make off the ball runs, but it also may lead to a loss of possession or slower ball movement. Decreasing the tempo of the game might give the opposing team’s defense more time to position itself.
Though it was just a preseason friendly (and therefore a slowly paced game altogether), Neymar’s assist against Santos, his former club, during the 8-0 win in the Trofeu Joan Gamper, is a good example of the amount of time Neymar had in one-on-one situations in Brazil. The Santos right back gave Neymar plenty of time and space to make his move. Neymar waited for Cesc to make a run into the box, taking a few steps at a walking pace before providing his first Barcelona assist.
As the season has progressed, Neymar’s moves are being executed more and more quickly. This shows that he is growing more in tune with the faster tempo of the European game. Without wanting to read too much into the generic differences between the European and South American way of playing, how quickly Neymar makes his move is likely to be a good indicator as to how well he has adapted to the European game.
The traditional Barcelona winger
In the past few seasons, Messi has cemented his role in the center of the pitch, and the wingers have spent more time assisting Messi than providing crosses into the box or trying to dribble by defenders on their own. This has meant a lot of passes and cutbacks and little dribbling and shooting. It is important to note that the wingers in a 4-3-3, what in Spanish are called extremos, are an entirely different position with different responsibilities than a traditional winger in a 4-4-2, known as interiores. As Thore Haugstad mentions in an article http://www.haugstadfootball.net/2013/03/27/life-of-the-barca-winger/ that breaks down the way a Barcelona winger plays:
“If you compare Barça’s possession play to the art of channeling water, the aim is to direct every drop towards the feet of Messi. You want to maximize his influence. Play a winger à la Arjen Robben, and you split the flow of possession, diminishing Messi’s opportunity to create. As such, Barça’s wingers are not there to create, but to support.”
What is the point of buying such a talented winger if all he is expected to do is to create space for Messi? Seen in this light, winger Deulofeu being sent to Everton on loan makes sense. So, the role the winger plays at Barça in a collective sense has inevitably started to change with Neymar’s arrival.
Has Neymar split the flow of possession? Most definitely, yes. This has even changed the way Messi plays, now dribbling less (to allow Neymar more time on the ball) and shooting more, becoming less of a false 9 and more of a traditional striker in the process. Some culés might refuse to accept the term Messi-dependence but all have felt, at one point or another, exasperated at the submissive role played by the wingers. Last season, Alexis became the scapegoat. The wingers’ inactive, passive and sometimes even dull, way of playing was due to a combination of:
1) A lack of confidence
2) Poor finishing
3) Struggling to adapt to a possession based, more static, attacking style of play in which the wingers had to beat defenders off the dribble when standing still (not getting the ball at full speed and having a lot of space while on the break).
4) Coaches’ specific instructions in a system designed to give Messi the most goal-scoring opportunities as possible.
The fourth reason seems to get the least attention. It is easier to blame the player than the system, just as it is easier to sign one star player than it is to change (or update) a playing philosophy that is so deeply ingrained.
How Neymar the individual fits into the Barça system
This brings us to the fundamental tactical puzzle that every coach faces: how to get the most out of an individual in a way that benefits the team as whole. “Tactics make players and players make tactics and the relationship between them is vital” is the way Jonathan Wilson of The Guardian once tried to explain the relationship between tactics and players. The football romantic Marcelo Bielsa, the Newell Old Boy’s legend who influenced current Barça coach Tata Martino http://goaldomain.blogspot.com/2013/08/getting-to-know-tata-martino-player.html, argues that:
“Totally mechanized teams are useless, because they get lost when they lose their script. But I also don’t like ones that only rely on the inspiration of their soloists, because when God doesn’t turn them on, they are left totally at the mercy of their opponents.”
More so than other players, Neymar must strike the perfect balance between the individual and the collective. His success depends on how well he reads the game, and choosing the best option (dribble, pass, or shoot) at a given moment. So far, his decision making has been close to perfect. Leaving his flashy dribbling aside, it is his vision and passing that has been most impressive. This has perhaps come as a surprise, especially to those who, like myself, didn’t follow his development at Santos too closely and didn’t have a great understanding of Neymar as a player.
While the way in which Barça benefits from having a player like Neymar on the wing is obvious, it is also clear that the relationship is mutual. Barça is helping Neymar mature as a player. The fact that this relationship works both ways is one of the main reasons Neymar’s transition has gone so smoothly. Former Barcelona coach and 1978 World cup Winning Manager Cesar Menotti saw this coming, insisting that “Barça will help Neymar grow. Barça plays a certain way and Neymar will have to play that way too, because Barça is no place for a soloist.”
The Neymar – Messi relationship
Messi’s injury, while it obviously will always come at a bad time, is even more unfortunate because it occurred precisely when Neymar was becoming more confident of his role in the squad and no longer accepting of being Messi’s subordinate. At first, there were a few instances in which Neymar passed the ball to Messi when he should have been more individualistic, as if reiterating the fact that Messi is still the man in charge. This tendency has been fading over the last few weeks.
Neymar’s lack of goals, just three so far, is the only blip in what has been an otherwise excellent start. Arguably, it was clear that Neymar was never that type of player in the first place. As a result, Barça is reportedly looking for a Henrik Larsson type center forward who can come off the bench.
It still remains to be seen how successful the Messi- Neymar partnership will be on a tactical level, though it is definitely helpful that Messi tends to start his runs from the center-right, giving Neymar more room to cut inside towards goal. The Barcelona media (Mundo Deportivo and Sport) have pointed to the number of assists that Neymar has given Messi as proof that the two players can work together. Yet, this means little tactically. More telling will be how many goals Neymar has scored by the end of the season. This will show that Neymar has succeeded in redefining the role of the Barcelona winger. Neymar assisting Messi represents a continuation (and improvement) of the current system.
What has Neymar meant for the rest of the team:
- 1. Will Neymar be a defensive liability in big games?
Atleti’s Diego Costa created plenty of problems for left back Jordi Alba during the Spanish Supercopa. Furthermore, Iniesta, the left midfielder, helps little on defense. That raises the question whether opposing teams will decide to attack down Barça’s left flank. If this is the case, how much will Neymar have to help defensively? Last season, Real Madrid would keep C. Ronaldo high up the pitch, a constant attacking threat. But in doing so, Madrid became exposed down that flank since he would rarely track back. If Messi is forced to press, will Neymar be the one relieved of defensive duties?
- Will Neymar’s approach rub off on Alexis or should it be counterbalanced with Pedro?
So far, Tata has almost always chosen Alexis over Pedro, the underrated traditional Barça winger. Michael Cox does a great job of summarizing what the Canary does best in a recent article http://www.zonalmarking.net/2013/10/11/new-managers-martino-at-barcelona/:
“Pedro has always been the attacker most suited to Barcelona. He’s not as talented as Messi, Neymar, Henry, Ibrahimovic, Eto’o or Villa – but more than any of them, he sticks to the system. He knows where to position himself, when to press, which runs to make. He’s happy to be a permanent decoy if necessary, in order to let Messi thrive, and yet he’s still capable of scoring a hattrick (away at Rayo).”
Neymar on the left wing will go a long way in determining who will play on the right wing.
- Is Neymar more comfortable with a more vertical and direct style of play? How well can he confront teams that sit back and defend deep in their own half?
Martino has shown that he doesn’t mind conceding possession if this means more space for his forwards, leading to a massive debate after Barcelona’s 4-0 win over Rayo Vallecano in which FC Barcelona, for the first time in years, had less possession than their opponent. Neymar has been able to adapt equally well to the possession based approach led by Xavi and the quicker transitional attacks led by Cesc. It is important that Neymar feel comfortable in both, since Barça has now started to vary its approach to games, depending on the opponent, Tata’s player rotations, Xavi’s health and form, and injuries. It is clear in which direction the team is heading (http://www.totalbarca.com/2013/opinion-pieces/how-cesc-is-transforming-barca-from-dr-jekyll-into-mr-hyde/ )
The fact that Neymar’s arrival has coincided with Tata Martino’s is fortunate for the young Brazilian. The “coach who isn’t Catalan or Dutch” has given Neymar more freedom to attack in what is a less rigidly defined system. Under Tata, players’ ideas are considered and taken seriously, the most obvious example being the return to man-marking on set pieces.
Cruyff recently commented on Neymar’s start in a fantastic interview with Antoni Bassas in the Catalan newspaper Ara. Cruyff’s discrepancies with the current board aside, and the fact that Neymar represents Rosell’s star signing, Cruyff is right to point out that “though Neymar is off to a good start, we still have to wait to see how good he is alongside Messi.” Though the early signs looking promising, we have seen little as to how well Neymar and Messi can break down elite opposition together.
It is still very much Messi’s team, but it is up to Neymar to determine how much the Barcelona attack will change and how successful it will be.
CATENACCIO’S RETURN AND A FEELING OF DÉJÀ VU
Against all odds, AC Milan put on a masterful defensive performance to stun Barcelona 2-0 at the San Siro. Barcelona had 68% possession but could do little to break through Milan’s disciplined defense. Playing a 4-1-4-1, the rossoneri left almost no space between their defensive and midfield lines. Milan made the most of their three shots on goal, scoring two of them. But even more alarming was that only one Barcelona shot was on target. The blaugranes were unable to create any meaningful goal scoring opportunities.
While this defensive style of play isn’t exactly new to the blaugranes, Barca showed that they still haven’t come up with any answers. Allegri’s defensive tactics were reminiscent of, perhaps even an improvement over those of another Italian, Di Matteo, whose Chelsea knocked Barcelona out of the Champions League in 2012. Di Matteo, in turn, got his inspiration from Mourinho’s 2010 Inter. Lesser teams have tried this approach as well, from Celtic to Rubin Kazan, with mixed results. While La Liga teams do their best to try to imitate these tactics, the fact of the matter is that only Champions League caliber teams seem to achieve the desired result.
While this type of football is clearly defensive, some might consider it unfair to label it catenaccio. Catenaccio’s origins can be traced back to Karl Rappan in Switzerland. Rappan needed a tactical innovation in order for his semi-professional side to be able to compete against stronger and fitter professional teams. The verrou or bolt as it was first known was largely successful throughout the 1930s, and Rappan is still the all-time leader of matches won as coach of the Swiss National team. This style was eventually brought to Italy by Nereo Rocco’s Padova in the 1950s and was perfected by Helenio Herrera’s Inter in the 1960s. This defensive system used a “libero” or sweeper to pick up any loose balls and also relied on man to man coverage.
Clearly, AC Milan didn’t do this on Wednesday night. The closest we have come to seeing catenaccio in the modern game has perhaps been Sir Alex Ferguson’s recent decision to rely on Jones’s individual coverage of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, though this is only one small part of the overall system. It would be an oversimplification to say that catenaccio still exists in the Italian game. Instead, the modern game uses zonal marking, not individual coverage, and the “libero” has for the most part, disappeared. Yet, on Wednesday night, Ambrosini played right in front of the defensive back four and it could be argued that the libero had now been moved in front of the defense; no longer in its usual place behind it. As a result, Milan successfully kept Barcelona further away from goal, an improvement over the original style. While they may have been comfortable enough to allow Barcelona possession in midfield, the rossoneri created an Italian wall in front of their own penalty box. So successful was the AC Milan defense that Barca got a mere 11 touches inside the Milan penalty area (see image below).
Calling Milan’s defensive performance catenaccio, which in Italian means chain, may deviate from the original meaning of the word. However, in many ways Milan still moved like a chain, as a unit. They were successful in shifting their defensive and midfield lines from wing to wing, nullifying Barcelona’s wide men. El Shawaary and Boateng made defensive sacrifices the entire game, keeping the overall shape of the Milanese defensive structure. The counterattacking threat was always present though there were actually very few counterattacks, except for the play that led to the second goal.
The match was reminiscent of Barcelona’s last year under Rijkaard, during which substantial amounts of possession meant little as Barcelona became predictable. Tactical innovation is necessary to make sure opponents don’t just sit back and defend. Moving Messi out wide, back to his original position as a right winger, proved unsuccessful. Pique heroically pushing forward made little difference as well. With Barcelona unable to find that final breakthrough, it seems that a new sort of catenaccio is emerging to counteract the tiki-taka philosophy. An improvement over the original, AC Milan will use this same strategy during the return leg at the Camp Nou; just as Inter did in 2010. Barcelona needs to come up with new ideas immediately if they are to keep their Champions League dreams alive.
Man of the match: Puyol, for his heart, pride, energy, and determination. On AC Milan’s side, the MotM was definitely Montolivo. His dominant performance involved solid positioning and midfield leadership. He was the man responsible for carrying out Allegri’s tactical game plan.
RACISM CONTINUES TO TAINT THE BEAUTIFUL GAME
In the aftermath of another heated Clasico, Dani Alves, FC Barcelona’s right back, dejectedly pointed out that “the fight against racism in Spanish football is a lost cause”. He was referring to the monkey noises that some Real Madrid supporters chanted at him whenever he touched the ball. These insults most likely came from the infamous “Parroquia Blanca” section of the Bernabeu, which also joined in calling Messi a “subnormal”, the Spanish term for a mentally challenged person. Sadly, this kind of behavior is only the most recent manifestation of a long tradition of racism in football. Ultimately, these chants represent a much larger problem, one that is deeply engrained in the fringes of society. In a time when racism is supposedly a thing of the past, some fans take advantage of the anonymity that a football stadium provides in order to release bottled up emotions that they wouldn’t be free to express elsewhere. As a result, angry and offensive taunts are common, to the point that insulting the other team has become an accepted sign of the more committed fan.
Considering the widespread nature of the problem, it would be wrong to single out Real Madrid, especially since part of FC Barcelona’s own fan base engages in these same monkey chants whenever Madrid’s Marcelo plays at the Camp Nou. Nonetheless, Alves has every right to complain to the RFEF, the Spanish football governing body, and Real Madrid should be punished, though this is highly unlikely. The fact that the problem occurs elsewhere is no less reason to speak out against it, even if that means mentioning it after a Clasico. Looking back at similar events of racism in Spain’s recent football history, it is appalling to see that so little has been done. It has not disappeared. Instead, racism continues to be suppressed and ignored. It is a taboo subject because it is not just the RFEF’s problem.
Luis Aragones, former coach of the Spanish national team, is widely celebrated for leading the team to victory in the 2008 Euro Cup. Glory had eluded La Roja for so long and Aragones instantly became a hero. But during the previous Euro cup in 2004, Aragones was mired in controversy. During practice, he told Jose Antonio Reyes “prove that you are more talented than that black piece of shit”, referring to Reyes’s then Arsenal teammate Thierry Henry (see video below). The British press found the comment despicable and called for serious repercussions but Aragones, and the rest of Spain, insisted that it was merely motivational. “Negro” in Spanish (meaning black) is definitely not racist in and of itself but adding “de mierda” (shit) at least twice, the racial slander becomes obvious. Also, if it were purely motivational, the fact that Henry is black should never have been brought up. Many Spaniards pointed out that Aragones couldn’t possibly be racist, since Marcos Senna, a black midfielder of Brazilian descent who spoke highly of Aragones, was a key member of La Roja’s starting eleven. In the end, the RFEF was fined by UEFA, but the Spanish football body didn’t take any further action. This episode highlights how tolerance of racism in Spain is much higher than in other countries, as, to this day, some continue to defend Aragones’s deprecation. The RFEF’s inaction directly contrasts with the resolve of the Football Association in Britain, which though definitely not perfect, has done more to address the issue.
Another incident occurred in February 2005 when Samuel Eto’o, former Barcelona center-forward from Cameroon, was so irritated by the constant verbal abuse from Zaragoza fans in La Romareda that he famously stated “enough is enough!” (see video). Fortunately, his teammates succeeded in keeping him from storming off the pitch. Ronaldinho would most likely have followed. Few could blame Eto’o, who later on said that the racism in Spanish stadiums made him refrain from taking his children to anymore football matches. Interestingly, many cules referred to Eto’o as “el negro”, signaling his skin color but not with racist intent as “the black man” might not be considered offensive in many countries. However, there was no questioning what some Espanyol fans meant when they referred to their own goalkeeper Idriss Carlos Kameni. Kameni, also from Cameroon, was insulted by some of his own fans and banana peels were thrown at him in contempt.
What makes this issue so difficult to solve is that it is only a small part of the supporters that act this way whereas sanctions and bans would hurt the entire club. Nevertheless, punishing the entire club might be the best way to get this behavior to stop. Often times, this can be linked to hooliganism. The most obvious example of this is the “partido de la verguenza”, the so called game of shame, when Barca’s hooligan group Boixos Nois threw a pig’s head at Luis Figo, the despised traitor, during his first game back as an opposing player at the Camp Nou. Yet, while hooliganism has practically disappeared, only recently have fans started to point out the people who take part in these racist actions or chants. Some progress has been made since this behavior is no longer approved of by most fans, but there is still a lot more that needs to be done. Admitting there is a problem is the first step in solving it.
While this problem occurs throughout Spain, it plagues many other countries as well. Sport has always been an easy way to channel emotions and frustrations, thus representing society as a whole. As of January 2013, the most talked about incident is the one involving AC Milan’s Boateng, who refused to continue playing a Friendly against Pro Patria, a fourth division Italian club (see video). As has been the case elsewhere, monkey noises got to Boateng, who kicked the ball at the offending fans and led the rest of his team off the pitch in protest. However, this is exactly what those supporters were hoping for. Their racist chants had succeeded in distracting the player. Yet, while walking off can be seen as an act of defiance, in my opinion, it was more of an act of weakness. While the sanctions are absolutely justified, and Boateng walking off is understandable, this doesn’t seem to be the most effective way of forcing a change in attitudes in the minds of the small minority of fans who are still racist.
At the root of the problem is the fact that these feelings of racism are often inseparable from those of non-racist anger. In any case, it is this emotional connection and intensity that reaffirms Spain’s passion for the game. In Spain, the use of words like “subnormal” (mentally challenged) is barely any different from that of other insults. When anger and racism are displayed on an individual scale, it is rarely punished. Such instances are just seen as the person losing his or her cool. Few pay attention to a racist taunt if it is a part of a longer rant that includes a lot of other cursing. Therefore, some don’t expect any repercussions when this same type of behavior occurs in a group. The RFEF’s approach is all wrong. Fining groups of supporters for racist chants and making sure they don’t return to stadiums only solves the symptom, not the cause.
Instead, harsher bans should be imposed on coaches, players, and even parents in youth leagues because this is where youngsters first encounter this type of negative environment. My own experience playing in both the US and Spain has shown me that a balance must be struck between two extremes. After years of playing travel soccer in New Jersey, USA, I couldn’t understand why players and parents weren’t allowed to get emotional during big games. At the time, it seemed like this hypersensitivity was getting in the way of enjoying the game and rooting for your team. I was frequently annoyed at how everything needed to be politically correct. For example, one of my own teammates was kicked off the team since his father’s interference, “coaching” him from the sidelines, was deemed disrespectful of our coach’s authority. More importantly, when I moved to Barcelona, I was amazed at how often the parents of my new teammates, and sadly my own coach, insulted the referees from the sidelines. Swearing was a big part of my new environment. It was practically non-existent in the States and when it did occur, it was punished more severely. I now recognize that racist chants can be an extension of the aggressive footballing environment found in youth leagues. There is a fine line between an insult and verbal racial abuse, though cultural, linguistic, and historical reasons may make it more blurry. Current inability to distinguish an insult from a racist remark shows how little modern society has progressed.
All in all, a radical shift must occur in order for racism to become as disapproved of within the world of football as it is outside of it. Racist chants at football matches have become a refuge for a frustrated minority that has found itself, for the most part, ostracized within the rest of society. However, changing convictions that are deeply held within a fraction of society is easier said than done. Alves’s pessimism is of course understood, but if solutions are to be found, optimism and faith is needed to rid football of this problem. He is right to point to English football as more decisive with regard to intolerance of such abuse but, at the end of the day, these societal changes will have to come from within. Better behavior at the youth level will set a better example for players and fans alike. And the RFEF taking a tougher stance on the issue will also be crucial in defeating such a ubiquitous problem. It is one that continues to taint the image of the beautiful game.
BEYOND VÍCTOR VALDÉS
So far, January has brought many news related to FC Barcelona, and there’s more to come. Before the month ends we have a classic coming on Wednesday to close this frenetic month. The club lives overall in a comfortable environment, enjoying the team’s successful performace on the pitch, its good financial shape, and with no social fracture as there is no real opposition to president Sandro Rossell. Tito’s cancer relapse and Victor Valdes decision not to renew his contract are the most negative news of these last few agitated weeks. Let’s take a look at the most relevant ones:
After the win in la Rosaleda the team completed the best first La Liga round ever, with 55 points out of 57. The numbers speak for themselves. Hence, the first La Liga loss of the season against Real Sociedad is more of an accident than even a warning, as the distance among Barca and Atletico is still big. Furthermore, and looking from a long term perspective, the team also looks strong: Puyol renewed his contract until 2016, when he’ll be 38, and is expected to continue until 2018 if he continues to feel useful. In addition, Xavi, whose regularity has been praised by former Spain coach Luis Aragones, is expected to sign in the following days, like Messi. In Messi’s case, January has been the month in which he has been crowned with a Ballon d’Or for the fourth time in a row, which is unprecedented. Now, Copa del Rey semifinals await. Not only will they be two exciting games, but also the possibility of morally sinking Real Madrid’s title aspirations for this season as they are not expected to fight for La Liga. We’ll see how they react to Casillas’ absence in the Champions League against ManU.
However, the club has also been affected by two negative events. The most important one is Tito’s health. Although his privacy has not been respected as he would have liked, we now know he’ll receive treatment in New York. While his future availability will depend on his reaction to the treatment, he’ll be out at least until March, so Anims Tito! The second, and surprising one, is Victor Valdes unilateral decision not to renew his contract. Needless to say that Victor Valdes has been crucial in FC Barcelona’s latest success. Nonetheless, his introverted character has also made him hard to interpret. He has a strong character, as he explained at Informe Robinson, he hated being goalkeeper and having to live away from his family in La Masia, but surprisingly he has become the best goalkeeper in the club’s history. Ramon Besa, the journalist of El Pais, offers his view of his secrecy. What’s also surprising is how the whole affair has been leaked, through a press release his agent gave to the press. Additionally, Victor has so far declined to talk about the subject. It is probably not a matter of money, as he probably won’t be paid like he is now at Barca, but even if it was; he deserves recognition for his silent, unpleasant, and effective job under the posts.
Finally, and indirectly affecting the team, Bayern Munich announced that Pep Guardiola will be their coach for the next three seasons. That is great news for the world of soccer in general. He’ll be facing a competitive squad wishing to improve their tactics, backed by a solid financial performance. But far from congratulating Pep for his choice, and looking forward to seeing him in action next season, his decision has been to measure how some press in Barcelona forget that he has been the best coach in the club’s history. During last week in Barcelona it has been heard that Tito has proved that he can manage a team without Pep, and now Pep needs to prove it too. That he is selfish and ignores his kids because he is moving constantly or even people saying that just because he is part of the past, fans should not care anymore… Other than in the Champions League, win as much as you can Pep!
In conclusion, the club is at that time of the year in which titles start to get won. Ignoring January’s few negative results, Barca is on its way to a successful season. Keeping the previously shown reliability, the team should been the league, and by winning Madrid at la Copa, we would morally discourage them in their Champions League cross. Let’s raise the 5th Champions League in Wembley!
WHAT’S UP WITH VÍCTOR VALDÉS?
No FC Barcelona player in recent history has given culés more to talk about than goalkeeper Víctor Valdés. Demonized by some for his glaringly obvious mistakes in key matches, Valdés has never been able to silence his critics, despite providing much needed continuity to one of Barça’s most troublesome positions. Winner of 3 Champions Leagues and 19 trophies overall, Valdés has won a record-breaking 5 Zamora Trophies, given to the keeper who concedes the fewest goals in La Liga each season. However, a strong defense also plays a crucial role in winning the Zamora, and thus the trophy may not be the best indicator of a goalie’s skills (Iker Casillas has only won it once).
While it might seem absurd to question Valdés’s talent, some supporters elevate the keeper to the stature of Casillas and Buffon, a judgment that seems to overestimate his abilities. A member of La Masia, Valdés has always been both an “insider” and an “outsider” at his hometown club. Loved by some, loathed by others, like all else in life, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
With Valdés unwilling to renegotiate with Barça, he is signaling to the club that he wants to leave, stirring up problems since his contract doesn’t expire until June 2014. As a result, President Sandro Rosell and Sporting Director/former Barcelona keeper Andoni Zubizaretta are already searching for possible replacements. Tito Villanova has mentioned that he doesn’t question Valdés’s professionalism, but can the effects of such a decision be ignored until the offseason? In an important Champions League game, do we want a player intent on leaving playing in goal?
Rosell is right to remind us that “being Barcelona’s goalkeeper is the third hardest job in the world, after President of the United States and the Pope.” Always facing immense pressure, Valdés is singled out when something goes wrong but one of the last players to receive praise when the team is winning. Even culés that support him feel the need to specify that “Valdés is a great keeper… for Barça”. This is most likely due to the fact that the keeper from Hospitalet is expected to be good with his feet to keep possession and must be able to remain focused and alert despite being reduced to the role of a spectator during long spells of the game.
When growing up Valdés didn’t like playing in goal, and considered it a “special type of suffering”, emotions he continued to deal with his first few seasons with the blaugranes. Undoubtedly, given his errors this season, this anxiety has resurfaced. Maybe it never left him at all. In this sense, fans’ perception of Valdés is a link to the old Barcelona mentality of self-doubt; fans turn on him whenever he makes a mistake. They do not offer their consolation and support. A few weeks ago when discussing his renewal, he argued that he has always felt like part of the fan base was against him, unnecessarily prompting division among supporters. This may have been the case before Pep, but the only reason this skepticism has reemerged is because FC Barcelona’s defense has been somewhat weaker this season and Valdés has made several game-changing errors. None was more inexplicable than the mistake that led to a Di Maria goal in this season’s Spanish Super Cup against Real Madrid.
His decision to break the news midseason created a lot of uncertainty and may have even destabilized the team. Was this insulting to the only club he has ever played for? Valdés has every right to leave Barça and want to play for another team but by breaking the news when the team was playing its best, the timing is rightly considered to be poor. Direct to the point of being obtuse, Valdés has never shied away from sharing his thoughts. Perhaps that is why he made the news public so soon. His mind was already made up.
In the end, those who are happy that Valdés is leaving haven’t truly appreciated the stability he has provided over the last decade. Yet, he is not as integral to the team as some insist and he most certainly can be replaced. With Zubi’s knowledge, Barcelona will succeed in finding Víctor’s successor.
These are a few of the options:
Manuel Neuer (Bayern): The fact that this possibility is even being discussed shows how some place Valdés in the same league as other elite keepers. Highly unlikely that Pep will trade Neur for Valdes, even if he wants to play from the back.
Vicent Guaita (Valencia): Cheap option though injury prone.
David De Gea (Manchester Utd): Very doubtful Ferguson will let him go.
Marc Andre Ter Stegen (Borussia Moenchengladbach): Young strong German keeper. Another inexpensive option.
Pepe Reina (Liverpool): Falling out of favor in Liverpool, played for Barcelona in the past and would adapt fairly easily.
Thibaut Courtois (Atletico de Madrid): Superb keeper but owned by Chelsea, so also somewhat unlikely.
PEP TO BAYERN: QUESTIONS THAT WILL FINALLY BE ANSWERED
It was a day full of surprises. Hours before Barça’s Copa del Rey Quarter Final against Malaga, former Barça coach Pep Guardiola made his final decision, ending the relentless media attention and speculation over where he is going to coach next season. Despite interest from Chelsea and Man City, Pep Guardiola accepted Bayern Munich’s three season offer and will take over for Jupp Heynckes in the summer of 2013. While some might be surprised by this choice, parallels can be made to Guardiola’s playing days, when he turned down a chance to shine in the Premier League (an offer from Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United) to go play in Italy. Though he preferred Juventus, he ended up having to settle for the Italian side Brescia.
From one FCB to another, Bayern Munich is the perfect fit for Pep. A strong youth system and financially sound, Pep is given complete freedom to find the balance between buying and developing players. Bavarian cultural identity might have also been critical in persuading him. Even with his 14 trophies at Barcelona, Pep still has a lot to prove. Can he replicate his success in the Bundesliga? How much of his success at Barcelona was due to Messi and the players? Do Tito’s results diminish Pep’s credentials as a coach?
Yet, one question seems to stand out the most. Will Pep’s time abroad as a coach be more successful than as a player? Of course, cules worldwide will now tune into Bayern’s games and will wish him the best of luck (except in Champions League of course). But there is a strange sense of nostalgia, of mixed feelings. While wanting Pep to succeed, cules might not want Barcelona’s style replicated. Though it would validate the tiki-taka philosophy, it would no longer be unique. Whether we like it or not, this coaching philosophy will undoubtedly be brought to Germany, with Pep planning to manage Bayern in a similar way than he did at Barça. “I will try to do what I have done at Barcelona at my new club” Pep mentioned at the FIFA Ballon D’Or Gala.
Are his reasons for leaving Barcelona fully understood? In an era where one-club players are a rare breed, one-club managers are even more uncommon. As sports journalist Ramon Besa, a friend of Guardiola’s, writes in El Pais, “Guardiola wants to be free.” Bayern will give Pep that freedom but the German club is similar enough to Barça to reassure him that this isn’t a monumental change.
In some ways, Pep made the safe choice. The Bundesliga is a relatively easier trophy to win than the Premier League if Pep’s eager to boost his international credentials. It looks like it will be simpler for Pep to apply his tactics and reshape the team at Bayern than it would have been in the Premier League. However, some are arguing that this is a waiting move that gives Sir Alex Ferguson more time to retire. Regardless, it is unlikely that Pep will go to Manchester United, a team some call “the Real Madrid of England.”
Overall, choosing Bayern makes sense, but Pep remains an enigma. Paradoxically, watching Pep manage Bayern will provide an opportunity to reevaluate his four years at Barcelona. Next season, cules will turn to Bayern Munich to learn more about their own club. Does Barça’s success boil down to the players or the tactics? Torn between wanting the best for Pep and wanting Barcelona’s tactics and style to remain inimitable, it may have been better for the question to remain unanswered.
ONZE DE LA PEDRERA (ELEVEN FROM THE QUARRY)
Fútbol Base, the youth development system housed from La Masía, has helped to distinguish Barça as “more than a club” for several decades. Generations of Barça legends, including Guillermo Amor, Sergi Barjuán and of course Pep Guardiola and Tito Villanova – not to mention our current generation of ’87 players – can all trace their success as players and coaches to their formative years in the Barça youth system. Even those who have left our beloved club such as Mikel Arteta and Pepe Reina, nevertheless owe their football education to Barça. That education is more than just the 4-3-3 formation or the speed and precision of our passing game. La Masía graduates display a humility and class both on and off the field that is rare in professional sports. Thus our philosophy and talent have enriched the world of football both through the training of spectacular footballers and the exemplary behavior that our players offer to the world.
Therefore at this time when our focus is deservedly pointed toward Messi’s records and the contest for the Ballon d’Or, we should still take a moment to recognize a a less noted but equally valuable achievement. On November 25th Barça took the field against Levante with a full team of diamonds from our quarry: Victor Valdes, Martin Montoya, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro Rodriguez, Leo Messi and Andres Iniesta.
As Culés and Penya members we value the contribution of all our players regardless of where they are born or where they learn the game. Nevertheless it is a vindication of fútbol base that our homegrown players can compete and even dominate a sport filled with so many wholly purchased teams.
The following is a BarçaTV video celebrating our Onze de la Pedrera:
LOOKING BACK AND LOOKING AHEAD
In this short period of time, FC Barcelona’s daily life has seen a lot of contrasts. And probably a historical shift. The most recent, and obvious, was Guardiola’s announcement that he won’t be the coach for next season. This brings us to an analysis of, first, his short career as coach, and the challenges ahead.
If we just look at some of the recent results, we can’t ignore that they have been tough. However, we have to remember that what Pep has done in the last four years is not normal: 13 trophies out of 18 attempts. It was strange to see Barcelona eliminated from the Champions league after qualifying for the last 5 semifinals in a row, but under Guardiola we have doubled the Champions League won from 2 to 4 in just four years. The team has been so reliable that it has only lost 3 out of 29 double legged matches (26 out of 29), only being by Sevilla and Mourinho’s Inter back in 2010 as well as Chelsea this season. Of course after winning la Liga three times in a row it is sad to lose at your stadium against your biggest rival. It’s also sad to have your rival acknowledge you as the best team in the world after qualifying for the final of UEFA Champions League by having their central forward defending. At least we have won three trophies this season so far (Spanish and European Supercup as well as FIFA World Club Cup), and we are still in time to close the season with a Copa del Rey closing Guardiola’s victorious circle that started precisely with a Copa del Rey in Mestalla back in 2009.
What lies ahead is not unknown, but rather, it is a triumph of the Masia model. On a supposedly sad day for Barcelona supporters, the day Guardiola decided to leave, we already know our next coach: Tito Vilanova. We can’t predict the outcome of this brave decision, but it confirms that there is a Barcelona style of playing, and that we believe in it. It is enough to say that Tito coached Messi, Cesc and Pique in the 2002-3 season, when they were just 12 to 13 years old.
The reasonable disappointment related the recent results should not tarnish a brilliant past, and even more important, the team has still all of the tools to continue to make history with a coach who believes in them. It is enough to see how the fans reacted to the Champions league elimination, no matter what the result is, we will always be proud of them.
WHO BELIEVES IN “VILLARATO”?
If we take a look at Barcelona’s recent history we can see that, in general, it has been a common policy for everyone in the club (including players, coaches, board members…) not to talk about the referees decisions. Both during Frank Rijkaard’s years (2003-2008) and Pep Guardiola’s (2008-2012) it is clear that through their leadership this rule has been respected. On one hand, it is understandable not to talk about them because the referees make their decisions under intense time pressure and they usually end up helping and hurting you equally by the end of the season. Moreover, the so-called top teams of the Spanish League (mainly Barça and Madrid) are always expected not to say anything regarding the referee because they are the ones who are assumed to have received the most beneficial decisions throughout history.
On the other hand, the policy implemented by Barcelona also responds to its pursuit of excellence which is achieved by playing total football and recognizing the rival’s merits in defeat. As Guardiola has always repeated when asked about the influence of the referees in the result: “you need to score one more goal.” This is a sensitive answer understanding that the rest does not depend on you.
Nonetheless, after Barcelona’s recent successes, Real Madrid has been especially incisive against the referees’ decisions. We all know Mourinho’s press conference where he asked “¿Por qué?” bitterly complaining about last season’s Champions League semifinal. But this is only on example. Mourinho also systematically attacks the referees. For instance, one of the reasons he was rejected as Barcelona coach when they offered him this possibility back in 2008 was exactly this reason. What has, so far, changed has been Florentino’s redefinition of señorío (the equivalent to Madrid’s values), when he said that defending Madrid interests in front of injustices (basically what Mourinho did in the press conferences) could also be considered as part of it. Along these same lines, Casillas has not had any problem complaining about the referees in the last few clásicos. All of these accusations have been backed by AS director (a sports newspaper from Madrid) Alfredo Relaño, who invented the term Villarato.
The term Villarato comes from the name of the head of the Spanish Soccer Federation, Angel María Villar, and the assumption that he has generally benefited Barcelona during Guardiola’s period. This media campaign has been a strong attempt to bring an end to Barça’s hegemony, and it could be interpreted as Madrid’s show of desperation after winning very few titles in the last years. The club’s response has so far to ignore it, as well as to respect the referees’ decisions.
The problem came about recently when some current and former FCB board members entered the game. First of all, Toni Freixa, Barça’s spokesman, broke the rules when he affirmed that this year we have been unlucky with the referees’ decisions. Secondly, Alfons Godall, member of the board under Joan Laporta’s presidency, explained last week as well that during Laporta’s period referees tended to benefit Barça due to his good relationship with Villar. Although his words have been used by Madrid’s press to confirm the Villarato theory, they are nonetheless more harmful than beneficial to Barcelona’s interests. Godall was probably moved by his aversion to Rosell’s presidency. He meant that it is good to keep cordial relationship with influential people, which is what Florentino Perez has been doing lately, as opposed to Sandro Rosell.
In Barcelona there is the perception that this year Barça has been especially damaged by the referees (which is not inaccurate), but we should not forget the irregularities outside of Camp Nou, what Guardiola would see as the incapacity to score one more goal. More importantly, we should not forget Madrid’s regularity during the whole season (no matter that every controversial decision seems to end up helping them). Now that Madrid is 10 points ahead, we cannot be like them and blame the referees.
As Carles Fité’s article illustrates, we cannot change our values as the circumstances change. After eliminating Madrid from this season’s Copa del Rey, Dani Alves said: “only losers talk about the referees”. That’s true. And we should apply it to ourselves now too.
We all know that FC Barcelona is living the best years of its history under Pep Guardiola. This is true especially when it comes to results: Guardiola’s team has won 13 out of 16 official titles. Nonetheless, in addition to winning, which has raised admiration from the rest of fans and professionals has been the way by which FC Barcelona has played.
This video gives a great overview if this style:
It starts with a picture of Rinus Michels (Johan Cruyff coach’s in the 70’s with Ajax, Barcelona and the Dutch team). He was the creator of total football, a style based on ball possession, aggressive defensive pressure, and the involvement of all of its players, a new level of excellence in soccer. With Barcelona, he won the 1973-74 Spanish League with Cruyff, and they also
reached the 1974 World Cup final. They lost it against Germany, but they are remembered for the soccer they played, what people called the “clockwork orange.”
The game features emphasized on the video are:
- Keeping possession.
- High pressing.
- Versatility in the player’s positions on the pitch.
- High defensive line.
- Making the field small (when the team does not have the ball), and making it big with the ball in possession.
- A goalkeeper comfortable playing with his feet (this is extremely important to keep the circulation of the ball and Valdés is a great example of it. In the video you see his genius pass to Dani Alves in last year’s Champions League semi-finals which ended up in Pedro’s goal).
- Short goal kicks
- Short corners (the point is to keep possession, not header the ball).
- Creating space for teammates when the players don’t have the ball.
- Dominate the midfield and attack as unit.
- The wide range of formation Guardiola has used (4-3-3, 3-4-3, 3-6-1, 4-3-1-2, 3-5-2…)
MESSI IN NUMBERS
Now that Messi has become the youngest player to reach 200 league games (beating Xavi) last Sunday against Valencia (where he scored 4 goals in a single game for the second time in his career to celebrate it), it is interesting to wrap-up his numbers.
First of all, it is appropriate to say that if he retired today he would be one of the biggest legends in world soccer history. His age, 24, tells us that even though he is young, he has won as many team and individual trophies as some soccer legends did in his whole career. More interestingly, that tells us that if he keeps up this pace, he will be the greatest player of all time.
As a player, he has won three Ballons d’Or, equaling Cruyff, Van Basten and Platini. He has the won the three of them in a row, as only Platini did. The main difference is that the Frenchman was 30, and Messi is six years younger. As Johan Cruyff said, he has the potential for winning seven or eight throughout his career.
With Barça, his numbers are spectacular. He proves why he is the leader of the best Barça team of all time. In these 200 La Liga games he has scored 142 goals, an average of more than 0.7 goals per game. As for right now, he is not Barça’s all-time top scorer. Nonetheless, his 223 goals in 310 official games leave him very close to César’s 235. It is a question of whether he will achieve it by the end of this season, which is likely seeing his last performances, or the next one.
At the same time, Guardiola has been able to exploit his goal scoring talent. When he started with Barcelona, he used to play in the right wing, to take advantage of his best leg, the left one. After Guardiola placed him as “fake central forward,” fake in the sense he is not the typical forward playing in the middle, but that he has absolute free mobility, he has scored 100 goals in the last 100 official games. Guardiola was right when he said that what Messi enjoys the most is scoring goals. He is not a central forward in a strict sense, but his performances leave no doubt of his ability to find the back of the net.
Quantitatively, his numbers are legendary. He is the foreigner with most titles won: 18, one behind Xavi’s record. They include 3 UEFA Champions League, 5 Spanish Leagues or two FIFA World Championsip cups, among others. He is also the foreigner with most games played, the player with most goals scored in European competitions, and a large etcetera.
He is not only appreciated by Barcelona fans, but by anyone who understands soccer. In the day to day performances we will always expect him to play exceptionally, and, above all, that his good individual performances lead to collective trophies. As fans we will do well do encourage him to do so, but we must not forget what we are experiencing is exceptional.
AGAIN AND AGAIN
Barça’s results last week show its historical identity vs. the different attitude under Guardiola’s team.
On the one hand, against Osasuna, Barça showed its historical incapacity to chase Madrid while facing a big point difference, what Alfredo Relaño (AS, sports newspapers, director) called different DNAs. It is true that Madrid is having an outstanding performance in the league, but as Mourinho said, they will eventually drop some points. However, that’s not the problem. The problem is Barça’s irregularity outside the Camp Nou. Mascherano, when asked in press conference (when the distance was still 7 points) about the league, answered that while the league did not depend on them, they had the obligation to win every single game and to wait for Madrid to make a mistake. That’s where trouble has arisen. It will be unsustainable to aspire to chase (not to win) the league if we are not consistent. Last week I pointed to Piqué’s words as appropriate, when he said the league is going to seem long for Madrid. While this may be true, the league will seem very long for us if it just turns into a countdown for Madrid to win the title.
Coming back to the league identity, Jorge Valdano (Madrid’s former general manager) said that if Barcelona was able to snatch this season’s Spanish league to Barcelona, the historical conversion process in which Barcelona steals every trophy and success to Madrid would be complete. Although with Johan Cruyff we were able to reverse the situation, it looks as if this mental aspect is the only component we have not changed in the last years of successes, as if Cruyff’s years were the exception to the rule. Dani Alves said before the Leverkusen game that Barcelona is a pessimist club. Really? Even now, when the club is having its most successful years?
On the other hand, Wednesday’s result shows the infinite hunger the team still has. Beating Leverkusen (which, unless a catastrophe should be certified in the 2nd leg) in their stadium, in addition to being difficult, prove the players want more. This Champions League edition has a special incentive: if Barcelona wins it, it would be the first team in history to win it consecutively. There are several teams which won the European Championship in its old edition (AC Milan was the last one in 1988-89/1989-90) , but no one has achieved it with the new format. Here the league plays a big role. That was the point of Martí Perarnau’s article before the game in Germany. The only way to keep the competitive tension until the end of the season will come by winning the league games regularly. This will allow the team to be physically and mentally prepared for the Champions play-off games and Spanish cup final, no matter of there are real chances in the league. Coming back to Mascherano, just worrying about doing our job.
Guardiola understands this motivational side exceptionally. In a gesture without precedents, he sent Piqué to the stands in Germany because he understand his performances and his attitude in the last few weeks. We still have some more exciting challenges in this season. We have come too far to surrender now.