Of all the new coaches building projects in football right now, from Guardiola to Mourinho to Conte, the surprise addition to that list is — for many — Luis Enrique at FC Barcelona.
The weekend’s nail biter that wasn’t, a fascinating display by the best team in football, was interesting because everyone thought they had Barça figured out.
Last season, the team attacked by getting the ball to its most dangerous attackers, as quickly as it could, then letting them do the damage. As effective as this approach was, it didn’t leave much margin for error. If one of the front three was having an off match, if the finishing wasn’t up to snuff, there was no fallback, no real way to effectively control the match.
This left a great many culers nostalgic for the ball control days, when even if Barça wasn’t finishing, they had the ball all the time, so if they weren’t finishing, nobody was. Many felt the point was proved in that nasty, gritty away leg to Atleti in Champions League, when the South American danger men, fried from a recent international break, weren’t as dangerous as usual, and Barça went out on away goals.
There were hints that things were going to be different this season, beginning with the transfer activity and its focus on midfielders. The focus on mids continued as Sergi Roberto wrested the right back spot — to be honest, one that was almost certainly his all along — from Aleix Vidal. Then the club shipped out Claudio Bravo, and Dani Alves left on a free. Finally came the press conference, right before Athletic, with Luis Enrique said, simply enough, “We want to keep the ball.”
It was a comment that went unremarked, but that signaled a different kind of intent. L.E. Barça 2.0? Perhaps. Maybe. But a number of tactical changes set the stage for this new approach to things, most significantly at RB and GK. Alves left, which had a knock-on effect for Ivan Rakitic in that it liberated him. Much of his role last season was in helping with defensive duties on that right flank. Now, with the addition of Sergi Roberto, a player with a stunning football IQ, Rakitic’s role has changed.
Even more than the Sevilla midfield titan, Rakitic, with his MOTM performance against Athletic, showed off. He defended, pressed, passed, made key interventions and scored the winning goal off a bullet header. More importantly, he contributed to a Barça attack that at the end of the first half, boasted more than 65 percent possession.
The keeper, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, is new to the full-time No. 1 shirt. He had more touches today than any Barça player. Some of that was a consequence of the way Athletic was pressing, as Barça played out of its end and the keeper returned to the Cruijffian ideal of pivotal attack starter and fifth member of the back line. But some of it was also that there was a new keeper in town, one who, with the blessing and confidence of his coach, became the fulcrum of this Barça that we are beginning to get to know.
San Mames is a viper’s pit of an away trip, an arena where even though Barça has a strong record against Athletic Bilbao, its players never, ever make it easy. They fight, foul, claw and spit their way for the entirety of the 90 minutes and then some, making you wonder if they mark Barça players when they visit the loo.
“Can I have SOME privacy please? Damn!”
Barça demolished Sevilla in the SuperCopa, destroyed Betis in the first match of the Liga campaign but this, for me, was the most impressive to date. Last season, a 1-0 victory would have been fraught, because of the long passing approach to getting the ball to the front three. Buildup was bypassed. Those long passes also meant that opponents had more of the ball and could press the defense. This, of course, meant yips and screams as chances were created, and 1-0s often became 1-1s.
Even though today’s result was a 1-goal victory and a clean sheet, it wasn’t all that fraught. Athletic had two legit scoring chances: one from a Ter Stegen passing error, the other from a vicious free kick that went just wide. Other than that, the saves that Ter Stegen had to make were more just catching the ball sent toward goal, not even chances as much as “Well, gotta do something.”
Much of this control was related to ball control, not only playing out from the back but the midfield work of the kind that people said was absent. And it was, because the team didn’t have the personnel to play in this manner, but also because Messi hadn’t yet assumed his new role.
Now that the Barça No. 10 is functioning more like a traditional 10, this places the team’s best player in the midfield. Augmenting this new approach are faces like Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez as well as Arda Turan, players who can retain possession, press, make space and score goals themselves, created from passes made by Messi. Now that the team’s most dangerous attacker is in the midfield, the approach to the game has changed. The hurry to get the ball to the most dangerous folks has been replaced by a deliberation of approach that might, at any second, decide to get the ball up front straight away.
The addition of Samuel Umtiti, who debuted in the XI, and a more forward playing style means that the days when Pique and Puyol were pushed up near the center line have returned. This means that Busquets can play farther up as we saw today, becoming the eye of the hurricane as the other mids played off him.
Pique and Umtiti could play up because of the presence of a legit sweeper keeper, a proactive rather than reactive force who gobbles up balls that other keepers rely on their defenders to play. There was one remarkable play where Ter Stegen, far outside his box, took a pass and, as a pressing Athletic player ran at him, moved toward his box, turned to face forward and calmly played a pass to the wing. That’s what a sweeper keeper does, and apparently it’s going to take some getting used to. Ter Stegen is even more advanced than Victor Valdes was, playing his space more like Neuer. The way that he plays his space also means that the entire team can move up, because there is a playmaker in the box, passing it forward to advanced positions.
This football is weird to see, partly because it’s a safe bet that most culers remember this football from the Guardiola days, and assumed the team would never see its like again. It’s also weird to see because it’s different from the possession game of Guardiola’s days. Luis Enrique seems to be working toward a more dynamic, malleable approach that can create a 22-pass goal, or simply lash a pass through the middle to a streaking runner.
It’s a style of football that has also adapted to how opponents are going to play Barça, with the high press and a physical style. Ter Stegen’s contribution in breaking the Athletic press, allowing Barça to play out of the back with relative ease, was invaluable. Usually Athletic would get the ball back when a possession error happened. Even then, not much came of their possession or industry as Barça calmly stroked the ball around, Ter Stegen to Umtiti to Pique to Ter Stegen to Umtiti to a runner moving through the midfield as the entire team them moved forward to join that attacker and suddenly, Athletic had some defending to do.
If someone was to tell you that Barça would comfortably win a tight match on a night when Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez were its worst players, away against an always-difficult opponent, you’d probably wonder what sort of hallucinogen the person you were chatting with had been ingesting. But that’s what happened.
The biggest lineup surprise was the start for Umtiti, surprising because Mascherano was fully fit and available. Umtiti is strong in the air, winning every aerial duel. It’s worth noting that the Athletic free kick danger came from an aerial duel that Mascherano lost. Umtiti battled with and mostly controlled Aduriz, who is a handful in and around the box. He was, after some initial yips, calm and composed, showing an interplay with Ter Stegen that looked as though the two had been playing together for years. His forward runs were well timed and dangerous, his forward passes smart. Even the most paranoid culer had to work pretty hard to find fault with his performance.
But what he also did was enabled Busquets to push up the pitch, something that, given the erm … uncertain match that the Barça stalwart had, was something of a blessing. He and Pique displayed sideline to sideline range, coupled with the stability provided by Sergi Roberto, who was in for the MOTM discussion in the wake of yet another excellent outing at RB, a position that he plays differently than Alves.
His instincts for when to move forward and when to defend were uncanny, and having a midfielder as RB means that, when that mid has been schooled in the Barça way, you have smart possession on that side of the pitch, and passing fluency and variety not often seen from RBs, who generally bomb up the wing and throw in a cross. Sergi Roberto would make space by using his marker’s momentum against him, cutting inside or working a play with Rakitic that found one or the other of them in free space, running up the sideline as the Athletic press was broken yet again.
There is a patience to this Barça, a team that suddenly wants the ball, that understands the role of its best player, how that has changed and how it will change the way that the team plays. There was a method of play on display, that continued when personnel changed.
A lot of people saw a “Holy crap we could have lost or drawn” match today. But if you looked closely, you saw not only something potentially brilliant taking shape, but a match was wasn’t as close as the scoreline indicated, and not only because some profligate finishing on the part of Barça. It was a match that was mostly in control, something that we aren’t used to seeing from this Barça. Expect to see the “return of tika-taka” headlines, and those headlines will be wrong. This is Barça, playing Barça football, adapted. The team is still working it all out, and patience will be required on the part of supporters and the roiling cauldron of an entorno.
But the potential payoff is, should this project come together in the way signs indicate, sufficient to make even the crankiest culer giddy with anticipation.
It was like that first brush stroke, thick with paint and intent, than an artist lays on the canvas.
Busquets spanked a pass to Messi, one of those passes that lesser players wouldn’t try, one of those passes a lesser player wouldn’t have been able to receive. The pass had to be struck firmly because Messi was inset among Sevilla defenders like a rose among brambles, this beautiful object that needed to be freed. Busquets spanked a pass to Messi.
As Messi controlled the ball and began to move in a single motion, new signing Andre Gomes began moving as if he knew what was going to happen. And he did, like the glass-jawed fighter who has so often been on the receiving end of a beating. He knows. But his step was lighter because this time he and Messi were on the same side, this time someone else’s teammates were going to look the fool. This time, he could do what he probably imagined he would, if he ever got the chance. His delicate side-foot returned the ball to Messi, its rightful owner, who danced into the box deeply enough to sow panic in a defense that was thinking, “Oh, crap, here we go. Not again.”
But this time, Messi didn’t use his scythe of a left foot to add to his tally of goals. He slid a perfect pass to Arda Turan, who finished with an acute angled shot that whipped past the keeper. The goal was ballet, on the move, with a sphere at everyone’s feet. The men and the ball never stopped moving, the goal simple, but of the highest order. So fast, so aggressive, so violent. Sevilla didn’t have a chance.
In the Camp Nou there was this intake — that silence before the explosion of sound, as sport did exactly what it was supposed to do: elevate the spirit. It was beautiful, so beautiful that for the rest of that match, for 90 extraordinary minutes, nobody cared.
Welcome to your team, culers.
Every now and again in life, something extraordinary happens. Maybe it’s a job. Maybe you fall in love. Something happens that elevates your life from everyday to, for a bit of time, magical. When that happens, nothing else matters. It’s raining and you’re kicking up your heels. Let it rain. Fender bender? Whatever. The net result is that whatever it is, you don’t care because everything is awesome. For a very lucky few in aggregate, that thing is sport. There is only one champion. Everyone else loses. Amid all that misery, why do we seek out more of it with spite, bile and venom? There is even scoffing at “bandwagoners,” the new fans who come to Barça because holy crap, those guys are good. And it’s logical. Who wouldn’t want to be part of this?
Messi is in peak form, not as a goalscorer but as an all-around destructive force. Iniesta is renewed. Pique is the best CB in the game. Neymar is the second-best player in the game, passing to the best player in the game while working off the best striker in the game. The team has been refurbished to take advantage of all of this, elevating the setting for its glittering diamonds from gold to platinum.
Everything is awesome.
The culer way is usually spite, paranoia and disdain, leavened with slivers of joy. Real Madrid cheats, the world is against FC Barcelona and our Way is superior. When Barça wins we paint it as being against the natural order of things rather than something eminently logical, and sigh in relief that the best players in the game managed to do what everyone expected them do except, strangely enough, the people who support them.
We should stop. Or at least try to. And we shouldn’t stop because it makes us look like assholes to people who laugh at our whines about having to settle for a team’s star attacker as our fourth forward, or piss and moan because we have to “settle” for Ajax’s brilliant starting keeper as our backup.
We should stop because bile eats away at things that are beautiful, makes us forget that each wonderful moment is never going to happen again. We shouldn’t be content with having spent so much time worrying, snarling and scoffing that a rose was able to bloom, wither and die while we were shaking our fists at the neighbor.
Barça Twitter was filled with spite in the wake of Cristiano Ronaldo winning UEFA player of the year. With it came the inevitable Messi comparisons, and denigrating the award in part because Ronaldo got fat on a five-goal outing against Malmo.
Don’t care. Not a whit. Because Barça went crazy this summer. One of the gray-shrouded perennials that blooms annually around July, is disappointment. The team has needs and Barça doesn’t sign anyone, or doesn’t sign the right people. It needs a CB and gets a player whose coach said, “Well, he can play CB.” The team needed shoes, and got coats. As recently as January, seeking attacking depth, the club couldn’t scrape together 18m to bring Nolito in.
The craziness is that the team has addressed every critical weakness in the roster, fixed all the problems that plagued it during that one awful match against Atleti when they couldn’t buy a goal, when they fatigue-walked their way to loss after loss before righting the ship and stomping away to a close-run Liga title and Copa victory. We used to always look at Real Madrid and envy their depth, envy how they could take off a Modric and bring on an Isco, take off a Bale and bring on a Jese.
This season, that’s Barça.
Yet Barça didn’t just sign. It signed quality, players that make perfect sense and provide a flexibility and adaptability to any number of different tactics. If anyone goes down injured, the team can, like a amoeba, change form and still kick ass. It has been a magnificent summer in the window, that has resulted in a team with no real weaknesses other than the ones we conjure up. And yet the biggest worry was the eventual fate of Douglas.
We need to worry which makes it necessary to ignore the uniformly excellent outings that Sergi Roberto had at RB last season, to generate worry about that position. We have to say, if we admit that he is really good at his job, what if he gets hurt and Aleix Vidal has to play? Dooom! We, as a fan base, are so busy looking out for something bad that we are missing out on something good. We have the best team in the world.
Yes, yes, the necessary caveat is “on paper.” But come on. Barça’s second XI could go top five in the Liga. That’s what happened this summer. And it’s extraordinary.
My wife used to work at a wealth management firm. During a phone conversation with a client, the usual pleasantries were exchanged, and my wife was asked, “How are you?” She responded, “Good. It’s Friday.” And there was silence. It was at that moment that she realized that for the person on the other end of the line, it could have been Monday, or Wednesday, or Sunday. That when you’re that rich, the end of the work week doesn’t matter because you don’t work. You don’t really have a care in the world.
That’s how lucky we are as culers. We destroyed Sevilla, Europa League winners, in the SuperCopa, then obliterated Betis by a 6-2 score that could have been 10. And in that match, three of the XI were absent. THREE. The team is about to sign a talented striker in Paco Alcacer, a player who is a star for Valencia, the team that currently owns him. He will be our fourth attacker, this year’s Pedro.
You can do what you like, but this season will be one of renewal for me, for being like that wealthy person for whom it could be any day of the week. Nobody has any idea what will happen this season, but you know what? At this point it doesn’t matter. Bad calls don’t matter, ginned-up refereeing conspiracies don’t matter, gel-haired dudes who win individual awards don’t matter. The only thing that matters is the magnificent team that is part of the club that I love. To hell with the rest of them, because I, like so many others, come to sport for joy and escape. Not misery and rancor.
We have hitched emotions and spirits to this football club. It has repaid us a debt that it in no way owes by winning in unprecedented fashion, while playing the game in a way that is beautiful. We snark at the board, and keepers of the flame say that this or that isn’t right. Others yearn for a bygone time of magic and glory, meanwhile if Barça wins tomorrow, its coach will have done precisely what Pep Guardiola predicted when he said that Luis Enrique would do better than he did.
It’s easy to find things that are wrong. Today I was watching Benfica play to see how Grimaldo was progressing, preparing to Tweet thoughts about him whereupon something amazing happened: I didn’t care. Not an iota. Not even because there is no way in hell he is capable, right now, of doing what Digne can do. No. More because he isn’t part of this club, so I don’t really care about him or how he does. All I can do is count the minutes until my next fix.
It isn’t being a cheerleader, nor is it being a booster. There are those who believe there is fault with this team, who scream, “Why can’t we analyze, and find fault?” Party on, for nothing in life is perfect.
But for the first time in the many years that I have loved this club, its football team is something to be legitimately feared. It probably won’t win every match, it might not even win any silver. But none of that will stop me from not giving that many craps about anything that doesn’t involve stoking my affection for the best team on the planet. If you are married to a model who feeds you ice cream while rubbing your feet, what do the neighbor’s hedges matter?
Real Madrid can do what it wants, Ronaldo can win all the awards that he wants. Atleti didn’t beat RM in yet another Champions League final? So what. Barça is so stacked that there isn’t time for that kind of spite. They got it done, and hats off to them. Easy draw? I would have killed for Barça to have that draw, would have argued with anyone who said the Champions League trophy was tainted because of the cruise to the final, because all you can do is play the teams you are scheduled to play, be they Malmo or Arsenal.
There was a 1968 movie called “What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?” It was about a virus that made people happy. The only symptom of the malady was joy. That, for me, is Barça. We have never had a team like this, and might never again — veteran knowledge and power of youth, legends and icons backed by a smart coaching staff and driven by the best player in the history of the game. It’s impossible to think about all of that and not rub your hands in glee, to shrug at whatever else anyone else does.
Football is about armies and the attendant rivalries, the derby matches that bring out the fire in a fanbase. Every club has a hated rival, and that’s part of the glory and beauty of the game. But that’s fire. Not bile. Real Madrid got an offside goal? So what. Barça will, as well. As long as the team takes care of its own business, who cares what anyone else does?
As Marvin Gaye sang,
And I don’t have time to think about
What makes the flowers grow
And I’ve never given it a second thought
To where the rivers flow
Don’t you know I, I’m thinking about my baby
I ain’t got time for nothin’ else
The summer is over, really, no matter how hot it actually is in Western Europe. Most of the transfers have been done and it’s time to assess what’s going on. Has misery replaced all other feelings thanks to countless missed opportunities? For every signing, there are a dozen questions about why so-and-so wasn’t given the necessary opportunities to flourish or why we aren’t buying someone no one has heard of for pennies and turning him into a superstar overnight?
We bought Yaya Toure for €9 million! Why are paying €30 million for players now?
Besides Denis Suarez arriving for €3.25 million, of course.
Yeah, ignoring the up-and-comer we bought back for less than we paid for Douglas, sure, Barça is paying a higher premium than most clubs for new signings in an attempt to reinforce our squad with quality young players that can uphold the team’s trajectory for a few more seasons. Wait, why are we crying again?
And maybe still Grimaldo?
Yeah, still him too. My Benfica #3 shirt has tear stains on it.
And your Bayern #6 shirt?
Why do you hurt me so?
The thing about Samper and Munir—
I forgot about Munir!
Yes, of course you did. We all forget about Munir until we need some goals off the bench. Sometimes even Lucho appears to forget about him. The thing about Samper and Munir is that they’re up-and-coming in a way that Umtiti, Gomes, and Digne are not: they’re slightly younger and less well-rounded. There’s not necessarily a one-to-one replacement already signed to replace Samper, but the squad already has an undisputed starter in Busquets, a solid backup in Mascherano, and at least a decent third string in Sergi Roberto (who may very well be the backup at this point, though more on that in a bit). Munir’s situation is murkier from where I’m sitting—
Which is an ivory tower.
Which is shut up. If we’re to compare Munir with the player mooted as his replacement at the moment—Paco Alcacer—there’s a decent argument that Barça is paying a premium for a minor upgrade. There’s also a decent enough argument that it’s not even an upgrade, though Alcacer has a proven track record in the Spanish top flight and Munir is still relatively in his peach fuzz days. He made just 15 league appearances last year, chalking up only 3 goals. His 5 goals in the Copa del Rey came against Villanovense (2), Espanyol (2), and Athletic Bilbao. His contributions were, obviously, good and helped to propel the team to a domestic double, but they were neither indispensable (he scored goals 4 and 6 against Villanovense) nor useless (he opened the scoring against Athletic at San Mames). Paco Alcacer is 2 years older, but already has 100 more top flight appearances and scores at almost double Munir’s rate in La Liga. Both are dynamic forwards and Munir has been putting in solid-to-really-good performances to start off this year. It’s hard to argue a club going with one or the other—it’s a nice dilemma to have, after all and most fans would kill to have it.
The problem is, of course, that minutes dry up fairly quickly, especially with Turan likely making inroads on the LW position whenever Neymar is unavailable—
Wait, holy crap, we still have Neymar, don’t we?
Yeah! How insane is it that Barça looks like the team to beat and they’re missing one of the best players in the world? It’s precisely that reality that causes a team to even consider an outlay of €30 million plus for a marginally better player than the one already on the books. The baseball analytics crew would probably refer to it as Wins Above Replacement Player while there’s probably some xG stat out there somewhere that shows the difference between the two better than I can describe it with simple goals-to-games ratios. Regardless, we’re talking about a slightly better player on a team that is made up of global superstars whose on-field contributions are measured in orgasmic squeals rather than simple numbers. Improving that team is always going to be a costly affair without a youth academy that’s pumping out fully formed world class players multiple times a year.
Hey, we totally have that!
We don’t. La Masia is a brilliant institution whose players are getting regular playing time all over Europe’s biggest leagues, but the core of Barça’s team is a once-in-a-generation golden crop that fit perfectly with the new vision of football that Pep Guardiola pushed on the world starting in 2008 with that most impressive of Tripletes. That was 8 years ago and a variety of wrinkles have been introduced since then, with a slightly different type of player being required to maintain the team’s status than the blueprint La Masia has been working with, especially given the particular tactical changes Luis Enrique wants to instill. It can be easy to argue that homegrown kids should be playing 100% of the games at this point given Barça’s investment in its youth development programs, but look no further than the gnashing of teeth any time the team flirts with a draw to understand why heavy investment to maintain the highest levels of play takes place. It is always better to take the homegrown kid over the transfer if the two are equal in quality, but what if they’re not? What if the transfer is actually better?
But I love our kids. They should always take priority.
To put it perspective: do you think we should have purchased Luis Suarez or stuck with Cuenca, Tello, and Pedro? There’s almost no one out there who would currently argue that Pedro is better than Luis Suarez or that Pedro would have had the same levels of production had he not been replaced.
That’s not a fair comparison. Suarez is a true 9 and Pedro was always a hybrid winger/forward/dental patient. They even played together for a while!
Okay, fine. Let’s act like you’re right for a minute and look elsewhere. Remember Víctor Valdés?
The same year that Luis Suarez arrived, Víctor Valdés was released alongside José Manuel Pinto and Claudio Bravo and Marc Andre Ter Stegen took their places. In order to stick with homegrown, those last 2 names would have been Oier Olazabal and Jordi Masip. Instead, upgrades were required to maintain the team’s trajectory. This is a no-brainer to most people, but lesser differences in players are still differences.
Still, all of these transfers make us the new galacticos, don’t they? We’re spending outrageous amounts of money on players in order to win trophies. We’re better than that! We should be able to attract top talent and not pay anywhere near market value simply based on our name and recent history.
You know Douglas cost €4 million, right?
Yeah. And he cost so little that everyone laughed at his inclusion in the squad, demanded his ousting, and categorically rejected even the possibility that he was good enough for Barça despite never having seen him play. While it quickly became obvious that he wasn’t good enough, there were other, far more expensive players whose contributions were equally bad. Thomas Vermaelen played in just 1 match his first year and cost nearly 5 times as much; overall, Vermaelen has played just 21 times for the club before leaving for Roma on loan (Douglas, of course, played 5 times his first year and just 3 times the second). The point is not to vilify either of these players—Vermaelen has gone through terrible injury woes, after all, and Douglas is pilloried for taking the leap to a team literally everyone reading this would sign up with if given half a chance, regardless of the contractual details—but rather to point out the hypocrisy inherent in demanding low cost transfers and consistent results. Just ask Arsenal how Yaya Sanogo is working out (and he was free!).
As for the galacticos dig, the answer is maybe, I guess, but not really? Suarez and Neymar are certainly contenders for such a title, but they’re the only 2 that fit the bill currently in the team and only Zlatan is up there with them if you do the fuzzy maths that consider Eto’o’s value to be cash-on-hand. Regardless of how you view the team, there are still plenty of homegrown players floating about (though it can depend a bit on whether you view Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, and Denis Suarez as homegrown—Aleix Vidal simply doesn’t fit even an incredibly expansive definition of homegrown). The spine of the team is Messi, Iniesta, Busquets, and Pique, who are all either obviously in-house talent or, in Pique’s case, a repatriated native son. And the only reason they continue to play for Barça is that they are able to receive salaries commensurate with their value on the open market—if Messi had been “raised” at, say, Real Oviedo, he would not still be plying his trade there. The same can be said for other players who sign on to the project. Not only do they get to win major trophies, they get paid. And that’s great for the players and for a certain subsection of the fans who get to go along for the ride with them.
Like…us? Are you referring to us?
Yes, I’m referring to us.
Exactly. And that is precisely why a player as good as Munir may get replaced by a player like Paco Alcacer: because you like winning trophies more than you like watching homegrown players Oleguering their way around a pitch.
But I loved Oleguer!
We all loved Oleguer. But that didn’t make him run any faster. And it doesn’t make his total trophy count with Barça any higher: 3 (plus 2 Supercopas). Even Douglas giggles at that one season haul that took him 6 seasons to accumulate. And it is also worth noting that, barring massive changes to the ways in which we consume and administer football, money is going to continue to rule the roost. La Liga is unfair not simply because Barcelona and Real Madrid are better run that other clubs (they certainly are that, but they have massive latitude in their performances because they can paper over faults with bails of money), but because they have the financial clout to raid even a decently large team like Valencia on a regular basis.
The question isn’t whether or not you loved Oleguer, but whether you want 3 trophies in 6 years or if you want 6 trophies in 3 years and ammunition for some opponents to call you the New Galactic Empire. After all, this is a team that offloaded one goalkeeper and immediately replaced him with another, nearly as expensive one and passed over Jordi Masip yet again.
So what you’re saying is…
We as fans have a choice. We can choose the team we wish to follow and we can choose the ways in which we interact with that club. We can choose to follow Barça while demanding homegrown talent at the expense of imported talent, but we cannot then turn around and be rage-a-holic crazy people whenever the competitions end ingloriously.
Wait why not?
I mean, you can.
Yeah, it’s called Twitter.
Right. My work here is done.
Art Blakey. Wayne Shorter. Lee Morgan. Barney Wilen. Bud Powell. Jimmy Merritt. Walter Davis.
These aren’t footballers, but rather jazz titans who collaborated — more like a musical cage match — on one of the greatest live jazz cuts in the history of music, the titanic 1959 reading, live of Paris, of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia.” You can see it here. Each player steps up like a gunslinger, full of confidence and the knowledge that he is the best — the absolute best — and is ready to throw the hell DOWN.
That, right now, is this Barça. Wayne Shorter steps up, blows the walls down and steps back like, “Work with that.” Lee Morgan enters with a staccato blast and answers. Behind it all is the bandleader, the best drummer in jazz, Blakey, dropping tom-tom bombs like a drunken fighter pilot. Jazz has “cutting contests,” where a group of great players gather on the same stage and try to break each other’s spirit, but only temporarily. They’re as good natured as they are cutthroat, and the biggest winner is the music.
We can’t say, a la Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, that this team is Luis Enrique and the Football Messengers. Even though they make beautiful music, there is still this overriding, absurd perception that this team isn’t innovating, isn’t making real magic. But make no mistake about it, this season we are going to be witnessing a football cutting contest. Just look at Arda Turan.
Last season, he was a mess. It wasn’t just the six months of functional idleness. As a brilliant piece pointed out, at Atleti, a team of players hurtling hither and yon and putting the boot in, Turan was their elegant pause. He trotted while his teammates ran, they hoofed and he dished out contemplative slide-rule balls. At Barça, however, even the keepers are like that. In a team filled with intelligent footballers, Turan went from the cool kid to just one of the kids. Some adjustment was required.
While the long knives came out, Turan worked. He was the first player back, and had a specialized diet and fitness program. When the pre-season started, people muttered under their breath, for he was already unfashionable, “Turan is looking pretty good.” Then he improved, banging in goals, working with making MSN into MST. “Well, it’s pre-season.” Then the jams continued to be kicked out in the Spanish SuperCopa, then in the Liga opener against Betis.
Whether it was a question of adaptation or position is still being answered, but when Turan switched to midfield against Betis, he was still dynamic and incisive. It’s easy to speculate about what might have happened, but when Barça signed Andre Gomes and brought back Denis Suarez, how much of a kick in the pants does a professional need?
Great football teams should be constant cutting contests, constant pressure. The XI should be written in ink, but not etched in stone because players should be on the come, lineups should vary by opponent and rotation is crucial. Playing time is precious when you have 22 players, all of whom could start for almost any team in La Liga. It’s brutal, but it makes everything and everyone better. Even the ones who can’t cut it psychologically improve the team by allowing themselves to be shuttled off to the margins. Excellence has no time for the weak.
There are only two positions that aren’t going to be up for grabs, those of Messi and Luis Suarez. But that is more a question of their stratospheric quality than anything else. Even if the rumored Paco Alcacer transfer happens, that will still be true, even as Alcacer is good enough to keep Suarez looking over his shoulder and concentrating enough to stop flubbing those easy chances he gets so often. Ter Stegen, you say? There is a reason that Luis Enrique wanted three quality keepers on the team.
It’s a safe bet that the Barça players see their hardest matches in training, which not only prepares them well for matches but keeps the overall level of preparedness and execution high. Messi is running at Pique and Umtiti in training. After that, everybody else is manageable. Iniesta ghosts past Rakitic in training. What challenge is there in corporeal beings?
On the jazz stage, players go for the jugular as an appreciative audience gasps and applauds in admiration. That was the case at the SuperCopa and Betis matches as the team danced and capered, playing many different ways at once, dependent upon personnel. Direct and dynamic, possession based, a hybrid of the two and all points in between. Whenever the TV coverage showed the bench, Luis Enrique was smiling and conspiring with Unzue, like a bandleader tasked with “leading” a great band who quickly finds that the most useful task for his baton is flicking at flies.
In many ways, Luis Enrique is like the great conductor Carlos Kleiber, who trained his orchestra to the point where they didn’t really need him during the concert. He would freqeuntly turn to the audience during a symphonic performance and smile, arms folded across his chest. Asked why, he would say that his work was done in rehearsal and if he did it properly, what was the real value of him waving a stick around?
Luis Enrique trains his team, then sends it out. That was as true last year as this year. The difference is that this year, the depth runs into the fathoms. The only thing that kept Barça from consecutive Trebles was fatigue and a lack of depth. This summer, the technical staff addressed that. There are now two complete XIs to call upon, and a group of athletes scrambling to shove their way into the chosen one. Three keepers, midfield is like a metro station at rush hour and there will be four forwards. Top-level football isn’t for the weak, nor should it be. In an ideal team, every last player will feel that at the end of any given training session there is the potential for a lost slot in the XI.
Most likely XI: Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Raktic, Iniesta, Neymar, Messi, Suarez
But look at who that leaves out: Umtiti, Digne, Vidal, Gomes, D. Suarez, Rafinha, Alcacer/Munir, Turan, Mathieu. Add a keeper and one more player, and that’s an XI most coaches would be thrilled to go into battle with.
Recent transfers out were Claudio Bravo, Douglas and Sergi Samper. They all left for different reasons, all falling afoul of the Barça cutting contest. In the heady early days of the Pep Guardiola tenure, culers sighed as it seemed he was destined to never repeat an XI. “The players are unsettled,” blablabla, was heard before he settled on a team. Luis Enrique repeated this practice during his first season, and while people thought it was less charming, it was just as effective. Both coaches won trebles in their debut season. As the XI became more settled in second seasons, fatigue became a factor. Whether Barça limped or strutted across the finish line to a double will depend on who you ask. But consider what might have happened last season had Luis Enrique had the kind of depth that he now has, at his disposal last season.
But there is danger. In a team filled with great players, everyone should be equally unhappy. Everyone should want more playing time, not get enough and be determined to scrabble for the playing time they get. That is a perfect system, and the manager is so named because he manages expectations and egos, wants and needs. Last season, too many players got more playing time than they could ultimately manage, even as it was as much time as they wanted. What player doesn’t want to know that the XI will start with his name? But that’s often a consequence of a lack of depth.
This year there is depth, and danger in that depth, particularly as young players kick and claw at the door of the XI. We hear the recording such as “Night in Tunisia,” and are thrilled at the result of great players making each other better by trying to prove that he is the best. We’re lucky in that week after week in La Liga, we can see the result of a football cutting contest that takes place on the Barça practice pitch. We know it will make beautiful music, even if not every track will be a masterpiece.
It seems an arrogant question to ask just one match into La Liga play, even if that one match was a 6-2 drubbing of Real Betis that showed the club looking as dominant as ever. Incidentally, that win came with Andres Iniesta sidelined due to injury and Neymar still playing in the Olympics, where he scored the winning penalty for Brazil in the gold medal match. But it’s still just one win, and against a middling opponent at best.
The real reason this question bears asking so early in the 2016/17 campaign is that as we approach the end of August, it appears Real Madrid just isn’t structured to compete up to its typical standard. As Betfair’s football tipsters noted in their section on La Liga heading into the season, many still view the league as a two-horse race. But Real Madrid was not active at all on the transfer market despite the fact that their chief rivals and defending champions went out and made a few acquisitions to become, possibly, even more dominant.
Barcelona acquired Samuel Umtiti to improve the defence (though as we’ve written, this could also mean the departure of Jeremy Mathieu to Arsenal); they signed Lucas Digne as yet another defender capable of getting creative with the ball; and they added young midfielders André Gomes and Denis Suarez to bolster their depth in an area of strength. There’s not one headline move in that bunch, but altogether it’s a comprehensive summer effort for a club that really didn’t even need to improve very much.
By contrast, Real Madrid largely stood still, despite the fact that Zinedine Zidane didn’t seem to view his own side as a very competitive one even as they hung in down the stretch in the 2015/16 season. The club brought back Alvaro Morata after the striker spent a few seasons on loan with Juventus, but otherwise there really wasn’t an acquisition to get excited about. Madrid made a lucrative offer for Bayern’s David Alaba and were turned down; there are whispers of Cesc Fabregas interest, but Zidane has effectively shot them down; and the club was fruitlessly linked to Paul Pogba (though most major European clubs were at one point or another) before the former Juventus star signed with Manchester United.
Of course, it’s not as if Real Madrid needed to do a whole lot. By any measure it’s still one of the most talented rosters in the world. However, it’s a little bit puzzling that Madrid failed to take advantage of the summer window given the likely impending transfer ban in January. As noted in BBC’s football section, FIFA suspended this ban (as well as one on Atlético Madrid) back in January, and both clubs are appealing. However, it’s currently expected that the ban will ultimately be imposed on Madrid this winter, which means they could effectively be stuck with what they’ve got for the duration of La Liga.
Again, it’s not as if that’s a bad thing for 99 percent of teams. Madrid is still a dynamic and talented club. A single dominant stretch or a few favourable head-to-head contests with Barca could put them right back in the mix at the top of the league. But the way things are starting off, and looking at the two rosters, the gap appears to have widened a little bit between the defending champions and the rest of the league.
It feels fair to say now, perhaps more than in past seasons, that if Barcelona performs to its potential, La Liga will be no contest.