Barcelona And The Inadequacy Of Praise

I have not completely come down from my high of last week.  Barcelona won the Champions League, and they won it their way.  Pass-pass-pass-score.   Beautiful and exciting football, possession and pressing, no drama, just dominance.  Like in Rome two years, Manchester United dominated the first ten minutes, taking advantage of nerves and a slow start from Barcelona.  Also like in Rome, after ten minutes it was almost all Blaugrana.

There is no question that this Barcelona side is special, easily the greatest side since the Milan of the late 80’s early 90’s.  They are arguably better.  There is no doubt however, that this Barça side has joined the pantheon of great clubs sides.

Future generations will recite the names of the Barcelona starting XI: Valdes-Alves-Pique-Puyol-Abidal-Xavi-Busquets-Iniesta-Pedro-Messi-Villa.  Pep Guardiola has locked up the manager of the year award, and it is virtually certain that Messi will win his third straight player of the year award, thereby tying Platini, Cruyff, and van Basten.  (Some with a sense of irony might say that the award should go to Wesley Sneijder.)  Individual awards are silly though and meaningless.  Football is a team sport, and no club represents this more than Barcelona.  Barcelona would not be the team it is now if not for Messi, but Messi does not do it alone.  If he has achieved immortality, it is because he stands on the shoulders of (tiny) giants.

During the first ten nerve-wracking minutes, I sat hoping against hope that this match would be a repeat of Rome.  Sure enough, my wish came true.  I remember exactly when the momentum changed, and it was well before Pedro’s goal.  Barcelona began stringing passes together, weakly at first, and then stronger.  To absolutely no one I started saying “Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.”  The beats of a metronome, the precision of a Swiss watch, the gears of the machine running smoothly.  That is how reporters, pundits and commentators describe Barcelona’s greatness: machine-like.  Calling Barcelona a machine is too easy, and it’s dead wrong.

When confronted with beauty in football, I find that my own words are woefully inadequate.  I turn to Football in Sun and Shadow, and let Eduardo Galeano eloquently say what I cannot.  When writing about the famed River Plate side of the 1940’s, also called “The Machine,” Galeano said:

People called that legendary team “The Machine” because of its precision plays.  Dubious praise: these strikers had so much fun playing they’d forget to shoot at the goal.  They had nothing in common with the mechanical coldness of a machine.  Fans were fairer when they called them the “Knights of Anguish” because those bastards made their devotees sweat bullets before allowing them the relief of a goal.

This description of a side that played nearly seven decades ago also suits the Barcelona of today.  Barcelona have revived the flair of the old Argentinian style via Ajax and Holland.  Johan Cruyff, the link between Barcelona’s tiki-taka and Total Football, once said, “Simple football is the most beautiful. But playing simple football is the hardest thing.”  (Or something like that.  I have seen many variations of that quote.)  Barcelona is the  proof of just how difficult simple football really is.

At its root, football is a game of running, passing, and shooting.  Tactics and formations are additions that have built up and evolved over time.  What works better, a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3 or a 4-1-3-2, etc?  Additionally, in the age of the super clubs and expansive squads, a starting lineup can be different in every match.  Sir Alex Ferguson, for example, changes his XI and his tactics to fit the opponent.  Against weaker opponents, Manchester United may attack more, but against a more offensively minded team such as Arsenal, United might depend on the counterattack.

Except in the cases of injuries, suspensions, and meaningless matches, Barcelona uses the same starting XI.  Regardless of the on-field personnel, Barcelona never changes its style of play.  Barcelona’s philosophy (when was the last time football had a philosophy?) is based on a very simple premise: if I have the ball, you cannot score.  Putting that philosophy into action though is extremely difficult no matter how easy Barcelona make it look (just ask Arsenal.)  If possession is everything, players need to be constantly aware of their teammates positions.  Passing must be more than accurate; it must be precise.  And when the ball is inevitably lost players must be able to play an intense press to get it back.  Therefore the entire team must (a) be in peak physical condition, (b) be skilled, and (c) have a good football brain.

Although most renown for its attacking capabilities, tiki-taka is actually as defensive a style as the dreaded catenaccioFor example, at the World Cup Spain conceded two goals throughout the entire tournament and none during the knock-out stages.  Nevertheless, Spain in the knock-out round Spain won each match 1-0, the complete opposite of tiki-taka‘s popular image.  For the most part, the personnel was almost entire the same, as the majority of the starting XI was from Barcelona, and the Spanish side played remarkably well.  The was one significant difference in personnel between Spain and Barcelona, but it was a crucial one.  Messi is the uncontrollable element that opposing teams fear.  When opposing defenses park the bus, Messi tears them open.  Therefore Spain had to eke out a series of 1-0 victories, a stat that unfairly maligns the World Cup victory, but underscores the defensive prowess of tiki-taka.

What makes tiki taka such a successful attacking philosophy at Barcelona is that (1) the front line (Messi in particular) is so adept at scoring and (2) the attack can come from anyone.  They players are so good at scoring that their defensive work is largely neglected.  Until the very final weeks of the 2010-2011 La Liga season, Barcelona led the scoring charts.  The Blaugrana let up at the end after the title was all but assured, and Madrid beat up on hapless teams whose fates were already decided (and Cristiano Ronaldo wanted to win the La Liga and European scoring titles.)  In the end, Madrid scored 102 goals to Barcelona’s 95. (In all competitions though, Barcelona scored more goals.)

Goals scored does not the real story however.  The goals allowed and the goal differential show exactly how dominant Barcelona was this year.  For the entire 38 match season, La Liga opponents scored a mere 21 goals against Barcelona, or just over half a goal per match.  Therefore, Barcelona’s goal differential was a ridiculous +74.  Compare that number to Real Madrid (33 allowed for a differential of +69), or the other league winners in the top European nations: Manchester United (37 allowed for a differential of +41), AC Milan (24 allowed for a differential of +41), Lille (36 allowed for a differential of +32), and Borussia Dortmund (22 in 34 matches for a differential of +45).

It should not be surprising that Barcelona has such an incredible goal differential; Barcelona’s offense and defense are one and the same.  To distinguish offense and defense is to misunderstand tiki-taka.  As I wrote above, possession is not merely a way of getting to the opponent’s goal, it is the primary method of defense.  Pressing is not just a way to pressure an opponent, but also a way to restart the attack.  Messi, Pedro, and David Villa are therefore the first line of defense while the attack originates with Valdes, Puyol, and Pique (to say nothing of the attacking fullback.)  The Catalans chant with pride, “Even our keeper plays the Barça way!

Tiki-taka is the logical next step in the evolution of Total Football, a philosophy that, in its 1970’s incarnation, could not combat the modern defense.  In Total Football, players alternated positions depending on who could do the most damage where.  It was a system tailor-made for Cruyff.  Tiki-taka employs fixed positions but each role is a crucial part of both the offense and the defense.  That is why in both Champions League finals against United, Barcelona was able to play defensive midfielders as makeshift center backs (Yaya Touré in 2009, Javier Mascherano in 2011) without any repercussions.

Since the rise of this Barcelona squad, Barcelona’s youth academy has attracted a fair share of media attention, and deservedly so.  Of the usual starting XI, La Masia produced eight: Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, and Messi.  This is unusual for any club especially for one of the world’s biggest.  Yet, if you look at the list, La Masia has produced not just some of the world’s greatest active players, but also some of the greatest ever.  Even Ajax in the 1970’s did not have so many starters from its youth system.  Ajax now probably doesn’t either, and the Ajax Academy is the model for La Masia.

The youth system is the stumbling block for the Barcelona wannabes.  Even the great Barcelona teams were never this good, not the team of the late 50’s/early 60’s, not the Dream Team, and not the team from five years ago that featured Ronaldinho in his glory.  If Barcelona has never before reached this heights, what chance is there for imitators who do not have the youth system?  Tiki-taka (like Total Football) is too complicated a philosophy to be picked up easily in training.  It is rare to find a player who fits in easily.   Dani Alves, Eric Abidal, and David Villa are the only starters to came from outside La Masia.

That is what makes Barcelona great.  The Blaugrana have taken football to a new level.  Hopefully it will last a while, because great teams–truly great teams–do not come around often.

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