FC Barcelona has for some time now been the sole passion I’ve permitted myself in the world of sports fandom. The club has recently undergone a great deal of upheaval, due to the sad circumstances of former manager Tito Vilanova’s relapse with cancer, and a new manager being appointed this year. There has been plenty of both media praise and criticism directed at the Blaugrana of late, though the sensationalist news seems to be winning out, and many who don’t follow the club’s ongoing course through the footballing tournaments now believe that the “Golden Era” of the club’s dominance has come to an end. Regrettably, what has transpired over the past year or so has only helped confirm this view, be it valid or otherwise. Vilanova’s team of the 2012-2013 season kicked off with dazzling form, yet his extensive absences among other factors led to a decline in form, culminating in a 4-0 and 3-0 loss to Bayern Munich in the semifinals of the Champions League that season. No doubt, winning the league with a record of 100 points (tying Real Madrid’s record of the previous year) was an achievement, but it was dwarfed by the humiliating loss to Bayern Munich and the several losses and draws with arch-rival Real Madrid. The strange relating to style, tactics, and line-up that the team employed (in particular towards the end of the season) was subject to much criticism, and while we should not be overly harsh on the poor man, it surely does seem like he was a little out of his depth.
After tonight’s rather insipid performance against AC Milan in the Champions League, and only days after an even more lacklustre draw with Osasuna in La Liga, doubts are starting to creep in to the minds of those Culés who unanimously praised the appointment of manager Tata Martino just a couple of months ago. Before these two games, this year’s team had been continuously praised – at least by pro-Barça media – for its evolution in style and winning streak, but in fairness major problems have been apparent since the start of the season. Again, we should not be too critical on a new manager, especially one with such limited experience in European football and who was forced to take over the reigns under such dire circumstances. Nonetheless, I shall best the rest of this article off a sound if unsympathetic premise: resistance to fully embrace change when the context demands it can only lead to stagnation and weakening. Perhaps the era of what some journalists and fans have hailed as the best club team to ever play football is over, but intuition says this need not be the case at all, especially to those acquainted with Barça’s unique style and paragon of a youth academy, La Masia. I dare say that to most Barçelonistas (at least the cynical ones, of which there are many), we seem to be on the verge of relinquishing our domination of world football – if we have not already.
Now, to the crux of the issue here. In my view, we can identify the following problems holding Barça back from reattaining the zenith of its powers, seen as recently as 2011 (or 2009, for some).
- The team is not waking up to the fact that other elite European clubs, as well as many smaller ones, have already learnt well how to combat Barça’s style of Tikitaka football and ceaseless possession of the ball. The strategies largely fall into two camps: park the bus and press aggressively and physically off the ball. Both, although particularly the latter, involve a fair bit of violence, that if referees were a little more sympathetic to FC Barcelona, might often earn such teams a slew of yellow and red cards. Alas, for whatever reason, most referees seem to rejoice in seeing the largely diminutive and technically ingenious Blaugrana players get routinely fouled, kicked, and bullied by their opposition (recent examples include Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Celtic, and AC Milan). That’s a contentious subject for another day, however. What is more important is that the Barcelona management and players wake up to the absurdly self-evident fact that their usual approach of passing the ball around in midfield until the opponent gets fed up of chasing it simply does not work. Tata Martino may already be working on this, and signs are that he seems to be keen to restore the high-pressing tactic off the ball, and introduce more directness and long-passing into their game. Certainly, these updates are welcome, but most likely they are not sufficient.
- The determination, grit, and verve that marked the Barcelona team from 2006-2009 looks gone. The legends that are Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta have not reached their heights for some time, and while we may be able to excuse the former for age, there is little explanation for the latter of any sort. Perhaps it’s not surprising, given the majority of the team has won a number of La Liga titles, Champions League’s, and even European Cups and a World Cup with Spain. Yet surely neither the club’s millions of fans, nor the management, nor even most of the players are content with achieving only what they have so far. Tata is a new coach, unknown, and originating outside the club (despite having the connection with Messi and his old club) – and together with his genuinely affable and approachable disposition (it would seem), one can perhaps see why he is not whipping the team to get the most out of them. His soft approach, if continued even as he establishes his position and respect within the club, may backfire on both the club and himself if allowed to persist for much longer. Particularly evident in the last two draws with AC Milan and Osasuna was the lack of desire in the players. The few constant exceptions to this: Neymar (being a young and new player at the club), Messi, Puyol, and Alexis (simply by their characters), Bartra (by his willingness to break into the first team) are much appreciated, and crucial to the team’s success, but there are 11 players on the team, and if the majority do not put their heart into their performances, it will severely and adversely affect the performance of the team. Additionally, we might put down the lack of influence by Neymar and Alexis in recent games to the so-called “FIFA virus” (returning after internationals), but given that every player has seen his fair share of rest even at this early stage in the season, I am not one to buy that argument.
- The ever-talented youth products of La Masia are only being integrated into the first team with great reluctance. The typification of this problem may be the careers so far of centre-back Marc Bartra and midfielder Sergi Roberto. Of course, some would argue that Thiago Alcântara was forced out by lack of playing time and trepidation in making him a starter for the first team, but in reality he was given a great deal of playing time for his young age, and was perhaps a bit over-eager to find playing time at all costs, moving away from the club after continual pressure from his father Mazinho, it is suspected. Marc Bartra and Sergi Roberto on the other hand, born and bred Catalans, have only ever impressed in their first-team performances when given just a little opportunity to find form. Finally the club may be realising what a talent Marc Bartra could be, and part of the solution to the ongoing centre-back “crisis”. Sergi Roberto represents a rather novel type of midfielder to the current incarnation of the club and its style: he is box-to-box and highly dynamic, while still capable of accurate and quick passing in the mould of Busquets, Xavi, or Iniesta, the giants of Tikitaka.
- A refusal to bench, retire, or sell off long-standing players who have consistently and markedly underperformed for a long time is hurting the performance of the team. This situation is particularly exasperating, given the profusion and diversity of superb young talent at the club. Notable examples of players who have very rarely performed to an adequate level over the past two years are Gerard Piqué and Pedro Rodríguez. Rightly lauded as being top players and major contributors to the success of both FC Barcelona and La Roja over the past 5 years or so, their respective forms have since declined enormously, and show no signs of returning. Perhaps it is complacency, perhaps they were never as brilliant as many of us thought, or perhaps something else altogether, but the crucial point is that neither Piqué nor Pedro have shown enough skill or form of late to warrant their automatic placements in the line-up. In fact, I personally have thought Piqué has long been a much over-rated centre-back, and should never have been bought back from Manchester United some four years ago, at least not to play as a centre-back (which he does a rather poor job of imitating these days). Pedro seems capable of little other than continuous back-passing, occasionally losing the ball, and defending with vigour on a good day. Well, maybe we should try him out as a full-back, but he is certainly doing our front line no good. Now, the form of Xavi is a very contentious issue; he is a club legend even while still playing, and has contributed so much to the team over the past 10 years, he deserves the utmost respect of all Culés whatever happens from now. The same goes for Andrés Iniesta. Yet the former in particular, and also the latter to some degree, have shown lack of inspiration on the field for a great deal of the last 6 months, if not longer. Might not guaranteeing their automatic starting positions for every big game do a bit of good? When undoubtedly hugely talented young stars, full of energy and eagerness to prove themselves, are waiting on the sidelines, it could hardly get more exasperating for them and the fans alike.
Now, I do not intend to address the solutions to each of the above problems individually and in detail, but they are certainly something I would hope every player at Barcelona and the managers have at the forefront of their minds, if they wish to continue the great success of the club in coming months and years. Let me now propose two teams that I think should be given tries as soon as possible. That is, I am of the firm view that playing these line-ups with the appropriate formations and tactics would do much to strength and reinvigorate the team, while providing much-needed competition for the players who feel their starting spots are guaranteed for every important game until the day they retire.
Trial Team for this Season
I strongly feel that this team would address some of the key problems, focused around certain positions and areas of the field. For a start, the problems rampant in central defence, which seem to stem from Piqué’s casual attitude and lack of speed, along with Mascherano’s occasional awkwardness in a role he has only recently adopted, could be hugely reduced or even eliminated by a pairing of the talented-yet-callow Bartra and the stalwart-yet-old Puyol, who would seem to complement each other perfectly. At the RB position, Alves is undoubtedly a world-class position and still far superior to Montoya, yet Alves still managers to great significant tactical and positional problems for the teams by his surging (and often heedless) runs down the right wing. Montoya is far more measured in these, perhaps due to his age, or perhaps by his nature, but irrespective of his talent, we will very soon need a new RB to replace the ageing Dani Alves, and why not try the promising La Masia graduate? As for Midfield, I have already alluded to the issues with Xavi and Iniesta, and whilst being two of the best players of their generation, it is becoming all too apparent these days the lack of penetration and attacking flair that more direct, box-to-box midfielders like Cesc Fàbregas and Sergi Roberto ought to be able to provide without difficulty. In the worst case, this midfield pairing would prove ineffective, but at least inspire our usual midfield duo of Xavi and Iniesta to break out of their highly conservative style that has solidified over recent years. As to the forwards, I have opted for a pretty conservative (arguably first-choice) trio; Tello should be given plenty of opportunities to show his worth, but I am not sure he is the solution to any of the team’s problems, especially given he brilliance of Neymar there.
Trial Team for Next Season
This team is rather more speculative, and by no means am I suggesting it is best team we could product next season (it is certainly not) – but it is certainly worth experimenting with (along with variations), for the sake of developing and enhancing Barça’s playing style, as well as the talent and skill diversity in the squad. Indeed, I am not so much suggesting this line-up be played, but that bits and pieces of it be incorporated in various matches. The abundance of alternatives also suggests (as it should) that who to play in what position, even experimentally, depends a lot on their progress over the current year, and form coming into next season. Regardless, there needs to be a strong desire to experiment with the squad, at the very least to the extent Pep Guardiola did in his tenure. If we introduce young players and give them the chance to shine in the first team while still only 18, 19, or 20, we may encourage the blooming of these stars, rather than forcing them to languish in the B team until some rigidly mandated age of 21 or 22, as seems to be the case of late. As a final remark, I should add that it is certainly with experimenting with a true centre-forward at the helm (such as the current B-team talent Sanabria, or a purchased tall striker) in place of Messi, and pushing Messi either to right wing or a “No. 10″/playmaking role behind the striker.
While it would be premature and largely a pointless exercise to list my thoughts on the entire squad for net season (to be clear, I am not even claiming that all of the above players should be promoted to the first team next season, only trialled), I will just make a brief case for Carles Puyol and José Pinto becoming player-coaches in their respective positions. They are both hugely well-respected and well-liked players (in particular Puyol), top-class players, and inspiring characters in the dressing room, not to mention on the pitch. Moreover, they would both provide crucial experience and mentorship for the youngsters entering into the first team and starting to secure their places, such as Bartra, Masip, and potentially Oier and Bagnack too.
Alright, I think I’ve rambled long enough for now! What do you think, fellow Culés?