Friday, April 27, 2012

The death of Barcelona?

Consecutive defeats to Real Madrid and Chelsea decry this season's Barcelona bandwagon is coming to a faltering and much-needed rest. That hiatus could be temporary or permanent, depending on new coach Tito Villanova's methods; manager in excelsis Josep “Pep” Guardiola confirmed today that he would not return to helm Barca in 2012-13.

There are reasons aplenty behind Barca's slip from the peak of Iberian – and world – football. Some are obvious, such as a squad which struggled to replace injured defenders, the disease of more, Guardiola's almost inevitable burnout and brutal opposition playing solely to absorb the pressure created by Barcelona's passing and then rebound. Key elements Xavi, Carles Puyol and Eric Abidal succumbed to chronic injury and pure bad fortune.

Perhaps the most important latent reason for their “drop” in form this season was that their game barely changed throughout the four years of Guardiola's reign. Why would you change such beautiful football? Guardiola's Barca evokes memories of the Game of Thrones scenes involving the swordmaster Syrio Forel, who in a world of broadsword hackery sees the sword as a weapon capable of beauty as well as efficacy. Forel saw swordplay at a more advanced and exquisite level than his peers.

The past four years of Barcelona football, 2008-09 and 2009-10 especially, has borne witness to such an advanced philosophy. They are the Forel of world football, with a mode and method far in advance of their rivals. However, as anyone who has read/seen the first installment of Game of Thrones will attest, this hardly makes such learning untouchable.

The problem with employing such an advanced method in the age of video is simple: others observe. In any pro sport, what works one year rarely works the following because others catch on, catch up and overtake. When the peloton can take advantage of tools like Synergy Sports and Opta Joe, a sporting thought-leader needs to constantly evolve its game plan on a conscious and subliminal level. Not only do clubs need to do better the basic elements of what they do, but they also need to expand upon those components.

Although a “Naomi Campbell” – a thing of terrifying beauty – Barcelona's modus operandi remained at a stillpoint which enabled dissection and planning.

The counter-argument of “If it ain't broke” has merit. If Barcelona played to their best, they would still defeat every other team in the world without a qualm. It places the squad in a vacuum, reducing competition to a pub discussion “with all things equal”. We watch sport because things aren't equal. The Bell Jar doesn't require a team who has had success at every level to reach their potential each new day amidst injury, form slumps and personal crisis. The continued growth of Barca's game may have provided alternatives on which to fall back during these times.

If a club or player attempts to expand – not re-shape completely – their game, those efforts are never detrimental. Rare is the club who truly succeeds by paring their repertoire back to the basic elements and focusing their play through only one locus. There must be alternate “looks” or second and third avenues down which to play. Over the past year Barcelona haven't provided many different looks; it's compelling testament to their greatness that they were so successful.

It interesting to note that their original Plan B – the Zlatan Zeppelin – arrived and departed within a year. Purchases over the past two years have been like-for-like: Villa, Mascherano, Sanchez and Fabregas. They sold different players like Oriol Romeu and Bojan – committing firmly to the pass-and-move. The instant players wore down or Messi (heaven forbid) was to be injured, the Barcelona underbelly would become instantly exposed. Taking advantage of this glimpse of vulnerability would still need a combination of hard work, skills and brains; but for certain clubs, a victory would now be possible.

Should he want to regain the Spanish crown, Villanova should maintain the same techniques that achieved such Barcelona grace. However, he also needs to make changes significant enough to both tactically outpoint Los Blancos and revitalise his charges. In 21st century football, homogeneity is the ultimate enemy. Change, for its own sake, is needed at the Camp Nou.

An old adage posits that without losing, winning is meaningless. This iteration of Barcelona, as excellent as they are, will now instinctively place more value on their wins.


  1. A thoughtful and intelligent assessment well written. I was pleased to see that FCB are promoting Villanova as they did with Pep. Perhaps that is an indication that FCB believe in and practice succession management. I would like to see FCB go one step further - give Pep a sabbatical. Give him a year or two to recharge his batteries and study other clubs and coaches and return to assist Villanova. Then, when V. needs a break, replace him with Pep.

    1. That's a really interesting idea, Peter. I'd not thought of a sabbatical, but I don't see why it couldn't work well. I think we can disregard the old wives' tale of "Never go back", especially with the reverence both Pep and Barca hold for each other... Perhaps the only reason behind it may be a reluctance on Guardiola's behalf: how could he possibly match his achievements in a second spell?

      In an age where some athletes are aware of their legacies and others remain blissfully ignorant, I feel that Guardiola's one of those who is keenly aware of leaving a positive impact on Barca. Whether he could do the same after a break probably weighs heavily on his mind.

      Fortunate or no, his reputation is now of a man who wins (nearly) everything and it will be a tough life to live up to. In this respect, I almost don't want to see him manage again. The best analogy I can come up with is of JK Rowling, who's now writing a new novel which, no matter how good, won't ever compare to the success of Harry Potter.