Thursday, April 29, 2010

narrative, what narrative?

The trend is much-discussed in political coverage, but it's equally prevalent in football. I'm speaking of our need to make sense of the big stories of the day by playing them into some kind of morality play context, as if somehow the fine margins of an offside decisions or whether the ball hits the post or goes inside the net has to come together to mean something bigger.

Speaking as a Cule, I couldn't blame fans of teams who've played big games against Barca in the past, say, 5 years if they got frustrated with being painted as the antagonist in Football As Art: the Musical. It's nonsense. I find it infuriating when Brazil get treated that way in the press, and I find it just as difficult to swallow when it's a team I support being given the idealized treatment.

Did it really mean something deep and profound when Barca advanced over Chelsea in last season's Champions League semi-final when they did it via a last-ditch goal and amidst so many contentious refereeing decisions? It certainly advanced the smaller narrative of Barca and Chelsea's grievances against each other, piling up from each of their explosive meetings in Europe, but beyond that, you'd have to ignore a lot of key facts to paint it as some kind of moral victory. It was a victory, sure, and one that easily made my week (okay, month), but let's not give it a gloss it doesn't deserve.

I'll give you the final - the victory over Manchester United probably could be taken as a vindication of Barca's commitment to its style, especially given the absence of key players, and of course it capped off Barca's treble. If you want to derive some meaning from that, feel free. It makes sense.

Like Guardiola pointed out in his (scrupulously gracious, no matter what quotes you've seen taken out of context) pre-match press conference for Barca-Inter, no matter what happened in that game, the Barca of the Six Cups had written their name into the club's history already. One game couldn't change that, for better or for worse. If we're talking narratives, I'll commit to that one.

But please, Arsenal aren't just a collection of too-young ingénues (more on age in a later post). Inter are not the Devil. Nor were Chelsea last season. Real, on the other hand...

I'm just kidding. But we'll have to wait until the end of the season too see how that narrative of sustained development versus sudden lavish investment plays out.

ETA: Almost forgot. You can follow me on Twitter @blackwhitengrey if you're that way inclined. Be warned: I tweet a lot of amusing Guardiola quotes.

Monday, April 12, 2010

pep guardiola and the importance of winning, part 2

“We came to the home of the league leaders who’d won all 15 games here so far this season. I give a lot of value to winning this one – it’s an honour to come here and win. They’ve got 77 points and that’s incredible." - Pep Guardiola on the result

Shots: 16 v 8
Shots on goal: 7 v 4

Usually when I see stats like these, I tend to expect Barca to be the bigger number. Unless it's a difficult away fixture, it's usually a safe assumption to make. In this case, Real being a very difficult away fixture indeed, Barca had less shots, only shaded possession (58%) by their standards and didn't even hit 85% passing accuracy (shocking, I know).

Perhaps, then, the Real players and their coach are entitled to feel a little hard done by. Maybe Arbeloa is right to say that Barca were lucky.

I'm going to pause here for a flashback. Back in Frank Rijkaard's first season as Barca manager, he packed the midfield for his first Clasico (at Camp Nou), lost, and got labelled a coward by the Catalan press. Rijkaard faced it all with his usual good grace and resiliency, even stating outright that he'd make the same tactical decision again regardless of the name-calling.

We laugh now about that infamous quote from scholar of football Tim Lovejoy in which he accused Barca of only knowing how to play one way, but there's a certain truth to it if you look at it the right way. I think there's a certain pride and intimidation factor in never compromising one's style no matter what the circumstances, or at least in having that reputation, and occasionally Barca can be guilty of being too intoxicated by that idea.

When I say that, I obviously don't mean Pep Guardiola's team. Guardiola has shown both a willingness to experiment and to hold his hand up and admit failure when it doesn't work out (for an example of the latter, see his apology after Barca's loss to Sevilla in the Copa del Rey this season). He bought Zlatan Ibrahimovic to add another dimension to Barca's play. He's happy to flood the midfield or play no strikers or start two leftbacks and three centerbacks (as he did against Athletic Bilbao), and he's not afraid of gambling in the big games.

Which brings us back to the Clasico, and Puyol at rightback with Alves as the right winger. Not only a gamble but a decidedly conservative move, which combined with Pellegrini's tinkering resulted in the opening twenty minutes playing out like a chess match, La Gazzetta dello Sport likening it to a classic Serie A encounter. Whether or not it worked - Alves definitely struggled as a winger, resulting in him being switched back at half-time - the fact that Guardiola felt like he could and should try it speaks volumes.

During the slow decline of Rijkaard's team, one of the often-heard laments was that Barca was set up in such a way that they could only win by playing well. Some of the Clasico match reports I've been reading have praised this Barca for winning by not playing particularly well, but by being composed and clever.

Nothing wrong with that. If you said that to Pep Guardiola's face, he'd probably take it as a compliment.

"We’ve got good players. I try and make sure that they all run and that they help each other, but there aren’t many secrets – I work hard, work long hours and I’ve got good players. They know that if they don’t run, I’ll let them know and since they don’t like that, they work all the harder." - Guardiola on the secrets of his success

On a different note, do my eyes deceive me or is Cristiano Ronaldo actually getting criticised in the Madrid press this morning? Really surprised to see that.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

child's play

For those of us who've been watching him since he was 16 years old, the craziest, weirdest, most astonishing thing about Leo Messi might just be how little he's changed in some respects, even though he's since played more than 200 games for Barcelona.

That's why this video of him as a 9 year old is so delightful. He still pulls all these moves (including milking that foul for all it's worth) today. And they still work:

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

pep guardiola and the importance of winning

All the compliments lavished upon this current Barca side for their playing style are entertaining to read, but at a certain point this particular Cule becomes somewhat uncomfortable.

Take Paul Hayward's recent piece in the Guardian: Barcelona must attempt to create a dynasty not just a passing delight [read the Run of Play's excellent dissection of the broader ideas if you haven't already].

Leaving aside the shocking news that Guardiola's Barca apparently isn't already part of a dynasty that can be traced back to the Cruyff Dream Team, as I'd always assumed, let's talk about beauty versus efficiency in the Barcelona context. More specifically, in the context of Guardiola's vision.

Sure, Pep Guardiola believes in a certain way of playing, and he believes in the work of La Masia. That's why his team is constructed like it is.

Above all, though, he believes that his way is the most effective. Guardiola has long been an opponent of the Barca that 'cries and wins nothing', the lingering inferiority and persecution complex that did pre-Cruyff Barca such harm in the past. His focus is very much on success at every level, whether it be social or sporting.

It's an easy mistake to make, falling for the cliche that says a commitment to entertainment means neglecting everything else, but as Sid Lowe pointed out in one of the best Guardiola profiles I've read:

The mistake many made was concluding that a commitment to creative possession football inherently means turning your back on hard work and discipline, on pragmatism and competitiveness; that the aesthetic is by definition incompatible with the effective. Guardiola is every bit as meticulous as, say, Rafa Benítez; every bit as much of a control freak; every bit as pragmatic. And he is every bit as determined to win. As the eulogies poured forth for the way Barcelona were now playing, he kept repeating the same message: "It will be meaningless if we win nothing." He meant it.

Sure, he believes that Barca have an obligation to play football that's worth watching, because of the people who pay their hard-earned money to see it. But that's only partly why Barca are set up to play quick-passing, possession football. The other reason is that it works. Under Cruyff, Van Gaal, Rijkaard and now Guardiola, it has bought Barca the kind of success that is unprecedented in its history over the past twenty years. With the youth system set up to produce the players who thrive playing in this way (defenders like Gerard Pique, midfielders like Guardiola, forwards like Pedro Rodriguez) it all just makes sense.

What Guardiola has bought that his predecessors perhaps didn't is the kind of mentality a Jose Mourinho or Alex Ferguson would install into their teams, helped by his own intensity and drive. They were mostly lost in the shuffle of the pre-match press about Walcott, but I thought Guardiola's comments before the second leg of the quarterfinal were instructive:

"We have to be proud of what we did in the first leg but it's not enough. Now we have to win."

"All that matters is that we have to get to the semi-finals. If not, people in London will say 'Barcelona came here and played well, but we beat them and went through to the semi-finals and they went home'."

The mistake some make is to assume that this kind of mentality would be incompatible with a free-flowing, expressive playing style. It isn't.

(I could talk about Leo Messi, but what else is there to say? Even those of us who were privileged enough to watch him play Capello's Juventus off the park at the age of 18 can only marvel.)