Monday, August 08, 2011

barca 10/11: the review

Some scattered thoughts on the season just gone, which like a good adventure movie had its highs and lows before the uplifting, happy ending.

the boardroom and the locker room

For all the talk of a steady transition, the election of Sandro Rosell bought about a revolution in the board room at the beginning of this season. While football affairs at the club continue to be held in the grip of Cruyffistas, the Rosell regime has shown a remarkable determination to dissociate itself from its predecessor in other areas.

I say remarkable, but of course it's not surprising that Rosell would repudiate his old friend turned enemy Joan Laporta at every opportunity. What has struck me is the extent to which the club has become a tool to further the vendetta between the two men, a trend clearly demonstrated by the extraordinary lawsuit filed by the club against Laporta for alleged financial mismanagement during the latter's presidency. However you feel about Laporta and Rosell, it is more than arguable that the legal dispute has had a divisive effect upon the entorno and general fanbase.

Rosell's big policy changes have proven no less divisive. I understand that many fans support the move to restrict membership. I've also heard that opposition to the shirt sponsorship deal isn't quite as staunch as it might seem amongst the online fanbase. Be that as it may, I remain opposed to both policies, and having spilled copious amounts of ink explaining my opposition (on shirt sponsorship and on membership) I won't go on again.

Given the above, the reader is entitled to take what I say next with a grain of salt. The only thing I can say is that I try to evaluate each aspect of Rosell's performance independently, with as much objectivity as I can muster. Right after the Osasuna travel fiasco (remember that?) an article appeared in El Pais questioning the public role Sandro Rosell had played that day and in the immediate aftermath. Namely, almost none, and nothing was forthcoming until Guardiola none-too-subtly called for more institutional support during his explosive post-match press conference.

If I have one major complaint about Rosell's work as the public face of Barca as an institution, it's that at crucial times this season, he did not step into the limelight and say what needed to be said. (The Busquets saga, for example.) There's no doubt that Guardiola is a brilliant spokesman for the club. But that's not his job.

horse race: extreme edition

As all involved with Barca are no doubt keenly aware, the chief enemy of a team operating at optimal capacity is complacency. Therefore, we have Real Madrid to thank for these past three years. Their Herculean efforts to topple Guardiola's team have pushed the latter to the limit and allowed them to show their true measure of resilience under enormous pressure.

In 09/10 these efforts mainly manifested themselves in Galactico-style spending. Pellegrini's team did almost everything right, only to fall agonisingly short. It was inevitable then that Florentino Perez would turn to the only coaching Galactico in world football.

The coming of Mourinho heralded a return to the most paranoid days of the Real-Barca rivalry after a few years of relative calm. Barca players will tell you that being questioned and provoked was an added motivation, and maybe they're right. Certainly, the level of unity bred by a siege mentality can be a powerful weapon, as most top class managers well know.

However, I don't think you'd find many Cules who truly enjoyed the Clasico series near the end of the season. Four games in 20 days was never going to bring out the best in all involved given how toxic the atmosphere had become.

clasico madness

Having said that, there were some unforgettable, wonderful moments amongst all the muck, too. Like Leo Messi's wondergoal, the one uplifting moment in a game best left on the cutting room floor, the kind of dazzling, did-you-just-see-that-how-the-hell move action replay was invented for. And of course there was that astonishing, brilliant, and deeply satisfying 5-0 victory.

It was Mourinho's first Clasico on the Madrid bench. Many expected it to be close, scrappy, an attritional battle. What happened instead was a slaughter. As Jonathan Wilson quite aptly said:

This was an indelible night, one that, whatever happens in the rest of the season, will echo through football history.

The manita has a special place in Barca's history - especially Barca's history against Real Madrid - but I dare anyone to think of a 5-0 to top this one in terms of performance. Just like Johan Cruyff's team winning 0-5 at the Bernabeu and the Dream Team's own 5-0 at the Camp Nou, it will be looked back upon as an era-defining game, one that underlined this Barca's particular brand of dominance.

At the same time, as the great Cesar Luis Menotti pointed out, the trauma of the 5-0 defeat dictated Madrid's tactics for the 4 later Clasicos. Some have argued that the improvement yielded in results vindicates Mourinho's aggression. That however unpalatable, his team's aggression on the pitch and campaign off it succeeded in breaking down Barca's game.

But here's the thing. Leaving morality aside, the main problem with that theory is that it didn't work. The 1-1 draw effectively cost Real the league, and for all the fire and brimstone of the Champions League Clasicos Barca were the ones left standing at the end. The only time Mourinho's tactics arguably worked was the Copa del Rey final, and even then it was very, very close.

Given Real's resources and Barca's sloppy run of form from April to the beginning of May, a more adventurous approach from Mourinho might well have yielded better results. That was certainly what this particular Cule was worried about, given Barca's injury problems in defence and shaky form up front at the time.

Anyway. Enough about that. It's over, and we all have to live with the results. (I have more to say on the ugly side of those games, but that's another post.)

to endure and to enjoy

This was not always the most sparkling of seasons but it was the hardest; before Christmas they had been graceful, smooth and precise, after Christmas they showed the competitive spirit that is too often overlooked. They had spent the year being constantly attacked and had withstood some of the bitterest and wildest of accusations. - Sid Lowe

As usual, Sid Lowe nails it. This was always going to be a challenging season. The coaching staff were worried about the physical and mental effects of a squad coming off a World Cup (many of them having played in the final) and two seasons of great success. The omens weren't good. Two of the greatest Barca teams of the past (the Dream Team post-94, and Rijkaard's team post-2006) had crashed and burned in post-World Cup years.

There were moments of doubt, times when alarmist critics alleged that Guardiola's team had come to the end of its cycle. The fitness and injury problems caused by hectic schedules appeared right on cue. While Barca were very lucky indeed with no major injuries sidelining crucial attacking players such as Messi, Alves, Iniesta, Villa, and Pedro, persistent injuries across the defence led to a season of uncertainty at the back. Not that showed in the number of goals conceded, and the remaining mainstays of the defence deserve great credit for that.

Furthermore, the two players who represent the brain and heart of this team both had a season blighted by injury. The loss of Puyol, who only played 28 games (as opposed to the previous 6 seasons, in which he never played less than 45) was huge - he was missing for every single game Barca lost during the season. On the other hand, Xavi's persistent achilles problems didn't stop him from racking up another 50-game season, but his absences were keenly felt, and the need to secure the midfield succession must feel ever more pressing to the technical staff.

And then, as Dr Lowe pointed out, there was the exhausting media war, fought on two levels. The first being Mourinho's own increasingly outlandish conspiracy theories about everything from the fixture list to Barca's opposition not trying hard enough to biased refereeing to, well, UNICEF; and the second being the far more insidious and frankly appalling allegations aired by Cadena Cope accusing Barca and Valencia of doping. Allegations which the radio station - under the threat of multiple lawsuits - claim to have received from a Real Madrid director. While the Barca-supporting media no doubt relished slinging mud right back, everything the players and the managing staff have said indicates that they found the attempts to taint their achievements exhausting, irritating and sometimes downright enraging.

But all of the above pales into insignificance when compared to the moment Eric Abidal was told he had liver cancer. The effect on the locker room was devastating. Without Abidal's remarkable spirit, which drove him to reassure and comfort his team mates when he was the one facing surgery, it would have been even worse. His amazing recovery is the greatest prize of this season, more than any trophy.

standout performers

Leo Messi: the greatest compliment I can pay Messi is that he improves by leaps and bounds every season, even though the season before might have made such an idea seem impossible. His greatest competition in the current generation is his own shadow, and if such an idea doesn't rob him of motivation (and it hasn't so far) we're in for something miraculous in the seasons to come.

Xavi: even carrying a chronic injury, he's still the best midfielder in the business. The level of control he exerts over a game only seems to grow each year. If I may steal a Dani Alves-ism, the rest of us live in the present. Xavi can see the future.

Eric Abidal: I need to make one thing very clear first. Abidal's place on this list has nothing to do with his illness. Even given his absence for six weeks, his committed and composed performances at centerback and leftback for the rest of the season has earned him a place. It's not easy to fit into the Barca system as a defender, especially a non-homegrown one, but he does it with aplomb.

Gerard Pique: a controversial selection, I know. Allow me to explain. Pique's performances this season have divided Cules into two camps. While I acknowledge that he has made some mistakes, he has also been the glue holding a constantly changing Barca defence together. I dare anyone else to go through a season with so many different partners at centerback, some of whom were never meant for the position and whose deficiencies he had to cover for, and come out having accomplished as much as he did.

Still finds time to make important contributions in attack, and despite all the tabloid attention, I happen to think he takes up his role as a representative of the club in the right spirit.

Victor Valdes: this coming season will be Valdes' 10th as Barcelona's number 1. Time sure flies, doesn't it? It took many years for the average Cule to go from barely tolerating the hot-headed, erratic kid to embracing the brilliant shot-stopper with feet so good he could play striker. These days, it seems hardly credible that the Camp Nou crowd used to boo Valdes for making the occasional howler. After all, he's the man we count on to do everything right, especially when the rest of the team are doing everything wrong. And that's what he does, every season.

Runner-ups: Pedro, Mascherano, Iniesta, Alves

in and out

Given the transfer business conducted so far, I strongly suspect that my transfer wishlist doesn't look a thing like the one drawn up by Andoni Zubizarreta and Pep Guardiola. For one, mine didn't have another winger on it. However, Alexis Sanchez looks like a great prospect, and if he can relieve some of the burden on Messi and come in when the likes of Pedro and Villa are off-colour, he'll be a successful signing.

As for the other name on Guardiola's wishlist, I will endeavour to be very brief. While I am very fond of him, I am not convinced that Barca need Fabregas. The funds required to buy him would be much better spent on other areas of more urgent need. (The defence, for example.) Furthermore, given Thiago's rapid development, it is highly possible that he is indeed ready to step up whenever Xavi's chronic injury problems force him to miss games.

Others have argued against signings in defence on a similar basis. While it would be nice to see more La Masia-produced defenders in the first team, I haven't seen enough of the current crop of prospects to feel safe relying on them as backup for Puyol's creaking knees. Having said that, the versatility of the defenders in the squad right now is reassuring, as is what I've seen of Fontas.

A very fond goodbye and good luck is due to first team departees Bojan Krkic, Jeffren Suarez, and Gabriel Milito. The three leave under very different circumstances. Bojan is essentially on loan, out to prove himself and perhaps await a glorious return in a post-Guardiola era. While still very promising, Jeffren has run out of opportunities due to his persistent injury problems, and is now a little too old to be a mere promising prospect at Barca. Gabi Milito is no longer a first team regular after suffering a string of horrific injuries, which robbed him of his pace. All three have played their part in the successes of the past three seasons.

(On a completely different note, in case you forgot, Alexander Hleb is still here.)

the triumph of pep guardiola

"Guardiola has put a target on me, in classic fascist style." - Eduardo Inda, editor of Marca [a little background]

This past season has seen the advert of unprecedented attacks by the Madrid media upon all aspects of Pep Guardiola's character. Inda may have accused Guardiola of fascist activity, but at least he didn't point the finger of blame at Pep for inciting violence against journalists, like a certain Madrid-based TV station (Telemadrid, as mentioned here). It seems that diplomacy and careful humility was no longer enough to forestall negative attention, the extremity and ferociousness of which will have come as no surprise to a man used to the complexities of the Barca-Real rivalry and not above hitting back when pushed.

Guardiola conducted himself with habital care this season despite the change in circumstances, at least until late April. His response to Mourinho came at the riskiest time possible, and without the backing of the club, who had urged him to keep silent. Even Barca fans wondered if he had finally snapped under continuous provocation. In fact, it had been nothing of the sort. The entire 'rant' - including the Catalan nationalism tinged, Lluis Llach quoting bits not mentioned in English press coverage - had been planned.

He is not a man who enjoys confrontation, but in the absence of another voice at the club, he is also not one to shrink responsibility. Anyone who remembers Guardiola as the club captain who screeched up into a ref's face and accused him of playing with the emotions of an entire country (Catalunya, of course) should have realized that there was steel hidden underneath the velvet gloss of civility and respect.

“Allow me to have faith in my players. They have achieved too much in a short space of time for me not to have faith in them.” - Pep Guardiola [Arsenal 2-1 Barca, post-match press conference]

The difficulties encountered this past season took their toll on Guardiola's health. He often looked exhausted, stressed, much older than his 40 years, and was hospitalized for a herniated disc. Players have since admitted that Pep's insistence on attending training and games while he really shold have been resting in bed was an additional motivating factor during a crucial stretch featuring games against teams such as Valencia and Arsenal. In the greater scheme of things, it may be a minor detail, but Guardiola has built his success on mastering minor details.

Compared to the thin, tired figure of earlier, the Guardiola we saw talking effusively in the post-match press conference at Wembley seemed a man rejuvenated. Having come through a season in which he had been up against a domestic rival of unprecedented strength and finished it with a game in which his vision had played out almost perfectly, it is the fond wish of this particular Cule that the experience has refueled him. He has often stated that he will walk away when his passion for the job fades. Hopefully that day is still far away.

the ultimate grace note

Make no mistake, this has been one more extraordinary season in an era Cules will be talking about for years to come. When we come to reminisce about the highlights, it'll be hard to go past the day of the Champions League final. Wembley was a blessed day, a day where everything went right.

Most important, it had this: on 17 March, Eric Abidal had a tumour removed from his liver. Barely two months later, he was lifting Big Ears as captain in the royal box at new Wembley, having played the entire 90+ minutes of a thrilling final.

Allow me to quote at length from Abidal's recent interview in GQ Italia (which you should read in full, because it really is wonderful):

An hour before the game against Manchester United started, he didn’t know yet he was going to play.

'Guardiola showed us the last videos, gave some last-minute advice, read out loud the players’ shortlist. No one looked surprised. No one but me, obviously.

I sought Puyol out, I walked up to him and asked “Why aren’t you playing? Did you know he was going to leave you out?”

He looked me in the eyes and said “I’m not important right now. You are what matters; don’t worry about me.”

Do you have any idea what a fucking badass we have as captain? Do you? Champions League final, they tell him he’ll be warming the bench, and he’s the one comforting me! This is Barcelona.

And of course I didn’t know I would be the one to lift the cup, everything happened in a blur, I could hardly grasp what was going on. Do you have any idea...? I had cancer, I had surgery, I played the CL final, and I lifted the cup, all in the span of three months. What more could I ask?'

What more could any of us ask for?

'if we are remembered in 10, 15 years time...'

From Wembley to Wembley Barcelona has undergone an extraordinary process of maturing...There is no better defence of an idea than victories, but there is no better victory than the fact that the stability of a club does not depend exclusively on a final result, but on a route map. That is the greatness of this Barça, which, make no mistake, will also be the principles that will enable them to vaccinate themselves in defeat. - El Pais

Personally speaking, it has been a privilege to experience this past season as a Barca fan. Whatever the future holds, I'm convinced that we'll look back on this team with pride and gratitude.

Bring on the next season.

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