You can’t win the league and the Champions League every year. Five out of the last six of those isn’t bad, with a few other smaller trophies thrown in and the possibility of another Copa del Rey still to come this season. However, second in the league and a semi-final exit to an inferior team is being widely regarded as a failure, maybe even a disaster, for Barcelona this season.
After all, they are arguably the finest club team of all time. They also boast, among others, a player thought of by an increasing number as the best ever in Lionel Messi. Is it unreasonable to expect this stylish, all-conquering, free-scoring team that has 70+% possession in almost every game to win every trophy every season?
Unfortunately for their young manager Pep Guardiola, that is the expectation when you start so unbelievably brilliantly. After a record-breaking treble in his first season in management, our own Arsene Wenger said the Spaniard had “started his career with dessert.” Wenger should know a thing or two about that.
The Arsenal job was not his first in football, indeed he arrived with a decent wealth of experience, if not the big reputation to match it, but his impact in his first full season in the Premier League was comparable with Guardiola’s at Barcelona. He introduced a superbly entertaining style of play that fired us to the double, and repeated the feat four years later, two years before an incredible unbeaten season.
Since then, with expectations and standards lifted to new heights, he has struggled to live up to that start. He has, in some people’s eyes, become the victim of his own success. Could a similar fate be in store for Guardiola?
The two managers share many similarities, the most obvious one being the obsession with a certain style of play, and a determination to win that way and that way alone; players have to be technically superb ahead of anything else, and they have to stick rigidly to the game plan.
What is showing now as well, is a tendency by Guardiola to put unrealistic faith in young players, something in Wenger bemoaned a great deal by Arsenal fans in recent years. Of course, Guardiola has been unlucky with injuries to Pedro, Sanchez and particularly David Villa this season, which has meant increased playing time for teenage pair Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello. While no doubt talented, they have come straight from the team’s academy and have not really looked ready this season, and standards are high when you’re playing in the best team in the world. However, even since the return from injury of Pedro and Sanchez, Guardiola has shown a surprising amount of persistence in blooding Cuenca and Tello. Like Wenger, when you get it so spectacularly right with youngsters like Pedro, Pique and Busquets and when your academy has produced the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, you might start to feel you can do no wrong in that area. Wenger unearthed gems in Vieira, Henry, Ljungberg, Cole, Toure and Clichy among others, and then started giving too much time to players like Eboue, Denilson and Diaby in the hope that the same show of faith and patience would work again. It didn’t.
Both managers, as well as players, supporters and others associated with the club will generally speak of ‘the Barcelona way’ and ‘the Arsenal way.’ I have not really heard this phrase used as much for other teams.
For Barcelona in particular, the Catalan identity is very important for the club, as Catalans are a very proud people who prefer not to be thought of as Spanish. Their recent success in bringing in home-grown players has increased the feeling of an identity in the club: not only do the players all play the same style, they are all from the same area. Their key players in recent years (for the Euro and World Cup-winning Spain squads as well), like Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta and Pedro are all Barcelona born and bred.
Which brings me on to the latest addition to that list, a familiar name for Arsenal fans: Cesc Fabregas. Having left the Nou Camp at the age of 16 and made a name for himself in North London, the Spanish giants were seemingly unable to accept the idea of ‘one of their own’ doing so well for another team.
Of course there was a desire from Fabregas himself to return home, but that alone would not have prompted the club to pay £30+million for him. Once again, there was an obsession from Guardiola and his players; Fabregas has to be here, has to be part of this team. It struck many that it might be difficult to even accommodate Cesc in an already talented midfield – there simply wasn’t a place for him, not to mention a need.
In the end, they got their man, and Guardiola had to find a way to fit him in. This led to a change of formation that, I believe, has played a big part in Barca’s problems this season. So determined were they to get Fabregas playing with Xavi and Iniesta – all very similar players – that the manager sacrificed the formation to get him in there. For much of this campaign they have toyed with 3-4-3 or 3-1-3-3 at times, moving away from the 4-3-3 that had brought them so much success. Three at the back isn’t really done in modern football and they have, unsurprisingly, conceded more goals. It has affected them in attack as well, with a confusion over the roles of Dani Alves (played too far forward), Iniesta (often ending up wide left, where his main skill is wasted) and Fabregas himself, who seems, quite frankly, to be in the way. A team doesn’t need that many playmakers, and the former Arsenal captain has often found himself supporting the strikers, something his finishing is generally too inconsistent for.
Let the other team have the ball
I’ve often criticised Arsenal for hogging possession. Barcelona have obviously made it work in recent seasons, but eventually teams will work more and more on simply shutting them out and killing the game. Chelsea withstood Barca pressure pretty easily yesterday with only ten men, never planning to have much of the ball. In this situation, which Arsenal have also found themselves in many times, I feel like it’s worth taking more shots even if it is just to risk losing the ball; if you give the other team the ball they have to surrender their defensive positions and open the game up a bit. Don’t give them the luxury of simply continuing doing what they’re doing.
It might seem ridiculous to criticise a team that, up til now, has blown everyone away, and that’s not what I’m doing. Everyone has an off-season (if you can call this an off-season) and they might well learn from it and bounce back. The best way to do that is through variation: the best managers, Ferguson being a prime example, have changed and adapted with the times. Most of all, they have had a more humble approach to the game, respecting that winning is what matters, not imposing a unique style and claiming it to be ‘the right way’. If there’s anything Guardiola can take away from this season, it would be that.
Wenger, too, would do well to take note.