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FC Barcelona: For Love of the Game

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The year is 2018; Football Club Barcelona rules the beautiful game. In a world that has been coerced into submission, the only remaining opposition, Real Madrid C.F. The world has been split into two camps: Culés and Madridstas. The El Clasico is the only game that matters. In Catalan hero Gerard Pique, the Blaugrana have a charismatic captain, one who represents the struggle and righteousness of this war that cannot be lost. He remains a beacon of light to a whole generation who don’t remember a life before this global duopoly of these two storied teams.

Think that’s possible? That the Blaugrana’s dominance of club football could last for years? That this cycle of supremacy could be everlasting? Is it possible that other clubs, with just as much history, were found wanting after a few years of dominance, but this Blaugrana side is different?

I believe it could be. This realization or epiphany came to me after a few days of ponderous thinking, searching for an aspect of the game, and this team in particular, that appears to defy the odds. Something about this team, makes them special, more so than the other great club sides in the history of football.

For us to truly appreciate this squad, it is necessary to look into some other ‘greats’ and see what they were lacking. On the other hand, I honestly believe this F.C Barcelona side has just begun their cycle at the pinnacle of the sport.

I’m going to start my evaluation with clubs from different countries. Each country (in Europe) has a philosophy that embodies their understanding of the beautiful game. This attribute, which is mirrored in their players cannot be unlearned or suppressed. The players groomed from these countries have been trained in a way that reflects their characteristic traits. For the sake of simplicity, I plan to stick to two countries known for their footballing prowess, and dominance of the game over the last few years.

The United Kingdom has produced some Heroes (in the Greek mythological sense of the word) in the football arena over the years. Greats such as Sir Bobby Charlton, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes (all Manchester United), Kenny Dalgish are legendary names in the sport that we love. To a certain extent, however, these players can be seen as exceptions to the rule. The general consensus on English football is an opinion that can be easily verified by watching the Premier League week in and week out. My understanding of the British game includes certain virtues that are the hallmarks of UK-based players.

  • Pace:- The English game is faster than in Spain where a goal is the result of patient build-up play. In the EPL the contesting teams play, what can only be described as all-action football, with a particular emphasis on pace and stamina.
  • Physical play:- The average English defender is big, period. Going through a list of top 20 defenders in the English Premier League, it was shocking to learn how tall they are. Maybe being Indian, I am easily impressed in this aspect (the average height of males in India is 5’8") but one thing we can all agree on is that the English game is more physical than Spanish football. This is not restricted to just their defenders. Even English midfielders and forwards are huge in comparison to their Spanish counterparts. A large part of the English game involves sheer physicality.
  • The Long Ball:- A tactic that never ceases to irritate me, most English teams have the tendency to play the long ball forward to a classic no. 9, tall and strong, a targetman. Personally, I find it boring and repetitive but to each his own right? Although this is used by clubs in Spain as well, it isn’t as widespread.

Keep in mind that the clubs are continuously evolving and there are exceptions to the characteristics listed above. Everybody knows about Arsenal F.C and their passing game which is more akin to Barcelona than any (typical) English team. However, English clubs do cultivate these tactics/traits/plays as a thumb rule of sorts.

Spain, with its Mediterranean climate and shorter players weren’t about to be left behind. The Spaniards play football that is pleasing on the eye. The beautiful game, to them, is just that. Spanish players are generally more technically gifted than the average English player.

  • Speed:- Although, counter-attacking is just as common in Spain as it is in England, the average Spanish team is not known to play ONLY down the wings which ends in a cross to a post forward. The midfielders take their time and try to dictate the pace of the game. In my opinion, La Liga is in general more pleasing on the eye but then again, everyone has a different taste.
  • Physical play or lack thereof: - As opposed to the EPL, most teams in La Liga aren’t known for their physical style of play. Pepe and co. are truly exceptions to any rule in football, let alone Spain. I’m not saying this is good or bad but it is a fact.
  • Short passes and tiki-taka: - Unlike in England, fans of La Liga have gotten used to expect a beautiful through ball from the midfielder which ends with a well-taken goal (more so if it involves Xavi and Lionel Messi). Although the long ball is used on occasion, the short pass and move tactic is more common especially with teams like Villarreal C.F, Real Madrid C.F (to an extent) and F.C Barcelona.

You must keep in mind that there are exceptions in either country. I had the pleasure of watching last week’s Chelsea F.C – Norwich City match, and I have to admit I was thoroughly impressed by Norwich City‘s approach. For a newly promoted club to travel to Stamford Bridge and play good attacking football took cajones! Sure Chelsea ended up winning 3-1, a well-deserved victory it must be noted, but the final score line was not an accurate reflection of the game. Norwich conceded early and I assumed (wrongly) that they would give up and concede at least four more without putting up a fight. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see them go toe-for-toe with the Blues and in many aspects, I thought they were the better side. If you didn’t watch the game, you need to catch a re-run. It’s great to see a smaller club (financially and talent wise) to play short, fast passes leading up to the goal. They tried to keep possession and exploit the gaps.

I will state the El Clasico (obvious, but surprising nonetheless) as my exception in Spain. For a team valued at €400 million, to play what could’ve been considered anti-football, was quite embarrassing. Nevertheless, this is professional football we are talking about and putting aside my pro-Barca views, even I have to admit that in the end, only winning matters. We Culés should consider ourselves extremely lucky to be fans of a club that plays beautiful football and still wins! A team that accommodates its play to any side, and tries to beat an opponent by sticking to a clear philosophy. How hard is it to imagine the Blaugrana being like the Gunners? All the talent and technical ability in the world won’t win a club silverware if they don’t know how to grind results out when required.

So, for the first time, I’m going to give Madrid a compliment. Maybe, it isn’t what I used to believe. Maybe, Mourinho and Madrid (can I refer to them as M&M from now on?) realize that Barca is the most technically skilled team in the world and the only way to beat them would be to literally beat them! Fair enough, it is Real Madrid’s job to break the Blaugrana’s dominance of the sport and Barcelona’s job to maintain a stronghold. It is not, however, the job of Blaugrana players to complain about the tactics used against them.

Rest assured, I haven’t moved to the dark side. I am not trying to justify M&M’s tactics against the Blaugrana. In fact, I disagree, completely with the way they have executed them. What I’m trying to say is I understand the logic behind it. After all, it has been used before hasn’t it? Remember ‘the Invincibles’? Arsenal’s all conquering team? I recently read an article by Gary Neville (ex-Manchester United) where he explores the tough-tackling tactics (try saying that three times quickly) used by his team to beat the Gunners and prevent them from going fifty games unbeaten. In said article Neville writes about Sir Alex Ferguson’s instructions to the team before the all-important game (Arsenal were visiting Old Trafford) which involved ‘putting a foot in’ to show the Gunners that they were in for a fight. Ferguson, to his credit, never told his team to break legs or to be excessively physical. Every player was made to understand that he was to be aggressive and physical but within the boundaries of the rule book. Something, M&M do not understand, or rather don’t care to adhere to.

My point is, Arsenal went on to lose that game (2-0) and the return fixture at Highbury (2-4), and as the saying goes, the cookie crumbled. Ferguson and the Red Devils found a flaw in that all conquering Arsenal side. He realized that they could run circles around an opponent but couldn’t handle the physical aspect of the game. Sir Alex fully took advantage of the Gunners weakness. By then of course, it was too late for Arsenal. The flaw itself was bone deep. Then and now, a massive overhaul of his team by Arsene Wenger would be required to correct it. ‘The Invincibles’ were found out, while the 2011 squad was humiliated 8-2 by, guess who, Manchester United, again.

The natural response to a team as technically gifted as that Arsenal side was to approach them physically, we know this now. However, F.C Barcelona and this current squad don’t fall under that category do they? They are arguably more gifted than that Arsenal team and possibly any other squad in the history of football. Yet, they have taken their fair share of punishment at the hands of Jose Mourinho and his hooligans.

What was the result? They still beat them and if I may add, at the risk of facing the ire of many a Barca hater, comprehensively. If Barca weren’t the better squad, they were professional enough and had that edge (named La Pulga) which gave them that win.

I have a question for all of you. Please feel free to reply via comment. Would I be right if I said, "if one were to add the fans of Real Madrid C.F, Barca haters and those who watch football based on convenience and not any particular team (meaning those bored of seeing Barca win) then that number would be more than the number of fans of F.C Barcelona". If the answer is ‘yes’ I would like you to set aside the fact that the majority of fans are against the Blaugrana for a moment and analyse this team. Barca has beaten every team in pretty much every competition. Almost all those teams were beaten comprehensively. The tactics used by those teams have varied from trying to attack (F.C Porto) to counter attacking (Manchester United) to extreme physical play (Real Madrid), the majority has failed, most notable exception Inter Milan in 2009.

What other tactic can be used to beat the Catalan side? Now, I am not talking about winning a final. In general, if F.C Barcelona were to play Manchester United ten times, I can confidently say that the Blaugrana would win seven of those games, eight against Porto and probably six against Madrid (giving all those fans some credit for their claims that Real Madrid are improving). There are no tactics left.

This team is not exclusively Spanish, neither in its heritage nor identity. This team is the blend Arrigo Sacchi was talking about when he said football would evolve to a point where all the players will be midfielders. This team is technical but also willing to take an elbow or ten (if Pepe is involved) and still win. They aren’t like the Invincibles and brittle. Note of caution to all other clubs and their fans: this team is just getting warmed up. F.C Barcelona will redefine the average length of, what pundits call, a ‘cycle’. In my opinion, Messi and co. will go on to destroy squads worldwide for years to come. Some hard work, a little bit of luck and Pep Guardiola (the most important part) will take this team to levels never seen before. A new class will be made with F.C Barcelona and Lionel Messi as holders, all other teams and players will be a step down. This isn’t me dreaming as a Culé but predicting the start of an era with all the danger signs there for the world to see.

FC Barcelona: Best teamplay Goals in 2010/'11 (via mastamind9682)

Football Showtime! n°5: AC Milan 1988-1990 (via fizbong88)

Proof of the same was seen on Monday when the Blaugrana destroyed Villarreal C.F 5-0 with just one (certified) defender in Eric Abidal starting the game. Employing an untested 3-4-3 formation, the Catalans ran riot against the Yellow Submarines. Mark my words, this squad is evolving, improving and this is just the beginning.

Barcelona - Villarreal La Liga 09.08.2011 Highlights (via FCBHighDef)

Now let us pray "Dear God, forgive me all my sins, please renew Pep’s contract and bless this squad. Oh and could you break Pepe’s elbow please? (on Ibraflop’s face?). Amen"

Inder Methil

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