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FC Barcelona: Luis Suárez and Creating a New Trinity

Could chaos, rather than control, be the answer to the hole left in Barcelona as Xavi Hernández's career comes to an end?

Matthias Hangst

No three players better characterize F.C. Barcelona’s dominant four-year reign at the pinnacle of world football than Xavi, Iniesta and Messi. While the trio’s accomplishments speak for themselves, one cannot stress enough how important each of these legendary individuals were or how their collective play maximized each other. The level of interplay and balance, coordination and connectivity, required a higher form of communication, a sixth sense unlocked by Pep Guardiola and formulated through years of training in La Masia. The "Holy Trinity" meshed together in a way teams simply could not figure out how to stop besides packing all eleven men in the box and praying by luck or miracle shots would not slip through a forest of legs, that Messi would dribble through three but not four, that the trio could pass around, under and through six but not seven, and that the goalkeeper would have the game of his life and repel all shots sent his way. Sometimes, the trinity found its way through. Other times they were thwarted. However, what cannot be lost is that, any team which forfeits all attempts at challenging for possession of the ball does so for a reason, and more often times than not, that reason was Xavi, Iniesta and Messi. How great a compliment is it, that, when you step on the pitch for a football match, your opponent chooses not to play football, but rather to undertake the building of a human wall in front of his own net?

To continue would be rather superfluous, but, while Xavi and co. may appear superhuman, they are but mortal men, subject to the same effects of old age which plague the rest of us. It is now the most unfortunate reality that, while Messi is still at his peak, Iniesta has crossed over to the other side, and Xavi is near the bottom. Imagining a Barcelona side without its chameleon-eyed maestro is nearly unthinkable, and while Xavi has yet to decide his future -- to continue in a secondary role at Barca or to venture to different pastures, albeit pastures without a hint of actual pasture, in the concrete jungle of New York City or the desert opulence of Qatar -- it is safe to say that the player who dominated midfields and amassed a trophy cabinet of obscene proportions over the course of more than a decade is a bit more humble, a bit less elusive and vastly less than all-conquering.

Replacing him directly was always an impossibility, and although we had the closest thing to a replica Xavi, Thiago, in our grasp, he left to stake his claim elsewhere without constant comparison and without the shadow of the greatest central midfielder dwarfing his play. So too did the prodigal son, Cesc, return with dreams of leading Barca into the future only to subsequently leave after three seasons, disappointed, not to return to the Arsenal side he captained but to a rival coached by FCB public enemy number one, Jose Mourinho. Both Thiago and Cesc were labeled failures, traitors, and disappointments, but, perhaps the answer is much simpler than a lack of mental strength or a lack of patience. Perhaps the answer is they were simply not Xavi, playing in a system which was built for Xavi: perfectly designed to maximize his control, Messi’s deadly thrust, and Iniesta’s hybridization of the two. Whatever the reason, any thoughts of directly replacing Xavi’s silky touch, superb energy, peerless control, flawless positioning and immaculate passing have largely been abandoned, signaled by the arriving Ivan Rakitić and Rafinha Alcântara, both decidedly un-Xavi-like midfielders.

Now, with the World Cup nearing its conclusion, Andoni Zubizarreta and Luis Enrique have turned attention toward a different part of team, and while it remains unannounced, Luis Suárez seems so near the Camp Nou the Uruguayan might unbalance himself and fall into it, as if it were Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder (someone please keep Luis away from any cliff ledges). Truly a polarizing figure, Suárez is something of an enigma. A startlingly brilliant striker, his offensive game is of astonishing completeness. No other no. 9 in world football has his combination of ball skills, natural positioning, finishing ability, work rate, and willingness to embrace what appears to be insanity, all in the name of winning. Suárez dives, screams, yells, exaggerates, flails his arms, kicks, bites (three times), swats balls off the line, has been labeled a racist, and is, for all intents and purposes, one of the most detestable players one can possibly play against. Call it, "flawed genius," if you will. And Suárez is, without a shadow of a doubt, a genius. His goals and assists are of such an absurd quality he probably must be insane just to think of undertaking some of them. 

I’ll interject a bit of personal opinion here, because I have gone back and forth over Suárez joining the club, and I think it must be said that he is a player you want playing for you, rather than against. Despite claims made about him being a racist for comments made on a heated football pitch to Patrice Evra, Suárez formed a tremendous bond with Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge, two black Liverpool players, and as far as I know has only been praised by his teammates. While this does not excuse him for any behavior on the football pitch, it’s worth noting he has been praised for his behavior off the field, and is a consummate family man. Part of his preference for moving to Barca is familial, after all. I am willing to put his actions in the past, as he neither bit a Barcelona player nor committed such acts while representing La Blaugrana. As such, I accept his capability to change, but should he act in a way unbecoming of what is expected from a representative of a club desperate needing to recover its values this opinion will change.

Suárez’s impending move to Barca signals a shift in overall design and structure to the classic formula. Rather than being built on the foundations laid by Messi, Iniesta and Xavi, Lucho will look to a team vitalized by Suárez, Neymar and Messi. Xavi’s stifling match control is being replaced, not by some cheap imitation, nor expensive imitation, but rather by pure firepower. Iniesta still exists, of course, and will play a large role, but this writer speculates he and Ivan Rakitić will act more as launch pads for the dynamic trio ahead of them. Rakitić in particular, who, as Sevilla’s no. 10, initiated quick, decisive moves forward, seems well-placed for this role. And, just as Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi dominated teams with movement, creativity, dribbling, and playmaking, so too will Neymar and Suárez each offer his own qualities to mesh with Messi’s genius. Each player can dribble, pass, play in tight spaces, score goals and assist them. Where past days saw Barca’s dominance largely in the midfield zone, the new triumvirate is primed for offensive destruction.

In this way, Suárez comes as the answer to a declining Xavi Hernandez. With acceptance that no player can replicate his level of control, Lucho asks, why even try? Instead of looking for an answer to declining positional play in players who can reinstate it, the solution seems to lie in the opposite direction. If creating chaos is what Lucho wants, is there a better player than the Uruguayan?

The coming friendlies will show more of Lucho’s hand, and of course, Suárez will not step on the field for Barcelona until the end of September at least -- and his transfer is not even official yet. Moreover, Neymar will be out recovering from his injury suffered in the World Cup, so it is doubtful we see the front three in action together for quite some time. There are still other transfer moves that might transpire over the next two months, like the acquisition of new defenders, an incoming true wide player like Juan Cuadrado, or even a controlling central midfielder which would render this article invalid. However, this writer cannot help but feel all signs point to a new dominant trio and the ending of an old cycle. Yet, with the ending of said old cycle, a new one begins, and with it, the exciting uncertainty of more magical football.

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