By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 12, 2011) US Soccer Players — For those of you that don't schedule your Saturday around La Liga clasico encounters, I'll go ahead and spoil the Real Madrid – Barcelona game for you. After spotting Real Madrid a goal, Barcelona did as expected and skillfully took the game 3-1 in front of the Madrid support at the Bernab茅u. Barcelona, that team of superstars built around a set of tactics that tend to make even very good opponents look lost.
Some gamely tried to play up Real Madrid, ahead in the standings before the whistle blew That's not contemporary European soccer. Barcelona passes, Barcelona gets the ball to one of several candidates for best player in the world, and win or lose they're the story. So it went on that big stage.
Why then do so many around the world insist on comparing other versions of soccer with what Barcelona are doing?
Part of that is simple enough. Barcelona in full flight is easy to understand. This isn't like trying to explain to someone used to melody why free jazz is important. It doesn't take a deep insight into sports, much less soccer, to get Barcelona. They have a move set that's the sporting equivalent of a dance beat with a melody thrown over the top. It's pop music at a perfected level. To not understand Barcelona borders on the stubborn. You'd really have to work at it to deny the appeal.
Meanwhile, they've become the object lesson for any game played anywhere else. As if these other teams have the selection of skill that Barcelona can almost take for granted. Yes, Barcelona at their best not only does everything right, they do it with flair. This has everything to do with the quality of their individual players and their ability and willingness to work together, and they've paid substantially for that privilege.
One of the myths that has sprung up around this squad is that it's about the Barcelona way of player development. To some extent, but that downplays both a willingness to pay to bring in players and an ability to get that right. It didn't happen immediately, and in recent years Barcelona has been just as guilty as Real Madrid in spending on superb talent to create an underwhelming team. That it's finally come together for Barcelona required a bit of luck and an excellent player turned coach to go along with vast amounts of cash.
There were rumors during last season's Champions League final that Pep Guardiola might resign after winning that title. And do what exactly? Guardiola as much as Messi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Puyol, Xavi, or any of the other of their superstars is Barcelona. He's a requirement, and we already have a long list of examples of what happens when incredible teams think that leadership is transferable.
Some would have Guardiola proving his worth with a lesser team. Then we could see whether or not his tactical vision translates to squads other than mighty Barca. That would be helpful for the equally long list of pundits and other coaches who are using Barcelona as a substitute for 'not good enough.' Fail to impress anywhere else, and you're not following the Barcelona example. We know it's possible, we've seen Barcelona do it. We're going to set aside the wide gulf in skill between them and you for dramatic effect.
That's what makes any suggestion that Guardiola would deign to slum it with anyone else so bizarre. He bought into this system as a player, and as a coach he's writing the next chapter in world soccer. It really is Barcelona and everyone else, just like the great teams before them. Their game has done that, slotting them in as the example for everything that's right with soccer.
It comes with a price tag, years of experience, elite of the elite talent, and that run of good fortune, but why should that stand in the way of imposing the Barcelona ideal on everything from National Teams, to salary capped leagues, to college soccer? Again, we've seen what Barcelona can do, so it must be applicable down the divisions.
Yet every time Barcelona takes the field we get that not-so-subtle reminder that those comparisons are ridiculous even for other elite teams. It's not enough to go to the opposite extreme, deciding what Barcelona is doing is so remarkable that it's impossible for any other team to even approach their game. With that in mind, Barcelona might as well be playing another sport that sort of looks like soccer, stays within the rules of that game, but isn't translatable to anybody else. That's no more the case than expecting a mid-tier team somewhere to figure out a flowing passing game is really fun to watch while avoiding the tackles of an opponent who believes every one of those passes must be contested.
That's why appealing to Barcelona as the example becomes almost meaningless in practice. We're not at the cusp of a revolution where the whole of soccer will sit down their work rate players, fond of the tackle rather than the pass, turn all eleven into parts of a flowing offense, and put on a show rather than a struggle. This isn't a question of sacrificing tradition for innovation. Instead, it's a stark realization that one team playing pretty soccer could still be the team that loses. It's a pragmatic response to acknowledging that difference, treating Barcelona as outside of any achievable category, and playing to a team's actual capabilities.
After all, that's what Barcelona are doing. The lesson here is not mimicry, well, unless that squad and that coach happen to be Barcelona's. It's taking what you have or what you're capable of getting, creating around that, and playing your game. What that game is remains squad, coach, and situation specific.
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.
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