Barcelona 3 Manchester United 1. How can a game between the champions of England, the legendary ManU, and the champions of Spain, the equally esteemed Barca, possibly turn out to be a mismatch?
But such was the superiority of Barca, such the increasing tameness of ManU’s response, that the word drowns out one’s attempt to resist it. If Barcelona was playing soccer, then what was ManU playing, because there certainly did seem to be a fundamental difference in what each team’s players did with the ball.
When Barca was in possession the ball stayed mostly on the ground, mostly nursed and cuddled and prodded and yes, sometimes, caressed, by Barcelona feet. The caressing came, mostly, from the sublime Lionel Messi.
This is the point at which one can always expect a baying interruption from those irritating macho types whose troublesome hormones demand that they mock those words, that they insist, as Italy’s Claudio Gentile once famously did, that soccer is not a game for ballerinas, and that, as they sing the praises of red-blooded soccer, they are also proving that any less robust style -- the classic Brazil, or Barca for instance -- lacks the super-necessary physicality.
The argument is, of course, pathetic. Neither Brazil nor Barca lacks a strong physical presence, and no one is saying that you can play top class soccer without that. What Barca was saying - shouting - on Saturday was that physicality is merely the foundation, a given, in fact, to which the unique soccer skills must be carefully added . . . to produce a game that is recognizably soccer and not merely a test of strength and stamina and machismo, a game in which the skills and artistry of soccer are paramount, a game in which those qualities are what you notice, a game in which the physical element is always secondary, always the means, not the end.
I shouldn’t say always -- we know there’s no such word in soccer. There are bound to be occasions when muscle alone suffices, but for a team determined to play skillful soccer, those occasions will be infrequent.
A team such as Barcelona, in other words. How many times on Saturday did we see the Catalans powerfully belting the ball any-old-where, or committing crudely physical fouls? Or even simply running frenetically about, as though determined to prove that they have that current coaching solve-all, a high work rate (another physical measure, incidentally, not necessarily connected to any known soccer skill)?
This is not to say that ManU were guilty of all those gaucheries -- merely to point out that they were a lot closer to them than Barcelona. Why would that be?
We can start to probe ManU’s ineffective performance by casting an eye over the starting line up -- where what strikes one immediately is the lack of brain-power in midfield. Muscle, yes, from Michael Carrick -- and work rate, yes, from the non-stop Park Ji-Sung -- -- and speed and trickiness, yes, from Antonio Valencia. Which left the brainwork to the 37-year-old Ryan Giggs -- a role that he comprehensively flunked, partly because he looked his age, but mostly, I think, because it was beyond him in the first place. Giggs is yet another of those good players whom the Brits turn into great players -- simply on the strength of performances within the English league.
You also know that buried in the selection process by which that midfield came about was the perceived need for at least one ball-winner, those rugged, hard-tackling midfielders so typical of the English game. Enter Carrick.
Which was something of a joke. To win the ball you need to be able to tackle, or to move quickly enough to pull off interceptions. So, seriously, one has to wonder just what sort of scouting report Alex Ferguson was working on when he decided to rely on Carrick, Park and Valencia to first win the ball and then to hold on to it when confronted with an opposing midfield that is notorious for its dizzying passing patterns and its tenacious and skillful possession.
Pause for a momentary glimpse of the stats: Possession - Barca 63 percent, ManU 37 percent.
Enough said? No, not at all -- because there is possession that is nothing more than repeated lateral and backward passes, easy passes, that accomplish little other than to improve the stats -- and there is possession with purpose, attacking purpose. If that factor can be built into the stats, if the stats are re-named Attacking Possession, or if we could have -- which I have not seen -- the “Possession in the Attacking Third” stat -- Barca’s advantage would be even more overwhelming.
The failings of ManU’s banal midfield are brutally revealed by the contrast with what went on in Barca’s midfield. Who was Barca’s ball-winner? Did they need one? Maybe it was Sergio Busquets, perhaps the least skilled of the Barca squad, but he was never called upon to exert any physical presence, it simply wasn’t necessary for a team that has Xavi and Andres Iniesta buzzing around in the crucial area. You can, should you feel so inclined, sit back and admire the phenomenal work rate of those two players ... but it is more than likely that their superb ability to keep the ball rolling smoothly along the grass, their passing skill and accuracy -- their playmaking ability, the very ability that went missing in the ManU midfield -- is what will dazzle you. As it should.
In particular, that bit about the ball being kept on the ground. It is a banal observation that Barca is “not a big team.” Its three key players -- Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta -- are comparative midgets. Confronting them, at the heart of the ManU defense, stood two imposing center backs, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, both 6-foot-2 tall. Yet that huge height advantage, considered so important for English Premier League play, counted for nothing on Saturday. Barca kept the ball where it surely belongs in soccer -- on the ground. The build-up to all three goals was on the ground, two of the scoring shots were ground balls. Only David Villa’s curling shot for the third goal was airborne.
You could say that Barca plays to its strength -- that it gets the best out of its wee players by keeping the ball on the ground. Possibly -- though it is much more intriguing to view things the other way round. What if the vision of a style, of a quick-moving ground-based game, came first? What if it was that vision that allowed those three wonderful players to develop? Players who, without Barca’s devotion to the ground game, might well, given the current obsession with size, have been rejected as “too small”?
Part 2 of Paul Gardner’s “The Barcelona Way” will appear later this week.