By Paul Gardner
The day before last Saturday’s Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United, an irritating article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, which told us that we -- meaning, one gathers, almost everyone except the authors -- don't know what we're watching: “But here is something most people don't know about Barcelona: Unlike every other famous soccer team in the world that thrives on possession and ball control, they do something unique during matches. They run as if their bikini briefs are on fire.”
This far from original observation was backed up by a totally unconvincing stat which held that, during its six knockout-round games in the Champions League, Barca’s players had run a total of 390 miles, while its opponents had run “only” 380 miles, a difference of a mere 3 percent, surely not statistically significant, but which was then built up into a claim that Barca’s “central weapon, and perhaps its defining strength, is what happens when the other team does get its cleats on the ball ...” In other words, Barca’s strength is defense.
In the sense that attack is the best form of defense, that may well be true. But only if, as with Barcelona, the attack is sustained, intelligent, skillful. Are we supposed to ignore the beauty that involves while we tick off, from our handy list of coaching essentials, work rate and tackles?
But those are the sort of observations, backed up by bad stats, or by badly interpreted stats, that occur so easily to people who seem intent on downplaying the skillful side of the game. People to whom the success of a team like Barcelona will remain a mystery -- and evidently an annoyance -- unless it can be explained in puerile defensive terms.
What Barcelona has been doing these past few years is to emphasize that in soccer it is a mistake to even think that offense and defense are separate compartments of the game. The two are intertwined in almost every move of the game, a mutual reliance that involves the inevitable problem: to bolster one aspect is to deprive the other. It is the abiding curse of the modern game that it is now enveloped in a cloying mist of cautious play brought about by an overemphasis on defense.
Barca, for sure, has its defensive qualities. Separating them out from the team’s overall attacking style is not an easy -- nor necessarily a useful -- exercise. To acclaim them as the bedrock of Barcelona’s style and of its success is simply fatuous.
Equally absurd -- and another of the carefully constructed coaching myths, most of them designed to underline the importance of coaching -- is the idea that star players are somehow damaging to a team, that star players are always selfish, that a team is better off with out them.
Barca is the greatest example we have right now of a team that plays as a team, as a tightly knit unit that knows how to play -- simultaneously -- offense and defense. It is also a team that has a collection of superb individual stars. Including, of course, the greatest individual player to be seen in today’s game, Lionel Messi.
Analyzing Messi is like dissecting Mozart or Rembrandt or Tolstoy -- the results are always unsatisfactory, always counter-productive, for they leave us with something so much less impressive than what we started with. Is it helpful, or in any way rewarding to separate Messi into a sequence of muscular movements, of lightning synaptic connections? Or to make him sound like a coaching manual, nothing but a collection of tactical platitudes, which will inevitably end up praising him because he does his defensive duties, because he tracks back?
If it is agreed that Messi is a soccer genius -- and this seems now to be the widely held opinion -- then any sort of materialistic analysis is not going to bring understanding. Genius does not abide by the accepted guidelines, the usual measuring sticks, the standard scientific norms. Speaking of Messi, his coach Pep Guardiola said, somewhat tautologically, “I think his genius is impossible to describe. That’s why he is a genius.” Which is more or less what the 19th century essayist William Hazlitt had in mind with his “rules and models destroy genius and art.”
The message is that Messi, the superstar on this wonderful Barcelona team, should be left alone to do what he instinctively does. But genius in soccer cannot be an isolated talent, it can only flourish in the group, in the team. A fact that gives the macho brigade yet another opening to downgrade skill as they claim that the star’s life is made easy by others who are doing “the dirty work” for him -- a phrase clearly meant to position the star as an effete Little Lord Fauntleroy and the “workers” as brave heroes who should really be getting the praise.
That is another coaching shibboleth utterly laid to waste by Barcelona. Who are the “workers” on Barca, these industrious slaves whose only purpose is to spend all their time feeding the ball to Messi? Xavi and Iniesta, maybe? Oh, come on -- two players who, while not in the Messi class, have considerable claim to dwell among the second tier of soccer geniuses. Where was this “dirty work” anyway, in a game during which Barcelona committed only five fouls?
ManU’s Alex Ferguson, right after he had seen his champion team made to look very ordinary indeed, praised Barcelona as the best team he’s ever faced in all his long coaching career (it began back in 1974) and gave us, in five monosyllabic words, a terse but all-embracing comment on their style: “They play the right way ...”
One can hear a certain wistfulness in that praise, a regretful look back by Ferguson to the glory days of Scottish soccer, the soccer he must recall from his boyhood or from the tales told by his elders of the traditional Scottish soccer of highly skilled attacking players and an on-the-ground, short-passing style. That was the right way, but as far as the Scots are concerned, it has sadly faded away, to be nothing more than a romantic memory.
But not for Ferguson -- there’s no doubt that his ManU teams have always been more skilled than the average English team, have always included a greater emphasis on talented attacking players.
Ferguson’s teams undoubtedly try to play soccer the right way, but within a hostile environment he has had to compromise to live with the traditional thud-and-blunder requirements of the English domestic game.
Last Saturday, Ferguson saw -- well, suffered, I suppose -- the beautiful, majestic power of Barcelona. “They do mesmerize you with their passing,” he said. He praised Barca’s style laconically, but with real feeling. This was “the right way.”
So where do we go from here? A more skilled, closer-to-Barca, ManU? Possibly. A much wider attempt by coaches everywhere to adopt Barca’s style -- which has shown that it is not only a delight to the eye, but is a winner, too? Alas, that seems doubtful -- the dead mass of conventional coaching opinion and what passes for original thinking within the profession will find proof, yet again, either that the Barca way doesn’t really work, or that it is a fluke, and we shall be back to the glutinous platitudes of the coaching manuals, the very ones that ... “destroy genius and art.”
No one is saying that playing “the right way” is the easy approach. It is, in fact, the greatest of soccer’s challenges and, as such, it is the only worthwhile one. Ferguson says he is ready for it. How many other coaches will follow his lead?