Barcelona vs. the best? No contest

By Paul Gardner

Within the last eight days Barcelona has stamped its superiority on world soccer in a way that brooks no argument. Pep Guardiola's team is simply irresistible.

Just over a week ago, Barcelona took on Real Madrid -- in the Bernabeu. A formidable challenge for any team. Not many teams win there, and this moment suggested that Barca was in for a rude awakening, for Real -- 15 consecutive wins -- was tearing up La Liga, with the wonderful Cristiano Ronaldo in majestic form, scoring goal after splendid goal.

Yet Barca made short work of Real. Despite that disastrous start to the game, when goalkeeper Victor Valdes virtually gifted a goal to Real. The game was only 22 seconds old when Karim Benzema pounced on Valdes’s error to put Real 1-0 ahead.

Barca’s reaction to this stunning opening was equally stunning. Because there was, in effect, no reaction. Barca would simply play the way it always plays -- and, of especial significance, goalkeeper Valdes would persist with the very approach that had landed him and his team in trouble - he would continue to try to pass the ball out to a teammate, rather than hoof it downfield.

What we saw for the next 90 minutes or so was simply extraordinary. Real, one of the world’s most powerful teams, certainly one of the world’s most expensively assembled teams, a team packed with brilliant players, reduced to impotence in front of its own fans.

Worse yet for Real was that the humiliation -- for that’s what it was -- was administered by a Barca team that was never puffing and panting and straining to achieve victory. The Barca players played their game, the game we’ve been watching for some years now -- watching it but never tiring of watching it.

Once again we could see Barca dominating a game with ball possession and quick-fire, accurate passing, with players moving smoothly and quickly in magical patterns, or maybe not patterns, maybe just inspired traceries of improvisation ... but movement with an aura of purpose. And of beauty.

It is no easy thing to make a soccer ball -- a small, ordinary little sphere -- come alive as a joyful plaything, the obedient focus of the sparkling skills of Barca’s players.

So, yes, Barca does make it look easy. It has developed a style that is faithful to the truths of soccer: It is not hard to identify those truths -- that the sport is about players with superior skill on the ball, and that it is a sport that should be played with the ball on the ground. Those two essentials take us a long way toward understanding why Barca plays and looks the way it does.

The third essential element is that the players have soccer brains, that they meet the sport halfway, that they respect its requirements, that they do not attempt to batter it out of shape with crude shortcuts to success. But that third essential, I think, is not an independent quality -- I think that, if you have players who satisfy the first two requirements, that they have highly developed ball skills and they want to play the ball on the ground, then you will have players with soccer brains.

Having so completely outclassed Real Madrid, Barca then traveled halfway around the world to take on South American champion Santos in Japan. Another wipeout. That 4-0 scoreline could have been 6-0 or maybe even 8-0. There were periods of this game when Santos -- by no means a poor team -- simply could not get any possession of the ball at all.

Even more so than in the Real Madrid game, this was Barca playing with smooth, easy assurance, totally in command. Poor Santos. Yes, poor Santos -- because, having watched Barca humiliate two of the world’s top teams while barely raising a sweat, you begin to entertain the notion that this sort of superiority is somehow not fair.

An idea that has occurred to all of Barca’s opponents, of course. Their response is to play with a massive emphasis on defense, hoping to pull off -- as Getafe did last month -- an upset 1-0 win. Real felt that it was good enough to beat Barca and didn’t need to play negatively in front of its own fans, while Santos is from South America where tactics have less of a hold on the imagination of the fans.

Both Real and Santos paid heavily for their presumption. Whereas Getafe was rewarded for what amounts to cowardice. At the moment it seems that there simply is not another team on this planet that can hope to beat Barcelona by playing attacking soccer.

So, is that an unfair situation? Hardly. There is nothing to stop other teams from adopting the Barca approach to the sport ... but how many do? Very, very few -- with most coaches regarding Barca’s brilliance as something beyond the reach of other teams. So the tactical response, even the physical response, is what we get.

We saw that, at its worst, not with Barcelona but with the closely related style of Spain during the 2010 World Cup (when the Spanish team was dominated by Barca players). Of Spain’s seven opponents, only Chile came to play. After losing 1-0 to a craven Switzerland, Spain had to grind out a series of far-from-entertaining 1-0 wins.

And that very definitely is a problem -- when the sport is blessed with one of the most brilliant teams it has seen for years and the sport itself responds by reducing its games to grim defensive struggles or -- as in the 2010 final -- to downright ugly, physical, foul-plagued contests.

Obviously, Barca cannot be blamed for being good. But there is a real sense in which the opponents who want to beat it (or at least to survive against Barca) cannot be blamed either. For they are always going to adopt whatever style or tactics offer the most hope of staying in the game. If that means playing negatively, then the blame lies squarely with the game itself.

The rules of soccer should be so framed as to make it unlikely, if not downright impossible, for a team to play utterly negative soccer and yet emerge triumphant. This has been a problem for the sport for some time now -- anyone who might have claimed that such a problem did not exist must surely have been disabused by the awful Greek team that won the European Championship in 2004 by scoring just seven times in six games.

The rules of the sport do get a yearly revision, and it’s worth studying the changes that are made -- something that I shall do next time, taking a look at the revised rules that came into force this fall.

16 comments about "Barcelona vs. the best? No contest".
  1. tim francis, December 18, 2011 at 10:15 p.m.

    In the FIFA World Club Cub final, Spain's Barca just made beating Brazil's Santos look easy, but it belies the hard work of recruiting and training, perfecting individual skills and fitness, and shoving ego aside to play with the whole team on offense and defense, content to play ones role, pass rather than dribble, defend rather than rest up, yet still shine when individual artistry is called for. Thanks to the original masters of team and artistic play: a lot from Hungary and Brazil, then from Johan Cruyf helping to bring it to Spain's richly ready culture, then Coach Pep Guardiola insisting on the ultra-team play we see dominating all challenges. Will the rest of the world catch on?

  2. Tito Messi, December 18, 2011 at 11 p.m.

    Again, Paul Gardner is right on the are simply the best soccer commentator in America, you tell the truth, the way you see it, and the way you see it, is the way knowledgeable people from around the world see it...myself, I love and agree with everything you say, not bad for a Brit ;-)

  3. beautiful game, December 19, 2011 at 12:02 a.m.

    "Purpose'...the movement, the run, the pass, the comfort, the instinctiveness, the passion; all rolled into one, just beautiful.

  4. Kent James, December 19, 2011 at 1:06 a.m.

    PG is spot on with this commentary. It was so disappointing to watch Spain win the world cup (and as PG rightfully points out, you can't blame either Spain or its opponents for the way they played). How can a Spain v Netherlands final be bad?? (I guess we found out). My suggestions for rule changes are simple but not insignificant. First, make the goals bigger (I'd suggest a foot higher and a yard wider). That would allow teams like Barca to shoot past defenses that "pack it in"; since players could shoot from 25-30 yds out and score with well-placed shots. I don't think that would necessarily mean that there would be a lot of shots from distance, but the possibility would force the defense to defend farther up the field, which would open up the space in the penalty area for players like Messi to work their magic against 2-3 players instead of 8. And I would allow a red card ejection to be substituted (if the team has subs remaining). This would allow referees to eject players who misbehave (punishing the perpetrators) without changing the dynamic of the game (unless it was late, when teams might not have subs). One caveat would be that if a player denied an obvious goalscoring opportunity, the opponents would be awarded a penalty kick (even if the foul was outside the box) to prevent a player from "taking one for the team" outside the box. I think more ejections would lead to fewer bad fouls, without having to ruin games by making them uneven.

  5. Walt Pericciuoli, December 19, 2011 at 6:23 a.m.

    Couldn't agree more with Paul. Barca is showing the way for the world. It's too late for this generation to make a difference, but all those young players and coaches, they now have the blueprint. Skillful players, team work and freedom from "tactics".

  6. tim francis, December 19, 2011 at 7:25 a.m.

    Right on about making the goals bigger, Kent--much more fun and success of everyone below 'Barcelonian' skill and more thrills for audiences. Frustration would go down many fold, keeping many in the game beyond youth, and keeping the game cleaner due to happier heads.

  7. Millwall America, December 19, 2011 at 11:15 a.m.

    "Those two essentials take us a long way toward understanding why Barca plays and looks the way it does."

    Paul forgot the third essential, which is actually the most important one: many of Barcelona's senior squad have spent their entire careers at the club. Barcelona's style of play, which Paul describes as "ball possession and quick-fire, accurate passing, with players moving smoothly and quickly in magical patterns", is only workable if most of the players have trained together in that system for many years. If the players don't have an instinctive knowledge of their teammates' movements that comes from years of playing together, then "quick-fire passing and magical patterns" just leads to turnovers and busted plays.

    Try playing "Barca style" with Mancini's squad of short-time mercenaries at Man City. Or with any Premier League club or MLS club, where players rotate in and out on a regular basis. The Barca system would be ineffective. Arsenal's results are probably the best you could realistically achieve at an EPL club playing Barca style: fairly consistent top 4 finishes, but no silverware in years.

    If Paul wants more teams to play more like Barca, he doesn't need to change the Laws of the Game -- he needs to change the transfer rules so players basically are forced to stay at the same club for years. Good luck with that.

  8. James Froehlich, December 19, 2011 at 5:22 p.m.

    Watching Barca is an emotional, gut-level experience! We can only hope and pray that other teams will try to approach it.
    One other thing that made the "Final" notable for me was the announcing team. They actually shut up and let the game do the talking !! Who were they?
    BTW --- Superman- I don't mean to rain on your parade, but for someone who hates PG, you certainly seem to spend considerable time reading and commenting on his columns. If you hate him so much you might try Major League Soccer Talk or Soccer By Ives.

  9. Eric R., December 19, 2011 at 10:24 p.m.

    There's really no contest in the world for Barca. I don't blame the team for that. They are great players, under a good coach in a system that really cultivates player development.

    But is it really even worth watching when a team has the economics stacked in such a way that they can keep/buy whoever they want? To me, this lacks sportsmanship and that stands against everything that the game means to me.

  10. James Froehlich, December 20, 2011 at 9:28 a.m.

    Eric -- while I agree on the general tenor of your comment, it needs to be tempered somewhat with respect to Barca by the fact that Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro, Thiago, and even Fabregas came up through Barca's own development system. Real Madrid fits your picture much better. Money obviously makes it easier to assemble a team but it also takes the genius of someone like Johan Cruyf to know the type of players to seek out. Can you actually picture Xavi or Iniesta playing in the EPL???

  11. James Froehlich, December 20, 2011 at 9:35 a.m.

    BTW -- Pujol, Busquets, and Victor Valdes also came through the Barca youth system.

  12. Al Gebra, December 20, 2011 at 8:41 p.m.

    Super Man
    You need to change your name to wimp man. All your comments from the first name i started to read this blog have been sophmoric and boorish. For you it's "my soccer right or wrong"

    Get a life and go back to baseball...that game is forever stopping, everything is in a straight line and all the players are more overweight than cops (that says a lot). So the overall lack of speed and creativity will suit your wimpy little gray mass of a brain and its view of the sports world

  13. Al Gebra, December 20, 2011 at 8:45 p.m.

    In my comment to Super Man, I meant "first time" and not "first name". That was not so super on my part

  14. Efrahim Fernandez, December 22, 2011 at 9:33 a.m.

    I am sorry but perhaps I missed it but it is not what Barca did but what Madrid and Ronaldo failed do. Ronaldo missed two sitters inside the box with nothing in front of him.. The score was 2-1 with Madrid pressuring high when Barca got the third..On another day things could have been different. That is the beauty of the game.

    As far as Getafe goes at the professional level you do what you need to do to secure points. It would be suicide for a club or coach with there talent to play an open style with Barca so you are entertained? It is up to Barca and Pep to figure out how to open up the defense..

    I am sorry but the Brazilian Champions play in a league where individual flare and attacking are priority at the expense of team shape,discipline and balance.. Not likely any they could beat a mid table team in BPL, La LIGA or SERIE A..

  15. Eric R., December 23, 2011 at 11:36 a.m.

    James: Yep. Understood. Even so, those players couldn't be paid enough to leave Barca because Barca will shell out the $$$ to keep them. Moreover, the world is their oyster, so they can go out and find the Messis of the world. I can't think of any other club in the world with pockets that deep. I'm a big fan of Ajax's youth system. Why aren't they able to keep the Van Persies? I suspect its the $$$.

    You are right that most of their players are home grown at Barca, but so what? At the end of the day, what is fun about sports if we know the outcome in advance? That's not "sport". BTW, I'm no fan RM eaither, I'd much rather watch Racing Santander or Athletic Bilbao, but I really try not to spend too much time on this league since I know who the Champs will be anyway.

  16. Caben Buswell, January 25, 2012 at 1:07 p.m.

    Did any of you watch this game, maybe I'm thinking of a different game. Don't see how Valdez gifted any goals - he didn't play in the game.

    I think Gardner maybe watched a poor youtube feed.

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