Commentary

The compelling evolution of Andres Iniesta

Andres Iniesta voiced his displeasure after Barcelona coughed up a two-goal lead against Deportivo during its last La Liga game before Christmas, speaking as the undisputed leader of the 21st century’s best soccer team, a response and designation few would have predicted for the shy boy from a small town.

Barcelona took a 2-0 lead in the 62nd minute of Saturday’s enthralling 2-2 draw at home with Deportivo de La Coruna, after Ivan Rakitic scorched the net from outside the box, just a couple yards away from where Lionel Messi had buried a free kick late in the first half, but an improved Deportivo fought back, snatching a two late goals. The result, coupled with Atletico Madrid’s win on Sunday, dropped Barca into a tie on points atop La Liga as the club flew to Japan for the FIFA Club World Cup.

Barca’s captain was none too pleased after watching his team lose a lead for the third straight game, with Wednesday’s draw at Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League coming after Valencia’s 86th minute equalizer the previous weekend.

"It's inexplicable, particularly what happened towards the end. We lost control of the game at a time when we needed it most and made things all too easy for an opponent who were 2-0 down," Iniesta said. "These things happen, but we have to analyze it to make sure it doesn't happen again.”

"In the last two weeks we've dropped points, so it's much tighter again. Now we have to change our mindset because we're going to be vying for a trophy,” Iniesta said, referencing the trip to Yokohama. "The game was going well, and then we let the control we'd had all match slip just a little, and as a result two points have gone by the wayside.”

Few players evoke more respect than Iniesta, and while his message to his teammates fell short of strong rebuke, Barcelona’s longest tenured current player need not raise his voice to make himself heard.

From Pep, to Xavi to Andresito. At age 12, Andres Iniesta had a poster of Pep Guardiola beside his bed at Barcelona’s celebrated La Masia academy. When he was 14 it was replaced by a signed photo from Pep reading, “to the best player I’ve ever seen,” written after Guardiola watched Andresito play. Two years later, Guardiola pulled aside Xavi before the 16-year-old Iniesta was set to train with the senior team for the first time, famously telling his midfield partner. “You’re going to retire me, this lad is going to retire us all.”

Barcelona’s midfield has been patrolled by one of these three stalwarts for nearly a quarter century. Guardiola arrived at La Masia in 1984 at the age of 13, becoming a first team regular at age 20 during the 1991-92 season that ended with him starting the final when Barcelona won its first European Cup. Pep captained Barca from 1997 to 2001, and the last of his six La Liga titles came in 1998-99, the same season Xavi debuted, at age 18.

Born in Catalonia, like Guardiola, Xavi arrived at La Masia in 1991, at age 11, taking the captain’s armband from Carlos Puyol in the summer of 2014 during the twilight of his trophy-laden career, several of which were won under Guardiola’s immensely successful tenure as coach, between 2008 and 2012.

Iniesta came to La Masia as a 12-year-old boy in 1996, when his well-documented bouts with homesickness nearly ended his Barca career before it began. Iniesta debuted for the senior club in 2002 at the age of 18, a year after Guardiola’s playing career at Barca ended, and with Xavi currently cashing checks in Qatar, Andres Iniesta is now the captain and midfield leader of Barcelona --- fulfilling Pep’s prophecy.

“Becoming the first team captain it is something very special, especially for people who have spent so much time at the club,” Iniesta said.

Iniesta is the only player to make an appearance in all four of Barcelona’s Champions League final victories during the last decade. He also scored what is perhaps the most significant goal in modern soccer history, the winner in the 116th minute of the World Cup final to secure Spain’s first world title, as Iniesta’s ability to rise to the occasion in big games may be unrivaled.

Humble beginnings. Born in Fuentealbilla, a village of 2,000 in Spain’s sparse Albacete province, Andres grew up playing predominantly small-sided soccer, much of it on cement. Piling touches upon touches in cramped spaces, honing his now legendary control. Strong on the ball, but not blessed with athletic gifts, unless balance, dexterity, vision, grace, audacity and infinite creativity qualify as such.

"Small players learn to be intuitive, to anticipate, to protect the ball. A guy who weighs 90 kilos (200 lbs) doesn't move like one who weighs 60 (135). In the playground I always played against much bigger kids and I always wanted the ball. Without it, I feel lost."

While Iniesta has long since left behind his painfully shy former self, becoming a humble leader who has grown steadily more vocal (now captaining Spain’s national team when Iker Casillas is not), Iniesta’s game on the field continues to develop, even at the age of 31.

The ever-evolving Illusionista. Last year’s unqualified success in Barcelona came after radical changes in midfield to support a more direct attack, with Iniesta attempting to adapt his game accordingly. After spending his whole career playing beside Xavi, last season the two often played in each other’s stead beside the industrious Ivan Rakitic, which led to Iniesta toning down his creativity, looking to facilitate, and provide a more predictable focal point for teammates, as Xavi had done (better than anyone) for so many years.

While Barca’s treble speaks for itself, Iniesta’s individual results were hit and miss.

Andres only garnered one league assist all last season, and at times it appeared he was so concerned with trying to do two things at once; it siphoned the spontaneity he thrives upon. This season Don Andres seems to have struck a more sensible balance, dictating the tempo of the game and enabling teammates, as Xavi would, but without eschewing the unpredictable genius that’s made him such a joy to watch over the years.

Limited to 10 appearances in Barca’s first 15 La Liga matches this season, Iniesta seems to be thinking less and performing better, while he only has one goal and one assist in La Primera thus far --- in typical Iniesta fashion --- they both came against Real Madrid in El Clasico.

So appreciate El Capitan while you can. His forays into the indescribable are now fewer and far between, but it would be a crime if the alchemist from Albacete didn’t reveal his genius to the world from time to time -- and a felony if you missed it.

5 comments about "The compelling evolution of Andres Iniesta ".
  1. David V, December 15, 2015 at 9:49 p.m.

    Bravo!

  2. Vince Leone, December 15, 2015 at 11:08 p.m.

    If you love the game, you're crazy if you don't subscribe to BeIN Sports to watch Barca--this version won't be around forever. And the rest of La Liga is well worth watching as well.

  3. David V, December 15, 2015 at 11:44 p.m.

    Vince, great comments. How can you NOT want to watch the top league with the top players. Barca this season is pretty good, not quite to the caliber of 2010-2011, but it is great.

  4. beautiful game, December 16, 2015 at 10:19 a.m.

    Highly gifted player who consistently contributes to the team. His awareness on the pitch is superb.

  5. James Froehlich, December 16, 2015 at 11:32 a.m.

    Too often Iniesta's brilliance strikes like a thunderbolt in a move to avoid a defender far from the goal and so it is missed by many goal worshippers!

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