Sunday, May 29, 2011

FC Barcelona - A Work of High Art

If there was any doubt preceding the game about the stature of this Barcelona team, it was put to rest in magisterial fashion. Manchester United were cut to ribbons in the final of the UEFA Champions League with a display of audacious class and merciless efficiency. Barcelona were simply irrepressible. A more beautiful victory one is unlikely to see. Perhaps they were aided by United’s timidity, an unwillingness to play dirty, an attribute that some may even consider commendable, but Barcelona’s display has taken them well into the pantheon of great footballing sides.

Let us, though, forget the scoreline – a commanding 3-1 – and concentrate for a moment on the methods, for it is the style of victory more than the score which is likely to define this epoch. At the core of Barcelona’s triumph, paradoxically, isn’t Lionel Messi, widely and rightly considered the best player in the world, but Xavi Hernandez their pint sized midfield maestro. Xavi is Barcelona’s ‘quarterback’, every attack flows through him and it is he who helps them command space with an air of hitherto unseen imperiousness. He passes the ball, both short and long, both in acute angles and in straight lines, both along the ground and in the air, with equal simplicity but never it seems without purpose. The purpose, if one were to define it, is a quest for space, a pursuit ingrained in the club’s philosophy by Johan Cruyff.

The blueprint for Barcelona’s play lies in the methods adopted by the great Ajax and the Netherlands sides of the late 1960s to early 1970s, in which Cruyff played the chief protagonist. Under the stewardship of Rinus Michels, football was revolutionalised. No doubt, it has unconsciously always been about space, but as artist Jeroen Henneman says in David Winner’s outstanding book, ‘The Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football’, “the big change in Dutch football happened when these ideas became words, when Cruyff and Michels started talking about space.”

Winner seeks to conceptualise this understanding of space. He draws parallels between Dutch architecture, art and football. He says: “’Total football’ was, among other things, a conceptual revolution based on the idea that the size of any football field was flexible and could be altered by a team playing on it. In possession, Ajax – and later the Dutch national team – aimed to make the pitch as large as possible, spreading play to the wings and seeing every run and movement as a way to increase and exploit the available space. ”

In many ways, Winner argues, this expansion of space is akin to the wonder that marks Dutch architecture. He says: “Because of their strange landscape, the Dutch are a nation of spatial neurotics… Space is an inordinately precious commodity, and for centuries the use of every square centimeter of every Dutch city, field and polder has been carefully considered and argued over.” This paucity, Winner says has contributed towards the Dutch thinking innovatively about space, a constant urge to find it where seemingly none exists, a philosophy that has been carried over to the football pitch.

Of course it is easy to argue that these are but tenuous links, utterly lacking in credence. But as Rudi Fuchs, a director of a modern art museum in Amsterdam argues in Winner’s book, ‘every country and culture has its own way of seeing.’ He says: “The psychologists deny these differences exist, but its there in Dutch art and culture. Ask any Dutch person to draw the horizon and they will draw a straight line. If you ask someone form Yorkshire or Tuscany or anywhere else, it will have bumps and hills. A Scandinavian blue is cold and steely, completely unlike a blue in Italy. Italian painting is rich in warm reds, but when red appears in the work of a northern artist like Munch, its blood in the snow.” He goes on to add that these ‘climatic and geographically shaped aesthetic differences are inevitably reflected in football.’ “Catenaccio is like a Titan painting – soft, seductive and languid. The Italians welcome and lull you and seduce you into their soft embrace, and score a goal like the thrust of a dagger. The Dutch make their geometric patterns… The English like to run and fight. When Gullit tried to transplant this Dutch art to Newcastle, he was trying to do something impossible. He was bound to fail.”

Pertinently, it may be noted that, Fuchs fails to mention Spain or in fact Catalunya. But it is there that Cruyff’s notion of space has found its most glorious recognition. Cruyff took Dutch art to Barcelona, and the club has augmented this conception through its own varying approaches to the creation of space.

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First, a look at the tactical basis that underpins the method. At Ajax and with the Netherlands, Michels and his successors adopted a fluid, flexible 4-3-3 with a centre-back pushing forward whenever possible to make it a 3-4-3. Essentially, though, these positional notations were only that – notations. In practice, the system involved rapid interchange of positions, wingers finding themselves in central defense, central midfielders moving into full back, and so on. For all its attacking vitality, it is important to note that defensive solidity was never compromised, if the left back was caught up field, one of the central midfielders was always on hand to cover the space. The inherent philosophy, as Jonathan Wilson points out in this piece for the Guardian, was simple – ‘pass and move when in possession, squeeze the play when out of it.’

In many ways, the Ajax philosophy served as the template for Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan side and the more recent Arsenal team under Arsene Wenger. The idea, though, has stayed at the forefront of Barcelona’s thinking ever since Michels moved to the club as coach in 1971, with Cruyff joining him two years later. Their axis hadn’t the success that it had at Ajax, but nonetheless the processes were put in place. During Cruyff’s six-year tenure as a player, the club won only a single La Liga title. Its ethos though was altered. Success alone wasn’t what the club craved for, but success through a certain style.

Between Cruyff’s time as a player and when he re-joined the club as manager in 1988, it won the Championship only once, in 1984-85 under Terry Venables. But once Cruyff took over the reins, the contours of the club were dramatically altered, laying the basis for its greatness, which has been achieved with rare panache. The club won four consecutive La Ligas between 1990-91 and 1993-94, playing a seductive, fearsome brand of football that emphasized a mastery over space. At its pivot was Josep Guardiola, the current Barcelona manager. He was the Xavi of the ‘Dream Team’, the one who took control of the ball in the middle of the park, acting as the conductor of the orchestra. The expansive style of the Dream Team, though, whilst magnificent to watch, had its drawbacks. Relevantly, it won the Champions League only once, in 1991-92, losing 4-0 in the final two years later to Fabio Capello’s AC Milan. The team containing Guardiola, Romario, Stoichkov and Koeman was undone by a disciplined Milan effort that was aimed at targeting specific weaknesses of Barcelona – particularly spaces behind their fullbacks, which were ruthlessly exposed by Dejan Savicevic.

Cruyff’s contributions to Barcelona though do not end there. In 1979, he played a pivotal role in convincing the then President of the club, Josep Nunez, in remodeling La Masia, the club’s academy to accommodate a greater number of students, and centering its methods on the famed Ajax academy. Instilled in the youngsters at La Masia are the philosophies of Cruyff. Apprentices are taught to think innovatively, to think in terms of space. They are trained to press and compress space when defending and expand the playing area when in attack. Amongst its foremost and earliest graduates was Guardiola himself and Guillermo Amor, both of whom played fundamental roles in the Dream Team’s success.

Since then, the academy has produced a battery of stars, all entrenched in the Barcelona way, including Carles Puyol, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique, Pedro Rodriguez and Victor Valdes. The success of the first team for a period was steady, without being spectacular. In 2005-06, the club won the Champions League for the second time in its history, under the management of Frank Riijkard – more indications of a Dutch touch. But while Xavi and Puyol played important roles, the win was essentially achieved through the attacking flair of Ronaldinho, a Brazilian bought from Paris St. German. Much of its football was eye-catching, but the manner of the victory was rarely imperious. Defensively, the team had many frailties, and its methods were far from the flawlessness that is now on show. Following a second consecutive season without league triumph in 2007-08, Riijkard was shown the door, and Guardiola, who was then the head coach of the “B’ team, took over.

And since then there football has attained otherworldliness. They have won the Spanish league title in each of the last three years and the Champions League twice, all the while adhering to the high ideals of Cryuff. Opponents have been forced into submission through a graceful, enthralling style of football. But Guardiola has not merely aped Cruyff in his methods. The basic paradigm, no doubt, remains the same, but the nature of the pressing game that today’s Barcelona play is more complete. It hasn’t the totality of the Ajax sides of the 1970s – indeed it is implausible for a team to play on such lines in today’s tactical regime – but it involves pressing from the top in a manner, perhaps, never witnessed in the past.

Without the ball, as Guadiola often points out, ‘Barcelona are a disastrous team’. So they hound like a pack of chasing wolves from the front, compressing space the moment they lose the ball. Messi, Villa and Pedro are renowned for their attacking prowess, but they play just as crucial a role defensively. They pursue the opposition in every corner of the pitch – even simple passes rolled out from the opposition’s goalkeeper to one of his defenders is not spared. For Barcelona, possession is the foundation for both attack and defence. Once they win the ball back, though, they retain it with √©lan for what seems like ages. In the Champions League this season, they have kept possession of the ball on an average of about 70% of the time every game, an astonishingly brilliant figure.

There is of course a criticism that at times their passing can be tedious, an end in itself, which often strips an element of fun out of their game. This, though, is a matter of aesthetics. Perhaps their style isn’t as thrillingly gorgeous as the Ajax and the Netherlands teams of the early 1970s, but as Simon Barnes once remarked of complaints against Pete Sampras being too boring, if you find excellence tedious, then sport is not what you should look towards.

Guardiola has ensured that the Cruyff philosophy remains the basis for Barcelona’s play, but by getting his team to relentlessly press the opposition in all areas of the pitch, he has augmented the model even further. As Sir Alex Ferguson said: "Guardiola has created a different philosophy for Barcelona. I think the Cruyff era laid the foundation for the width they used in their game and using the full size of the pitch. If you look at their midfield players over the last 20 years, they have all been small. What has changed is the pressing and the areas in which they press the ball. That is what Guardiola has brought to the team.

The beauty in Barcelona’s play, ironically for a team that plays with such elegance, lies in their discipline, exemplified best by Xavi. He presses the opposition hard, and when he is given the ball, he almost never loses it – evident from the fact that he converted 124 out of the 136 passes he attempted in the Final, more than the entire Manchester United midfield put together. The laboured accusation that Xavi only passes the ball sideways and a lack of directness means that it is easy to boast of such statistics falls like a leaf at the peak of autumn.

A glimpse at the opening goal scored by Pedro in the Final is enough to convince one of Xavi’s supreme talents. It was an education in practical passing. He sauntered near the edge of the United box, waiting for players to flit around in front of him, until the perfect opportunity presented itself. And when Pedro darted outwards, even as the drifting Messi took Evra inwards with him, Xavi played the ball diagonally to Pedro, with the weight on the pass and its direction immaculate. As Cruyff says, the simple ball is what is very often the most elegant solution. Arriving at that simple ball, though, takes genius and Xavi belongs to a rare species that possesses that special gift.

It is a testament also to Guardiola’s talents that he has ensured that his team’s standards never dip. They of course possess the sheer unexplainable brilliance of Messi, who can win games on his own. But it is as a collective unit that they are most impressive. Guardiola has constructed a work of art that is no doubt based on conceptions of space theorized by Cruyff, but by imparting his own contributions in terms of pressing and an ability to defend in numbers, he has made an imprint that transcends all boundaries of greatness. For instance, in Dani Alves, Barcelona have a marauding right back, who is crucial to their attacking plans. But when Alves attacks, Sergio Busquets unfailingly sits deep to cover for the space that can open up behind the fullback. This is but an example to display their adherence to all aspects of the game. Every player in the side is attuned to the team’s methods – pass and move and look for space.

Perhaps, Guardiola’s work in moulding a team of such mesmeric brilliance is like that of Antoni Guadi, the great Catalan architect, who adhered to tradition even while creating the most modern of structures. Guardiola may not go on to create an impregnable empire, but his side has already done enough to go down in the annals of history as one of the greatest of all time.

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