There is something about the current Barcelona team that leads me to accept their mantle of ‘World’s Best Team’ with a degree of caution. Undoubtedly an enviably gifted team that could with good cause be called the best team of the decade, somehow the product is less that it could, or should, be.
Whilst the quality of the squad is very high, the undoubted star of the team is Messi. How lucky for Barcelona that he and Dani Alves have the ability to repeatedly inspire the team in order to avoid the monotony of the controlled one-nil, that dull veil with which Spain blanketed the 2010 World Cup. Iniesta too is a player capable of such transfigurative play, yet it is a shame that for much of the time he assumes the role of an ersatz Xavi. Xavi himself is a great player, one who has made an art of ball retention and passing. But need every Barcelona player play in this way? Can we not have more enterprise? More intent? No, rather we must watch sad spectacles such as a neutered Villa, reduced in efficacy to the output of Pedro, becoming another cog in the Barcelona machine. One is reminded of the sight of the nameless workers marching into the jaws of Moloch in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
And who is more to blame for this than ‘the Philosopher’ Guardiola? Upon taking over the Barcelona side he drew on the talents of Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o, pairing them with Messi – perhaps as great a front three as any. This Barcelona team was equally combative in pressing the ball, equally able to keep the ball; yet for Henry and Eto’o’s Barcelona every pass was gilded with intent and menace. They kept the ball always with a higher intent in mind. Yet the nouveau-Barcelona culture of keeping the ball threatens to become an end in itself, as if the aim of football is not to outscore the opponent but rather to have as close to full possession as one can. One can recall here Mr Ajax, Sjark Swart, who, commenting on Van Gaal’s interpretation of total football, claimed: ‘Many games you are sleeping! On television, they say “Ajax seventy per cent ball possession”. So what? It’s not football. The creativity is gone.’ Praising Barcelona for their ball keeping ability is a misidentification of what is positive about their football. For the most part this possession is a mere accidental feature of Barcelona’s play – it is what happens in-between their good football. It is not constitutive of admirable, entertaining play (as the Spanish national team has demonstrated in recent years).
In the most technical sense of the word, then, Guardiola can be accused of heresy (from the Greek airesis – focusing on a single aspect of truth and absolutising it). A fine tactician, surely, but his ideological fixation on passing and ball retention, which has become nothing less than a totalising obsession, has reduced the efficacy of a side which could afford to be more enterprising, less mechanical in its domination of the modern game. Barcelona’s high priest, so sure in his own vision of the game, has turned their church into a heterodox cult, a movement that, were it not for its dynamism in pursuit of his partial ideal, would be labelled decadent. This is an unfortunate arrogance and wilful partiality of sight that extends all the way to the players and fans who, when anyone dares to disrupt their metronymic passing, decry anathema to the beautiful game.
Yet despite the frequent monotony of Barcelona’s play they somehow retain the image that they are playing truly resplendent football the likes of which our world has never seen. This is the unpleasant culture that surrounds them which insists that they are good for the game. Perhaps this is made easier by their juxtaposition with Real Madrid (a club whose sense of entitlement has also had a negative effect on of the European game), but are Barcelona really much better? It is only partly anachronistic to note that much of their invented history of playing the ‘beautiful game’ extends back to Cruyff’s dream team – a team which benefited from much good fortune in accruing its many titles. And yet Cruyff’s Barcelona was often far more enjoyable to watch than Guardiola’s team – one cannot help but feel that Ibrahimovic would have found a place in Cruyff’s team. Of course Barcelona have had other periods where they played very impressive football, but no greater or fewer than any other big club. Their great and glorious history is neither more nor less inherently good than that of Madrid or Bilbao, Arsenal or Manchester United, Munich or AC Milan. But then such is the conception of Barcelona – that they do things the right way – that much is swept under the carpet. In 2010 after the revamp of their Galactico policy, Madrid were accused of trying to buy the league, ignoring the fact that Barcelona also spent over 100 million Euros on transfers and spend a larger amount than Madrid annually on their academy.
A further ideological victory for Barcelona has arisen in recent years: the myth of their unassailability. In the Champions League we hear that all of the clubs are hoping to draw anyone but Barcelona, as if they are too good to cope with. But during Guardiola’s tenure, especially in Europe, every time Barcelona have played a genuine contender for the trophy the opposition have known exactly how to deal with them. How Chelsea did not defeat them in 2009 is utterly mysterious (let us allow mystery to stand here for scandal). Inter similarly toppled the supposedly unstoppable team who, for all the propaganda, turned out to be no more than a club, and a beatable one at that. Even Arsenal, who were faced with a much better team who should have beaten them by far more comfortably a margin, were a kick and a disgraceful red card away from victory.
And yet in the 2011 Champions League final this Barcelona side were outstanding. In the second half in particular they played an almost faultless game. In this match we saw the perfect balance of team ethic and individual ability. So the problem with this Barcelona team is not that the players are not good. It is not that they do not have the potential to be one of the best teams in the history of the game – in addition to the 2011 European final, the 2008-9 side deserves to be long remembered. It is rather that the style of play they often pursue is at best an extremely sterile way of dominating matches and at worst an active inhibitor on the creativity that could flourish in a team exhibiting more freedom. It is for this reason that, whilst statistics may provide future generations with false impressions, those of us who can remember the team may well look back on this Barcelona team with a sense of frustration and of opportunity missed.