Graeme Souness and Ruud Gullit sat in the Sky Sports studio and eulogised Barcelona’s first leg performance against Arsenal at the Emirates, with good reason. After the second leg however, we were hearing how this is possibly the greatest club team to have ever played the game and that Lionel Messi’s four goal haul was the finest individual feat in European history. Really, guys? I would argue the following: their first leg exhibition at the Emirates is not representative of their season as a whole and the second leg demolition was as much Arsenal’s sheer inability to defend as it was Messi’s intergalactic talent. Interestingly these plaudits were noticeably absent from the English press – at the very least muted and far less hyperbolic – in December following Barcelona’s sixth title victory in 16 months when, logically and statistically, the team deserved to be lauded most.
The first problem lies within the insular nature of any country’s media. In Spain the unprecedented sexpartite glory must have been heralded as an historic achievement probably brimming with pages of editorials describing that Barcelona team’s unequivocal and all-conquering greatness. In England we seemed subdued, surprised even, by the consummate and suffocating superiority the Catalans exhibited against the best of the English Premier League, all on the grandest of European nights. In the aftermath of that season, on the back of those titles, even the most flagrant and gilded sycophant of Pep Guardiola and his men would be justified: after all they demolished La Liga at a stratospheric goal rate (the forward trident of Henry, Messi, and Eto’o scored 100 goals in all competitions), they won by three or more goals on 17 occasions, and – more important than any statistic – they matched style with substance by winning everything they competed in.
But many in this country, worryingly if they’re considered knowledgeable by the watching public, only paid attention to Barcelona this season for the 70 minutes of relentless, sublime, exhibitionist football played at the Emirates. That performance was an anomaly when contrasted with their season thus far. Guardiola and Puyol both publicly stated it was the best that Barcelona had played under the current manager. Yet they somehow failed to win. Whether it be the form of individuals, the tweaking of tactics, a changing in personnel, or simply the impossibility of sustaining last year’s ferocity (mentally and physically) the team has ever-so-slightly come up short against the barometer of their own standards. And this is the marginal difference exemplified by last season’s ubiquitous success and this season’s almosts. I believe that their performance against Arsenal in the away leg shocked everyone with its absolute superiority. I think I am vindicated in also believing that the potential of this team was hinted at in that match and Guardiola articulated it himself; they can be better than last year.
This season however has seen an over reliance on Messi. Last year there were three prolific attackers and others adding more than a pittance. Messi has scored an astronomical 44 with Ibrahimovic and Pedro tabling a respectable return of 21 each. But respectable isn’t enough when chasing last year’s ghost. Spain coach, Vicente Del Bosque, made a very relevant comment following Barcelona’s failure to reach the Champions League final:
“It’s a reflection of what can happen to us and what football is all about. A team that is technically superior…a team absolutely dominating the situation [but] that is incapable of winning. I think these warnings come at the right time and we cannot ignore them. He who doesn’t want to see this is living outside of reality.”
This highlights a documented difficulty Barcelona has had against tight units who are disciplined when defending. Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and now Inter have all defeated Barcelona in the Champions League. Arsenal and Inter highlight the aphorism that the less you try and play like Barcelona, the more chance you actually have of winning. Del Bosque went on to add:
“Any team that works together and comes together and has the energy to come out on the counterattack can do you damage. In football you can’t stick by what you did yesterday, you must always have intentions [to improve] and always be ready for difficulties.”
I respect Guardiola because he sees Ibra as the progress, the ‘improvement’, hinted at by Del Bosque. He sees the addition of a technically astute, strong central striker, with a penchant for the spectacular as an added dimension to his team. Ibra was bought to give the option, if required, of more direct play in situations like Chelsea and Inter. The trouble, I think, hasn’t been the acquisition of the Swede but more the decision of when to play him. As I stated in a previous article it was a tactical mistake to start Ibrahimovic in the games against Inter (click here) but would have been an understandable ‘plan B’ to resort to.
Del Bosque’s words are poignant when considering my aims for this article. Do I honestly believe Barcelona are overrated? No, I don’t. They are a special group of individuals with a very able, intelligent and dignified manager. I do however think that our hysterical media inevitably and unnecessarily overhype the team with sensational tags, such as ‘the best club team in history’, after one match when last year’s sustained brilliance was somewhat glossed over. ‘In football you can’t stick by what you did yesterday,’ and herein lies the fallacy of what I am doing by comparing this year’s team to last year’s; it is due to the success of last season that teams are now better equipped to stop Barcelona. Chelsea were thirty seconds from it last year but Inter managed to hold on this year. The paradox of attaining success is that the expectation for it to be repeated makes the latter even more difficult to achieve. Had Barcelona made the final and won the double, the criticism would be that they went out in the Copa Del Rey semi-finals. Guardiola’s team was destined to fail because their measuring stick was pitted against perfection.
If you enjoyed this, you can follow me on Twitter