(WFI) Barcelona – a byword for brilliance in the modern game. Their style, rooted in superb off the ball movement, quick and accurate passing, aggressive ball recovery, and the predatory instincts of Lionel Messi, surpassed even that of the great Brazilian side of 1970 last season, establishing the Catalans as the gold standard for quality football.
Inevitably, because of their success, Barca have begun to spawn a number of imitators.
In the Barclay’s English Premier League, for example, Arsenal copy the Catalans slavishly. And did anyone notice the Barca-esque goals scored by Anderson and Nani of Manchester United during the pre-season tour of the USA and Community Shield respectively?
On the international stage, Argentina and Brazil each paid homage to Barcelona’s style during the group stages of the Copa America despite lacking the creativity to make it work. And even at the Women’s World Cup the comparisons between Japan and Barca were obvious as the Japanese passed their way to an unlikely world title.
Imitation, of course, is the sincerest form of flattery, so it’s ironic that in trying to emulate the game’s greatest ever team the Barcelona wannabes can so easily shoot themselves in the foot.
Arsenal, under Arsene Wenger, has been chasing the Barca dream since losing to the Catalans in the 2006 Champions League final, but the outcome, thus far, has merely served as a cautionary tale of promoting style over substance.
Wenger’s Barcelona caricature having proved great to watch but ultimately unsuccessful, as evidenced by the Gunners’ lack of a trophy in the past six seasons.
United, for all their pressing in the final third during the Community Shield, were twice caught on the break by Manchester City and had to play their get-out-of-jail free card to snatch an unlikely victory courtesy of a defensive mistake.
Argentina, even with a Barcelona presence that included Messi, produced only a pale imitation of the Spaniards’ tiki-taka style during the early part of the Copa America and ultimately joined Brazil, whose talented individuals never gelled as a team, in making an ignominious exit in the quarter-finals of a tournament each had been tipped to win.
Only the Japanese women managed to make the mimicry work consistently. Even then they had to compromise, as their World Cup final victory over the USA came in the wake of a gritty rather than stylish display that marked their least Barca-like performance of the tournament.
Barca’s Total Team Ethic is Unmatched
So, if Barcelona’s style is universally acknowledged as “the way to play football”, why is it largely ineffective when adopted by others?
After all, in essence it’s not hard to understand. Play on the floor, keep possession, pass and move, create angles and options, and, when you do lose the ball, put a full-court press on the other team so you can to get it back as soon as possible. So how come it’s so hard to copy?
Here’s my take. Theory and
execution are obviously two different things, and Barca are currently playing an idealistic form of football with technical ability, stamina, timing and a speed of thought that verges on automaton. It’s almost like watching a computerized form of the game where every move and movement is etched on a microchip available for instant replication time and again.
For example, during last season’s European Champions League final against Manchester United Barca made a staggering 777 passes, more than double that of their opponents. They enjoyed a whopping 69% of possession. Xavi alone made a tournament high 148 passes and managed a success rate of 95.3%! That’s machine-like but emblematic of the whole team, which boasted a successful pass rate of 90%.
Barca’s precision and work rate makes the complex look deceptively simple, when in reality it’s a classic case of “Don’t try this at home”.
But it’s more than just the technical prowess of the players that makes their style hard to copy it’s also their human qualities.
Many top teams might be able to match Barcelona for industry and individual artistry but none can equal their united approach to the game. This, as everyone knows, is a golden generation of virtuosos, however, by some strange alchemy it’s also been uniquely combined into a unit that’s even greater than the sum of its parts.
Barca don’t play the blame game. When a move breaks down for whatever reason you never see hands thrown in the air or lip read a barrage of abuse between one team-mate and another. It’s an all for one and one for all mentality. Let’s re-group, recover, and start again with no recriminations.
What’s more, Barca don’t cater to fragile egos. For example, look at what a short stay Zlatan Ibrahimovic enjoyed at the Camp Nou despite his goal-scoring prowess. If you can’t put the needs of the team above your own you’re out!
Consequently, what we’re seeing in Pep Guardiola’s men is not just total football but a total team ethic applied by a perfect storm of individual talent. It’s a star team within which no-one is considered a star, despite the plaudits ladled on Messi by those on the outside.
No wonder then that even sides with great players of their own fail to reproduce what Barcelona do.
You can buy great, as the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester City, Chelsea, and Manchester United have done, but you can’t buy empathy, and without that key ingredient attempting to play the Barcelona way is a hit and miss affair that can even negate some of the qualities your team does possess.
So, while Barca play the beautiful game it’s my belief that you seek to imitate them at your peril. There’s only one Mona Lisa, there’s only one Hope Diamond, there’s only one Barcelona, and lightning in a bottle is rarely captured twice.
By INSIDER columnist Terry Baddoo
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