28 May 2009

Float above the grass / Puce and pusillanimity

We have not been cowards, never in the match. There's nothing more dangerous than not taking risks.

Row me across the Styx if that's not already one of my favourite sporting quotes of all time. That was Pep last night, summing everything up in two sentences.

There is truth, of course, in the suggestion that Barcelona's commitment to their style of play has become something of a moral imperative. This is all the more interesting when you remember that the lineage of their style goes back to the Michels/Cruyff Ajax team, whose approach was uber-pragmatic: a series of practical solutions rather than an attempt to paint a masterpiece. It's curious how this has become solidified as something approaching dogma (by way of Cruyff himself, who has preached his own gospel for years).

As something approaching dogma. If it was pursued though all evidence pointed to its inefficacy, that would be dogmatic. What the Barcelona way ultimately points to is the false dichotomy between style and substance, form and function. Often the connection between process and outcome in football can seem tenuous, even downright random, to the point that we are often too ready to dismiss the idea that a connection exists at all, or at least to downplay its importance. Some said that Barcelona were too in love with their own method, that it would come at a cost to results; but a team merely in love with their own method doesn't win three trophies in a season. Praying to your household gods will only ever get you so far, and they know it. Barça may be proud of their style, but under Guardiola, it has been inextricably entwined with the pursuit of wins. The balance has been perfect; they have been true to the pragmatic heart of their style.

Some have accused Barcelona of vanity; but the team's humility and conscientious application have struck me time and again this season. Sure, they have talked about their style, because it would have have been more ridiculous had they never. But their method is not decadent, not superfluously flamboyant. It is unfailingly disciplined, and as conceptually rigorous as anything Ferguson has employed — or, for that matter (I mention it because it's relevant), as anything Hiddink has employed. Perhaps Barça's unusual consideration of style has — will — cost them from time to time, but not necessarily more than those who do things more conventionally. Yet the failings of a team such as Barcelona will been seen as naivety, as the invalidation of an ideal. When Chelsea just failed to eliminate Barcelona, it was seen as bad luck: not just because of the referee, but because it was maintained that Hiddink had out-thought Guardiola. But a central plank of Chelsea's strategy was to play ultra-conservatively in the first leg, such that the pursuit of a goal of their own — an away goal — was an afterthought. (An afterafterthought?) Chelsea may have come closer than anyone else to overcoming Barça, but that unwillingness to take any sort of risk at the Nou Camp was their undoing, not the debatable calls.

Actually, it was part of their undoing. Barcelona's discipline and devotion to the process also carried them through. They hadn't been tested like that this season, had never faced a team so adept at defusing their firepower. But despite going three hours without scoring, frustration — that impotent emotion — never conquered them. When Abidal was sent off and they played three at the back, what followed never appeared desperate. Rarely does a team play so surely and determinedly under such constraints. Barcelona did this because they have at no point this season been presumptuous about their successes, and have been willing to think and work for every goal and point. Iniesta's goal was the consequence of this — not the inevitable consequence, but the consequence all the same.

Just as Chelsea made strategic/tactical errors, so did United. Just as an individual error from Essien played its part in Iniesta's goal, so did such errors contribute to both of Barcelona's goals against United. But it would be wrong to put too much stress on these, as has been done. Indeed, as is very often done, generally. Football analysis focuses so much on errors. I just can't get with the idea that football is a series of errors, which is the logical conclusion of such analysis. It's a facile reading. In the case of Barcelona, above all, it's utterly inadequate. The joy of their win against United was in how their style dominated the match — became the match. When Chelsea imposed their style on the semi-final games, the appropriate response was, at best, chin-stroking appreciation. It certainly wasn't joy: firstly, because it ultimately failed; secondly, and more absolutely, because of what that style is (or what they chose it to be those nights). It goes beyond simply imposing your will on the match. It's about imposing it in the way that is theoretically the riskiest — in a way that is based around attack (not exclusively attacking, but which uses attack as its core principle, in which you are attacking even when you are defending). Furthermore, it is about harnessing this in a kind of discipline that gives it structure, but which allows the greatest footballing expression by great players. When a team can do this, it's a powerful force, physically and psychically. United may have been damaged by their own inherent failings, but they were destroyed by Barça's purpose.

Sometimes I wonder if we get carried away by games like this. If these teams were somehow able to play this game ten times, under exactly the same conditions each time, Barcelona would not win ten times. No strategy or team is perfect; the interplay of each team's strengths and weaknesses will differ each time. Just because this particular game occurred in this particular reality does not mean that it is the absolute truth. And would I have written all this had things transpired differently? But, for one thing, this reality is all we have, and it doesn't demean us, or the truth, to accept what we're given and to celebrate it. For another, I suspect that Barcelona are closer to the truth than we may ever get to see.

A few weeks ago, in anticipation of a possible Barcelona victory, I said: "Such is the delight in watching them that it almost feels as if drama would taint it." I stand by that. This was my favourite Champions League final by a long way.


Richard Whittall 30/5/09 8:01 PM  

Richard Whittall likes this.

Fredorrarci 31/5/09 1:37 AM  

Either you're spending too much time on Facebook or you're on the Republican ticket for '96.

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