Fútbol Evolves

1 Jul

For the past six years or so, soccer fans have enjoyed (or been endlessly annoyed by) the domination of two teams: the Spanish national team in international competitions, and F.C. Barcelona in club competition. Spain has won the past two European championships and the 2010 World Cup, while Barcelona won three of six Champions League titles (the European Super Bowl, so to speak). Seeing as six to eight regulars for Spain have also play their club soccer for Barcelona, the two are, effectively, the same core squad. There are key differences, of course: Barcelona enjoys the services of one Lionel Messi, the greatest player on earth at the moment; the Spanish defense is somewhat better than Barcelona’s, and they also boast the sainted goalkeeper Iker Casillas of Real Madrid. But the similarities in style are all too obvious, and there is no doubt that the heart and soul of both squads is the midfield of Xavi, Sergio Busquets, and Andrés Iniesta.

In the past three months, both dynasties have come apart. First, Barcelona lost to Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinals by a brutal 7-0 scoreline over two matches, and earlier today, Spain was thrashed 3-0 by an inspired Brazil squad in the Confederations Cup final. There are excuses out there: Messi and a couple of other key players were hurt for the Munich matches, and the playing Brazil in Rio de Janeiro a few days after a draining semifinal against Italy is no easy task. Several players have shown signs of age, as well: Xavi and Casillas aren’t what they used to be, and the strikeforce that carried the Spanish national team, Fernando Torres and David Villa (the latter also a Barcelona man), has been out of form for a few years now.

But even more importantly, there is the sense that the style of play made famous by both squads has been eclipsed by that of its rivals. Both teams relied on that famed midfield to unleash the mesmerizing “tiki-taka” passing patterns that wore down the opposition, demoralizing them with relentless ball control. The few teams that beat Spain or Barcelona usually “parked the bus”—that is, they put as many people back on defense as possible to clog up the area in front of the goal and hope to spring the occasional breakaway the other direction when Spain or Barcelona overcommitted offensively. Bayern and Brazil, however, took the game straight to Barcelona and Spain, pressuring them across the pitch and unleashing a physical style that the smaller Spaniards struggled to match. Their defenses, always the teams’ weaknesses (to the extent they had one), were exposed badly, while the pedestrian forwards not named Messi have had zero answers. The midfields have been rendered unable to control play anywhere near the level they used to, and their offenses have degenerated into Iniesta trying to dribble through five defenders.

As damning as that end of tactical dominance may sound, however, it is by no means the end of these great runs by each team. It’s not a coincidence that the two teams that have beaten them have relied on a pair of rock-solid holding midfielders to shut down the tiki-taka, and with Bayern star Javi Martínez gathering dust on the Spanish national team bench, perhaps it’s time to pair him with Busquets to give La Roja its own strong defensive midfield. It might not be as sexy, but it’s not like they’d lose much by taking off one of their mediocre forwards, and that strength would allow offensive fullbacks such as Jordi Alba to range forward into the attack more often. Up front, the national team also has some options; winger Jesús Navas, who came on in the Brazil game a bit too late to make a real difference, adds an element of speed and pace that is otherwise missing from the plodding tiki-taka, and should start playing more. It’s also probably time to start working in the next generation, which early evidence suggests is just as talented as the last one; while it’s hard to see the likes of David de Gea, Isco, and Thiago Alcántara starting full-time by next year’s World Cup, an infusion of youth could add a needed spark to an otherwise aging squad.

Untroubled by the limits of national boundaries, Barcelona opened up the checkbook this summer and bought themselves Neymar, the 21-year-old Brazilian wunderkind who just finished making mincemeat of several of his future teammates for the national team. There are some questions as to how well he’ll jell with Messi, but the potential is there for one of the most lethal combinations in fútbol history. Even if he isn’t an instant hit, he should at least lessen Barça’s Messi-dependence and open up some space for other players on the team. They still have some pressing needs on defense, and just about every center back on the market has been linked to the Catalan giants. Barcelona, too, may want to consider adding a second holding midfielder: like Spain, they have got a good one on their bench in the out-of-position Javier Mascherano, and Bayern certainly showed that such a lineup need not come at the expense of artistic play going forward. This would be especially helpful for the Barça defense, as their fullbacks are even more offensive-minded than Spain’s.

All dynasties must come to an end; it’s impossible for a team to put together a core that will win championships for ten years or so. But with flexible leadership, there’s no reason that a great team can’t build a second dynasty with a little bit of tweaking around the edges. Both Spain and Barcelona have the resources to do so. It’s now up to the teams’ respective managers—veteran Vicente del Bosque with the national team and the green Tito Vilanova at Barcelona—to prove their worth.

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