In this first post of the series, I answer a question I’ve seen posed around and about. Ideally, people would pose me The Questions in future, things they’ve been wondering, or things they might want my opinion on. If not, no matter, football is always throwing up questions of its own. This, then, is Question 1.
It has been said many times, and will no doubt be said again. Just because Barcelona pass the ball a lot, play football in the ‘right way’, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re exciting to watch. To me, it stands to reason. Barcelona, particularly when orchestrated by Xavi, keep the ball better than anyone. If you want to watch an even contest, then you’re probably in the wrong place. Whoever they’re playing against, Barcelona will have most of the ball, and carve out a great many chances. This can be thrilling to watch – some of Barcelona’s games in La Liga (generally against like minded teams – Bielsa’s Bilbao spring to mind here, unsurprisingly) are some of the most entertaining games you could wish to watch.
When Barcelona are playing against a team set out to contain that creativity, however, there’s a certain hypnotic quality to the game. The poking and prodding, the relentless passing forwards, backwards, to the side, back inside, becomes a little bit trance-like. It creates mental and physical tiredness in their opposition, through which, the plan is, passing and darting runs can penetrate to the end of a goal. It often works. If it works quite early, it tends to make for a more exciting game to watch, because the opposition generally have to come out of their shell in order to get a result of any kind. If it doesn’t work, as we saw against Chelsea last night or moreso against Milan in the previous round of the Champions League, it makes games that pass by very slowly.
To my eyes, that doesn’t make Barcelona boring. It makes their opposition boring. If a team thinks they’re not good enough to take on Barcelona at their own game, and has to contain them, that’s not Barcelona’s fault – that’s their opposition’s doing. If the game is boring, its not because Barcelona have made it boring, its because the obstacle in their way has set out to become as stubborn to get past as possible. It isn’t necessarily even boring then; it means that the Barcelona machine has to work that bit harder to get its chances, and be that bit more clinical when they come – it is a test. Its something of a shame that the skills of Messi and Iniesta are used for picking locks than painting pictures, but you’ve got to be able to do both, and they’ve proved themselves more than able to do that over the last few years.
When the Hungarian giants of the early 1950s were sweeping all before them, nobody was saying how boring they were. People were trying to counteract it, and people were stunned with the flexibility of their play, but nobody was saying ‘Oh, they just did the same thing again this game, how exciting’. The same should happen with Barcelona. They are the best team in the world now. They’ve earned that title, but don’t necessarily have it by default in future. There was a point in Autumn when it felt Madrid’s twenty-two gun attacks might well usurp them; they still might (especially domestically) do so, but if they do, it will be by taking their crown directly. I’m very fond of using the saying ‘You’ve got to beat the best to be the best’; never is that more true than in this case. No team will, realistically, prove themselves better than Barcelona until they stand toe-to-toe against them, and beat them. Madrid might yet do that – we will have a clearer picture over the weekend.
In summary, because so few teams actually play Barcelona on their own terms (and reasonably so; why would you make it easy for them?), it means their games are generally either one-sided, or quite staccato. Barcelona are not to blame for either of these things, so no, I don’t think they’re boring. They may participate in boring matches, but they are not doing the nullifying, they are being nullified.