Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

FC Barcelona and the pitfalls of footballing idealism

Posted on 8 September 2021 by Madhavan Ramanujam

Every club has an appeal associated with it. This acts as its Unique selling point (USP) in everything from player negotiations to brand building and marketing. For some, it is the pathway available to young players to establish themselves on the world stage. For some others, it is the history and heritage of the city. In FC Barcelona’s case however, it is a distinct playing style. The Catalan club has a clear blueprint of how football at the Camp Nou is supposed to be played, and any coach is expected to follow this at all times. 

In Take the Ball, Pass the Ball, a documentary on the club’s unprecedented success from 2008-2012, Andres Iniesta says, ‘In all my time here, the one thing that hasn’t changed is the way we play football. Players come and go but the philosophy never changes’. Reinforcing the point, his midfield compatriot Xavi says,’ The day things start to go wrong, we must never consider changing our playing style. Our unique philosophy should never change. Never’.

 The philosophy they are referring to is a 4-3-3 formation composed of players selected on technical rather than physical merit and whenever possible, promoted from the academy. It refers to the team’s tendency to play an abundance of short and sharp passes at high speed with interchangeable components to draw the opposition out of shape. It refers to an aspiration that the club expects everyone associated with it to possess: To win, with style. Introduced by Johan Cruyff, fine-tuned by Frank Rjikaard and polished to near-perfection by Pep Guardiola, the silky, free-flowing football of the Blaugrana at their best is mesmeric. 

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However, alongside alarming levels of financial mismanagement and laughable leadership, an obstinate sense of loyalty to this romantic ideal has been one of the chief causes behind the club’s steady downfall over the past few years. Players who clearly needed to be moved on were tied down with new contracts purely because of their synonymy with the club’s perceived style. Coaches who perhaps lacked the personality to lead a club of Barcelona’s size were green-lighted based on a platonic adherence to Cruyffian principles. Even the flexibility over the years shown by Pep himself, has thus far failed to convince the club’s supporters that a change of style when necessitated by the players and managers available at different times, is anything other than heresy. 

Neatly contrasting this attitude is the trophy laden period that Real Madrid enjoyed from 2014-2018. Bringing it back to the question of USP, what is Real Madrid’s? Quite simple really. Success.

As Adam Bate outlined in his piece for Sky Sports prior to the 2017 UEFA Champions League final – ‘(Real)Madrid is a club that finds its unity in one shared purpose. The goal is to win.’ Madrid has never chained itself to a particular style on the pitch. The squad composition and the coach at the time have decided that. Under Carlo Ancelotti and later Zinedine Zidane, the goal was not to entertain, but to win. It was to devise a system that maximized the collective potential of its components, unconstrained by crowd dynamics and a sanctimonious desire to look good while doing so. 

It must be said, this was true for Pep’s Barcelona. The ‘tiki-taka’ style of play was the only way of showcasing the midfield’s control and the attack’s brilliance. To a large extent, it was true for Enrique’s version as well. A Messi-Neymar-Suarez trident warranted a slightly more direct approach. But in all subsequent iterations, ‘philosophy’ has been nothing more than a millstone hanging around the club’s neck, preventing it from adapting to the questions posed by post-modern football. 

In the capital club’s case, it certainly helped that they had their most talented pool of players in a long time available together, relatively injury-free and in possession of the required chemistry to play as a unit. However, as Rafael Benitez’s ill fated 7 month reign sandwiched between the Ancelotti and Zidane eras illuminated, an over-reliance on tactics and philosophy can be perilous even in a star-studded line-up. A much more simple approach to football is what works at the White House, where a glamorous collection of individuals are tasked with generating a favorable scoreline at the end of 90 minutes. ‘Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is’ goes the saying, which is ironic because it was Cruyff who said it. 

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Such a viewpoint has its downsides too. An insipid matchday experience when the team isn’t winning is one, as there often is nothing else to hold on to. A constant tendency to trade the future for the present is another. But the simple truth is this: In a time of ever increasing financial disparity even between the elite clubs, success is hard enough. Adding a constraint to it makes it near impossible. One comparison would be that it is like running the 100 m Olympics with ankle weights. And as Barcelona have found out, chasing perfection sometimes comes at the cost of progress. 

With a squad composed of prodigious youngsters like Frenkie De Jong, Pedri and Ansu Fati, it isn’t impossible to imagine Barcelona winning the Barcelona way again. But in the short term, the club have kick started the post-Messi epoch with a roster of forwards that include Martin Brathwaite, Luuk De Jong, Memphis Depay and Ousmane Dembele. A more pragmatic approach is certainly at odds with the identity that the club has worked so hard to craft, or in other words, its USP. But in a footballing landscape at the highest level where irrelevance is thrust upon any entity that either fails to showcase constant success or prove that it is on a path to do so, one wonders if flexibility, if not the solution, should at least be an option.