Some telling statistics from Phil Ball’s article:
“These are 3 (Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi) of the 442 players who have gone through the Masia system since it was inaugurated some 30 years ago; 41 of them have gone on to make their debuts with the first team, and 38 others made it to top-flight status. That leaves 363 who fell by the wayside, although I don’t know the figures for those who made it professionally outside of the Spanish first division. Two of the most prominent are Cesc Fabregas and Mikel Arteta, but that still leaves 361 to account for.”
These are just the statistics of those players who have actually ‘graduated’ from La Masia, that is, those who played there till they were deemed to be too old for the youth team and not good enough for the senior team. Several more would have fallen by the wayside even before this. These statistics show how much heartache and heartburn is there in ‘La Masia’ for those who do not make it to the hallowed turf of Camp Nou, and there are many of them. People may see the glorious ‘cantaneros’ coming in, but forget the innumerable players who fail to make it. Non-Barcelona fans probably don’t know much about how many players from this academy would enjoy the awe and respect that Xavi and co garner, but it is safe to say “Not too many”.
The current Barcelona of the 2000’s will be ranked right up there with Dutch legends of 70s and Brazilian wizards of 80s. Folklores, epics and maybe even ballads will be written about this gifted bunch.
But this article is not about the shiny side of “La Masia”. It is not even a tactical analysis of how Barca does ‘IT’. It is a story about a phenomenon, that seems more improbable and even more confounding when juxtaposed with some cold, hard facts. Although this will make one appreciate the current Barcelona team even more, it will also put some things in perspective. This is a speculation about the mental side of what makes the current generation of Barca tick the way it does. How is this Barca side able to do things that others before it could not accomplish?
Except in a very few cases, most of Barca’s defeats or draws in the last 3 years have come against midtable teams – teams who are not very good, but were not relegation fodder either. Rarely have they lost against ‘big’ teams. There is a reason for this.
All the ‘big’ teams have one thing in common. They love to keep the ball and move it forward. It is an anathema for them to pass the ball backwards; it is regarded as a sacrilege and an admission of inferiority. They don’t like to be deprived of the ball. They believe that the football is theirs, by divine right. They like to be in control of everything. Even when defending, they do it with a certain arrogance. When faced with something like Barca’s football and their players, their inculcated instincts of control and superiority clash with their instincts of self preservation.
More than anything else, Barca hurt the ego of the opposition players; this is where the other teams play into Barcelona’s hands, as they cannot accept their inability to create something instantly. Playing with 10 men behind the ball or on the backfoot is just not their forte.
Mid-table teams do not face this dilemma. They are happy to sit back and hit Barca on the counter; 10 men behind the ball is not an unacceptable tactic for them. Their players are good enough to cause damage and not bad enough to be run over. Even though the relegation fodder teams use the same tactics, their numbers are overwhelmed and their technical deficiencies exploited by the sheer quality on display. Mid-team tables can hold out against Barca, if they have a little bit of luck on their side.
Any player who is a good/great player will have a certain ego, a certain belief, that he is as good as anyone at his job or even better, and that he can outdo any player and is inferior to none. Up to a certain level this is a necessary quality, as it is this belief that actually propels him towards greater glory and makes him one of the best. But against Barca, the same belief that proves to be the downfall of the very best – their own hubris becomes their nemesis. Barca operates by restricting the lines where the opposition player with the ball can pass, or more specifically can complete a ground pass, ensuring that either he is alone and has no one in his direct line of sight to receive the pass, or he has to pass to his team-mates at the back, which is just not an option for him.
The following 2 statements of Rio Ferdinand are extremely illuminating:
- “If someone is marked you are told to play it to space or someone else. People like Xavi, Paul Scholes and Iniesta can handle it, but generally we are not as comfortable playing or receiving the ball when someone is on you.”
- “When you get to international level, if you give the ball away it is hard, particularly against the likes of Spain and Holland. You could go two or three minutes without touching the ball.”
These are the cornerstones of Barca’s challenge:
1) We will let you keep the ball, but will you keep it?
2) Do you have the patience to watch for 3-4 mins while we play around with the ball?
The core of Barca are Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Villa, Puyol, Busquets and Alves. Apart from Alves, all of the others are media shy, unassuming, understated and dedicated to the team cause and rarely, if ever make controversial statements.
The best example is Messi himself. Undeniably one of the best players to come on planet Earth, he has NEVER scored against Mourinho’s side in 11 meetings. For any player of even a half decent standard, this damning statistic would be galling, perhaps even humiliating, and more so for Messi. Yet on that night of the 5-0 demolition, he achieved something that very few great players can contemplate, let alone execute; he made himself secondary and the team primary. That night, Messi’s biggest achievement was not his passing, but letting go of his ego. He accepted his limitations and sought to overcome them by other means.
And here is the final piece of the jigsaw that makes Barcelona Barcelona:
Paradoxically, everyone in Barca is secondary and yet everyone is primary. The players always have to seek for the best option in the buildup of a play – whether it involves them or leaves them out of it completely.
This is where Ibra failed. He could not make himself secondary to anyone. His was not as much a failure to score as much as was the failure to let go of his ego. He could never accept the fact that he was not the centre of the universe, even if that universe contained Messi, Xavi and Iniesta.
Ibra couldn’t do it. CR7 can’t do it. Nor can Benzema , Drogba or Torres.
Yet it is not like the Barcelona players are ‘sugar and spice and everything nice’. Their hypocrisy was quite pronounced when Xavi claimed Fabregas as one of their ‘own’. Their ugly side was more than apparent in the ‘sprinkler’ incident and Valdes’ lunge at Mourinho’s throat, after Inter had gone through at their expense. Make no mistake, this is a bunch that hates to lose; and when they do they can be condescending, vindictive and ugly – all the hallmarks of a sore loser.
But that is nothing to take away from an extraordinarily gifted bunch of players. They are supremely talented players, but at the same time they are amazingly grounded and humble when it comes to team play. They always treat each other with utmost respect, and nobody is inferior to anyone. This is how ‘La Masia’ has shaped their camaraderie. More than their tactics, their coach, the philosophy of La Masia and ‘Tiki-Taka’, it is the players themselves who have made this success possible, through their camaraderie and telepathic understanding of each other. In a world where egos are higher than Mt. Everest, they have done remarkably well to not to snipe at each other.
Xavi was there five years ago also. So were Valdes, Puyol and Iniesta. Yet, Barca were never this dominant in football despite their academy, despite their philosophy. They are dominant today because they have the ‘tools’ to do it, and those ‘tools’ are in perfect harmony with each other. Like the cogs of a Swiss watch, every part is perfect and necessary; no tick is wasted, and no extra part is used, resulting in perfect synchronisation and perfect motion. To put it in a way, they go “tiki-taka, tiki-taka, tiki-taka, tiki-taka” till the opponents go crazy.
To witness so many talented players in a single generation, all of them having tremendous respect for each other, is extremely rare. For 30 years ‘La Masia’ couldn’t do it. Real Madrid has not been able to do it after ‘Quienta Del Butre’.
Someday, this bunch will have an uphill climb that will seemingly never end. That’s the day when the masks will slip and the knives will be out. But until that day, let us enjoy this beautiful symphony they create in every match, and applaud them while we still can. Let’s just admire the beautiful choreography and the fantastic skills, which thugs like De-Jong, Van Bommel and other physical ‘EPLites’ can only watch with envy. Because, we might never get to see such talented individuals again for several decades.