End of year reviews are a well established format in all sorts of journalism. They’re not intended to be hard hitting, but usually provoke a little debate. For example, a music review of albums of the year generally results in a load of musos entering a below the line Battle Royale (Exhibit A) . That’s what they’re intended to do, and I admit I’ve been part of that ‘OMG can’t believe you didn’t include X’ behaviour, but Jonathan Wilson’s tactical review for the Guardian wouldn’t normally register with me, as I consider myself to be a tactical agnostic. It would appear that I was wrong, because there’s only so many times I can read about Barcelona’s greatness before I start wanting to “knock them off their fucking perch” (copyright, Sir Alex).
Barcelona are a phenomenal team – no one’s going to make a convincing case otherwise. They’ve written a new chapter in the history of football, and will be regarded as one of the all time great sides. This success will create a generation of admirers and imitators. But, to argue, as Wilson did, that “the Barcelona style still dominates” across Europe, is huge a exaggeration.
He cites two nations – England and Germany – as his supporting evidence, arguing that the top two in each of their respective leagues are focused on passing and possession. But, all the best teams in Europe are pretty useful at knocking it about, and as good as they are, I don’t think we can credit Barcelona with inventing the pass.
Yes, I’m exaggerating, but the piece mentioned four teams – United, City, Bayern and Dortmund– as examples of the trend. Now, it may be true that I don’t really do tactics, but to my layman’s eye, those teams all look different, and none of them look like Barcelona. Of course they don’t, because Barcelona are a one off. The closest is probably Dortmund, and their manager began his career at Mainz in 2001; it’s not like he just got into football in the past five years.
If the ‘we’re all versions of Barcelona now’ narrative irritates me, the straw that broke the camel’s bake is when Wilson refers to Britain as being used to “long-ball thumping”. You push me too far, Wilson! You Push me too far! I get what he’s doing, he’s trying to provide context for the passing revolution that’s taking place – even the primitive English now enjoy a bit of possession football. Yeah, yeah. But, I have to wonder what he’s been watching for the past decade.
Nothing gets the football intellects seething like a lazy assertion from Robbie Savage that the Premier League is the ‘best in the world’. But, isn’t it just a lazy to deride the English game for no reason? To put it another way, there have been eight English Champions League finalists during the past ten years, representing four different clubs, resulting in three different English winners. In the same period, Germany has two finalists, no wins; Italy has had five finalists, and three winners; and Spain has had three finalists, three winners – all Barcelona, of course.
You can argue about the deficiencies in the England national team, but that record doesn’t look too shabby. English clubs can’t be that shit. Long-ball thumping hasn’t been a mainstream fashion here since the 1980s. The most successful Premier League club, Manchester United, has been winning things for two decades, and in none of those has their default tactic been lumping it forward to the big man. Passing the ball well is not new.
To conclude, Barcelona’s style is yet to be properly imitated, and probably never will be, unless Pep Guardiola is given a ten year contract, complete control of footballing matters, and guaranteed protection from the sack, which is all very unlikely. More likely is that this Barcelona team will be imitated by another generation of Barcelona players.
Wilson knows far more about this stuff than I do, and I guess he wasn’t intending to be taken so literally. Well, as I said at the start, maybe I’m a little touchy because I’ve read about their ability to keep the ball and play without a centre forward once too many this year (the decline of the striker – another thing I disagree with… I’ll leave it). Maybe, it’s also because I have a Harry Redknapp level of tactical awareness. Or maybe, I’m right – even if only a wee bit. I’m going with the last one.