Monday, May 24, 2010

Messi, Zlatan, Xavi and all that...

Considering all this free time I have on my hands, I thought it would be somewhat amiss for me not to write a review/ assessment of the team this season. So here it is.

Given they won everything bar the Super Bowl and the Stanley Cup last season, it was always going to be difficult for Barcelona to hit the same heights this time out. Though the only real change to the squad was exchanging Samuel Eto’o for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the team evolved quite a bit from the all conquering model of 2008/2009.

Golkeeping and defense

Victor Valdes had his finest season in a blaugrana jersey and was easily the best golkeeper in Spain. Upping his concentration levels, cutting out silly mistakes, improving his distribution (no more kick outs going straight to David Villa) and pulling off phenomenal saves (this one against Mallorca is some Matrix shit), he has rightly made the World Cup squad (though his chances of getting a run out are slim to none), he backstopped a defense that conceded just twenty-four gols in La Liga and took the Zamora trophy for a third time.

In front of Valdes, Gerard Pique and Ironman Carles Puyol were again outstanding and Maxwell really impressed at left back, benching the calamity-prone Eric Abidal (who, to be fair, had an excellent start to the season). His passing and incisive attacking play complemented the always brilliant Dani Alves on the right.

The middle

In midfield the dynamic shifted quite a bit with Sergio Busquets being preferred to Yaya Toure and Seydou Keita seeing a lot more playing time given Iniesta’s struggle with injuries. I’m no fan of Busquets, his constant diving around and his fondness for needlessly getting ‘involved’, coupled with a propensity to misplace passes, I think Toure is a much better player ( would argue otherwise). Furthermore, Toure gives the team much more drive in midfield, he’s big and powerful and advances with the ball much more than Busquets (Messi’s first goal against Valladolid being a perfect example of this).

Xavi, rather incredibly, continues to improve. His range of passing, his ability to dictate the pace of a game with almost all of Barcelona’s play flowing through him is astounding. Messi has rightly attracted plaudits for his performances this season (his all round play in addition to his record-equaling 47 gols has been exceptional) but Xavi has been Barça’s stand out player. The team just doesn’t function the same way without him.

In contrast to Xavi’s growing dominance, Andreas Iniesta hasn’t really made an impact, having a very stop-start season on the back of a lot of injuries. Given the overall strength of the team, his absence wasn’t too keenly felt, though something like this was very much lacking from the second leg against Inter, I don’t recall a single shot from distance in that game bar Bojan’s disallowed gol (more of the Inter game later)


Up front was where the team changed almost completely. With Sammy gone to play right back for Inter and Titi Henry going into semi-retirement, there were two slots to fill alongside Leo Messi. One round hole would have the square peg that is Zlatan hammered into it. The other was filled by Pedro, who’s really stepped up, pushing Bojan out for most the season (Bojan, made of sterner stuff than one might think, had a barn-storming end to the season and starting most of the games going down the stretch ahead of Zlatan)

Ah Zlatan, a more polarising force one could not find. I think he did pretty well in his first season. He’s not Sammy and was never going to be part of a fluid front three in the same way. He scored 21 gols, including two against Arsenal, crucial gols away at Stuttgart and Mallorca and of course, rifling one past Casillas in the clasico. That said, he did play with all the effectiveness of a wardrobe or a dining room table between Christmas and mid-March and frequently looked out of sync with the rest of the team. The problem is, I think anyway, was that while he was brought in to give Barça a different way of playing, another option, they never ever used it. There were never balls over the top for him to run onto, early crosses for him to head down and there were never going to be, the team can’t just change it’s style of play like that. And moreover, they didn’t have to. Bar the Inter game, they haven’t had to come back or try something different. They lost one league game all season, 2-1 away to Atletico, four games in all, with only two being of any consequence, the Copa del Rey tie against Sevilla and the 3-1 disaster in Milan.

Where he fits in now with the signing of David Villa I really don’t know. Despite the ‘7’ on his shirt, Villa is a number 9 and it seems unlikely that they can both play together. I’m hoping this doesn’t result in another Henry - ’dinho - Eto’o - Messi type problem where the club just had too many players for the same positions. I wouldn’t like to see him sold, especially as it would likely be at a huge loss but it may come to that. He’s surely 4th in the queue behind Messi, Villa and Pedro.

And so to Leo, destroyer of worlds, slayer of demons and scorer a ridiculous forty-seven gols. Playing in any of the three forward positions and even as an attacking midfielder, there are scarcely words to describe his performances this season. Hat-tricks against Tenerife, Valencia, Saragossa and four against Arsenal, where does one begin? I am consistently impressed by Messi’s un-showy brilliance, he’s the very antithesis of the whinging, pouting CR9. His gol against Real was Leo in microcosm. Cleared out of it by Sergio Ramos, he got up, received the free kick himself from Maxwell, played a one-two with Xavi and scored. All very matter-of-factly and amazing just the same. I’m pretty much in love with Leo, Antonella Roccuzzo move over.

Taking this season as a whole, Barça have been otherworldly at times but were pushed all the way to the final day of the season by a rather pedestrian Real Madrid side who ground out results rather than blew teams away. Up until Madrid gave up playing against Malaga and settled for a draw there was just one point in it. I think it’ll be just as tight again next time out, especially with Jose Mourinho in charge at Madrid. The loss to Inter in the Champions League was disappointing but more for the flat performance in Milan than the inability to put more than one past them at the Camp Nou.

I’ll post something at the end of the week about David Villa, the upcoming presidential elections and the Fabregas situation. All that remains is...

Team of the season (4-3-3)

Victor Valdes (Barcelona)

Dani Alves

Gerard Pique

Carles Puyol (all Barcelona)

Filipe (Deportivo la Coruna)

Xavi (Barcelona)

Banega (Valencia)

Javi Martinez (Athletic Bilbao)

Messi (Barcelona)

Ronaldo (Real Madrid)

Navas (Sevilla)

Player of the season: Xavi (Barcelona)

Coach of the season: Gregorio Manzano (Real Mallorca)

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