Zlatan Ibrahimovic really, really wanted to irritate Pep Guardiola and he could think of no better way than this. It was time to make a statement; time to do the most “un-Barcelona” thing he could think of, something symbolic from which there would be no way back. So he did.
“I jumped in my Enzo [Ferrari], put my foot down on the gas and parked up right in front of the door of the training facility,” he recalled in his autobiography. It was some statement, alright: I am Zlatan… and I am not you.
Zlatan had remembered how Guardiola had told him soon after he arrived that at Barcelona, “we keep our feet on the ground… we don’t turn up at training in Ferraris or Porsches.” When it started to feel like he didn’t have a place in the team, he recalled how a friend told him that it was like Barcelona had bought a Ferrari only to drive it like a Fiat. All of which says something about Zlatan’s obsession with fast cars but it said something about Pep Guardiola, too, and about the club, the identity it was constructing, one some claimed it had always had.
A Ferrari? That’s not them; it wasn’t something they aspired to be nor a comparison to embrace. Yet, here’s the thing: on Wednesday night, the Catalan newspaper Sport drew this exact parallel, helped by the city in which they found themselves and the music blaring from the speakers in the stadium. After Manchester City defeated Barcelona 3-1, their match report recalled how Liam Gallagher claimed that Oasis were “like a Ferrari: Great to look at. Great to drive. And it’ll f—— spin out of control every now and again.”
“That’s Barcelona right now,” it concluded.
That too is quite a statement, especially in Catalonia. A step too far, perhaps. Probably, in fact. Just as it feels over the top to suggest that Barcelona are a team losing their religion… or perhaps one that has already lost it. Not least because for all that Zlatan dismissed Guardiola a “philosopher” and others deified him as one, and as much as some likened them to a footballing sect, they were never quite as puritanical as it appeared to some. And nor have they turned full infidel now; this is still the team that on Tuesday night had almost 70 percent of the ball at the Etihad.
And yet Barcelona as the car that represented — in Zlatan’s view at least, in Pep’s too — everything they were not? The car that they did not want to be. Let’s not get carried away, as tends to be the way at the Camp Nou, but maybe there is something in that. Something small, perhaps, but something. A shift, a change. Read that line again: it’s not, Sport suggested, that they lost control against City; it’s that they do so every now and again.
After all, they have spun out of control a few times lately. Beaten by Alavés and Celta, beaten by Man City. It could be costly. They are two points behind Madrid and this weekend they travel to the Sánchez Pizjuán to face Sevilla, as difficult a trip as there is. Accidents will happen — 12 of the 16 goals they have let in this season came directly from errors, El Mundo Deportivo calculated — and it can all happen so fast. Against City, they conceded twice in 11 minutes; against Celta they conceded three in 11 minutes and against Valencia, they let in two in four minutes. It took an epic comeback and a last-minute winner to collect all three points from Mestalla.
Accidents will happen, sure. The question is: are Barcelona inviting them?
That game at Mestalla revealed the risk and it was not the only time. Guardiola’s vision of perfection was 100 percent possession; as much to control games as get goals. And control has slipped from their hands lately — if “lately” is the word, and some do wonder. Could this be more systemic? Once might be an accident; twice is careless; is three times something else? In AS, Santi Giménez lamented a “dangerous habit.” “This was no one-off,” his colleague Moi Llorens wrote.
On one level, it is no cause for alarm. Barcelona’s start is not so different to last season’s and they won the league. Had they got a second goal in Manchester, and they should have done, pretty much no one would be having this conversation.
Equally, without the injured Andres Iniesta, of course control evades them. Barcelona’s three losses have all come without him. Without Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique, it is harder to bring the ball out from the back. Forget defending; maybe this way people will appreciate Pique’s fundamental importance to the way they play. And of course things would be different if Sergio Busquets’ form had not dropped so badly. “I need to work hard to get back to where I was,” he said.
All that is true, of course. But Busquets is a barometer; his form is a consequence of the way Barcelona have lost control, not just a cause. Collectively, this is not quite functioning as it should. Stats show that more of Busquets’ passes are going backwards to the defenders rather than forward to the inside midfielders than ever before: passing lines are not being opened up as they were. It is not just that Barcelona miss Iniesta or that he is an exceptional player; it is the kind of exceptional player he is. Their other midfielders are just not the same.
In part, Barcelona’s shift is a consequence of the dominance of the front three — players who, as Xavi Hernández once put it, “condition your play completely.” Three players who, as most agreed, made them less predictable; stronger, too, as devastating on the counter as they were in possession. Some sneered that Barcelona had embraced the counter-attack having previously looked down their nose at it. That was not entirely true: it’s not like Guardiola’s team never countered; it’s not like Luis Enrique’s team don’t seek control, as he keeps insisting; and it’s not like debate went away completely.
But the first time this debate about style, philosophy — identity, even — emerged under Luis Enrique, Barcelona went on to win the treble. It was a fun ride, too: great to look at, great to drive.
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