If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Barcelona is the most flattered of all footballing endeavors.
Throughout the last four seasons of unwithering supremacy, these darlings of the soccer world have spawned the dominant ideology of our day, with their tippy-tappy passing, unrelenting runs, nifty diagonal through balls and devotion to possession. There no longer exists any question about which paradigm is the game’s best. The term “Barcelona” – for it is an idea as much as a team – is dropped again and again, by even the stodgiest and defensive of soccer minds.
Along the way, Barca has been cooed over and studied and dissected. Consequently, Barcelona and its beloved method hold no more secrets. Every minute detail of the system has been laid bare under a microscope and broadcasted to be devoured by its devotees.
While this has been a boon to the rest of the soccer world, allowing it to imitate better, it is perhaps starting to catch up to the authors of the movement itself. All innovators are eventually overtaken and left behind by those who run with their ideas and expand on and improve them. Or, through an endless process of trial and error, an antidote is found.
It seems that the latter is happening to Barcelona.
The obsession over Barcelona has meant that the margin of error offered by the superiority of its system has disintegrated; its natural lead over the pack undone by its popularity. Barcelona no longer automatically wins even on the days when its form is pedestrian like it did in the past. Knowledge of what Barcelona does and how it does it are readily available. Remedies to combat them are proliferating after years of experimenting, in which a catalogue of which ploys work and which don’t was created. Any coach now facing the Catalan super midgets has but to consult the world’s most public and exhaustive scouting report for the right solution to the problems they pose.
If other clubs haven’t by any means caught up – nobody is yet capable of regularly beating Barca in an open game of soccer – they’ve figured out how to compete with them without playing with them.
In the first leg of the Champions League semifinals last Wednesday, Chelsea cluttered the center of the park, ceding the wings, and sat deep, allowing Barca time on the ball up to 30 yards from the goal but quickly closed down once that threshold was crossed and took away the through ball by cutting off runs. It then pounced on Barca’s lone mistake, when center backs Javier Mascherano and Carles Puyol miscommunicated over who would be tracking the stalking Didier Drogba and who would back up Xavi on Ramires’s breakthrough run. Both made for Ramires, who found a wide-open Drogba to register the game’s only goal.
During the Clasico on Saturday, Real Madrid did much the same thing, sitting in and venturing out on quick, concerted counter attacks or capitalizing on mistakes. That’s how Sami Khedira wrestled the ball off Puyol on the Barca goal line in the 17th minute and scored, and how Cristiano Ronaldo ran away from Mascherano in the 73rd, to simply circumvent Victor Valdes and make it 2-1, the final score.
It takes a world-class team to do it, but Barca is more beatable than it has been in years. Bunker in smartly, following a strict playbook and wait for Barcelona to commit a mistake in the back. Because for all the grandeur of its attack, there’s always a mistake in the back. Certainly, Barca was wasteful during the above games. But when it creates fewer chances than it used to, when opponents better appreciate what it takes to minimize the effect of their free-flowing offense, it can no longer afford the waste it once could. And when the chances become scarce, the mistakes matter more.
A blueprint for beating Barca has been established, it’s worked twice in four days, once an unfathomable success rate.
So what to do?
When the secret ingredients of your invention are exposed and your advantage is gone, it’s time to innovate some more. If Barca is to stay ahead of the game, it will need to evolve further or risk getting yanked back down to earth with the rest of the soccer mortals.