Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Lay Back, Enjoy the Show

It's been a while since I covered the Catalan Futbol collective (and not the one with six fans that just moved into a new stadium). Showing no signs of a slump coming off of their treble-winning campaign, Barca have gotten off to a flying start. They have won their first four games in La Liga, scoring 14 goals and conceding three. They also made a visit to the San Siro to watch the three-time defending Serie A champs park the bus in front of their own goal and slink out of their own stadium with a 0-0 draw. Maybe Jose Mourinho learned a lesson from...Chelsea? The team has not skipped a beat, even with Andres Iniesta out of the lineup for the first month.

The big talking point from the summer was Barca sending Samuel Eto'o and 40M Euros to Inter for Zlatan Ibrahimovic (hereinafter, "Ibra"). Just about every analyst I've read or heard has questioned the sanity of this move. Why tinker with a winning team? Why get rid of a player who scored bushels of goals for you, including Barca's opener in two separate Champions League Finals? If you're getting rid of Eto'o because he's moody and doesn't play well with others, why bring in another player with a surly reputation who also happens to be noted for not scoring big goals in Champions League matches? While I'll concede that the price tag was steep (Eto'o and 20M Euros for Ibra would have been better), the deal makes sense to me for a number of reasons:

1. Eto'o was in the last year of his contract and wanted a king's ransom in wages over an extended period of time. Barca had to get rid of him now or they were going to lose him and get nothing in return. Kudos to Eto'o for driving a hard bargain, but Barca didn't want to make a five-year commitment to pay for a moody guy's decline phase at rates that would have made him one of the highest-paid players in the world. (Ibra, by the way, took a pay cut to come to the Camp Nou.)

2. Ibra can score with his head, which: (a) is an important countermeasure against teams that mimic the Chelsea approach of packing men behind the ball and clogging lanes through the middle (Eto'o was almost invisible over 180 minutes against Chelsea; he only shows up on Iniesta's winner because he flubbed the ball to Essien who flubbed it to Messi who found Iniesta); and (b) makes Alves and Xavi more valuable because their perfect crosses now have a better target. Barca won't be quite as good at Plan A, but they'll have more of a Plan B.

3. Barca struggled last year when Leo Messi was out of the lineup. If Messi gets hurt, Ibra can create for himself, whereas Eto'o couldn't. Again, there will be a Plan B. Few will dispute that Ibra has an outrageous set of skills to score and set up great goals by himself. Part of why the big game bottler reputation is so unfair is that Ibra has spent the past several seasons at Inter where he was relied upon to create offense by himself. That worked against lesser foes, but top opponents in Europe could crowd Ibra out and benefit from the fact that Inter did not have a real playmaker in the middle of the park. (Inter solved this problem in August by bringing in Wesley Sneijder, which makes the Nerazzuri a more interesting team this year. If only they were coached by someone with a bit more flair.) Needless to say, Barca have plenty of midfielders to set Ibra up, so he'll get chances in the Champions League that he never had before.

If you want a good illustration of what Ibra brings to the table, watch the first and third goals from Barca's demolition of Racing Santander on Tuesday:

Ibra opens the scoring with a header (over Henrique, a player owned by Barca and loaned to Racing) and assists on the third with a ludicrous backheel to an unmarked Gerard Pique. These are goals that Eto'o would struggle to score. Samuel was a great finisher and he worked well in the Barca system, but Ibra is a step up. Maybe not a 40M Euro step up, but a step up nonetheless.

The opener that Ibra scored over the weekend in the 5-2 win over Atletico Madrid was more of an Eto'o goal:

4. After Barca hit the skids in 2006-7 and 2007-8, Johan Cruyff opined that the Blaugrana should have made significant changes after winning the 2006 Champions League because teams can only play together for so long, after which time they need freshening to avoid complacency. Cruyff is never wrong. Pep Guardiola is a Cruyff disciple. He's following the playbook of a master.

The one other factor that should be keeping Barca from complacency is the project going on at Real Madrid, otherwise known as Florentino Perez assembling an army of mercenaries to put Franco's beloved Merengues back on top of Europe. I was hoping for the Real project to fall flat, but the Madridistas have hit the ground running, also winning their first four games in La Liga. With the rest of the league in varying stages of down because of the Spanish recession and various management issues (I'm looking at the Mestalla and the Calderon here), Real and Barca are going to put on a two-team race for the ages.

1 comment:

Jeffrey King said...

Fantastic blog. Almost makes me wish I cared about ATL sports, though Matt Ryan has made me a fan. I will keep checking in for futbol related material. Ibra may be every bit the sniper Eto'o is and he clearly is more creative ('ludicrous backheel'). I think Barcelona has an even better Plan A to go along with the improved Plan B.