November 4, 2011

Zlatan's Back...

... and whinier than ever.

So, Ibrahimovic wrote a book in which he cries about how mean Mr. Pep bullied his existence and shattered his dreams. Because, you know, we can’t expect him to be over it over a year later. Well I’m here to pick his whining apart quote by quote… starting from where he begins by pointing fingers at Messi (oh, this is going to be fun):

"Playing at Barca was a childhood dream and I was walking on air. It started well but then Messi started to talk.”

"He wanted to play in the middle, not on the wing, so the system changed from 4-3-3 to 4-5-1. I was sacrificed and no longer had the freedom on the pitch I need to succeed.”

"So I asked for a meeting with Guardiola - for a discussion, not an argument. I said I was being used in the wrong way and that they shouldn’t have bought me if they wanted another type of player.

"I told him what a friend had said to me - you bought a Ferrari but drive it like a Fiat.”

First of all, this shows just how stubborn and close-minded Ibra is as a player and a person. Like, playing in the center is the only thing he can ever possibly do and he’s completely unwilling to try at another position. He says playing at Barcelona was his ‘childhood dream’ yet he seems to have come to this club without knowing a single thing about it. Without knowing that at Barca, Pep shuffles players around like a deck of cards and on any given day, a fullback might be winger and a winger might be striker and a midfielder might be a centerback or a fullback or a forward. Without knowing that at Barca, they play a very specific style that most of the team has grown up with and if you’re a newcomer you’re going to have to work incredibly hard to adapt. Without knowing that at Barca, neither he nor any other player on earth will ever come before Messi.

Now, I fully agree that the club should never have signed him because he was never going to fit in. But for someone who proclaims that this was a childhood dream of his, he sure didn’t make much of an effort to try to fit in. It’s like he stopped trying at all the minute he was told he can’t play in the center. Well, I have two words for you, Zlatan:


For heaven’s sake Villa played as a striker his entire life, for club and country, before he joined Barca. At age twenty-eight. Then our club told him he’d have to become a winger because Messi was playing in the center. What Villa understood that Ibra could not is that if the optimal spot for Messi is playing in the center, then Messi is going to play in the center. If he wanted to be part of Barca he would have to adapt to the wing.

Our apologies, Ibra, if you are unable to perform unless you are the uncontested star of the team. You didn’t seriously think anyone was going to put you before Messi, did you?

Villa worked his ass off to adapt to a new position in a new style at a new club. There he was, box-fresh Euro and World Cup champion and top-scorer of both those competitions, re-learning the fundamentals of football the Barca way. He’s explained several times how he had to start again from the basics, and how he took Pedro as a reference and learned from him – Pedro, the kid just plucked from the B-team. THIS is someone who wants to be at the club. Your childhood dream, Ibra? Really? REALLY?

Even Cristiano Ronaldo, arrogant prick that he is, when asked if he was happy with the way Real Madrid were playing after they went down 2-0 to Barcelona in the Champions League last season, replied: "No, I don't like it but I have to adapt to what is asked of me." And Mourinho, Ibra’s precious Mourinho, dropped Cris from Real Madrid’s following Liga fixture just for saying that.

Yet it's completely outrageous for Ibra to be asked to adapt to something new...

Moving on now to the rest of his wails.

“I would walk into a room; Guardiola would leave. He would greet everyone by saying hello, but would ignore me.”

“The atmosphere in the dressing room was way too quiet for me. Messi, Iniesta and Xavi always obeyed without protesting. They were like schoolboys. I'm not like that and I couldn't be myself. I had done a lot to adapt - the Barca players were like schoolboys, following the coach blindly, whereas I was used to asking 'why?' I like guys who run red lights, not pedantic and strict rules. So I tried to be overly nice, didn’t dare lose my temper."

Players listening to their coach, imagine that! No Ibra, you’re perfectly right, they should’ve all staged a walkout and picketed the Camp Nou parking lot in protest against… what exactly?

This is your coach. He makes the decisions. Not you. And I would think, judging by the unprecedented treble he’d led the team to just before you came along, that he kind of knows what he’s doing. The team trusts him.

Yesterday some quotes came out from Messi in regards to Ibra's complaints, namely: “We have no idea what he is talking about. There was & still is an excellent atmosphere in the dressing room.”

And this is something that the Barca players are endlessly reiterating. All of them, the ones who have been here since they were kids and the ones who joined later on, cannot seem to stress enough how amazing the team’s atmosphere is and how much they are like a family. So is the problem with the entire team then, or with this one moron and his inflated head?

Also, I love the part where he says he loves guys who run red lights and not strict rules. Again I have to go back to the part where I say that for someone who says playing at Barcelona is his ‘childhood dream’, he really seems to have come to the club without knowing a single thing about it. Without knowing that Barca – Pep’s Barca – is all about discipline. Everyone knows that when Pep took over the reins from Rijkaard, some of the main changes he implemented and what set him apart from Rijkaard right away were his disciplinary actions. Let me just copy/paste some of the policies Pep introduced from an article I wrote back in 2008:

- The return of monetary fines to keep players from arriving late and skipping trainings, something that was going on overlooked under Rijkaard.

- Obligatory team meals and the like, to create a spirit of unity between the players and really bring them together as a team, as well as to monitor the players’ diets and keep them in shape.

- Longer training sessions with more physicality to keep the players in shape and well trained for each match, after Rijkaard’s preference of short trainings without much physicality.

- The introduction of video review sessions of the trainings with the team to analyze strong points, weak points, see what needs improvement and work on that.

Then there was the way Pep had the club sell players like Ronaldinho and Deco who had become regular slackers; Eto’o, with his attitude issues, was lucky to stay for one season under him. With Pep it’s a matter of zero tolerance – either you’re disciplined and committed or you’re gone. He shouldn’t have to waste his time trying to get through to players who aren’t willing to work, because there are plenty of others who are more than willing. If Ibra wanted a club that didn’t have strict rules then Barca was the very last one he should have considered.

And the whining continues…

"But after this I stopped trying to adapt. For example, at Barca players were banned from driving their sports cars to training. I thought this was ridiculous - it was no one’s business what car I drive - so in April, before a match with Almeria, I drove my Ferrari Enzo to work. It caused a scene."

Now he is unable to follow a simple rule. Really, this is the last club he should have even thought to consider... and Barca was his childhood dream?

After Barca got knocked out of the Champions League by the then Mourinho-coached Inter Milan, over two legs in which Ibra was absolute crap (possibly on purpose, seeing as he adores Mourinho to death and he had, as he himself proclaims, stopped trying to adapt at that point and obviously had no more consideration for the club), Pep dropped him from the starting lineup and started Bojan in the Liga fixture against Villareal. Bojan scored and Barca won 4-1; Ibra only got five minutes at the end. He felt offended and went to yell at Pep over the matter:

“Pep was staring at me and I lost it. I thought, ‘there is my enemy, scratching his bald head’. I yelled to him: ‘You have no balls!’ And probably worse things than that. I added: 'You are s****ing yourself because of Mourinho! You can go to hell!’ I was completely mad.”

Lol. Okay, if he thinks Pep ‘fears’ Mourinho or whatever he is seriously delusional. I’m not going to get into Pep vs Mou issues now, I already wrote that article – and anyway, the behavior of both coaches speaks for itself. Also, I love that he told Pep he didn’t have any balls after Pep had tossed him to the bench. He had the balls to bench you, didn’t he? Not that anything Ibra says really makes much sense.

All this shows – all any of Ibra’s rants really show – is that he is not one bit a professional. He’s a petulant baby who wants everyone to do things his way and his way only, and if that doesn’t happen then he has a hissy-fit and starts calling people names. It’s a wonder he didn’t start throwing things as well…

Oh wait, he did.

"I threw a box full of training gear across the room, it crashed to the floor and Pep said nothing, just put stuff back in the box.”

So Ibra was losing his mind and Pep just kept calm and cleaned up his mess. I love it. That, Ibra, is called being a professional.

“I’m not violent, but if I were Guardiola I would have been frightened."

Frightened of an overgrown baby. Riiiiiight.

When Ibra left the club at the end of the summer in 2010, he whined about how Pep had been ignoring him and hadn’t talked to him in months. No really, was he expecting Pep to ask him out to tea after that incident?

Ibra: It’s been over a year. You are a grown man. You don’t even have a point. Freaking get over it already.

July 31, 2011

Cesc Fabregas, That's Who

Every time Thiago scores, Barca fans start to crow “Cesc who, Cesc who!” I don’t quite see the relevance, because it’s news to me that we’re interested in Cesc as a goal scorer. 

Thiago is a phenomenal player and he’s been having an incredible preseason, relentlessly netting goal after breathtaking goal, and to have a midfielder dominating the team’s scoring is something relatively new to Barca. For years now it’s been the forwards getting the job done with the likes of Xavi and Iniesta getting their names on the score sheet only occasionally. I think that’s part of what makes the prospect of Thiago so exciting for Barca – he’s bringing something new to the team; but in light of this something new, I think people are forgetting the importance of the something old. 

Thiago has scored four goals in four preseason friendlies for Barca. Apart from that, the only other goal the team has seen was an odd one from Jonathan Dos Santos. Nothing from any of Barca’s forwards – Villa, Pedro, Afellay, Carmona, Soriano before he got injured – it’s just been the Thiago show. Now picture those four matches if Xavi is on the pitch instead of Thiago. Those goals don’t get scored by Xavi but they do get scored by Barca’s forwards, because Xavi is doing what we count on him to do: playing up the passing game, distributing the ball, feeding killer assists to his teammates.

If these four preseason matches are anything to go by, more than anything Thiago reminds me of Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiano is a midfielder that is an undisputed goal scoring machine; he has an incredible eye for the net and possesses that astonishing ability to conjure up goals from the midfield – unlike the forward that is waiting on the pass from the midfielder so he can score, he has the creativity to score independently. I see all this in Thiago. Another notable thing about Cristiano is his low assist count – he’s more focused on getting the ball to the net than to his teammates. That’s just the kind of player he is. 

In this preseason so far, Thiago’s goal to match ratio stands at four to four, but Barca’s win to match ratio stands at one to four. One win out of four matches in which it’s largely just been the Thiago show. I don’t mean to say that Thiago is a selfish player or that he’s bad for the team – not at all; I’m convinced he’ll make the most incredible addition. Wthout a goal-scoring threat in midfield Barca has already been virtually unstoppable; it’s almost scary to imagine what they’ll be like now with Thiago in the mix. 

And that’s my whole point, that Thiago is something new and exciting to be integrated into what we already have, and it’s what we already have that we have to watch out for. By that I mean Xavi – Xavi the playmaker, Xavi the assist master, Xavi the midfield maestro. 

Many people like to argue that Messi would not score so much if he didn’t have Xavi and Iniesta feeding him the ball. With his national team, Messi hasn’t scored in ages because Argentina’s midfield is beyond dysfunctional; he’s had to be playmaker himself instead of looking for the net. Barca’s game stems from the midfield and Xavi has been nothing short of downright crucial. 

Xavi is also not as young as he once was. Last season he had to miss out on a considerable number of matches due to tendonitis, and this is something that’ll only worsen as he gets older. He hasn’t played a single match since the Champions League final, opting out of international call-ups to get some rest and he’s been resting for two months, yet here we are, four matches into the preseason and he’s still not able to play. In case you haven’t already grasped it, this is a huge cause for worry. Xavi is not going to be able to play as much as before and Barca is going to suffer for it, unless we have someone to replace him. And Cesc is the answer. I guess Xavi knows this, and this is why he’s continually pressing for Cesc to come to Barca, more than all the rest of the Barca players; to an extent where a lot of people are deeming it disrespectful of him. Xavi’s not a disrespectful guy, he just knows what the team needs and is looking out for Barca. 

The sad thing about Cesc is that because he’s been injured so much (and considerable fault lies on the incompetence of Arsenal’s medical staff for this, at Barca he would not have as much trouble) people tend to forget what an incredible player he actually is – he really is one of the most exceptional midfielders you will find. I won’t go as far as to say a full mix between Cristiano and Xavi, but something along those lines: When fit, he scores his fair share of goals – not as frequently as the likes of Cristiano but a lot more often than Xavi or Iniesta – and more importantly, he’s also assist master extraordinaire. Cesc Fabregas, despite spending almost all of last season sidelined with injury, has more assists than any player – Xavi included – in the top European leagues over the past three years. Let me say that again: more assists than anyone, and that’s counting an entire season in which he barely played. Which is to say – amazing.

There’s a reason that Pep makes Cesc’s signing a priority, and there’s a reason that as Xavi’s fitness declines, he relentlessly pushes for this transfer to happen. And who knows better than the midfield maestro himself and Barca’s genius of a coach? The next time Thiago scores a goal, we might not want to be so quick to cry out “Cesc who?” – maybe instead we should dig out the old favorite we’ve been crowing for three years now, “In Pep we trust.”

June 20, 2011

Summer Transfer Thoughts

I thought this was needed, after the endless debates over twitter and repeating the same stuff over and over. This will mostly collect and expand on transfer-related things I have already tweeted; but of course not everyone will have seen it all twitter and this way it’s easier. It turned out quite long, but it’s very relevant and I hope you’ll all read and enjoy. Alright, here we go!

First, let’s talk about the squad in general and what areas need to be strengthened. Now, with the squad the way it is we’ve had an incredibly successful season, winning the Liga and Champions League despite having to deal with a lot of drama and injury issues along the way, and this same squad, as it is, has the capacity to be fine next season without any drastic changes. That said, it will be for the better to have a little more depth in the squad, more options for backup/rotation, especially, as many like to insist, because we have six competitions next season. 

But let’s pause to take apart this six competition claim. We have the Liga, Copa Del Rey and Champions League of course, then there are the follow-up Cups as a result of winning the Liga & CL last season: The Spanish Supercup, Uefa Supercup and Club World Cup. Now, I know we like to dramatize things a lot here at Barca, but honestly, I would hardly call the Supercups ‘competitions’. At least none that warrant a dire need to add depth to the squad. The Uefa Supercup is one match, the Spanish Supercup is two; and granted, the latter becomes more heated because our rivals are Real Madrid, but it remains, in essence, two legs played prior to the start of the season, more a part of the preseason than anything else. The only one that should really have us ‘worried’ is the Club World Cup, because it’s an actual tournament that will disrupt the normal season, not to mention the traveling involved – it’s all the way in Japan.

So let’s not get all in over our heads with claims like “we’ll never make it if we don’t sign Sanchez, six freaking competitions!” Cool it. The squad isn’t that shallow. 

But I’m getting to Sanchez. Going back to the squad in general… let’s start from the start. Goalkeepers? Not an issue. Victor Valdes is the most incredible keeper we could ever hope for, grade A, first class, yada yada, I don’t even have to tell you how brilliant he is. I think most of us are more than satisfied with Pinto as second keeper as well. Nothing to see here, moving on. 

Defense. Ah, the defense. I think we can agree that defense was Barca’s weakest point last season, what with all the injuries. We missed Puyol far too much because of his knee problems and felt his absence greatly. The fact that Barca lost only five matches all seasons all of which were matches that our Captain missed, speaks volumes. It’s not the same without him there to marshal the defense, and even Pique, wondrous centerback as he is, seemed lost at times without Puyol at his side. 

Akin to the extent that we missed Puyol is how much we missed Abidal. His diagnosis alone was a huge blow to the team and fans alike; in the wake of dealing with the threat of cancer, I know all that was on my mind was wanting him to come out of it alright. But I think all of us – team and fans alike – found strength in Abidal’s strength, and the season pauses for no one so it was time to think about replacing Abi on the pitch. 

That wasn’t easy either. Abidal has been an enormous player for this team, incredibly solid defensively and above all, at a consistent level. He was our irreplaceable leftback, satisfactory substitute centerback, indispensable part of the defense.

So how do you replace that? How do you deal with two enormous blows, in his absence and Puyol’s, at the same time? And it wasn’t long before Adriano – having stepped up to the plate and shown his worth as another fantastic asset to the team – joined them on the injured list. 

There was no simple answer; we went through the season as well as we could with a patchwork defense, one that called for fielding Maxwell and Milito, who I can not but describe as shaky and undependable, as well as utilizing Busquets and Mascherano in defense instead of midfield, in addition to the emergency promotion of Fontas from the B-team. All in all, not really the ideal defense.

And yet the club announced that they’re not looking to sign a defender this summer. Consequently, everyone called them crazy. But I for one can understand why the club/Pep would take this stance. I’ll tell you why; but before I can do that I have to talk about the midfield. 

There’s no arguing the fact that Barca’s game stems from it’s midfield. Possess the ball, distribute the ball, win back the ball; have as much control of the ball as possible. That’s how we roll. And that’s what the midfield is for. And they do a brilliant job of it – Xavi, Iniesta, Keita, Mascherano, Busquets. And Thiago. Never, never forget Thiago. The explosive talent just emerged from the B-team, Thiago is fast becoming an untouchable part of Barca’s squad. Pep gave him call-ups aplenty during the season and it was apparent that we had a star on our hands; and anyone who wasn’t convinced by what they saw during the season has only to watch the U-21 Euro taking place now. Thiago is enjoying a rapid rise to fame as he gives performance after mind-blowing performance for Spain, packed full of all the creative-assisting-passing goodness that we at Barca so revere. A future Xavi if you will, with some dribbles and flourishes thrown in for effect. Yes, Thiago is untouchable, and among all the ludicrous transfer rumors we’ve heard so far, the most nonsensical are those that suggest we would possibly sell or trade Thiago. We’d have to be downright batshit crazy to even think it.

That being the main reason why so many are so against signing Cesc. Eek, yes we’ve arrived at him; an inevitable part of summer transfers with Barca. Simply put: If we sign Cesc, where does that leave Thiago? We can’t have him benched or have his development stumped by the fact that Cesc is there and Cesc is starting instead of him. No, and especially not if signing Cesc would require us to fork out 40 milllion; why do that, when we have Thiago?

What we have to own up to is that frankly, we don’t need Cesc. At all. It’s never been about us needing Cesc so much as us wanting Cesc. He’s a Masia boy, he has Barca DNA, he belongs with us, Barca is his home, yada yada. We’ve heard it all a zillion times at the least. But where, in all that, is the real need for him to be part of our squad?

No doubt Cesc is a brilliant player. No doubt he would fit right in at Barca. No doubt he would be a wonderful addition to the team. But he’s not necessary. He’s not. A year or so ago we talked about Xavi getting old, we talked about sooner or later needing a replacement for him because Xavi is the one that makes Barca tick. And we talked about Cesc being the man, the absolute perfect successor for Xavi. But guess what? Thiago arriving on the scene kind of invalidates that now. Why pay 40 million for what you already have? Granted, Thiago is young and still needs to work and grow to reach the level of Xavi or Cesc, but this kid is the business and there’s no doubt that that’s where he’s headed. If Xavi were in rapid decline we might talk about an urgency to bring in Cesc, but he’s not. And by the time our midfield maestro really has run his course, you can bet Messi’s golden balls that Thiago will be ready.

And yet. And yet, even as I type this, even as I believe this, as I know that Barca won’t be worse off if Cesc doesn’t come – I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like for him to come. He’s one of my favorite players, always has been, and I’m prone to be dazzled by the prospect of having him on the team. Because it would be phenomenal. So here’s where I try to validate signing Cesc:

Going back to what I said earlier, about my understanding that the club would not feel a need to sign defensive backup, this is for two reasons. The first one is that what happened last season was exceptional. Abidal’s setback was a special case, not likely to be repeated, just as it’s not likely that we’ll again have to suffer Puyol, Abidal and Adriano all being sidelined at once. Puyol should supposedly be more or less on top of his knee trouble by the time the new season kicks in, and Pep is also depending on the promotion of Fontas; and when push comes to shove we still have Milito and Maxwell, who right now aren’t looking like they’re anywhere close to being sold. And there’s the B-team, that boasts some really gorgeous defenders. I for one would be gleeful to see Bartra get a bit of time on the first team. And of course, there’re always Masche and Busi, who have proved dependable as emergency defenders, especially Masche; which brings me to the second reason, and the one that I tie to signing Cesc:

If we really are that much in need of defensive backup, let Masche and Busi (though Masche moreso) fill in instead of worrying about signing someone. It’s not that bizarre an idea; I know they are essentially midfielders (albeit defensive mids) but think about Rafa Marquez. Remember that he started out as a defensive midfielder. He still plays defensive mid for the Mexican NT I believe, but Barca needed him to be centerback so that’s what he did. And did it beautifully, I might add.
If Masche and Busi – or even just Masche – rotate with the defense as well as midfield, that frees up more playing spots in midfield and thus makes the inclusion of Cesc more viable. Playing time for both him and Thiago won’t be as much of a problem, especially after you factor in that injuries will happen and Xavi will need more rest; that is if his tendonitis doesn’t act up again. 

Not to mention that more playing spots in midfield can be freed up by having Iniesta rotate with MVP up front, since he can play as winger. We’ll need to have backup/rotation options for our attacking trio as well, and there’s no reason not to utilize Iniesta there. 

Which brings us to the attack. Of course, Iniesta by himself is not enough. Nor does anyone really deem Bojan/Jeffren sufficient backup; with one or both of them most likely leaving on a loan or sale this summer. There’s Afellay, who I picture as having the role of winger more than attacking mid for Barca, but Ibi still has some way to go. No, the options we have are not enough; everyone’s demanding that Barca sign a striker, a high profile striker to rotate with MVP, someone the likes of Giuseppe Rossi or Alexis Sanchez or Neymar.

But I’m none to keen on any of those options when they all cost between 35 and 40 million. Right now the media is crowing non-stop about a deal to sign Sanchez for 35 million, then it’s 38 million, then it’s 35 + Jeffren or 35 + Soriano. 

Are you freaking kidding me?

We can talk about six competitions, we can talk about fatigue, we can talk about needing to rest/rotate Messi, Villa and Pedro, but at the end of the day those three are still going to be our basic attacking trio, and anyone else is just going to be backup. And guess what? You don’t pay 35 million for backup.
These amounts that are being reported for Sanchez, with people also saying that his price is likely to go up after the Copa America, are ridiculous for Barca to pay. They’re nearing on the amount we paid for Villa – 40 million – and we spent that much on Villa because he was an essential signing for an essential position, replacing Ibra who replaced Eto’o. Who is Sanchez replacing? Right, no one. I repeat: You don’t pay 35 million for backup.

Now let me make something very clear, before anyone attacks me with arguments that Sanchez is this and this and he will add to the team that and that: I am not against Sanchez. I am against his price. Sure he’s a great player with loads of potential and could add pizzazz to the team, but if it’s going to cost 35 milllion then that’s not the kind of signing we should be making. No matter what, Messi, Villa and Pedro are going to remain our essential starters, and any attacker we sign is going to spend more time on the bench than on the pitch. That’s not a role you pay 35 million for. That’s not a role you sign Sanchezes and Rossis and Neymars for. 

What I find most ridiculous is that those three have to be our only options, as if they’re the last three viable attackers in the world. Guess what? They’re not. There are loads of great attackers out there who don’t cost 35-40 million.

Case in point? A kid called Willian. 

Shakhtar’s talented winger is priced at 12 million. Even if his club were to heft that fee, how much could they go up? 15? 20? 25 would be pushing it, and that’s still way better than 35 million. Willian has the skills, the potential, the right dynamic for Barca, and best of all, the right price. Perfectly perfect for our rotation needs. 

Willian’s been linked with Barca, not crazily the way Sanchez or Rossi have, but enough during this transfer period to make me believe it could happen, almost as much as I believe it should happen. Frankly, the club ought to snap him up before someone else does (he’s been linked with Arsenal as well; if he ends up going there I’m not sure I won’t shed a tear or two).

And if we’re still not satisfied with our attacking options after that – well, there’s always Jonathan Soriano.

I feel very strongly about Soriano and about the need to give him a shot with the first team; perhaps because so many of you so readily dismiss him as not being worthy simply because he’s 25 years old.
When a player on a B-team ends up as Pichichi of the entire second divison, with a staggering 32 goals, who the hell cares if he’s 25? He’s playing awesomely and that’s enough to earn him at least a shot with the first team. The fact that people should write him off based solely on his age is ridiculous. Some will insist that if he were really worth it, he would’ve bloomed long before he turned 25. To those people I say, make sure you know what you’re talking about before you start talking.

That argument could have been valid had Soriano been raised in Barca’s youth system like the rest of the B-team. He wasn’t. Before joining Barca B he was a first team player for Espanyol. I repeat: first team, as in he took a step back to join Barca B – who were then in the third division. 

Soriano had a rough time of it with Espanyol. They dragged him out on loan after loan and never gave him a real shot, and in the end let him go without renewing his contract or caring to look into taking offers for him. 

Barca, as Soriano puts it, ‘saved his footballing career.’ Not one to be daunted by his bad experience with Espanyol, he came to Barca B and started over. His first season with Barca B saw him score 36 goals (31 league goals), finishing among the top scorers in all four sections of the Segunda B and leading Barca B into promotion to the Segunda A, the second division. He scored another 36 the next season (32 league), claiming Pichichi and leading Barca B to finish third place in the league ranking – an incredible achievement for a B team in the second division.

His history with Espanyol and his performance with Barca B over the past two seasons invalidate any claims of “if he was really good it would’ve shown before he was 25.” Last season, only the rule claiming that players over 25 can not be called up from the B team to the first team if they haven’t been called up from the start of the season prevented Pep from calling him up (he did try). 

Soriano may be 25, but he’s at the top of his game and at the very, very least, deserves to join the first team for preseason. Call it a trial; he deserves to have at least that shot to show he’s got what it takes to be part of the first team. 

I mean, when Nolito decided he wanted to leave Barca B and join another club, he was offered a first team contract. He’s only one year younger than Soriano and Soriano’s performance has been more impressive. So why is Nolito first team material and not Soriano? 

As for Soriano’s own willingness to join the first team – he doesn’t share Nolito’s stance. Nolito left because he saw no future for himself at Barca, insisting that he needs to go somewhere where he’ll get more playing time and make more money; seeing as he’s married with his own family as well as his parents to support, and no one can blame him. 

Whereas Soriano… well, he did an interview for Sport recently, and… you should read it for yourself. He talks about his time at Barca and what the future may hold for him, and the more he talks, the more you feel that he’s just so grateful to Barca and completely at peace with whatever may happen. If Barca decide he should find another club, then he’ll accept that and leave in hope of other opportunities, though he will miss Barca very much. If Barca decide to give him a shot with the first team, he will relish it and give it all he’s got. “I’ll be grateful for any opportunity Guardiola gives me,” he says. A couple of months ago, as his soaring season with Barca B neared it’s end, he said, “I’m fighting for the first team.” More than anything he just wants to play football, completely at peace with wherever that may be. He was close to quitting the sport before Barca ‘saved’ him; now he says he wouldn’t dream of leaving it.

Okay, not to careen off topic any more than that, basically the point is I really like Soriano. Skillswise, personalitywise, everythingwise; this guy deserves a shot with the first team if anyone does. 

Whew. Summer transfers, who’d’ve thought I could have so much to say. Just a few more random notes:

- Quick overview of how Villa’s been for Barca. A lot of people say that he hasn’t been up to par and hasn’t met expectations and hasn’t been much better than Ibra was. The truth is that neither one of them was going to be absolutely brilliant from their first season on the team; Barca plays a very unique system and it’s not easy to fit into it if you weren’t raised here. For an attacker especially, it takes adaptation. It takes a lot of work. I think the main difference between Villa and Ibra was that Villa was willing to work and Ibra wasn’t. Villa did a great post-season interview where he talked about how hard it was, how he had to re-learn basics and adapt to new fundamentals. Ibra on the other hand, after the bitter way he left Barca, declared that the club knew who he was when they signed him and they should’ve adapted to him. Uh, I’m sorry, NO. Villa explained how he took Pedro as a reference and learned from him… I don’t think Ibra would be caught dead saying he watched and learned from Pedro. Sure Villa had some rough patches, but it was all in the adaptation process. He ended the season on a magnificent note (let’s not even think about how Ibra ended his season here) and next season, you can count on him being more fully integrated, a brilliant part of the team.

This is why we have to be very careful when making new signings. We’re very homegrown, we have a set philosophy and anyone who comes from outside the club has to work to adapt. That’s why it’s firstly about attitude (why Pep rejected Neymar) and secondly about having similar style and potential to fit in. Ibra had neither; I don’t know what the club was thinking signing him.

- A quick word on Bojan. I think it’s a shame he never succeeded with the first team after spending four years on it, but I don’t see him as a total flop. He just lacks confidence, and Pep continually benching him and only subbing him on for the last five minutes didn’t help. 

Think back on the final four Liga matches of 2010, after we got knocked out of the Champions League and had nothing left to fight for but the Liga, with RM only 2 points away from us, making it crucial to win those last four games. They were four hugely important matches, must-wins if we were to win any trophy that season, and against the likes of Sevilla and Villareal; and what did Pep do? He played Bojan. That was when he finally realized Ibra was just not going to work, and he showed confidence in Bojan by playing him for those four make-or-break matches, and consequently Bojan played gloriously and scored 4 goals in 4 matches. See, just a little confidence is all he ever needed.
Last season injury got in his way just when he was beginning to shine, a huge shame. And now the U21 team is benching him. I just feel so bad for him. But he can’t go on this way, he needs to be somewhere where he can get constant playing time, so much as I hate to see him go it’s for the best. I would love to see him head to Roma; Lucho would take care of him.

- A note on Cesc’s current stance. Basically his comments on the matter were to the effect of – and I’m paraphrasing here – “Everyone knows I want to go to Barca, I don’t have to keep saying it, but it’s not up to me, Wenger is the boss and he knows what I want, he’ll decide.”

Look, I think he’s trying to be reserved out of respect for Arsenal; he wants to come to Barca but he doesn’t want to hurt his team or his fans. That said, I don’t think his teammates or the fans would really hold it against him too much. His own teammates have actually been quoted as saying he should go to Barca since that’s what he wants. It’s mainly Wenger who is stubborn about keeping him, and Cesc seems unable to put his foot down in front of the man who he says was like a father to him. He wants to please everyone, that’s his problem; he seems to be hoping that Wenger will have a change of heart and send him off to Barca with his blessing, without Cesc having to be forceful about it. But I don’t know the likelihood of that happening, and as many have said, Cesc ought to man up to what he wants or it’s not going to happen.

If we end up not signing Cesc, I’m not going to be depressed over it. Like I said, we don’t need him, but having him on the team is an amazing prospect. As for the matter of the cost, 35-40 million is a lot, but Cesc isn’t really worth less than that. He’s a proven great and not just someone with ‘potential’, and we know that the role he’ll play at Barca will be a great one, we know how beautifully he’d fit in. And, I think I rather sympathize with him a lot. The endless dry spell at Arsenal without winning anything, playing for Barca being his dream… and the fact that he has idolized Pep since he was a kid, similar to the way Iniesta has; I can only imagine what it would mean to him to play under Pep, to have Pep as his manager. 

Okay and I’m getting too sappy right now lol. Wow, this turned out long. I hope nobody got bored and stopped mid-way. So, now, tell me. Your thoughts?

April 27, 2011

On Morality In Football

Prompting me out of months and months of blogging hibernation is the issue in football that bothers me, disappoints me far more than any loss ever can. I’m no brilliant writer and someone else who is would be much better at conveying the ideas that I so strongly feel but struggle to put into words, yet I have to take a stab at this anyway because things have gone too far and I just have to put this out there. So I’m going to try to say this as best as I can and hopefully my point goes across.

No team, no player, no manager is perfect, they all have their faults that we tend to defend because we love them, but this cannot stretch to any extent. When it stops being about football and starts being about morals, those rose-colored glasses have to come off and the ones at fault have to be recognized. I’m not casting allegations against anyone in defense of my team or in opposition to another; I’m saying this as a human being, as a person recognizing wrong from right, black from white. Because it really is black and white; there’s nothing in between and anyone who sees otherwise is seeing rose. I’m talking about Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, and before you accuse me of favoritism, because I do love Barca to death, read me out.

Pep has been managing Barca for three years and that’s no picnic, and over the past three years this team has been through a heck of a lot and Pep has never, not that I can recall, ever done anything other than keep his head down and work on his team. Barca win, he praises the players. Barca lose, he says they need to work harder. He doesn’t talk about anyone else, he doesn’t blame anyone else, the only thing he’s ever had to say about the opposition is that they’ve done well, and as for the referees – for three years Pep has not blamed a referee for any result. Even when Barca have come out of games in which they had goals cancelled, penalties denied, players fouled without any cards shown, Pep has flatly refused to discuss referees, saying they do the best they can, we should not talk about them, we are only concerned with ourselves, we need to work harder.

Pep shows enormous class in refusing to talk about anything other than Barca, whether a referee or another coach or anyone else, and at the end of the day, what else does it come down to? Who is going to get Barca anywhere except Barca? It’s our game that defines us, it’s our game that gets us places, and the rest is marginal. This has set him apart from a number of other top-tier coaches who will jump at the chance to divert the blame from their team to the referee. The Premier League, for instance is full of famous examples; but even they, with the fines we see handed to them because of their comments against referees, cannot compare to what Jose Mourinho is doing.

I would normally try to avoid any sort of comparison, but as I mentioned before, things have spun far out of control, to an extent that sadly prompts this. So I’m sticking my neck out there and saying this: I have never seen a manager who complains as much as Mourinho does. Instead of looking at how his team is doing, he constantly looks for blame anywhere else he can – and I mean literally anywhere.

Earlier in the season when Barca went ahead of Real Madrid on the league table, Mourinho accused other Liga teams of letting Barca beat them. How he determines this I’m sure I don’t know; and the only time I’ve heard a coach clearly saying that he had his players throw a game because he thought they had no chance was Pellegrini, coach of Malaga, after his team went down 7-0 against Real Madrid. Mourinho even goes on to complain about the match calendar, saying that it’s designed to Barca’s full advantage and not to Real Madrid’s at all. But none of that compares to what he says about the referees.

He’s been complaining extensively about them all through the season, reaching a point where his claims are nothing short of ridiculous. It’s one thing for him to say that his players are picking up cards for fouls that are “nothing,” when they are actually some of the most rough and even thuggish fouls to be seen, and the examples are clear and countless.

It’s another thing for him to say that he’s forced to train with ten men in preparation to face Barca because he always finishes with ten men against them, a statement with which he’s accusing referees of both Spain and Europe of favoritism towards Barca and again insinuating that his players are doing no wrong to deserve the reds. Oh yes, obviously, the fact that his team always goes down a man against Barca certainly has more to do with Spain and Europe conspiring against him and less to do with his own approach on the field.

But for him to go so far as to plainly say that Barcelona control all the referees and control all aspects of football in Spain and Europe – that is beyond ridiculous. I could sit here and list example after example of how things have not gone in Barca’s favor, even just over the past three years in which Pep has been coach, but I won’t, because this claim is complete nonsense; I know it, you know it, and Mourinho knows it too.

Mourinho is no idiot. He’s not blind. He’s not delusional. He knows there’s no conspiracy against him or Real Madrid, he knows exactly how his players are playing – he’s telling them to do it – and he knows that the fouls are ugly and the cards are deserved. He just doesn’t care. This man is not here to play football; he’s here just to win – by any means necessary. This is a man that will do anything for his team to get ahead, no matter how deceptive and immoral it may be. Yes, I said immoral. Completely so.

He’s had his team do the dirty and then complained about everything he could possibly complain about, and complained and complained and complained until he hit the climax and got what he was always after; the referee at the Copa Del Rey final was too intimidated to give out cards for anything short of murder and Real Madrid got away with foul after disgusting foul, essentially robbing Barcelona of the chance to compete fairly – of their right to compete fairly.

That was the ultimate outrage, but did Pep open his mouth about it? Did he say the referee was unjust, did he highlight on the blatant fouls that went unnoticed? Even with the most obvious example of what Ramos and Arbeloa did to Villa – something that Vicente del Bosque, manager of the Spanish national team and former manager of Real Madrid, described as “against the principles of a football player, even against their own morals,” and one of the lowest things I have personally ever seen in football – Pep did not complain.

He did make mentions of referees after that match though, virtual firsts for him. Asked what he thought to the possibility of a Portuguese referee being appointed to Barca’s Champions League semi-final meet with Real Madrid, Pep simply replied “that should make the manager of Real Madrid happy.” In regards to the Copa Del Rey final, Pep talked about the positives of his team’s performance and noted that they came close, and might have won if Pedro’s goal had not been ruled for a close offside call that he attributed to "the linesman's good eyesight,” praising the referee and simply meaning that small details can decide a match.

Now you tell me. Has Pep said anything out of line? Can his ‘ref comments’ even being to compare to all of Mourinho’s ranting?

Well, according to Mourinho, they can.

"A new era has begun,” says Mou. “Until now there were two groups of coaches. One very, very small group of coaches that don't speak about refs and then a big group of coaches, of which I am part, who criticize the refs when they have mistakes – people like me who don't control their frustration but also people who are happy to value a great job from a ref. Now there is a third group, which is only [Guardiola], that criticizes referees when they get decisions right! There is a new meaning to [football] now. In his first season [Guardiola] lived the scandal of Stamford Bridge [in the semi-final], last year he played against a 10-man Inter. Now he is not happy with refs getting it right. I am not asking the referee to help my team. If the referee is good everyone will be happy – except Guardiola. He wants them to get it wrong."

This – these words that spew from his mouth, this is just cheeky. This is taking his mouthing off to a new level entirely. The height of hypocrisy, the height of disrespect. Do I even have to say that Mourinho’s so-proclaimed ‘third group’ is an exact description of himself?

Mourinho has said a lot, but this brings things to a critical point, the point where things just can’t be ignored anymore and you know that’s true when Pep, for once, has allowed himself to address Mourinho. It was not Pep ‘breaking under pressure’ or anything of that sort – what he said, he clearly intended to say and frankly, it needed to be said. I quote the translated comments as they appear in The Guardian:

"As Mourinho has spoken so candidly about me and spoken about me by name, and using tú [the informal form of you], then I will do the same." He then asked which of the gathered cameras was "Mourinho's camera" and began.

"Tomorrow at 8.45 we will play a match on the field. Outside of the field, he has won the entire year, the entire season and in the future [it will be the same]. He can have his personal Champions League outside the field. Fine. Let him enjoy it, I'll give him that. But this is a game. When it comes to sport we will play and sometimes we will win, sometimes we will lose. We are happy with smaller victories, trying to get the world to admire us and we are very proud of this.”

"I can give you an immense list of things [that we could complain about]: 300,000 things. We could remember Stamford Bridge and another thousand things but I do not have that many people working for me. Secretaries and referees and people writing stuff. So tomorrow, 8.45pm, we will take to the field and we will try to play football as best as possible."

"In this room [Real Madrid's press room], he is the chief, the fucking man. In here he is the fucking man and I can't compete with him. If Barcelona want someone who competes with that, then they should look for another manager. But we, as a person and an institution, don't do that. I could talk about [Olegario] Bequerença [the referee from last season's Barcelona-Inter semi-final first leg], about the offside goal from Diego Milito or the penalty of [Dani] Alves, but I don't. Well, until tonight!"

"If you think after three years, that I always moan, always make excuses and always complain, then there is nothing I can do about that."

"We worked together for four years. He knows me, I know him and that's all. If he wants to go by things written after the Copa Del Rey by friends from the written press or Florentino Pérez, with his milkmaid's tales, then fine. If that matters more than our relationship, then that's up to him. I am not going to justify my words. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth when someone you had a relationship with does [what he has done]."

"I always thought that when people didn't understand me, it was because I had explained myself badly, but now I don't. I said the referee [in the cup final] had been smart and very attentive. I said it was right. I pointed out simply that the result can be down to small things, that's all. It was not a complaint."

"After victory I congratulated Real Madrid and that is what Barcelona does. We congratulated Real Madrid for the cup that they won on the field against a team that I represent proudly."

… Is there anything left for me to say after those words? Pep put everything out there exactly as it is, and stressed that his words are purely in response to Mourinho after Mourinho addressed him by name. "He called me Pep, so I answered. Normally, he talks in general terms about a team, a club or a manager, but this time he named me. If he says: 'Pep,' I say: 'Hey, José.'"

In the end, I can truthfully say that in my years as a football fan I have never seen a man – in football – more honest and more humble than Pep. This is man who, when Barca went straight from two trophy-less seasons to an unprecedented six in one year once he took over, said “these players could have done it with another coach, I could not have done it with another team.” – while Mourinho was proclaiming himself “The Special One.” And this is my issue, that a man as honorable as Pep should be so wrongly accused, that his good name should be thus tainted.

Incredibly, Pep was asked yesterday at the end of his ‘speech’ if it was all a tactic, to which he replied in surprise: "What? You think my players will run around more because I looked for Mourinho's camera? It's a semi-final!" And semi-final or not, let it be known by now that Pep is not here, Barca are not here, to play mind games and media battles. That’s not what concerns us. We’re here to play football, just football, all that concerns us is ourselves and our game, and the fact that the same cannot be said for Mourinho is a shame, a sad shame that football today, the beautiful game, has to be subjected to the ugliness and the immorality that he brings to it.