February 6, 2013

In Appreciation of David Villa

 You're probably going not going to like much of what I'm going say in this piece, but here is my take on things.

To put it plainly, Barca have been callous to Villa since before they signed him. I’m not trying to pick on the club in order to defend the player, and Barca is after all my club that I love and have loved through thick and thin. The thing is, nothing is unconditional and I don’t buy into mantras about the shirt being bigger than the player as a way of disregarding the latter as a mere pawn of the club to be used and tossed and bandied about. The players make the team and there would be nothing without them, and they deserve consideration as it is due. That is not to say that once a player is no longer of much use to the club that he should be kept on and played out of respect for his feelings, or that I’d want that to happen or argue for it. That is actually the opposite of what I am saying. I don’t put Villa on any pedestals he doesn’t deserve and would not be so upset at his continual benching if I weren’t firmly convinced of how utterly unwarranted it is. In turn, it annoys me that my club should treat him in a manner that I find both unfair to him and disappointing from them.

But you might say Barca have a bit of a history of taking Villa for granted, starting from when he was still a Valencia player. I refer of course to the summer of 2009 and what Villa was put through in the transfer window. For Barca to spend the entire summer negotiating with Valencia for his transfer, for Villa to leave his pregnant wife at home and spend days at a time in Barcelona hotels for the negotiations, for Villa to offer to take a pay cut (the way Cesc did) to make up the difference between Valencia’s 50m asking price and the 40m Barca were willing to pay, for Villa to get into a publicized row with Valencia president Llorente over the latter’s unwillingness to budge from his price – only so that Barca could then turn around and quite literally ditch him overnight to pay 44m + Eto’o for Ibrahimovic? Hypocrisy is one word that comes to mind.

Disappointment is another.

I remember the day as clearly as if it just happened. I’d woken up that summer morning, gotten breakfast and milled about a bit before deciding it was time to read up on the latest transfer developments. Thinking perhaps Villa’s transfer may have finally been agreed – that’s how advanced negotiations for him were at the time. When I got online it was to the utter shock of finding ‘IBRAHIMOVIC FICHADO!’ plastered across every newspaper. Disappointment is actually too mild to describe my reaction – I was gutted to the core. Let’s not even ask, then, how Villa felt to be suddenly tossed aside.

It was not, of course, ‘fichado’ right away, but the papers were heralding what came to be over a mere matter of days – days in which Laporta had the gall to blather to the press that the club was weighing the options of both Ibrahimovic and Villa. The only thing being weighed was Ibra’s ridiculous price, as Barca willingly forked over more than what they’d been offering for Villa and threw in their season top scorer for good measure.

I was upset for Barca because we weren’t signing Villa and because Ibrahimovic was all wrong for the team. I was upset for Villa because of the way he’d been treated and upset at Barca for being the ones to treat him that way. I was upset because we’d paid a price for Ibrahimovic that was both ridiculous and hypocritical. I hated – still hate – every single thing about that transfer transaction and I consider it one of the club’s worst moments – maybe just under selling the shirt – since I started supporting in 2006. Worse than any kind of loss or awful or humiliating performance on the pitch, because it was deliberately, calculatedly stupid.

And it’s on Pep as much as it is on anyone at Barca, because the whole affair only happened because he was hell-bent on getting rid of Eto’o that summer. In effect, negotiations for Villa were dropped because Eto’o was not getting sold. The transfer deadline was looming and the way this trade was devised, Barca would be able to offload Eto’o as well as replace him, all in the same transaction. One in which Barca very much ended up getting the short end of the stick – both in terms of the price they paid and in the utter trainwreck that was Ibra’s Barca stint. I always wonder if Pep really thinks that tolerating Eto’o (plus his buckets of goals and how well he fit in at Barca) for one more season wouldn’t have been more worth it. Say the Ibra money had been spent on Villa that summer and he’d been brought in alongside Eto’o, and we’d had the two of them for that season instead of Ibra, after which Eto’o would have left on a free as his contract would have been up. What would the season have been like? I wonder if Pep wonders about that too.

But I digress, as the point here is not to nitpick on Pep. As soon as the 2009-2010 season ended, Barca raced to make up for that disastrous transfer and forked out another 40m for Villa (Valencia quickly agreeing to the price this time because they needed the money), closing the deal even before the World Cup began and without much concern for Ibrahimovic or what would happen to him. That, of course, I do not consider an injustice to Ibra because he had his shot at the club and dug his own grave. He left Barca in a huff of snooty comments and the floor was Villa’s for the taking.

It’s not easy for a player not taught in Barca’s system to fit in with how this team plays, and new signings always have to put in a lot of effort to adapt. That is what Ibrahimovic was not prepared to do and what Villa poured his heart into. Taking the young kid on the opposite wing as an example, Villa – fresh World Cup & Euro champion and top scorer of both those competitions as well as his old team – took pointers from Pedro and, as he put it, re-learned the fundamentals of football. He arrived at Barca harboring no resentment for the events of the previous summer but only humbleness, enthusiasm and hard work. The attacking trio he made up along with Messi and Pedro was fantastic, with Villa certainly putting the V into MVP. He scored in big games, including a Supercopa goal against Real Madrid in what was his first official match, also putting two past Real Madrid in his first Liga Clasico and the same past Espanyol in his first Catalan derby, and ended the season on a high note with a goal against Manchester United in the Champions League final.

When Villa got sidelined for the better part of the 2011-2012 season after picking up a fracture at the Club World Cup, Barca suffered for it. Performances dwindled until the three consecutive deciding matches of the season, a straight run of Chelsea/Real Madrid/Chelsea, saw the team tired and lost for options, especially up front. Cesc experimentally played as a forward and blew more chances than I think anyone cares to count, Pedro was kept on the bench after not having had much of a season (which I will return to), Alexis’ fitness was dubious and Pep resorted to playing an ill-prepared Tello in the Clasico. In the end it wasn’t much of a season, results-wise, and no one is to blame because the team was having a fitness crisis – barring Abidal, no part of it hurting so much as losing Villa.

That’s why his return to the team for this new season should have been cause for joy and relief. But it is not, as this player who has done so much and given so much is reduced to an ungratified benchwarmer. Yet even as Pedro, Alexis, Cesc and Iniesta start ahead of him in attack, get more playing time and more scoring chances, Villa still has more goals than any of them and is Barca’s second top scorer this season. He converts chances at a better rate than any of them and in fact has the sixth best conversion rate in all of Europe’s top five leagues this season (out of players who have scored 5+ goals), where the putting away of chances has ironically been Barca’s main worry this season. They’re creating plenty but the number and variety of missed chances has been appalling. You’d think that given how decisive Villa’s finishing has been that Barca would take advantage of that, yet here he is, benched match after match while Alexis, Pedro and Cesc take turns missing.

When Villa got one of his rare starts against meager Segunda side Cordoba in the Copa Del Rey, he quickly scored two goals to assert how much he deserved to be there and helped the team along to a 5-0 win in which Alexis finally scored, also two goals, after a long drought. Pedro had also scored brace in the match before, also following a goal drought, and it bewildered me how many people made comments about the three players ending goal droughts at the same time. The other two had been playing and not scoring whereas Villa had been benched; or does not scoring while benched count as a goal drought now? He has at no point this season had a scoring problem, unlike those who start ahead of him; yet his continual benching seems to have disillusioned people into thinking he’s off form and lumping him into the same category as players struggling to score.

Even worse is the attempt to dismiss his continual benching with a vague “he’s off pace” which makes little sense given the quality of his positioning and his speed. The fact of the matter is that an off pace player would not be able to put away chances with the efficiency that Villa does. People also like to nitpick at the fact that he doesn’t defend as much as Pedro does, but nor does Pedro have his same prowess on the wing and the point is that Villa offers something different. He and Pedro each play their roles, and none is expected to be a copy of the other. And it’s not like Villa has been any kind of detriment for the team when he has played – the fact that every match in which he’s scored this season has had a minimum of three goals shows how good he is for the attack.

In terms of flank completion, if you look at Pedro-Dani on the right and Alba-Villa on the left, the left wing will appear to lack defensively – we had Abidal there before and Alba is much more of an attacking fullback. So yes, playing Iniesta on the left wing and then slotting Cesc into midfield instead is a more solid option in that regard, and lord knows Iniesta’s creative contribution is invaluable. But what I’m trying to say is that that isn’t the only option.

What I’m trying to say is that rotation this season has not been any kind of valid. Especially over the past few matches. Against Malaga, Real Madrid and then Valencia, played almost consecutively, Roura has put up practically the exact same lineup, only changing the keeper and/or one defender while keeping Iniesta/Messi/Pedro up front with Xavi and Cesc behind them in midfield. All three were away games too and by the time Valencia came around it showed how tired this “choice lineup” was getting. Roura stated after the game that he’d kept the same lineup because Valencia was a difficult opponent. This assumes that the last performance – Real Madrid – had been so exceptional so as to put out the same lineup for a repeat. It was not. He went on to add that he put Villa on at the end (for fifteen minutes) in hopes that Villa would win the game for them “and he almost did”.

All I know is that Roura has got a bench full of great players that he continues to keep on the bench while the same twelve or thirteen continue to start, and it doesn’t make any sense. Maybe if he starts Villa the game is won instead of almost won? Maybe sometimes Alba is rested and Adriano or Montoya share the wing with Villa to give a more balanced left flank? Maybe Iniesta goes back to midfield – where he is more effective anyway, in my opinion – and Xavi, who needs it, is rested, or maybe Cesc gets a turn on the bench? Maybe Roura takes advantage of all the quality he has on his bench – not limited to Villa – and does some real, actual rotation? I’m not saying anyone should be benched for Villa the way Villa is being benched now. I’m saying Villa deserves to be playing at least as much as the next guy and we need to be seeing a more valid distribution of playing time.

There isn’t a team out there that wouldn’t be featuring Villa as a regular starter if they had him on their squad – it’s a shame that here at Barca a player like him is made to be a benchwarmer, and a crime when you consider how he still manages to outscore those starting ahead of him. I was disappointed in how Barca dealt with Villa in 2009; now when Roura and Tito reiterate their faith in him but do not back their words, it brings back all of that same disappointment. He doesn’t deserve to be marginalized like this.

Think back on last season and how Pedro’s playing time dwindled after an injury and a run of poor games, to the point where Pep was barely playing him at all. He sat the bench for most of the three matches against Real Madrid and Chelsea, coming on for twenty five minutes in the first leg against Chelsea and for the last fifteen against Real Madrid. Only after Barca was out of the running for both the Liga and Champions League did Pep start to feature him more, and Pedro was back with a definite bang and scored twice in the Copa Del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao. Pep then conceded in a press conference that he probably should have played Pedro more during the season instead of disregarding him as he did. Now, Pedro is nowhere near being doubted as he was then. I only hope that Roura, or Tito, or whoever is currently making these decisions doesn’t end up with similar regrets.


  1. As always, very well said. Villa is one of my favorites and it's been hurtful to see him put in the Rodney Dangerfield can't get no respect mode. I really hate to see him leave but hopefully he will go somewhere and allowed to shine.

  2. Truly put piece of writing. I love the choice of words. Great. Adelante Villa!