Arsenal have often been described as the English team most similar to FC Barcelona. It has always been quite a fanciful comparison based largely on the Gunners relative dominance of possession in domestic games and Arsene Wenger’s blinkered insistence on staying true to his footballing principles, win lose or draw. Unfortunately a preponderance of the latter two have led to eight trophy-less seasons and counting at the Emirates.
Since Arsenal won the FA Cup on 21st May 2005, Barça have racked up three European Cups, six Spanish league titles, two domestic cups, six Spanish Super Cups, two European Super Cups and two Club World Cups, and herein lies the crux of the why Arsenal and Barcelona have remained poles apart: only in the Camp Nou have the sacred footballing principles been defined by tangible success.
In reality Arsenal have never come close to scaling the heady heights necessary to breathe in the same rarefied air as the Catalan giants; and beating Hull City in next month’s FA Cup final is not going to draw them any nearer to the lofty peaks Barça have been inhabiting since Pep Guardiola took over in 2008. And so, in an effort to lessen the gap between the two great bastions of possession football, it looks like the Blaugrana are now beginning the weary trudge down the mountain to meet their North London brothers in Tiki-Taka.
Messi and the rest of La Masia old boys woke up on the morning of Wednesday the 9th April with the treble still firmly in their sights. They went to bed the following Wednesday having lost the lot. Their septimana horribilis saw them knocked out of the Champions League by Atletico de Madrid, lose the Copa del Rey final to Real Madrid, and suffer a 1-0 loss away to Granada that makes retaining their La Liga title as likely as Neymar staying on his feet when he feels contact. It has been an authentic early-April from hell. It has been classic Arsenal.
The off-field problems have been well documented and Messi-gate, Neymar-gate and Underage Players-gate will have all undoubtedly taken their toll on the club. It should also be said that injuries to the likes of Puyol, Pique and Valdes, and their replacement in defence by central midfielders and a clown masquerading as a goalkeeper, would hurt any team. But it is the underperformance on the pitch by mainstay players that is now most alarming to the Camp Nou faithful. To such an extent that even Leo Messi, the greatest of his generation, is skulking into airports via the service entrance and is still unable to avoid the heckles and insults from his own fans.
After years of marvelling at Messi’s playstation-esque football, it is genuinely quite surreal to watch him now stutter ineffectively about the pitch. In allowing the little genius to drop deeper and seemingly failing to motivate him, Tata Martino has managed to do what no other manager has come close to achieving for five or six seasons: neutralise Lionel Messi. The tax fraud case and hamstring injury will not have helped, and some say he is focusing more on arriving at the World Cup in tip-top condition, but whatever the reason for his loss of form, the effect on his team’s performances has been devastating. Without Messi’s individual game-winning contributions, Tiki-Taka football suddenly appears rather toothless.
With the opposition not as fearful of La Pulga as they once were, they are no longer so preoccupied with where he is and what he is doing at all times. Whilst not quite just another player, teams are now confident enough in their ability to stop him with a more orthodox defensive strategy that greatly reduces the time and space that Messi’s team mates have on the ball. Gone are the days of the Argentine being triple or quadruple-teamed, leaving Iniesta, Pedro, Alexis and Xavi free to exploit the gaps and one-on-one situations that paranoid defences inevitably left.
In many observer’s eyes, Iniesta has been Barça’s best player this season. He’s scored three goals in 47 appearances. Pedro and Alexis have scored more freely but largely as flat-track bullies and tend to be sacrificed for record signing Neymar when it matters most. The young Brazilian’s debut season in La Liga has ended prematurely due to injury and has already been filed away under “Flattered to Deceive”.
Xavi still gets the plaudits for keeping things ticking over in midfield but age appears to be catching up with the maestro. I’ve no doubt someone will tell me he continues to complete 99.9% of the 17,000 passes he attempts each game but too many are now sideways or backwards. Either the desire to simply maintain possession has consumed him or he’s just not seeing the killer pass as he once did. Busquets could keep things merely ticking over, the player in Xavi’s position needs to contribute more to making things happen.
Barcelona have scored 92 league goals this season yet Xavi has made just three assists. Statistics were always a poor yardstick against which to measure the unparalleled influence of Xavi Hernandez on a game of football, but three in 92 is pretty damning nevertheless. It all makes the lack of effort to keep hold of Thiago Alcántara last summer look more and more ill-judged with every pedestrian Barça performance.
A wind of change is blowing an air of uncertainty through the streets of Cataluña, and not just in terms of upcoming illegal referendums on independence. This season of discontent at the Camp Nou has left all connected to the (more than a) club with a sense of foreboding regarding the immediate future. If their transfer ban is upheld, Puyol retires, Valdes leaves, Tata stays, Xavi continues to grow older, Neymar doesn’t grow into the world class player they paid well over the odds for, and Messi fails to rekindle his spark, Barça will begin next season as favourites for nothing. Much like Arsenal. Eight barren years without a trophy is highly unlikely, but they will still be unnerved by their sudden proximity to the English disciple of the Church of Tiki-Taka.