After this Summer’s disgusting tapping up of Cesc Fabregas I really want to hate Barcelona but after watching them school Real Madrid and Jose Mourinho’s collection of multi-million dollar egos I think they have gained some respect back (begrudgingly) and might even have shown us the way forward. My first instinct is still to think “Buck Farcelona” but if they are going to play football the way they did yesterday, well, you almost have to respect them. Not only for the skill but also the way they got the skill.
Prior to the kickoff of El Classico, media pundits around the globe were tipping Jose Mourinho’s vastly expensive collection of Galacticos to win the Champions League, La Liga, and pretty much everything else in front of them. The feeling that the balance of power had shifted to Madrid was so pervasive that even the typically reserved Barry Glendenning proclaimed that Madrid would win the Champions League.
What people seemed to have forgotten was that Barcelona still had a say in these things. The same Barcelona who’s players have won their League 2 years running, the Champions League 2 years ago, formed the core of the World Cup winning Spanish side, and are a set of the most skilled players that football has ever seen. A bit of hyperbolic license should be afforded me as I am relatively new to football, but I can’t remember a match that had me wondering how a player like Messi saw the passes he made, much less pulled them off.
That said, this wasn’t just a collection of the best players in the world or some simple notion like total football, this was amoebic football. Every player instinctively knew where every other player was on the pitch at all times and I swear if you were to blindfold them they would still be the slickest passing team I have ever seen.
This instinctual quality to Barcelona’s game comes from their academy system. Of the 14 players on the roster for yesterday’s match only Abidal, Alves, Keita, and David Villa were not trained in Barcelona’s academy. On the other side of the pitch, only Iker Casillas came through Real Madrid’s academy and the remainder were assembled at a cost of nearly $500m.
Arsenal supporters will tell you that Arsenal play the Barcelona way and that we train up youth the Barcelona way but the problem with that narrative is that Arsenal’s first team still has precious few players who have actually come through the academy. When Arsenal needed defenders to replace Gallas and, erm, Silvestre they didn’t promote from within. Arsene Wenger bought Squillaci and Koscielny. Gibbs and Wilshere are two examples of academy players just now coming through the ranks but many of the others who we think of as academy players came in at 16 rather than, say, 8 years old as is the case at Barcelona. Walcott, Ramsey, Szczesny, and Cesc were all brought in. Yes, Arsenal gave them the chance at a young age and developed their talent but it’s not quite the same.
A big reason for this is that the Football Association limits the geographic area from which an academy like Arsenal can draw. There’s no such limitation at Barcelona who found Lionel Messi as far away as Argentina and recruited him well below the age of 16 that is the minimum age a player can be recruited in England.
I’m not suggesting that Arsenal’s academy isn’t among the best in the world nor that the talent coming through, especially now that it has had time to mature, isn’t among the best. I’m also not suggesting that the FA change the rules and allow Arsenal and Man U to pluck talent from all over England because that could lead to a similar problem to what La Liga has in their insanely two-teamed league.
Rather, what I’d suggest is that the Barcelona model is what Arsenal are aspiring to and judging from yesterday’s match it’s going to take time. Pep Guardiola was the midfielder who inspired players like Cesc Fabregas to play football and he was a Barcelona academy player. He came through the system, played in the system, and coached at both levels of the system. Arsenal play some amazing football but if Jack Wilshere is the first in a line of truly world class players that Arsenal’s academy has produced, then we might have to wait until he’s manager of Arsenal to see an Arsenal performance like Barcelona put on yesterday.
Which will be well worth the wait.