On Wednesday night, fans of the ‘beautiful game’ across the world were treated to a feast of football at The Emirates Stadium. On the menu was a prime cut of the most patient, expansive football, the like of which is what fans of the game have come to expect from Barcelona over recent years. This seemed to be one step further, however, the blue print for attacking football – one that mixes the supreme youth system of La Masia with expensive imports. Let us not forget that we were also treated to a master class in counter attacking football from Arsenal, who had obviously seen that despite the inherent beauty in the way Barca play, their high line can be breached by quick breakaways that expose this weakness.
I felt, as I’m sure many who watched the game did too, honoured to be able to watch the kind of football that was on show, from both sides. There was one niggling question throughout though, could this Barcelona team (or at least the one that would have played had it not been for Carlos Puyol’s absence) actually be any better?
Now, let’s start with a disclaimer. Yes, I realise that Barcelona lost the match and therefore the most obvious answer to the question would be yes, of course they could improve, they could win. However, I think we have to take the view that – and as much as I hate the term ‘’If this match was played one hundred times…’’ – it would seem fair to say that the result of the game did not truly reflect the performances and Barca definitely deserved more from the game. Just deserts may very well be on the menu for Arsenal in just over a weeks time at the return leg at the Camp Nou.
Let us begin at the back with Victor Valdes. While a few years ago it would have seemed ridiculous to utter the Spaniard’s name in the same sentence as Gianluigi Buffon, Iker Casillas or Julio César, the same could not be said now. Valdes has proved himself worthy of his counterparts, his distribution a key aspect of the quick, free flowing play that has become a trademark of the Catalan side. Casillas has certainly been overhyped by the Castillian press and while I don’t doubt his ability as one of the world’s top keepers, his form over the past year or two simply hasn’t matched up to Valdes’. Buffon, although still a safe pair of hands, is edging closer and closer to hanging up his boots and there are still question marks over César’s handling. I don’t disagree that there may be a better goalkeeper than Valdes, but the difference would be negligible in my eyes.
And so we move on to the back four. To speak of Barca’s centre half pairing as infallible would be foolish but in Pique they have one of the candidates for the best centre back in the world and he is essential in bringing the ball out from the back and laying it off to one of the midfield maestros, without losing any of his defensive capabilities. Carlos Puyol, the nominal matador of the Camp Nou, might not be top of the list when it comes to his mastery of a football but the passion, communication and pride that he brings onto the pitch while wearing the red and blue of his hometown club could certainly not be replaced by another player. Again, he is essential to what makes Barca tick.
While watching the coverage of the match on ITV (spit), I became increasingly irate at the number of times the commentators felt the need to mention how Dani Alves status as a full back was a violation of the trade descriptions act. Yes, we heard you the first time Clive. However, it has to be said that in terms of attacking right backs, only really Maicon can hold a candle to the excellence that Alves provides. Crossing, trickery and stamina are all exquisite parts of the ex-Sevilla players game, not to mention his dead ball precision. This brings me on to what seems the obvious weak link in the current Barcelona set up. Left back. Maxwell is a fairly solid, if unspectacular player. He does what he does well and doesn’t get ideas above his station, thus getting himself into trouble. On one hand the theory that a team only needs one attacking full back seems to hold true with Barca, however one can’t help but wonder if there was someone such as Ashley Cole bombarding up the left side, it would stretch play that little bit more, allowing the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Lionel Messi the space they crave.
I could very well just leave the Barcelona midfield out of this article as to me, it doesn’t even seem to be up for debate. Xavi and Iniesta, with their clockwork like passing (one only has to compare the media hype over Jack Wilshere’s performance with the cold hard statistics of the Spaniards passing to see how impressive they were), they are the heartbeat of the team that looks like they will overturn a first leg deficit to see themselves through safely to the quarter finals. Sergio Busquets may not have been a household name a few mere years ago but he has defied his critics now. He is currently keeping who many would have said was the best defensive minded midfielder (No, I won’t be using the term ‘The Makelele Role’, thank you very much) in the world out of the side, in Javier Mascherano.
With the front three we have the trident that spears opposition defences with blistering pace, exhilarating trickery and devastating finishing. Pedro, having finally broken into Spain’s first eleven at the World Cup in South Africa, seems to have cemented his place as a genuinely brilliant player, where in recent years he may have been disregarded as a bit part player by those who watch Barca’s games at a glance. His twelve goals and twenty eight assists in the league this season demonstrate that he fits in with the likes of Villa and Messi superbly, rather than being viewed as their inferior. The capture of David Villa from Valencia in the summer of 2010 was seen by many as the final piece of the jigsaw as Barca finally had their reliable finisher whom, once they got the ball to, would inevitably provide the finishing touch that Zlatan Ibrihimovic had failed to after his big money move went badly wrong. And with that, ladies and gentlemen, we come to the end of the Barca team. Sounds pretty delightful, huh? Oh yes, and just in case that isn’t effective enough, they have the best player in world football at the moment, some would say ever in Lionel ‘Leo’ Messi. I don’t think I need to add any more superlatives to those that have already been exhausted this season.
So yes, there may be one or two areas of the Catalan giants team that could, in theory be improved upon, but the said improvement would be slight at best and may actually alter the balance that is so key to any football team. For me, the question is not ‘Can this Barcelona side get any better?’ but actually ‘Do this Barcelona side actually need to get any better?’ The second leg of the first knockout phase in the Champions League may very well provide us with an answer.